movies, Nic Cage, television

Nic Cage In The Cage

Regular readers of this blog know that we have a bit of a Nic Cage fixation. “But he does so many bad movies,” our friends say. We readily acknowledge that yes, he does in fact make a lot of bad movies. (Ghost Rider 2 opens this Friday.) But he also makes lots of good movies. He also — and this is what sets him apart in our minds — has the rare ability to make some really good bad movies. (He also makes some really bad bad movies. Like Knowing. And Season of the Witch. And The Wicker Man. But we digress.) The National Treasure movies, just to name two, are terrible, but we will gladly sit down and watch them whenever TNT happens to air them, which seems to be every other weekend.

What we find so compelling about Nic Cage is this tension of opposites. Is he a good actor who chooses bad movies? A bad actor who occasionally makes good ones? A bad actor making bad movies that, like double negatives, somehow turn out good?

We tried to articulate this several years ago in a Nic Cage Cage Match post. Then, last night, “Saturday Night Live” provided this inspired bit of comedy which pretty much summarizes everything we tried to say then:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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These four and a half minutes are a testament to everything we find endearing about Nicolas Cage. May he one day fulfill his dream to appear in every movie ever released and restore honor to his dojo. Clone Nic Cage!

Friday Recommends, parenthood, television

Friday Recommends: Up All Night

Gob Bluth and Veronica Corningstone, parents.

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The dustbin of history is littered with bad parenting sitcoms. “Baby Talk.” “Family Matters.” “My Two Dads.” “Baby Bob.” “Small Wonder.” (You remember this one. It was the one where a family created a robot named Vicki but treated her like a normal little girl so the neighbors wouldn’t know. Remember?) “Up All Night” is, thankfully, not one of them.

Reagan (Christina Applegate) and Chris (Will Arnett) are first-time parents to Amy (one of the cutest TV babies ever). Their travails are familiar to any new parent: Balancing the demands of work and family. Maintaing a romantic relationship with your spouse. Finding a reliable babysitter. Outclassing the other parents in Mr. Bob’s Toddler Play Class.

Throw into the mix Ava (Maya Rudolph), Amy’s boss and the host of an Oprah-like talk show, and reliable guest stars/supporting actors like Will Forte, Jason Lee and Molly Shannon, and you have a gently understated comedy that’s less zany than “30 Rock” but far funnier and less saccharin than, say, “Full House,” or, well, any of the sitcoms listed back in the first paragraph.

Like “30 Rock,” “Up All Night” was created by a “Saturday Night Live” writer, Emily Spivey, balancing work and motherhood. The show was retooled after the success of Bridesmaids to give a greater role to Rudolph’s character, and she’s the wild card. Whereas Applegate and (especially) Arnett underplay their roles (which makes them more believable as average parents, though a sitcom with Veronica Corningstone and Gob Bluth as parents would be pretty awesome), Rudolph spins out of control, like an ego hurricane. Threatened by a potential burglar while she’s babysitting Amy one night, Ava shouts into the dark, “I have got a glock in my purse and superb night vision!”

The best episode so far, “Birth,” flashes back to Amy and Chris preparing for and then going to the hospital. You get a glimpse of their pre-baby lives — Reagan and Ava coming to terms with how a baby will change their relationship at work and outside it, Chris weighing the decision to leave his law firm and become a stay-at-home dad — and a depth to the characters beyond simple parenting stereotypes. Perhaps being new parents themselves helps, but Applegate and Arnett hit the right notes and make “Up All Night” a rarity: a non-terrible parenting sitcom that even non-parents can enjoy.

books, television

Jersey Shore & Book Suicide

Our friends and alert readers Emily Huie and Audrey Bullar both pointed us to this meme making its way around the Internets:

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Several things to say here, starting with 1) the fact we of course find this to be very amusing. 2) We have never seen an episode of “Jersey Shore” in our life. 3) The image, which was first posted on Random House’s Facebook page, was obviously created by book lovers, who in this case also happen to be people whose livelihood depends upon people still reading (presumably by still purchasing) books, whether the ones with real pages or the ones with electronic ones. As one-half of this blog’s livelihood depends on people buying books, and the other half’s depends on people reading them, we are firmly in the camp that more reading, and less “Jersey Shore,” would make the world a better place.

That being said, there is nothing incompatible about loving books and watching trashy TV. (Or watching great television and reading trash.) The highbrow and the lowbrow exist side-by-side, and refusing one over the other is needlessly limiting. Our favorite movie critic, Anthony Lane, distills this in the introduction to his collection Nobody’s Perfect. Reflecting on an essay he wrote about bestseller lists, Lane says,

I ploughed through ranks of best-sellers, old and new; what had appeared to be a simple task of sifting gold from dross was nicely complicated by the discovery that some of the dross bore the enticing glint, not of fool’s gold, but of the real thing. That was as close as I shall ever come to setting out my stall: I claimed to believe primarily in trash and classics, and, if this book makes people question, afresh or for the first time, their dependence on the stuff in between … then so much the better.

Which is to say: A book no more commits suicide whenever someone watches “Jersey Shore” as Snooki or Pauly D commits suicide whenever someone picks up Proust. The world is big enough for both.

books, parenthood, Sam, television

Catching Up

We’ve been remiss in our posting of late. Forgive our negligence and allow us to do a little catching up.

1. We have yet to sell our house. We have had three open houses and numerous showings at this point, and while the feedback continues to be generally positive, we have no takers. We are, however, becoming quite skilled at whipping the house into shape on short notice. Dirty dishes go in the oven if the dishwasher has clean ones. The toaster fits nicely right under the sink. Our laptop slides perfectly under the couch. One of us takes Sam outside to visit our next door neighbor, Gordo the pug (or, as Sam calls him, “Dordo”), while the other vacuums the steps and three rooms upstairs. (Sam really does not like the vacuum cleaner.) Scooter Thomas has yet to unload on one of his barfing binges during an actual showing, though he has done it the morning of. (Eleven piles of vomit. Ten in the bathroom, after we locked him in.)

2. I (Ben) had a parenting fail moment last Wednesday when, on a whim, I decided to take Sam to Lunken Airport to watch the planes come in. Sam is fascinated by all things that move, especially airplanes that pass overhead. Unfortunately we saw exactly zero planes fly in last Wednesday, even though we waited for an hour, in our parked car, since it was raining.

I made up for it this weekend during Airport Days at Lunken. Sam and I saw a B-17 bomber (one of twelve still flying), helicopter take-offs and landings from about 100 feet away, a color guard presentation and a missing man formation, which involves four aircraft flying low in a V-formation and then one abruptly pulling out of formation and flying west. It was unexpectedly moving. I was never a big plane/car/truck kid myself, but I loved the idea of being the kind of dad who takes his son to these things. Sam was mostly interested in the free hot dog, but all in all it was a successful father/son outing.

3. We breezed through season seven of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” over Labor Day weekend. While we love the show, we always need to take it in small doses. (We’re not the only ones, hence the shirt.) Season seven is the “Seinfeld” reunion season, and watching the writers pay tribute to “Seinfeld” and simultaneously desecrate its legacy made this one of our favorite seasons. None of our favorite clips from this season are really fit to include here, but until “It’s Always Sunny” starts back up, “Curb” remains our favorite irreverent and deeply offensive television.

4. We previewed A First-Rate Madness a few weeks ago. Upon finishing it, we respectfully submit that you should save your time and money and not purchase this book. For anyone interested in the subject matter (mental illness and leadership), though, may we recommend two books: one, Lincoln’s Melancholy, by Joshua Wolf Shenk, which is a much sturdier history than anything Nassir Ghaemi provides in A First-Rate Madness; and two, The Hypomanic Edge, by John Gartner, which argues that hypomania is a peculiarly American illness with tremendous benefits alongside its negatives. They’re in paperback, so you could get them both for basically the same price as the (inferior) F-RM (still in hardcover).

books, friends, movies, television

Times We Have Faked Being More Sophisticated Than We Really Are.

Our friend Katie Stratman writes,

So … I usually don’t read the books you guys recommend on your blog … I always feel like you have much more sophisticated taste than me and I usually can’t understand half of what goes on in them… but I picked up Little Princes at the library yesterday and I absolutely love it!

First of all, we’re glad you enjoyed Little Princes, Katie. It really is a good read.

Secondly, we are not that sophisticated … we like “Wipeout.” But Katie’s e-mail made us think of something we read this weekend, the “Riff” column by Dan Kois from the New York Times Sunday Magazine, about “eating your cultural vegetables.” Kois attempts to answer the question of why we subject ourselves to art that “we know [is] good for us but we don’t actually enjoy.” Writes Kois,

I feel guilty to be still reaching, as an adult, for culture that remains stubbornly above my grasp. … As I get older, I find I’m suffering from a kind of culture fatigue and have less interest in eating my cultural vegetables. … While I’m grateful to have watched Solaris and Blue and Meek’s Cutoff and The Son and Antanarjuat (The Fast Runner) and Three Times and on and on, my taste stubbornly remains my taste.

Kois finishes his column with an anecdote about how he championed HBO’s “Treme” during its first season, arguing that it was “a good show whose slow development was a welcome antidote to the context-free dramas surrounding it on television.” Kois missed the season finale but DVRed it, until “months went by, and I never felt like watching that episode.” He never did.

Katie’s e-mail and Kois’s column made us reflect on several different questions.

  1. Are our tastes too “highbrow” or “sophisticated”? Do our friends look at our recommendations and think, “There’s a [movie/book/TV show/album] I definitely won’t get because the Vores like it”?
  2. Are our tastes too “lowbrow” or “derivative”? This is basically what goes through our head anytime we write a “Voreplay” and/or imagine what Eric Bescak/Jerry Grit thinks of our taste.
  3. Why do we like what we like anyway? Is it because it gives us genuine pleasure? Or because we convince ourselves we like it? Or are we attracted to the idea of liking something and recommend that abstract feeling rather than the artifact itself?
  4. Have we made recommendations in this space that we should revisit for our readership by critiquing our critique?

We essentially bypassed #1-#3 and had a field day with #4. Here we will now revisit some of our recommendations over the years that we feel need either 1) clarification, 2) amendation, or 3) amplification. We’ll also share a few things, usually films, that have caused considerable argument between us during the course of our marriage.

Full disclosure: Usually, though not always, Ben falls on the side of “Mmmm, mmmm, this cultural vegetable tastes really good!”, while Erin is unafraid to call bullshit on him. This is another way of saying Ben is generally the more pretentious one. Not always, just generally.

For example: Ben purchased, sight unseen, the DVD of Wendy & Lucy, based on its uniformly excellent critical reviews and director Kelly Reichardt’s prior film, Old Joy. (We recommended Old Joy, via Will Oldham, here.) Ben really wanted to like Wendy & Lucy, a film in which a drifter (Michelle Williams) has basically everything go wrong for her. Here’s the summary from IMDB:

A woman’s life is derailed en route to a potentially lucrative summer job. When her car breaks down, and her dog is taken to the pound, the thin fabric of her financial situation comes apart, and she is led through a series of increasingly dire economic decisions.

Does this sound like a movie you — and by you we mean anyone — would enjoy? And yet Ben still really, really wanted to see it, so much so that he was willing to make it a permanent part of our DVD library. But upon finishing it, Erin turned to him and said, “That was a terrible movie.” We have never watched it since.

(Reichardt directed Meek’s Cutoff, one of the films referenced in Kois’s column. David Denby calls the film “pleasureless.” Sign us up!)

Another movie that would fall into this category is Cache … also purchased sight unseen by Ben. (Notice the trend here.) Cache is a far superior movie to Wendy & Lucy, and a powerful, unsettling film. We (and by “we” we mean “Ben”) could talk about the final scene for hours (so subtle, so suggestive!) except that we (and by “we” we mean “Erin”) will not tolerate any discussion of this “abominable” movie which, like Wendy & Lucy, is a black mark upon our movie library.

We have loaned both of these films out recently and, with any luck, will never have them returned.

What about some of the things we have specifically recommended on this blog? Well, this one’s a biggie, as we’re running the risk of sabotaging any and all trust you, the reader, may have in our critical honesty.

In our 2010: The Year in Books post, I (Ben) recommended David Grossman’s To The End Of The Land, calling it “undoubtedly a masterpiece.” (I did add that “our only grudging criticism is that this is an easier book to admire than enjoy.”) Here’s the thing: I never finished the book. I had every intention of doing so — my bookmark remains on page 464, almost one hundred pages from the finish line — but I simply couldn’t do it. I lost momentum. I collapsed in defeat. I confess: I failed.

Is it dishonest of me to have still so heartily praised it? I’m not sure. I am glad to have read what I did. I still hope I’ll finish it one day. It is a powerful, moving novel, made all the more so by how closely it mirrors Grossman’s own experience (he lost his son while writing it). I don’t think “masterpiece” is an exaggeration. But did I enjoy reading (most of) it? Honestly, no. It was an effort.

But so was Shakespeare, and Moby Dick, and any other number of classics I read in high school and college that I’m very grateful to have read, and which have shaped me in ways I’ll probably never fully appreciate. After finishing Moby Dick in Professor Lentz’s American Literature course, every paper I wrote for the rest of the year was a comparison to the themes in Melville’s novel. I couldn’t shake it.

Do I want to read it again? Absolutely not.

What else?, you may be wondering. Let’s revisit some of the other shows, books and music we’ve plugged in this space.

The Wire.” As good as advertised. Every good thing that has ever been written or said about “The Wire” is true. What’s also true is that the final season was the weakest of the five, with some outrageous plotlines and atypically black-and-white characters. And yes, white people love “The Wire.”

James Blake, James Blake. The up-and-coming ambassador of dubstep has been called “brilliant” but, so far as we can tell, there’s just not much going on. (“The Wilhelm Scream” is a good song, but “brilliant”? No.) Whenever we’ve put this album in — or, similarly, when we recently tried to get into Joanna Newsom’s Have One On Me — we didn’t last long before putting in something that was actually fun to listen to, like Girl Talk, the new TV on the Radio or the Sing Along With Putumayo kids CD, the one with Rufus Thomas singing “Old MacDonald Had A Farm.”

2666. Ben actually read this book … honestly! While this sprawling, posthumous, five-part, 898-page (and essentially unfinished) novel has “pretentious” written all over it, it was an engrossing read. I ended my review by wondering “how long it will be before I feel compelled to pick it up again.” The answer to that question is, “At least two years, and probably a minimum of two more.” But I do intend to reread it again … someday … especially if there really is a recently discovered part six.

Ulysses. You may recall that we were part of “Wandering Rocks,” an online “reading group/social media experience” devoted to James Joyce’s masterpiece, frequently cited as the best book of the 20th century. Dear reader, we could not hack it. (We fell short before page 200.) What surprised us, two English majors, about Ulysses was that we found so little pleasure in the actual reading of it. There was a certain pleasure in deciphering Joyce’s literary Easter eggs — and it should be said we would not have made it half as far as we did without the group structure that WR provided — but at the end of the day it must be said that while we aspire to be people who can say they read Ulysses, we also aspire to avoid willfully subjecting ourselves to great pain and discomfort. These cultural vegetables we gladly scraped into the trash can, uneaten.

Because, truth be told, we’d much rather be watching “Wipeout.”

books, Friday Recommends, movies, television

Friday Recommends: Bossypants, Tina Fey

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Tina Fey’s critics wonder where Liz Lemon, her character from “30 Rock,” stops and Tina Fey begins. Liz Lemon is a witty, self-deprecating, occasionally slovenly producer of a sketch comedy show that bears a strong resemblance to “Saturday Night Live.” Judging from the essays that comprise Bossypants (which we listened to on audio during our drive to Pennsylvania this week), Tina Fey is a witty, self-deprecating, insanely busy writer/producer/actor who used to be the Liz Lemon of SNL, where Fey was head writer. Lemon struggles to balance the demands of work and single life, exchanging playful banter with Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), the suave, domineering executive whose relationship with Lemon is the heart of the show. Fey struggles to balance the demands of work and motherhood, and her essays about her father and Lorne Michaels (SNL’s creator and producer) give clues as to where the inspiration for Donaghy originated.

We have no problem with the blurry line between Liz Lemon and Tina Fey. Some of the most insightful parts of Bossypants are the ones that reveal the source material which Fey mines for her comedy. The “30 Rock” episode about Frank keeping his urine in jars around his office comes straight from Fey’s experience working with the male writers on SNL. Lemon is not a cover-up for Fey; she’s a natural offshoot of her real life.

We think what Fey’s critics are getting at is that it’s hard to gauge when she’s being honest — when she’s letting her guard down — which is what we want (and expect) from a memoir. Bossypants delivers honesty — Fey talks candidly about being a mom, her near-death experience on her honeymoon cruise, the absurd song-and-dance of a magazine photo shoot — but it’s always couched in Fey’s reflexive jokiness, which can sometimes feel like an effort to keep her audience at arm’s length. Frankly, this doesn’t bother us a bit. Bossypants is candid and quite funny at the same time. That’s a winning combination in our book.

Another strain of criticism is that Fey has it all — she’s won Emmys, starred in movies, become a female comedy star — and she just needs to, well, embrace it. Why does a hugely successful and beautiful woman who writes bestselling books and wins the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor feel the need to portray herself on TV as a hapless, single woman who’s perpetually unfulfilled? This criticism makes even less sense to us. Fey always seems to have a benign chip on her shoulder. Her flaws and insecurities are her comedic material. Success doesn’t (or shouldn’t) change where you find your inspiration. And if Fey ever forgets her flaws, she’s packed Bossypants with numerous incriminating photographs of herself in various states of fashion disrepair. (The audiobook allows you to access pdf files of these photos.)

The only sour note in the book comes during “Dear Internet,” when Fey addresses specific blog comments and postings that have been made about her over the years. Her retorts are genuinely funny — particularly one about NASA using the Hubble telescope to locate a male critic’s penis — but does Fey really need to devote an essay responding to anonymous Internet cranks? You can brush them off, Tina. Really.

The best essay, meanwhile, is “Sarah, Oprah and Captain Hook,” about when Fey debuted her Sarah Palin impersonation, shot a “30 Rock” episode with Oprah Winfrey and coordinated her daughter’s Peter Pan-themed birthday party all in the same week. Fey talks candidly about her hesitations playing Palin, and their encounter on the set of SNL. “There was an assumption that I was personally attacking Sarah Palin by impersonating her on TV. No one ever said it was mean when Chevy Chase played Gerald Ford falling down the stairs all the time,” Fey writes. “I am not mean, and Sarah Palin is not fragile. To imply otherwise is a disservice to us both.”

On a separate Tina Fey note, we watched Date Night recently and were pleasantly surprised. He turned the gun sideways! That’s a kill shot! We were also pleased to see Liam McPoyle (Jimmi Simpson) from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” turn up, plus J.B. Smoove did excellent work as the cabbie. Go in with modest expectations and you’ll leave happy.

Friday Recommends, television

Friday Recommends: Bored To Death

Gay Talese would want us to be there.

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Our favorite moment from season one of “Bored To Death” (generously loaned to us by Mark Hoobler) is a minor one, from the episode “The Case of the Stolen Skateboard.” Jason Schwartzman plays a character named Jonathan Ames, ostensibly based on the show’s creator of the same name. The character Ames is a struggling writer who decides to become an unlicensed private detective. He is the perpetual Jason Schwartzman character — neurotic (or, as the marketing blurb for the show would have it, “noir-otic”), impressionable, and, above all, indefatigable. Jonathan’s friend George Christopher (Ted Danson) is the editor of a fictitious New York magazine called Edition. George, a lover of women and martinis, occupies a place of comfort and privilege in New York’s elite publishing and literary circles, such that he can toss off lines like, “Gay Talese would want me to be there” when speaking of a literary soiree. (Ames, the creator, says the character is an amalgam of George Plimpton and Christopher Hitchens.)

Back to our favorite moment. Jonathan escorts George to a restaurant opening in Brooklyn. George has a crush on the owner because he caught a glimpse of her underarm hair and it escorted him, madeleine-like, back to a memory of being an eleven-year-old, riding the schoolbus and seeing “these beautiful, very slight, blond, yellow hairs, just sort of undulating” in the armpit of a girl named Diane Trudy. (The show indulges these sort of random conversational detours in bizarre directions, not unlike “Seinfeld” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” but with much looser plotting.) When the restaurant owner approaches George at the opening and throws her arms open wide to hug him, Jonathan casts a not-so-discreet look at her armpits, sees a tuft of hair, then glances up at George admiringly and — here is the moment — arches his eyebrow and hints at an impish grin.

It is an absurd gesture, yet Schwartzman is the perfect actor to pull it off. The eyebrow arch communicates so many things at once: Jonathan’s obvious desire to please and emulate George; his perpetual bafflement at but puppy-dog yearning for the fairer sex; the show’s breezy, ridiculous humor, played mostly-but-not-quite-straight; and Jason Schwartzman’s impressive ability to raise his eyebrow higher and with more comic effect than possibly anyone else on the planet.

It’s that eyebrow arch that made us fall in love with this show. Jonathan’s efforts at solving crimes and mysteries generally run the same course: He takes on a case because he wants to help a damsel in distress; he stumbles his way into the thick of a sticky situation (skateboarding punks who chase him around Brooklyn; a missing woman held hostage in a hotel room; a boxing match against his fiercest literary critic); he emerges unscathed, often in spite of himself, the case more of less solved. Along the way he drinks and smokes pot and tries to get his ex-girlfriend (Olivia Thirlby) to move back in with him. He also escorts his friend Ray (Zach Galifiankis) to the doctor’s office for a colonic, or to the addresses of all the lesbian couples who have unknowingly been impregnated with Ray’s sperm. (It was, admittedly, bizarre to see the colonoscopy doctor played by “The Wire”‘s Brother Mouzone.)

You probably won’t fall in love with the show right away. The eyebrow arch was four episodes in, and really it didn’t feel like the show completely found its footing until episode six of an eight episode first season. But it ends on a high note, the boxing episode “Take A Dive,” in which Jonathan, George and Ray must all enter the ring against their archrivals (or, in Ray’s case, a random admirer). Here the show pivots from random comic humor to real substance and establishes these three as multi-dimensional characters, worthy of not just our laughter, but our appreciation as well. We’re antsy to get our hands on season two.