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150 Films #24: The Castle (1997)

For a number of reasons, I tend not to enjoy movies about “dumb” characters. Topping that list is problem the “wisdom of a simpleton” condescension, where the plainspoken dullard is the only one who can overcome the cynical manipulations of those dang intellectuals. Boy, do I hate that move. Also, I tend to feel bad when characters get mistreated because they’re dumb, either because the filmmaker wants me to feel bad, or because they want me to laugh at the dummy. Finally, I get supremely frustrated when a filmmaker tries to use a character’s ignorance or stupidity as a kind of straw man, vilifying a character through his or her simple-minded (typically narrow-minded) viewpoint.

How does The Castle manage to make a movie centered around a not-very-bright family and get it exactly right? I’ve asked this question every time I’ve watched The Castle—several times since I first saw it seven or eight years ago—and in this essay, I’m forcing myself to come up with an answer.

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150 Films #23: The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Perhaps the most influential single sentence in my life came from a music theory professor in my first year of college. We simultaneously studied symphonic form and the great symphonic composers, who developed the form over time. At one point, a classmate pointed out a legitimate puzzler: “Why is it that we’re studying these rigid rules all symphonies are supposed to follow, but every time we learn about a great composer, what makes them great is all the ways they broke the rules?” The professor, without a second thought, simply said, “You have to know the rules before you can break them.”

I’ve tried to determine if he was quoting someone or simply had this bon mot teed up for a question he got every semester. The jury’s still out (the internet attributes similar quotes to Picasso and the Dalai Lama, both debunked), but it’s sort of irrelevant. I heard it first from this professor, and the single mission statement kinda snapped my creative thinking into laser focus.

I try to let new artworks wash over me, to experience them in the moment. When something truly affects me, I try to puzzle out after the fact why. When you watch enough movies, read enough books, listen to enough music—well, maybe I’m just tough on art, but it takes something special to fully entrance me. In my quest to know everything, I’ve always tried to understand why some things work so well, some things don’t work at all, and some things hit a few sweet spots but don’t really do it for me. This has led to a pretty strong interest in different aspects of art (especially narrative art), including genre conventions, semiotics, and just figuring out why some types of stories keep getting retold (not to mention the relationship of a genre’s popularity in the sociopolitical context of its times).

Some people find this stuff extremely boring, uncreative, mechanical… To me, these are the rules, and I want to learn them. I tend to gravitate toward movies that break them, so I think I find the rules themselves interesting so I can understand why one form of “rule-breaking” works so well for me while others don’t. More often than not, it comes down to rules broken by someone who understands them (like David Lynch, who has the tools of a master storyteller combined with a total disinterest in conventional storytelling), versus someone who doesn’t (I guess I’ll use human punching bag Troy Duffy as an example; his Boondock Saints is arguably the most popular of the vast ocean of shitty crime movies that tried to imitate Tarantino without understanding how he both used and broke “the rules”).

I’d say horror films have fallen under the microscope of analysis moreso than perhaps any other genre. I can see a number of reasons why. Cinéastes have to wonder about the perverse pleasures of horror, which more or less take conventional tropes (a damsel in distress and a formidable villain, for instance) and take them to depraved extremes. Even when they use common narrative conventions, why do audiences flock to stories designed to scare and shock? From a sociological and psychological perspective, it’s worth exploring.

More importantly, horror (especially in film) provides innumerable knockoffs and cash grabs of a successful formula, and so analysts and scholars ask, “How did the elements of past horrors lead to this one successful formula? Why did that formula endure? What are the conventions that make up the formula, as distinct from other horror films and other films in general?” Fucking nerd shit, right? But asking and answering so many questions about horror films has led to a surprisingly detailed cataloging of subgenres, character archetypes, and peculiar tropes. So much analysis has led to a wave of metafictional horror comedies, distinct from earlier horror comedies that mainly mine laughs from absurdly horrific situations. Examples include Ash fighting his own hand in Evil Dead II (1987), or possibly my favorite line in any horror movie (from 1985’s Re-Animator: “What would a note, Dan? ‘Dead cat, details later’?”

Some of these “meta” horror comedies are quite effective with both scares and laughs, but few attempt what screenwriters Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon do in The Cabin in the Woods: they mine most of their laughs by seeking to provide an explanation for the least plausible aspects of an archetypal slasher movie. Why is there always an obnoxious frat dude hooking up with a slutty bimbo? Why is there always a comic-relief stone and a “virgin”? The answer, in this film, is that some god or other demands a “voluntary” sacrifice. A secret government installation nudges our heroes/victims in the right directions, secretly supplying them with drugs to make them dumber or hornier, turning up heat to ensure the nudity that will leads to sex. The choices are volitional only in the most superficial sense, just enough to appease these ancient gods.

In 90 minutes, Goddard and Whedon made a film that manages to push so goddamn many of my buttons, it’s like they made a movie just for me. Elaborate-to-the-point-of-absurd government conspiracies? Sure! Funny genre deconstruction? Yup. Legitimate scares despite the knowing winks to the genre? Check. An unexpected exploration of free will? Yeah, it even has that! It finally builds to a third act so demented, chaotic, and gory, I’d challenge any horror fan not to fall in love. Of the wave of meta horror over the past 10 years, I’d call The Cabin in the Woods a high-water mark not likely to be surpassed.

As we push through 150 Films, it will become clear that many of the comedies I enjoy feature a heady dose of genre deconstruction. The reason, I think, is clear: when a filmmaker knows the rules and deliberately breaks them to get a laugh, I giggle and clap my hands like a small child.

Keep or Sell? Keep

Up Next: The Castle (1997)

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150 Films #22: Bridesmaids (2011)

Putting aside the extended diarrhea gags and Wilson-Phillips cameos, what remains is the story of a loser. Some complain Bridesmaids (and Judd Apatow-produced comedies in general) tend to overstay their welcome; while I tend to think this is true in the case of the James L. Brooks Lite films Apatow directs himself, Bridesmaids takes its time in order to show just how low Annie (Kristen Wiig, who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay with Annie Mumolo) has sunk.

What hurts the most is that Annie was once on the cusp of greatness, and we bear witness to the aftermath. Following Irene Cara’s sage advice, she took her passion and made it happen, opening a small Milwaukee bakery that folded in the wake of the 2008 crash. She blew her savings trying to save it, and when she failed, her longtime boyfriend skedaddled. When we meet Annie, she’s forced to share an apartment with two obnoxious roommates (Matt Lucas and Rebel Wilson); she works as a clerk in a jewelry shop managed by her mother’s AA buddy (Michael Hitchcock); and she waits around for obnoxious fuck-buddy Ted (Jon Hamm) to call her when he gets the whim, hoping one of these days he might want more.

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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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