Happy 4th Birthday Manoverse!!

On April 5, 2009 I published my first entry here at The Manofesto. I had actually been blogging since July 17, 2007, but seo-scoop-4th-birthdaythe first couple of years the blog was part of my MySpace page.

 

My my how things have changed over the years.

 

When I look at the things I wrote on MySpace and even in the early days here at The Manofesto I have to chuckle just a bit. No one will ever mistake me for Steinbeck, Twain, Hemingway, or Bradbury, but I do think that my writing skills have improved over the years. I suppose a large part of that is a function of the old “practice makes perfect” philosophy, but there are other factors as well. Certainly there is a maturation process. I began putting a lot more thought & effort into everything once I had my own domain. The MySpace thing was more of a journal with lots of free association and not much kvetching about form & style. I was going through some things personally back in 2007-08, and writing in many ways was my deliverance. It gave me a purpose. This blog still serves in that capacity, albeit less so than in those dark days.

 

I have to give a shout out to two dear friends who The Manoverse has seen me mention a few times over the years. It was slackmy buddy Slack who urged me to start a MySpace page in 2007. I had thought MySpace was the territory of teenage girls, and as a 30-something man I was hesitant to go there. But Slack assured me that it was the thing to do and I am glad I did. bowlMySpace has long since gone the way of 8-tracks, landlines, & VCRs, but for a couple of years it was not only a good way to stay connected with friends & family but also a decent enough creative outlet. Eventually though I began to crave more and tire of what I perceived as the limitations of the MySpace blogging feature and it was my brother The Owl who gently nudged me in the direction of starting an actual standalone blog with its own domain. That has proven to be one of the best decisions I have made in the past decade.

 

I still experience moments of frustration. There are stretches when I have what isn’t quite writer’s block but more of a general malaise where I have ideas but just become lazy. I am a notorious procrastinator and waste way too much time on pointless activities. I would be far better off if I spent more time reading & writing. During the past 4 years I have written 256 little ditties here, which averages out to 5.3 posts per month, meaning I am posting about once a week. I’d feel better the-writer-writing-3647594-640-428about my efforts if it were more like 2 or 3 times per week. I’d also like very much to see The Manoverse expand. There are currently 50 citizens subscribed, which I’d love to get into triple digits. If I may be arrogant for just a minute I must admit that I sometimes become frustrated when I read other blogs that are far less interesting or well-written than what is produced here yet notice that they have hundreds of followers and a plethora of comments on each post. Perhaps I am doing something wrong in the PR department. However, having said all that I still get immense pleasure out of the writing process even if I might be the only person on the planet reading my stuff.

 

So that’s it. I just wanted to mark the occasion and celebrate a bit. I sincerely appreciate anyone who does visit the site and especially those who take a moment to comment on the things they read. It has been a fun journey, one that I do not intend to end anytime soon. As a matter of fact I’m just getting started.

Dandelion Wine

This is the first of several books by author Ray Bradbury that you will see here eventually (remember, I am way too undisciplined to give any kind of time frame or promise a schedule). I have to give a shout out to my friend The Owl for introducing me to Bradbury in college. I would love to be able to say that I am one of the many who enjoyed his stories from a young age, but unfortunately that isn’t the case. I vaguely recall a TV show called The Ray Bradbury Theater back in the 80’s, but at the time it didn’t seem like something that would frost my cupcake. I don’t think I developed good taste in much of anything…literature, food, music, movies…until I was a young adult. We lost Mr. Bradbury earlier this year, and I was struck by how profoundly his passing affected me. I wish I would have “gotten the memo” about his stuff when I was a kid, but I guess it is better to be late to the party than to miss it altogether. The great thing about authors (and I suppose any artist…actors, musicians, etc.) is that we can enjoy the fruits of their talent long after they themselves have left this mortal coil.

 

As the weather becomes blustery and we break out the fleece & turn on the furnaces, I want to turn back the clock just a little bit. I am not a fan of cold weather and think the only good things about autumn & winter are football, Christmas, and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Other than those few exceptions I would prefer a perpetual state of warmth & sunshine. At any rate, Dandelion Wine is Bradbury’s ode to summer.

 

Originally written as disparate short stories, they share enough common threads to be strung together into one congruent novel. The main characters are 12 year old Douglas Spaulding (based on Bradbury himself) and his 10 year old brother Tom. The setting is Green Town, IL, loosely based on Bradbury’s recollections of his boyhood hometown of Waukegan, IL (40 miles north of Chicago). Green Town has sort of a Mayberry feel to it, with just a tinge of mysticism & fantasy thrown into the mix. We are introduced to a variety of the boys’ family, neighbors, and townsfolk, but generally see things thru the eyes of the two youngsters. The summer depicted is 1928…a simpler, more bucolic time to be sure. The small town, the prism of childhood, the assumption of a more peaceful era…all combine to make this a fun, nostalgic, & easy read. The infinitesimal elements of what I suppose might pass as sci-fi or horror are non-intrusive, but enough to keep things interesting. Bradbury’s lyrical prose makes humble traditions of summertime…sitting on the front porch swing, eating ice cream, mowing grass, and enjoying Grandma’s cooking…seem monumentally important, which of course they are to a child. The boys are occasionally confronted with heavy issues like death, illness, fear, and the loss of a best friend to relocation, and Douglas is a deep thinker who waxes philosophical about life, but even the chapters that deal with these melancholy subjects retain a light tone. The stories are realistic enough to induce wistful remembrances of a bygone era, yet fantastical enough to sweep the reader away to the land of make believe.

 

I have always had a tendency to remember my own childhood as being far more idyllic than it likely was in reality, which is probably why I really like Dandelion Wine. Bradbury leans toward the sentimental, which is just fine by me. In our modern age of violence, callousness, and immorality it is nice to atleast pretend that it wasn’t always this way. Dandelion Wine may not belong in the same conversation as the greatest works of literature, and it probably isn’t even Bradbury’s best effort, but it is immensely enjoyable and a nice way to spend a couple of afternoons.

 

 

 

 

Fast Food, Dogs, and American Idol: The Embracing of Pop Culture Mediocrity

A few years ago before I acquired my beautiful puppy Rocco I did a fair amount of  research. I read about different breeds, what to expect from his particular breed, different training techniques and theories, etc. One of the things I learned was that, for various reasons, it is unwise to feed a dog “people food”. And more interestingly, I discovered that dogs are perfectly happy with their own food. Whereas we humans…theoretically…prefer variety (it is the spice of life), dogs couldn’t possibly care less…they just want fed. This has proven quite accurate over the years, as Rocco still gets as excited over the same food that I’ve been feeding him since early on. I did switch brands once, and we made the leap from puppy formula to adult dog food at some point, but essentially he’s been eating the same meal for three years and loving it.

 

Conversely, I recall a trip I was on with a group from my church. I don’t remember what city we were in, but we were going to grab some dinner before the conference we were attending. Conveniently there was a Ryan’s right beside our hotel. The majority rules and I am not one to make waves, so I went along with the plan to eat there, but to be honest I was disappointed. There is a Ryan’s 10 minutes from my apartment at which I can eat anytime I want. When I go out of town I like to try something different, whether it be a local establishment or a chain that isn’t available in my hometown. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself adventurous, but I do like to mix it up a little bit and venture out ever so gently onto a limb.

 

I realize that not everyone shares my quest for something unique. After all, one of the reasons chain restaurants and stores exist is because of their comfort and predictability. A Big Mac is the same whether you’re eating at a McDonald’s in West Virginia, Montana, New York, or Florida. If someone chloroformed a person and placed them inside a WalMart when that person woke up they wouldn’t immediately know whether they were in Washington DC or the state of Washington. This is convenient & reassuring, but it is also mundane & predictable. And I guess maybe that is what society prefers nowadays. Forget exceptional, eschew excellence, and shun singularity…just give us a tired retread of something familiar and comfortable.

 

This fact became crystal clear the past several weeks as I have been watching one of my guilty pleasures, American Idol. One by one the viewers have voted a person off until we finally got down to our final pair, and then the fans chose their champion. And in so doing the masses confirmed my suspicions.

 

Now let me be clear…I am well aware that everyone has different tastes in music, but that is not what this is about. I may prefer jazz, classic rock, and easy listening, while you may lean toward country, hip-hop, and gospel. That is fine by me. But that doesn’t mean we must settle for subpar quality within whatever genre we like. I love the fact that when I am listening to some of my favorite singers or bands I immediately know their sound. Whether it is Sinatra, Dean Martin, REO Speedwagon, The Eagles, Boston, Van Halen, James Taylor, or Garth Brooks even the most fair weather fans will instantly recognize those voices. Is there any singer in the world as distinctive as Bob Dylan?? Did Fleetwood Mac with Stevie Nicks sound like any other band out there in the 70’s & 80’s?? When you hear a Barry Manilow tune do you have trouble putting your finger on who exactly the artist is?? Do you wonder for even a second who is singing that song when the local radio station plays something by Tom Petty?? No, no, no, and no.

 

One of the things I have had to endure while keeping tabs on Idol these past few months is the vitriolic animosity toward third place finisher Haley Reinhart. I chose Haley as my darkhorse awhile back, predicting that she could possibly make it to the final three. I was absolutely correct. She has a soulful, bluesy vibe and I would buy a record of hers in a heartbeat. But the drumbeat of the soccer moms has been that she screeches and growls, and the hatred for the lovely Miss Reinhart has been stunning to me. It is amazing how some folks wouldn’t know true talent if it fixed them breakfast in bed and drove them to work every day. Meanwhile hacks like Justin Beiber, Miley Cyrus, and Katy Perry rake in millions of the public’s hard earned dollars by selling scrapple but convincing people it is filet mignon. It just doesn’t make any sense to this humble Potentate of Profundity.

 

I do not have anything against newly crowned Idol winner Scotty McCreery. He seems like a nice guy. He can sing. But when I close my eyes and listen to him I hear other voices…Clint Black, Randy Travis, George Strait, Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, and a plethora of other male country singers that are virtually indistinguishable from one another. It’s not that I completely hate country music…I don’t. I enjoy performers like Hank Williams Jr., Sugarland, Willie Nelson, Carrie Underwood, Travis Tritt, and Faith Hill. I like voices that stand out from the crowd. Scotty McCreery does not stand out from the crowd despite looking like the love child of Alfred E. Newman and Howdy Doody. I certainly do not wish any ill will, but I think I have food in my kitchen cupboards that may last longer than Scotty’s career. Meanwhile, contestants from this just concluded season like Lauren Alaina, James Durbin, Pia Toscano, Casey Abrams, and of course Haley Reinhart all have not only the tools for success but the extra…je ne sais quoi…to atleast carve out a worthwhile niche in the market. I may be wrong, I may be right, I may be crazy. Or I just might be the lunatic you’re not looking for.

 

At any rate, regardless of the long term prospects of American Idol contestants or even the questionable validity of the show itself, what I find thoroughly intriguing is how it seems to be symptomatic of an all-encompassing move toward mediocrity. Instead of quality we gravitate toward the lowest common denominator. Bookstores are filled with cookie cutter romance novels and uninspired mysteries. Our televisions broadcast dozens of copycat “reality” shows, cops n’ robbers stories, and blatant CSI ripoffs. Strip malls are filled with the aforementioned chain stores and restaurants. Movie theaters show an endless supply of sequels…even if the original wasn’t that good to begin with…because it is easier than coming up with an original idea. And rarely does a uniquely talented musician succeed unless they are willing to either conform or market themselves using some sort of gimmick, like Lady Gaga (who herself is just a Madonna wannabe).  I am honestly not trying to be critical. Live & let live and to each their own. But personally I will continue to look for new, interesting, and genuinely good things. If others are happy consuming the same old uninspired, uncreative, mass produced, bland “comfort food” every day that’s their prerogative. It seems to work for my dog.

 

 

100 Favorite Movies…..#2

As we reach the penultimate selection on the list of 100, I want to take a moment to thank anyone & everyone who has perused this series, whether you’ve stuck with me the whole way or just checked out an entry here and there. When the idea struck me to do this I originally thought it’d take a couple months at the most. Now here we are just about two years later, and I am kind of glad it has taken me this long, not only because I’ve seized the opportunity to write other things along the way, but also because I have enjoyed taking the time to fully digest what I find entertaining. I already knew I liked comedies and sports & Christmas movies, but in the past couple of years I have self-discovered a few other things. I like action movies better than I once did, as long as there is good character development (Lethal Weapon) and some humor thrown into the mix between the flying bullets (Die Hard). While I am not necessarily one for the traditional tearjerker, I do appreciate a certain level of poignancy and thoughtfulness (Field of Dreams, Cast Away). I love to laugh, but lean toward intelligent, well written comedy (Big, Office Space, Best in Show) rather than sophomoric hijinx.  I don’t think I fully grasped the genius of John Hughes (National Lampoon’s Vacation, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, and several others) until long after my teen years. Really great movies don’t go out of style (Casablanca, Rocky, Jaws, Star Wars, Vertigo), they age like a good bottle of scotch. I think the perfect movie would have an ensemble cast of Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, William Shatner, Meg Ryan, Kevin Spacey, Al Pacino, Kevin Costner, and Jimmy Stewart (if he were still alive). The screenplay would be written by the aforementioned Hughes and directed by Robert Zemeckis. And while Hollywood falls all over themselves trying to produce either audibly obnoxious special effects blockbusters starring pretty people with no chops that are impressive but don’t leave a lasting impression or overly pompous message films that seem to imply that having a plethora of British actors with an air of gravitas equals quality regardless of the fact that those of us in flyover country won’t be the least bit excited to catch such a pretentious snoozefest on some random cable channel on a rainy weekend afternoon three years down the road, the truth is that the best films, atleast in The Manoverse, are quieter, more minimalist offerings (Twelve Angry Men, Goobye Mr. Chips) that are well written (Glengarry Glen Ross), utilize performers that everyone will remember with fondness for decades to come (Planes, Trains, & Automobiles), and never fail to put a smile on my face (Father of the Bride I & II) or ensnare my heart with a warm glow (A Christmas Story, It’s A Wonderful Life).

All of which brings us to the #2 film on the list. It brings to the table a potpourri of everything I love. It makes me happy, it makes me sad, it makes me ponder. It is drama, comedy, a wee bit of action, and a look at history far more interesting than what we learned in school. The soundtrack is amazing, and the cast superb. It can be viewed through the prism of pure entertainment, or analyzed as an allegory full of symbolism and social commentary. Much like Field of Dreams, it is a film that I would love to have conceptualized and written myself, and have tremendous respect for those that did. This movie has vaulted to the top partly because of repeated viewings. It is on television a lot, and when it is on I cannot turn the channel. Even my Dad is mesmerized by it, and trust me…my father isn’t captivated by much.

I am speaking of the 1994 Robert Zemeckis/Tom Hanks collaboration Forrest Gump, the story of an intellectually challenged boy growing up in 1950’s Alabama. Though Forrest isn’t intelligent by academic standards (he has an IQ of 70, just above the mentally retarded line), he seems to have a mix of common sense, loyalty, and genuine empathy that allows him to make his way in the world just fine. We get to follow Forrest from grade school all the way through high school, college, and into adulthood. Along the way Gump has a lot of interesting adventures…he motivates a young Elvis Presley to dance, plays college football for the legendary Bear Bryant, innocently ignores Governor George Wallace’s attempt to stop desegregation at the University of Alabama, earns the Medal of Honor and a Purple Heart after saving the lives of most of his platoon in Vietnam, speaks at an anti-war rally (in full uniform) on The Mall in DC alongside Abbie Hoffman, hangs out with The Black Panthers, sets off the Watergate scandal with a phone call, visits China as a world class ping pong player, meets Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, & Nixon, gives John Lennon the lyrics for the song Imagine while appearing on The Dick Cavett Show, survives Hurricane Carmen becoming a shrimping mogul in the process, converts his shrimping money into billions of dollars by investing in Apple Computers, and jogs back & forth across the country multiple times while inspiring the motto “Shit Happens” and the ubiquitous Smiley Face logo with its slogan “Have A Nice Day”. That’s quite a full life for anyone, let alone a person considered to be…well…an idiot. In the midst of this very interesting life we also meet the people who help Forrest Gump become the person he becomes – his mother, a single woman whose homespun wisdom and instructions to “never let anyone tell you that you’re different” form the foundation of her son’s unaffected outlook…Jenny, the loyal, non-judgmental friend Forrest meets in grade school and loves for the rest of her life…Bubba, the almost equally simpleminded Army pal that teaches Forrest all about the shrimping business…and Lt. Dan, the superior officer whose life Forrest saves in Vietnam and who eventually becomes his “first mate”.

Out of this supporting cast it is Jenny who is most fascinating, and it is the love story of Forrest & Jenny that is at the heart of the film. Jenny’s mother died when she was very young and she is abused and presumably molested by her alcoholic father as a little girl. As an adult she becomes a stripper then a hippie, sleeping with random men and using drugs all the while. I’m no psychologist, but even though we don’t get an in depth glimpse into Jenny’s home life (the movie, afterall, is about Forrest) we can surmise that her abusive situation leads to extremely low self-esteem and an understandably skewed perspective. We all know that, under normal circumstances, a pretty girl like Jenny would never give a simpleton like Forrest the time of day, but because of her situation a genuinely good-hearted soul like him becomes her rock. In a way he saves her life as much as he saves Lt. Dan’s.

The parallel stories of Jenny & Forrest represent, for some, the Two Americas that so many politicians have campaigned about. He is the clean cut, All-American football player, war hero, and successful businessman with a kind disposition and solid values. She is sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll…an embodiment of the 60’s counterculture that, through the prism of history, has lost a lot of its romantic luster and is often viewed as the beginning of the internal destruction of our nation. I don’t know if this was intentional by the filmmakers or Winston Groom, the author of the original novel, but I am not sure it’s all that important anyway. Lots of books and movies can be examined for sociopolitical meaning or spin, and that can be fun and interesting. But I am just not one to get caught up in paralysis by analysis. I look at Forrest Gump as being original, well written, and tremendously entertaining. It is thought provoking, slightly philosophical, and poignant without going over-the-top into maudlin tearjerker territory. That’s enough for me, but if one chooses to read some sort of deep significance into every scene or snippet of dialogue have at it…the material is there.

The performances in this film are nothing short of magnificent. Tom Hanks won a well-deserved second consecutive Oscar for Best Actor. Hanks is so good that while watching the movie one is not watching an actor portray a role…Tom Hanks IS Forrest Gump. Gary Sinise, who was largely an unknown at the time other than a nice turn as George in an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice & Men alongside John Malkovich, portrays Lt. Dan as a bitter cripple searching for answers after Forrest denies him his destiny of dying on the battlefield. Sinise was robbed at the Academy Awards, losing the Best Supporting Actor statue to Martin Landau for his turn as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood. Landau also beat Samuel L. Jackson, who was nominated for his role in Pulp Fiction. At any rate, Forrest Gump made me a Gary Sinise fan, and he continues to be one of the most underrated actors today. Sally Field, only 10 years older than Hanks, plays Momma Gump in what may have been one of the most underappreciated roles of her career. For me it is a performance that ranks right up there with more acclaimed ones in Norma Rae (for which she won a best Actress Oscar), Smokey & the Bandit, and Steel Magnolias. Mykelti Williamson hasn’t done much since Forrest Gump, but tell me you don’t hear his voice in your head every time someone is talking about shrimp (“Shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. Dey’s uh…shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There’s pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich…”). And finally there is Robin Wright, whose portrayal of Jenny evokes sadness & sympathy in such a way that one never stops rooting for her no matter how many wrong turns she seems to take. Wright too was overlooked by the Oscar folks, which is a shame. Forrest Gump was unquestionably the best performance of her career.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the music. Forrest Gump utilizes tunes from the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, ending up with what is a truly awesome soundtrack. Elvis, The Doors, CCR, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jimi Hendrix…and so much more. I am a big believer in the power of music making a huge difference in a movie, and here there is no doubt that it greatly enhances the experience. Sometimes it is an original score, like the theme for Jaws. Or existing songs can be used to evoke a mood and embody a certain time period, such as Saturday Night Fever, The Big Chill, or Footloose. The latter is the case here. Would the writing and the performances qualify Forrest Gump as a great film regardless?? Probably. But the outstanding music adds an important layer that takes the film from extremely good to transcendent.

The writing in Forrest Gump is like a great chess match. It is three moves ahead of the viewer at all times, setting you up for a checkmate you never see coming. There is great drama, but then there will be a scene or a line of dialogue that makes me laugh. I suppose this might keep folks uncomfortably off balance in 9 out of 10 movies, but this is the rare occasion where it works. I chuckle every time I see young Forrest listening to his mother…ummm…convince the school principal to let Forrest attend. Or when Lt. Dan, in the midst of a very powerful soliloquy about salvation asks Forrest if he has found Jesus and he sincerely replies that he didn’t know he was supposed to be looking for Him. But then before one can even stop smiling there is inevitably an introspective moment that gives one pause. There are two scenes near the end of the film that I am convinced won Hanks the Academy Award. The first is when Forrest finds out that Jenny has given birth to a now school age child and that he is the father. Overcome with emotion the first thing he asks is if the child is smart, with the implication being that he is very well aware of his own mental deficiencies. It is an extremely powerful moment…maybe one of the most moving scenes in the history of film. The second is when Jenny dies, ostensibly from HIV/AIDS, and Forrest is talking to her grave. That scene in the hands of any other performer may be cliché and overly melodramatic, but Tom Hanks hits just the right note of perfection. It is a breathtaking sequence.

Forrest Gump, much like the sociopolitical divide it may or may not represent, is black & white for many people. Some adore it, some think it detestable. I am not sure why the haters hate, but I think they are missing out. As for myself, I have grown to adore this film and have watched it countless times. It is everything a great movie should be and more. And that’s all I have to say about that.

American Idol: Separating The Contenders From The Pretenders

My friend The Owl and I created our own secret society in college called The FUC Club. I may expand on the particulars some other time, but suffice to say that the moniker stands for Fat, Ugly, & Crippled and is built around the basic idea that the world caters to The Pretty People. It is undeniable that…assuming all other factors are as equal as possible…a hottie will beat out an unattractive, overweight, or disabled/disfigured person the vast majority of the time, whether it be in the job market, in the romance department, or just general popularity amongst friends & neighbors. That’s life. This truth is especially prominent in the entertainment industry. Now I know one could come up with a fairly decent list of relatively unattractive individuals who have somehow achieved some level of fame & fortune, and that’s fine…there are exceptions to every rule, but the rule is the rule for a reason.

What I have decided to do is apply this logic to American Idol and give the masses a look ahead at what to expect on the show in the coming weeks. The great thing about this is, there is precedence. Idol is in its 10th season and has produced nine previous winners and a few non-winners that managed to not be forgotten within 10 minutes:


Kelly Clarkson – The original American Idol, crowned at the conclusion of the first season in 2002. Regardless of whether or not Kelly is your particular cup o’ tea she has had a nice career. She’s had a couple of platinum albums, won a couple of Grammys & various other awards, and has received a fair amount of play on the radio over the years. She’s also young & tasty (if you like the brooding, not-quite-goth Joan Jett wannabe vibe).


Ruben Studdard – Ahhh, The Velvet Teddy Bear. He sounds like Luther Vandross but looks like Fat Albert. I think I have more records on my iTunes playlist that Ruben ever sold. Do I believe there is a racial issue here?? No, not at all. I think the bigger problem is that Ruben doesn’t have “the look”. He’s just not the type of hunk that impressionable 13 year old girls…the kind that have made Twilight a worldwide phenomenon…swoon over. I am certainly not advocating the validity of the tastes of junior high schoolers, but they do seem to wield a lot of power in the marketplace.


Fantasia Barrino – Hands down the worst Idol of them all. She looks like a crack ho and has a stripper name. Her music career was DOA and she ended up doing a reality show. Coincidentally her actual life is like a bad reality show too…dating married men, drug overdoses, foreclosure, etc. Here’s the bottom line – everyone loves a good “they dragged themselves out of poverty and achieved something” story…on 60 Minutes. But other than that most Americans find that stuff depressing and just want to be entertained, preferably by someone they can fantasize about while making love to their spouse.


Carrie Underwood – I’m far too lazy to compare numbers and such, but I am calling Underwood the most successful Idol of them all, with respectful apologies to Clarkson fans. A blonde bombshell with a girl-next-door persona is the prototype American Idol contestant. It helps that she can sing, and it’s even better that she decided her niche was in country music where there seems to be more longevity and fan loyalty. She’s won Grammys, American Music Awards, Peoples’ Choice Awards, and just about everything available from the country community, including Entertainer of the Year. Carrie Underwood might be one of the biggest reasons American Idol is still on the air, because she embodies the potential mega-success that every contestant craves.


Taylor Hicks – Is a 30 year old with grey hair and a voice reminiscent of Joe Cocker cool?? Maybe to some, but not enough. I think he’s in a touring company of Grease these days, playing Teen Angel (made famous by Frankie Avalon in the movie). Does that entail doing anything more than singing one song and being on stage for 5 minutes?? At any rate, his music career is non-existent and I have no idea how this guy ever won the competition, seeing as how he beat out atleast 2 or 3 people who have proven to be more successful. Again, like Studdard, he just doesn’t have much commercial appeal to the target demographic. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying it is what it is.


Jordin Sparks – Let’s give Sparks an incomplete. The youngest Idol when she won at age 17, she is still only 21 years old. She has sold her fair share of records, but to be honest her type of teeny bopper R&B-pop isn’t what I typically listen to, so maybe she’s more successful than I realize. Still, I’d be willing to bet that if a survey were to be taken asking people to name famous Idol alums the name Jordin Sparks wouldn’t roll off the tongues of most (even though it is a catchy name). Why?? I personally think she’s rather attractive…but…does she fit the typical mold of “hot”?? Probably not. She’s a little chunky, and probably still a little too…..girlish. But, as mentioned, the jury is still out. Give her a couple years to lose a few pounds and sex up her image and the American public will eat it up. Sad but true.

David Cook, Kris Allen, & Lee DeWyze  –

I think it may be a little too soon to thoroughly analyze the last three Idols. However, I will say one thing. My concern about all of them would be that they don’t stand out. None really fit into my original hypothesis, as they aren’t overweight, deformed, or empirically hideous in any way. However, decent looking 20-s0mething white guys who sing cookie cutter pop music are a dime-a-dozen and easily get lost in the shuffle. Taylor Hicks and Ruben Studdard may not fit the societal standard of beautiful but atleast they are distinctive and one can pick them out of the crowd.


Justin Guarini – The first ever runner-up, which for years has made him the butt of jokes. I didn’t start watching American Idol until the finale of that first season, but I have heard more than a few folks say throughout the years that Guarini was better than Clarkson and should have won. I became a believer a couple summers ago when he performed at a local festival in my hometown and I was quite unexpectedly very entertained. This dude can sing. And he stands out in the crowd with that geri-curled hair that makes him distinctive without having to be weird. I think Justin Guarini could have been a tremendous success, but for whatever reason he just hasn’t reached that level of fame & fortune. And if it hasn’t happened by now it is unlikely it ever will. I am tempted to blame that God awful movie he made with Clarkson, but it didn’t seem to have any significant impact on her fate. Maybe, despite non-existent record sales or commercial prosperity, the fact that we even still remember the guy that finished 2nd nine years ago is positive.


Clay Aiken – Let’s face it…Clay should have beaten Ruben. And for awhile it didn’t matter that he finished second. As a matter of fact, Justin Guarini, for a period of about 3 years, had to be wondering “What the hell did I do wrong that this dude did right??” Aiken has been much more of a success than Studdard and established the precedent that one need not win American Idol to ride the wave to stardom. And despite the fact that his 15 minutes are seemingly up, he has to be counted as one of the top success stories from the show. As far as how he fits into my theorem…well, he’s a flaming homosexual, so the traditional rules don’t necessarily apply, but women love gay men, especially if they can sing, and the only gay men that most straight men really respect are the ones who can sing, so Clay Aiken’s popularity makes sense.


Jennifer Hudson – Can you believe she finished 7th on Idol?? Hudson is a conundrum. In a way she has outshone them all, even the 9 winners. Because (with all due respect to Charlie Sheen), if your name is preceded by “Academy Award winner” you win. However, her success has come outside of the musical arena. She, like new American Idol judge Jennifer Lopez, is more of an actress than a singer now. Hudson also is the obvious exception to my rule. Despite the fact that she has shed a bunch of pounds, is now super delicious, and shills for Weight Watchers, the bottom line is that her success came when she was overweight and not that pretty. Major props.


Katharine McPhee – Kat McPhee is quite possibly the tastiest morsel to grace an Idol stage other than Carrie Underwood. That should spell s-u-c-c-e-s-s, but has it?? She absolutely, undoubtedly, without question should have beaten Taylor Hicks. How in the name of all that is right & holy could this vision of loveliness be defeated by Jay Leno’s stunt double?? But despite her hotness McPhee has yet to become an established star. She’s released a couple of albums, dabbled in acting, and kept her toe in the shallow end of the fame pool. Like so many other Idol alums fans of the show know who she is and have kept tabs on her, but that doesn’t mean a connection has been established with the masses.


Chris Daughtry – Daughtry is right up there with Underwood, Clarkson, and Hudson on the Mount Rushmore of American Idol. Amazingly, not only did he also lose out to Taylor Hicks (and of course Katherine McPhee), but he was eliminated before Eliot Yamin. Really?? Eschewing an opportunity to become the new frontman for rock band Fuel, he instead formed his own band and they’ve had tremendous success. Does Daughtry (the band) cover any new ground not already done better by the likes of Bon Jovi, Creed, Soundgarden, 3 Doors Down, or Nickelback, among others?? Probably not, but they are a fairly enjoyable listening experience. And let’s give the man credit…he found the perfect platform to separate himself from the crowd. I’m a guy and therefore not a good judge, but I assume that most females would say Chris Daughtry is an attractive gentleman, so therefore he proves the theory.


Adam Lambert – I honestly didn’t pay much attention during season 8 of American Idol. I guess I just needed a break. But I paid enough attention to know that everyone…e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e…thought for weeks that it was a foregone conclusion that Adam Lambert would win. However, Lambert is the exception to a completely different rule than The Pretty People Theorem. Remember how I said America embraced Clay Aiken because women love gay men and straight men appreciate gay men who can sing?? Well, that all goes out the window when the person in question is an absolute weirdo. Despite the fact that Lambert didn’t “come out” or really let his freak flag fly until long after American Idol had wrapped, people aren’t stupid. If I’d actually watched much that season I could speak more eloquently on the subject, but there had to be some reason why America chose nondescript milquetoast Kris Allen over someone with far superior vocal talent, and if I may oversimplify just a wee bit, it boils down to little things like if you’re a man trying to win a popularity contest don’t wear eyeliner. Ozzy and Alice Cooper may have gotten away with it, but they weren’t trying to win American Idol.


Okay, so now that we’ve gone back in time and looked at what works and what doesn’t work, let’s take a peek into the ol’ crystal ball and see if we can narrow down the contenders from the pretenders amongst the baker’s dozen remaining in contention for the 2011 Idol crown. Keep in mind that it’s a given that all these individuals can sing, so talent isn’t a factor as much as likeability, charisma, and whatever else seems to make one person more popular than another.


Casey Abrams – Casey is the Taylor Hicks of this season. With his full beard and pudginess he sort of reminds me of John C. Reilly circa 2000 in The Perfect Storm, and maybe a little like Seth Rogen. He’s just the sort of underdog that might develop a following and end up in the top 3 or 4.


Naima Adedapo – This is Fantasia Barrino 2.0. She’s got a name no one will be able to remember or pronounce, and a…shall we say “exotic” look. Enjoy the ride while it lasts sweetie.


Lauren Alaina – The minute this girl came on screen she was my pick to win it all. She’s got the blonde hair, blue eyed All American girl vibe just like Carrie Underwood. If Simon were still around he’d undoubtedly say she is very “commercial” or “marketable”, and make no mistake…that’s what the powers-that-be are really seeking. The producers of Idol almost certainly hate when fans pull crap like voting for Eliot Yamin over Chris Daughtry or Sanjaya Malakar instead of…well…anybody. My concern about Lauren is that she is only 16 years old, which I think is far too young to be thrust into the spotlight. But I don’t make the rules. As it stands, if Lauren Alaina doesn’t atleast make it to the Top 3 I’ll be shocked.


James Durbin – Here is an opportunity for America to make up for Daughtry finishing 4th five years ago. This dude is like Daughtry mixed with a bit of Adam Lambert, which I mean as a compliment. I love the fact that he’s not your typical metrosexual pantywaist. He’s a rebellious rocker that is still palatable to the masses, and he is obviously having fun. My money is on him being there as the finish line comes into view.


Ashthon Jones – Is she a Beyonce wannabe?? Sure looks like it to me. What I am wondering is this – while I may not find such a ripoff appealing, am I alone in that opinion or will the populace lap it up?? Also, will she develop her own individuality going forward?? Will she be given time to do that?? My guess is that she’ll buy herself 3 or 4 weeks as long as her performances are decent, but she’s not a legitimate threat to win.


Stefano Langone – There were about 3 guys in the Top 24 that all looked the same…dark hair, vaguely Mediterranean, nice smiles. I couldn’t really tell them apart. Luckily for Stefano he’s the last one standing. I’m guessing the ladies will fawn all over him, and he may last a few weeks, but he’s not going to win.


Jacob Lusk – Does anyone remember George Huff from the 3rd season of Idol?? Jacob really reminds me of George. He just seems like a genuinely nice guy who is sincerely thrilled to have made it this far. Unfortunately I think he will be amongst the early exits.


Scotty McCreery – Has anyone called Randy Travis and told him we’ve located his love child?? I like Scotty. He’s just a good ol’ country boy. The thing is, at some point in the next few weeks he’s going to be asked to do something out of his comfort zone, like sing a disco tune or something by an 80’s hair band, and that is when I think he’ll falter. His niche is just too narrow to actually go that far at this stage of the competition.


Paul McDonald – Now here is the very definition of standing out from the crowd. This is my pick for this year’s Clay Aiken, meaning he won’t win but it won’t matter. He’s got a future in the music business. The oldest contestant left, he’s still just 26 years old. I cannot put my finger on who his voice reminds me of. Maybe some Rod Stewart with a little James Taylor mixed in?? He doesn’t sound like Michael McDonald but he does look like him a bit, and the two are similar in that when you are listening to Michael McDonald you KNOW who you are listening to, and the same can be said for Paul. Anyway, I’ll be disappointed if he isn’t among the last 3 or 4 competitors.


Thia Megia – Is she pretty?? Yes. Does she stand out from the crowd?? Not really. She might be the first elimination.


Haley Reinhart – This is my sleeper pick. She’s VERY pretty, and I think she’ll grow on people and begin to stand out more and more if given the opportunity. It sounds silly to say, but more than just about anyone I think the length of her “journey” will depend heavily on her performances week to week. She’s not gonna have a built in fan club of sychophants who’ll vote for her no matter how much she messes up, but if she rocks the house time after time folks will begin to take notice. Don’t be surprised if Haley is still standing amongst the final group of 3 or 4. You heard it here first.


Karen Rodriguez – Will the Latino vote keep her safe?? For how long?? Personally I have found her rather forgettable thus far, which is why I don’t think she’ll last all that long.


Pia Toscano – The judges dig Pia, I can tell. She does have a star quality about her. However, unlike Lauren Alaina or Haley Reinhart, who both come across as wholesome and family friendly, Pia reminds me of the villainous tramp on your favorite soapy drama, the one who goes around stealing husbands and letting her bitch flag fly proudly. Guys LOVE that kind of gal, but women are threatened by it, which is where I think Pia will fail. If she can soften her image, and if either Alaina or Reinhart exit earlier than I expect, then maybe Pia can sneak into that top 3 or 4. Regardless, she looks like a winner who may stick around in the public consciousness one way or another long after her Idol days are over.


So 2 months from now, as this season of American Idol hits the home stretch, I think the front runners will be Lauren Alaina & James Durbin, with Paul McDonald, Haley Rinehart, and possibly Casey Abrams & Pia Toscano still in the hunt.

100 Favorite Movies…..#5

Do you remember 1983?? I do…sort of. I was 11 years old and in the 6th grade. Ronald Reagan was in office and proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, more commonly referred to as Star Wars. The U.S. Invaded Grenada, an island that very few had ever heard of and probably 95% of the population still cannot locate on a map. Everyone wanted their MTV, a channel that at that time still aired music videos. Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a national holiday. Return of the Jedi ruled the box office, or one could buy a $3 ticket to see films like All the Right Moves, Flashdance, The Big Chill, Mr. Mom, Terms of Endearment, Valley Girl, National Lampoon’s Vacation, The Right Stuff, Scarface, Eddie & the Cruisers, Jaws 3-D, Octopussy, The Outsiders, Risky Business, Trading Places, and War Games. DeLorean stopped making cars two years before a DeLorean was used as a time machine in Back to the Future. McDonald’s started selling something called Chicken McNuggets. Chrysler introduced us to the minivan. Legendary college football coach Bear Bryant died. Sally Ride…well…rode the space shuttle Challenger, becoming the first woman in space. Challenger would carry the first African-American astronaut into space just a few months later. Underdogs NC State, lead by coach Jim Valvano, shocked Hakeem Olajuwon and his Houston Cougars to win the NCAA basketball championship with a last second shot. Michael Jackson’s album Thriller spent over 9 months at the top of the charts and Madonna released her self titled debut. The Red Hot Chili Peppers also had a self titled debut album. The Japanese started selling some sort of video game system named Nintendo. Poison and Run DMC began their careers while ABBA and Sly & the Family Stone ended theirs. The Price is Right began having contestants play a game called Plinko. CMT, The Disney Channel, & The Nashville Network launched. Every child in America wanted a Cabbage Patch Kid. We said goodbye to Archie Bunker, MASH, Taxi, CHiPs, Laverne & Shirley, Square Pegs, and Little House on the Prairie while saying hello to Webster, The A-Team, and Mama’s Family.

 

And quietly, right before Thanksgiving, a little movie called A Christmas Story came to your local cinema. Most folks didn’t pay much attention at the time, and by Christmas it had ended its brief run. 27 years later it is among our most beloved holiday classics and one of my all time favorite films.

 

There are certain benchmarks that measure the passage of time, touchstones that commemorate life’s events and happenings. Auld Lang Syne and the big ball drop signify a New Year. The Jerry Lewis Telethon envelopes Labor Day. The kickoff of football season means summer is over and autumn has arrived while baseball ushers in springtime. And for me, the first time I catch A Christmas Story on television (usually on Turner Classic Movies on Thanksgiving or the day after) means the Christmas season is in full swing, while the final showing of the annual 24 hour marathon that ends at 8pm on Christmas Day is the unofficial end of our most glorious holiday.

 

I cannot imagine that there are many people that have never seen this most nostalgic of Christmas classics. It is the story of a 9 year old boy’s dogged determination to overcome the persistent objection “You’ll shoot your eye out!!” and receive the only gift he truly desires…a Red Ryder BB gun. Along the way we see typical snippets of boyhood Americana…the school bully, overbearing but lovable Moms and gruff, foul mouthed, well intentioned Dads, interactions with neighborhood chums, teachers who are much more aware of their students’ shenanigans than the kids realize, inadvertent use of foul language resulting in a child’s mouth being washed with soap, and a visit to a mall Santa who isn’t exactly jolly. The story is set somewhere around the late 1930’s/early 1940’s and of course was thrust upon the public in the 1980’s, another case where a sense of timelessness and wistful nostalgia crosses the time-space continuum and adds to one’s eternal enjoyment of the experience. Based on stories written by humorist Jean Shepherd about his childhood in pre-WWII Indiana, A Christmas Story has well developed characters and a rapier sharp script that is funny yet poignant and maybe even a little subversive. I have read Shepherd’s works, or atleast the one’s germane to this movie, and he is a very good writer. However, I think we have a rare example of the movie being better than the book.

 

It will forever be amusing to me that A Christmas Story was directed by Bob Clark, whose other notable films include Porky’s (and Porky’s 2), Rhinestone, and the original Black Christmas. Clark’s sensibilities would not seem to lend themselves well to the family/holiday comedy genre, but somehow it works perfectly. If one pays close enough attention there is an edginess…just the slightest hint of twisted, dark humor…present. But overall A Christmas Story is a movie to be enjoyed by, if I may steal a line from Nat King Cole and Mel Torme, “kids from 1 to 92”. The cast is absolutely perfect, with my personal gold star going to Darren McGavin as The Old Man, aka Mr. Parker, the father who is never given a name. McGavin did some other notable stuff in his career…the sci-fi cult classic TV show Kolchak: The Night Stalker, supporting roles in Airport ’77, The Natural, & Billy Madison, and a host of guest starring roles on various television shows from the 1960’s through the 1990’s…but his legacy will forever be tied to our current subject du jour. The Old Man is an odd combination of tough talking disciplinarian and clueless buffoon. In other words, he embodies a typical Dad. Sure the kids and their escapades are cute, and Ralphie’s schemes to somehow land that BB gun are the centerpiece of the movie. However, I submit that the sublime pleasure that is A Christmas Story is just as much about The Old Man’s potty mouth, his disdain for the redneck neighbors and their dogs, the ongoing battle with an old broken down furnace, and of course the overwhelming pride he feels after winning a trivia contest and being awarded with a hideous pop art lamp in which only he can see the beauty. The Old Man isn’t quite a slapstick fool in the vein of Clark Griswold, but one can see shades of Griswold-iness in he and his family. I recall reading somewhere that Jack Nicholson was the first choice to play The Old Man, but that he would have been too expensive. Just another one of those happy accidents in cinema where creatively working with a low budget ended up being so much better than just throwing money at the issue.

 

As mentioned, few took notice of A Christmas Story when it hit theaters in 1983. But television gave it new life, first on HBO in the mid to late 80’s and then on the Turner family of networks in the 1990’s. Momentum built slowly but surely and was given a huge boost when a 24 hour marathon, spanning 8pm on Christmas Eve to 8pm on Christmas night, began airing annually in 1997. In the ensuing 13 years the rise from forgotten theatrical disappointment to quite possibly the most popular Christmas film of all time has been meteoric. I cannot say that I have ever watched all 24 hours of the marathon because I do have a life, but I usually catch bits & pieces throughout and probably sit down and watch the whole thing twice. I would like to believe that A Christmas Story would have been recognized by the masses for its genius without the less-than-subtle marketing blitz, but let’s face it…the American public will fall for the hard sell and can be goaded into bandwagon jumping. I suppose scoffers will always believe this to be a movie that the public had to be convinced to like, and that may be true on some subliminal level. But I think it is safe to assume that we have all been sold lemons of far lesser quality (look at the current occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for example) than A Christmas Story, a film that deserves its place in the pantheon of traditional holiday entertainment, and has earned its high spot on this particular list as well.

 

 

 

 

100 Favorite Movies…..6-10

Finally. After over a year we have entered hallowed ground…The Top 10. This will be the last group of five, as I will give each of the top five movies their own entry. Part of me is actually a little sad that this series is almost over because I have had so much fun writing it and doing a self-examination of my own tastes. We’ll do it all again in one form or another in a few years, but until then enjoy the remaining entries, and as always thanks so much for visiting my little corner of this wonderful thing we like to call The Info Superhighway. Fear not, because I have much more to say on a variety of topics.

 

 

 


10 The Godfather Part II

As we have covered a few times in this series, sequels are often a very risky proposition. From a business perspective I understand why they are made, but from a creative standpoint and through the prism of the viewing public it is difficult to not fall into the trap of being lazy, repetitive, and uninspired. Too often we see sequels that are just retreads of the original…same stunts, same gags, same jokes, same effects. Or worse yet, the powers-that-be try to make a sequel where few of the original actors or characters remain and they are only borrowing a broad concept or theme with very loose ties to its predecessor. The Godfather Part II is not a victim of any of these issues. It is quite possibly the greatest sequel ever made. It was the first sequel to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, a feat that has only been matched once since with 2003’s third part of the epic Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Return of the King (movies that will likely make it onto this list next time around). Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel The Godfather is the source material for both the first and second movies in this trilogy and is a great read. I recommend the book to anyone who enjoyed the movies. However, this is a rare case where I must say that the greatness on film exceeds what one finds on the written page. Part II is fascinating, as it shows us two different stories at the same time. We follow Al Pacino‘s Don Michael Corleone as he moves the family business to the left coast in the 1950’s, making his home in Lake Tahoe while simultaneously trying to become a major player in Vegas, which of course mirrors the real life exploits of infamous gangster Bugsy Seagal. Meanwhile, in turn of the century Sicily we see little Vito Corleone‘s parents killed and his escape to Ellis Island. The adult Vito is then played by Robert DeNiro in a performance that won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, the only time that two different actors (Marlon Brando got the nod for Best Actor in the original film) have received Academy Awards for the same role. Vito gets married, has a family, meets new pals Tessio & Clemenza, and quickly rises from small time NY City hood to nationally known, feared, and respected organized crime boss. Flash ahead to the 50’s and we see Michael’s attempt to bring his empire to Cuba, his double cross of rival gangster Hyman Roth and Roth’s henchman The Rosato Brothers, United States Senate hearings with Michael as the chief target that mirror the real life Kefauver investigation of the mob, and the revelation that Michael’s older but dimmer brother Fredo betrayed him which resulted in an assassination attempt and ultimately ends up with Michael having his own brother murdered. I love love love Al Pacino and this movie is neck & neck with Scent of a Woman as his best role. In the original Godfather film he shares the spotlight with Marlon Brando and James Caan, but here he goes toe to toe with DeNiro in what may be his best role as well. The supporting cast is superb, with Talia Shire, Robert Duval, and Diane Keaton returning from the first film and acting legend Lee Strasberg coming out of retirement to portray Hyman Roth. My favorite character though might be Frank Pentangeli, a Corleone family caporegime who replaces Clemenza, a development dictated by a dispute with the actor who played Clemenza. Frankie Five Angels is just tremendous…funny, ham-handed, erratic, and most of all unique. I am not sure Part II would have been quite as good with Clemenza as it ends up being with Pentageli. The flashback sequences with the younger Vito are done completely in Italian, a risky move by director Francis Ford Coppola that pays off. Emulating real events like the coup in Cuba, U.S. Senate hearings, and the mafia infiltration of Las Vegas is a nice touch. There are a significant number of people who rate the The Godfather Part II above its predecessor and say that it is the only sequel in movie history that is actually better than the first film. I can’t go that far for reasons which I will eventually explain. Nevertheless it is an extraordinary achievement and those responsible for it…Coppola, Puzo, Pacino, DeNiro, and many others…can be very proud of what they were able to accomplish. The story arc of the rise & fall of Michael Corleone is truly one of the most inspired ideas in cinema and has been endlessly entertaining for me and millions of others for over 35 years.

 

 


9 Die Hard

I know I have said it before but it bears repeating…I am not an action flick aficionado. Most anything starring Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, Seagal, or Chuck Norris just doesn’t frost my cupcake. I have never seen a James Bond film in its entirety. Indiana Jones has never graced a screen big or small in my presence. But as with any rule there are exceptions, and this is the biggest one of them all. 1988’s Die Hard finds Bruce Willis starring as John McClane, a NY City cop whose marriage is on the rocks because his wife took a corporate gig in Los Angeles and now lives there with the kids, estranged from her husband. She invites him out to the Left Coast for Christmas to visit the children and maybe smooth things out. However, upon arriving at the wife’s company Christmas bash near the top of an unfinished skyscraper McClane finds himself the lone wolf fighting against a contingent of foreign terrorists who invade the party, kill the CEO, and hold everyone else hostage. The bad guys are unaware of McClane’s presence and even when he does make himself known he does not reveal that he has the skills to fight back. Soon enough the LAPD and the FBI are involved. There is lots of shooting and explosions, but thankfully they are accompanied by a good story and surprising levity for an action movie. I think maybe that’s why I like it…the humor sets Die Hard apart from others in the genre, who tend to take themselves too seriously. Don’t misunderstand…Die Hard is a serious movie about terrorism and one man’s battle to save the life of his beloved wife, but along the way we get airheaded FBI agents (agent Johnson and Special Agent Johnson), a limo driver that personifies the generation gap between himself and McClane, and the Dad from Family Matters, an 80’s sitcom best known for its nerdy star Urkel, who bonds with McClane over the two-way radio. We also get Hans Gruber, one of the most memorable villains in movie history. Gruber is portrayed by Alan Rickman, who is widely known today as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films. But in 1988 he was an unknown who ended up creating such a great character. It is implied that Gruber is a ticked off German who has taken over Nakatomi Plaza for political reasons. However, we eventually learn that he is nothing more than a thief whose goal is to steal a half billion dollars worth of bonds, destroy the building making everyone think the terrorists perished as well, and escape with the loot. It is an ingenious plan, and Gruber seems to know everything that will happen. He especially knows the playbook of the police and the feds, who are portrayed as predictable buffoons. But what he and his men don’t plan on is the “fly in the ointment” named John McClane. Willis was a television star at the time, coming into our living rooms each week alongside Cybill Shepherd in the detective rom-com Moonlighting. He had done a few forgettable films, but it was Die Hard that made him a star and he has continued to ride the wave for over 20 years. Die Hard, in my opinion, is the gold standard of action movies. It has just the right mix of drama, action, humor, suspense, good writing, and excellent performances. It is not gratuitously bloody, and it is just plausible enough for the viewer to suspend disbelief and become engrossed in the story and characters. 1988 was, of course, long before the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and for that I am thankful if only because Die Hard would likely never get made in a post-9/11 world. McClane has resurfaced in three sequels with plans for yet another, but those efforts have been hit & miss. I keep using the phrase “lightning in a bottle”, and it applies here as well. Countless films have borrowed elements of Die Hard in the last two decades, and I suppose imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But I have yet to stumble upon a knockoff that comes anywhere close to being as good as the original.

 

 


8 The Star Wars Trilogy

Yes, I know…I am kinda sorta cheating just one more time. In pondering the three original Star Wars movies…Episode IV: A New Hope, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi…I just couldn’t find a sensible way to justify any type of separation. It is true that most fans of the trilogy will say that The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the three and that Return of the Jedi comes in third. But I cannot look at these three films as separate entities. The story is an arc with huge themes of good vs. evil, destiny, vengeance, justice, fear, anger vs. patience, self-sacrifice, and betrayal. There are elements of religion, philosophy, and mythology so intertwined yet so subtle that the films may be enjoyed as simple popcorn entertainment by some and appreciated on another level by those who like to ponder life with a deeper, more esoteric thought process. Writer/producer/director George Lucas was heavily influenced by a number of sources, including the Flash Gordon comic books and movies of the 1930’s, the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, and Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero With A Thousand Faces. I am making the assumption that most adults have seen the trilogy and know the basic story, but…just in case…allow me to summarize. Star Wars and its sequels is the story of Luke Skywalker, a young man of meager means who is thrust into an ongoing adventure involving the battle between The Rebel Alliance, a resistance group that desires to restore The Republic, and The Empire, which is what has become of The Republic under the tyrannical rule of Emperor Palpatine. One must remember that this story was written and the movies made in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, so there are obvious parallels to The Cold War and the ongoing battle between The United States and The Soviet Union. Throughout the trilogy we are exposed to a plethora of memorable characters…Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Pricess Leia, Chewbacca, R2D2, CP30, Hans Solo, Jabba the Hutt, Lando Calrissian. I could go on and on. I have never been a big fan of westerns, but what Star Wars does is take many of the elements of the typical western and utilize them in a futuristic space motif. It is a concept brilliant beyond comprehension. Lucas has done some other notable films…The Indiana Jones Series, American Graffiti, Hook, Howard the Duck (well…okay…maybe that isn’t such a great example)…but his crowning achievement is most certainly The Star Wars Trilogy. Over 30 years since the story was first introduced to the public these three films are still among the world’s most popular. They pop up on television all the time and people like me, who have seen them dozens of times, still watch. Earlier this decade when Lucas was preparing to launch a new prequel trilogy…Episodes I, II, and III…the excitement and anticipation reached a fever pitch. People waited in line days in advance for tickets. Unfortunately the prequels did not live up to their predecessors, but honestly how could they?? They aren’t really bad films, especially the third, but there was no way they could possibly approach the greatness of the original trilogy. Every new generation that is introduced to The Star Wars Trilogy embraces it which is a testament to the timelessness and superb quality of the story. And make no mistake…it IS the story. Are there any truly special performances here?? Not really. The only acting that was ever critically recognized was Sir Alec Guinness’ Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Episode IV: A New Hope, and even that was likely more a function of his legendary status. Most of the other actors involved have had middle-of-the-road, mildly successful careers but are still primarily known for their roles in the trilogy. The only exception is Harrison Ford, who over the course of the past three decades has become one of the biggest movie stars in the world. So one must conclude that the enduring appeal of these movies is the epic nature of the tale itself.

 

 


7 Apollo 13

This is what NFL scouts might call at quick riser, a movie that has improved its stock the most in the shortest amount of time. Released in 1995 and based on the true story of NASA’s 1970 “successful failure”, Apollo 13 is a film that I honestly didn’t pay that much attention to when it first came out. Looking back I have to assume that is due to the timing. June of 1995 was a bad month, one that I look back on almost daily as a negative turning point in my life. So I guess I was engrossed in my own drama and didn’t make it a priority to go to the theater and pay money to watch tragic events of others’ lives. But over the course of the past 10 years I have discovered its greatness and become familiar with the real life situation. Directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton as astronauts whose planned mission to land on the moon goes horribly awry, Apollo 13 is just the sort of movie I can truly embrace. It is beautifully written, has understated, moving performances, and the direction by Ron Howard is magnificent. I don’t usually recognize the function of the director because honestly I am not familiar enough with what a director really does and what his/her role is in the final product. But here one can easily see that this story, in the hands of someone else…maybe James Cameron (Terminator, Titanic), Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2), Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator), Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs), or God forbid as a Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer production (Bad Boys, Pearl Harbor)…would have been completely different and likely lacked the subtlety and class brought into the mix by Howard, aka Lil Opie Cunningham, who turns it into something better than a cookie cutter action flick. Two supporting performances, Ed Harris as flight director Gene Kranz and Kathleen Quinlan as astronaut wife Marilyn Lovell, were nominated for Academy Awards. The film itself was nominated for Best Picture and Howard for Best Director. Somehow all four of these awards went to others. Braveheart won Best Picture and its director, Mel Gibson, won that award. Kevin Spacey was Best Supporting Actor for his role as Keyser Soze/Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects. And Mira Sorvino was Best Supporting Actress in some movie no one remembers. I suppose many may disagree, but it is my contention that Apollo 13 was robbed and should have won atleast 3 of these 4 awards. Harris’ performance is especially exceptional and cemented his status as one of Hollywood’s most underappreciated actors. Various television stations show Apollo 13 quite often, and I almost always stop whatever I am doing to watch, which in my mind is the mark of a really good movie. There is a scene near the end of the film where the fate of the astronauts is in question for about 3 minutes. This plays out in real time and is very dramatic. Since this is a true story I know what happens, and even if it wasn’t a true story I have seen it enough times that I know how everything plays out…yet every single time I watch I get goosebumps and am on the edge of my seat. Now THAT is a great movie.

 

 


6 National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

This is an oddity simply because it is the third movie in a series, and while traditionally the third movie in a series is better than the second (which is usually a poorly written, hastily produced money grab in response to the public’s love of the original) it is unusual that it would outrank the first. I suppose on most lists the tradition would hold true here, as the vast majority of folks would likely opine that 1983’s Vacation, where we first meet The Griswold Clan, is the best in the series. But by now loyal readers know of my fierce passion for Christmas movies, and that is why Christmas Vacation ranks higher than its parent film, which is 13th on this list. Clark, Ellen, Rusty, and Audrey don’t actually go anywhere this time. They stay home to host a good old-fashioned Christmas for the extended family, which includes Clark’s parents, Ellen’s parents, and the elderly Uncle Lewis & Aunt Bethany, though their exact relationship is never explained. Showing up unexpectedly is cousin Catherine and her redneck husband Eddie, along with two of their small children. Fans of the Vacation series will recall that Catherine & Eddie and their brood make a memorable appearance in the original, and Eddie turns out to be the big star of this film. There is too much goodness for me to go into detail here, but suffice to say that Clark proves himself to be as big of a buffoon as usual, all the grandparents are nuts in that special grandparent way, and Eddie’s antics are the icing on the cake. Virtually every scene in this move has become legendary, from the oversized Christmas tree that Clark stubbornly determines is going in the living room, to Eddie cleaning out his RV’s toilet in his bathrobe, to the 25,000 lights with which Clark adorns the house. As a matter of fact, every December channels like HGTV and The Travel Channel have shows featuring wacky, over-the-top, gaudy Christmas light displays from across the country, and I’d be curious to know whether those kinds of garish exhibits were always around or if Christmas Vacation was the impetus for an odd new holiday tradition. I remember the first time I ever saw this movie, and there is a scene where Clark crashes a saucer sled oiled up with some sort of food varnish that he supposedly invented straight into a WalMart. At the time we did not have a WalMart in my hometown and it was just becoming a big deal. I remember thinking “Man, I wish we had a WalMart”. I laugh at that thought now since WalMart has become such a ubiquitous part of every day life. At any rate, Christmas Vacation has quickly become part of the pantheon of great Christmas movies, one of the half-dozen or so that everyone watches annually. It isn’t high art and it isn’t supposed to be. It is fairly innocuous entertainment, and that’s just fine by me.

 

 

 

 

 

100 Favorite Movies…..11-15

Okay…so I know it’s only August, but today you get two holiday films, with both Christmas and Thanksgiving being represented. It is also another tribute to the genius of John Hughes, as three of his movies show up. I want to take this opportunity to thank my loyal readers who have stuck with this series in the year since it began. When I originally envisioned it I had no idea it would take over a year. I suppose I did not realize I would have so many other things to write about, but I believe that to be a good thing. Enjoy.

 


15 Office Space

I have to give a shout out to a former co-worker of mine, Brad, who brought Office Space into my consciousness somewhere around 2002-ish. Somehow I had missed it when it was originally in theaters in 1999 but I wasn’t alone. Office Space has become a cult classic thanks to home video and television, not because anyone went to their local cineplex and paid $7 to see it. They didn’t. Anyhow, for me the timing of my introduction to this movie was perfect. Brad and I were both supervisors at a despicable telemarketing company at the time, and the plight of Peter, Samir, Milton, Michael Bolton, and the rest of the gang resonated on a myriad of levels. I had never…and still haven’t…read the Milton cartoons, but I was intrigued by the fact that the film’s director is Mike Judge, the creator of Beavis & Butt-head. I was a huge fan of Beavis & Butt-head in college. Needless to say, Office Space does not resemble Beavis & Butt-head in the least, but it is somewhat surprising that Judge has not had wider success on the big screen. Office Space is a look at the day-to-day grind at a software engineering company and focuses on Peter, a miserable white-collar worker bee who realizes that “Ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that’s on the worst day of my life.” Now tell me…who among us hasn’t had a similar thought pattern at one time or another?? I would feel safe in betting that the vast majority of the working population aren’t spending 9-5 at their dream job and that in many ways a lot of people are somewhere along the scale of unfulfilled, unhappy, or downright miserable. And that’s just in their professional life. But this is a movie, so unlike real folks Peter stumbles onto an escape. During some sort of wacky couples therapy he is hypnotized to basically quit giving a damn, but the therapist keels over dead before Peter is completely brought out of his trance. The next day Peter feels happy and relaxed, without a care in the world. Hilarity ensues. The ensemble cast is superb. Peter’s best work buds are Samir, a man of Indian descent who is frustrated by people who cannot pronounce his name, and Michael Bolton, a guy who liked his name until he was 12 when “that no-talent assclown became famous and started winning Grammys.” They work with an eclectic group of oddballs, including muttering milquetoast Milton, who has an odd attachment to his stapler and who was actually laid off years ago but no one ever told him and a glitch in accounting keeps the paychecks coming, Tom, who invents a Jump to Conclusions board game that he hopes will be the next Pet Rock, and Lumbergh, the annoying, clueless, oblivious, hilarious boss that we all have had in one form or another. Along the way Peter gets a new gal pal, a waitress at a chain restaurant who hates her job as much as Peter hates his, interacts with a nosy neighbor whose biggest desire is to have a threesome, gets promoted by The Bobs, efficiency experts who love his frank directness & blunt honesty, and hatches a plan to slowly embezzle money from the company in a way that won’t be noticed. It’s all very absurd yet vaguely familiar, and if you’ve ever had a job you’ll appreciate Office Space as I do.


14 Planes, Trains, & Automobiles

The world’s best Thanksgiving movie, hands down. I suppose there isn’t much competition, but nevertheless Planes, Trains, & Automobiles is a great film. With the combined talents of Steve Martin and John Candy, not to mention uber writer/director/producer John Hughes, how could it not be?? Martin is Neal Page, an uptight advertising executive trying to get from NY City to Chicago in time to have turkey with the family. Candy is Del Griffith, an unkempt salesman who’s a wee bit too extroverted. He is also making the trek from The Big Apple to The Windy City. Unfortunately for both men the journey is far from smooth, with snowstorms, flight cancellations, train derailments, and a plethora of other humorous mishaps turning a short 3 hour trip into a 3 day adventure from Hell, atleast for Neal who just wants to be left alone but can’t seem to shake gregarious Del. As with most Hughes films, the fun is underlined with a slight hint of pathos, but not so much that it becomes mawkish, atleast until the last 5 minutes. But I am willing to overlook the last 5 minutes because of all the goodness that precedes them. Edie McClurg, known to audiences as the secretary in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and an ever present nosy neighbor in the short lived 80’s sitcom The Hogan Family, has a very memorable cameo role in this movie that singlehandedly takes the rating from PG to R. I am not advocating foul language, but this scene is undeniably funny and belongs in the pantheon of great moments in film. Other than that the supporting cast is inconsequential because the two stars carry the well written story all by themselves. What might have been a typical, formulaic, clichéd “buddy flick” or “road trip movie” is taken to a whole new level in the capable hands of Hughes, Martin, and Candy. It is a shame that the two actors never did anything else together because they make a great duo. In his review of Planes, Trains, & Automobiles critic Roger Ebert said “The movies that last, the ones we return to, don’t always have lofty themes or Byzantine complexities. Sometimes they last because they are arrows straight to the heart”. This is so true, as we are able to see much of ourselves in the foibles of both Del and Neal, as well as the predicaments they share. But above all else we laugh, and as anyone who has read this list thus far knows that is what I like to do and what I prefer in the movies I watch. Planes, Trains, & Automobiles has become as much a part of my Thanksgiving tradition as turkey, football, and the Macy’s Parade, and I would happily counsel anyone to follow suit.

 

13 National Lampoon’s Vacation

Thus far there have been 4 Vacation flicks (and no…I’m not counting that God awful made-for-TV deal they did a few years ago). The second, European Vacation, was forgettable. The fourth, Vegas Vacation, was lazy, ill-conceived, and disappointing. The third, Christmas Vacation, will be discussed at a later time. But nearly 30 years after it first hit theaters the original Vacation is a bona fide classic that has aged surprisingly well. My family was never the vacationing type. The funds just weren’t there, so we took what my Dad calls “The Old Italian Vacation”…a week on the front porch and a week on the back porch. Those of you that have had the opportunity to take a lot of family trips may identify more closely with Vacation than I do, but that doesn’t mean us homebodies can’t appreciate the uproarious misadventures of the Griswold clan. Chevy Chase stars as patriarch Clark, a food additives manufacturer in suburban Chicago. Clark loves his family and wants to take the wife, Ellen, and his two young teenagers, Rusty and Audrey, on a summer vacation. The destination?? California’s Walley World, an obvious nod to Disneyland. But instead of hopping on an airplane Clark decides that he wants to “drive the tribe cross-country” because “getting there is half the fun”. Thankfully the viewers are the ones having all the fun, as the trip is one calamity after another. It begins before the family even makes it out of town, with a shady car salesman tricking the obtuse Clark into buying The Queen Family Truckster, a horrific pea green wagon with way too much imitation wood paneling, 8 headlights, and an air bag that looks like it came out of the kitchen trash can. The Truckster looks like The Exorcist threw up on The Brady Bunch, and the dealer hysterically says “You may think you hate it now, but wait ’til you drive it” . Along the trek westward the family gets lost in the ‘hood of St. Louis, getting their car spray painted and their hubcaps stolen…barely survives Clark falling asleep at the wheel…rouses the entire sleeping population of a small motel when Clark goes skinny dipping with a Ferrari driving babe played by model Christie Brinkley…and makes the mistake of visiting Ellen’s redneck cousin in Kansas. That cousin is married to an even bigger buffoon than Clark. Eddie is a great caricature of lowbrow Welfare culture, and his kids are a chip off the old block. One of them has a box full of pot under her bed and tells Audrey that she French kisses and that “Daddy says I’m the best at it”. The older son, in response to Rusty’s indignation that there are no video games or other modern forms of entertainment, shows his cousin a large porn collection and explains the joy of…self pleasure. Then there is Aunt Edna, who hates Clark for some unknown reason and is in need of a ride to Arizona to go live with her son. Throwing Aunt Edna…and her vicious dog…into the mix just adds to the merriment, and her ultimate fate may be the highlight of the film. Needless to say The Griswolds eventually make it to Walley World, but that too has a fantastic comedic twist. I would probably not be going too far out on a limb to assume that few who saw Vacation when it hit theaters realized what a gem they were seeing and that we’d still be watching all these years later. Part of the credit once again has to go to John Hughes, who wrote the screenplay based on his vacation adventures as a child. I am hearing rumors that a franchise rebirth is in the works, with a grown up Rusty taking his own family on a wacky vacation. One can only hope that it is a properly funny offspring of its predecessor and that we may be discussing it wistfully in three decades.

 

12 Home Alone

The final part of today’s John Hughes three-peat is also another Christmas movie. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I cannot believe it has been 20 years since little Kevin McCallister was ditched by his family and had to fend off bumbling burglars with hilarious cartoon violence. 1990 was the year I graduated high school and entered college, so it is a very special moment in my life. Viewers had gotten a small dose of MaCaulay Caulkin the year before in Uncle Buck, but in Home Alone he takes center stage as an 8 year old boy inadvertently left sleeping while his family jets off to Paris for Christmas vacation. Now I have to admit, the setup is a bit improbable if only because Kevin’s family includes parents, siblings, cousins, and an aunt & uncle. One can realistically conceive of one or two people forgetting a small child…but upwards of 8-10 people?? One has to suspend disbelief a lot to buy into it, but I will give due credit…the writing is just clever enough that we do buy it. Kevin is doing just fine taking care of himself despite being afraid of an old neighbor fella who, local legend has it, is a serial killer and also getting a little freaked out by the furnace in the basement. Meanwhile, Kevin’s Mom is frantically trying to get back to Chicago to save her poor little crumb cruncher, with little help from local law enforcement or the airline industry. While all this is happening the McCallister’s neighborhood is being cased by Harry & Marv, two inept thieves calling themselves The Wet Bandits. Kevin fools them for awhile, but soon enough they figure out that he is…yes…you guessed it…home alone. Kevin overhears them plotting their pillage of his homestead and decides to fight back. Of course in the real world would a little kid stand a chance against two grown men?? Obviously not. But this is a movie, and Kevin takes care of business quite nicely. There are Hughes’ trademark moments of poignancy and sentimentality, but for the most part the story is ever so slightly edgy. Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern acquit themselves just fine as the clueless crooks, and the family does their part in driving the plot. But make no mistake…Home Alone is all about MacCaulay Culkin. I don’t know how or where John Hughes found him, but I’m glad he did. Hindsight tells us that Culkin was like a brand new car being driven off the lot and immediately beginning to lose value…his star would never quite shine so brightly again. But to millions of viewers every Christmas season, for a brief moment in time, he is and will continue to be that cute, innocent, funny 8 year old boy. Home Alone is required viewing in my household every November & December, and I would encourage anyone to make it part of their holiday tradition as well.

 

11 The Passion of the Christ

I really struggled in deciding where this movie would fall in the countdown. On the one hand, it is not entertainment and was never meant to be. One does not sit down with a cold beverage and a bowl of popcorn on a lonely Saturday night and decide to pop in The Passion of the Christ. However, I do feel like it is an important movie that everyone, especially those purporting themselves to be Christians, need to watch occasionally. The story should be familiar to almost everyone. It is the story of Jesus Christ, His earthly ministry in the company of 12 apostles, His pursuit, capture, crucifixion, and resurrection. The plot and most of the dialogue is taken directly out of the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Director Mel Gibson makes some interesting choices, especially having all the dialogue in Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew. I am not usually a fan of films with subtitles, but using the original languages for this film was a brilliant decision and makes the story that much more beautiful. The movie generated a lot of controversy when it was released in 2004, but that is par for the course in modern day America. Everything Muslim is cool, along with wacky Hollywood “religions” like Kabbalah and Scientology, but we dare not promote anything positive about Christianity. People complained about possible anti-Semitism because of the inference that Jews killed Jesus. Well guess what?? They did. But folks forget that Jesus Himself was a Jew and the fact that He was put to death by other Jews does not mean that we are to hate the Jewish people or that The Bible teaches that. It was all much ado about nothing. As a matter of fact, as a Christian I know that Jesus died for all of our sins including mine, so when I watch The Passion I am haunted by the thought that I did that…I am responsible for the violent flogging and crucifixion of Christ, and it convicts me tremendously. Bleeding hearts also whined about the violent nature of the film, as if they believe that Jesus was lightly spanked with a feather. The violence is what makes the film work, and I give kudos to Gibson for not holding back. The Passion of the Christ is not easy to watch. The first time I saw it I sat in the theater for about 20 minutes after the credits rolled, unable to move. Nothing I have ever seen outside the death of my own mother has ever rocked my world so deeply. I have seen it a few more times in the ensuing years, but as I said, it isn’t light entertainment that one watches for fun. I do implore every single person who has never seen it to watch atleast once though. It is an experience you will never forget.

 

 

 

 

100 Favorite Movies…..16-20

As the cream rises closer and closer to the top you, my dear reader, get another set of examples illustrating my eclectic tastes. Today’s group includes a musical, a drama, an action-adventure, a comedy, and of course my favorite…the Christmas film. Enjoy.

 

 

 

20 Grease

Grease is the word. It’s got groove, it’s got meaning. Grease is the time, is the place, is the motion. Grease is the way we are feeling. Or atleast it’s the way I am feeling at the moment. Released in 1978 but set in the 1950’s, Grease is another one of those films that has a certain timeless quality. Not all of us constantly broke out into song in high school but the issues faced at that time in our lives…the cliques, peer pressure, the snarkiness, bittersweetness of innocent love, rebellion against authority, the absolute need to be cool…are universal. 21st century teens are faced with modern problems…drugs, STDs, gun violence…that make those dealt with in Grease seem innocent in comparison, but anyone who remembers high school knows what a huge deal those seemingly innocent obstacles feel like at the time. Based on a 1971 play that I have admittedly yet to see but hope to someday, Grease has long been one of my very favorite movies. John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John star as star-crossed lovers who met over the summer and now end up at the same school. Travolta’s Danny Zucco is a leather jacket wearing bad boy and leader of The T-Birds, a fairly innocuous “gang” by today’s standards. Newton-John’s Sandy is the girl-next-door goody-two-shoes who isn’t quite edgy enough for the school’s female cool crew, The Pink Ladies. They and their friends engage in assorted hijinks like mooning a national TV audience when an American Bandstand-esque show broadcasts live from Rydell High, going head to head with a rival gang in a supposedly dangerous car race, and various breakups, arguments, and reunions. It’s all quite tame but nonetheless entertaining. The soundtrack is catchy and memorable. As a 3rd grader back in the early 80’s I once sang the song Sandy in a talent show. I was supposed to do it with two pals, but they no showed and I did it alone. I don’t think there is enough money or booze in the universe capable of getting me on a stage like that all these years later, but it is a fun memory. Grease still pops up on television quite frequently and has withstood the test of time quite well. I am shocked that someone hasn’t attempted to do a remake, and I sincerely hope that never happens. A sequel was made in 1982 starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Adrian Zmed, but it bombed at the box office and is usually mentioned in conversations about the worst sequels of all time. Personally I don’t hate it all that much, but there is no doubt that it doesn’t come close to stacking up against its predecessor. Olivia Newton-John never again attained the success she reached with Grease, and other than Saturday Night Fever it is Travolta’s signature role. I suppose other films may surpass it on my list as time passes, but I have no doubt that Grease will always hold a special place in my heart.

 

19 The Fugitive

Some movies are like wine…they get better with age and repeated viewings. Such is the case with The Fugitive, a film I liked when it first came out but have steadily grown fonder of as the years have passed. Based on a 1960’s television series, it is the story of an Indiana doctor who is convicted of murdering his wife and goes on the run (thanks to a train crash while en route to death row) to escape the death penalty, all the while maintaining his innocence and searching for the real killer who he claims is a one-armed man. In the TV show Dr. Richard Kimble pops up in a different small town each week with a fake name and doing odd jobs. Invariably his medical expertise is required and since he is a good guy he puts his efforts to remain under the radar aside and comes to the aid of people in need. This always attracts the attention of police Lieutenant Gerard who is doggedly pursuing Dr. Kimble across the fruited plain. The movie doesn’t stray too far from its origin story. Dr. Richard Kimble is portrayed by Harrison Ford with a mixture of pathos, street savvy, fear, courage, anguish, and determination. Gerard, now portrayed as a U.S. Marshal with gritty determination and sardonic wit by the exemplary Tommy Lee Jones, begins the chase. He and his posse don’t have to go far, as Dr. Kimble never leaves his hometown (although it is Chicago instead of a small Indiana hamlet). Kimble is hell-bent on finding the one-armed man, and Gerard is just as resolute in his mission to track down the convict. The cat & mouse game, the close calls, and the daring escapades of Kimble, who is concurrently pursuing and being pursued, gives the viewer a heart pounding edge-of-your-seat thrill ride while always remaining within the realm of plausibility and never straying from writing that is nothing short of excellent. The Fugitive is that rare action film with a well laid out plot. It does not rely on phony looking special effects and mindless explosions and gunfire for no apparent reason. The bus wreck/train crash that sets the chase in motion by facilitating Kimble’s escape is one of the more memorable scenes in recent movie history and kudos should be given to the folks who pulled that off. The climax is exciting though convoluted. The details of who really killed Kimble’s wife and why are secondary to the fact that it wasn’t him, he confronts the real culprit, and Gerard is thrown into the mix as a wild card whose actions are unpredictable. The one-armed man is sort of a MacGuffin, as he may have actually committed the crime but he was just a hired hand (pun very much intended). Tommy Lee Jones has flourished as a non-traditional leading character actor despite having to serve time as Algore’s roommate at Harvard in the 60’s, and he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his effort in The Fugitive. To be honest he is just as much the star as Ford though. Both men are pivotal to the success of the film. Could The Fugitive have been made with two different actors?? Sure. Would it have been anywhere near as good?? I have serious doubts. My affection for this film has been surprising to me, as it isn’t at all the type of movie I usually enjoy. And it is far and away one of the best movies based on a television series. I think the secret lies in the restraint exercised by both actor and director alike. There is action, but not the typical cartoonish violence we see in a lot of movies. There is drama and suspense, but the performances aren’t forced or over-the-top in any way. The Fugitive sneaks up on you, and I’m not complaining.

 

18 Dead Poets Society

Carpe Diem. If you do not know what that means then you have never watched Dead Poets Society and you need to get yourself to a video store or on Netflix ASAP. I am a big fan of Robin Williams the comedian and Robin Williams the actor. He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1998 for Good Will Hunting, but in my mind he should have received a statue 9 years earlier for this performance, a contest he lost to Daniel Day-Lewis who starred in some movie all of a dpsdozen people ever gave a damn about. The movie itself was also nominated for Best Picture, as was a movie you will see later on in this list, Field of Dreams. Both lost out to Driving Miss Daisy. These two travesties of justice prove just how little the Hollywood award shows really matter. Anyway, Williams stars as John Keating, an English teacher at a stuffy New England prep school in the 1950’s. His teaching methods are rather…unconventional, which suits his students just fine but raises some eyebrows amongst the school’s old fashioned elitist hierarchy. Keating teaches his students about more than just what their books say…he teaches them life lessons. He implores them to “suck the marrow out of life” and to make their lives extraordinary. A small group of boys in his class discover that when Keating was a student he was part of a secret society that would sneak out at night, meet in a cave, and read poetry. That sounds innocent enough by 21st century standards, but in the time this story is set it has an air of mystery and danger. The boys revive this Dead Poets Society and begin to buy into what Keating is selling, challenging authority and refusing more and more to conform to others’ expectations. One of the students, Neil, defies his overbearing father by performing in a play. The father expects Neil to matriculate to Harvard and become a doctor. The burden of this battle eventually persuades Neil to commit suicide. An investigation is launched, and somehow Keating is blamed for Neil’s death and loses his job. I know it sounds depressing, and the school, its faculty, and the obtuse parents are depressing. But Keating is the type of inspirational teacher we all wish we’d had more of in school. Williams’ performance is extraordinary. He throws in some of his trademark humor, but for the most part reigns in the manic schtick and is rather understated and nuanced. I wish he would make better choices with his roles, because when given good stuff to work with like Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Good Morning Vietnam he knocks it out of the park, making it all the more disappointing when his ample talents are wasted in crap like Toys, Patch Adams, Bicentennial Man, and Death to Smoochy. The group of boys who are the main focus of the story are portrayed by young actors who I thought might become a bit more successful, with the most famous among them being Ethan Hawke in what was only his 2nd film. Dead Poets Society has aged well and has that timeless quality that I seem to gravitate toward. It is a bittersweet viewing for me these days. When the movie came out over 20 years ago I was on the verge of attending college and had my whole life in front of me. The advice given by Keating resonated deeply. Two decades later and I realize just how much I did not seize the day and just how unextraordinary my life has been. Dead Poets Society should be shown to all high school seniors or college freshman, with the directive to take the road less travelled, contribute a verse to the poem of life, and live up to what we are fully capable of with passion and vigor all being given special emphasis. Carpe Diem indeed.

 

17 Bull Durham

If baseball were as fun as Bull Durham makes it look I could totally buy into the whole bit about “the national pastime”. Watching this movie we see nothing about steroids, gambling, or other cheating scandals. The players are portrayed as loveable ne’er-do-wells who aren’t too bright but they sure do know how to have fun. Rather than give us a glimpse of the big leagues, Bull Durham gives us some insight into the minor leagues, where the players aren’t playing for megabucks and being treated like kings. They are renting rooms, riding on buses, and finding ways to combat boredom between games. Kevin Costner stars as Crash Davis, a long-in-the-tooth veteran catcher who is given the task of holding the hand of dimwitted bonus baby pitcher Nuke Laloosh, played by Tim Robbins in his breakout role. They form an odd triangle with Annie Savoy (played by Susan Sarandon), a groupie who chooses one player from the Durham Bulls each season with which to have an affair. Annie is…unique. She has a singular set of values, and views herself as sharing more than just a bed with her chosen beau. It is a strange brew of spiritualism, friendship, poetry, metaphysics, sensuality, and moral support. She tells us, in a voiceover at the start of the film, that she believes in “the Church of Baseball” because she has “tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. There are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never boring… which makes it like sex. There’s never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn’t have the best year of his career. Making love is like hitting a baseball: you just gotta relax and concentrate. Besides, I’d never sleep with a player hitting under .250… not unless he had a lot of RBIs and was a great glove man up the middle. You see, there’s a certain amount of life wisdom I give these boys. I can expand their minds. Sometimes when I’ve got a ballplayer alone, I’ll just read Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman to him, and the guys are so sweet, they always stay and listen. ‘Course, a guy’ll listen to anything if he thinks it’s foreplay. I make them feel confident, and they make me feel safe, and pretty. ‘Course, what I give them lasts a lifetime; what they give me lasts 142 games. Sometimes it seems like a bad trade. But bad trades are part of baseball It’s a long season and you gotta trust. I’ve tried ’em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.” When Crash refuses to “try out” Nuke becomes Annie’s boy toy by default. Meanwhile, the relationship between pitcher and catcher is volatile, as world-weary Crash resents the “million dollar arm and ten-cent head” of the wildly goofy Nuke. The supporting cast is chock full of unknowns whose career highlight likely was Bull Durham, but that is just fine. The three main characters along with a strong, well written, amusing script are enough to make this a movie that has stood the test of time. One cannot help but think of it when attending any type of baseball game. Every time I see a “conference” on the mound I wonder if they are really talking about live roosters, jammed eyelids, and how candlesticks make a nice wedding gift. Eventually our trio comes to a crossroads. Nuke is called up to “The Show” and we get an inkling that some of Crash’s wisdom may have actually seeped through. Crash is released from the team once his babysitting task is done and must decide whether or not to call it a career or keep chasing a dream he knows will never become reality. And Annie must face her feelings for Crash. There is a certain sweetness mixed in with the hilarity, and that is a good combination. Writer/director Ron Shelton has done a few other notable films…White Men Can’t Jump and another Costner vehicle, Tin Cup, among them. But Bull Durham is one more case of lightning in a bottle, a once in a lifetime piece of magic that is almost impossible to replicate.

 

16 The Polar Express

So many words come to mind when trying to describe The Polar Express, but over the years I have come to settle on a just a few…whimsical, magical, and hauntingly beautiful. It somehow manages to put a smile on one’s face and bring a tear to the eye at the same time. The Polar Express is the quintessential embodiment of the spirit of Christmas. Does it invoke the name of Jesus or talk about the true reason for the season?? No. But I suppose I have become sort of immune to that type of omission. I understand the forces of political correctness and the fact that Christianity is a target in our modern world. Readers of The Manofesto know of my immense fondness for Christmas movies, and I am at peace with the fact that they either focus on the inherent wackiness of family interaction during the holidays (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Four Christmases, Home Alone), confront commercialization and its many branches (A Christmas Story, Deck the Halls), or tell a variation on the story of Santa (The Santa Clause, Elf, Miracle on 34th St., Fred Claus). I am strong in my faith and don’t need validation from Hollywood. However, I do like stories that, in their own way, talk about things that are representative of the teachings of Christ and exemplify the undefined, you-know-it-when-its-present Christmas Spirit. The Polar Express is based on a 1985 children’s book but did not get the big screen treatment until 2004. A big reason for that is the motion capture technology used, which wasn’t available in the 80’s. I cannot imagine a live action movie being within the realm of possibility, and I am so very glad an ordinary, ho-hum, been there done that animated film was not made. Some find motion capture to be a bit creepy, and it is very distinctive. Personally I find it visually stunning, which probably plays a major role in my affinity for The Polar Express. The story involves a young boy, never named or given an age, but seemingly right at that point in life where his belief in Santa Claus is beginning to wane. As he lay in his bed on Christmas Eve thinking over this very subject, a locomotive screeches down his street. This train if for children exactly like him…kids who are on the verge of putting Santa in the ol’ rear view mirror. The boy boards the train and makes friends with a young girl, a shy boy, and an annoying know-it-all. The trip toward the North Pole is full of action and adventure, but the group eventually makes it safely. Once there they meet Santa Claus and the boy is given the first gift of Christmas for that year, a small sleigh bell. The movie closes with a poignant voiceover that basically says that true believers will always hear the ringing, but most of us eventually lose the ability to hear the lovely sound of the bell. I take that as an allegory, alluding to the fact that most of us don’t see or hear the beauty in the world because we get too busy and caught up in our own drama. We don’t take time to stop and listen. I am 37 years old and long ago learned the truth about Santa, but there is and hopefully always will be a small part of me that yearns for the myth to be true. Jesus tells us in the book of Matthew that we are to be like little children, retaining our innocence and always leaning on Him for guidance. We have a tendency to grow up and shed our idealism in favor of doubt, skepticism, and cynicism. I have never had an issue with Santa Claus as a symbol of Christmas because I think that he represents the purity of childhood, an ideal state that The Lord tells us we need to somehow retain. I think Jesus and Santa would be friends. That statement may be equally offensive to hardcore Christians and agnostic secular types, and that’s okay…to each his own. As for me, I will continue to look forward each Christmas season to watching The Polar Express and being magically transported back in time, to that period in my life when all seemed right with the world.

 

 

100 Favorite Movies…..24 & 25

Sequels, though not uncommon throughout the history of film, really hit their stride in the 1970’s with the success of follow-ups to movies like The Godfather & Jaws and the insatiable urge to turn huge profits into even more money. These days it seems like a sequel is oftentimes inevitable, regardless of whether or not the quality of the original deems it obligatory. It is a hit or miss proposition, but Hollywood appears to be creatively bankrupt to the point that more often than not the powers-that-be prefer to squeeze a few more dollars out a known entity rather than roll the dice on a new idea. Anyway, there are three types of sequels. Sometimes only one additional movie is made to tie up any loose ends from the first, or maybe it is just that the second film bombs so badly that no sane person would green light a third. Examples would be 48 Hours and Another 48 Hours, Analyze This and Analyze That, Fletch and Fletch Lives, Grumpy/Grumpier Old Men, Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2, Weekend at Bernies 1 & 2, & American Graffiti and More American Graffiti. A much more common modus operandi is the trilogy, which is of course three films. Everyone knows about trilogies. Star Wars/The Empire Strikes Back/Return of the Jedi, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Back to the Future 1,2,&3, The Santa Clause 1,2,&3, and The Austin Powers Trilogy (International Man of Mystery, The Spy Who Shagged Me, & Goldmember) are among the best in my humble opinion. And then there is the ultimate in avarice and indolence, the series, which I define as four or more films. At some point these usually become a complete joke, which in turn leads to even more movies in an effort to somehow right the ship and recover some semblance of dignity. The four Batman movies from the late 80’s early 90’s (Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and Batman & Robin) suffered from an ever changing lineup of directors and leading men. The original Die Hard and the third entry, Die Hard With A Vengeance, were excellent, while Die Hard 2 was subpar and Live Free or Die Hard (the fourth film) was fun but forgettable. The Harry Potter series has thus far been pretty decent, but the movies aren’t nearly as good as the books. The Halloween series should have never made it past Halloween II. Parts 3-6 were horrible, H20 and Resurrection too little too late. And of course Rocky and its sequel were legendarily awesome but someone somewhere actually thought the four films that followed were a good idea (they weren’t). I won’t even get into the absurdity of horror franchises like the eleven Friday the 13th films or the eight Nightmare on Elm Street flicks.

At any rate, I go into all that as an explanation regarding my process when looking at these types of films and how I choose to fit my favorites into this Top 100. In a perfect world I would treat each the same, applying a set of rules that applied to all. But I have found this to be very difficult. If there are two films, maybe I like one and not the other (Caddyshack is appropriately celebrated…Caddyshack 2 not so much). Maybe I like both (Father of the Bride 1&2). I tend to keep trilogies together, as they generally have a “big picture” that is hard to ignore, regardless of whether their individual parts may vary in quality (Star Wars, Back to the Future). But even this isn’t always the case (Oceans’ Eleven and 13 are great…Ocean’s Twelve isn’t). Series are almost the opposite of a trilogy in that, generally, one must look at each individual piece and it is next to impossible to like all the parts (Star Trek) to the point that they can be viewed as a whole…but sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (Lethal Weapon). I felt it necessary to clarify my thoughts on these matters because I am aware of the inconsistencies inherent in the choices I have made.

Since today’s intro is longer than usual, and in an effort to stay within the confines of the theme, we will only look at the next two entries instead of five, as they are what inspired me to write this detailed preface in the first place.

 

 

 


25 The Lethal Weapon Series

It is pure coincidence that I happen to be writing about Lethal Weapon right when Mel Gibson is going through his latest public embarrassment. I have learned to separate my personal opinions about the lives of Hollywood stars from my enjoyment of their work. This became necessary over the years, as I am a hardcore conservative and the vast majority of folks we see on our televisions and on the big screen are so out of touch with average America’s principles that if I let it interfere with my entertainment I’d never have any fun. So anyway…there are four films in the Lethal Weapon canon, released between 1987 and 1998. The concept is your typical odd couple story, with Danny Glover playing Murtaugh, a curmudgeonly family man on the verge of retirement from the police force, and Gibson playing his new partner Riggs, a younger, crazier cop who has LWnothing to lose after the tragic death of his wife. Throughout the series we see the relationship between the two men grow, from distrust and antagonism to being best friends and brothers-in-arms. Each film provides a different big case for the duo to solve with the requisite bad guy steering some sort of nefarious plot. I am typically not a big fan of guns, car chases, and explosions simply because there are too many movies with only those things and no plot or character development. Lethal Weapon is an exception. Not only do we cheer for Riggs & Murtaugh, but throughout the series we get to know Roger’s wife and three kids, some supporting characters at the police department, a reformed whistleblower turned private investigator played by the always enjoyable Joe Pesci (introduced in Lethal Weapon 2 and present in the two films after), and a lady cop played by the lovely Renee Russo who flirts with Riggs in Part 3 and is having his baby in Part 4. The details of each caper aren’t really important. I even get the details of the various plots mixed up sometimes, forgetting which event happened in which movie. But it’s all good. Lethal Weapon is the rare action flick that also allows us to get to know our heroes and their loved ones, which is what separates it from the pack. Admittedly the first film is the best (it is even…if one is willing to really stretch the definition…a Christmas movie) and there has been much debate as to whether the fourth was one too many, but I prefer to look at the series as a whole because even the declining quality of the last two does not mean they were bad. Fans have been clamoring for a fifth installment for several years, but both stars have said no. I think it is likely that the franchise will be rebooted at some point, either as a total remake or with younger actors playing new characters who have some sort of minimal interaction with Riggs & Murtaugh to justify using the Lethal Weapon name. If/when that day comes I suppose I will check it out, but I can’t imagine it getting any better than the original.


24  Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

I have to give a shout out to my friend The Owl for turning me into a Trekkie. I was somewhat familiar with Trek, but when we were in college he really made me appreciate how cool the concept was. This was right in the midst of the popularity of Star Trek: The Next Generation in the early 1990’s. I became a fan of that show first and then went back and got into the original series and the movies. I suppose that is sort of an odd, backward way of becoming a Trekkie, but that was my experience. There were six films made starring the original crew of The Enterprise we first met in the 1960’s television show (Captain Kirk, Spock, Bones McCoy, Scotty, Chekov, Uhura, and Sulu). Three of those six appear in this list. The Wrath of Khan is almost unanimously the favorite amongst fans. 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture had k2 khanreunited the cast and fans were ecstatic after a ten year absence following the abrupt cancellation of the TV show. But let’s face it…The Motion Picture was not that great of a movie. The second installment rights the ship to say the least. From opening with the infamous no-win Kobayashi Maru test to the heartbreaking death of Spock, Wrath of Khan is a total immersion experience for Trekkies. In between those bookend events we get the antics of very pissed off supervillain Khan Noonien Singh who was cryogenically frozen in the 20th century, reanimated by Kirk and friends in an episode of the TV show, and banished to a desolate planet after he tried to stage a coup of the Enterprise. Khan and Kirk engage in a battle with distinct Moby Dick overtones when Khan tries to steal the technology for The Genesis Project, a terraforming device able to create new and inhabitable planets. Genesis is the brainchild of Kirk’s former lover and what turns out to be his heretofore unknown son. Wrath of Khan is not your typical action flick. There is a story, there are grand themes about vengeance and death, and there is some real depth and a range of emotions from the characters. There is even some humor provided by the always sardonic Dr. McCoy. Because The Motion Picture bombed the studio stepped in, removing Trek creator Gene Roddenberry from the helm of this movie and restricting the budget significantly. I am sure those were hotly debated controversies at the time, but no one can argue with the results.

And let me take this opportunity to say that I have seen the 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise and enjoyed it very much. Because of its newness it will not be making an appearance on this list, but I anticipate that it will likely make the cut in 5 or so years when I do this all again.