Tag Archives: movies

An essay of epic proportions

man standing alone in barren desert

Funny thing, but I enjoy writing more when I don’t take it so seriously. Who would have thought?

I sat down to write a blog post the other day, and this overwhelming sense of exhaustion draped over me.

The idea of piecing together a coherent essay – complete with a gripping lede, a compelling thesis, and a succinct conclusion to tie it all up – seemed daunting and not worth the strain. I was tired from a full day of work, and I couldn’t summon the strength to compose a compelling journalistic masterpiece.

I sighed and rested my head in my hands.

Why do I even keep a blog? I thought to myself. It’s all work and no play. It’s not fun anymore.

And right on cue, as if to reaffirm a lesson I already knew, a scene from the 1996 movie Mr. Holland’s Opus started playing in my mind.

In the film, Richard Dreyfuss stars as a high-school music teacher. It’s not his dream job — he’d much rather be at home, working on his own compositions — but throughout the movie he enriches the lives of generations of students by instilling in them a love for music.

There’s a part where a girl is staying after class to practice the clarinet, but she keeps hitting a sour note. She gets frustrated and wants to give up.

So Dreyfuss puts a record on the turntable. It’s “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen. He tells the girl that even though the music is simple and really not that good technically, he loves it.

He loves it, he says, because music is supposed to be fun. It’s not supposed to be torture and drudgery and endless hours of frustration. It’s supposed to be enjoyable.

And he’s right. The music that touches people comes from the heart. It may not be technically precise, but it’s got soul – and soul is what resonates. It reaches people on a deeper level and evokes all sorts of emotions.

Essentially, Dreyfuss was telling the girl to lighten up. By treating her practice sessions as excruciating struggles toward perfection, she was forgetting why she wanted to play music in the first place. Her determination to be perfect was draining all the joy from what should have been a pleasurable pastime.

No one decides to become a musician – or, for that matter, a writer – with the hope that the challenges will be agonizing and impossible to overcome.

They decide to do it because they want to express themselves – and because they derive enjoyment from pursuing their craft.

And that was my issue. Like the girl in the movie, I was treating my hobby as if it were strenuous toil. There was no fun in it anymore because I was taking it too seriously.

In my unyielding determination to succeed, I had forgotten why I started blogging in the first place.

I realized, too, that blog posts aren’t high-school essays. They don’t have to have an outline, or a thesis, body, and conclusion. There’s no strict headmistress looking over my shoulder, ready to rap my knuckles with a ruler if I split an infinitive or misplace a modifier.

Blog posts can be whatever we want. There’s no structure required.  Mental wanderings are perfectly acceptable, if that’s your thing. You don’t have to write an essay of epic proportions.

Like music, writing should be fun. Fun writing flows from the fingertips, while strict writing requires endless tinkering and unwavering deliberation.

So like the girl in the movie, I’m going to try to loosen up and enjoy myself. After all, I’m here to have fun.

And just as technical precision doesn’t infuse a piece with heart, a single sour note doesn’t deprive it of its soul.

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That wicked-smart takedown from ‘Good Will Hunting’

Good Will Hunting mathematical equation

Clearly, a working-class genius was here.

I’ve always wanted to have a Good Will Hunting moment.

See, there’s a scene in the movie where Ben Affleck tries talking to Minnie Driver in a bar, and a Harvard creep interrupts and starts spouting intellectual gibberish to make Affleck look stupid. (Which shouldn’t have been too hard, given that Affleck would go on to make Gigli.)

And Matt Damon, who plays working-class genius Will Hunting, jumps in and outwits the guy, spouting back even higher-level intellectual gibberish and proving that the creep is memorizing and plagiarizing quotes from obscure texts.

If you haven’t seen the movie, you should watch it just for that one scene. It’s a takedown of epic proportions, and it ends with Damon getting Driver’s number.

Later on, Damon sees the creep and his pals in a diner, so he stands at the window and asks, “Do you like apples?”

“Sure, yeah,” the guy says, rolling his eyes.

Damon slams a piece of paper on the window and says, “Well, I got her number. How do you like them apples?”

Yeah. I’d love to have a moment like that.

Of course, where I live, Harvard creeps are hard to come by — but that’s probably because Harvard is on the other side of the country. The kind of creeps you run into here don’t really try to outsmart you — they just knock your teeth out.

Also, I’m not exactly a working-class genius like Will Hunting. I don’t beat up punks in my off-hours or solve complex equations on my bathroom mirror.

So if I were to outsmart somebody on such an epic level, it’d have to be about something nerdy and off-the-wall — something that only a total geek like me would know.

So here’s my fantasy. The way I envision it, my friend is in a bar talking to a girl, and a creep emerges from the shadows and interrupts.

“What’s your deal, buddy?” my friend asks.

“No deal,” the creep says. “I’m just reminded of the Martin Scorsese film Bandits, in which Billy Bob Thornton is talking to Scarlett Johansson in a bar, and he’s nervous and mumbling and having a panic attack, because he has OCD.”

My friend’s face falls, as he realizes that he’s intellectually outmatched.

“See,” the creep continues, grinning, “my contention is that you’re like Billy Bob Thornton, and you’re too nervous and weird to know how to talk to a woman properly.”

So that’s when I jump between the creep and my friend and say, “Of course that’s your contention. You’re a second-year grad student majoring in film, and you’re studying romantic comedies from the early 2000s. Only Barry Levinson directed Bandits, not Martin Scorsese, and you’re thinking of Cate Blanchett in the lead role, not Scarlett Johansson. And Billy Bob Thornton’s character was a hypochondriac, so he only thought he had OCD in that particular scene. In another part of the movie, he was convinced he had a  brain tumor. One of the jokes running throughout the film was that in each scene, he thought he had a different disease.”

The creep frowns. “Well, you might be a lot younger and stronger, but you’re about —”

I cut him off: “‘You might be a lot younger and stronger, but you’re about to get your ass kicked across the state line, and I’m wearing the boots that can do it.’ You got that quote from the 1985 film Murphy’s Romance, didn’t you? Directed by Martin Ritt and starring Sally Field and James Garner? Yeah, I saw that one, too. What, are you going to plagiarize the entire script for us? Don’t you have any thoughts on your own on the matter?”

The creep’s face falls when it’s clear that I’ve outwitted him.

“See,” I say, “the problem with someone like you is that you’re going to come to a realization someday. One, don’t do that. And two, you’ll have dropped a quarter-million on an education you could have gotten for a buck-fifty in late charges from your local Blockbuster.”

And of course, I’d get the girl’s number, and all my friends would think I was awesome. And people would talk about how smart I was, and how when it came to movies, I was a veritable encyclopedia of useless knowledge.

Sigh. I’m not sure I see it playing out in real life, but a person can always dream.

But if I were to get a girl’s number after such an epic takedown, I can guarantee you, I would like them apples.

Willy Wonka and the psychedelic tunnel of horrors 

Willy Wonka

Even as a kid, I thought it was weird how Grandpa Joe — who supposedly was bedridden for 20 years — leapt up and started dancing around when Charlie won the golden ticket. Couldn’t he have used that pent-up energy earlier to, like, find a job, or something? I’m sure Charlie’s overworked mom would have appreciated it.

I was sitting on the living-room couch, writing on my laptop, when somebody started rattling my apartment door.

Startled, I jumped up and crept toward the door. The knob continued to rattle, then someone pushed on the door, as if ramming it with their shoulder.

I held my breath and looked out the peephole. All I could see was a grotesque, fish-eye view of Dave the Downstair Neighbor’s face. His nose and lips looked distorted and huge.

“Hey!” he said, pressing his eyeball against the peephole, so that he looked like a deranged cyclops searching for prey. “Let me in!”

I stepped aside and opened the door.

“What’s this all about?” Dave asked, brushing past me as he walked into the apartment. “It’s the middle of the day. Why’s your door locked?”

“I’m trying to keep out psychotic freaks,” I said, closing the door and sauntering back to the couch. “And until now, I was batting 100.”

“You mean batting 1,000,” Dave said.

“What’s the difference?”

“What do you mean, ‘What’s the difference’? There’s a big difference between batting 100 and batting 1,000.”

“Like what?”

Dave shrugged. “I don’t know. 900? I don’t really follow baseball.”

“I don’t, either.”

“So what are we talking about?” Dave asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I was trying to work on my blog. You’re the one who barged in here like a psychotic freak.”

“And what’s the deal locking me out of the apartment?” Dave asked, walking into my kitchen and opening the fridge. He wrenched out a beer and pried off the cap.

“Help yourself to a beer,” I said.

Dave walked back into the living room, swigging his beer. “I was worried when I couldn’t get the door open. I thought something had happened to you.”

“What would have happened to me?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you slipped in the shower and broke your neck, and you were lying there under the spray — which had long gone cold — moaning and praying that somebody would find you.”

I frowned. “You envisioned all that from a locked door?”

“What else am I supposed to think?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe I took off for the weekend with a woman, and she and I rented a hotel room in Napa. Maybe we were entangled in each other’s arms after a long day of tasting expensive vintages.”

Dave shook his head. “Nah. Knowing you, the broken-neck-in-the-shower scenario seems much more realistic. As clumsy as you are, you’re more likely to be entangled in the shower curtain than anything else.”  Keep reading…

‘State of Play’ and the state of journalism

Author’s Note: This piece originally appeared on my now-defunct blog, The Barren Regions. I wanted to include it here because it brought back memories of when I worked at a newspaper (and when I could still refer to myself as a “twenty-something”).

I recently rented the Russell Crowe suspense flick, State of Play. I wanted to watch it because the title intrigued me. I wish I could say the same for the plot.

State of Play

Just kidding. Actually, the movie was OK, although unrealistic. Crowe plays a hard-nosed newspaper reporter who becomes ensnared in a D.C. murder mystery. He risks his life to uncover the truth — all in the name of getting the full story and informing the public.

That was the part I found unrealistic. I mean, c’mon, a journalist who actually works for a living? Get real. The most hustling you’ll see in a newsroom happens when someone accidentally leaves a box of doughnuts in the break area.

Other parts were all too real. Ben Affleck plays a conniving congressman. Helen Mirren plays a desk-pounding editor who hollers about deadlines and corporate responsibility and sits in a big office. Rachel McAdams plays an underpaid blogger who works at the same paper as Crowe.

In one scene, Crowe and Mirren sneer at how McAdams churns out gobs of copy for little pay while Crowe dawdles on his stories and earns twice as much. As a twenty-something budding journalist, I appreciate the realism (though truth be told, I don’t churn out tons of copy; I’m too busy eating doughnuts in the break room). Keep reading…

‘I could write these things!’

The Statue of Liberty

My relative has an annoying habit of predicting the outcome of every movie he watches — often with hilarious results. In his prediction for “Titanic,” for example, Jack and Rose sail to America and go their separate ways. “I could have written the script for the son of a bitch!” he exclaimed. 

I have a relative who likes to forecast the outcome of every movie he watches.

“It’s so predictable!” he’ll blurt, standing and screaming at the TV. “I could write these things!”

The problem is, he’s always 100 percent wrong.

Take Titanic, for example. Years ago, we rented it on VHS and watched it as a family.

“I know exactly what’s going to happen,” my relative said, pausing the tape so he could rise and make a speech. “They’re going to sail to America, and Jack and Rose are going to go their separate ways. And then Rose will divorce Billy Zane and take all his money, and then her and Jack will get back together later in life, when they’re both old.

“Am I right, or am I right?” he said. “What a formulaic, paint-by-numbers script. I could write these things!”

And then we all watched as the Titanic sank and Jack froze to death in the freezing-cold Atlantic.

“Hmm,” my relative said.

Keep reading…

The greatest Christmas movie ever 

Now that the holiday season is upon us, it’s time once again to watch the greatest Christmas film in history.

And no, I’m not talking about It’s A Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story, or even one of the several dozen renditions of A Christmas Carol — including the CG one with Jim Carrey. (Everyone knows the Muppets made the definitive version.)

Instead, what I’m talking about is Vendetta: A Christmas Story.

This movie’s awesomeness is unparalleled. For the uninitiated, “Vendetta” is a 20-minute film that first appeared on the Internet in the late 1990s. Back then, the movie took about three hours to download. Surfing the Web in those days involved lots of thumb twiddling, as well as enduring your modem’s electronic screeches.

The film, produced in the style of a 1980s cop show, depicts Santa Claus being pursued by special agents. He gets shot at, beaten, chased and stuffed in a trunk. It’s everything you could ask for in a holiday film.

I especially loved “Vendetta” when it first came out, because it demonstrated that you don’t need expensive sets, famous actors or lots of cash to make a film. You just need heart … and a lot of free time.

“Vendetta” was made in that weird era when professional, homemade films were possible — albeit relatively difficult — to produce. These days, consumer video-editing software is abundant, and computers are much, much faster.

That’s not to say filmmaking is easy — it’s not. But it’s definitely easier now for people who know what they’re doing.

“Vendetta’s” filmmakers had little money but plenty of creativity. They essentially made a fun, entertaining flick with consumer-level cameras and dollar-store props.

And I admire that. Audiences today are desensitized to the big-budget splendor of Hollywood. We take all their work for granted. That’s why it’s refreshing when a good, low-budget film comes along. We can see filmmaking’s fundamentals in their raw form.

Also, low-budget filmmakers have to have the basics nailed down. They can’t use big-name actors or special-effect sequences as a crutch. To pull off their film, they have to have a solid script, competent camera work and exceptional editing — all of which “Vendetta” showcases.

What’s more, “Vendetta’s” creators give the the film away. I doubt they’ve made money with it. They should have, if they haven’t. It’s a creative gem, and what’s more, it’s hilariously entertaining.

So this holiday season, here’s a giant thumbs up to “Vendetta” and to its creators. For me, Christmas isn’t complete until I’ve watched it at least once.

‘Bat jet! Oh — Bat copter’

Batman helicopter toy

A shot of the infamous Batman helicopter — which, unlike the Bat Jet, did not make an appearance in the 1989 movie for which the toy was marketed. The confusion this created for me on Christmas morning of 1990 was unparalleled. I didn’t know at the time that you were “allowed” to sell a toy based on a movie if it didn’t actually appear in the movie. (To confuse things further, that’s a Chuck Norris action figure piloting the helicopter. I had temporarily misplaced my Batman action figure, so I figured Chuck was an acceptable substitute.)

It’s one of my Mom and Dad’s favorite stories:

Christmas morning, 1990. I tear open one of my presents and exclaim, “Wow! Bat jet!”

Then, upon a closer look, I mutter, “Oh. Bat copter.”

On the surface, it seems like an epic tale of colossal disappointment. Kid opens a present expecting his dream gift, then pouts when he learns it’s something else.

It’s sort of like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, in that scene where he’s opened all his presents, but didn’t get the BB gun he really wanted. (We later find out that his dad really did buy it for him and has it hidden behind the desk.)

Unfortunately, my moment of glory is preserved forever on home video. There’s no way for me to pretend it never happened.

The thing, though — which I patiently explain to my family each time we watch the tape — is that I wasn’t disappointed with my gift.

I was bewildered. Keep reading…

OCD: Humorous fodder for Hollywood screenwriters

wooden doors

In OCD hell, you’d have to ensure each of these doors was locked before you could leave for work.

I wrote a piece in August about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. And because I’m so obsessed with the subject, I think I’ll write another.

Besides, it beats thinking up a new topic for this week. My motto: Why work harder when you can simply opt not to?

Hey, it works for Congress.

If you’re an optimist, you’ll agree OCD has its benefits. In my previous post, I mentioned that I never forget to lock my front door. That’s because I can’t leave my apartment without checking my lock five times. OCD makes me thorough.

Unfortunately, it also makes me 10 minutes late to work. Knowing my door’s locked is little consolation when my boss is chewing my hide.

Another benefit of OCD is it provides great fodder for Hollywood screenwriters. Who can forget Jack Nicholson in the completely forgettable film As Good As It Gets? His character is afraid of touching door handles, brings his own silverware to restaurants and washes his hands constantly. Nevertheless, he somehow seduces Helen Hunt. (But then again, so did Paul Reiser and Mel Gibson, so I’m not too sure if that’s a noteworthy accomplishment.)

And then there’s my favorite OCD flick, Matchstick Men, in which Nicolas Cage plays a chain-smoking con artist who cleans compulsively and hyperventilates at the thought of dirty carpet. Cage immerses himself in the character so completely, it coaxes you into forgiving him for starring in Knowing. His nervous, hiccuping speech and spastic tics rival some of the best performances in physical comedy I’ve seen — including Billy Bob Thornton’s sex scene in Monster’s Ball. Keep reading…

That magical place where movies are made

Beneath Hollywood’s sleek and glamorous exterior lies a core of deception and decay. So naturally, that's where I need to go to make my dreams come true.

Beneath Hollywood’s sleek and glamorous exterior lies a core of deception and decay. So naturally, that’s where I went to make my dreams come true.

So if you want to hear how I succeeded in show biz, you’ll have to stay tuned. It’s an ongoing story. But it does start with a batch of scripts I took to Polished Stone Pictures a week after completing my treatments. They gave me $15 pocket money and put me on a bus headed for Hollywood. Such kind folks who run that facility.

What treatments, you ask? Oh, a little nervous breakdown — that’s all it was. A brief, yearlong hospitalization. And now freedom at last to pursue my career in show biz. Already I can see my autobiography on bookstore shelves: “From Nuthouse to Hollywood: How Hard Work and Electroshock Treatments Led to One Man’s Unimaginable Success.”

Hollywood’s got the shimmer and sheen of a place that makes magic (and unnecessary political statements). At its core lies a fantasy in action, where meek peasants can ascend to superstardom, and where raw, spellbinding talent pours coffee at the corner Starbucks. It’s a land of glimmer and glamor, moguls and mistresses, pariahs and paparazzi (and other hackneyed, alliterative combinations that aren’t immediately leaping to mind). It’s a town where the possibilities are limited only by the scope of your imagination … as well as the clenched-assed accountants who administer the pursestrings. Keep reading…