Keep It Brassy

We should all take a moment and just admit there are certain personality types we enjoy over others. ADMIT IT, I SAID! OK, now that our prejudices are out in the open, one of those personality types I like are fiercely intelligent, strong-willed, older women from New York. I mean, I like them from afar; dealing with them face-to-face is...less enchanting. Anyway, one of the ways I can enjoy them from afar is by taking in a movie or two, and hey! I just happened to catch a couple documentaries about two such women.

The first was Public Speaking, a 2010 movie directed by Martin Scorsese. Far from being one of those polemic documentaries, or even one of those fun ones that educate me on a quirky subject like pastry competitions or city planning, this one was just a brief glimpse at a typical day in the life of Fran Lebowitz. Lebowitz is an essayist and author, but this movie is a look at her speaking engagements. She's a popular speaker, and it's easy to see why. She is witty and acidic and happily ignores the tact filter the rest of us must reluctantly listen to. Nothing important is discussed. Nothing of note happens to her. It's simply an hour and half of following her around, listening to her spout opinions. She doesn't suffer fools gladly, and though it sounds like this should be insufferable, but Lebowitz is such an entertaining oddball, it was actually a lot of fun. This isn't a movie I would readily recommend to others unless I were positive their tastes aligned with mine, but once that hurdle was cleared, I'd tell them that this one is definitely worth their time.

The other movie had more of an actual story to it. The recent 2014 documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me has been hanging out on my queue for a while, but unfortunately, it took Stritch's recent death to knock it to the top. Stritch had a long career in theater, movies, and television, and this movie follows the rehearsal and performance of some of her last appearances. Her forceful personality always delighted audiences, but the footage doesn't shy away from the uncomfortable realities of her later life. Nobody expects teachers or plumbers to work into their late eighties, but entertainers often like to hang on as long as they can, and no amount of memory lapses or sore joints was enough to keep Stritch off the stage. It's awkward to watch her stumble through rehearsals, forgetting verses and loudly cursing at her declining health, but equally heartwarming to see how much the public still adores her. It's an unflinching portrayal of a public figure at the end of not just her career, but the end of her everything. While it can be viewed as a sad story, it was also pretty uplifting, watching a legend give it her all as long as she possibly could.

Public Speaking: B
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me: B

Children's Theatre

Though I usually like to leap from genre to genre like a rabbit on meth, sometimes I find myself settling into a theme. Recently, I fell into one of these themes by happenstance, catching a trio of kids' movies without even having the good grace to watch them with an actual kid. I guess that means you'll have to take this post with a block of salt, because I know full well that I am not the target audience. Still, the best kids' movies out there know how to play to an adult audience, and all three of these drew me in on that level. Luckily, I don't have a little one demanding to be taken to Planes: Who Gives a Crap About Whatever the Sequel Title Is, so I can just partake of films that devote some actual thought to writing.

The first two movies I actually caught in the theater. I was so pleasantly surprised by How to Train Your Dragon that when a friend wanted to know if I wanted to see How to Train Your Dragon 2, I decided I could probably jump in blind. And I was right! Now that the world of Hiccup and Toothless has been established, this movie goes about expanding it into the surrounding regions. The symbiotic ecosystem between the dragons and humans is threatened by an outside foe, but there are friends on the outside as well. Hiccup's relationships and his responsibility to his tribe are all thoughtfully explored, but not to the point that the movie ever forgets to be funny and entertaining. It wasn't quite as good as the original, but as far as sequels go, it certainly measured up.

Critics were pretty kind to How to Train Your Dragon 2, but they came with claws out for Maleficent. Did a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story from the villain's point of view really need to happen? Probably not. But this is where that whole "target audience" thing I mentioned comes into play. Maleficent is Wicked for little girls. Angelina Jolie portrays her as alternately fearsome and vulnerable, and while a lot of the plot details are woefully contrived, her performance is extremely strong. It's a good thing hers is, because just about everyone else in the movie is fairly useless. What the movie lacks in story, it almost makes up in beautiful visuals. I doubt it'll be on anyone's top-ten list of the year, but I liked it well enough as I was watching.

The third movie found its way to the top of my Netflix queue, and looked like a perfect Monday time-passer. This was 2011's Rango, which intrigued me because of the word-of-mouth I'd heard about it. Gore Verbinski has a checkered resume, and the decidedly mixed reviews this movie got seemed to bear that out. Johnny Depp plays a lizard in love with his own Acting Ability, but that bravado gets him into trouble when he finds himself appointed sheriff of a town in the middle of a punishing drought. This is a supremely weird movie. Try to imagine a spaghetti western andUrinetown squished together, with a bunch of bodily humor jokes tossed in for good measure. It may have been a worthy effort, but the final product doesn't really work. It's far too dark and serious to be a good kid's movie, and it's far too goofy to be a good drama. As with Maleficent, the visuals are often stunning, but Rango doesn't have the compensating factor of a powerful performance to make up for its flaws.

How to Train Your Dragon 2: B
Maleficent: B-
Rango: C+

Song of the Summer 2014 Contender: Sing

Recommendations have been drifting in from multiple quarters! Friends! Family! Media outlets! A lot of the suggestions have been pretty fractured; there hasn't been a lot of crossover from any of my varied sources. There are one or two songs, though, that I can't escape, which is a good quality for a Song of the Summer. When you picture a summer jam, it should be something you can easily imagine hearing poolside, or blasting out of every open car window you pass on the street.

By that metric, Ed Sheeran's "Sing" is a patently obvious choice. It's everywhere! And I get the appeal. I do. Here you go (oh, and do try to ignore the silly puppet video - I'm unsure who thought this was groundbreaking):

White guy with guitar! Unthreateningly cute redhead! Effortlessly slides into falsetto! This is the type of guy that consistently wins American Idol, and it should come as no shock that he either dated Taylor Swift, or was rumored to. I can't be assed to research that. This sounds like I'm gearing up to be dismissive of "Sing", but it's fine. I don't hate it. It doesn't have me rushing to skip or mute it like a lot of other songs that shall remain "Fancy". But by the same token, I find it pretty bland. I can't picture myself rocking out to it as I cruise down the street, and once the next cycle of music arrives, I doubt I'll ever revisit it.

Sheeran is talented, but he's pretty clearly a "Cory". If I were a twelve-year-old girl, I'd have his poster plastered on my walls and be playing "Sing" on repeat. As a thirty-six-year-old dude, I need my Song of the Summer to have a little bit more meat on the bone.

Song of the Summer Odds: 10:1

The Big House

Honestly, I was worried. When a show comes out of the gate with a really strong first season that gets a ton of media attention, it's not exactly a bad bet that the second season will fall apart under the scrutiny. Or at the very least, it won't live up to everyone's high expectations. So while I was excited to watch Season 2 of Orange is the New Black, I have to admit there was a little voice in my head that kept admonishing me not to set my hopes too high. After all, Season 1 landed on my Top 5 Shows of 2013, even as I was only halfway through, and when I was finally done, it hadn't slipped at all. How could Season 2 compete?

Good news, everyone! Season 2 not only didn't implode, but improved. The universe within Litchfield expanded and developed. Characters that were originally relegated to the background got to take center stage. A new, malevolent presence named Vee (Lorraine Toussant, in an outstanding performance) tips the scales of power, leading to radical shifts in loyalty and violence. Inmates we thought we understood got examined in a new light. Guards we caught only the barest glimpses of in the first season became full-fledged characters.

Orange is the New Black remains the most diverse show on the air today, and I don't just say that to give it a pat on the head for being inclusive. Forcing a blend of viewpoints into the microcosm that is prison is not only true-to-life, but makes for good storytelling. Straight, gay, trans, black, white, Asian, Latino, elderly... You name it, it's represented, and the clashes that result are really compelling television. There are no two-dimensional characters in this show (within the prison, anyway - we'll get to my one complaint in a moment). While some of them make an effort to be friendly and others are unrepentant assholes, everyone is a real human with understandable motivations. The flashbacks help. Some of them show us what brought an inmate to Litchfield. Some fill in backstory of the character herself. And some show how Vee operated both outside prison and how she manipulated the power structure the last time she was in.

Just about everyone had a strong season, and it amazes me that in a show with such a large cast, just about everyone got a chance to shine. And shine they did. While Season 1 Piper was whiny and entitled (which was done on purpose, but still), Season 2 Piper is finding more of a place within the prison society, and is actively awesome. Pennsatucky is a completely different presence, and the religious coalition falls apart. The Golden Girls who originally served as window dressing step up and throw a giant wrench in the works. Vee brings Suzanne up in the ranks of the black inmates to serve her own twisted plans, and drives a wedge between previously-close friends. Caputo and Fig's barely-disguised contempt for one another erupts into outright hostility. Ruiz attempts to mother the new baby she can only see on visit days. Red attempts to regain her position of power, now that she's lost not only her kitchen but the respect of the family she cobbled together. Everywhere you look in Litchfield, something interesting and important is happening.

In Litchfield, that is. There is the little matter of what's going on outside, and that is the one complaint I have with the season. I understand the need to show what's going on with the people who used to be a major part of Piper's life, but ultimately, they served little purpose in this season. I don't care about Larry and Polly. I don't care about Pete being a crappy father. I sort of care about Cal and Neri, but only cause they're kind of awesome people, not because it's important to know what's going on with them. Ultimately, though, that's a minor issue. Overall, this was an incredible season. That just leaves one little problem. Now the little voice in my head is worried about Season 3. How do you shut that guy up?

Orange is the New Black - Season 2: A

Sacred Sandwiches and the Romantic Meat Connection

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 6

With summer upon us, we felt we must tackle some appropriate, hot-weather topics. But really, any excuse to get together and shoot the shit about gin and steak is acceptable. Episode 6 is now live at the site, or if you want to take us on the go, subscribe to us on iTunes or Stitcher. You'll be just in time to listen to me flail about hopelessly when it comes to backyard grilling.

Topics include the achingly good BBQ at Sugarfire, the versatility of gin, the ins and outs of grilling, and in our most popular Dessert segment to date, a discussion of the food buzzwords that drive us up the wall. Finally, we wrap things up with an impassioned defense of the classic grilled cheese.

Please enjoy, and mail fourcoursespodcast@gmail.com with any questions, comments, feedback, or suggestions!

Song of the Summer 2014 Contender: Am I Wrong

Either I'm even more out of the loop with music than I usually am, or this is a weak year for summer jams. Normally by this time, I'd be having to comb through dozens of contenders. Instead, they're filtering to me in tiny little chunks. Today's pick first came to my attention from a list published by Entertainment Weekly. I don't normally trust them when it comes to music, but I decided to work my way down their list. Yup. 12 of their 20 contenders were immediately deemed unworthy. The remaining eight aren't bad, and the one that quickly muscled its way towards the top of my list is "Am I Wrong", performed by Nico & Vinz.

One unusual thing about this track being in the running is that it's much slower-paced than most summer songs. Not that it's melancholy or anything, but it's a lot more earnest and smooth than energetic and cheerful. Here, take a listen:

It's clearly not as obsessed with sunshine, sex, or cruisin' down the street as most hot-weather songs are, but something about it still calls to me. Maybe it's one of those songs like "Closer" that works more as a year-round track than one specific to summer. But right now is when it's getting a lot of play, so it's automatically entered in the contest. I really enjoy it, though, so even if it doesn't rule the summer, the fact that it'll be equally welcome in November should count for something.

Song of the Summer Odds: 4:1

The Dog (Eared) Days of Summer

For some reason, people always associate summer reading with light, fluffy stories and/or books that make a huge splash with the public (i.e.: the "blockbusters" of the literary world). I've never really understood this; I don't feel like my reading habits change with the seasons at all. So while I'd love to report that there's a fun, summery vibe to all of the books I loaded up on for vacation, I can't. And honestly, that's fine with me. The books I've been reading in this second third of the year have been a lot more rewarding than the ones that preceded them, and I don't need stories to be lighthearted or vastly popular to enjoy them on the beach.

S. - J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst (2013)

J.J. Abrams has a spotty record when it comes to film and television. He seems to have marvelous creative ideas that go awry in the execution. When it comes to books, though, it seems that having fewer cooks in the kitchen does, indeed, make the broth taste better. This will be a little hard to describe, but bear with me, because S. has a hell of a gimmick: It's a full-length "book" (Ship of Theseus) that was "written" by an enigmatic author. An embattled grad student who has stumbled across new and revelatory information about the author and an undergraduate who is struggling with what she wants to do with her life start corresponding in the margins of Ship of Theseus, and as they collaborate and argue, they begin to develop a relationship. Danger abounds from outside forces who don't want the pair to get credit for their work, and the margin notes start to vacillate between literary critique and personal revelations. The book (S., that is) is crammed with bits of paper, from "newspaper clippings" to postcards to handwritten notes, so the reader is actually reading two books at the same time, with one of them being completely fake. Still with me? It's a tough act to pull off, but Abrams and Dorst do it nimbly, making this one of the most fascinating reading experiences of the year.

Grasshopper Jungle - Andrew Smith (2014)

Part of what can make books interesting is the point of view they're written from, and if that point of view is done believably. I remember having an issue with The Dogs of Babel, not because the story was lacking, but because the female author couldn't capably write from the male protagonist's perspective. Teenagers are often written as hyper-mature, not because that makes teenaged characters more engaging, but because that gets adult authors off the hook for not being able to capture an actual teenager's tone of voice. Part of the reason Grasshopper Jungle was such a breath of fresh air is that Andrew Smith can actually make the narrator sound like a teenaged boy. Know what teenaged boys are like? Horny. All the time. If this book had just been about a horny teenaged boy trying to come to grips with his raging hormones, that would have been cool. If this book had just been about a horny teenaged boy trying to come to grips with his raging hormones as he contemplates his probable bisexuality, that would have been cooler. But this book is about a horny teenaged boy trying to come to grips with his raging hormones as he contemplates his probable bisexuality, and by the way, giant insects are taking over the world, starting with his hometown. And damn, is it fantastic. Science fiction often sacrifices character development in service of the story, but this book is perfectly balanced between exploring complicated feelings for your best friend and trying to escape a horde of killer bugs.

File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents (All the Wrong Questions) - Lemony Snicket (2014)

I've been thoroughly enjoying the All the Wrong Questions series, so when I stumbled across this Encyclopedia Brown-type book set in that universe, I couldn't resist it. I used to love those solve-the-mini-mystery books as a kid, even when the solutions were kind of bullshit. I find the word "trifle" overused when it comes to entertainment, but there is no better description of this little book. It's fun and cute, but is mostly forgettable, and adds nothing to the series as a whole. The writing is as clever as ever, the little mysteries were pretty fun, and I'm always happy to spend a little time with the characters in Stain'd-by-the-Sea, but I can't pretend that those who elect to skip this one will be missing out on anything noteworthy.

The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code - Sam Kean (2012)

This is one of those books that was unfortunately undone by the background of the reader. I don't pretend to be an expert in my field or anything, but getting a biology degree in college, followed by fourteen years of work with a lab that was instrumental in the completion of the Human Genome Project, has given me a better-than-average grounding in genetics. So in reading the story of DNA, the scientists who were instrumental in discoveries about it, and the state of research today, I found myself saying "Yup, I already know this," to myself a lot. Perhaps my opinion shouldn't count as much for this book, because someone else would probably find something new and fascinating about the material. As for me, I thought it was pretty boring. I know it's possible for authors to engage people in material they're already versed in or are uninterested in, but that didn't happen here. I don't know how much to ascribe to not discovering much new information and how much to ascribe to poor writing. Kean seems up to the task, so this may just be a case of not being in the correct target audience.

Life After Life - Kate Atkinson (2013)

OK, to be fair, this one does fall under that aforementioned "make a huge splash with the public" heading. I'm on record as liking books with clever gimmicks (just take a look at S. up there), and this one is no different. Ursula Todd is an unfortunate protagonist in that she keeps, well, dying. She dies at birth. She dies in childhood. She dies of the flu. She dies during wartime. Every time she dies, she starts over, and somehow makes it through the last incident that took her out, only to be felled by another one. During this endless cycle, she retains only dim memory and wired instincts that suggest she's ever been down this path before. She suffers constant deja vu. As the story unfolds, we see how the small changes in the characters' actions ripple out, affecting not only Ursula, but the people around her. As a character exploration, it's riveting. The book does, however, get bogged down a bit when it comes to story. The segment set during World War II drags, and while I can accept there's a girl who keeps being reborn in this horrifying cycle, I can't accept that there's a girl going through this that also happens to become besties with Eva Braun. Atkinson also suffers from something a lot of other authors who tackle the space-time continuum face: Not being able to stick the landing. Still, it's a mostly enjoyable book, and I can easily understand why it's so popular.

S.: A-
Grasshopper Jungle: A
File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents (All the Wrong Questions): B
The Violinist's Thumb: C
Life After Life: B+

Summer Movie Preview: July 2014

Movies should really draw me on the strength of their casts or their production teams or their intriguing premises. But in looking at the movies featured in July, I realized that most of them caught my attention because of some external meta factor about the movies themselves. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Who knows?!? I'm sure that many filmmakers don't much care how their movie sparks interest, as long as it does. Now that my attention is drawn, do I actually want to see the damn thing? Well, that's where the handy categories of Must-See, Rental, TBD, and Pass come in. Let's take a look!

July 2

Tammy: Melissa McCarthy movies can be difficult to predict. When she's utilized well, the results can be hilarious. When it's a string of fatty-fall-down-go-boom jokes...not so much. I'm heartened by the fact that she and her husband wrote this one, which is about a woman who gets fired and discovers her husband is cheating, then goes on a wacky cross-country trip with her drunk grandma (Susan Sarandon). That plot could tilt to either grand fun or insufferable annoyance. I'm an optimistic sort of chap, so I'm hoping it turns out well. That doesn't mean I'm going in without gauging its word-of-mouth first, though. (TBD)

July 4

Life Itself: Film criticism isn't what it used to be. People like to blame the decline of print media for that, but I think the biggest reason is the democratization of opinion. Very little information is given out as factual news anymore. It's all up for debate. This has positive and negative effects, but when it comes to film criticism, paid professionals are now being drowned out by the public; any asshole can start a blog to talk about what he thinks about movies. Ahem. Roger Ebert was perhaps the last great film critic of our time, and this documentary about his life is pretty much required viewing. I didn't always agree with Ebert's take on certain movies, but he always took a measured, thoughtful approach to his arguments, and I am very much looking forward to getting a better sense of his career. (Must-See)

July 11

Boyhood: Richard Linklater's latest coming-of-age drama is getting all sorts of press, not for the story in the movie, but for the story of the movie. Rather than cast different actors to show the struggles of a family through different stages of a child maturing, Linklater used the same kid, and took twelve years to film. Nobody knew what type of person this particular child actor would mature into, and I have to think the movie's script evolved to fit him, which is intriguing. People who have seen this at festivals are pretty ecstatic over it, and anyone who's seen me rhapsodize over the Up Series should be able to guess how I'm approaching this movie: I'm all over it. (Must-See)

A Long Way Down: This is one of the few July movies that actually drew me in with its premise: Four suicidal people meet on a New York City rooftop and (apparently) help each other work out their issues. The cast includes Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Imogen Poots, and Aaron Paul. I have seen absolutely no marketing for this thing, which isn't a great omen. This seems like one of those movies that will become a lot clearer once I read a review or two. (TBD)

July 18

Jupiter Ascending: I should note that this movie's release date is no longer July 18. In fact, it's been pushed all the way back to February of next year. That...is not an encouraging sign. It's a shame, because when the Wachowskis put their minds to it, their movies can be endlessly fascinating and ambitious, if not rousing successes. For those of us who are bored with the usual sequels and mindless blockbusters, this film, about an alien bounty hunter (Channing Tatum) who's tasked with hopping planets to rescue a human janitor (Mila Kunis) sounds like a breath of fresh air. Now it's been moved to the movie calendar's equivalent of a landfill. I honestly don't know if that's because the movie has deep problems, or if Hollywood just can't figure out how to market stories like these. I guess we'll see next year. (TBD)

Wish I Was Here: As I alluded to in the intro paragraph, this is one of those movies that is more interesting for the story behind the production than the movie itself. This is Zach Braff's second relationship drama, though this time, it's about difficult familial relationships. Braff plays a struggling actor who homeschools his kids when their sick, rich grandfather (Mandy Patinkin) must divert funds from the kids' education funds to his cancer treatments. The movie got a lot of backing from Kickstarter fans, setting off various discussions and arguments about what artists are "owed" from the movie-going public. Honestly, this movie doesn't sound particularly good to me, and I can't remember a single detail of Garden State, so I'll likely let this slip by, though I'll be interested to see what other people think. (Pass)

July 25

Magic in the Moonlight: All Woody Allen movies are not created equal, but they're all at least worth looking into. The casts are always strong, and this upcoming one is no exception. Colin Firth plays an Englishman in France who wants to expose a fraudulent mystic (Emma Stone), who's being assisted by her mother (Marcia Gay Harden). Things get complicated when love blooms. I don't know that I need to rush out to a theater to see this, but assuming it gets decent reviews, it's a perfect Netflix evening in the making. (Rental)
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