150 Films #21: Brick (2006)

Part of the point of this project is to ask the question, “How has time changed my opinion of these films?” After 20 films, I’m surprised to find only two have been Sells. In point of fact, just my memory of re-watching these movies for this project made me think at least five were on the Sell list, so that’s pretty weird.

However, Brick is the first movie I’ve looked at again and literally asked the question, “Why did I like this in the first place?” With my other two Sells—The Apartment and Being John Malkovich—I know exactly why I loved them, and I think I have a pretty good understanding of why I no longer do. Brick, on the other hand…

“Terrible” is too strong a word, but almost from the beginning, I felt two things very strongly: the subject matter is too dark, but most of the characters are too “indie quirky”—extremely annoying. I love the premise of “high school film noir,” which is perhaps the first piece of evidence to explain why I loved this movie. Outsized emotions was a common feature of Golden Age films, so even the grit and violence of classic film noir don’t diminish its heightened drama. In the modern world, where else would one find such high emotion than high school? When I say the subject matter is “too dark,” I mean this movie doesn’t deal in a typical teenage story. It centers around a murdered girl and a brick of heroin. Yes, high school kids use and sell heroin. Yes, high school kids murder each other. But that’s not a conventional teenager’s story, so the mash-up itself is not quite convincing.

Neither is the language. It doesn’t bother me that these characters speak in machine-gun rhythms; it’s that writer/director Rian Johnson’s bizarre, made-up patois doesn’t sound like a film noir character any more than it sounds like teenagers. The prose is too purple and cutesy, and when combined with the goofy characters (at times intentionally comical, but mostly just annoying), it’s just… None of it works for me.

Sure, the passing of time changes things. My visceral reaction to The Apartment came from its romanticizing “White Knight Syndrome”; there’s some of that here, too, in that Brick‘s plot focuses on the efforts of a young man to rescue a fucked-up girl he’s in love with (but who doesn’t love him back). I wonder, though, if the main issue here is how fresh a film like this felt in 2006. Three years before Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the 2009 book that both popularized and ruined mash-ups, this felt new and vibrant. Unlike the previous year’s Sin City, Brick was not so slavish about aping the look and tone; instead, he used the style—dense plotting and rapid dialogue—to tell a crime story about kids. It was also not as tongue-in-cheek or overtly comedic as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, another noir homage; nor as dour as A History of Violence, nor as classical as Match Point.

At the time, it felt smart, vibrant, and new. Now? To me, at least, it feels like a calling card that looks pretty good visually and brims with ideas and emotion—but it tries way, way too hard without quite succeeding.

Keep or Sell? Sell

Up Next: Bridesmaids (2011)

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150 Films #20: Breaking Away (1979)

Yeah, this movie is fucking great.

I first saw it in college. Funny story, when I took Screenwriting II in college—a course where we were to write a feature screenplay over the course of the semester—I had what I would regard as a shitty instructor. For the first session or two, we discussed and pitched ideas. After that, the three-hour class session was devoted to watching movies. Now, as a very mild defense of this tactic, he did expect us to get particular things out of each of his selections: The Godfather was all about character, My Bodyguard (yes, I watched this in a screenwriting class) was about structure, and so on. As I recall, Breaking Away was supposed to be about different ways of looking at conflict.

(Fun postscript: I accidentally ratted out this technique to my mentor, who was one of the heads of the screenwriting department. After watching a few movies, our class literally turned into a weekly 10-minute one-on-one meeting with the instructor, who made it increasingly clear each week that he’d only read our first 10 pages and was not reading the new material we were supposed to submit each week. With me, every single “meeting” went the same way: “You know your characters, so it’s great. Just keep it up.” I was not happy with the lack of substantive feedback, but at least he liked what I was doing. One of my friends in the class kept getting the same negative feedback, all based on her first 10 pages; she would push back with specific questions about what she’d done wrong, and he couldn’t answer. It boiled over when he told her she’d get a C for the semester, and she reported him for being sucky. I recall her asking me to write a letter of support for the notion that he wasn’t actually reading our screenplays.)

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150 Films #19: The Breakfast Club (1985)

It’s going to be weird to turn a movie that’s wall-to-wall whiteys into a conversation about race, but it’s what came to mind when watching The Breakfast Club again. Strip away the jokes and the teen angst, and what remains is a story about communication and understanding among “cliques” that would not otherwise interact. As Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) describes them in his essay, you have “a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal” jammed into a room together for an entire day.

I can’t tell you at what age I first saw this movie, but considering the sheer number of F bombs dropped by characters, the answer is probably “too young.” The nice thing about my parents was their policy of not hiding adult-oriented (or teen-oriented) entertainment from us, as long as they watched it with us and discussed its subject matter and themes. I might be the only kid on Earth who saw Basic Instinct at the tender of 11, as a family event. “I heard it’s a great psychological thriller,” I recall my mom saying when they brought the tape home from Blockbuster. So there we sat, in the dark living room, as I got a surprising introduction to ice-pick murders, lesbianism, and full-frontal nudity. I remember nothing about any discussion of the movie, but the image of Sharon Stone appearing fully nude in front of a window is pretty well ingrained in my memory.

Um… What was I talking about again? Right, seeing The Breakfast Club at a young age may have formed the first piece in a general theory about bigotry. It’s common knowledge that, in this country, urban centers tend to favor social liberalism, while rural areas do not. I’ve always thought that had to do with urban centers cramming a panoply of people into a relatively small area, and exposure to so many people—so many of them different from you—helps to erode stereotypes and create mutual understanding, a sort of common ground. When you live near, go to school with, and/or work alongside people of all different backgrounds, they stop being scary “others” and turn into…just people. And if people are just people, then why should they be denied rights like marriage or access to education and polls? While I’d never exactly call any large city a social Utopia—so-called “hypersegregation” ain’t exactly an endorsement of social liberalism—it seems to follow that, for many, “exposure” is key for overcoming prejudices.

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150 Films #18: Boogie Nights (1997)

I came late (so to speak) to the Boogie Nights party. When it came out, I was in high school; naturally, a movie about ’70s porn and a dude with a huge dick was only mentioned in hushed tones, followed by a lot of giggling. I should mention, this was a time and place when getting into an R-rated movie was not difficult for a kid. It was commonplace for parents to bring their kids to the movies, buy them the tickets, and then go off and do their own thing. (This behavior operated on the assumption that the box office cashiers cared enough not to sell movie tickets to kids under 17, which also tended to be untrue.)

And yet, a film so overtly about pornography raised eyebrows. Theatres were a little more on edge about selling tickets to a kid; parents were a lot more reluctant to buy their kids tickets and abandon them to enjoy a literal orgy of sex and drugs. The few classmates who claimed to have seen this taboo film made it sound like a sort of demented, perverse comedy, glorifying the Golden Age of pornography and its participants. Even then, while I was naïve about many things, I knew about the drugs, coercion, and misogyny endemic in pornography, and so a movie that sounded like it would celebrate and/or make light of this behavior did not appeal to me.

Then followed my enduring love-hate relationship with the film’s producer/writer/director, Paul Thomas Anderson. By 1999, I was deeply enough into movies that I had to go see future 150 Films entry Magnolia—based primarily on Roger Ebert’s enthusiastic recommendation—which I found alternately thrilling and irritating, fascinating and incoherent, building to a climax that simultaneously left me enthralled and disappointed. I recall seeing the movie with my friend, Rachel, and I can still see the “What the FUCK?!” look on her face when that damn frog rain started, a look I surely matched. But what did it amount to? I’ll get into this more in my eventual essay on Magnolia, but I have a different reaction to it every time I see it.

Every Anderson movie has in common excellent performances (even from actors not known for excellence) and bravura technical accomplishments that make them “compulsively watchable,” if not exactly good. I’ve always found Anderson’s major weakness is in the storytelling, not the filmmaking. Individual scenes of great power never quite hang together as well as they might, and nearly always build to an ending that makes one say, “That’s it?!” I’m never sure if this is a byproduct of poor storytelling, or if it’s a deliberate challenge to the viewers: “I know what I’m saying here, but you gotta figure it out for yourself.” With some of his films, like Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, I’m engrossed enough and moved enough to accept the challenge. With others, like Punch-Drunk Love and The Master, I’m kinda like, “Fuuuuck this.”

After There Will Be Blood, I went back and saw his debut, Hard Eight (which I liked quite a bit, as it actually tells a complete story), but I still skipped over Boogie Nights. Again, I had it in my mind that this was a movie that glorified pornography, and with Anderson’s penchant for muddy character arcs and ambiguous endings, I didn’t want to waste time on a movie I’d probably hate.

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150 Films #17: Boiler Room (2000)

I’m a big fan of Oliver Stone’s early films, but I have to admit I never much liked Wall Street, arguably his most popular and enduring movie. Stone, especially in this period, was big on turning American stories into the stuff of myths. Platoon made Vietnam into something like The Iliad, and Wall Street turned the coke-fueled trading of the ’80s into Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with deliberate allusions to Frank Capra’s work. It turned what could have been a story of complicated motives and shitty behavior into a generic tale of good versus evil. If Bud Fox’s (Charlie Sheen) early seduction by Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), followed by his redemption after the scales fall from his eyes, qualifies as moral complexity, let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea. I’d rather watch Capra than Capra with cocaine.

Boiler Room, an underrated film about the corruption of the high-stakes financial world, could almost be considered a superior remake of Stone’s 1987 film. In fact, I’d wager it’s underrated (to the point of being largely forgotten) because of its deliberate similarities. However, where the stories overlap, writer/director Ben Younger improves everywhere Stone goes wrong.

Let’s start with the hero, Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi). In his running voiceover narration, Seth makes no bones about his goal: he wants to make the most money through the least effort. When we first meet him, he’s dropped out of college and makes ends meet by running an illegal casino for his ex-classmates. This establishes the first of many parallels between gambling and stock trading; more importantly, it establishes Seth as a character who lacks the gee-whiz naïveté of Bud Fox. He doesn’t immediately know J.T. Marlin is a boiler room (or chop shop), but he knows something’s wrong pretty early on—and doesn’t care. Even when he pieces together how the company illegally makes money, he keeps going with it until it’s clear he only has one option: throw them under the bus to save his own ass.

In Wall Street, Bud regains his moral compass when he discovers Gekko’s plans will leave his own father (Martin Sheen) unemployed and without a pension. Personal stakes thus established, Bud uses his Wall Street knowledge to double-cross Gekko. In contrast, Seth doesn’t have much interest in impressing his bosses; he wants to impress his father, a cantankerous judge (played with prickly aplomb by Ron Rifkin). Seth’s moment of clarity has very little to do with righteous morality; it’s about the twin cannons of going to prison and losing his father forever.

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Paleo Challenge Round-Up: Ice Age Meals Special Edition!!

Back in September, “Paleo Nick” Massie showed up on one of my favorite shows, Shark Tank, to pitch his frozen-meal company Ice Age Meals. A trained chef and avid CrossFitter, Massie fell in love with paleo eating as so many of us have, but he took it a step further. For those of us who lack the time and/or energy to cook fresh, healthy meals every day, he worked to perfect individual-portion frozen meals that anyone could simply pop in the oven or microwave.

As I mentioned yesterday, I had a teensy bit of trouble moving to an apartment with limited counter space and (especially) no dishwasher. In the past, I would spend part of my weekend batch-cooking meals for breakfasts and lunches, but I would make a fresh dinner from scratch every night. Easier said than done when the meal is followed by dish duty (instead of just shoving them all in the beautiful, indispensable dishwasher). Adding insult to injury, as those who know me personally or have been longtime readers of the blog (no overlap in those categories) know, I had wrist surgery in 2009 that left me with less chronic pain than I once had, and it’s exacerbated by wrist-intensive activities. Ahem. Like washing dishes.

Because of that, I’ve taken to batch-preparing all meals on the weekends. Remembering Ice Age Meals and appreciating the concept, I decided to buy a 14-pack of the amusingly named “Beef Me Up, Scotty!” sampler, which I’ve consumed alongside my usual meals over the past several weeks.

For those too lazy to click the link, the “Beef Me Up, Scotty!” includes three Mexican Meatballs meals, three Grass-Fed Tri Tip with Yams meals, four Pastel de Papa meals, and four Butternut Squash Lasagna meals. The cost is $159.99 including shipping, making the per-meal cost a little less than $11.43—cheaper than all but the shittiest restaurants, for a higher-quality meal. If you have the money, freezer space, and ambition to order in larger quantities, the per-meal price goes down; the 48-meal pack averages to less than $10.94 per meal. But before you dive in whole-hog (or cow), maybe you want to hear a little about the meal quality.

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Paleo Challenge Round-Up: Week 1 Redux

I fell off the wagon. Not by choice—not at first—but a domino effect caused by moving to a new place, combined with a Presidential election that has left me unusually stressed and uncertain about the future, led me back to my greatest stress-management tool: stuffing my face with junk food. I plan to rededicate myself to these recipe reviews, partly (as always) to give me something to blog about, and partly to keep myself honest by making sure I keep cooking for myself.

I don’t want to go on and on making excuses, because I hold the philosophy that I can eat whatever I want—I just choose to eat paleo because I feel significantly better when I do. It’s as simple as that. All I will say is this: adjusting to a lack of dishwasher and a lack of kitchen space proved to be an extremely difficult (but not insurmountable) challenge. You would think, for someone who cooks as much as I do, I would prize the apartment kitchen over all other things. That’s true, but beggars can’t be choosers, and it’s simply difficult to find apartments with reasonable counter space—and especially difficult to find one with dishwashers.

Oh, and also, I’m kind of an idiot. My new apartment, when empty, looked like it had an acceptable amount of counter space for cooking. Then I moved in, unpacked all my shit, and—oops, no more counter space.

Weeks passed. Sandwiches, Chinese food, and pizza filled my gullet. Weight increased, ankle/knee/wrist/back pain returned, and I have been approaching that crucial “Ozzy Osbourne hobble” turning point. I’ve spent evenings and (especially) weekends working on this pad to make sure everything’s just so, so not only did I have less time to cook, I had less inclination since I’d spent all day working on household projects. I got some new furniture, so the lack of counter space caused me to get a significantly larger dining table. I also got a storage cabinet for my appliance arsenal and, most importantly, a wheeled island with a cutting board surface. I’ve settled into the apartment and have no reason not to resume eating like a grown-up.

It’s past time to get back on the horsemeat and resume weekends full of cooking magic.

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150 Films #16: Blood Simple (1984)

As a preamble, let me just discuss the year-long gap between reviews. It began, as so many things do, with fear. Only 10% of the way through this project, it began to occur to me that I’d already started to repeat myself. I examined my shelf of wonders, at the films that lay ahead, and thought I like a lot of movies with similar themes, similar stories, in similar genres, at times by the same filmmakers—and I like all of these films for roughly similar reasons.

When I decided to combine The Big Lebowski with The Big Sleep and talk about their protagonists’ shared moral codes and interest in the truth above all things. This will be a recurring theme in many 150 Films selections, and it won’t be the only recurring theme. I worried less about boring readers through repetition—one advantage of having no readers is that nobody will get bored—than boring myself. I thought of different modes of attack—for instance, grouping the movies by five and doing a single essay on the whole group—and then started to get overwhelmed by this entirely self-imposed project.

So… I put off the next post. And put it off, and put it off, until I more or less forgot about it. I started writing paleo food reviews as a stopgap while I regrouped, and then I stopped writing those. And then I forgot about them, too, and as is often the case with this blog, it took a back burner to other priorities. Lately, though, I’ve found myself doing nothing instead of focusing on other priorities, so I’m back, because at least this is something. I can flex my writing muscles and my critical analysis muscles, give myself an excuse to watch movies that were once (and might still be) meaningful to me, and have an outlet to ramble about myself until I get something better going.

Oh, and self-promotion. Nobody reads this blog, and I don’t know how to get them to, but it’s here. As I try to get something real going with my writing, I can point people to this place because I don’t want strangers on my Facebook friends list, and after trying to get into Twitter to boost my “social media” profile, I found I’m more of a passive observer than an active participant. So this is it. My place.

Finally, that nebulous thought solidified over the past few weeks: this is my place. I don’t need to overwhelm myself with some bullshit I chose to do. I don’t need to wax poetic for paragraph after paragraph if I have little to say because I’ve said it all before. These reviews could be one sentence long if I want them to be. Nobody’s paying me or grading me on my content, and if someone were to do either, that would be their nightmare, not mine. With that glorious sense of freedom restored, I’ve decided to resurrect this project, those paleo reviews, and maybe even—gasp!!—some of those cranky posts about politics, religion, and how much I like Ayn Rand. The events of the past few months have given me a metric ass-tonne to complain about, so why am I ranting in private? Why am I not trying to pick fights against Sean Spicer or the morons in the “Antifa” movement? Isn’t that how people boost their social media profiles?

It sure is! But first, let me talk briefly about a great, great film called Blood Simple.

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Paleo Challenge Round-Up: Week 16

By my count, it’s been 11 weeks since my last Paleo Challenge Round-Up. I fell out of the habit of writing these posts, but I didn’t fall out of the habit of eating paleo, with only a couple of exceptions:

  • During a trip to Seattle, I indulged in dim sum and ate a slice of chocolate cake to celebrate my nephew’s birthday.
  • In an extremely poor decision, I had a Taco Bell dinner to celebrate my weight falling below 250 lbs. (and counting)
  • Last weekend, I had lunch at Chili’s with my family, because I was starving.

Now seemed like a good time to start writing again, for two major reasons. First, I’m one of the many people who bought an Instant Pot on Prime Day, which I used for the first time to cook some of this week’s meals. Secondly, while complaining to a friend about being tired of making soup (a natural consequence of trying to eat paleo with braces), the friend suggested smoothies.

Ordinarily, when I browse recipe websites looking for food to make, my eyes skip right past smoothies. I always view them as, at best, a post-workout indulgence. This is more psychological than anything else; smoothies are too easy to make, too quick to drink, and too liquidy to be “real” food. But hell, when I slow cook meat until it’s fork-tender or grind up sausage in a food processor, how much different is that from a smoothie? (Answer: not much.) In fact, my most realistic gripe against smoothies is that they tend to have a fruity base, and I try to eat fruits in pretty strict moderation until I have my weight under better control.

On the other hand, I’m so fucking tired of soup. So… After getting the thumbs-up from my friend Marisa Moon about whether or not to trust grass-fed whey protein powder, I decided to dive right in.

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Paleo Challenge Round-Up: Week 5

The paleo challenge is supposed to last for 30 days, so technically, it ended on Tuesday. However, as I mentioned early on, I plan to continue to eat with the “challenge” restrictions for as long as possible. There will be a few “cheats” here and there, but nothing taking me off the paleo reservation—just off the highly restrictive challenge rules.

Over the past week, things have continued to change for the better. I took the initial four weeks off from the gym, as a way of forcing myself to remember the importance of nutrition as party of a healthy lifestyle. This is one of those things that I know, but I also knew I needed both a reminder and a clear demonstration of the results. Even though I haven’t done any regular weigh-ins or anything like that, I did weight myself about three weeks ago, and again one week ago, and I’d lost about five pounds. Over the total month of the paleo challenge, I’m not sure how much weight I’ve lost, but I can tell you this: (1) I’ve gone down a full belt size, (2) my shirts and pants no longer stretch taut when I sit down, and (3) my flexibility and physical movement has dramatically improved (it was reaching a point where tying my shoes was becoming a Sisyphean task). So I don’t really need concrete numbers to see that it’s working.

Well, last week, I added going to the gym back to the equation. I made it three days for cardio (could’ve gone for four, but the bike at my gym really makes my butt hurt, and until I’m a little bit more used to the workout, I’d prefer to keep doing the bike rather than risking hurting myself on an elliptical or rowing machine, which are basically the only other machines I can do). I lost another five pounds between last week and this week, which may be unhealthy on some level, but it’s on pace with the first time I did this paleo challenge. This time, for the sake of curiosity and finding a reason why intense hunger pangs and cravings pushed me off the paleo bandwagon time and again, I’ve kept track of my caloric intake. I’ve been surprised to see I’m generally in the 2300-2400 calorie per day range—so I’m not starving myself by any means, yet I’m still “losing weight” (I don’t like putting everything into those terms, and honestly, my goal is better nutrition, so I am looking at “weight loss” as a positive side effect rather than the main purpose), a sign my body is adjusting to eating better foods and utilizing them better. (And as you’ll see, some of this week’s meals included non-“challenge” “treats” for completing the 30 days—and yet I continued to feel better and keep losing weight.)

Another positive side effect is this feeling swelling within me (that’s what she said!). I’m not sure I’d call it yearning, exactly. Maybe restlessness. In any case, I have had quite intense desires to just…get out and do things. I’m not exaggerating when I say I haven’t felt anything this strongly since the last time I started eating clean. Once I started veering off a clean diet (and I’m not talking non-“challenge” rules; I’m talking getting candy bars or fast food or whatever), I slowly but surely lost that fire. Until now, I thought that had a lot to do with things happening in my personal life. Until now, I genuinely thought I’d kind of deluded myself into thinking paleo influenced my brain with all the good vibes, but I’m starting to see that the chicken-versus-egg issue here is that eating paleo gave me the incentive to seek out good vibes (in the form of a social life, forging good friendships, and dating), in part because I feel really, really good and want to chase that “high” by finding fun, engaging, possibly perverse ways of burning off the extra energy.

I didn’t feel good then because I had a social life and feel bad now (until recently) because I didn’t; I felt good then, and I both felt compelled and had the energy to start doing the things a person needs to do in order to cultivate a good, rewarding life. When I first started the paleo challenge, I was coming off a toxic relationship, several bad dates, and a period of intense depression that left me questioning whether or not any of my friends were actual friends, or if we were just mutually using each other as emotional crutches because we were too miserable and cowardly to take any actions without running them by the committee.

I made a friend, by way of two dates that were, in retrospect, pretty bad. She was interested in fitness, running, paleo, CrossFit, and she unlocked that entire world for me, for which I will always be grateful. But I came around to thinking that a lot of the good vibes—maybe all of them—were a result of this combination of worship and, let’s face it, sexual desire for my friend. She “inspired” me, and I thought I wanted to succeed just to impress her. Now that I’m doing it all again, I’m seeing that while those things were true at that time, my desire to impress her was sort of a “Dumbo’s feather” situation; I was still putting in all the work myself, and all the positive changes physically, emotionally, and mentally came from within—from the positive results of great nutrition and intense exercise—rather than the external worship/crush feelings.

I think that’s a good thing for me to realize, emotionally. Even though these days, it’s harder for me to get down on myself, it still happens, especially when I have what seems like “evidence” of a shortcoming. When I was in full “worship” mode, it was so, so easy to eat well… Afterward I was out of “worship” mode, it got harder and harder until I just plain stopped. And I told myself it wasn’t worth the effort, because I had nobody to impress. What happened to the good old self-motivated D.B.? What happened to the guy who used to see Ayn Rand characters as inspirational figures, instead of impossible fantasies? That D.B. imploded.

But he’s clawing his way back, and astoundingly, a lot of the credit must go to nutrition. I can’t under-emphasize this relationship between the physical (what you put into your body and how you use it) and the mental/emotional. It can be so easy to lose sight of, especially if you’re like me and enjoy “comfort food” and emotional eating, but this shit is not magic. It’s also not an accident; I eat better, I think better, I feel better, I work harder, I stay sharper, and instead of a downward spiral of eating like garbage and feeling like garbage, there’s an upward spiral of eating great and feeling great, which leads to greater and greater achievements in all areas of life.

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