Lifetime Achievement Award

Too often, I'm so enraptured with digging out the hidden gems of the entertainment world that I overlook the things that are taking up most of the oxygen in the cultural conversation. I've never seen a single episode of Lost. I still haven't caught up with 12 Years a Slave. Whatever the hot video game of the moment is, I wind up playing it two years after everyone else. Once in a while, though, something comes along that I want to jump on while everyone is still talking about it, and Richard Linklater's recent movie Boyhood definitely falls into that category.

I can't believe that anyone with even a casual passing interest in the movie business hasn't heard of it, but just in case, here ya go: Boyhood is about the life and upbringing of a boy named Mason. That's it. Why is a film with a description that mundane such a critical sensation, spawning dozens and dozens of rapturous thinkpieces? Well, it's because of the way it was filmed. Rather than take the usual route of making a movie within a couple of months and using separate actors, makeup, or digital effects to show the characters at different stages of life, Linklater filmed Boyhood over the course of 12 years. Mason. is portrayed by actor Ellar Coltrane, who we watch age right along with the character, from six to eighteen. His mother (Patricia Arquette), father (Ethan Hawke), and sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director's own daughter) are also a big part of the story, and the audience gets the experience of seeing the real effect of the passage of time on people, and not just the characters they play.

Obviously, this is not the first time something like this has been done; I haven't seen any of the other fictional applications of this, but I'm a huge fan of the Up Series, which is basically Boyhood in documentary form. Ironically, given the subject material, I saw this movie about aging and milestones and taking stock of life on...my birthday. How's that for inspiring some deep self-examination? It's difficult to review Boyhood capably, because I'm really weighing it in two different ways: As a movie with a plot and characters and as a cinematic achievement.

Let's take the second part first. As a cinematic achievement, this is flawless. Assembling a movie with a single cast/crew over the course of twelve years is no mean feat, just in the technical sense. There are also any number of methods Linklater could have used to incorporate the aspect of passing time into a fictional narrative, and he avoids a lot of clumsy traps. There are no obvious dissolves between ages. There are no "One Year Later" subtitles. There's no omniscient narrator explaining what's happening. There's no obvious foreshadowing in the beginning that magically pays off in the end. There is no AND THEN THIS HUGE THING HAPPENED THAT CHANGES EVERYTHING event that never happens to actual people. The movie just flows from scene to scene, just like life. So as far as the convention of storytelling goes, I have absolutely no complaints.

But I also have to think about this as a movie, full-stop. And in those terms, I have to admit that as I watched it, I found myself actively wishing that Boyhood was about Mason's sister Samantha, instead. Pretty much everything that Mason goes through, Samantha goes through as well, and the movie's focus centers around the sibling that I frankly find a much less interesting person. Not only is Mason less interesting than Samantha, he's less likable as well. While it is fascinating to watch him come of age, there's no getting around the fact that I don't care much for the personality he develops. Of course, I'm not sure if we're being asked to like him, so it may be unfair to hold the movie accountable for that. But it was frustrating to keep following Mason when Samantha's story is always juuuuust out of reach. I feel similarly about Mason's mother, a role which Patricia Arquette completely knocks out of the park. She's learning and changing just as much as her children over the course of the film, and makes the character relatable in a way no one else pulls off quite as well.

Though I don't think I'll need to revisit this film much in the future (if at all), I'm extremely glad I saw it, and saw it when I did. Even if it's not destined to be my favorite movie of the year, it was a really cool cinematic experience. That makes it tough to assign a "official grade", but I guess I'll just average out my perception of the film's story (B) and the way it approached the medium (A+). It's obviously a hugely influential movie that people will be talking about for a long time to come. If only it had focused on the right kid.

Boyhood: A-

Song of the Summer 2014 Contender: Boom Clap

This is a strange pick for me! I never thought I'd seriously be putting forth a Charli XCX track for my Song of the Summer contest. I've already mentioned my feelings about her collaborations on "I Love It" and "Fancy" (for those too lazy to click on the links, my thoughts on those songs can be summed up as "Ugggggggggggh"), so why am I so into her first hit as a solo artist?

Honestly, I'm not sure, though I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that she's actually, you know, SINGING on this track, and it isn't just a bunch of her usual monotonal yelling. Here ya go:

Catchy, right? I don't listen to a lot of commercial radio these days, but when I do, it's a safe bet that this song will come on within ten minutes. The bump it got from being part of the soundtrack for The Fault In Our Stars should probably be taken into consideration as far as its popularity, but that has nothing to do with why I like it. It's got a good beat to it, and I find myself singing along in my car every time it starts. Let's hope nobody's placed recording devices in there.

I doubt that Charli XCX will ever make the list of my favorite artists; even in a song as good as this, she sounds over-produced. Still, "Boom Clap" is a legitimate jam, and one that I'm always happy to encounter out in the wild. What more could a Song of the Summer contender need?

Song of the Summer Odds: 4:1

My Bodyguards

The Marvel universe is expanding even more rapidly than our own. That's not a complaint. Since I've taken to being more careful and selective about which superhero movies I go see, the crap tends to get filtered out pretty effectively. And I don't feel like I'm missing out on important plot information - it's not like Captain America: The Winter Soldier hinges on events that happened in the Thor and Iron Man movies I skipped. As a result, all the superhero flicks I've seen recently have all been consistently great.

The streak continues with this summer's Guardians of the Galaxy, which accomplishes something that even the highly-regarded movies of the past couple of years did not: It's funny. Where movies like The Avengers and X-Men: Days of Future Past are mostly action or drama with moments of levity, Guardians of the Galaxy has a consistent thread of comedy all the way through.

It's no small feat, especially because I had zero prior experience with this set of characters. I like superhero video games, and used to watch the X-Men cartoon on Saturday mornings, but beyond that, I was never a comic book kid. I had no idea who Peter Quill or Groot or any of these other creatures were, and could have easily let this movie slip by, mistakenly judging it as a cash-grabby over-extension of the Marvel brand (and yes, that would be Ant-Man's tiny ears burning about now, though I hope I'm wrong about that). Once a tidal wave of positive reviews and gushing word-of-mouth built up, though, I jumped on an opportunity to head to the theater.

For those who are interested in a rich, deep story, I'm afraid you'll have to look elsewhere. As with a lot of Marvel movies, the plot is essentially meaningless. Extraordinary person (or people) go after an Important MacGuffin that will stop a Villain from precipitating a Catastrophe. That plot gets copied from movie to movie, but as long as it stays confined to action/superhero movies, I don't know that too many people will have a big issue with it. In this case, Quill (Chris Pratt) and his team try to track down a glowy rock that a bad guy will use to destroy a planet, and blah blah blah.

I sound dismissive, but Marvel seems to have found a formula that works, concentrating on movies that function as character explorations with an impressive setpiece or two, rather than narrative. It works the best it ever has in Guardians of the Galaxy. These are characters you want to spend time with, which often can't be said of people like Hulk or Thor. Pratt is a charismatic and engaging lead, and for the shallow among us, the shower scene was much-appreciated. The soundtrack is also pretty wonderful (for fans of '70s/'80s rock, anyway), and is incorporated cleverly into the plot. I'm reaching for things to nitpick, and am not really coming up with anything. This was pretty much the perfect summer movie experience, and assuming Marvel wants to capture lightning in a bottle like this again, they'll have their work cut out of them.

Guardians of the Galaxy: A

Bad Things Happen In Threes

Well, I don't know how things are going in your part of the world, but the news arriving in my inbox has been pretty terrible this week. Police brutality, looting, airstrikes, civil rights losses, celebrity suicide... There seems to be no end to the misery the past seven days have inflicted on the community. So what better way to deal with it than by reporting on three books I just wrapped up that are all morose, depressing, and hopeless? In unrelated news, could someone please drop a barrel full of Paxil on my front porch?


One of those recent books is Claire Kendal's 2014 novel, The Book of You. The book is written in two separate styles. In the third-person, Clarissa goes about her days, indulging her hobby of sewing and clothing construction, and serving on a jury. In the first-person, Clarissa keeps a journal about the increasing danger she faces from a stalker. She attempts to follow all the rules about dissuading this man she met and slept with once, but his behavior escalates in terrifying ways. He always stops just short of hurting her, and Kendal does a good job of portraying the uselessness of a system where nobody will come to your aid unless something horrific has already befallen you. Clarissa's life is complicated further by the case she's sitting on revolving around a similar victim being torn to shreds in the courtroom and her growing attraction to a fellow juror. This book does not shy away from the intensely uncomfortable, and does not wrap everything up in a nice, pat ending. In a way, I find that very refreshing, though it doesn't entirely stick the landing. There are a couple of sections that came off as a bit contrived, but overall, this book was unsettling in all the right ways.


Next up was Susan Rieger's 2014 epistolary book, The Divorce Papers. Told entirely in letters, emails, memos, and notes, this novel follows a brief period in the life of Sophie Diehl, a criminal defense attorney who finds herself roped into her first divorce case. She soon finds herself at sea, not only in the legal technicalities, explosive emotions, and dirty tricks that go into a divorce proceeding, but in her own office politics and personal life. The language in the legal memos that the book comprises can get esoteric, but I liked that; it made the book feel more naturalistic. If anything, the most unbelievable thing about this novel is how cleanly the case is wrapped up. I can't entirely tell if we're supposed to like the narrator or not. She's often immature and needy, and if I knew her in real life, I get the feeling I'd be rolling my eyes a lot. But in a way, that makes her naivete about the work expected of her in a divorce case more understandable. It was a good read, and I wound up enjoying it quite a bit, so consider this an official recommend from your resident A.C.O.D.


I've been meaning to get to Drew Magary's 2011 book The Postmortal for a while now, and finally got around to it. I was already familiar with Magary, thanks to his posts on Deadspin (aka "The Only Place That Can Make Sports Interesting To Me"), and figured I'd like his tone-of-voice translated into fiction. And I was right! The Postmortal imagines a world where the cure for aging has been discovered, and after some initial waffling about whether it's a good idea or not, is made publicly available. People can still die due to sickness or external factors (accidents, murder, etc.), but whatever age you get the treatment - there you will stay forever. Naturally, this leads to all sorts of consequences, both foreseen and unforeseen. The book is told in first person via a journal discovered in the aftermath of some undescribed catastrophe, and spins a great what-if story about how people would act if they never got older. If I have a big issue, it's the same issue I have with a lot of books (and TV shows and songs, for that matter). It doesn't quite know how to end. Ironic, isn't it? It's still a very worthy read, though. People are raised to fear and fight death, but it's easy to see how things would get out of hand in a hurry if the Grim Reaper didn't do his job. So there's a pretty little bow to wrap up this week of crap: "Hooray for Death!"

The Book of You: B
The Divorce Papers: B+
The Postmortal: B

The Rewatch: Harper's Island

Twitter is not my favorite social media platform. I find it annoying more often than not, but it's become pretty necessary for certain interactions. And once in a while, it manages to redeem itself! For instance, if I weren't on Twitter, I would never have heard through the Horror Honeys grapevine that Harper's Island has been added to the Netflix streaming catalog. Harper's Island was a 2009 murder mystery show on CBS, and promised a gimmick in which at least one of the characters would die in every single episode. The combination of the Ten Little Indians premise with the assumption that its airing on network TV meant that it wouldn't be too gory drew my interest immediately, and I jumped in happily. On first viewing, I thought it was extremely cheesy, often silly, and...a total blast. In fact, it became the only non-reality show I ever recapped/reviewed.

Harper's Island centers on a destination wedding taking place on an island off the coast of Seattle. Seven years ago, the island was the site of a brutal mass slaying, which included the mother of the main wedding guest, Abby. Abby reluctantly agrees to come back to attend the wedding, since the groom is her best friend, but her reappearance kicks off another chain of murders. Since I've already described the show episode-by-episode, I'm not going to do the same here. I just wanted to talk about how the show struck me on the Rewatch, since this time, I was watching with full knowledge of who the killer is. Did I spot anything new? Were there clues that I missed the first time, but picked up on now? Did the ending make sense in hindsight? Is there any fun in watching a whodunnit when there isn't any suspense about, well, who done it?

Let's answer that last question first: Yes! If anything, I enjoyed the show more this time around. It's still a guilty pleasure, but I'm prepared to argue that despite some goofiness and cliche, it's actually a really well-crafted mystery that doesn't (entirely) rely on playing "Gotcha!" with the viewer. On first viewing, I had fun trying to figure out who the killer was. On the Rewatch, I had fun testing the feasibility of the killer's plan. While I did pick up on some nuances I missed the first time around, for the most part, things that puzzled me the first time around still don't entirely make sense. With a lot of brain space once devoted to picking apart the mystery freed up, I was able to focus on characterization a lot more this time. I've got to say, I found it a lot more impressive on the Rewatch. These actors did not phone in their performances, and apart from Madison, who is as stupid and creepy a brat as ever, everyone gets a chance to shine. OK, maybe not Non-Entity Beth, but that's not the actress' fault.

Best Episode (judged in 2009): "Sploosh"
Best Episode (judged in 2014): "Splash"

Worst Episode (judged in 2009): "Sigh"
Worst Episode (judged in 2014): "Seep"

Overall Grade (2009): B+
Overall Grade (2014): A-

Harper's Island didn't get the attention or respect it deserves. For those who like murder mysteries, it's a hearty recommend that people should jump on before the streaming availability expires. For those who have already seen it, I have some questions and comments. So be warned! From here on out, expect some massive SPOILERS.

-For those statistics geeks out there, it took until Episode 8 for me to suspect the actual murderer. And even then, I wasn't sure. Good job covering your tracks, Henry!

-So who killed the deer and left it on Shane's truck with the "PSYCHO" message? Maybe it was JD? That would explain him washing all the blood off his hands, though it seems a little extreme for JD, who tends to act out in less gruesome ways. But by the same token, I don't think Wakefield would have bothered with something that petty.

-Similarly, who left the deer head in Henry and Trish's bathtub? He cleans it up so Trish won't see it, so it couldn't have been him or Wakefield. It seems retaliatory, so did Shane do it? And if so, why leave it in Henry's bathtub and not JD's?

-The psychic tells Trish that a male will both betray and save her. We assumed at the time that she was referring to Richard, and that still seems to be the case, since he saves her from drowning, but it leaves some open questions. How did Richard betray Trish? He betrays the hell out of Sinister Dad and Shea, but nothing he does has any real effect on Trish. Who closed the pool cover on Trish? Henry was lurking around, but he seems genuinely surprised by the situation. Plus, he had plenty of opportunities between the pool incident and Trish's stabbing to kill her, and didn't take them. Richard doesn't have a reason or the temperament to do it, unless he was just trying to give her a good scare. So if it wasn't Henry (who never saved her), and it wasn't Richard (who never betrayed her), what is the psychic talking about?

-It's likely that Wakefield or Henry left the raccoon corpse on the church altar, as it was probably practice for Sinister Dad's eventual murder. The firecracker at the scene leads everybody to suspect JD, though, and the situation is never really cleared up. JD claimed his plan was to put a Roman candle in the Unity candle. OK, so, what's the chain of events here? JD goes to the church and sets up his Roman candle, leaving behind a firecracker by accident. Then Wakefield/Henry comes along and splits a raccoon with the head-spade. Then Henry "discovers" both the raccoon and the firecracker? And reports them? That seems off. Maybe Henry just planted the firecracker to divert suspicion. (And as an aside, too bad that the Unity candle was never lit. Plenty of action takes place in the church afterwards. How cool would it have been for someone to have used the candle as a weapon?)

-At Henry's bachelor party, Richard is entirely unperturbed at his affair with Katherine being discovered. And later, Sinister Dad admits to Trish that his relationship with Katherine is complicated, though he never gets to the reasons why. I can't find it now, but I remember reading something about the backstory on this, which got left on the cutting room floor. Everyone treats Sinister Dad as if he has immense wealth and power, but it turns out that he's essentially broke, and it's actually Katherine who has all the money. This explains how Katherine and Richard don't much care if people find out about the affair, and why Sinister Dad sticks around.

-As I mentioned above, some unexplained things from the first viewing remain mysteries. How did Henry kill the priest if he was busy having sex on his wedding cake at the time? How did he kill Richard if he was busy digging up Wakefield's grave? If Madison was incidental to the murders, why does she act so dumb and suspicious all the time? What's the significance of the red ink in Kelly's eyes? Why did Uncle Marty bring a gun to the island? There are plenty of plot holes like these to be picked at, but none of them so big that they spoiled the show. Hell, maybe I can fill in some of these gaps if I watch it again in another five years! See you then.

Song of the Summer 2014 Contender: Summer

Time is flying! Here's hoping I can crown a Song of the Summer before I wake up to find that it's Thanksgiving. Thankfully, today's contender is a gimme. How could a song named "Summer" not be in the running? It's performed by Calvin Harris, and I've been hearing a lot of it lately over loudspeakers at pools, ice cream shops, and other seasonal destinations. It sounds like it was practically created in a lab to win this contest. Have a listen:

There's really not much to this song beyond the word "summer" and a driving backbeat. In other words, it's a textbook example of a summer jam. Unlike a lot of other songs, though, I find it more difficult to get past how milquetoast it is and just enjoy the fizzy pop of it. In many ways, it's similar to "Get Lucky", but something important is missing. It's not a bad song, just shallow and forgettable. Entertainment Weekly put its odds at 12:1, and I find it difficult to disagree. I'm not ever sorry to encounter "Summer" in the wild, but I don't ever see myself seeking it out, either.

Song of the Summer Odds: 12:1

Summer Movie Preview: August 2014

I'm really falling down on my movie-watching duties lately. What is with this crap of my job and podcast research and spending time with loved ones? Drains, all of them! Still, I like to keep myself up-to-date on what I should be seeing, so let's take a look at August. As always, let's get them tagged with a handy Must-See, Rental, TBD, or Pass label. It'll make organizing the Netflix queue simpler when I inevitably miss out on going to the theater.

August 1

Guardians of the Galaxy: This next entry in the Marvel universe has already been released, and is already a huge success. That's not hard to understand; it's luring me in pretty handily, and I have no prior experience with this set of characters at all. A space adventure with a talking raccoon as one of the protagonists sounds deeply silly, and yet everything I've seen of and about this movie makes it look like a ton of fun. (Must-See)

What If: I'm not really sure how this one pinged my radar. At first glance, it seems like a pretty standard movie about a meet-cute couple that starts of platonic and flails towards romance. Sounds pretty dull, yes? This one stars Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, and while I'll probably let it slip by unnoticed, I'm keeping my eye on it for now. Maybe it's because I haven't been keeping up with Radcliffe's films, post-Potter, and Kazan was pretty intriguing in Ruby Sparks. I don't know. This one is a textbook example of wait-and-see. (TBD)

August 8

The Hundred-Foot Journey: Oprah and Steven Spielberg collaborated on this Lasse Hallström film, which stars Helen Mirren as a snooty chef. Promising! Mirren's character is unhappy that an Indian family has opened a restaurant nearby, and I'm guessing that a lot of lessons are learned and delectable food porn is shown. Sounds good to me! (Rental)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Michael Bay produces this update, starring Megan Fox. Thanks, I think we can stop there. (Pass)

Lucy: ScarJo has been killing it lately. Pun intended! She's been kicking ass as Black Widow, swatting down men as an alien in Under the Skin, and now, an unstoppable force hopped up on an experimental drug. I've heard a lot of critical feedback on this one, and reviews are decidedly mixed. The gist seems to be that viewed as a movie attempting to put across a resolute point of view, Lucy doesn't work. But as a turn-your-brain-off goof of a movie, it works pretty well. Normally, this would get a free pass to the Netflix queue, but with a huge backlog of movies and TV for me to catch up on, it's been demoted to maybe-someday status. (TBD)

August 13

Let's Be Cops: Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. dress up as cops, then get into a lot of shenanigans when the costumes don't come off. I want to say that while this premise is silly, I know the cast is funny and likable, so how bad could it be? But that's the exact same thing I said about Walk of Shame, which was immediately scorched, then forgotten. I've learned my lesson, and will see how reviews and word-of-mouth goes before I make any decisions on this one. (TBD)

August 22

Love is Strange: Now this sounds fascinating. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are a married couple who are forced to live separately when they sell their home and look for less expensive options. Being apart and living with friends takes its toll on all involved. I'm not sure this is one that begs for me to rush right out and see it in the theater, but it sounds like a really interesting film that is perfect for a chilly autumn evening at home. (Rental)

American Food Mythology and the Feast of Waffles

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 7

Independence Day falls in July, of course, but there are a lot of other reasons July makes us feel so darn patriotic. Summer BBQs! Baseball games! Fruit pies! We spend this hour delving into how food and drink ties us to America, so go check out Episode 7 on the site, or subscribe to Four Courses Podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.

Topics include the alluring waffles of Melt, a grown-up approach to Jello shots, foods that might make the average American feel patriotic, and the phenomenon of pop-up restaurants. Finally, I get a little feisty in railing against a fruit that nobody seems to like, yet won't just do the honorable thing and go away.

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

Pop Culture Homework Assignment #11: The Warriors

Like I stated long ago, the main reason that the Pop Culture Homework Project exists is to fill in the gaps of my cultural history, so that I can see what all the fuss was about. There are a few other reasons, too. I want to be able to knowledgeably contribute as much as the general public to conversations about movies/books/TV/games that became a phenomenon. And of course, it'd be nice to get modern references that call back to old favorites. I can't tell you how many times I've heard some permutation of "Waaaaaariors....come out and plaaaaaaaaay!" as a jokey way of calling someone out. It pops up everywhere! And yet, I'd never managed to watch the movie that inspired this homage, 1979's The Warriors.

I knew a little bit going in. I knew that it was about gangs. I knew that it's a cult favorite. I knew that Lynne Thigpen and the guy from Xanadu are in it. And I knew that line. That's about it. It's a very strange movie. New York City is controlled by a couple dozen gangs, who have split up territory to control. Tension runs high between the gangs, so Cyrus, the leader of the most powerful one, calls everyone together to call a truce. Everyone's in favor of this except Luther (fittingly of the Rogues gang), who assassinates Cyrus and pins the crime on the Warriors. The rest of the movie involves the Warriors trying to get back to their safe territory of Coney Island while all the other gangs (plus police, for good measure) attempt to kill them.

It's a very video-gamey premise, which is one of the things I liked about it: In each new location, a new gang pops up, and the Warriors must somehow escape and move on to the next "stage". Along the way, Mercy (a hanger-on of a low ranked gang) decides she likes the Warriors' style, and becomes enamored of Swan, played by Michael Beck (the aforementioned guy from Xanadu). She tags along, and the two develop a romantic relationship, even as the Warriors fight off gangs like dudes dressed in baseball uniforms and an all-female gang that seduces before they attack. It sounds a bit silly and juvenile, which it is. But it's also extremely entertaining. There's even a subtle, poignant scene, in which Swan and Mercy observe happy couples out on the town. There's an awkward silence, and when Mercy moves to smooth her hair, Swan wordlessly stops her to indicate that she's just as good as any girl with a corsage. Lynne Thigpen is also wonderful, as she always is. All you see of her is her lips - she plays a DJ who serves as a sort of narrator and who continually encourages the gangs to rub out the Warriors.

Apparently, there was some actual gang violence and vandalism surrounding its theatrical release, which no doubt contributes to its cult reputation today. Also, I should mention that the version I could get from Netflix is a 2005 re-edited director's cut, which added comic book style transitions between scenes. It worked for me, and I'm assuming it's not a huge change from the original version people saw in the theater. Overall, I'm really glad I caught up on this one; I can see why it was so popular. For a lot of the Pop Culture Homework Project entries, once I complete the assignment, I feel like I don't need to revisit the work again. But when it comes to The Warriors, I can easily envision having friends over for a movie night rewatch. It's a fun movie that deserves its place in the cultural zeitgeist.

The Warriors: B+
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