Becoming a Movie Person

Before 2013, I never would have considered myself a “movie person.” I used to say I’d rather watch the same ten movies on repeat than try something new. Movies seemed like such a big time commitment. Two hours?! At least with a TV show, you could quickly move on to something else if you didn’t like it. You had a beginning, middle and end in less than 30 minutes. Movies seemed to drag.

But over the past year and a half, I’ve come to love them. I think a lot of that has to do with Roger Ebert’s reviews, which have become my favorite pieces of writing because they approach movies as agents for unpacking truths about people and how the world works. Sometimes I wonder if Ebert uncovered subtleties in a performance, or nuances to a film’s meaning, that not even its own actors and directors noticed or intended.

The review that sparked my Ebert obsession was his piece on Lost in TranslationAfter seeing it for the first time, I knew I liked it, but didn’t completely understand it. I couldn’t articulate why I liked it. It turns out all the reasons were sitting in that review. I remember reading a sentence about the special bond strangers share and thinking, Yes. This is exactly how real life works: “We all need to talk about metaphysics, but those who know us well want details and specifics; strangers allow us to operate more vaguely on a cosmic scale.” That is a beautiful way to phrase a spot-on observation of the way humans operate. 

His second piece on the film, from 2010 when he named it a “Great Movie,” is even better. It makes the movie make sense. And, it opened my eyes to the brilliance of Bill Murray: “Without [Murray’s acting], the film could be unwatchable. With it, I can’t take my eyes away.” I knew Bill Murray was good, but this piece made me realize how good, and how his performance was essential to the success of Lost in Translation (which I’ve now probably watched about 50 times, and have grown more in awe of with each viewing). 

While I have tons of movies to see before I can reasonably be considered knowledgeable about film, I am consciously trying to become a smarter movie-watcher. Matt Zoller Seitz, the editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com, wrote a piece a few weeks ago titled “Advice to Young Critics” that I’m now using as a guide for watching films critically and understanding how to write about them.

The article could really be titled “Advice to Writers in General,” but it talks about writing in the context of film criticism. His most convicting piece of advice? “Write for at least two hours a day, even if you don’t publish what you write.” He explains, “If two hours a day sounds like too much time, it means you don’t really want to do this for a living and should do something else instead.” 

The more warm-and-fuzzy advice was to voraciously consume movies and TV (or media of any kind), and to write down any thought you have while watching a movie. You never know what trail of thought it will lead to, or what inspiration it will spark.

My attitude toward movies has changed from “ugh why do I have to watch this can’t I just watch four 30 Rock episodes instead” to “this could be good, maybe great, and at the very least, I’m broadening my pop culture horizons.” At this point, there’s not much rhyme or reason to what I’m watching. My typical movie-watching strategy is to work my way through an actor’s catalogue after I randomly become obsessed with him (right now, the actor is Jack Nicholson), and watch only his works until I develop a new obsession. I should probably conquer some type of “best-ever” list, with Casablanca, Citizen Kane, et al, but right now I’m just trying to take away as much as I can from any films that cross my path.

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Thoughts on “Saving Mr. Banks”

Since it’s 2014 and I resolved to blog more, I’m going to start with the kind of post I wish I’d written more of last year: thoughts on movies.

I saw “Saving Mr. Banks” yesterday, and while I didn’t LOVE it, I enjoyed it quite a bit – and have enjoyed thinking about it in hindsight even more.

I want to say that I first heard of the movie shortly after the Oscars last year, in some kind of “What Movies Will Contend in 2014” slideshow, but it may have been later in the year. At any rate, I remember reading a positive early review of the film this past October. I had high expectations: It’s got Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson, it’s a movie about the movies, Disney made it, and who doesn’t like “Mary Poppins”? It was on my shortlist of movies to see in advance of awards season.

As more reviews came out, my expectations dulled – it seemed like more of a kids’ movie, and I wasn’t sure I’d like the backstory about P.L. Travers’ childhood in Australia, which the film used to explain the inspiration behind the Mary Poppins character.

We ultimately know how “Saving Mr. Banks” ends, because “Mary Poppins” is an actual movie we all watched as kids. But “Saving Mr. Banks” makes you think for awhile that there’s no possible way P.L. Travers will hand Disney the rights to turn her book into a movie. That’s what I liked least about this film – it drags on a little with scenes showing how much she resents what Disney is trying to do with the story. And, while I ended up liking the use of flashbacks to her childhood, I thought those were also a little repetitive. The movie turned to flashbacks when something P.L. Travers encountered during her trip to Los Angeles reminded her of an event from childhood. They weren’t forced attempts at moving the story along, which I appreciated. Plus, I thought Colin Farrell was quite good as her father.

Many of the scenes depicting the author’s objections to Disney’s plan for a film adaptation occurred in a rehearsal room. Travers sat around a table with songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman and screenwriter Don DaGradi, listening to and summarily shouting down their ideas. This creative trio – with Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the Sherman brothers and Bradley Whitford (!) as DaGradi – became my favorite part of the film. Here are three guys who probably expected Travers to come in and fawn over all their brilliant songs and scripts. But even when her dismissiveness annoyed them to the core, they kept at it and found a way to please her.

And when they finally did please her, with the song “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” it was wonderful. For those few minutes, as the Shermans, DaGradi and Walt’s secretary perform the number for her, I was smiling wide and absolutely loving the film. The Shermans and DaGradi are just so happy – and probably relieved – to se P.L. Travers happy. Jason Schwartzman, who I’d say played my favorite character in the film, was especially wonderful it in that scene. (I wouldn’t be surprised if this video is taken down soon for some copyright violation, but here’s the scene I’m talking about.)

But really, let’s all have a good laugh at Josh Lyman singing and dancing to songs from Mary Poppins! Oh, it just kills me. Bradley Whitford didn’t make or break this movie for me, but every time he was on screen, I thought to myself, “This is the man who delivered the ‘bring me the finest muffins and bagels’ speech.” Same guy.

My final thought: Seeing it with a full theater audience provided an interesting commentary on how central Disney movies have been to American entertainment. You know the line, “Close your mouth please, Michael, we are not a codfish,” from “Mary Poppins”? There’s a line in a flashback scene that obviously hints at it, and everyone in the theater laughed knowingly. Disney can make “Saving Mr. Banks” so meta because everyone’s already seen and loved “Mary Poppins.” This movie seemed self-indulgent at times, but I didn’t care because I was entertained. Disney knows how to entertain pretty well.

Summer in the City: MLB All-Star Game and Culture for Free

Just two months ago, my humidity-hating, sweater-loving self was dreading another sticky summer in New York City. Thanks to a number of recent events, however, I’m changing my tune.

Saturday night, I went with a group of friends to the Mariah Carey/New York Philharmonic concert on the Great Lawn in Central Park. I hadn’t worked myself up with excitement over this show; while I don’t dislike Mariah Carey, I don’t know much of her music beyond “All I Want for Christmas is You,” which she is unlikely to sing in July. But, it was free, the weather cooperated, and I tagged along with some Mariah-loving friends.

It turned out to be more of a New York Philharmonic concert (Mariah only sang three or four songs), but it was wonderful. Some of the Phil’s set included classic New York songs such as “New York, New York” and the song from On the Town (which I guess is also titled “New York, New York”? Never pondered that before.), and some of the score from the recently released 42.

My favorite part, though, was former Yankees manager Joe Torre reading “Casey at the Bat,” the famous baseball poem, with the New York Philharmonic providing musical accompaniment. I had no idea this would be part of the program, and when the number was announced, I winced and thought it might be a little cheesy. On the contrary. Torre delivered the poem perfectly, and the Phil’s background music – mimicking players’ movements and crowd excitement with its sound – added an element of emotion to the story I’d never felt before with just a straight reading. (My iPhone video of the last part of the performance is too big to deal with here, and I’ve had trouble uploading it to YouTube. I’m a little surprised MLB hasn’t put the entire thing online, but this clip will have to suffice for a link. Just trust me; it was great, and indelible New York memory for me.)

Hope and me at FanFest

Hope and me at FanFest

Thanks to a friend who works for a PR firm handling lots of ASG-related events, I scored two tickets to the All-Star FanFest at the Javits Center. I forced my sister, only marginally interested in baseball, to come with me (though we did clear up the difference between a no-hitter and perfect game for her, so it was a success) and we enjoyed the experience. I would have found FanFest to be the absolute coolest thing in the world if I was a wide-eyed 12-year-old, for whom baseball was a relatively new obsession, traveling to the game with my dad who’d be willing to fork over $$ for a cool new t-shirt and autographed baseball. I may be a little too old to be blown away by the spectacle, but it really was a cool set-up, and they had some especially great displays on the history of the Mets and the Negro Leagues.

Plus, since I wasn’t going to the Home Run Derby or the game itself, I loved getting to be immersed in some part of the All-Star experience while it was in New York. I live right off the 7 line, the train that’s carried thousands of fans to and from Citi Field the past few days, so it was cool to see all this – baseball-crazed kids toting loot bags through FanFest, tourists sporting their team jersey, thousands of passengers trickling onto the 7 train for the ride out to Flushing – happening in my backyard.

Aside from ASG events, I’ve also been able to enjoy a couple of NYC music events in Central Park lately. Yesterday, the New York Philharmonic played its annual show in the park, so I made another trip up to the Great Lawn to hear the performance. Then, tonight, the Metropolitan Opera performed various selections at the park’s SummerStage, and it was lovely. Just enough of the day’s heat had subsided that it wasn’t totally miserable outside, and I loved how the show featured only three singers, each performing a number of songs, like the Met was giving a few of its young stars a chance to really show their chops. My favorite part was their final number before the encore: a three-song West Side Story medley.

Both events were absolutely free, too (as was the Mariah concert)! Amazing free music, enjoyed in the company of friends on a warm summer evening, under the shadow of skyscrapers. This summer in New York is turning out to be about as perfect as it gets.

New Year, New Job, New Subway Commute

The New Year began with one big change for me: I started a new job at the Rachael Ray Show as its Publicity Coordinator. Wednesday was my first day, and while I’m still getting the hang of things, I can tell it’s going to be a fulfilling experience. I already feel very lucky to be part of that team.

After working as a temp in Sports Illustrated‘s communications department for four months, it became clear that there might not be a chance for longer-term employment there – not for any bad reason, but just because that’s how things go sometimes in a down economy. But, I felt encouraged and grateful for the support of my bosses, who assured me they were in my corner as I looked for a new position. One of them had a connection to the show, knew they needed a new Publicity Coordinator, and I was lucky enough to get the job.

Aside from the work being rooted in public relations and social media, nearly everything about it is different from previous positions I’ve held. After thinking for most of college that I wanted to work in sports, I’m really enjoying the shift to the entertainment industry (if I’ve learned anything since graduating from college, it’s that you shouldn’t be surprised if your idea of a perfect career radically changes). My passion for sports – as a fan – has not dulled, and I’m not ruling out a return to the field somewhere down the road, but having a new focus is refreshing.

I’m also in a new part of the city. My new office is in Chelsea – a departure from the fast pace of Midtown. It’s a painless commute, although a bit longer, but that just means I’m finishing three to five more pages of Team of Rivals each morning.

And while everything about the challenge and promise of a new job is great, there’s another benefit: This is a full-time, real-person, big-kid position. I’m no longer a temp or an intern. It gives some degree of permanence to my time in New York City and a bit of an accomplished feeling, in that I landed a job in my dream city and desired field. Obviously, I still have a lot to prove, but I’m proud of having taken the first step.

Not much else is new for me in the new year, but the job change and a wonderful week home in Portland for Christmas have me looking at NYC in a different light. It’s only January 5, but 2013 is already giving me a lot to love. I hope it’s doing the same for you.

Brief P.S.: I typically can’t keep a New Year’s Resolution past the third week of January, but I’m seriously resolved to write more in 2013. So many thoughts pop in and out of my head on a daily basis, and I’d like to develop many of them more fully right here. We’ll see how it goes.