Fireside Spirits and the British Literary Deception

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 13

It's a brand new year, but just in case you haven't noticed, it's still kind of...WINTER. The chill in the air naturally affects how we eat and drink, and this month's episode is a good one for topics regarding cold-weather feasting. If you don't have a subscription to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, you can always stream it through our site, so go give Episode 13 a listen.

Topics include Lemongrass (a Vietnamese restaurant in the South Grand area), Our Favorite Drinks: Winter Edition, and a discussion about the various meats and methods that go into cooking roasts. Dessert focuses on books with memorable eating scenes, and finally, in the Carryout, we set our food resolutions for the upcoming year. I hope you enjoy it, and feel free to email fourcoursespodcast@gmail.com with any feedback or suggestions for other topics!

The Rewatch: Friends - Season 2

Unlike a lot of other shows (and even some other sitcoms), Friends might not have much of a "seasonal" feel to it. That is to say, aside from a few major plot events, an episode from Season 4 may seem almost identical to an episode from Season 7. I'll have to circle back around to this hypothesis when I'm deeper into the Rewatch, but for now, my guess is that there isn't much to say about the "identity" of Season 2. Everyone's personality was pretty much developed in Season 1, so now what we've got is just a collection of episodes.

That's not a complaint, per se. There's something to be said for finding a groove and sticking to it. I just mean that unlike shows like The Golden Girls and Scrubs, whose episodes can generally be pinned to a season once I've seen a few minutes, Friends is more of a jumble for me. Finding a groove does have a downside, though. It means that episodes can run together in a kind of milquetoast mishmash.

Maybe that's not entirely fair, because it's likely a side effect of binge-watching. People seeing Friends live would have a week's break between instances of Ross' morose obsessiveness, but they came fast and furious for me. Also, though there were several news stories at the time about how the show was a true ensemble, in which all six stars were treated equally, Season 2 is where it begins to become apparent that Friends is shifting into becoming Rachel and These Five Other People.

No offense to Jennifer Aniston, whom I generally like, as long as she's in her wheelhouse. It's not her fault that the character of Rachel got so Mary-Sued. All five of the other main characters get to have foibles. They get to have flaws. Rachel, on the other hand, spends Season 2 becoming the center of the universe. Everyone is in love with her (witness "The One After the Superbowl", in which Jean-Claude Van Damme is instantly drawn into her thrall). Everyone does everything in their power to make her happy (witness "TOW The Two Parties", where she gets two birthday parties so that she can keep her bickering parents apart). Even other people's weddings are all about how the event is affecting Rachel ("TOW Barry and Mindy's Wedding"). I won't be happy if this trend continues, though I suspect it's going to.

Other goings-on during this season: Gunther takes his first steps towards being a regular secondary character, Carol and Susan get married in appropriately hideous clothing, Phoebe tries to work up the nerve to go meet her father, and Joey begins his tenure as Dr. Drake Ramoray on Days of Our Lives.

Notable Guest Stars: Lauren Tom, who is beloved to me as Amy Wong in Futurama, is utterly wasted here (see below). Tom Selleck fares better as Richard, Monica's older boyfriend, who brings a lot of charm to his limited screen time. Adam Goldberg is his usual self as Eddie, Chandler's batshit roommate. "His usual self" is not a compliment, by the way. Season 2 also serves as a convenient sandbox for celebrities to come and play in by chewing as much scenery as possible. This is possibly the first and last time you'll hear that of Julia Roberts, Brooke Shields, and Charlie Sheen, the latter gives the most normal, restrained performance.

What's Keeping Ross and Rachel And Their Apparently Greatest Love in the History of the Earth Apart This Time: First, there's Julie (Lauren Tom), whom Ross meets and starts dating just as Rachel develops feelings for him. It's unacceptable for this relationship to work out, a problem that the show solves by making Julie as boring and useless as possible. She has absolutely zero personality, because we wouldn't want the audience to actually dislike Ross for dumping her, so the easiest way around that is by making her a cipher. Once she's dispensed with, there's THE LIST, on which Ross has written the pros and cons of dating Rachel. She discovers it and is angry enough for it to keep them apart for a few more episodes. It's kind of a silly obstacle, but I can't be entirely mad about it, as it does lead to one of the funnier scenes in Season 2. After the list debacle is behind them, Ross and Rachel do finally start dating, and end the season as a happy couple.

Best Episode: An honorable mention has to go to "TOW Five Steaks and an Eggplant". The B-story is dumb, but I liked the main thrust of the episode, in which the three main characters who make a comfortable living (Ross, Monica, and Chandler) square off against the three (Phoebe, Rachel, and Joey) who are living more hand-to-mouth. This show didn't deal with economics often or well, and this is one of the rare times that it addressed the issue of pay disparity in a group of friends without forgetting that it's a comedy. Of course, in the same episode, it's a given that Hootie and the Blowfish is a rocking band, so take everything with a grain of salt. The best episode, though, has to be "TOW the Prom Video". This is the episode that brings Ross and Rachel together, and it's one of the few instances of their relationship being treated with anything approaching subtlety. The flashback to the characters' teen days provides tons of laughs, and then goes for the gut with an emotional punch that pays off in spades.

Worst Episode: There are a few that aren't great, but "TOW Eddie Moves In" falls the flattest, and it's easy to see why. I mean, there's Adam Goldberg, whom I...don't enjoy, even on the best of days. But even with him around, there's a much bigger problem. Phoebe's off-putting songs work best when they are a throwaway side joke; opening a scene with her caterwauling for five seconds about some inappropriate topic can be pretty funny. But devoting a huge chunk of an episode to a music producer wanting to record (?) and make a music video (?!?!) for the tuneless "Smelly Cat" is patently ridiculous, and every drop of humor is viciously beaten out of the whole idea.

People often accuse Friends of being mindless pabulum, a position that until now, I shrugged off as condescending snobbishness. But now I've got to admit that while Season 2 was pretty good, it's starting to set off a couple of alarm bells. I'm looking forward to seeing if Season 3 brings Friends back to having more of a voice, or if it sinks into the blandness its harsher critics insist it had all along.

Bully For You

Disagreement about the ways we treat other people is always a fertile starting point when it comes to writing. After all, mistreatment leads to conflict, and conflict leads to interesting stories. What is the appropriate response when you feel you're on the receiving end of bullying? Or what if that accusation is leveled at you? Those kinds of stories don't necessarily have to be a bummer; they can be comedic or dramatic, and I've run across one of each recently.

The comedy was the 2014 movie Neighbors, which I'd heard a lot of good things about. It stars Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne as a married couple with a newborn who are horrified when a loud, partying frat house led by Zac Efron moves in next door. Though they initially try to be friendly, the relationship soon devolves, and the threats and pranks begin to escalate. I can offer no higher praise for this movie than by saying both my boyfriend and I really liked it. We never agree on movies! I'm not going to sit here and deconstruct the jokes, since there's no faster way to ruin them, but I can tell you that this is an incredibly fun, fast-paced movie. Not only do the lead actors bring it (more on one of them in a moment), but there are great guest turns from Lisa Kudrow and Jason Mantzoukas as well.

OK, back to that lead actor. Namely, Rose Byrne. Holy shit, does she steal this movie. The writing definitely helps her, because far from being the shrill nag trying to rein in her husband's wacky schemes (like the character would be in any other movie of this type), she's as game for hijinx as he is. Byrne has played a lot of icy and controlled characters, and it is just a total blast to watch her cut loose here.

Some of the scenes fall a little flat (as pot legalization becomes more of a reality, pot jokes become lamer), but overall, this was a funny move that definitely earns its reputation as one of the better comedies of last year.

The dramatic story was from Amanda Maciel's 2014 novel, Tease. It's told from the point of view of Sara, a high school girl who has been charged (along with some of her friends) of bullying Emma, a fellow classmate, into suicide. Good God, am I glad that social media didn't exist when I was in high school. Anyhoo, Sara is now a total pariah, and as she prepares for trial, she tries to reconcile her complicated feelings about her life and the one that has been prematurely snuffed out.

The internet moves with lightning speed when there's something to be outraged about, and Tease is all about the supposition that no matter how black and white things look nowadays, it's all just varying shades of gray. That's an admirable goal, but the book can't quite pull it off. At the end, neither Sara nor Emma's life has undergone anything but surface examination, so the tragic chain of events is basically just...some unfortunate stuff that happened. I'm not asking that every fictional book about bullies end with the perpetrator making a big Life Change after learning an Important Lesson, but I do need to feel something more towards the characters than irritation.

Neighbors: A-
Tease: B-

A Stand-Up Kind of Girl

My push to catch up on well-received movies from last year continues! Towards the end of Gillian Robespierre's indie darling, Obvious Child, protagonist Donna (Jenny Slate) complains to her new boyfriend Max (Jake Lacy) that rom-coms are insipid, and do nothing for her. It's a self-referential wink, letting the audience in on the joke that Obvious Child trades in a few of the silly tropes romantic comedies are known for trafficking in. Thankfully, though, the movie is not solely a string of worn-out conventions, like the drunken voice-mail or giddy dancing around in one's underwear; by the end, it's clear that this is a much maturer and more naturalistic take on modern romance.

Donna is a stand-up comedian who is comfortable talking about her life and her problems on-stage, but loses that confidence and openness once the show is over. She suffers a string of bad luck, losing her boyfriend and her job in the space of a couple of days. Things look up when she meets and flirts with Max, a straight-laced WASP, but her fragile situation is immediately imperiled again when she learns that she's gotten pregnant.

Abortion is usually a no-no topic when it comes to romantic comedies, and even when a movie deigns to consider it (Knocked Up, Juno, etc.), they always have the character relent or reconsider so that they can have their progressive cake and have the baby, too. In a very refreshing take, while Donna agonizes over how to tell Max she's going to have an abortion - or if she even should tell him at all - she never questions whether the abortion itself is the right choice for her. The movie assumes that the character knows what she wants, and that the audience can follow her logic on this without a lot of conversation or debate about it.

I've always liked Jenny Slate in the supporting roles I've seen her in, and it's terrific to see her settle so comfortably into a leading role. Donna knows her life is a mess, and far from expecting the world to fix things for her, she takes the first fledgling steps to make things better for herself. Conveying that awkwardness while still remaining likeable and relatable is a difficult lift, but I found myself rooting for her every step of the way. Obvious Child didn't strike me as a revelatory experience, the way it did for others. But what it did strike me as was a well-made, intelligent movie, and I hope I see a whole lot more like it in the future.

Obvious Child: B+

Oscar Nominations 2015

Normally, this post is when I'd be doing backflips over awards season chatter, which is now my second-favorite part of the entertainment calendar, right after the best-of/worst-of lists that come at the end of the year. Not this year, though. This year has been pretty disappointing. I mean, the things that brought me the most joy were well-made superhero movies, which shouldn't be the cream of the crop. Still, the Oscar nominations are always interesting, so let's break out our fine-toothed combs, and take a look!


American Sniper
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

Generally, I'd want to go out and see as many of the Best Picture nominees as possible before the ceremony. That is emphatically not the case this year. Of these eight movies, I'm really only interested in five of them, four of which I've already seen. I'd still like to see Whiplash, but have absolutely zero interest in ever being in the same room as the jingoistic masturbation of patriotism in American Sniper or the schmoopy hagiographies of the tortured geniuses in The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything.

Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel won the Golden Globes, which was nice to see, as they're both great movies. And wave hello to Selma up there, because you won't be seeing much of it on this list. There's a lot of chatter over whether the lack of nominations for Selma is more the fault of how it was publicized, how it treated LBJ, the casual racism of the Academy, or the whole-scale lack of opportunities for black actors and directors in the field of entertainment. Even if it got more recognition, though, I don't think it could overcome Boyhood, which is the likely (and deserving) winner.


Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)
Bradley Cooper (American Sniper)
Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)
Michael Keaton (Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance))
Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

So get used to a lot of pale faces, as every nominee in every acting category is white. There's a lot of internet chatter about which of these guys should have been jettisoned for David Oyelowo to get a nomination, but as I haven't seen four of these five movies, I'm not the one to ask. I'm hoping to catch Foxcatcher at some point, but although Carell is getting a lot of praise for his performance, I think this one's going to come down to Keaton or Redmayne. Though I found Birdman somewhat problematic, Keaton gave a great performance in it, so I'll toss my vote to him.


Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night)
Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything)
Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)
Reese Witherspoon (Wild)

And for some nice symmetry, here we have five movies, of which I've seen one, and I'm hoping to catch one of the others (Two Days, One Night) at some point in the future. This one feels harder to call than Best Actor. Reese Witherspoon and Marion Cotillard have both won Oscars before, and if history is any judge, to win an additional Oscar, you either have to be a far-and-away frontrunner or just be Meryl Streep. Rosamund Pike had some early momentum, but that seems to be waning now. If I had to guess, I'd say that even though I haven't seen Still Alice, fourth time will be the charm for Julianne Moore.


Robert Duvall (The Judge)
Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)
Edward Norton (Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance))
Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)
J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

Eesh. Well... Um... I could make an equally good case for Hawke, Norton, OR Simmons. I really liked Norton's performance in Birdman, but J.K. Simmons seems to be the man of the hour in this period leading up to the ceremony. It's a squeaker, but unless Boyhood rolls through and picks up a bag of awards for every category it's nominated in, I think Simmons is going to take it.


Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Laura Dern (Wild)
Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)
Emma Stone (Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance))
Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)

OK, listen. I love Meryl Streep. Everyone loves Meryl Streep. But just last year's undeserved nomination for August: Osage County, she in no way belongs on the list this year. Into the Woods was...fine. And she was fine in it. But "fine" does not belong on a list of the five best performances of the year. Similarly, I like Emma Stone a lot, but she didn't contribute anything that interesting to Birdman. If there's any justice, Patricia Arquette will take this one in a walk, because she was absolutely incredible in Boyhood; I found myself more compelled by her character's arc than the protagonist's.


Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance))
Richard Linklater (Boyhood)
Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher)
Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)

Linklater, please. Boyhood doesn't shine in every category (look down to the next category for a good example), but the directorial work that went into creating this movie is probably among the best in a decade. I can't make a cogent argument for anyone else taking this win.


Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo (Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance))
Richard Linklater (Boyhood)
E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman (Foxcatcher)
Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler)

Part of the reason Boyhood is such a great movie is that it successfully dramatizes an ordinary life. And ordinary lives are made up of uninteresting conversations and situations, so while it's a great movie overall, I don't believe it deserves an award for its script. That doesn't mean it won't win (I feel like a lot of voters will just check the Boyhood box on their ballots whenever they see one), but it's worth mentioning. Still, if people put some thought into this one, it's likely to come down to a fight between Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel, both of which depend a lot more on fast-paced dialogue. Given my choice, I'd give it to Anderson and Guinness, but my guess is that this one is going to Birdman.


Jason Hall (American Sniper)
Graham Moore (The Imitation Game)
Paul Thomas Anderson (Inherent Vice)
Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything)
Damien Chazelle (Whiplash)

Normally, I have at least an inkling of what should win or what is going to win. I'm at sea on this one, though. I don't even know what to blindly guess, so let's go with...Whiplash.


Big Hero 6
The Boxtrolls
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Song of the Sea
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

First of all, let's get this out of the way: It is possibly the greatest injustice of the year that The Lego Movie is not nominated here, and yes, I'm including the whole Selma debacle in that assessment. Not only should it have been nominated, it should have won. The idea that it doesn't stack up to The Boxtrolls is ludicrous. OK, now that that's out of the way, who's going to win? I haven't seen Song of the Sea yet, though I'm looking forward to it. How to Train Your Dragon 2 won a thoroughly-undeserved Golden Globe, so will it take the Oscar as well, or will it go to something more artistic (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) or something more commercially popular (Big Hero 6)? It's tough to say, but I'll take a stab and say that Big Hero 6 will win.


Wild Tales

This one's a head-scratcher as well. The foreign feature I've heard the most effusive praise about this year isn't on the nomination list. I'm not sure if it's an eligibility thing or what, but I was expecting to see Force Majeure here. I haven't seen the movie yet, but it's definitely on the list. Of the ones that actually appear here, Ida and Leviathan are the ones I've heard the most about, so it'll probably be one of those. Leviathan took the Golden Globe, so let's go with that.


Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance))
Robert Yeoman (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski (Ida)
Dick Pope (Mr. Turner)
Roger Deakins (Unbroken)

Oh, man. I know Deakins is due, but I really hope that The Grand Budapest Hotel wins this one. A lot of its many charms can be directly tied to how gorgeously it was shot. Though I enjoyed the method employed in Birdman to make things look like one continuous take, it just can't compete against the visual treat that Robert Yeoman delivered. Still, they may throw Production Design to that one and give Cinematography to Lubezki.


Milena Canonero (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Mark Bridges (Inherent Vice)
Colleen Atwood (Into the Woods)
Anna B. Sheppard and Jane Clive (Maleficent)
Jacqueline Durran (Mr. Turner)

Hmm. I don't think the costumes in Mr. Turner or Inherent Vice are flashy enough to win this one. Colleen Atwood is usually a dependable bet, but this may be a good year to branch away from her, since the Witch was the only costume that really called for much creative design. If I got a vote, I'd give it to The Grand Budapest Hotel, so I'll hope my goodwill is enough to push it to a win.


The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner

I imagine this may be where outer space gets a chance to shine, so I wouldn't count out Interstellar. But if we're talking deserving, The Grand Budapest Hotel is the clear frontrunner here.


Finding Vivian Maier
Last Days in Vietnam
The Salt of the Earth

Why isn't Life Itself on this list? This year is full of strange and sad omissions. Of the ones remaining, people seem to be talking about CitizenFour the most, so I'll give it my half-hearted support.


Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Our Curse
The Reaper (La Parka)
White Earth

I have no earthly idea. Close your eyes and jab a finger at the screen.


American Sniper
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game

Boyhood or get the fuck out.


Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
X-Men: Days of Future Past

I thought the effects in X-Men: Days of Future Past were fantastic, but my gut tells me this will either go to Guardians of the Galaxy or Interstellar. Guardians of the Galaxy was a huge blockbuster, and box office success often portends a win, so that gets my pick for now.


The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy

I guess Steve Carell's nose might be so impressive that Foxcatcher wins, but come on. Guardians of the Galaxy should easily score this win.


Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel
Alexandre Desplat (The Imitation Game)
Hans Zimmer (Interstellar)
Gary Yershon (Mr. Turner)
Jóhann Jóhannsson (The Theory of Everything)

Desplat is competing against himself, so I suppose he's the one to bet on. I don't really have any other guess as to who the odds-on favorite is for this category.


“Everything Is Awesome” (The Lego Movie)
“Glory” (Selma)
“Grateful” (Beyond the Lights)
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” (Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me)
“Lost Stars” (Begin Again)

This one will probably come down to sentiment (Selma) versus unabashed glee (The Lego Movie). I'd be thrilled if "Everything Is Awesome" wins, but the Academy are more of a staid crowd, notwithstanding an "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" here and there. Let's go with "Glory".


The Bigger Picture
The Dam Keeper
Me and My Moulton
A Single Life

I've only seen Feast, which was pretty adorable. I'm hoping to be able to catch a marathon of all the nominees at a local theater before the ceremony.


Boogaloo and Graham
Butter Lamp (La Lampe Au Beurre De Yak)
The Phone Call

Ditto here. I haven't seen any of these, so we'll see what the entertainment media puts their collective spotlight on.


American Sniper
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Have you got your copy of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony ready to go? Great! Go ahead and hit play! No-bo-dy caaaaaaaaaares. No-bo-dy caaaaaaaaaares....


American Sniper
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Nobody caaaaaaaaaares-Nobody caaaaaaaaaares-Nobody caaaaaaaaaares.... Nobody caaaaaaaaaares-Nobody caaaaaaaaaares-Nobody caaaaaaaaaares.... Nobody cares! Nobody cares! Nobody fuuuuuckk-iiiiiiing caaaaaaaaares!

The Man Who Would Be King

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and though he's been dead for decades, the ideals that Dr. King fought and died for have never been more timely. Current events were very much in my mind when I went to see Selma, the 2014 film that documents the marches in Selma, Alabama and the Voting Rights Act that was signed as a direct result. While the movie does serve as a biopic, it doesn't attempt to cover Dr. King's entire life, focusing only on this particular battle. With so many real-world issues swirling around the movie's subjects, it almost needs to be approached in three separate ways.

The first is Selma-as-mirror-to-modern-society. Director Ava DuVernay had no way of knowing that as she made this movie, a dramatic uptick in the deaths of unarmed black citizens at the hands of white police officers was about to sweep the nation. It's impossible to watch the movie's scenes of Alabama state troopers beating marchers with billy clubs and gunning them down in diners without thinking of what's going on in our streets, adding a layer of poignancy to an already intense story.

The second is Selma-as-magnifying-the-politics-of-filmmaking. The movie has become a vortex of fights and think-pieces. Though it's nominated for Best Picture this year, the movie received no acting or directing nominations. In fact, not a single person of color is represented in any of the twenty acting nominees. It's also taking flack for its portrayal of LBJ, whose supporters complain that the adversarial attitude he displays in the movie is nowhere close to the supportive president they remember.

But the third and most important way to talk about this film is Selma-as-a-movie. Just that. A movie. A piece of art created to tell a story and attract viewers. It's very well-made, opening with the shocking attack on a Birmingham church and Oprah Winfrey in a nicely-understated turn as Annie Lee Cooper, who does her best to jump through a series of ridiculous hoops to register to vote, only to be turned away.

The movie does rely a bit too much on sweeping, grandiose speeches, and I'm not talking about the public speeches Dr. King gave to his supporters. I'm talking about speeches that characters who are standing around give to each other. No matter how important the cause, people sitting down to dinner do not talk to each other like they're performing the second act of Hamlet.

It's when the movie gets into the nuts and bolts of the march planning that it really shines. Just as Lincoln was never better than when it delved into the political maneuvering it took to get the 13th Amendment passed, Selma is at its best when King and his inner circle discuss the best ways of capturing the nation's attention and of prodding a reluctant president into offering his aid. King knew full-well that marching in Alabama was going to invite violence, or even death. Trying to avoid that fate while still pushing for change was a delicate balance to strike, and watching the marchers apply as much intelligence as bravery was riveting.

Other segments of the movies aren't as compelling. King's affairs and the FBI's malicious attempts to discredit him are mentioned, but glossed over. Cuba Gooding, Jr. shows up as a lawyer suing for the marches' right to demonstrate, and proves yet again that he's always the worst actor in the room. These are minor complaints, though. While nobody can argue that Selma is an incredibly important movie, not a lot of people have been talking about if it's a good movie. Luckily, you've got me here to tell you that...yes. Yes, it is.

Selma: B+

Web Sight

I'm not one of those lookie-loos who gawks at car wrecks when they pass by. That kind of human misery does not appeal to me. But for some reason, the type of human misery that does appeal to me is learning about artistic endeavors that collapse. Movies that flop. TV shows that implode. Plays that spiral out of control. That's not to say I get pleasure out of these disasters (necessarily). Just that I find them morbidly fascinating.

That's why, even though I knew nothing about the show's story or had heard a single note of its music, I swooped in on Glen Berger's 2013 book, Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History. All I knew was what a lot of casual pop cultural observers knew: Ungodly expensive musical, several accidents and injuries, endless previews, and a fired director. I thought I was getting a book by a reporter or a theater fan that had dug into the story and done their research. When I perused the flap, I was surprised to see that Glen Berger is actually the co-writer of the show. A happy little chill ran through me; this was going to have some serious insider info.

Which it did! Any musical will have internal struggles as to what's wrong with the music, the staging, the pacing, the casting, etc. Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark is no different, but unlike other shows, its problems were well-publicized in the press and on the internet. Critics smelled blood in the water, and a lot of ink was spilled over what a disaster the show was turning into. By the end, director Julie Taymor was fired and lawsuits were flying back and forth. Berger was caught in the crossfire of all of this, and the book is his attempt to describe what was really going on behind the scenes; to explain what the creative team was going for and his perspective on the troubles that plagued them.

That's just it, though. It's all his perspective. Like any controversial story told from a single person's point of view, it's very one-sided and gossipy. Selective memory is all over the place. In one chapter, Berger appears to remember years-old conversations down to the word. In others, he'll describe a conversation turning into a screaming fight with no other details given.

It was still an interesting read, though. While I type this entry, I decided to fire up the soundtrack on Spotify to see what all the agita was about. It's pretty terrible. When all is said and done, the downfall of a not-very-good show isn't the biggest deal in the world. But walking step-by-step through the drama of a musical in free fall? Now that's a story.

Song of Spider-Man: B

Thumbs Up

People call January a dumping ground for movies. This is the time of year that a lot of crappy dramas and a lot of mindless horror flicks get released. That doesn't mean January has to be a slog, though. For careful planners, January can be the best movie month of the year! All you have to do is devote your time to catching up on all those wonderful things from last year that slipped through the cracks. Those films that have been languishing on your to-watch list? Now is the perfect time to strike! It's not like you have to worry about missing much in the theaters.

Availability always has to be taken into consideration, so when I noticed that one of my to-watch movies was going to be aired on CNN, I instantly commandeered my boyfriend's DVR. That movie is Steve James' 2014 documentary, Life Itself, which explores the life and career of recently-deceased film critic Roger Ebert. I know this blog basically just comprises blurbs that can barely even be considered reviews, but it should still be fairly clear why someone like me would be a huge fan of Ebert's work.

Still, it'd be incredibly easy to make a really boring movie about a famous film critic, even one who suffered from cancer, and happily, James nimbly avoids this. One of the bigger sins biopics tend to commit is trying to wedge in too much of the subject's life. While Life Itself does range from Ebert's childhood to his death, it's intelligent enough to focus on the aspects of his life and career that the audience would naturally be more interested in. It's cool that he first found success at his college paper, that he won a Pulitzer for film criticism, and that he wrote the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, but that's not the meat of Ebert's story, and James makes the correct choice to gloss over them pretty quickly in favor of more thorough background on things like Ebert's marriage, his illness, and of course, his relationship with Gene Siskel.

Siskel and Ebert captured lightning in a bottle, but it was far from a smooth working relationship. Each felt the other was superfluous, and kind of an ass to boot. There's some terrific footage of the two of them carping at each other, not only as part of their television show, but in outtakes as well. Each tries to outdo the other, and they often come off as an old, bickering married couple. It's pretty engrossing. But rubbernecking at awkwardness and arguments is not what this movie rests on.

Life Itself does not lionize nor glamorize Roger Ebert. It talks about his alcoholism. It talks about his narcissism. It talks about his stubbornness. He and his wife Chaz speak with utter frankness about his cancer, his treatments, and their marriage. The movie is a lot like Ebert's writing: Clear, impassioned, straightforward, and blunt without being unnecessarily harsh. He would have loved it. And so did I.

Life Itself: A

The Endiverging Hunger Games

How much of a sin is predictability? That sounds like a rhetorical question, but in this case, it's not. If a movie, a play, or a book telegraphs every single story beat from a mile away, and doesn't really bring much new to the table, does that necessarily mean there's something wrong with it, or can it be waved away as long as the property is well-written?

This question was put to the test when I finished my first book of the year: Pierce Brown's 2014 sci-fi novel, Red Rising, a YA book which is the first in a trilogy. It centers on Darrow, who toils in the mines on Mars. Society is broken down by color code, and while the Golds rule over all, Darrow and his fellow Reds are on the bottom rung. They're led to believe that they're working for a better future, but after Darrow's wife is killed for protesting the Reds' miserable lot in life, he discovers that the better future has already arrived, and he and his kin are not going to be offered one iota of it. A plan is hatched for him to infiltrate the Golds and bring them down from within, and off we go.

This first book, beyond establishing Darrow's backstory, also puts him into a cut-throat fight for supremacy in an arena against other kids. Sound familiar? This is what I'm trying to get at with my predictability question. Aside from the invention of the color-coded class system and some sci-fi dialogue/technology, there isn't a single plot element of Red Rising that isn't also found in the other books of the genre. Put The Hunger Games and Divergent into a blender, add a pinch of Ender's Game, and out pops a piping hot batch of this book. The friendships Darrow makes, the loyalties that are tested, the characters that don't make it to the end... You'll be able to guess every single one well before they occur. And yet...

I liked it. So what if it's not the freshest writing technique? It's still adept. The Hunger Games was popular for a reason, and Red Rising does an excellent job of capturing the same senses of dread and excitement, and of forcing its reluctant protagonist to fight for survival. So, I'm not going to dock it many points for its unoriginality, because in the final analysis, it's still a very entertaining read. What I will dock it points for is the mistakes its editor should have caught. A typo here and there is not a big deal. Misidentifying a character is.

The day I returned Red Rising to the library, the second book in the trilogy got released. The one review I've seen so far has given it extremely high praise, and called this first book an underrated gem. I'm going to be little more tempered. This was a fun book that I'm glad I read, and I'm pretty sure I'm in for the whole trilogy. But at the same time, I think we need to admit that it's a hell of a lot easier to run down a road that someone else has already paved for you.

Red Rising: B

The Rewatch: Friends - Season 1

A metric ton of internet ink has been spilled about Friends over the years. And yet, I'm not sure if the following sentiment has ever been applied to it: Friends is somewhat of a mystery to me. Whether or not you like it, it's established fact that it's one of the most influential sitcoms of all time. If it didn't invent the hangout comedy, it certainly became the standard-bearer. The television landscape is littered with the corpses of shows that tried to copy its success and failed. Everyone I've ever talked to about it either loves it to the point of memorization (no judgment - this is something I've done for another show that will be showing up on the Rewatch) or sniffs at it as cookie-cutter pabulum.

I have a different relationship with it. Every time I ever run across it on TV, I'll sit and watch and laugh. I've actively sought out specific scenes on YouTube to revisit. And yet, if anyone ever asks me about my opinion of it, I give it a shrug. I don't think of it as particularly great in terms of writing or acting. This isn't an active choice, like I'm embarrassed to admit to others that I enjoy the show; in that moment, it never occurs to me that I do. Odd.

I never watched the show religiously when it was on, and the episodes I run across in syndication are jumbled, so it's a new experience for me to watch them in order. But Netflix has just made the series available for streaming, so this is a good opportunity for some research. How do I actually feel about Friends? How has it aged? And why does Ross, the largest Friend, not simply eat the other five?

Rather than going episode by episode, let's just talk about the first season as a whole. It aired in 1994/1995, and "Pilot" is the only episode of the entire series that doesn't start with "The One With..." or "The One Where...", which I'll just refer to as "TOW" from here on out. Speaking of the pilot, it's not great. And I'm not just talking about the wretched fashion and haircuts. But hey, pilots are often not great, so I don't hold that against anyone. It has to introduce all the characters, make the audience familiar with their personality types, and set some stories in motion, all in less than a half-hour. Where the evidence of success is really found is how soon after the pilot a show snaps into the patter that is recognizable as the format everyone grew to love. For Friends, that happens as soon as Episode 2, "TOW the Sonogram at the End". By that point, the writers already felt comfortable making jokes about Monica's fastidiousness, Ross' inability to deal with women, etc. It takes cojones to treat characters as familiar so soon, and it paid off.

Not everything works, of course. Friends occupies that short time in the '90s where television shows could introduce and discuss the issues surrounding gay characters, and still reached for lazy gay panic jokes for a cheap laugh. It's very strange and off-putting to have Chandler talking casually with a gay coworker in one scene, and then have someone chided for extending a hug or holding their wrist a certain way in another. Also, can we talk about Marcel the monkey? What the hell, you guys? No matter how good an episode was otherwise, scenes with Marcel are where comedy went to die (I will allow there was one funny Marcel-related joke, when Rachel says about Marcel's inability to stop humping things, "Let's just say my Curious George doll is no longer curious").

The series (including this first season) was also heavily layered with what I'd call conformist encouragement, not to get all psycho-babbly on you. I just mean that in the world of Friends, everyone's end goal is OBVIOUSLY marriage and children. Ross and Rachel's will-they, won't-they relationship represents the show's highest stakes. All men are assumed to be either working towards monogamous commitment, or just haven't yet discovered that that's what they want. All women are assumed to have biological clocks that go berserk whenever they're around a baby. It's a very 1950s attitude to take, if you think about it.

Notable Guest Stars: The first season establishes some great secondary characters. Christina Pickles and Elliot Gould establish themselves early as the perfect choices to play Ross and Monica's parents. Maggie Wheeler proves immediately why she was so invaluable to the show as Chandler's annoying, on-again, off-again girlfriend Janice. On the other hand, the first season relies too heavily on You May Know Me From Such Places As... guest stars. Here's George Clooney and Noah Wyle as doctors! Get it?!? Here's a well-known model playing a model! GET IT?!? Other notable names to show up include Jennifer Grey, Leah Remini, Jonathan Silverman, and Jon Lovitz (see below).

What's Keeping Ross and Rachel And Their Apparently Greatest Love in the History of the Earth Apart This Time: Mostly Paolo (Cosimo Fusco). Played as a suave, Italian hunk, though his archetype didn't age well. He seems kind of gross from the start, now. He's dealt with when he makes a pass a Phoebe for contrived reasons, and gets dumped.

Best Episode: There are several good ones. "TOW the Birth" is an honorable mention, though it does indulge in some of that weird conformist fetishism mentioned above. "TOW Nana Dies Twice" is also notable. Still, the episode that probably captures the best that Friends could be in their debut season is "TOW Underdog Gets Away", in which Monica attempts to make everyone the traditional Thanksgiving meals of their childhoods, and ruins them all, and Joey is horrified to discover that he's the face of New York City's venereal disease problem.

Worst Episode: Though I like Jon Lovitz, and he does a fine job of playing a guy stoned out of his gourd, "TOW the Stoned Guy" is probably the least successful. Turns out people who are high like to eat a lot. That's the source for about half the jokes in this episode. It's also a Marcel-heavy episode. Ick.

It was very easy to binge-watch this first season. It was comfortable and comforting, and made me laugh out loud more than once. And yet, something about these characters still gets under my skin. So the mystery isn't solved yet. On to Season 2!

Black and White is the New Orange

Normally, catching up on an old movie would be summarized in a quick paragraph for a Shorties entry. Today's movie, however, has a lot of backstory on this blog. 1950 is a banner year for cinema here at the Slice of Lime. I'm often talking about how All About Eve is essentially the perfect movie. I checked in on Born Yesterday in order to understand how Judy Holliday might have deserved the Oscar she won that year. Conclusion: She didn't.

In the comments on that entry, my friend Kevin and I discussed the difficulty of obtaining a copy of Caged, which he recommended. Guess what obstacle just got overcome! Netflix finally put it on their catalog, and I immediately jumped on board, excited to see how Eleanor Parker stacked up against the other Academy Award nominees of that year. Imagine my surprise at finding her performance the least interesting thing about this incredibly remarkable movie.

Caged tells the story of Marie Allen (Parker), a woman sent to prison for being an accessory to a $40 robbery her husband died committing. She is wide-eyed and innocent; her part in the crime almost totally involuntary. She's thrown in with hardened criminals and a viciously cruel matron who abuses her when Marie can't pony up the cash for favors. She makes friends, as well, and does her best to fight the temptations that are offered to her in exchange for help with the parole board or post-prison employment. Spoiler alert for a 65-year-old movie: She gives in, becomes a hard, brittle person, and although she is eventually released, it's implied that she won't be out for long.

The movie serves as a pretty open criticism of American prisons, and how they fail the people they claim to want to rehabilitate. Agnes Moorehead plays the warden, the sole character who treats the inmates as human beings, and who watches helplessly as the system chews them up. But that's just the surface story, and as I alluded to above, Marie struck me as a nucleus for the more noteworthy stories orbiting around her.

Hope Emerson portrays the sinister matron, who takes delight in physically and psychologically torturing her charges. The inmates are a varied bunch as well, from the brittle queen bee who runs a jailhouse syndicate, to the society woman who can't believe that someone of her breeding is in prison, to a girl whose tenuous hold on hope snaps when her assured parole falls through. Once these women start interacting, no amount of hysterical speeches or pregnancy can make Marie the focus of my attention; I just want to spend the whole movie with Kitty Stark.

Another aspect of the movie worth mentioning is its thinly-veiled moralizing about homosexuality. Since I'd never seen this movie before, I didn't recognize it when it was specifically referenced in the sad and important documentary The Celluloid Closet. In this movie, as in many movies of the era, lesbianism is a horrible curse that befalls hard-hearted women who come to decidedly unpleasant ends. I'm not specifically knocking this film for this message that nice girls better watch themselves, lest they be targeted by such women - just pointing it out as an artifact of the times.

Overall, it's a pretty ripping movie that I really enjoyed. The message never crosses over into preachy sermons. The prison action is never played for saucy exploitation. And the downbeat ending must have been quite a shock to audiences at the time, who were more used to seeing pretty young ladies tie up all their problems in a neat little bow by the end credits.

Certain years are considered benchmarks in the history of movies. 1929. 1999. After watching this, I think it's pretty settled that 1950 earns a place on the list as well.

Caged: A-
Copyright © Slice of Lime