Kiss Off

I like to flatter myself into thinking I'm a fairly sophisticated entertainment consumer. Sure, I enjoy plenty of fluff, but at least I'm not first in line for whatever cinematic abortion Adam Sandler puts out. But no matter how deep or thoughtful the titles I pursue are, and no matter how hard I pat myself on the back for preferring a little indie film over Larry the Cable Guy, once in a while, I just want to roll around in trash.

So while I'm not a true-crime nut, I didn't hesitate for a moment when my boyfriend suggested I borrow the book One Last Kiss (2012), which is author Michael W. Cuneo's description of the 2009 murders of a woman and her two small sons. Suspicion quickly fell on Chris Coleman, the woman's husband, and the evidence soon confirmed his likely guilt. There's not much mystery to this mystery - the obvious suspect is the person who committed the crime, but there were details that made this case more interesting than the average murder.

First of all, there's the shock of delving into the personality of a person who calculatedly planned out how he was going to strangle his wife and two young children. Second, the murders happened just over the river from St. Louis - just in the past few days, I've gone into or past several locations mentioned in this series of events. Though I didn't have any recollection of this case, all my coworkers knew exactly what I was talking about when I mentioned it. And finally, there's a twisted religious angle to this story. Chris Coleman worked for the large, powerful Joyce Meyer Ministry, and his father was a pastor. Every horrifying thing Coleman did, and every disgusting twist of the facts after the fact his father engaged in from the pulpit, can be traced directly back to the sense of entitlement and moral superiority this family wrapped themselves in.

The book is logically organized: What the family was like in the beginning, the motivation and lead-up to the murders, the murders themselves, the investigation, and the trial. If there's one thing Cuneo accomplishes with aplomb, it's the ability to paint a vivid picture of the protagonists. Some of his descriptions of people's thought processes and actions are detailed to the point that I'm skeptical of their veracity, but I can't fault him for wanting to intrigue his readers by setting the scene as thoroughly as possible. After finishing this book, I felt like I had a good understanding of what happened.

That said, this was one of the most sloppy books I've read in a long time. Cuneo mixes up dates. He mixes up names. Typos are rampant. For fuck's sake, he refers to Illinois as having a "hurricane season". Perhaps his most egregious move is the casual mention of the murdered woman's brother possibly going to jail. Up until this point, no detail has been too small to describe. We know what his relationship with his father was like. We know his sports allegiances. So why was he facing the possibility of prison? Who knows?!? Cuneo never bothers to explain. I suppose any description of his brush with the law would taint the brother's depiction as one of the story's "good guys". That over-simplification into black and white occurs elsewhere, too. When the Coleman family presumes to know the mind of God, they're justifiably raked over the coals. But when the hardworking detectives presume to know the religious personification of evil, they're admired for it.

You could easily envision this book becoming a Lifetime Movie of the Week or a Court TV special. It's lurid and sad and morbidly fascinating. But while the case is intriguing, the book is pure rubbernecking. Maybe Cuneo should have devoted a little less time to figuring out the perfect way to describe the exact tint of a poor, murdered woman's hair, and little more time copy-editing.

One Last Kiss: C+

Medal of Commendation

First seasons can be rough. Community, Parks & Rec, The Simpsons... All of these have been at the top of my list at one time or another, but all of them needed time to settle into themselves and develop into truly remarkable TV. So it's surprising when a show debuts, and almost immediately starts knocking it out of the park. Brooklyn Nine-Nine just wrapped its first season, and I can't believe how great it was. It seemed to have plenty of - well, not strikes, but definite red flags. It's a workplace comedy and features cops, both of which are themes that have been oversaturated lately. It stars Andy Samberg, and while I've never disliked him, I'd describe his smug comedy as best in small doses. All the building blocks were present for this to turn into a run-of-the-mill, disposable comedy.

And what happened? It snagged #3 on my Top of 2013 list. And rather than slowing down in the new year, it got even better. Samberg blended perfectly into what has become the funniest ensemble comedy on TV right now. Every character is developing in a wholly naturalistic way, no matter how quirky they are. Every actor has stolen a scene or two. There are simply no weak links.

It's simultaneously the easiest thing and the most difficult thing in the world to explain why this show works so well: It's really, really funny. There ya go! That's all there is to it. Like Bob's Burgers, it weaves in secondary and tertiary characters perfectly. It can take place outside of the police office (as in one of the season's strongest episodes, "The Party") and still function well. The only thing that threatens to throw a wrench into the works is the same thing that brings down a lot of shows: Main characters falling for each other. The interplay between Diaz/Boyle and Santiago/Peralta has been fine so far, but definitely contains the potential to be as insufferable as the whole Ross/Rachel thing became.

But we'll leave all that to the future. Right now, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has a Golden Globe, a second season pickup, and my adoration.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine - Season 1: A


I love food, I love TV, and I love books, so it follows that I'd love a book about food TV, right? It was with that in mind that I put myself on the long library waiting list for Allen Salkin's From Scratch: Inside the Food Network. Its cover is festooned with all the famous faces to grace (or disgrace) Food Network over the years. The quotes on the back imply that it's full of juicy gossip. I looked forward to it immensely. Upsetting news, everyone.

How to explain this... Well, imagine you were watching Gone With the Wind, except now, 80% of the running time is taken up by watching Scarlett run the lumber mill. Or watching cabinet meetings in real time on House of Cards. That's the problem with this book; the vast majority is nothing but descriptions of run-of-the-mill business decisions made by network heads about whom you know nothing and care even less. It would struggle to be interesting even if these pencil pushers were cutthroat and self-serving, but they don't even have the grace to do that. Everyone behaves in a mostly professional, mostly polite, mostly profit-motivated manner, so the reader is treated to the equivalent of 200 pages' worth of watching people do paperwork.

Even when the book finally deigns to address the actual shows and stars of the Food Network, it offers nothing in the way of news or insight, preferring to rehash the stories everyone already knows. Shows with mass appeal replaced more esoteric shows. Guy Fieri is classless and took a beating from the New York food elite. Bobby Flay is a workhorse. Paula Deen took heat for racism and shilling diabetes medicine. Ina Garten didn't fulfill that kid's make-a-wish request. Yes, we all read the same articles. Care to dig any deeper?

Salkin opens the book by describing his access to the network's executives and stars, but far from being "Inside the Food Network", everything presented is either boring boardroom dealings or established trivia. He's not a bad writer, but this is a wholly uninteresting, unnecessary book. Time to send it back to the kitchen.

From Scratch: Inside the Food Network: C

Character Study

The first (and largest) necessity for any commercial is to grab the viewer's attention. To marketing people, being boring is a far graver sin than being bad, and there's often no such thing as bad publicity, as long as people know your commercial exists. Once your commercial is noticed, however, its secondary necessity is to portray the product being sold in a positive light, often by asking the viewer to identify with the ad's protagonist. Look at this person using the product. Aren't they intelligent? Or clever? Or charming? Or sexy? You, being the shrewd consumer that you are, want to be as wonderful as this protagonist is, so you'd better get your hands on this product.

But what happens when the Wonderful Protagonist isn't so wonderful? What if they're laughably annoying, or annoyingly laughable? Like, oh say...a grandpa being unable to control his enthusiasm for Disney, thus ruining his grandson's school play?

Not cute. Not charming. I like to imagine what would happen if a person did this in real life. Rather than a fun-filled trip to the amusement park, I envision years of tense Thanksgivings and this kid being mercilessly ridiculed in the lunchroom. But at least I understand what this ad is aiming for. And none of the actors is to blame. It's just an unfunny joke. What's more mystifying than an unfunny joke? How about a serial killer masquerading as a dreamboat?

I hope those poor women were adequately compensated for mooning over a guy who is clearly about to turn their ribcages into a coat rack. I work in the sciences, so I like to do the proper experimental research. I have asked straight women, gay men, and bisexuals if the man featured in this line of ads is sexy to them. Shivers of terror is the only response he evokes. Seriously, pluck that actor out of these coffee commercials, plop him down in the middle of an episode of Hannibal, and tell me he wouldn't fit right in.

Neither of these ads offends me on any deep level. I don't feel the need to punish Disney or some random coffee company for insulting my intelligence. They're more confusing than irritating. My scientific curiosity is piqued once more! Someone please introduce me to the advertising executives who thought these were appealing characters. I want to do an intense study of their concept of human nature.

The High Priestess

It's pretty amazing that I've never mentioned Suzanne Vega in this blog, because she's been a pretty constant presence in my entertainment universe. I like a wide range of music, but Suzanne Vega has always held a firm position in my top ten. I don't go to a lot of concerts, but always make an effort to see her when she's in town. I even went to two of her shows by myself, correctly guessing that I'd enjoy myself more if I didn't have to take other people's schedules/tastes/seating preferences into consideration. I made her autograph all her CDs for me, even though she was suffering from a strained wrist. I'm not sure if I'm getting my point across clearly, so let me sum up: I really love Suzanne Vega.

So when I found out she just released a new album, I was all over it. Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles is a mouthful, and a little bit Fiona Appley for a title. And since I'm a naturally anxious person, I always fret that each new album will be the stinkbomb; winning streaks can't last forever. I needn't have worried. Vega is as wonderful as ever, and I'm thrilled to add ...Queen of Pentacles to my collection.

As the title implies, there's kind of a tarot theme running through this album. There are songs titled "Fool's Complaint" and "Portrait of the Knight of Wands". Given how lyrical and portentous a lot of Vega's songs are, the theme dovetails nicely. You can easily envision the hopes and woes and grim truths the lyrics of these songs entail laid out by a fortuneteller. The music itself is nicely varied, as well. Some are up-tempo and energetic. Some are slow and pensive. There's even a little electronica thrown in.

The worst I can say about it (and I don't even mean this as a real criticism) is that it's very much in Vega's wheelhouse. If you listened to Songs in Red and Gray and Beauty & Crime, you'll already have a good idea of this album's style. If you've never been much of a fan, there's nothing here that will turn you around. But for those of us who have always enjoyed Suzanne Vega's music, this is a delightful addition to the canon.

Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles: A

Yes We Can!

Sure, Oscar season is incredibly enjoyable, and I like discovering the deep, emotionally complex films that awards season puts on my radar. But once that circus settles down, it's also nice to refresh the brain with a bit of silly fun. Fortunately for my dumb brain, 2013's White House Down was the next thing on my Netflix queue. The plot... Hahaha! Who cares?

All right, fine. Channing Tatum wants to be a Secret Service agent to impress his disaffected-yet-politically-interested daughter. The two of them go to the White House for his interview, conducted by a high school acquaintance of his (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Though they're excited to bump into the President (Jamie Foxx, playing an Obama knockoff to the hilt), the interview doesn't go well. It is at this moment that the head of Secret Service (James Woods) stages a coup, along with some generic terrorists. Tatum and Foxx fight back a la Die Hard, the kid is somewhat obnoxiously precocious, puns and other tortured wordplay are slung around with wild abandon, there's a final twist... You know the drill.

I sound dismissive, but the paint-by-numbers nature of the plot isn't a bad thing in this case. I wasn't looking to have my preconceptions about the nature of the human condition challenged. I wasn't looking to be educated on the intricacies of peace treaties in the Middle East. I wanted to spend a couple hours watching a goofy action flick that wasn't overtly stupid, and that's what I got. Likewise, I don't want to do cartwheels over it, because even for a movie that knowingly follows a rigid screenwriting guide to action movies, some sections were pretty rote.

Still, the filmmakers knew exactly what kind of movie they were making, and have a good sense of humor about it. The actors are genial, and just on the right side of hammy. Will this movie inspire controversial think-pieces in the film criticism community? No. But it would be one hell of a flick to live-tweet, and was a nice batch of the kind of dumb fun we Americans excel at. USA! USA!

White House Down: B

You Can't Handle the Truth

It seems like every couple years, like clockwork, another journalist or memoir author or performance artist gets caught fabricating material, and is pilloried in the public square. Why does it keep happening? And why do we care so much? I mean, sure. Mike Daisey is a pompous egotistical blowhard, but does it really matter if he spoke to a specific factory worker at a specific time, if the picture he's painting is accurate overall? It's an intriguing question, so when I started seeing reviews of The Lifespan of a Fact (2012), a book that centered on this very issue, I was immediately interested.

The book reproduces an essay submitted to a magazine by author John D'Agata. It had been previously rejected for inaccuracies, and when another publication took it up for review, their resident fact-checker Jim Fingal gave it similar scrutiny. He and D'Agata began to correspond, then debate, then fight, then begrudgingly accept each other's point of view. Fingal's notes detailing the many, many untrue things that D'Agata asserts are outlined alongside the original essay. Fingal believes that when you call something non-fiction, you owe it to the reader to be completely factual, and D'Agata argues that rigid adherence to small factual details ruin the flow of his writing.

They're both right, and they're both wrong. And unfortunately, they're both kind of insufferable. Yes, D'Agata has a point when he says nailing things down like the distance between specific buildings in Vegas aren't important to his overall thesis, and no intelligent reader would ascribe ulterior motives to streamlining the essay. But does he have to be such a condescending douche about it? And yes, Fingal has a point when he argues that D'Agata can't just present something as factual, when it's a universe of his own construction, shifted to fit his narrative in the name of Art. But does he have to be such a nitpicky snob about it?

Sadly, what could have been a really fascinating debate instead comes off as an obnoxious polemic on both sides. These two deserve each other, and the reader deserves neither of them. I'm still very curious about the nature of fiction, and how much the truth can stretch before we can't call it truth anymore. There are nuggets of that discussion in this book, but it's ultimately too tiresome and self-satisfied to offer much in the way of answers. You want some real truth? You can skip this one.

The Lifespan of a Fact: C+

Fruit-Wrapped Genitals and the Buffet of Shame

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 2

Hey there, food fans. The second episode of Four Courses just went live at fourcoursespodcast.com. Topics include "The Crossing", Old Man Drinks, reliable food "go-to's", the odd intersection of food and sex, and when it's okay to whip the phone out at the dinner table.

Go give it a listen, and I hope you become part of the Four Courses community!

It's Not Delivery, It's DeGeneres

Actors like to talk about the winding journey they've taken to arrive on the Oscar stage, but if you're really up for an adventure story, I'll regale you with the Tale of Getting Myself In Front of an Oscar Telecast this year. I was supposed to attend the annual Oscar party, but it was canceled due to weather concerns. I was going to drive to James' place to watch, but the ice storm pinned my car in. The friends that live within walking distance either don't own televisions or recently cut their service. Aaaaaah! Fortunately, the lady who lives below me was planning to watch, and didn't mind me perching on her couch for a few hours. After all that hoopla, my trip to the Oscars took ten seconds.

It was a tough year to predict, but I was better-prepared than last year. I've seen six of the nine Best Picture nominees, and plenty of the films in the smaller categories as well. Still, I wasn't terribly confident going in, and I was nervous about my picks, even though there wasn't a prize this year. So, based on my guesses, let's find out how I did!


I was correct with my 12 Years a Slave pick, though I'm ashamed to say it's one of the three Best Picture nominees I have yet to see. The one thing I'd amend from my comments in the nomination post is my choice of what I'd have voted for, given the chance. Perhaps Her didn't tackle the Important Themes 12 Years a Slave did, and wasn't as much of an audience-pleaser as Gravity, but to my mind, it was the most thoughtful, remarkable movie on the list, and the only one I'm interested in watching multiple times. But in the land of predictions, you have to guess how other people will vote, and I was able to see which way the wind was blowing on this one. Ding!


Dallas Buyers Club is another one of the three I haven't caught yet, and unlike 12 Years a Slave, I'm not in a hurry to get to it. As you're about to read, it apparently didn't lack for amazing performances, but it looks like such a depressing, awards-baity slog to me. Of course, that's what I said about Wolf of Wall Street, which wound up being better than I thought it would. All this is to say that Best Actor went to Matthew McConaughey, and I'd love to go back in time a few years and tell everyone this win was coming, just so I could see jaws hit the ground. I didn't allow for a McConaughey win in my nominations post, but I've had my ear to the ground since then, and his groundswell of support was impossible to miss. I changed my ballot at the last minute, and scored the point. Ding!


Now here's a performance I actually saw. Though Amy Adams had the potential to be a spoiler (a spoiler that I would not have been entirely unhappy to see), I felt strongly that this one was Cate Blanchett's to lose. And she didn't! Lose, that is. I'm very happy with this win; Cate Blanchett is always good, of course, but she went above and beyond in this film, and tore the role of Jasmine to shreds. Ding!


As I mentioned in the nominations post, I had to go out on somewhat of a limb with this choice. I decided to follow the crowd and select Jared Leto as my choice. He pulled through, and made one of the most stirring acceptance speeches of the evening. Good for him. And for me! Ding!


I agonized over this pick, but I followed my initial instinct, and selected Lupita Nyong’o. And like Jared Leto, she got the win, made a great speech, and looked superb doing it. I'm looking forward to watching her work. I hope she doesn't fade away like supporting actress wins of years past. Ding!


This one I was reasonably confident about. Though 12 Years a Slave was a natural Best Picture win, it was a pretty standard movie in terms of how it was made. It was impossible to ignore the groundbreaking directorial choices Alfonso Cuarón made for Gravity, and all those choices were pretty much flawless. Ding!


Hmm. Maybe I shouldn't have been so self-effacing in my predictive powers. I said that Her might be able to pull out a win here if it was ignored elsewhere, and that's exactly what happened. And I was over the moon to see this win, because it certainly deserved it. Ding!


This one was a little more difficult. It came down to a choice between Before Midnight and 12 Years a Slave. I figured the big movie would steamroll the small one, and I was correct. I do want to see the Sunset/Sunrise trilogy at some point, though. Ding!


Frozen was the closet thing to a gimme all night. And it was sweet to see it not only win, but complete the EGOT for Robert Lopez. Well done. Ding!


Entertainment Weekly guessed that The Great Beauty would win. Fool that I am, I ventured off on my own and picked The Hunt. Whoops. Bzzzt!


Not much was obvious going in this year, but it did seem pretty evident that Gravity would snag a lot of technical awards. Picking it for Cinematography was a pretty easy choice, despite the fact that perpetual also-ran Roger Deakins is due for a win one of these days. Still, I have my own ballot to consider. Sorry, Deaks. Ding!


If American Hustle wasn't going to win the big awards, I could easily see it winning for costumes. Sure, older period pieces like The Great Gatsby usually win, but isn't it about time for the costume award to start creeping forward in time? Apparently not. Bzzzt!


Again, I thought American Hustle or Her could sneak in on this one, and again, The Great Gatsby screwed me over. Bzzzt!


Let's get back on track with this category! Clearly, The Act of Killing, which has been generating all sorts of buzz, will take the prize. Nope. 20 Feet From Stardom. Bzzzt!


I'm so sorry if this sounds cavalier, but when I heard The Lady In Number 6: Music Saved My Life was about a Holocaust survivor, I knew I didn't need to look any further for my pick. The Academy loves rewarding Holocaust-themed material, and this year was no exception. Ding!


In my nominations post, I took a stab by saying 12 Years a Slave would win, but in the time since, I changed my vote to Gravity. It was such a tight, spare story, and fell in line with my when-in-doubt-choose-Gravity strategy. Also, it was a way to give Alfonso Cuarón an Oscar if he didn't win the directing award. And the strategy paid off. Ding!


Gravity, of course. I'm particularly glad it won here, because Visual Effects is often a category where an otherwise terrible movie can shine, and it's nice to see the best movie of the ones nominated was able to claim best effects as well. Ding!


I didn't have a great idea when I half-jokingly selected the Jackass movies in my nominations post. Since that time, I've been reading remarkable things about the Dallas Buyers Club makeup team and its shoestring budget, so I changed my prediction to that. Ding!


I was torn on this one, so I went with my when-in-doubt-choose-Gravity strategy. Hooray! Ding!


A lot went awry with the actual presentation of "Let It Go", from John Travolta's garbled introduction of Idina Menzel to her backing orchestra being so intrusively loud that she had to scream at the top of her lungs and cracked a note or two. But there was never any doubt in my mind that the song would win, and indeed it did. Ding!


Entertainment Weekly split the odds between Get a Horse! and Mr. Hublot. I figured that Mickey Mouse was too much of a "safe", boring choice, so I opted for Mr. Hublot. So there's an undeserved point that I have zero compunction about claiming. Ding!


Oh, damn. In my nominations post, I said "Let's go with Helium. When in doubt, depend on the periodic table." But then I changed my vote to That Wasn’t Me at Entertainment Weekly's suggestion. Boo! Bzzzt!


A technical award that Gravity was vying for, so duh. Ding!


A technical award that Gravity was vying for, so duh. Ding!

That's 19 out of 24, which is pretty spectacular for a year that I was so unsure of going in. Thanks, Gravity! Plus, I was pretty happy with the awards given out this year. Sure, I would have liked to see Her showered with a lot of love, but I can't complain about the vast majority of the picks. As to the telecast itself, it was decent, though not great. Ellen is an affable host, but some of her aren't-I-affable bits went on and on. The show came in at a reasonable time, which was good, though there was still plenty of head-scratching filler. A salute to heroes, many of whom aren't heroes? Pink nailed her performance of "Over the Rainbow", but why was a tribute to The Wizard of Oz needed at at all? What about the almost chilly relationship of the director and writer of 12 Years a Slave, who didn't mention each other, could barely make eye contact, and offered only tepid, almost sarcastic applause? What's the story there? And what in the holy hell is wrong with John Travolta? Dyslexia? A brain slug hidden in his hairpiece? Xenu?

A Wolf at the Door

Bam! Got one more in before the big ceremony! First, I have a confession to make. Though Martin Scorsese is considered a master of the craft, I've been getting increasingly wary of his recent movies, which may as well all be titled: Good Concept, Forty Minutes Too Long. I remember sort of liking The Aviator at the time, but my feelings since have curdled into just the memory of its interminable length. Hugo did wonderful things with the history of cinema, but bloated the whole thing with the adventures of a scamp who lives in a train station. In addition to the whole Scorsese thing, I've never been as big a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio as others. I don't dislike him, but I've never seen him disappear into a role. He radiates visible Acting Technique at all times. So, when I heard The Wolf of Wall Street was a three-hour film with DiCaprio in pretty much every scene, I was...not terribly excited about it.

But when a friend mentioned she was going to go catch a screening and asked if I wanted to come along, I went ahead and took the plunge. The movie has been getting such great word of mouth, I figured I didn't have a lot to lose. Well, I don't know how my future self will look back on this experience, but 2014 me thinks it was pretty good. Yes, it could still easily be titled Good Concept, Forty Minutes Too Long. But there are things that stand out that never have before.

Leonardo DiCaprio was the biggest surprise. He plays Jordan Belfort, the Wall Street stockbroker who made millions through fraudulent stock sales, then got busted. The movie charts Belfort's rise and fall, and for the first time ever, DiCaprio nails it. He nails it! I completely believed him in every scene, and I don't know that he'll ever turn in a better performance than he does in this. He's scary and funny and charming, and you can easily see how people were persuaded into following him down into the ooze.

Jonah Hill is also nominated for this movie as DiCaprio's right-hand man, and I'm sorry, but no. He's perfectly capable, but doesn't do anything particularly noteworthy with the role. Of course, I said that about Helen Hunt too, and, well... Stay tuned for that Award Repo.

The other thing that I found bemusing was the line between celebration and condemnation of the lifestyle Belfort leads, and the things he's willing to do to maintain it. Ostensibly, the movie skewers the moral decrepitude of the one-percenters who don't care who gets hurt as long as the money is rolling in. But it also lovingly frames the parties and the perks of being a rich guy. It's on the verge of excusing the stockbrokers who drain the life savings of everyday people, because hey, those people got greedy, too, and who wouldn't want to live like a king?

There is one scene in the movie wherein a woman is paid handsomely to shave her head for the entertainment of the company. And the camera lingers. "Isn't this awful?" it seems to ask. This woman sold her dignity for a few bucks, and it speaks to the cruelty and disdain the wealthy have for the plebeians. But... This was an actress who was paid handsomely to shave her head for the entertainment of the movie's audience. And the camera lingers. So who's really being sympathized with?

I enjoyed this movie more than the other ones Scorsese has put out lately. And I'm glad I finally got to see Leonardo DiCaprio hit a performance out of the park. But as far as the chatter that this movie deserves a bunch of Oscar gold goes, that needs to be shut down like Lehman Brothers.

The Wolf of Wall Street: B
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