Choices in adding up all the tiny splits

The Atlantic reviewer is fully for the movie, and I agree fully. “Drinking Buddies is that thing that they say doesn’t get made much anymore — a well-executed, charming, effective, and plausible romantic comedy.”

The reviewer is fully against the movie, and I disagree fully. “Watching Drinking Buddies is like being the designated driver for a most uninteresting bunch of drinkers.” Almost zero praise follows.

It’s wild to see the range of reactions this little film provokes. Friends, if you watch in the theater or in the simultaneous showing on iTunes (like we did), let me know your reviews. I’m a sucker for a story that gets the little things right, even when there’s not much story to tell. Little things can often create a world of their own, with stories that don’t need telling.

Two movies that win you big in unexpected ways

42. Both this ESPN piece and this story from colleague Gene hit the meta issue spot on. 42 is one didactic flick. It’s the most sentimental movie I’ve ever watched in a theater. But, with that caveat, I’ve recommended it to all the friends and family who’ve asked if they should go. Why? Because unless you’re a hardcore baseball scholar, you need the refresher course.

As the Internet’s ridiculously sad Cheerios flare-up this week showed, racial progress comes damn hard in America. And on top of far-better-than-the-writing performances from Chadwick Boseman and Nicole Beharie as Jackie and Rachel Robinson and Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher, momentary but glorious escapes by Harrison Ford and T.R. Knight (George from Grey’s Anatomy!) from their sepia-starched roles, some brief but really well done baseball action, and an unabashed love of the game and the places where it’s played, we need every minute of this reminder of what Robinson did.

The other movie?

Mud. This year has a long ways to go, but any arriving movies are going to have to work to beat Mud for my favorite film of 2013. Part Tom-and-Huck, part criminal thriller, part meditation on poor Southern river life, the movie takes its time with all three parts, and there’s not a minute I would trade. Strong performances come all around, especially from the starring kids and Matthew McConaughey. If you’ve never read the Times profile of his shift in job choices (“The Rake’s Progress: A Midcareer Leap for McConaughey“), go back and do so and be thankful for people who challenge themselves.

The closest point of comparison among recent films might be Beasts of the Southern Wild. But Mud is different, original animal — making you warm, gasp and warm again a way that, outside of Flannery O’Connor or (more recently) Karen Russell’s best short stories, you wouldn’t expect. Bonus? The soundtrack, from David Wingo, Lucero and others, alt-country with a subtle hard edge. Lucero’s Take You Away is song that hooks you deep.

Oxford American had a good new SoLost video this week on the movie.


So many movies recently (many, so good)

Senna. Apparently, this documentary was great in theaters. I bring better news. It is the best possible movie to watch as a nervous flier while flying across the country. You get the good feelings of being a legendary Formula 1 racer with your faith and your countrymen — in a big country — on your side. You get the secure feelings of not being a legendary Formula 1 racer with your rivals chasing you and your risk guesses answered in every turn.

Midnight Run. How had I never seen it before? I’d seen every movie that’s half like this one. But I accepted my failure and laughed my way forward.

Hoop Dreams. Years ago, my mom told me to see this movie. I read the reviews, and they told me the same. So, I put the movie on my list. Then I watched other movies — for the next decade. Last month, the streak came to an end. Wow. No wonder it blew up in the mid-90s. The storytelling model was ahead of its time and dedication to telling the full stories of both its subjects made its tremendous high-school basketball a sideline. After watching, I spent the next hour reading about where they had gone.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi. After watching, I spent the next hour thinking about work, about whether we choose our work or vice versa and about what we owe our work or vice versa. The movie made me ask questions I’d avoided. The movie made me want to catch every single word of the subtitles.

Lincoln. So Spielberg — the knowing lines, the too many endings, the too many stars. But so good, so American, with a great, great Lincoln.

Young Adult. This movie is far from perfect. But good. It’s nice to have a movie get real screwed-up and still retain a decent sense of hope.

The Campaign. A second-class Will Ferrell movie — think Semi-Pro, minus one Maura Tierney — is still a fine movie. I’ve wasted time in worse ways.

The Giant Mechanical Man. Pam from The Office and the jerky doctor from the Mindy show are both having difficult lives. Is it possible they’ll end up together? Yeah, I know. But I can relate too much to the mechanical man.

When we all would have been antiheroes

The night before heading to the beach, Lori and I went to see Unforgiven at the American History museum. The showing was a special one, like the Casablanca screening we’d attended earlier in the spring. Beforehand, there were Western dishes (chicken, chili, cornbread) and open bars. Afterward, there were conversations with a pair of the movie’s actors and giveaways. We both walked away with copies of Warner Brothers’ massive Clint box set: 35 movies, 35 years. Not bad at all.

The screening was my second time seeing Unforgiven, and I liked how I came out of it feeling just as conflicted as I felt the first time. The movie was great, certainly. All of the characters and plots were morally complex, and there came your conflict. Nobody was a saint in this West. Nobody was a hero. My favorite line was a bastard of a line from a bastard of a character, Gene Hackman’s Little Bill, delivered as he kicked English Bob to a bloody-but-still-breathing pulp.

I guess you think I’m kicking you, Bob. But it ain’t so. What I’m doing is talking, you hear? I’m talking to all those villains down there in Kansas. I’m talking to all those villains in Missouri. And all those villains down there in Cheyenne. And what I’m saying is there ain’t no whore’s gold. And if there was, how they wouldn’t want to come looking for it anyhow.

The antihero has always fascinated me. A movie full of antiheroes — who all have the potential, in the right light, on the right day, in the right situation — to be heroes makes you kick English-Bob ethics like a stone or can all the way home.

In the Wild West, what choices would I have made? And you? All the free cornbread and DVDs you could carry couldn’t move you past the simpler equations that ruled the American frontiers. Manifest Destiny applied to the nation. You were on your own. And, true thing is, you still are.

When did Indiana Jones become Tom Brokaw?

The margaritas after the movie helped. There was no lost order resulting in half-price food, like there was the last time we were at the Ballston Chevy’s. There was no crime scene next to our table like there was the time before that. But both would’ve also been helpful.

Who would’ve thought making another Indiana Jones movie was a bad idea? Holding aside a Sum of All Fears-style mistake, who would’ve thought Steve Spielberg making another Indiana Jones movie starring Harrison Ford was a bad idea? Reviews from friends had already lowered my expectations going in. How did the bottom drop out?

(Note: This post is spoiler-free. I can’t begin to describe the ending.)

As much as I love Elvis, the first sound was a bad sign. Then came the dialogue, the accents and the much heralded fridge in short order. Far later, the monkeys were worse, and they were a long time coming. It was in the college restaurant where I placed Harrison Ford’s voice. He hadn’t sounded like Indy to that point, didn’t even sound like himself, but whose voice did he have? AhTragedy today, as former President Gerald Ford was eaten by wolves. He was delicious.

There was a lot of talking. The reviewers weren’t kidding about “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Exposition.” All of you who put Crystal Skull on the same level as Temple of Doom, your grasping at straws was admirable. The desert neighborhood and the motorcycle minutes this time were terrific, but we came up short: one nightclub poisoned shootout, one rickshaw chase, one plane crash, one Himalayan tubing adventure, a couple beating heart removals, one Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang-meets-Fraggle-infrastructure underground adventure, and one rope bridge. Forget Shia. Give me Short Round.

The Wall Street Journal may have put it best this spring:

None of the complex CGI sequences in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” can hold a candle, in fact, to the moment when a conspicuously youthful Indy, confronted by a black-robed warrior chuckling ominously, watched and waited while the guy twirled his scimitar, then pulled out his revolver and simply popped him with no further ado. But that was a long time ago, in a film that feels far, far away.

Also feeling distant? Air Force One, 11 years old.

I had a good time on Saturday night, I gave the movie that. Any true fan of the trilogy had to be somewhat forgiving of Crystal Skull. The movie was better than Love Guru. The movie was better on the big screen than the inevitable small one. The movie was better in the mall than at home. Metaphorically speaking, we named the dog Indiana.

Come on, baby, talk to me

The beginning of the conversation’s so awkward. No one knows what to say, and everyone’s looking to build on fragments. The magic is right there in Waitress, finally topping the queue this week. Busy week, for sure, everything else in this space has been written in advance, sorry.

But your accent can twist one way and mine can twist another, and fragmentary possibility is enough to push the rest aside. Says one great scene in the movie, “The way strawberry was always supposed to taste, but never knew how.”

This post contains spoilers

This post contains spoilers. I’m not kidding. If you haven’t seen Return of the King and are still planning to, this post will give away the entire end of the movie. You don’t want that, do you?

Don’t blame me if you keep reading. I’m going to talk about every ending this movie’s got. If you don’t want to know what happens, please scroll down to the next bold-faced text and continue there. This is your last warning.


Watching Return of the King last weekend, I got to thinking.

I was in second-to-last row at the Uptown theater, as historical and still alive as movie theaters get in Washington these days. The screen’s most likely bigger than your house, and the sound’s received all the upgrades necessary over the years.

Remember the Lost World trailer? The one where the lightning flash burst out of nowhere in the dark and told you something had survived? When that trailer played at the Uptown, I jumped more than any trailer before or since has made me jump.

That’s a quality movie theater right there.

It was surrounded by so much history that the neverending endings of Return of the King got me thinking. I knew all the endings were coming; mentioning their length was virtually a requirement for film reviewers this holiday season. But even still I was surprised. Fade out, pause, fade in, repeat. A movie series that was achingly sifted and synthesized suddenly couldn’t make up its mind.

Each ending had its own hue and tone, like director Peter Jackson wanted to spin each a different way but in equal amounts ““ to move ahead balanced and yet slow down. This goal was admirable. With nearly 10 hours of motion passed, carefully weighing how to cease motion was important.

But in trying for so many angles, Jackson may have lost his unique focus. Spreading his storytelling vision so widely opened the door ““ unavoidably ““ to sharing with other tales. As true to Tolkien’s vision as Jackson may have been, some of his endings came across in the movie theater as familiar.

With some analysis and without further adieu, I give you:

The List of Where You’ve Seen

All of Those Return of the King Endings Before

(in the Order in Which They Occurred)

1. Saruman is locked up. The Godfather III Ending. The ending that did and yet didn’t happen, this movie series device openly and prematurely extinquishes a character from a previous film. The purposes may be myriad: to work around an actor’s death or contract dispute, to retreat from a bad casting decision or to disentangle a convoluted plot. “Where’s Saruman? Oh, we took care of him. Don’t worry, he’s locked inside here, no need to look. Tom Hagen? Of course, inside too, no worries.”

2. Frodo destroys the ring. The Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade/On the Waterfront Ending. A two-parter! First, to achieve a greater good, our hero must rid himself of a once-desired object. The object has brought good and bad upon our hero, but now their time together must end. Almost. Our hero must also make the choice to live. Despite having endured a bloody fight and having accomplished the seemingly only objective heretofore, our hero’s livelihood has become so tied to the world’s fortune that he now must want to see the aftermath of his endeavors.

3. Frodo and Sam sit on the rock. The Hunt for Red October Ending. Two men, honorable but in jeopardy, discuss what they will do if they live beyond their situation. “I will live in Montana. And I will marry a round American woman and raise rabbits, and she will cook them for me. And I will have a pickup truck… maybe even a … recreational vehicle.”

4. Eagles rescue Frodo and Sam. The Joe Versus the Volcano Ending. Soothe persisent burning sensations with extra-strength Machina. If you have done a noble deed and are about to be killed by a volcano, a god or a literary representation of a god will ensure you survive.

5. Frodo wakes up. The Wizard of Oz ending. After completing an unbelievable adventure, a gay icon awakes to a scene that begs for psychosexual interpretation.

6. Aragorn becomes king. The Star Wars IV Ending. With the enemy finally defeated, the ensemble cast we’ve come to know and love is assembled one last time. Displaced leaders return to their rightful seats of power. Humble and unlikely heroes are honored. Where’s the wookie?

7. Aragorn kisses Arwen. The Most Movies Made Before Vietnam Ending. Tight embrace, deep kiss, the end.

8. Hobbits raise their glasses. The Abridged American Pie Ending. It’s been a long and crazy ride, but now four friends are getting ready to move on. Less than a minute later, one begins pursuit of a much older woman. (The Abridged American Pie Ending is also known as The Rudy Ending, wherein a Sean Astin character leaves behind a hardscrabble life and tries to get into an educational institution.)

9. Sam get married. The Snow White Ending. An evil person in the past has caused food-related trouble for a main character, but now this character must leave behind little person friends and get hitched.

10. Frodo works on the book. The Stand by Me Ending. Following a coming-of-age journey with friends, the central character chronicles how they defeated the old guard and grew closer together. After all, you never have any friends later on like the ones you had when you looked like you were 12.

11. Frodo heads to the Grey Havens. The Cocoon Ending. In return for aiding a mystical people, our protagonists ““ physically and/or mentally aged ““ are allowed to join a water voyage and be assumed into a creative conception of heaven.

12. Sam goes inside the house. The Spiderman Ending. Despite earlier saving the world with the help of an abnormal spider, your friendly neighborhood comparatively unrecognized hero resumes a normal life.

And that’s a cool dozen!

Peter Jackson, my hat’s off to you. You follow those breadcrumbs back like nobody’s business. Please don’t mistake my tone. I would rather you had chosen one ending and stuck with it, but I respect you for going to the metaphorical Baskin Robbins and ordering all 32 flavors.

I wouldn’t even have minded if you had gone further. You left out the whole “scouring of the Shire” ending of Tolkien’s, where the hobbits return to the Shire and have to wage one final fight against an evil overlord. (Or so I hear. I haven’t read the books.) This ending could have easily been The Back to the Future Ending. Because even after you save your world and go home, you’ve still got to deal with the Libyans and the morons in the pickup truck.

Another potential ending could be one you actually considered. According to IMDB, “the film was originally going to end with a voice-over epilogue by Cate Blanchett’s character, Galadriel, detailing the fate of the fellowship of the ring after the events of the movie.”

No sooner would she have spoken than you would have had The American Grafitti Ending. Used to prominent effect in several generational classics, this finale could have told us about how Frodo blew all his reward money hiring Van Halen to play at his birthday party.

That moment would have been boffo. Boffo Baggins. And to top it all off, to ice the cake, Peter Jackson, you could have done The Ferris Bueller Ending.

Credits roll. Credits end. Then Frodo returns to the screen.

“You’re still here? It’s over! Go home! Go!”

Favorite non-Muppet puppet?

The Muppets return to Henson family control got me thinking about what a goliath they’ve been in the last half-century of worldwide puppeteering. Between the base Muppets, the Fraggles and the Sesame Streeters in every language, there isn’t much room for anybody else.

Not that the competition has been tough, of course. Alf couldn’t hold Kermit’s Sesame Street News notepad. But there have been some worthy of respect and of more recognition than they have today. Here’s my top five non-Muppet puppet list, in no particular order:

1. Pepe Locuaz – picture

I choose Univision’s “Loquacious Pepe” from a non-Spanish-speaking viewer’s perspective. Hablo un poco español pero no mucho. Although mostly incomprehensible to me, Pepe succeeds on the Zeppo, the least expressive, end of the Marx scale. If you haven’t seen Pepe in his various Univision roles — I’m pretty sure I’m familiar with him from Sabado Gigante — then think of Sam the Eagle crossed with Guy Smiley. Professionalism interrupted by brief bouts of insanity.

2. Senor Wences’ hand puppets – picture

The hand puppets, boxed and otherwise, of master ventriloquist Senor Wences are the first of the two Ed Sullivan-appearing selections on my list. I blame Elvis, pre-Blockbuster Erols Video and the late WFTY’s rerun budget for my Ed affliction. I also blame my love of spinning plates. Returning to the subject: Wences differentiated himself from the ventriloquists I had seen on TV before (before age 12 or so). Instead of doing the Charlie Bergen, dummy-on-the-knee style, Wences offered himself to his puppets as a psychologist. The touchy-feely interaction offered a strange amount of reality in the sometimes-supernatural amount of star power on the Sullivan show. In America’s run to splintering audiences, Wences was a unifier worthy of both vaudeville and Comedy Central. The county was moving away from World War II’s “us” and toward the 1970’s Me Generation, but Wences asked about “you” and how you were doing. “S’ok?” “S’alright.”

3. Topo Gigio – picture

In the waning days of European ethnic stereotypes, before the silent majority found new opposition, there would be Topo Gigio, “The Little Italian Mouse.” His Ed Sullivan appearances and own appearance were unique. Although less than a foot tall, he popped in with the tiny, accented squeak of a full-ranged man high on helium, theater paint fumes and overdone marinara. But there was something basely appealing in that. Like any swooning toddler, he was cute in his contagious giddiness. Some detractors have pointed to his 1963 debut as when Sullivan jumped the shark, essentially comparing Gigio to the kid-friendly additions of the Cosby Show (Olivia) and Scooby Doo (Scrappy); but having missed living through that time, to me Gigio seems to have been the perfect add to an aging vaudeville formula. The televised cartoon was on the rise forward, and Gigio countered their parries with context. He wanted Eddie to kiss him goodnight. On Sunday nights, the accent aside, the mouse’s loving and frantic pleas segued warmly into the youngest demo toddling off to bed.

4. Daniel Striped Tiger – picture

Daniel Striped Tiger wore a watch and lived in a clock, yet his problems in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe were mostly emotional instead of logistical. He showed us the difference between timid and neurotic — the timid keep their nerves to themselves; the neurotic tell everyone. And while Daniel Tiger was neurotic, that flaw was okay in his case. He was neurotic for our sake. Because we were the timid ones, if you remember, and we needed all the exposition of fear we could get. Just as fortunately, he also helped with the answers to our problem. Sounding like “a 3-year-old with a two-pack habit,” he scratched out his main lesson over and over again: “Ugga-mugga.” His secondary lesson was implicit: Wear a watch. A lot of love and little legwork.

5. Marionettes, Sound of Music – picturescript

The Captain hears the children sing, adds his baritone to the final verse and runs to catch Maria. He apologizes and asks her to stay. “If I could be of any help,” she says. “You have already,” he replies. “More than you know.” The next scene begins, and the lonely goatherd finds love. Lay-ee-odl, lay-ee-odl-oo.