Month: October 2014

Worst Best Picture: Is Going My Way Better or Worse Than Crash?

Barry Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby in Going My Way

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1944 winner Going My Way. Is it better than Crash?

The 1940s is the last decade where a majority of the films that won Best Picture feel significantly dated. Mrs. MiniverHow Green Was My Valley, and The Lost Weekend all have their charms, but they require significant suspension of modern film opinion to enjoy. Going My Way is dated, but in a different way. Let me be frank: the chief conflict in Going My Way is about if Bing Crosby can love both golf and God or if that’s a bridge too far.

Conflict drives all story, and Going My Way is the clash of Bing Crosby’s young, hip priest and Barry Fitzgerald’s old, stuffy priest. Bing Crosby shows up with a song in his heart and a desire to make the church a place the kids want to hang out and stay out of trouble. Fitzgerald wants Bing Crosby to shut the hell up about golf and baseball and all his  other worldly nonsense.

It’s a simple enough plot, but it really hinges on how believable you find their disagreements and how much you like the two leads. Barry Fitzgerald’s character is supposed to be elderly, but he’s established as somewhere around 700 years old based on his personality. Bing Crosby is eternal to a certain generation, to be sure, but I was born too late to have the automatic reverence. I’m not going to sit here and say that he has a bad performance here, but the scenes that require the viewer to be shocked and aghast that he has a shirt with a baseball team’s name on it — such behaviors do not befit a man of the cloth! — don’t resonate anymore. Some of it is that Bing Crosby as the “young upstart” seems silly, some of it is that it isn’t 1944. All of it is that this movie is like looking into a dead civilization, lost to time.

Going My Way is mostly fun, though, so it has that going for it. The third act focuses on Bing Crosby’s character’s singing career, because of course it does. It would be a waste to put one of the great singers of the day in a movie and not have him sing, but within the narrative it feels badly shoehorned. It turns out the priest always wanted to write songs and his beautiful ex-girlfriend always wanted to sing songs and let’s get this show on the road!

The whole movie’s plot is fairly slight, though the ideas behind it aren’t. The ideas of a religion wanting to appeal to a new generation and the old generation being afraid to try new tactics still resonates all these decades later. The theme of giving way to your future is still universal, but the way it happens in Going My Way feels a little dumb towards the end.

The Best Part: While Going My Way isn’t a “musical” in the way we’d think of one now, there are a helluva lot of songs in it. Some of these are fun. There are other redemptive qualities, but I will say that the obvious “Bing Crosby sings some songs” vehicle has some good Bing Crosby songs, so that’s for the best.

The Worst Part: The setup to establish Bing Crosby as “cool” is pretty silly in the light of 2014. It’s not really fair to judge Going My Way for how cool 1944 Bing Crosby isn’t these days, but man, I really couldn’t stop myself from enjoying how out-of-date it feels now. “C’mon, kids, let’s go watch some baseball!” What teenager wouldn’t want to go to a baseball game with his priest?

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? I can’t honestly decide if I would recommend Going My Way to someone. It’s a middle-of-the-pack Oscar winner in that it’s fine, I guess, but it has a ton of problems that keep it from being a “classic” in my eyes. It’s better than most of the things you could watch, and Bing Crosby had the kind of career where you should watch his Best Actor-winning performance. It’s dated significantly these days, but so is Crash and that came out less than a decade ago. No discussion of race at all in Going My Way, so all we can compare them on is that this movie from 1944 is set in a world that you will recognize a little more than the one in Crash.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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Major Issues: Memetic #

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In Major Issues, we look at one newly released comic book from the last week. Updated Mondays.

Gardner Mounce

Memetic #1
Story by James Tynion IV
Art by Eryk Donovan
Published by Boom! Studios, 10/22/2014

Combining the cursed media trope of The Ring and the narrative structure of a zombie movie, James Tynion IV and Eryk Donovan’s Memetic imagines a meme that, twelve hours after it’s seen, induces eye-bleeding zombieism. (It just happens to be the meme at the top of this post, so you’re fucked if you’re reading this.) At first blush, this conceit sounds like a cheap way to tie an exhausted horror subgenre to something “relevant to millennials” but Tynion and Donovan pull it off and then some.

First of all, Tynion IV isn’t making a land grab for a millennial readership he knows nothing about. The meme, “Good Time Sloth,” is a perfect parody of everything that makes a good viral meme. And as the world of Memetic falls under the meme’s spell, the social media response is spot on. People start writing “PRAISE HIM” beneath the meme, which is something no one has thought to write on a Grumpy Cat meme for some reason.

Tynion IV just as convincingly establishes his characters. Aaron, the protagonist, is a social media savvy college student whose vested interest in the social media storm that surrounds the meme is thwarted by his color blindness. For some reason, people only feel the meme’s euphoric effects if they can see it in full color. But luckily for Aaron, this keeps him safe for the meme’s delayed zombie effects. Martin, an insufferable philosophy major, brags about how he was probably the first to see the meme when it hit Reddit. Tynion rewards his “I was there first” douchery by giving Martin the honor of being the first to suffer zombification.

Donovan’s art shows a complex range of color and paneling, but the standout feature is the compositions. There’s not a sour composition in this issue. Scenes and panels flow with perfect pacing and positioning, easily reflecting the story’s emotional beats.

I think it was David Mamet who said that anyone can write a good first act. James Tynion IV has knocked the first act of Memetic out of the park. He introduced the zombies in a unique way, but the question is how will Aaron’s fight against them in acts two and three be any different from all of the zombie stories we’ve seen before? If the final two issues are anywhere as good as issue one, we’ve got nothing to worry about.

Should You Get It?

Absolutely. I haven’t been this excited about a zombie-anything in a long time. All the stars.

Gardner Mounce is a writer, speaker, listener, husband, wife, truck driver, detective, liar. When asked to describe himself in three words, Gardner Mounce says: humble, humble, God-sent. You can find him at gardnermounce.tumblr.com or email him at gmounce611@gmail.com 

Worst Best Picture: Is Dances with Wolves Better or Worse Than Crash?

dances with wolves

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1990 winner Dances with Wolves. Is it better than Crash?

The director’s cut of Dances with Wolves is two minutes shorter than the longest version of Gone with the Wind, which would have made it the second longest Best Picture winner ever. The original version is significantly shorter — at the trim, tight running time of three hours long — so we’ll go off that, here.

No matter what version of the “modern classic” you watch, you’re in for a metric ton of Kevin Costner. Your enjoyment of Dances with Wolves will depend on two main things:

  1. How much you like Kevin Costner
  2. How much tolerance you have for a white guy saving a bunch of Native Americans

The plot is simple: Kevin Costner gets sent to the frontier and mans a military post. Through a series of freak accidents and occurrences, he ends up manning said post by himself. He meets some Native Americans. They take him in, because he is a Good White Person. He assimilates and meets the other Good White Person (Mary McDonnell) they have in their tribe. The Bad White People come back to find Kevin Costner, everyone fights, loyalties are questioned, etc.

It’s a simple plot and it results in a mostly insulting view of race. I capitalize my insulting terms in the preview paragraph because it feels so insulting in the film. Kevin Costner and Mary McDonnell are infinitely compassionate and patient, every other white character is an insane murderer. The reality of white/Native American interactions on the frontier is absolutely a terrible one, and the painting of there being only Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil with no in between is lazy. This is a tragic time in America’s history, and this portrayal is reductive.

There is a lot of controversy around the accuracy of the language in Dances with Wolves, but it fails at a much more basic level than specific authenticity. You don’t need to get into that sort of detail. Dances with Wolves is exactly the movie you think it is, and that’s not good. When Kevin Costner befriends a wolf, the lone wolf symbolism is like a battering ram. Every interaction will make your eyes roll. It’s just not very carefully done.

Like Driving Miss Daisy, you can tell that Dances with Wolves was a genuine attempt to make something that took on race relations in a historic context. It’s not fair to call either movie “racist,” at least with regard to intent. They won back-to-back in 1989 and 1990 and both have aged so terribly, so quickly, that it’s remarkable. The combo is bookended by Rain Man and Silence of the Lambsso it’s not like the world was crazy for a decade. Race is challenging, and a lot of people refer to movies like this as “Oscar bait” because they try to tackle the topic. They may be right, but winning the Oscar and being remembered fondly are different accomplishments. Dances with Wolves is just too hamfisted.

The Best Part: The setup to get Costner’s Lt. Dunbar out to the frontier is memorable for its strangeness. The first 15 minutes or so sticks with me more than the last three hours.

The Worst Part: The return of the troops to look for Costner, definitely. Everyone’s playing their roles like they’re the pirates in Hook. It’s so gruesome and over-the-top that it’s silly.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s not worse, but it’s only because it seems like a more earnest attempt. They’re both unnecessary films that at least partially deserve their “Oscar bait” descriptor. Dances with Wolves and Crash both fail because they are unnecessary looks at topics better served by more care. If you are going to make a movie about the harsh treatment of Native Americans during the American expansion period or race relations in modern Los Angeles, fine, both of those are challenging topics. You need to remember you’re not making Gladiator if you’re going to do that, though, and make something with more nuance.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is Tom Jones Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: betterlivingthroughbeowulf.com

image source: betterlivingthroughbeowulf.com

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1963 winner Tom Jones. Is it better than Crash?

It’s possible that Tom Jones is the strangest movie to win Best Picture, and that’s really saying something.

The story is pretty classic: a bastard son of two servants wants to marry a noblewoman but she has been promised against her will to a man of deserving status but undeserving character. Variants on that abound, and if that’s all this was it would be unremarkable. It’s partially remarkable because Tom Jones is about finding the comedy in a classic setup, but it’s mostly remarkable because it’s bonkers.

I watched Duck Soup, the Marx Brothers movie, a few years ago for the first time. It’s amazing how comedy evolves over nearly a century, both in what is still funny and what no longer is. Comedy isn’t timeless, not even good comedy. I’ve talked here before about how some references even in classic films don’t make sense in a modern content even when you can identify that they were intended to be biting commentary at the time. For all of Duck Soup that doesn’t work now, the beats are there to help you understand that that’s where the joke goes.

Tom Jones doesn’t care if you don’t live in 1963, it’s just gonna be nuts.

Watching Tom Jones feels like watching the strangest parts of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Tom Jones the character is sleazy and suave (to a point) and sleeps with four or five different women over the course of his hero’s journey. He is cast out of his castle by the evil man who intends to wed his beloved, sure, that’s a bummer for Tom, but he doesn’t seem all that broken up as he sleeps with women and narrates it into the camera.

If there’s another Best Picture winner that breaks the fourth wall this often, I can’t remember it right now. Once or twice is an interesting wink, but Tom narrates a lot of his journey, to the degree that it starts to feel like a “man, I’m awesome” speech towards the end. It’s supposed to be over-the-top, but it’s something else entirely.

Your enjoyment of Tom Jones will depend on your ability to forget that you’re watching something on a list with Casablanca. It’s a funny movie, at times, but it’s what a better publication would call “ribald” or “raunchy.” The joke consistently is that Tom Jones is in love, but he’ll just sleep with this woman in this patch of tall grass anyway. Comedy is in doing something so many times that it’s funny, then not funny, then hilarious, but I was pretty damn tired of Tom Jones the guy and Tom Jones the movie by the end of it.

The Best Part: The best part of Tom Jones is the strangeness. They break the fourth wall, there are huge action sequences that just die out into nothingness, characters run off screen without warning, people are motivated by nothing, it’s full-on madness like nothing else on the list. There’s a certain absurd joy to picturing the Oscars in 1963 and all those people in expensive clothes clapping for something that is often a slapstick comedy.

The Worst Part: Some of these movies are hard to find now, and a lot of them have variants of themselves that are either longer or shorter than the original release. Because of all that nonsense I take great care to be sure I’m watching the right version. In this case, I thought I might have the wrong movie entirely. The first 25 minutes of Tom Jones — before you understand that you’re watching a take-no-shit nonsense comedy — is frustrating and irritating. Go in expecting madness and you’ll avoid that.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? What will the iconic scene from Crash be? I’ve been trying to pinpoint the legacy of Crash and I can’t seem to do it. I think it will be the ending, but that’s certainly not the case for Tom Jones.Tom Jones isn’t a part of any canon of great comedies. If it has a legacy, it’s that they spent an absurd amount of money on special effects for a strange British comedy. Beyond that, it’s just one quintessential scene. Tom meets a woman he intends to bed, and they have a hypersexualized meal. Food has been sexualized before, but never like this. Watch three minutes of over-the-top-ness here and get a sense of what Tom Jones is all about:

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Major Issues: Wytches #1

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In Major Issues, we look at one newly released comic book from the last week. Updated Mondays.

Gardner Mounce

Wytches #1
Story by Scott Snyder
Art by Jock
Colors by Matt Hollingsworth
Edited by David Brothers
Published by Image Comics, 10/8/2014

Disclaimer: I missed my opportunity to write about Wytches the week it came out because I was on vacation. I’ve been waiting for this comic all year, though, so I’m going to break my own newly-released comic rule. You can berate me in the comments. I can take it. (Full disclosure: I can’t take it)

What Scott Snyder wants you to know right off the bat is that Wytches won’t have anything to do with the witches of popular lore. He cleverly shows this in the first two pages. On the first page is the definition for “witch,” and the second page shows that definition scratched out. His point: abandon all preconceived definitions here. That’s also probably why he spelled it “wytches,” though he could have just misspelled it. Jury’s still out on that.

Issue #1 focuses on a horror movie trope as old as time. The Rooks family, running from their dark past, moves into a new house in a new town, only for that past to outrun them. Our teenage female protagonist’s name is Sail (full name Sailor). It’s more likely an implication that she’s the “sail” of the metaphorical family ship that keeps it moving forward, but all I could think of was that cat video…

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The dad reads like a Jack Torrance for the 21st century. He’s a great father to his daughter, a great husband to his wife, a writer–though of comics rather than novels–and very good under pressure. He’s certainly the lynchpin for this family. A character this noble must have flaws, though, and by the end of issue one, Mr. Rook’s cracks begin to show. He has a short fuse, which is a little too close to the Jack Torrance mold for him to be his own unique character, but whatever. However, since the mother is in a wheelchair, could we conclude that the father’s short fuse put her there? Jury’s out on that, too, though that would be a wonderfully dark twist.

The part of their dark past that we do find out about in this first issue is that Sail (SAIL!) witnessed a bully get shoved through a tree hollow.

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Did I mention that this comic is creepy? Everyone believes that Sail killed the bully, thus why the family moved to a new town. Obviously, Sail is more than a little shaken up by all this.

One of the worst mistakes a horror writer can make is to play their story heavy handedly. The creepier the horror, the greater need for a humorous or light counterpoint. Snyder does this well via the fun-loving Mr. Rooks and a couple of well-planted details that give the story authenticity. For example, one of Sail’s new classmates warns her of their teacher’s knack of “dick brushing” students–what happens when someone passes behind you in a crowded room and “accidentally” brushes you with their dick. This is the perfect way to bring us out of the horror for a moment before Snyder thrusts us back in.

The art team’s efforts are sharp, layered, and studied. Jock lays the groundwork with effortlessly composed panels of razor sharp inks, while Hollingsworth uses a multimedia approach to his colors. In the girl-shoved-through-the-tree scene above Hollingsworth blends moody greens and bruised purples to emphasize the primal violence seen in Jock’s drawings. In the scene below, Hollingsworth matches nauseating yellows and greens to the visceral mood of the scene.

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Speaking of deer sneaking into your house and vomiting viscera on the carpet, Snyder manages to lay the groundwork for a theme that I’m partial to in horror movies: nature is evil and will intrude the shit out of our puny civilization. It’s epitomized by the woods, deer, and, of course, the wytches. As we soon see, the wytches in this title are closer to the monster in The Blair Witch Project than the double, double, toil and trouble witches of popular lore. But unlike Blair Witch, which derived its power from withholding what the monster looked like, Wytches reveals the monster by the end of issue #1. Though the monster is terrifying, it does seem like the wizard reveals himself too soon. In spite of this, issue #1 leaves us with more questions than answers, and that will certainly keep us reading.

Should You Get It?

Though Snyder employs nearly all the horror movie tropes in this first issue, he delivers a truly creepy, character-driven story that promises a new twist on an antiquated monster. This is a must-pull.

Gardner Mounce is a writer, speaker, listener, husband, wife, truck driver, detective, liar. When asked to describe himself in three words, Gardner Mounce says: humble, humble, God-sent. You can find him at gardnermounce.tumblr.com or email him at gmounce611@gmail.com 

Tough Questions: What’s the Most Trouble You Ever Got in Before You Were 18?

question-mark

Every week we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What’s the most trouble you ever got in before you were 18?

Rules are simple: when did a grownup threaten to send you to jail for something you did before you could drive? Read on to hear some stories about stupid kids being stupid kids at their damn stupidest. Sidenote: these are some of my favorite responses all year. Ain’t no one over ANY of this.

Alex Russell

In 8th grade the principal at my middle school gave a speech one morning about how students shouldn’t hand out in the hallways, but should go straight to homeroom when they got to school. I had a visceral reaction to this and I flipped off the intercom. It wasn’t anything I thought about, I just did it. My teacher at the time was one of my favorites I ever had, but she had to take me to the office, I get that. I had no perspective at all on this middle school principal or if he was happy with his job or how he’d respond to a young teenager flipping him off indirectly. Turns out it was worse than I could imagine. I didn’t get in trouble a lot in school and I never really adjusted to it with the “COME AND TAKE ME, Y’ALL” attitude I always hoped I’d exude in the moment. I freaked out, even when it got ridiculous and he turned red and threatened to send me to jail. That actually happened. He said “maybe we should send you to a correctional facility?” I got suspended for three days, but if they want me in jail for that one NOW YOU GOTTA COME TAKE ME.

Brent Hopkins

I was pretty lame as a kid so the most trouble I got into was for cyber-bullying before that was a major thing. I kinda snapped on one of my classmates/friends on a message board and this led to a super awkward guidance counselor conversation and a mild threat of police action if it continued (knowing what I know now, this was not actually possible). I obviously backed off and haven’t had an issue like that since, but apparently I was the hipster of cyber-bullying doing it before it was mastered by 4chan and the likes.

Andrew Findlay

In 10th grade English, we were given an in-class assignment to write a sonnet. The sonnet is such a limiting and exact form that no 10th grader will ever, ever write a good one. I was offended that my teacher would so clearly set me up for failure, and wrote “This is bullshit” on my paper, just for me. She swooped down the aisle, picked up my paper, and next thing I know I was in goddam in-school-suspension. Which, I gotta say, is bullshit. You sit in a cube, talk to no one for eight hours, and do schoolwork nonstop. Even if it doesn’t quite knock it down, it seriously treads on the toes of the 8th amendment. I did a bunch of stupid shit as a teenager, but as far as consequences, that was the worst. It’s weird – my dad was super strict, but whenever I did something involving wheels-falling-off stupidity, he reacted really differently. For example, I once got grounded for a month for talking back, but I received no punishment whatsoever the time the police woke him up with a phone call to tell him about the stupid shit they’d caught me doing (it involved fireworks).

Jonathan May

Man oh man, when my parents found out I was smoking cigarettes, I was in a shit-ton of trouble. I was 16 and working at a party supplies store that basically functioned as a pre-alcoholic training facility. There was always a cooler filled with whiskey and tea in the back, and believe me, people would help themselves. People were also free to smoke cigarettes (among other things) in the back of the store as well. One day, my brother and sister stopped by to visit and found me smoking in the back. I swore at them up and down when they promised to tell my parents, which they eventually did. My parents were fuming! I had to quit that job and take one closer to home, because they also took away my truck for a few months. I forgave my brother and sister for being uptight prudes, and thankfully they’ve come around to being normal human beings. But I still haven’t quit smoking. Yet.

Worst Best Picture: Is The Sting Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: theaceblackblog.com

image source: theaceblackblog.com

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1973 winner The Sting. Is it better than Crash?

There really aren’t that many comedies that have won Best Picture. The Apartment was intended as a comedy, but because of the consistent message of suicide it certainly feels much darker to a modern audience. Annie Hall and It Happened One Night are romantic comedies, but that’s really a different beast. You Can’t Take It With You and Tom Jones are funny, but the jokes are mostly dated so badly that they seem more like odd time capsules of what comedy once was rather than actual comedies. That leaves really only one comedy in the way we still use the term: The Sting.

Robert Redford and Paul Newman play incredible con men who want to pull off one last big job to make it rich. They decide to try to con the un-connable Robert Shaw through a complicated series of fake horse bets in a fake OTB. The setup is the first of many complicated elements of The Sting, and it sets the stage for the two hours of twists and turns that comprise the film.

The basic plot is this: Robert Shaw is notorious for being a card cheat and a dangerous man. Robert Redford is a young gun who wants to take on whatever people say can’t be done. Paul Newman has retired from the illicit world, but he sees promise in the kid and agrees to teach him the more complex ropes of grifts and cons. That part is simple. What isn’t simple is goddamned everything else. To get into Shaw’s inner circle, they stage a situation where they convince him that Redford needs to double-cross Newman, when in reality they’re working together to get at Shaw. Everyone’s playing each other — or are they? — and everyone’s doing a damned good job of it.

Robert Shaw deserves special mention here, because Paul Newman and Robert Redford are already names you know. While Shaw’s most celebrated role is definitely Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons, his role as the crooked Doyle Lonnegan is what I’ll always love best. A movie with lovable grifters needs someone worth taking down, but Shaw elevates the role beyond sneering rich guy. He’s a figure that you’ll want to see taken down, but he’s also a figure that you’ll fear. That mix is why he’s more interesting than a stand-in for “undeserving richness,” and that’s why this has more to it than some dumb heist movie.

Beyond the acting, which is unparalleled in the world of comedy, this one is all about the ending. As the police figure out the con that’s about to take place and step in to protect Lonnegan, the characters have to pull double- and triple-crosses to try to figure out ways to pull certain strings. They have to mock up entire fake offices in minutes, and a lot of the comedy comes from this scope. It’s exciting — Robert Shaw is going to figure this out and get you — but it’s also hilarious. It’s not hilarious in that “oh, I get it” way, either. It’s a legitimate string of jokes, big performances, and absurd doubling of situations that is still funny four decades later.

The Best Part: This has to be the original poker scene. Paul Newman’s character has to anger Robert Shaw to the point where Shaw will accept Robert Redford into his circle when they meet in the next scene. Shaw’s character tells Newman’s that everyone who plays at their poker table must wear a tie. It’s a respectable game, and Newman insults Shaw deeply by showing up (fake) drunk and tie-less. Watching Paul Newman stumble around fake-drunk and consistently get the notorious Doyle Lonnegan’s name wrong on purpose (Lonniman? Lonnham? Lonnigram?) is priceless, but watching him win

The Worst Part: The movie uses “The Entertainer” to transition between the “acts” and it doesn’t really work for me. Everything’s already so crazy and so layered, this whole structure feels unnecessary. Apparently when The Sting came out the soundtrack was a huge hit, but it adds some extra silliness to it all. It’s not terrible; I just don’t love it.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Both are movies about layered events and how a big cast all ends up crossing paths. The Sting does a better job with it, but it’s certainly “the point” of both of them. I often spend this space discussing the “message” of Crash, but The Sting isn’t interested in being a morality play. There’s a surprise hitman and a series of cons that go mostly unpunished and a crooked cop and a not-so-crooked con-man and it all makes for a set of conflicting messages. What’s really going on in The Sting is an ode to the structure of the con itself. It’s a light look at what isn’t always a light topic, but roguish people doing roguish things for two hours is a better way to spend your Saturday afternoon than finding out that Crash thinks everyone is terrible, forever.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Death and HBO’s “Six Feet Under”

Six-Feet-Under

Jonathan May

Please stop reading if you haven’t watched the show in its entirety.

Say this to yourself: “I’m going to die. So is everyone I love and hate.” Now—stop, breathe, and keep watching. This is the main way I was able to make it through all five seasons of one of the finest series I’ve watched. A show built around cycles of life and death shouldn’t work as well as this one did; I became one with the Fishers and their struggles. I felt bored with Brenda’s inability to change and tired of Nate’s commitment to all the wrong virtues in his attempt to face mortality. I rejoiced with Ruth as she was able to finally find a sense of happiness in herself. I ugly-cried during the last five minutes of the last episode, as the remaining (and honorary) Fishers passed through the veil one by one in quick succession just as Claire was starting on her journey. Honestly if you don’t cry, you’re probably a monster. The fact that we “see” the end through Claire gives beautiful irony to her rheumy eyes as she lies dying, as if we’re experiencing the emotions somehow through both ends, filled with possibility and the fulfillment of that possibility.

It’s funny how the deaths, which precede each episode, become almost anticipatory, but when one of the Fishers or their circle dies, suddenly we’re back at step one, grieving all over again, as they do. The show really builds off its premise in a metanarrative way, imbuing the whole thing with a keen sense of “flow, segmentation, development, and change” (all the qualities of fine abstraction, as Kirk Varnedoe wrote so deftly). When you stand back and examine the show in its entirety, the ending becomes inevitable. We must all reconcile with the reality of our own deaths, but the show succeeds in being more than a constant harbinger of mortality; it spills over with the full and complex lives of the Fishers. Their fights, their drugs, their sex, their dinners, their work, their inner thoughts, their dreams. We are faced with life in all its swift and capricious glory. The show is so infused with life that death seems merely a way of passing into the sequence of history and the hearts of those who remain and love your memory. So, while the show is definitely worth watching (and rewatching), it should stand as an even more important reminder to live fully in your own moments.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com

Dracula Untold: Should You See It?

image source: ign

image source: ign

Brent Hopkins

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out. You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: We talk recipes. Should you see Dracula Untold?

October has finally rolled around and with it comes the ghouls and ghosts of the season in movie form. Living out in South Korea, I rarely have information about new releases beyond “Oh, this is in English, so I can watch it.” That being the case, I had been itching to see something in theaters for about a week and this looked like it would be a passable movie to quell that urge. The movie follows Vlad the Impaler, who was taken by the Turkish as a boy and then rose back to power in his hometown of Transylvania to resist their power. Vlad is well-known as a badass in this universe for his ruthless habit of impaling folks in fields. The story picks up with Vlad having retired from the shish kebab business and becoming a family man. The Dracula element is kinda thrown in as the Turkish legion wants 1,000 boys to join the Turkish army, including Vlad’s son. Vlad obviously says “eff dat noise” and decides to make a deal with a vampire. This vampire has been chilling in a cave for a long time and a trade is made where Vlad gets the vampire’s powers for three days but if he drinks human blood he becomes a permanent vampire and “something” happens with the original vampire. I know that last part is vague, but for the life of me I did not understand what the point of the cave vampire was other than the magical element. He gives up the powers and then is a complete non-factor for the remainder of the movie.

image source: bloody-disgusting.com

image source: bloody-disgusting.com

“I am a power piñata”

The movie itself is a complete mess. There are a ton of characters that get no explanation and seem to serve no point other than to patch plot holes. Vlad has decently cool powers, but it is a bit boring watching a one man army destroy normal people (Superman syndrome). The pacing is also a big issue in this movie as there just seems to be too much information to relay to the audience while also trying to be an action movie.

My biggest issues are the action sequences towards the end of the film. Things get ridiculous in a hurry and they stay that way for around 35 minutes. At one point, I turned to my date with my mouth agape at how stupid this all felt and she pushed my head back forward only for us both to see a scene that was even more ridiculous than before. She quietly shook her head and I went from muffled laughter to head-shaking disgust until the credits rolled. We both apologized for the film afterwards and vowed to do a little research before going to see the next movie.

Should You See It?

This movie has the framework of a potential blockbuster but it felt like the screenplay was written by a 10-year old, on set. I do respect it for getting so insanely bad that I wanted to see if it could maintain this level of failure, because it isn’t just mediocre throughout, it gets exponentially worse from start to finish. Watch it if you like films that are unaware that they are terrible, but otherwise steer clear.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Leos Carax’s Holy Motors

holy motors

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

French film occupies a deserved and jealously defended place in the international consciousness. French film is where you go to see beautiful acting, dialogue, and cinematography fuse to communicate An Important Message. I’m not exactly sure what the message of Holy Motors is, but it is certainly filled with beauty. It might be my favorite movie of all time. It’s so bizarre and different from anything else I’ve seen. This is the part where I give you a general idea what it is, but I don’t even. Alright, the movie starts with you, the audience, watching another audience in a movie theater. A man in a room finds a secret door and enters the movie theater. A little girl and a giant dog are walking down the aisles. After that, the movie switches to the main flow of narrative. This movie’s goal is not linearity or understandable occurrences, but as far as there is any organization, here it is: the main character, Monsieur Oscar, has a job that involves getting in the back of a big white limousine and going from appointment to appointment throughout the day. Each of these appointments requires him to become something different. He leaves his family in a big white house in the suburbs of Paris and talks business on his cell phone on his commute into the city, fulfilling his role as a high-powered banker. As he approaches the city, he pulls a mirror to him, pulls a costume and makeup from the other side of the limo, and starts changing. When he leaves the limousine, he is a crumpled old woman, begging on the streets, caning her way up and down and muttering about how everyone she loves is dead, and how she’s gotten so old that she’s begun to fear she will never die. He goes through many different appointments: gangster with a vendetta, insane violent person running through a graveyard, old man on his deathbed, sharing a final, teary embrace with his niece. The film never explains how these appointments connect, who sets them, or what Oscar’s profession is. As an audience member, you need to just sit back, absorb without question, and enjoy the many benefits of the movie (although not plot. If you want to enjoy plot, you are out of luck).

This trailer makes about as much sense as the movie, but it’s not about making sense, philistine!

The film is a beautiful, kaleidoscopic, metafictional paean to the art of cinema. There are little interludes between some of the appointments, during one of which (the only part of the movie that even comes close to explaining what is happening) an old man visits Monsieur Oscar and talks to him about how good a job he’s doing, but he looks a little tired and is he sure he wants to go on? To which he answers, “Je continue comme j’ai commencé, pour la beauté du geste” [I’ll go on as I started: for the sake of beauty (more literally, for the beauty of the gesture)]. The only other tidbit this exchange gives, other than the motivation of the main character, is also the reason this is nominally a science fiction movie. Monsieur Oscar is a little tired and a little nostalgic for the good old days. He talks with the old pro who visits him about how cameras used to weigh more than the actors did, then they were the size of their heads, and now they’re so small you can’t even see them. Does this mean cameras are everywhere, invisible, and this is the future? Does Monsieur Oscar belong to some type of commune, creating art for popular consumption? Is this bizarre semi-scripted reality TV? Impossible to know – it is only possible to theorize. The structure of the film allows it to explore a rich mix of artistic themes without having to pin anything down to plot like a dead butterfly in a collector’s box. Parental disapproval, the intrusion of the bizarre into the everyday, the irretrievability of lost love, resignation in the face of duty, the nature of beauty and art, all swirl together onscreen in a beautiful, unhinged hurricane of creativity.

You’re going to want to buy a bottle of French wine (maybe make it a magnum) and enjoy this as part of a cultural night. Some French might take issue with this, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more French movie. Screw the audience, screw the narrative, let’s see what we can cobble together as a deep exploration of the methods and techniques of cinema and humanity’s impulse to observe. The result is a resounding success. The lack of explanation might infuriate you, but if you can enjoy the movie simply for la beauté du geste, you will not be disappointed.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.