Thirty-Day Movie Challenge: Day Fifteen

Halfway there.

Anyone else excited?

Nah?

That’s okay.  I didn’t think there was any harm in asking.

Hoping to come up with something for the next entry that’s not a movie review, poem or short story. We’ll have to see what my supposedly Canadian, consistently sleepy brain can come up with.

Try and stick around. I’ll do my best to be entertaining.

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30 Day Movie Challenge:

Day Fifteen: Favorite Play Adaptation

The Odd Couple (1968)
Directed by Gene Saks
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, John Fielder

I love theater. Always have. The special place for it in my cold, nicotine-infused heart muscle isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but I do always think of a great bit from The Simpsons when I think about it. Smithers is finally putting on his dream production of a musical version of the Malibu Stacy dolls in New Mexico. During a show a man leans over to his wife, glares and asks, “This is better than a movie, why?”

I don’t think that’s necessarily true. It just strikes me as funny, because that does seem to be a perception held by at least some people. I suppose that’s why plays have been a good source of reference for films. You can sometimes tell pretty easily which novels will translate well onto the screen, and which ones won’t. Some are written with an obvious, sometimes irritating desire to be a film or TV show someday. That’s where the mountains of cold, dirty cash can generally be found, so it’s understandable if not a kind of small shame. I love plays, and it’s too bad some of them have to make their way over to the more popular forms of media in order to find the audience they deserve.

Is there anything wrong with that? Not really. It just bugs me a little for some reason.

It’s not like that’s ever stopped the universe before.

There are plenty of exceptions. History is full of them. Some stories are just good enough to be able to exist under any circumstances. I’ve spent the better part of my writing vocation (I was thirteen when I settled on ) trying to come up with a couple of those myself. The greatest plays are like the greatest books, films, albums and acid flashbacks. They can endure social change, different approaches to its core and shifting interest in the arts. It just happens to be that plays oftentimes don’t get as much of a chance as any of that other stuff to show that.

Is The Odd Couple one of the exceptions? I think that’s possible. Both the film and TV show adaptations continue to be popular decades down the line, and the original Broadway production can still draw an impressive crowd (more on that shortly). It’s an incredibly simple, ageless premise. Two wildly different people move in together, because one is on the cusp of a hideous, soul-crushing divorce, and hilarity ensues. You can’t throw a rock more than an inch in any given direction, without hitting something that uses that story in some way. Fantastic examples of this story exist everywhere, but I don’t think it gets much better than the original inspiration.

This isn’t because I got to play Oscar Madison in a reasonably successful production of this show in 2010 (honest). There’s a reason why I wanted to do this play in the first place. Mostly it just goes back to believing the material has held up remarkably well, through the last fifty or so years. I think there’s a secret behind that. Not every single joke and reference has held up (there’s an updated version that Simon wrote a few years ago, but I’m not sure anyone really noticed), but that’s to be expected. More of its humor, story, dialog and characters have held up than not. Any white-hair jokes or storytelling techniques fail to ruin the brilliant, endlessly entertaining chemistry that exists between Felix and Oscar. With the right actors it creates humor and exchanges of conversation that are as funny and engaging now as they were when the play was first performed. The TV show nailed that chemistry and several different productions over the years have also been brilliant (I’ve heard this about the original Broadway run, which featured Art Carney as Felix), but it was never, ever any better than it was with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. That applies to any version I can’t, or just haven’t seen. I have no fear of being wrong on this.

The jokes here are just too easy. Don’t be the one who goes the  most-traveled route there is.

I’m not surprised they worked together on so many films. Some actors are just meant to play be foil for their exact opposite. Matthau and Lemmon would have many, many great films together, but I would argue it was never better than The Odd Couple. The film isn’t much different than the play, so there’s no loss in translation. At times it’s as if both of them aren’t even aware of the camera, and are moving through the motions and lines as though they’re indeed performing a play. That wouldn’t work for everything, but it’s perfect here. The Odd Couple doesn’t need anything fancy in its style. Everything works because of those actors. That’s where the sophistication comes from, so it doesn’t really make sense to be more ambitious than that.

The Poker buddies are great, too. John Fielder might be best known as the voice of Piglet, but it’s worth mentioning he was a phenomenal character actor in TV and films for decades (he was hilarious on The Bob Newhart Show). They have smaller roles to fill in creating the energy The Odd Couple needs to achieve something, but those parts are almost as important. The rhythm of The Odd Couple demands infallibility from bell to bell. It can’t have a weak performance in the bunch, or the energy falters, and the rest of it comes crashing down, long before the show is over. The movie rounds out Lemmon and Matthau with great character actors, and of course, the impeccably grating Pigeon sisters (Monica Evans and Carole Shelley). These are the best versions of these characters you’re ever going to find, but first and foremost they service the story.

It just seems like Matthau was born forty, and simply went on from there. Seemingly worked for him.

Matthau and Lemmon each bring something to the Oscar/Felix dynamic that works here, and would go on to work in several other films together. It could be the lifelong friendship they maintained, that they were phenomenal comedic counterparts, or a mix of those two things. Whatever you want to call it, you get one of the all-time great acting duos in unbelievable form in The Odd Couple. That same mishmash of two people somehow being friends in spite of overwhelming flaws and differences remains a cornerstone of comedy. You can find it in dozens of different places today. Of course that concept wasn’t invented in The Odd Couple, but it set a bar that will always be difficult to surpass or even match.

A lot of that comes from Neil Simon’s dialog, but it would have just been some good writing if not for the stars. Matthau and Lemmon bring their individual talents to the proceedings, but it’s absolute magic when they’re working together. It was almost always good stuff over their respective careers. In The Odd Couple it’s one of the great comedies of all time.

Two Poems

The general consensus seems to be that people are digging the poetry and fiction a hell of a lot more than the bloated movies reviews, so I’m going to play to my few strengths, and go with that.

I’m determined to finish that movie challenge though, and hope to have something new for that tomorrow. It won’t be easy, but I’m sure we’ll live with it as best we can.

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The Randy Savage Jailbait Blues
By Gabriel Ricard

And after they’re gone
there’ll be no one left to be disappointed in me.

I’d like to be twenty miles away
from the pen pal who recognizes me
in the middle of Singapore’s London district
when it goes down. That’s just a Christmas dream
on the twenty-eighth of May,
but I’ve yet to be shamed for being an ambitious dreamer,
so I’m just going to keep on keepin’ on,
in spite of failing Canadian charm school.

I can’t remember if I really was the first guy
to open a marriage request with “Disaster strikes the peculiar”,
or if I stole it from the journal of a comedian friend.
who never got out of Shockabttom,
without paying his weight in January 3rd cigars.

Can’t tell me it’s not a fantastic thing to remark
to the poor preteen foster parent,
who has to double as your parole officer.

My memory is a bully from the Monday Night Raw days,
and it probably would have served me well
to keep flinching through my teenage years.

I probably should have read more books, too,
but it’s a little late to start
when my favorite movies are lined up for life,
at the theater
just past the preschool
that would have turned away the likes of me
at the hallway.

It was a cute way to impress the people,
who turned out to see a three-year-old try to read Pet Cemetary.

It just hasn’t done a whole lot for me lately.

You’d think someone who needs to be carried up the stairs
so often would be protective of the things
that occasionally get him some attention
from the no-nonsense dealer room girls.

You’d think I’d be able to live on the hood of a glass airplane.
to hear me run my kiss-stealin’, wheelin’-dealin’ mouth.

I won’t say you should be ashamed of such ideas,
but I’m also not going to pay for dinner
unless the wolf can pick the lock at our steel front door.

A one-legged song and dance may have to see us through.

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The Last Laurel and Hardy Movie
By Gabriel Ricard

I’ve got three pennies to rub together,
so I’m going to throw two away,
and start all over again with just the one,
because it sounds good on paper.

That’s what we’re settling for
these days, okay? The white boys in Raleigh,
North Carolina are getting drunk
at twelve o’clock in the afternoon,
and acting out their college basketball fantasies
with a couple of frozen turkeys.

Far be it for me to judge.
I’ve been known to sweat blood,
by the time I walk across the room,
to tell her that her eyes could turn a poor young man’s heart
into orange construction paper.

I once paid for the damage I had created around me
with a cheque on what was left of the solitary bedroom wall.

The public library and I
have very different ideas
of what those reading tables are for.

You were a gal Friday of wild abandon.
I can’t believe anything bad
ever came out of all those parked cars
we borrowed to get away from the month of June
trying to get rich off the standard cruel winter
in New York City.

October was never up to any damn good either.
I can’t trust a month that sells me out,
every time someone I love moves to San Francisco,
and doesn’t want me any closer than Edgewater, Maryland.

You never really understood what I meant by that,
but you’re a saint double-crossing the music
that’s supposed to carry me home,
and no one will ever make me laugh like you do.

I’m hopeless.
Absolutely hopeless.

I owe you more fragile coffee cups
and counterfeit twenties
than I’ll ever be able to steal
from my cousins-by-marriage,
at one of our many,
unfortunate rescue shelter family reunions.

I’ve been weird, talkative and obnoxious
to a room full of empty  funeral suits.

You’ve managed to live with that,
keep your wits above and beyond our attention
to the details of our unhealthy social graces,
and even care enough to tell me to watch out
for beautiful girls who travel by Greyhound.

You might even be able to accept me
when it gets to the point where nothing surprises you anymore.

I’ve been waiting on that kind of thing
for years, you know.

Thirty-Day Movie Challenge: Day Fourteen

I’ll be happy when this challenge is over and done with. Writing these reviews has been fun, and I plan to write more, but I’m eager to get back to running more poetry, more fiction, other writings and stuff created solely with this blog in mind. I’m still trying to figure out what that stuff might entail. I hope it will at least be interesting.

I’m just spinning my wheels. I tend to feel that way about my life in general, and it’s one of the main reasons why I’m so chipper and upbeat about things like my career, my love life, and my ability to relate, and be useful to people at large. I can only control but so much, but I’d like to think I’m at least in charge of anything I do creatively. Writing hasn’t had that great rush for a while now, and this blog is ideally one of the things meant to change that.

And one of the ways to do that is to get into writing things I normally wouldn’t write.

Does that make any sense?
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Day Fourteen: Favorite Documentary

Crumb (1994)
Directed by: Terry Zwigoff
Starring: Robert Crumb

I didn’t start watching documentaries until I was about fourteen or fifteen. I don’t think I ever had a particular dislike for them. It was just one of those things that didn’t exist on my radar. That changed, because I started catching stuff (usually by accident) on channels like IFC and Sundance.  Those were the two movie channels I watched the most. They usually offered the best selection, and they usually had a better chance of surprising me with something, I never would have seen otherwise. That fantastic ability to be surprised like that was best seen in how many documentaries I started to watch, and appreciate.

I’m probably going to forever be a couple hundred documentaries behind. I’ve been able to see a lot of great ones over the past ten or so years, but I’ll probably never see every single one, I’d like to see. That’s not a big deal. It just means I’ll never run out of possible titles. At this point I’d say I get as much influence and enjoyment from them, as I do from fictional works.

The wildly egotistical (and very small) part of my thoughts wonders how a documentary about me would turn out. I have a feeling it would be more of a roast than a tribute. That would at least be kind of entertaining. I do know some pretty funny people.

I think everyone wonders how something like that would sum up their life. And then we switch back over to daydreams and fiction, because that’s usually a lot more appealing. That’s at least true of my own life.

I feel strangely guilty for not going with more serious fare for this review, but I keep coming back to Crumb, as one of the most compelling films I’ve ever seen, so I think that should grant the movie the top spot over any other candidates. The field I have to choose from is pretty good, but I know it’s missing countless classics, that I just haven’t gotten around to seeing.

Topping Crumb wouldn’t be easy though. I’m pretty confident about that.

I first heard of Crumb, and its subject matter, from a commercial I happened to see on IFC at around two-thirty in the morning. This was around 1999, 2000 (I’m guessing), and IFC was in the habit of running spots for their upcoming movies, that consisted of just showing a thirty or sixty-second second clip of the movie. I liked that. It was simple. The clips were often memorable, and I discovered a lot of great movies through them.

The snippet they showed for Crumb was the part where Robert Crumb talks about his childhood sexual attraction to Bugs Bunny. He tells the story, the way anyone who loved Bugs Bunny as a child would tell it. The tone isn’t disconcerting. The disconcerting part is the way that tone is recounting a sexual attraction to Bugs Bunny.

There’s also a somewhat unsettling story about an aunt, her boots and how that got Crumb through his growing-up years.

How could I not want to watch a documentary about someone like this?

I saw the documentary, and the impact was immediate. I wound up becoming a huge fan of his work. Crumb’s comics are some of the most original, disturbing, sometimes horrifying and often hilarious examples of not only comic books but art in general. It’s a comfort knowing his kind of weirdness is out there, and that it yields things like Fritz the Cat and an illustrated adaptation of the The Book of Genesis. It was also through Crumb that I eventually discovered people like Harvey Pekar, whose comics were sometimes illustrated by Crumb.

Director Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb is one of the best examples of a documentary I’ve ever seen. It’s a study in the bizarre that’s never dictated with judgment, arrogance or an infatuation with weirdness that doesn’t go anywhere or reveal anything. Zwigoff is obviously a fan. He approaches his subject matter, with reverence and fascination, but he doesn’t let that get in the way of presenting a complete portrait of a man, who has largely avoided any public forums. Crumb is like any perfect documentary, in that Zwigoff never gets in the way of what we’re watching. For the most part he’s no different than us. He melts into the background for large chunks of the film, and is merely an observer into Crumb’s art, dysfunction, opinions, day-to-day life and family. Nine years is a long time to make a film happen. It’s hard to imagine Zwigoff giving up so much of his life without truly believing in the ability for his subject matter to be interesting on its own.

Crumb’s family life takes up a lot of the movie, and it perhaps provides the most intrigue. We meet his brothers, who provide the film’s most saddening, quietly tragic moments. Maxon and Charles Crumb both display artistic brilliance as great as that of their more-famous brother. An assortment of personal demons and psychological troubles just happened to get in the way. Maxon has since gone on to some success as a writer and artist. Charles, the far more troubled of the two, would pass away before the film was released in 1994. I wasn’t surprised about that. There’s only a sad fascination with his scenes. They are the most difficult moments in the movie to sit through, because we know there’s no hope for Charles. On his artistic potential alone that’s unfortunate.

Indeed.

Family is a crucial part of Crumb’s work. The influence from his brothers (Charles was the one who encouraged him to take up drawing in the first place), his abusive, alcoholic father, his sisters (who declined to be interviewed), his intelligent, profoundly strange mother, his wives, children and closest associates is considerable. They are everywhere in his stories and illustrations, and they’re around for most of Crumb’s opinions and travels in the film.

It’s not all tragedy. There are some genuinely touching, funny moments to be had. It’s as interesting to see Crumb working with his son on a piece as it is to watch a get-together with Robert, his brothers and his mother.

It might be even more interesting when we see Robert head off to a photo shoot arranged by the editor of Juggs and Leg Show (it’s funny, but it’s also eerily surreal, to see this entire thing arranged with girls, who represent some of Crumb’s more well-known fetishes), but that’s up to you.

His artwork will never be for the world at large. Some of what we see in Crumb will always be regarded by many as sick, brutal and the product of a diseased mind. The guarantee of both his art and this film is that it’s going to draw a reaction from people. Crumb has a wide range of fans and supporters, but his detractors have always been there, too. Zwigoff allows a slew of opinion-makers, to weigh in with views of disgust, and serious concern for Crumb’s output. You might agree with them, and you might not. What it accomplishes is a complete, rounded portrait of not only Crumb’s life and career (both perpetually tied together), but of the affect that career has had on everyone it’s touched. Art likely saved Crumb’s life, and we’re lucky that this has had implications on the lives, beliefs and professions of so many others. Crumb is both an autobiography, and a critical analysis of an important American artist. Zwigoff uses both of these approaches to create a flawless portrayal.


It’s not a small wonder that the film took so long to complete and very nearly drove him to suicide.

Crumb is one of the things that taught me there are some stories fiction can never hope to duplicate. That’s an essential part of the documentaries I love, and that’s more true with Crumb than any other documentary I can think of. It’s a moving, classic piece of filmmaking, and it’s an indispensable commentary on creativity and madness, and how the rest of us react to a particular form of it.

Not surprisingly, Crumb was also produced by David Lynch. That makes entirely too much sense.

Thirty-Day Movie Challenge: Day Thirteen

30 Day Movie Challenge:

Day Thirteen: Favorite Chick Flick

Love, Actually (2003)
Directed by: Richard Curtis
Starring: Liam Neeson, Keira Knightley, Alan Rickman

The label chick flick has always pissed me off a little. I grant some films are specifically marketed to women, but the term in of itself still seems both one-dimensional, and kind of insulting for everyone involved. A good movie moves past those labels. A great movie doesn’t even know they exist. The same goes for bad movies. Terrible is terrible, and there isn’t a label or genre in the world that’s going to grant it immunity.

I hated that term even more when I was a kid. Chick flicks had a negative connotation with the people I hung around with, so I always felt like I was watching porn. Or just anything that people associate with phrases like “Shameful” and “Disturbing.” I would know better, or just not care, as I got older, but the negative connotation still seems to remain with most of the people I know.

That sort of makes sense. A quick glance at Wikipedia’s definition of the term also lists several examples. Some of the examples I like a great deal (Terms of Endearment, Sixteen Candles). A lot of them (Twilight, You’ve Got Mail, Pretty Woman and several others) I loathed. Most I wouldn’t watch, even if I had to choose between waking up in bed with Al Roker over ever sitting through Sex in The City, Beaches, The Princess Diaries, The Notebook amongst many, many others. I’d like to think I hated those movies (and have no interest in seeing the ones I haven’t seen) for reasons other than a label.  Some types of films are just not meant for me (but I might feel like trying them anyway). That’s fine. I still reserve the right to think the term “Chick flick” is stupid, useless and potentially insulting (since it rarely has that positive connotation) to a movie with a lot more depth and range than it’s going to get credit for.

I think the Wikipedia article is lacking, because in the end, I still really don’t know what a chick flick really is. Does it have to have certain elements to qualify? Is it limited to only one or two genres? I know women who loathe the types of movies defined by that article. What about The Expendables? That movie made some decent bank last summer, and a lot of those tickets apparently came from women. Does that mean it’s a chick flick? I know that wasn’t really the intention behind the movie, but should the term apply, since it clearly found a large fan base with women?

Some people might consider Nekromantik a chick flick (I’ve met a couple). It’s all about definitions.

What about Harold and Maude?

I have no idea how far I can stretch the term, so I wasn’t sure what to pick for day twelve. It wasn’t a huge surprise to me that Love, Actually was also referenced in that Wikipedia article. I was half-expecting it, but I didn’t know for sure.

Is Love, Actually a chick flick? I still haven’t the faintest clue (it’s possible that Wikipedia is just a filthy liar). It has the word “Love” in the title, and it’s to my understanding that women enjoy movies with the word “Love” in the title. At several points in the movie there are indeed women, so that should mean something, too. There’s also quite a bit of romance, and scenes in which people express their feelings. God knows, broads are into all that nonsense as well.

Love, Actually is, I suppose, technically a chick flick. I guess it’s good then, that it makes the cut for day twelve. I wasn’t sure how far I was going to have to stretch the concept in order to pick something. It qualifies as a chick flick, but I’ve never seen it in those terms. In the first place it’s very, very funny. Bill Nighy steals the whole thing and deserved at the very least an Oscar nomination. I’ve always liked that the first of the film’s many stories begins, with his depressing but very funny attempt at recording a holiday-themed cover of The Troggs’ “Love Is All Around.” It’s the one plot-line in Love, Actually that never directly interacts with the rest of the movie (all of the other stories are connected in some way), and it’s my favorite.

Rowan Atkinson also shows up. That might be a deal-breaker for some of you.

The rest of the movie is pretty good. The largest reason is the cast. Getting into a movie that’s largely just a mish-mash of differing love stories may or may not appeal to me. I can’t think of anything that would influence my decision more, than the prospect of seeing several people I like in one movie. Love, Actually has one of the best casts of mostly-English actors and actresses I’ve ever seen. That would at least get me to watch the movie, and it’s mostly the work of the cast that’s warranted repeat viewings. The stories aren’t terrible. Some of them work just fine, but none of them are all that remarkable. We get a miserable writer (Colin Firth) falling for his assistant (Lućia Moniz). There’s an executive (Alan Rickman, who’s just as awesome, when he’s playing a character who isn’t terribly sinister or snide) seriously considering cheating on his wife of several years (Emma Thompson, who could never wear out her welcome with me) with his young secretary (Heike Makatsch).  We also see a recently-widowed father (Liam Neeson) get over his grief by helping his stepson (Thomas Sangster) with his first crush.

The headbutt that immediately follows this scene makes it even more touching.

Those are three stories (Nighy makes four) out of the ten that fill the movie’s lengthy running-time (two hours, and sixteen minutes). Writer/director Richard Curtis does a good job telling several different love stories (not all of which are romantic) with so many characters. Without going completely off the rails and drowning the movie in a sea of too much material. That’s a rare feat in any ensemble piece. Some of the stories (Kris Marshall’s hilarious, seemingly misguided reason for wanting to move to America) are just stronger than others (Andrew Lincoln’s very, very boring crush on Keira Knightley).

As a whole though, Love, Actually succeeds by making most of the stories work, and by boasting a cast capable of making average material a better than that. Hugh Grant will never be high on my list, but it’s really hard to dislike him here. It’s one of the two movies that suggest to me Grant can actually be pretty good with the right kind of material (the other is About a Boy). Laura Linney is the only saving grace, in a weak story about an American (who works at the same company as Rickman’s and Makatsch’s characters) struggling to both care for her institutionalized brother, and find a connection to a coworker (Rodrigo Santoro). There are more solid narratives in Love, Actually than ineffective ones, but all of them are maintained and even enhanced by the on-screen talent. That isn’t always going to be enough to support a movie (especially one this long), but it does the job in this case. Only occasionally does this veer into obnoxious, smarmy territory. That is one of the constants, I’m aware of in movies that tend to be considered chick flicks. At least, it’s too obnoxious and smarmy for my tastes. It’s probably just fine here (and elsewhere) for others. Love, Actually largely avoids those moments. Maybe, that’s why I like it. I’m still not entirely convinced that stupid Wikipedia article is right about what kind of movie this is.

Thirty-Day Movie Challenge: Day Twelve

30 Day Movie Challenge:

Day Twelve: Favorite Love Story

As Good as It Gets (1997)
Directed by: James L. Brooks
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear

No one ever believes me, but I happen to think I’m quite romantic. I think it’s likely that I just have a weird idea of the subject. That would certainly explain most of my relationships with women, the kind of women I tend to fall for and how my concepts of love and romance influence those things. It’s worth repeating, that I’m naturally cynical about a lot of things, but I always try to leave some room upstairs for what I think love is. It’s a perspective I’ve tried to understand in my own writing, in how I try to get around in the world and in the movies, books, music and more that speak to my perspective in some way.

It’s not a complicated perspective. Straightforward love stories usually don’t grab my interest. It could be that I’m difficult to please. With movies I think my favorite love stories, are the films that go about the whole love thing without being obvious. Strong performances and writing help considerably with that. It doesn’t have to be credible or even realistic. The best romantic films I’ve seen, are those that can yield a sincere reaction from me without some blatant attempt at manipulation. It’s also nice when a movie can bring up love, without smashing sentimentality over my head until one of my eyes is missing, and I have a concussion of some kind.

The best movies I’ve seen, usually wind up sending me into my own ridiculous past, while making me wish I was a little better at capturing love in my own stories. Love is not something I enjoy thinking about a lot. My favorite movies that feature it are able to change my mind if only for a little while.

People can do that, too, of course, but historically speaking I usually tend to wear out my welcome with most after a few hours or less. There’s typically not a lot of room in that space of time for things like love.

Favorite love story could probably be interpreted a number of ways. I’m choosing to go with the romantic one. Even though the movie I’m picking includes at least a couple different kinds of love.  As Good as It Gets made the cut over other titles (The Girl in the Cafe, Punch-Drunk Love to name a few) for that very reason. The movie is primarily about love, and the way it reveals its opinions about that (both in the writing and acting) has spoken nicely to my own feelings and ideas ever since I saw it by accident at some point in 1998. I think it’s an amiable, slightly pessimistic story that at no point makes me feel foolish for liking it so much. It’s simple but not simplistic.

It’s more than just really well-written dialogue, and it’s more than just a lot of great performances. I’m not sure anyone would agree with me, but this may well be my favorite Jack Nicholson performance (he won his third Oscar). The movie isn’t just some of the best work this cast has ever done (which is really the strongest driving point As Good as It Gets has—It’s character-driven in every sense of the word). As Good as It Gets is a love story that covers more than just the weird, constantly strained relationship between Melvin Udall (Nicholson) and Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt, who also won an Oscar). That’s the bulk of the movie, but James L. Brooks knows how to juggle more than one viewpoint, and more than one narrative. The script (co-written by Mark Andrus from his own story) gives Nicholson and Hunt the ability to create fully fleshed-out, believable characters in just a few early scenes. In the beginning their lives only intersect, when Nicholson shows up at the restaurant she works at, to order lavish breakfasts and abuse anyone who is forced to exist in the same universe as him. Circumstances force them to interact more often, and their relationship builds slowly, perfectly from there. It’s the main story arc, but there’s also just enough time and energy spent on developing their characters individually. They don’t simply exist within the confines of their relationship and nowhere else. They live and breathe in the scenes that reveal their personalities, outside of what they show each other and in their dealings with everyone else.

As Good as It Gets is not just their love story. The beginning, middle and end of their romance is not told in a straight line. It veers constantly into other directions and mediations on other kinds of love.  There’s also the beautifully-handled, beautifully-written friendship that grows between Melvin and Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear), Melvin’s openly gay artist neighborhood who has recently fallen on hard times. It’s handled with sharp humor and fantastic performances from Nicholson and Kinnear. We don’t buy that Udall truly hates gays (or Jews, black people, cops, old people, children, women, bartenders or waitresses). He’s simply built up a good defense against ever having to deal with people, on any level that puts him at risk. (I can relate to wanting to do that). It’s obvious that he’s going to have to change in order to finally find chaotic happiness over lonely consistency. Falling in love helps him accomplish that, but it doesn’t end there. Melvin’s growth also comes about from reluctantly becoming a source of friendship and comfort for Simon, and from also taking care of Simon’s small, irritating (at least initially) dog. These are three different versions of love, and all of them succeed in telling the story and giving depth to their characters. This is done with Simon, and his friendships with those closest to him (Cuba Gooding Jr. in my favorite role of his and Yeardley Smith, with a small but memorable part). This is also done with Carol, and her family (Shirley Knight and Jesse James). The best stuff typically involves Melvin and everyone else.  It’s still impressive that so many different types of relationship are referenced and explored. All of them eventually bring us back to the main story between Melvin and Carol, and a conclusion that is constantly up in the air.

I think Nicholson is trying to decide if a weepy Helen Hunt turns him on or not. Probably did.

It’s the Melvin/Simon story that contains my favorite line in the movie, and the one I feel sums up the entire story. Simon tells Melvin that he loves him, to which Melvin wearily but touchingly replies “I’ll tell you, buddy, I’d be the luckiest man in the world if that did it for me.” There are a lot of great lines, but I think that one perfectly describes why this movie works so well. As Good as It Gets has a lot of sarcasm and bitterness going for it, but there are also moments of genuine warmth and affection. Brooks maintains a balance of these things. As you’ve probably figured out I’m drawn to things that are sweet, but manage to avoid making all my teeth disintegrate from the saccharine. This movie never even gets close to that. Brooks’ considerable career in TV and film is full of similar examples. I wouldn’t call As Good as It Gets realistic by any means, but its dysfunction underneath its varying stories, is closer to my own my idealized notion of love, than most stories that come to mind.

My other favorite exchange in the film?

Secretary: How do you write women so well?
Melvin: I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.

I don’t necessarily agree with that (Well, maybe sometimes), but it’s easily my favorite film insult of all time. It doesn’t surprise me a bit that this movie can have a vicious line like that, only to then turn on a dime, and give us a line or scene that is the polar opposite. Brooks has always been good with stories like those. Here he has a script and cast that allows him to realize this kind of story perfectly. As Good as It Gets isn’t his only triumph, but it’s nonetheless my favorite movie of his. It’s love expressed in terms I can actually understand. If I didn’t believe in that stuff I think I’d still rate this perfectly. I can watch and enjoy this even when I deeply suspect that love is a profoundly painful, annoying waste of time. It probably won’t change my mind, but that hardly matters with a movie this good. There are so many ways to enjoy As Good as It Gets. I can think of several pretty quickly.

Thirty-Day Movie Challenge: Day Eleven

30 Day Movie Challenge:

Day Eleven: Favorite Children’s Film

E.T. (1982)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Dee Wallace

One of my most random memories from childhood involves E.T. It’s the first thing I think about. When I was a kid the best place in Lake Cowichan, British Columbia to get comic books and magazines was a little Chinese restaurant that also doubled as a convenience store. It was a good place for such essentials as those stupid plastic paratroopers, designer chopsticks dusty children’s books. It was a small store, so going inside could be an overwhelming, claustrophobic experience. I wondered for years if anyone ever threw anything in the store away. It was a good place to get egg rolls, and censored copies of “Hustler”, but the trinkets never really caught on. I lived in Lake Cowichan for seven years. I can’t remember a time when I would go in, and everything around and behind the counter wasn’t exactly where it had been before. I have no idea if the store is still there, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it was, and not a single thing had changed.

The first things I’d look for would be the E.T. key chains that were sold right next to the condoms, and expired Chinese bikini calendars. I didn’t have the faintest desire to buy them, but they remained in their place, from around age three to when I moved away in 1995.

E.T. was released in 1982, so it had been already a part of the culture for three years, by the time I came along. I can’t remember the first time I saw it. I just know it was a movie I watched constantly, and this goes back as far as memory will allow. It was a lot like Ghostbusters. I just can’t imagine it not being a part of our VHS library.

It’s not hard for me to get pulled into a kid’s movies, and I’ll still go out of my way to see the ones, that I think are capable of being something special. That’s not a claim that looks really fits a single, childless man in his mid-twenties, but people would think I’m desperately strange whether or not I watched them. I may as well watch whatever the hell I want. If you want to blame anything, then you can blame having four younger siblings over a ten-year-period. Living with them meant living alongside their own childhoods.

Now, I have godchildren, so I may be watching this stuff (whether I want to or not) until roughly 2021, 2022.

That’s a scary thought. I already look like I slept a three-day bender in a bad Halloween costume. Time isn’t going to be kind to that image.

Children find me soothing. The reason for this remains a mystery to me.

A couple of things put E.T. above all the others. I firstly wanted to try and go out of my way to pick something that wasn’t animated. That thins out the list a bit. E.T. came to mind more than once, because it was the only one that really didn’t feel like a children’s movie. Of course, that’s the movie’s first and most obvious audience. Look it up on Netflix, and it’ll be under Children and Family. I’m not saying it isn’t foremost that kind of movie. It just never felt that way to me. When I was little I was aware that there were films distinctly for children, and others that were clearly meant for an older crowd (I tried to watch them all). E.T. never felt like it belonged in either group but rather somewhere in the middle. It’s one of those rare movies that can claim to have a shot at appealing to anyone, and actually have history and monstrous success to back that claim up.

My response to the movie has naturally changed through the years. It doesn’t mean the same thing to me now as it did when I was three. The last time I saw E.T. was late last year, and it never felt like a nostalgia trip, or as something that can only be enjoyed within the context of its decade. Timeless is not a word I’m terribly fond of using in any context, but I think we’re stuck with it in this case. It’s the easiest way to explain why this is still the movie it was in 1982. Some movies can both represent their era, and tell a story that doesn’t favor one decade over the other. E.T. can be as significant a viewing experience the first time around (and I do know people who haven’t seen it) as it is for someone like me who has seen it more than a couple of times. Not every single Spielberg movie has pulled this off, but the ones that have are going to be around a lot longer than any of us will be. That won’t make everyone happy, but it works for me.

In any other movie this wouldn’t end well for the lad.

The story is something anyone reading this should already know. I think part of E.T.’s enduring charm is that it’s not so much the story itself (In fact Spielberg has been accused in the past of lifting much of E.T. from an unpublished screenplay called The Alien), but in the way it’s told. Spielberg knows how to open a movie, and his best films are the ones that are beautifully, perfectly paced across their running time. E.T. has a time of almost two hours, and not one second of that slows down the forward moment that is established within seconds of the opening. We’re almost immediately introduced to everyone, and everything we’re going to need to decide if we’re going to stick around. I still think the movie has some of the best child actors I’ve ever seen. Henry Thomas delivers a simple, effective performance over the course of his developing friendship with the stranded alien. He’s not precocious, smug or so sickeningly cute hat he rots the movie from the inside-out. As Elliot his friendship with E.T. is what the film lives and dies on above all else. Through Thomas it’s doing a pretty good job of continuing to live. The entire cast provides the human element that connects with the special effects and science fiction story of an alien getting stuck on earth and trying to find his way home. It remains an example that a Hollywood film can also have some genuine personality behind it.

Cynicism comes easily to me at this point in my life. I wish it didn’t. That kind of thing is cute (to you) when you’re sixteen, but it’s a little more disheartening when you’re closing in on thirty. E.T. is one of the few things that have endured that feeling. I can still be pulled in by the beginning, in which E.T. barely escapes the faceless, cold U.S Government. I still laugh when the physic connection between E.T. and Elliot is revealed when both E.T. gets him drunk while Elliot is at school dissecting a frog. I remain capable of greeting the U.S. Government finally tracking E.T. with dread.

I still love the hell out of the escape sequence that brings us to one of the most satisfying conclusions to a movie I can think of. John Williams’ legendary score enhances it so beautifully that I can’t imagine any of the film without it.

Great movies under the Children and Family banner are still being made. I’ve catch them here and there, and I’d even go so far as to say that the best ones are proving how well-written, and well-acted these films can be. That’s good, but for me E.T. remains an entity separate from anything else in its intended genre. I’d measure it against anything coming out today. I might enjoy it, but it doesn’t have the slightest chance, of having the impact on me that E.T. had when I saw it for the first time. I think one of the reasons why I can still watch it is because I like to remember that I used to be a much more hopeful person. There was plenty of room for a movie like E.T. to grab me. I miss that.

Two Poems

There’s not a lot to say about these. One of them was written yesterday, and the other one came together a few hours ago. I try to get come up with somewhere in the neighborhood of ten to eighteen poems in a given month. God knows if that qualifies as ambitious. I guess the great affection for writing poetry is that it gives me something to do between larger projects.

I can go days without writing sometimes (self-loathing and all that), but I never like to. It’s best that I have some project on the table as often as possible. I guess that’s why things like acting, stand-up and the like are so welcome. My mindset is such that I should always be working, always trying to get something off the ground. The idea is to keep moving forever, or to at least kid myself into thinking I can do that.

It’s fun.

Right?

Right?

I like how these two turned out. Poetry lets me play around with imagery that generally doesn’t work as well in fiction.

Looking to get back into that blasted movie challenge this coming week. That should be fun, too.

I’m all about fun tonight. I’d rather be kicking around New York, Santa Fe or some other place. I’d rather be getting into trouble and having very little show for it. Things have been slow lately, and that tends to bug the living shit out of me.

Ah well. I guess we’ll just settle for whatever’s around.

**********
Heaven and Heck
By Gabriel Ricard

It’s getting to where I don’t even have to
pull myself up as best I can, chase them down
and ask as kindly as possible why it was necessary
to skip the hello, work wonders on my ribs
with a pair of Chinese finger trap brass knuckles
and leave without the courtesy of a forwarding address.

I used to try. I used to faintly remember them
from one of those get-togethers,
where I’m more likely to regret the songs I mouthed the words to in the kitchen.
Instead of some stupid fire that took over the living room.
Or some strip-Life game that turned into a reasonably kinky puppet show.

That psychic tab is going to haunt me until the day I stop dying.

Watch me count my closest cohorts on one hand,
and still have enough fingers left over for a midnight cooking accident.

You can’t impress everybody,
and in trying to do so
I’ve had to accept that I may not be able
to go out to dinner in peace.

Or go grocery shopping
without waking up in a freezer,
surrounded by peas and carrots
and wondering what in the hell just happened.

People lose their goddamn minds in the summer,
but I’ve run into this kind of thing
in November, too.

It used to scare me to death.
This was back when I took medication,
bothered nuns on the televised streets for guidance
and could sit through an entire stranger’s funeral,
without starting a food fight.

Then I just got used to it. Sleeping alone
six days out of the week ain’t so bad,
and when the bad dreams drop me into a thin room in the long dark
I can actually figure out where and when I am
about half of the time.

I’ll do whatever it takes,
put up with anything
to keep my place as a guest motivational speaker
on the misadventure circuit.

That’s not destroying the candle from the inside-out.
That’s called progress, baby.
**********
Eggs for a Rainy Month
By Gabriel Ricard

Anger management classes that turn into basement weddings
are a lot like those desperate Friday night football games.

In one of those desperate Texas towns
that’s taken to adding a few landmines
to bring back the roar of the crowd,
the benign drug-dealers
and deformed cheerleaders selling auto-parts.

They’re the same,
in that I’d rather not be at either one
ever again.

I wasn’t even invited,
but I still have to take these things and more
and turn them into deeply personal stories.

My substantial,
useless free time is spent standing in the doorway
and assuming an earthquake might eventually
shake Richmond, Virginia out of its enlightened cowboy boots
and into the Pacific.

Although sometimes,
I’ll be in Annapolis or Seattle
and just drink enough to think
I’m in Richmond, Virginia.

My psychic ex-girlfriend laughs
until her ribs cave in,
every time I stupidly call to tell her all about it.

She tells me
that it means the stars are seriously looking
to fuck me over
when the tires burst,
and I’m out of gas
in Death Valley’s hallucinatory metropolitan masterpiece.

It’s okay. She’s probably right about that.
And about being liked when I’ve been gone for a month
than being loved when all eyes are on me,
and the chandeliers up top are meeting
the mousetraps on the floor for a compromise.

I never get invited to anything,
and it wasn’t until I learned how to live on traveling
constantly that I finally did something about it.

It’s that one summer vacation from my childhood
where every day was someone else’s two-day birthday party
all over again.

You learn to find a way in.
You work on two-part jokes
when the cops show up
and want to know
why your fiancé pulled a butcher knife
on the downstairs neighbors.

It’s better to sneak in the front door,
steal some eggs for a rainy month,
seek forgiveness from the host
and remember to thank any women,
who toss you out on your ear.

You meet a lot of fascinating people that way,
and some of them even take you out to breakfast
at gun-point.
**********