A Few Items for Sunday and the Start of 2016

It’s Sunday, and there’s nothing terribly urgent to say, but this weekend won’t let me leave it without writing something. Three weeks into the new year. Good excuse as any to process some stuff.

Does it feel longer than three weeks to anyone else? I don’t say that with negative connotations; maybe it just feels long because a lot has happened. Actually, not even that much has happened. But I think I sensed a shift between 2015 and 2016, more than I usually would as the years change. 2015 wasn’t a dud by any means, but nothing really new happened. And I get it. Years will go by in life where nothing really new happens. It’s not bad. But I sense 2016 holds some action. Who really knows what yet.

As the year starts to reveal what it will be, I’ve noticed one priority emerge: Keeping better track of everything. Not just physical items, though it would be great if I stopped losing my MetroCards…but ideas, articles, photos, songs – anything that, when I read/hear/see/listen/otherwise consume, immediately catches my eye. If I don’t save it in the moment, I’ll forget to save it at all (or worse, remember it but without the spark of the original inspiration).

So far, this is happening in a semi-makeshift way; I’m mostly saving items to a Gmail folder and working to keep better track of them with tags and titles. Not pretty, necessarily, but always with me, easily navigable, and free. I also use Pinterest, tumblr, and the Notes app on my phone.

Ideally, I’ll look back on this folder at the end of the year and recall a clear picture of everything that inspired me. “Inspired” may be too strong a word, though I’d say even at this early point there are a few items that fit that bill. Anything that captures how I feel in a moment, enlightens me, makes me smarter, intrigues me, opens me to a new person or idea, provokes me to dance…I want to remember what it was and what it made me feel.

Here are some of the items I’ve documented so far:

Interviews with Elizabeth Banks and Sarah Silverman on Vanity Fair’s “Little Gold Men” podcast. This podcast debuted somewhat recently and I’ve found each episode I’ve listened to extremely insightful. It’s fun to listen to people who love movies and awards season as much as I do – but who actually know what they are talking about, and have informed reasons for thinking this woman will win Best Actress or why the Hollywood Foreign Press will probably give the Golden Globe to this person. Their recent interviews with Elizabeth Banks and Sarah Silverman were particularly notable. The Vanity Fair writers who host ask such precise, revealing questions. I loved Elizabeth Banks talking about two real-life women she has played lately – Melinda Ledbetter Wilson, wife of Brian; and Laura Bush – explaining how she tried to connect to a real-life part of each woman, while understanding she could never 100% “be” them. And the Sarah Silverman conversation; I can’t point to as many specifics, but I found her to be so self-deprecating and smart and loved hearing a first-person account of some of her experiences as an actress.

New York Times Bowie obituary. David Bowie was never part of my music education, to be honest. Of course I knew who he was, but my parents didn’t listen to him and I never picked up an appreciation in any other part of my life. But we’d been talking at work about wanting to go see Lazarus, the Bowie musical that had been off-Broadway. And then on a Monday morning a few days later, news broke that he died. I couldn’t take part with any truly personal tribute, but I enjoyed following the remembrances. His obit in the Times contained an electric line, and in my mind, I can’t think of any other way someone could want to be described: “infinitely changeable, fiercely forward-looking.”

Emma Thompson on Alan Rickman. This one really upset me. It might sound silly, but in my deepest dreams of someday writing a movie and seeing it made…Alan Rickman could have been in the movie. I would have written for him. I loved watching him. And now he is gone. My mourning will not be complete until I hold a special viewing of Sense and Sensibility. In the wake of his death, my favorite tribute came from Emma Thompson, his friend and frequent co-star (who also wrote for him). Read the entire statement, but this line seemed to reveal the purity and knowingness of their friendship: “…the clarity with which he saw most things, including me…”

Movies. I haven’t seen as many new films at this point as I would have liked to, but it’s too early to be discouraged. I’ve been underwhelmed with this year’s Oscar season choices (I like anything I saw this summer, from The End of the Tour to Love and Mercy and Trainwreck more than anything from the fall/winter, with the exception of Spotlight) but have at least found a lot to value in The Big Short and Carol. And I’m still excited for the Oscars ceremony. Movies aside, there will be glamour and gossip and people writing the first line of their obituaries.

I have recently enjoyed re-watching a couple films – first, Adaptation, which I watched a few years ago. Listening to Charlie Kaufman’s interview on WTF with Marc Maron made me want to revisit it (Kaufman to Maron, about finding the story: “What if I write about me being stuck?”), and I learned a lot viewing the film with that backstory in mind.

The second recent re-watch, which I enjoyed just last night with my roommate when we decided we were not going out in any more of this blizzard madness: Guys and Dolls. I watched this movie tons as a kid (I think my mom first showed it to me because my dance class performed to “Bushel and a Peck,” a song from the stage musical which actually isn’t in the film) but hadn’t seen the whole thing in ages. It’s so witty and brilliant, and I never picked up on any of that as a kid. One-liners galore. And I can finally say I understand that the crap game is not literally floating.

And with that, there are just a few minutes to Monday, so these Sunday thoughts aren’t worth a lot anymore. But there they are. More to come in 2016.

 

Favorite Movies That I Saw for the First Time in 2015

When I started really getting into movies, I decided to log each new film I saw, whether it was new-to-me (an old film I watched on Netflix or rented), or a brand-new film I saw in theaters. In a note on my phone, I write the film, the date I watched it, and where (mostly the platform – theater, Netflix, iTunes, etc). I also write a few thoughts for each film, either in the note or on my tumblr, the place I go for immediate reactions to whatever I’m watching. These are usually a sentence or two; just enough so I don’t forget my gut reaction to the work – the lines and characters and moments that caught me.

It’s been my goal all year to write something like this, elaborating on the experience of watching something new, and the exciting process of a movie going from just another thing I’m watching to something that seeps into my consciousness, that I think about and reference often. What follows is waaaay too much about the movies I saw for the first time in 2015 and the ways they impacted me. I saw more movies than I wrote about here, but as I looked through the list, I realized these were the titles I couldn’t ignore. In some way, each of these films and/or the experience of watching them shaped my year and my love of the movies.

The Game-Changers:

The two films I saw for the first time in 2015 that, I would say, became my biggest obsessions, were ones I watched very early in the year. The earliest was Amadeus, which I watched on January 18.

My approach to finding new films to watch is simple – something sparks my interest, and I follow that path until I’m satisfied. I remember one evening near awards season, I decided to re-watch The Grand Budapest Hotel because it was getting a lot of love, and it had been eight months since I saw it in theaters.

I remember loving Jude Law’s character most from my first viewing – his writerly curiosity and the way it sets the whole film in motion. The second time around, I found myself intrigued by the old man whom Jude Law befriends during his stay – the old man, played by F. Murray Abraham. He brought charm and warmth to a few minutes on screen. When I searched his name, I was surprised and intrigued to find he was an Oscar winner, for his role as Salieri in Amadeus.

At that point, Amadeus was only a film referenced in a great 30 Rock joke (Liz is befuddled by some adult film titles: “I’m-a Do Us?” “It’s a pun on Amadeus, dummy!”) Because of the lowbrow context, I’d always assumed it was an un-serious, mediocre movie, or a boring historical epic. But no, it won Best Actor and Best Picture at the 1985 Oscars, and Ebert had named it to his Great Movies list. This was something to watch.

It’s three hours long, and I watched it in two halves the first time, but dang this movie got to me. I actually wrote about it earlier this year, on this blog, so I won’t launch into a whole other thing about it, but I truly love this film. It’s big and gaudy and colorful. You watch it and you can’t believe what the actors are getting away with. And even though there’s not one thing to dislike about F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce as Mozart might bring the best performance of the movie.

The second game-changer and, if we’re being real, the most impactful of the two: The Apartment. I watched this on a Sunday in February when I wasn’t feeling well. As I watched it, I could sense its greatness closing in on me. Every line, every scene, every smile, every action seemed perfect. As someone who harbors a dream of writing a screenplay one day, I’ve often thought since watching this, why even try? The best one has already been written.

Yet rather than wallow in knowing I’ll never write something as great, I choose to be thankful I live in a world where this movie exists. This is a classic old film, though it’s not even that old – it was released in 1960 and was the last real black-and-white Best Picture winner. It’s a movie of its time, but its wisdom reaches beyond that.

The core of its greatness is Jack Lemmon and his performance as C.C. Baxter, owner of the titular apartment. It’s the way he moves – the way he plays having a cold as he navigates a five-way call with all the bosses who want to use his apartment on a certain night. The way he dances, drunk, with the woman he picks up at the bar on Christmas Eve. The way he makes spaghetti and strains it with a tennis racket. Yes, he’s performing, but you see his character as a real person with real sadness and concealed needs.

The unsung hero of this film is, to me, Dr. Dreyfuss, Jack Lemmon’s neighbor, who isn’t wise to Baxter’s scheme and thinks his neighbor is bringing new women home every single night. After he revives Miss Kubelik following her suicide attempt, he gives Baxter the advice that eventually inspires him to quit his fancy job – “Why don’t you grow up, Baxter? Be a mensch! You know what that is? A mensch, a human being!” My favorite line of his, though, comes as he reprimands Baxter for his playboy behavior (right after “cooling off” his coffee with some liquor). He summarizes what he thinks is Baxter’s life philosophy: “Live now, pay later! Diner’s Club!”

Shirley MacLaine brings so much honesty to Miss Kubelik, too. The film forces her and Baxter to go through so much pain in order to find each other, and at the end you’re smiling because two broken people realize they’re better together than apart. If you’ve never seen it, watch and prepare yourself for the feeling of not being able to understand how a film can be so joyous.

Shoot, is anyone still reading this? Nothing else will take as long as Amadeus and The Apartment, I promise. On to the rest of them…

Frances Ha 

I wrote a few months ago about a trio of Greta Gerwig-Noah Baumbach movies that had a big impact on me. That’s all here, and the piece is still an accurate explanation of my feelings. Frances Ha and Mistress America especially were powerful films for me. Never had two films spoken so clearly to my place in life in the moment I watched them, and any young person in New York will identify strongly with them – I think with Frances Ha especially. Now, every time I’m restless about where I am in life, I watch the scene where Frances goes to Paris on a whim:

And whenever I’m making unpleasant small talk, I think of this:

This is my movie, and I’m so glad I found it this year.

Hannah and Her Sisters

It might be a little unfair to add Hannah and Her Sisters to the list because I just watched it, but I don’t think my love for it is tied only to its being fresh in my mind. This movie showed me myself and my family and my New York problems, and it gave me one of my new favorite characters – Holly, the sister played by Dianne Wiest (she and Frances Ha are cut from the same cloth).

I found Hannah and Her Sisters when I was looking at Michael Caine’s IMDb page a few weeks ago – you know, as one does. He was in a Woody Allen movie?! Won an Oscar for it?! I had no idea. I felt that compulsion to watch it right now, like this film was calling my name and I had to see what it wanted to tell me. It took me a week to finally sit down with it, but when I did, I just knew it was for me. Mia Farrow was phenomenal in it, and Dianne Wiest and Michael Caine were obviously Oscar-worthy. I liked Woody Allen’s performance, too.

Every so often a character comes around who I just want to be. I want to mold myself after them, and I try to pick up their lines and their style. Holly was one of those for me. She made me want to wear huge coats and chunky bracelets and try to be an actress. While her sisters’ paths seem somewhat defined, Holly is floating, not knowing whether to be an actress or a caterer or a writer. Anyone who is trying to figure herself out can identify with Holly’s lines. “Why must I let my insecurities spoil everything?” She asks. Or when, on a date with Woody, he criticizes her taste in music compared with her sisters: “I-I’m my own person.”

Paper Moon

This is Peter Bogdanovich’s film from 1973 that won Tatum O’Neal her Oscar. It’s a fun film to watch, and I recommend, but it was mostly notable in my 2015 list for the circumstances surrounding my decision to watch. I was listening to Marc Maron’s WTF interview with Peter Bogdanovich. It’s a wonderful discussion – old movies, theater, New York, actors, actresses, love, drama…total magic. I’ve gone back and re-listened to several parts of it since. I can’t get enough of Bogdanovich’s storytelling and his demeanor. I decided as I was listening the first time that I’d watch Paper Moon that evening. A gem of a film. And I just loved that I had gone from not really knowing anything about Peter Bogdanovich to enjoying one of his films in the span of a couple hours.

Love and Mercy 

Of the actors in films and shows I’ve seen this year, no one deserves a nomination for anything this year as much as Paul Dano deserves his Golden Globe nom for Love and Mercy. That movie was fantastic, and he was the best part of it, central to the movie’s success.

One thing I should get better at when it comes to movie note-taking is logging specific scenes and moments I really love. I do that a lot, actually, but I never put it all in one place; it would be helpful to have a year-end list of the moments when I smiled out of sheer joy during a film. I did note one of these from Love and Mercy though, and I think about it often: There’s a scene where Paul Dano, as Brian Wilson, is in the studio with session musicians, while the rest of the Beach Boys are on tour. I want to say the song playing is Here Today, but I could be wrong. Anyway, he’s just in the studio, making music, tweaking strings to find new sounds, directing his players in a joyous musical effort, and it was one of my favorite scenes from the year.

And a few I don’t have as much to say about, but still found notable:

Sense and Sensibility – I watched this with my roommates on that January day when NYC was supposed to have a blizzard It wasn’t at the top of my viewing list but it had a romantic quality that made me just love it. Emma Thompson, people! And, is anyone more a delight than Alan Rickman?

Junebug – Amy Adams is probably my favorite actress, and this was her breakout film. I’m not sure what possessed me to watch this one weekend in the spring, but I’m so glad I did. Its lead performances are all pitch-perfect: Amy Adams as a small-town pregnant wife who is forced to confront the ultimate tragedy; Scott Wilson as her gentle, soft-spoken father-in-law; Alessandro Nivola as her brother-in-law, who left town but hasn’t let go; and Embeth Davidtz as his wife, a Chicago art dealer. This scene, from near the end of the film, has stayed with me all year. The acting and tone capture so much.

My First Mister – On Leonard Maltin’s movie podcast one day in the spring, his daughter talked about this movie being a meaningful one in her youth. I’d never even heard of it, but it stars Albert Brooks, and if I hear Albert Brooks is in something, I rush to see it. This is a two-hour film and I didn’t like where the last hour went, but the first hour is so damn wonderful that it doesn’t really matter. This had shades of Lost in Translation, but with completely different characters and situations; it’s two lost souls finding each other and becoming friends. Albert Brooks and Leelee Sobieski are both great in it.

The Last Five Years – I wrote a little here about The Last Five Years when I watched it in February. This movie is worth it for the music alone, but add in a smashing turn from Anna Kendrick, and you’re really on to something. She’s heavenly. But really, that score. Ugh. It’s hard to convey the gorgeousness with words.

Sabrina – 1954 and 1995 versions – Though in pretty much every circumstance, I’ll go for the classic/original, I’ll admit I enjoyed the 90s remake of Sabrina more than its black-and-white counterpart. Harrison Ford. Greg Kinnear. I do not need to say any more.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – Describing this is the opposite of describing Hannah and Her Sisters; it may have been so long since I’ve seen this that I forgot just how much I loved it during my first viewing. My notes from May indicated I loved it, but I haven’t spent a ton of time thinking about it since. Some of those notes: “I loved all the fake movie titles, like Senior Citizen Kane and 2:48pm Cowboy.” “In the hospital waiting room, when Rachel is trying to get Greg to apply for college, I loved the way Olivia Cooke pushed her laptop over to him and said, ‘Apply now, apply right in front of me.’” “This is exactly the type of honest, believable, smart, funny, easy-to-watch film I want to make someday.” I’d like to watch this again sometime soon.

High Fidelity – John Cusack is one of those actors who just gets me, every time. I’m always happy to see him, in a way that his presence notably elevates my movie-viewing experience (he was also excellent in Love and Mercy). High Fidelity was fun and funny, and a movie about how real people live and talk and feel. Cusack’s character delivers a line that is basically my life philosophy: “Books, records, movies, these things matter. Call me shallow, it’s the f’ing truth.”

Amy – I would definitely have considered myself an Amy Winehouse fan before I saw this film, but Amy refreshed and deepened my understanding of her story and of her tragedy. Don’t watch this if you want to be cheered up, but if you can hang in there, you’ll see the highs and lows in the life of a brilliant personality, and walk away saddened about the state of our celebrity culture and the environment that led to Amy Winehouse’s destruction. A most devastating story, well-told.

There it is. Movies treated me well in 2015, and I’m excited to see what my 2016 viewing list ends up looking like. One of my goals is to watch (re-watch or for the first time) many of the “classics” and key films in each genre; I need to get better at watching those films considered great, even if they fall into categories I wouldn’t normally touch – science fiction, horror, etc. Each new film is an opportunity to expand my universe. Whether it opens me to new actors, directors, film techniques, stories, quotes – something will change. All the films mentioned above changed me in some way in 2015. We’ll see what’s next.

Multi-Movie Weekend – Magnolia, Hard Eight, and Secret Honor

Thanks to a vicious head cold, I left work early on Friday and spent the next, say, 53 hours on my couch or on my bed, consuming a steady diet of chicken broth, television, Sudafed, and movies. The movies were especially enjoyable; I watched three, all connected in a way, and they gave me my first taste of Paul Thomas Anderson films.

Early this summer, I listened to Marc Maron’s WTF interview with Anderson, which was released in January of this year when he was promoting Inherent Vice. At the time I was intrigued by Inherent Vice (still haven’t seen it) and as far as Anderson’s works go, had only seen part of The Master. But the interview was fascinating. Anderson seemed cool, smart, and thoughtful, and was really open about his movies, his process and his inspirations.

My first Anderson movie of the weekend was Magnolia. I wish I could remember the first time I heard of Magnolia but I can’t; I’m guessing it was on Jason Robards’ Wikipedia page. I remember thinking, though, that I had never even heard of this movie, yet Ebert named it to his “Great Movies” list, and it featured tons of actors I love, and it was Robards’ last film. Those all felt like reasons to see it someday.

I can’t say I am putting it on my personal Top 10, but there was something about Magnolia I really appreciated. It was different from any movie I’ve ever seen, and it was a story told honestly. The characters – and in turn, the performances – are great. It’s interesting to watch with hindsight and know it was Robards’ final role. Honestly, I probably need to process it more before I make any serious judgments or interpretations, but I at least like knowing that I have finally seen this film.

One of the great performances in Magnolia is by Philip Baker Hall, and he inspired my next movie choice: Anderson’s first feature, Hard Eight. Hall stars in it. In his first scene in Magnolia, I wasn’t sure who he was, but his voice instantly caught me. He has a great voice; fitting for his character, who’s a TV game show host. I searched his name and remembered Anderson talking about him in the Maron podcast. He knew after seeing him in Secret Honor (spoiler alert: the third movie I watched this weekend) that he loved him as an actor and wanted to write something for him.

Like Magnolia, this one is all about the characters. Sydney, Hall’s character, is magnetic. You wonder about him, and root for him, and love listening to him talk. I think he’s especially great in scenes opposite Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s fantastic in this movie as a waitress at a casino Sydney frequents.

Hard Eight contained a whole bunch of elements I am prone to love – fabulous characters and performances, a plot that is about something but the movie’s not really about that, lights (the fact that I love cool use of lights in movies actually dawned on me during this film; like Michael Keaton walking into the liquor store in Birdman, and The Big Lebowski‘s bowling alley stars – in Hard Eight I loved the glimmer of slot machines), and music that fit perfectly. And, the dialogue – John C. Reilly especially had some lines that made his character clear to me. “I know three types of karate, ok? Jiu-jitsu, Akido, and regular karate.”

And the last movie, Secret Honor. It’s a Robert Altman movie from 1984, with Philip Baker Hall in a solo performance as Richard Nixon. I mean, come on! It’s the movie Anderson mentioned as one in which he saw Hall and knew he was for him. He had to make something for him, and he wrote the Sydney character in Hard Eight specifically with him in mind.

Secret Honor is Hall, as Nixon, walking around his study, drinking scotch, ranting about everything from JFK to Kissinger to his mother. It’s wacky. Hall gives an incredible performance, and not just because he carries a 90-minute one man show and keeps it interesting the whole time. From what I’ve read about Nixon, he gets the mannerisms down perfectly; one moment early on, he pours a glass of scotch, but starts walking off with the bottle instead of the glass, absentmindedly. That’s one small example, but it showed he knew the character.

Perhaps my favorite part of the film – or rather, the overarching reason I found it so fascinating – was a screen before the title, a disclaimer of sorts, explaining the film did not depict an actual scene from Nixon’s life, but was “a work of fiction, using as a fictional character a real person, President Richard M. Nixon – in an attempt to understand.” The film doesn’t spare Nixon, exactly, but it comes from a sympathetic place. Altman and the writers didn’t make anything up in an attempt to indict Nixon; they just wanted to understand him better, and this film and this performance seem an appropriate way to do so.

MagnoliaHard Eight, and Secret Honor – I recommend them all. And hope you watch them in good health.

My September of Gerwig-Baumbach Movies

I have found a new spirit animal, and it is Greta Gerwig from this scene in Greenberg, the first of a trio of Gerwig-Noah Baumbach (all starring and sometimes co-written by her, and all directed by him) movies I have seen and loved in the month of September:

Because who among us has not danced and sung along to a Wings song while alone in her apartment.

Actually, the circumstances surrounding the Admiral Halsey dance are a little melancholy, and of the three films I’m thinking of (the other two being Mistress America and Frances Ha), Gerwig’s character in Greenberg is the one I saw the least of myself in. And yet, the film as a whole still fascinates me. All three of these films seem to have met me in perfect timing over the past few weeks.

I saw Mistress America first of the three, at the picture-perfect Lincoln Plaza Cinema on the Upper West Side. I remember first seeing a preview for it when I saw Love and Mercy in June, and at the time I remember enjoying a couple of the lines and realizing, oh, that’s Greta Gerwig, the girl from Frances Ha and the forgotten How I Met Your Mother spin-off. Frances Ha came less than a week later. It was Sunday of Labor Day.

Together, those movies represented my current life phase better than any movies ever had. Never had two films spoken so articulately to the phase in which I found myself at the time of viewing them – Mistress America in a broad sense, and Frances Ha more in the specifics.

Since I saw Mistress America in theaters, I haven’t been able to go back and recall the exact wording of several lines that made my eyes widen in recognition. I’m stuck with the lines I typed furiously in a note on my phone as I left the theater, and with what I’ve been able to dig up from tumblr and trailers. But the overall feeling, of being a young person trying to figure it out in New York, resonated to my core. Gerwig’s character, Brooke, has a line (maybe several and I’m only remembering it as one) about how she loves so much, but none of what she loves or seems to be good at is something that the world, at least from a work perspective, finds valuable. I also identified with the characters of Tracy and Tony, two college freshmen, who realize they’re kind of the worst right now and just want to grow up, fit in, and be good at something.

And Brooke’s New York is the New York I think a lot of people glimpse and have in the back of their mind every time they dream of moving here. She lives in Times Square and gets by purely on her commitment to her artsy ideas. There’s a shot of Brooke and Tracy in the middle of Times Square one morning, parting for the day as any friends might outside an apartment building, and that image is stuck in my mind because it’s exactly how I first envisioned living here. Even the mundane things, like heading out for a morning gym class, happen against the big, bright backdrop of the city. As Brooke, and everyone else in New York eventually learns, this does not retain its glamour.

I’m making it sound like Mistress America drove me to an existential criss, but much of the film is great just because it’s enjoyable. Lines like, “If you live in suburbia, you really have to love your house,” (said by Tracy) simply made me laugh because that’s an idea that has crossed my mind as I’ve schlepped stuff from one apartment to the next in New York City. (In The New Yorker, Richard Brody wrote, “While watching the film, I wanted to transcribe the dialogue in real time for the pleasure of reading it afterward.”)

A few days after seeing Mistress America, I decided to watch Frances Ha. I’d been meaning to watch it for months, since I knew it had been well-received, and I’d heard rave reviews from a movie-loving friend. Mistress America made me even more willing to dive in.

If I’m judging a movie based on how well it delivers what I most want out of a film, Frances Ha is as perfect as they come. Shot in black-and-white, set in New York City, insanely well-cast, highlighting people who are a little bit aimless…it’s all there.

It’s almost hard to find words for how well this movie depicts New York life in a specific way. I didn’t have quite the same ahhhh what am I even doing here?  feelings as I did with Mistress America, but had more moments of, oh, yes, I have experienced exactly that crappy or amazing thing while living in this city. Like waiting an eternity on the subway platform before realizing that line isn’t running this weekend. Or having your eyes bug out with excitement the instant you realize your tax rebate has come.

Greta Gerwig is from Sacramento, and the movie features a whole montage depicting Frances’ trip home for Christmas (her real-life parents play Frances’ parents). I have never seen the spirit of a holiday trip home from New York City shown in such a lovely way on film. Joy, family, fun, Christmas decorations, walks around the neighborhood, twinges of melancholy. I’m finding I want to end every sentence I write about this film with sigh, it’s perfect.

In the past year (and some change) in which I would say I’ve become legitimately interested in film, I’ve basically just followed movies from one to the next, going after whatever directors or actors or styles hold my obsession that moment. I can’t even remember why I first stumbled upon Greenberg, but something in my movie knowledge quest led me to it on Netflix awhile ago. I didn’t actually watch it until last week, completing my September Gerwig-Baumbach trifecta. This is actually the oldest of the three films I watched, and the only one set in Los Angeles. What I loved about it was less about how it connected to me – since I noticed fewer similarities between its characters and myself – and more about the movie as a whole and its specific performances. Like the aforementioned dancing to Admiral Halsey.

There’s an underlying uncomfortableness to it since Greenberg, Ben Stiller’s character, is so unpleasant. Even Greta Gerwig’s Florence has her difficult moments. But there’s a scene where she and Greenberg are talking in her apartment, and she’s describing a time she and her friend went out and pretended to be slutty girls at a bar, and Greta Gerwig in that scene just blew me away. (I came across this piece in the New York Times by A.O. Scott, written at the time of Greenberg‘s release, which eloquently describes the scene and the heart of Gerwig’s greatness in it.) It’s not that I didn’t appreciate Gerwig’s acting in the other two films, but in this one, it’s just more apparent, or at least it’s the element that most resonated with me.

It’s the end of September now, but not the end of my quest to see more of the Gerwig-Baumbach catalogue. I’ll have to shift to movies they did separately; I’m most excited to watch earlier Gerwig performances, and Baumbach’s While We’re Young (bonus points for even more Wings music in the trailer). But these three they did together have been added to heavy rotation in my movie world.

August is weird, so more summer movies.

I’ve gotten to the point of summer-induced restlessness that going to the movies is a form of release, an escape from this never-ending August and a stifling apartment. This week, I saw my first-ever film at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, which is a gem of a theater – it’s near Lincoln Center, one of my favorite parts of the city, and shows smaller, independent films. And while at most big theaters – your Regals and AMCs – take you up, up, up (I do love the escalator ride to a high-level theater at the Times Square AMC) there is something wonderful about going underground to the theaters at Lincoln Plaza. The box office is right on the street, and all the theaters are inside, below.

I saw the new documentary “Best of Enemies,” and I just got the feeling that most of us in the audience were there for some kind of summer escape. Probably 50% of us were there alone, and while I have no idea what brought each individual to the theater that night, I like to think it was a combination of not having a partner willing enough to sit through such a micro-niche film, and just wanting to get out of damn house.

If you have a love for retro TV graphics, you’ll adore “Best of Enemies.” Actually, there are a lot of other reasons to love it, but that was what I found initially attractive. The 60s were so crazy! The documentary explored the William F. Buckley vs. Gore Vidal debates staged by ABC after each night of the 1968 nominating conventions. It was a genius programming idea at the time – something to boost ABC in the ratings and separate it from the other networks doing the same wall-to-wall convention coverage.

They had a great range of talking heads coloring the conversation – the one I found most interesting was a linguist from Columbia University who shed light on Buckley and Vidal’s voices. They spoke in an educated tone, bordering on a British accent, and it would be unthinkable for an intellectual voice like that to be taken seriously on TV today. I thought that was an interesting element to highlight.

There were interesting anecdotes from their personal lives, as well. I went into it knowing the names Buckley and Vidal, but didn’t really know concrete things about them, and now I do. It was interesting to hear about their personal and political sides, from biographers, writers and my personal favorite, Dick Cavett.

The documentary paints the Buckley-Vidal debates as the direct cause of today’s proliferation of talking heads and debate surrounding political conversation, which I don’t know if I entirely buy, but it raises some interesting points. Right before I saw the film, I listened to John Powers’ review on Fresh Air, and I found Dick Cavett’s contributions as a talking head especially interesting in light of what Powers said: “In the grand historical sweep, the Vidal-Buckley encounter’s true meaning isn’t really political. Rather, it marked the end of the days when literary figures and public intellectuals still had prestige. Days when writers like Vidal, Buckley, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and James Baldwin – all men, you’ll notice – could actually be regular guests on the Tonight Show.” Even if today’s media debate doesn’t directly descend from Buckley-Vidal, it’s at least interesting to view it in light of the idea.

And speaking of late-night, the other best piece of media I consumed this week was GQ’s Stephen Colbert cover story. I can hardly wait for September 8 now, when his Late Show begins. I mourned (well, still mourn) Letterman’s departure but this story has turned my curiosity about what Colbert’s show will look like into excitement over what it could be.

I never watched The Colbert Report, save for a few clips here and there, and I kind of regret that I didn’t get into politics before the Colbert-Jon Stewart era was nearing its end. BUT. Colbert is fascinating. This was a great profile and it was also Colbert letting it be a great profile through what he revealed and how he revealed it. He was disarming.

“Here. Look at this. The Death Mask of Agamemnon.”

“The End of the Tour,” “Trainwreck,” and a great summer for movies

This summer movie season is on point. Last year, I don’t think I saw a movie in the theaters between June and October. In 2015, I can’t keep myself away. And what’s better – everything I’ve seen has been terrific. Two movies I saw this weekend, The End of the Tour and Trainwreck, were especially satisfying, and they both inspired a lot of thoughts, so I’m just going to lay it all out. (Plus, one of the resolutions I made for my 25th year, which began last month, was to write about every new movie I see in that year. This post is relegated to movies I’ve seen in theaters, but I do need to get around to some new-to-me films I’ve seen recently.)

I remember thinking “oh yeah, that makes perfect sense” when I first heard Jason Segel was playing David Foster Wallace in a movie. Because it does make sense. Segel is not a dead ringer for Wallace, but he’s pretty darn reminiscent of him. Especially with the bandana. I was stoked for this movie from the get-go.

My first experience with David Foster Wallace came in college, when I was assigned part of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again in a class on travel writing. I distinctly remember reading a couple pages and then skimming only as much as would get me through the class discussion. I’m not proud of that now, but the class at least put his name in my brain. Pastors at my church reference a passage from his 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech with some frequency (“Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship….”). Most recently, Vulture re-published a short story Wallace originally wrote for Playboy in 1988, in which he writes from the perspective of a middle-aged actress appearing on Late Night with David Letterman. I fell in love with the piece and reading it marked the start of a few-week span where I seemed to hear mention of Wallace everywhere I went. This was around the time I first saw a trailer for The End of the Tour, so I’ve been anticipating the movie for a couple of months now.

Primarily because of Segel’s performance, I cannot recommend this film highly enough. That is not to say it is only good because of Segel, but that his performance is the best element of the film. You watch it and think, oh, he can do *that.* Not just How I Met Your Mother. (Marc Maron interviewed Segel for one of his episodes last week, and I wouldn’t have anticipated the thoughtfulness he revealed in that conversation, either.) David Foster Wallace in the film is a lovable dude, someone you’d love to chat with about life, writing and the expectations you set for both. The only thing about the film that kind of disappointed me was I felt the truest or deepest, especially David Foster Wallace-y observations were already revealed in the trailers (“What’s so American about what I’m doing”-type stuff). But as I write this, I realize I probably didn’t need more of that from the movie, anyway. I needed to see him play with his dogs, or devour junk food en route to the Mall of America, or explain why he decided to go by “David Foster Wallce” instead of just Dave Wallace. And that’s what the movie gives you.

I might not recommend this movie to someone who’s never heard of David Foster Wallace, but for everyone with even a basic idea of who he was and what he wrote, I’d say go. The End of the Tour brought him to life for me. It made me want to have finished Infinite Jest by the time I see Jason Segel get his Oscar nomination.

So, The End of the Tour was Friday. Saturday was kind of an aimless day and my roommate and I thought we’d try our hand at the lottery for a couple of Broadway shows. We struck out there and with rush tickets, so we wound up seeing Trainwreck, Amy Schumer’s new movie. By virtue of appreciating Amy Schumer, knew I would like Trainwreck, but I wasn’t sure if I would just like that it existed, or if I’d legitimately like the movie. I’m happy to report my feelings definitely fall in the latter category.

Amy Schumer is a gift to us as a culture. She’s hilarious and smart. Seems lovely and genuine. And now she made a terrific comedy that is packed with spot-on cultural references and finds delightful cameo roles for SNL stars. Not sure what’s not to love there. I know Trainwreck isn’t a perfect movie. It’s a little too long and sometimes makes awkward jumps. But that’s not the point. The point is that she shouts things like “You’re losing us the right to vote!” at basketball dancers, and makes an homage to Manhattan but with a serious bite, and describes her fear of someone seeing a “crime-scene tampon.” It all adds up to a comedy unlike one I’d ever seen before, and I loved it. I can’t wait to see what Amy Schumer does next.

Bill Hader deserves praise, too, for playing the doctor Amy reluctantly falls in love with. Give this man more leading movie roles! The review on Roger Ebert’s site makes a comparison between Hader in this film and a young Jack Lemmon. Thinking back on the film, that comparison is spot-on.

I’ve been seeing new stuff at a pretty good clip this summer (at least by my standards), and The End of the Tour and Trainwreck are more than worth seeing. Now, if you’ll excuse me – I still need to unpack my copy of Infinite Jest. 

Summer Brain Dump

I have no way of prefacing this except by saying it’s July now, and I haven’t written or debriefed about life in a meaningful way since May and a lot has happened in that time. And tonight I finally felt like writing it all out.

I have to move again, which sucks. No other way to put it. Our current landlords raised our rent $900/month ($300/person/month next year) so we had to find a new place. The good news is, our new apartment is in the same neighborhood. And, our rent will be cheaper. And, I get to stay with my wonderful roommates. The bad news is, we have to move everything from one apartment to the next. Little expenses keep coming up for things we took for granted in the old place that don’t exist in the new (like a toilet paper roll holder!). Plus, it’s summer and it’s hot and miserable and all your stuff is getting moved around. I sound really grumpy about this, don’t I? Well, I am a little. I told my roommates that if, this time next year, I have to move for any dramatic reason (i.e., another massive rent hike), I will recognize it as a sign from God that I am supposed to leave New York City. No sane person can tolerate four moves in as many years.

Perhaps moving is a little bit of my motivation for writing tonight. All my stuff is in boxes. Evidence of an upcoming transition is right in front of me. I want to write down what’s happened lately so I don’t forget it once things start to change.

So, item #1. Summer obsessions. I never notice it in the moment, but with a few years, months, or even weeks in the rearview mirror, I start seeing how clearly defined a certain time was by the cultural obsessions gripping me in that moment. At the beginning of June, I started an obsession with the WTF with Marc Maron podcast, which has carried me through the entire summer so far and taken up a lot of my cultural-obsession real estate. It started with Maron’s interview with Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air. I’d known about WTF for awhile, even listened to a couple episodes, but the show re-entered my mind when I was doing some podcast research for work and I decided to listen to the Terry Gross episode on a run. They’re magic together, and it was the first time I appreciated Maron’s real skill as an interviewer. I was hooked.

The podcast has been a welcome companion on some of my summer travels. I got to visit LA for work and polished off his chats with Jason Schwartzman, Parker Posey and John Mulaney on the plane. I was in LA the same day he interviewed President Obama and relished the national conversation surrounding that episode. I started my Maron fandom just early enough that I could listen to the Obama episode as a devotee, not a bandwagoner. (Recent gems have included his interviews with Constance Zimmer, Ed Asner and Vince Gilligan, and the Obama post-mortem episode he recorded with his producer.)

Sir Ian McKellan is the guest on today’s episode, and he asks Maron about who typically listens to his podcast. “I don’t think I have a demographic; it’s more of a disposition,” Maron replied. I smiled when he said that because it made me think of a paragraph that caught me from his email newsletter earlier today: “It rained a lot here in LA the other day. We needed it. I get weird when it rains. My mind drifts. It’s not necessarily bad but it’s not great. I can’t really put into words what happens but there is sort of a romantic, hopeless feeling to it all and it’s okay. I need it. It’s a deep feel. I don’t think I could live somewhere where it rains all the time though. It would be hard not to become goth.” I pretty much identify with every sentence there, which I think means I am of the target disposition.

 

 

Another cultural interest this summer – I don’t know if I’d call it an “obsession” per se – has been the new movie crop. It’s a good summer, in my estimation. To date, I’ve seen Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Love and MercyInside Out and Amy and would recommend each one. (I saw Amy just this past weekend and it’s all I can think about, really. Incredibly well-told and sensitive, but watching it, your heart breaks for the brilliant Ms. Winehouse.)

To mark my 25th birthday earlier this month, I made a list of 25 things I want to accomplish in my 25th year, and one was to write about each new movie I see this year – whether it’s a new-new movie like the ones listed above, or a new-to-me movie, like Philomena, which I watched on the plane ride home from my trip to London and Paris (more on that later). I have some catching up to do in the writing department, but I feel like I’ve seen some meaningful films in the last couple months.

Item #2. The Europe trip. It was freaking amazing. I’d never been to Europe before but had been dying to visit. I really need to write a whole post about the trip – I have notes and thoughts scribbled everywhere but I should pull them together before I forget too much. Already, I find myself remembering little things here and there that I already started forgetting – meals we ate, cool subway stations I liked, that kind of thing. But the larger feeling is still intact. I hadn’t really gone somewhere new since moving to New York three years ago. I went to Disney World, or Portland, or Chicago – all places I’d already been. So it was invaluable to experience something completely new. To be somewhere with a language barrier. To spend almost two weeks away from the city, all its responsibilities and assumptions.

The place that felt newest was Versailles. Of course London and Paris felt new, but they were still cities. I could at least understand how they felt, in a way. Versailles was out of this world. I couldn’t believe I was on my own planet. There were gardens that stretched on forever and rooms walled with marble in a shade of purple that I can’t get out of my mind.

What struck me most about London was the constant juxtaposition of old and new. You get that in New York to a degree, but in London it’s amplified. It’s an awesomely designed Tube station in the shadow of a tower built in the 1000s. And it’s like that all over the city.

I fell in love with the museums in both cities. The Victoria & Albert Museum and Tate Modern especially drew me in during our London leg. In Paris, the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay. I discovered some new-to-me artists whose work I want to further explore, like the illustrator George Condo whose wry sketches fascinated me at the Tate, or the post-impressionist Felix Vallotton at the d’Orsay (that museum in particular had a layout conducive to better understanding the timeline of certain artistic movements).

There is oh-so-much-more to talk about when it comes to that trip. It whet my appetite for travel and I can’t wait to visit Europe again. In the meantime, I’m trying to take the wonder of that trip and apply the same feeling to my normal life. That’s going alright so far.

As “summer things” go, those are the biggest items. My head feels clearer having them down on the page. And now I need to finish packing.