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Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Casual Critic — Top 5 Memorable Lines in Film

Last week the American Film Institute put out its 100 Most Memorable Lines in film history. While “Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn” from Gone with the Wind predicably took the top spot, and guys just a touch older than me love saying how much they “. . . love the smell of napalm in the morning,” (Apocalypse Now) neither means much to those of us who still insist middle age is down the road even though our 20s are a memory. So, I came up with my own Most Memorable Lines list, which AFI no doubt intended every blog even partially related to movies to do. Of course, my generation is accused of starting the trend of smaller and smaller attention spans, so I (predictably, I guess) kept it to a Top 5 List.

“E.T. phone home” only reached number 15 for AFI, but I think it's worthy of my number 5. This is the turning point in E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), one of the best movies ever. What kid didn't want to find E.T. in his back yard and keep him forever? But this simple line made us love the little guy even more. He had some fun, even kicked back a few, and now he was ready to head home. He really was one of us!

“I'll be back” was as quotable as it got in its day. You could even toss it out to a teacher in the right moment with just a hint of being flip and never get caught. Hell, you were being obedient if you did it right. The Terminator (1984) line came in at number 37 for AFI, but gets my fourth spot.

“Five minutes to Wapner” doesn't make AFI's list, but I just can't leave it off. Its quotability didn't last long, but it almost wraps up this great film in one line. Raymond's life is a routine, and absolutely nothing is going to change that. This line from Rain Man (1988) takes third on my list.

“You can't handle the truth!” This is the classic Jack line for our age from A Few Good Men (1992). “Here's Johnny” (from The Shining, 1980) is decent, but it's a second-hand line. “Truth” is original, has a very good build-up that sells it, and leads to possibly the only quotable modern-day soliloquy that acts as a climax of a movie. This reached number 29 for AFI, but hits second in my line-up.

“Yo, Adrian!” may be a bit of a homer pick from a Philly guy, but it's topping my list. In the midst of total chaos after the best fight of his career, this no-name Philadelphia boxer just wants to find his woman. It's one of the last lines in the 1976 film, Rocky. Number 80 for AFI, the line and movie are no doubt devalued by the predictable sequels that followed. Watch this movie again, and you'll be shocked at the depth of actual character development offered up.

Honorable mention goes to Meg Ryan's fake orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally (1989). AFI wusses out by putting the proceeding “I'll have what she's having,” but that's not what anybody remembers about the scene. It may not be a line, but it's funny as hell, and Freudians would have a ball picking its meaning apart in terms of the couple's relationship.

In closing, I offer apologies to fans of “Go ahead, make my day” (Sudden Impact 1983), “May the Force be with you” (Star Wars, 1977), and “You talking to me?” (Taxi Driver, 1976). All great lines, but just a bit before my movie-going days and flics I've never caught on cable or DVD.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Casual Critic — George Orwell's 1984

So many references are made to "Big Brother" that finally reading George Orwell's 1984 felt like getting in on some inside joke. I expected to find a haunting text that still had relevance as a cautionary tale about a future that we may well still be approaching. Camera phones seemed like the first step to a society that allowed itself to be constantly monitored.

Before you rebels take a hammer to Verizon's latest model, relax. While I can certainly understand the fears it may have wrought in the early days of modern communication technology, and a time when Communism was alive and seemingly well, the story has lost at least some of its bite.

Winston Smith is a dying breed of man that questions a state that has literally invaded every aspect of life. Constant surveillance is a reality, and every waking moment is spent in service of the Party (the government headed by the one and only Big Bro). The last frontier of control is thought, which is slowly being conquered by the government, leading to a population that believes everything it's told even in the face of absurdly obvious contradictions.

The story gets a bit bogged down in the doctrine of what the Party is all about and what their goals appear to be. The biggest question as to why they want to basically strip people of their human instincts is eventually answered, yet how they ''got over the hump'' of having the majority of folks go along with the program is never satisfactorily explained. Talk of a revolution only tells the reader that something brought about dramatic change, presumably a war, but even the fact that this revolution occurred at all is left in doubt.

This doubt is actually ok in some ways within the context of the story because of the Party's manipulation of the past. The Party literally rewrites history — from books to old newspapers — to create the illusion that current conditions are always an improvement on the past and in-line with what the Party promised. In fact, the government is constantly re-writing the official version of Newspeak (the new word for English) with the intent to narrow thought.

Though a bit dry, the suggestion that reality is shaped by words is an intriguing one, and is explored rather thoroughly. As with their enemies, the Party looks to eliminate — not refute, not diminish, but eliminate — words, and, therefore, ideas, that might contradict Party thought. The thinking being that if the terminology for disputing the Party doesn't exist, loyalty is ensured.

The biggest problems I had with 1984 may not be problems at all. First, it is certainly a depressing look at the fate of mankind. Secondly, a decent story-line is essentially interrupted right in the middle of the novel for a lengthy dissertation on how the Party is managing to dehumanize people. In the form of a text meant to debunk what the Party is doing, the explanations answered many questions I had as I read. But, it killed the flow of a story that was allowing details to unfold just fine.

Orwell does a great job of presenting the familiar in a new, somewhat scary light. The detail with which he conceptualized how this type of future could be maintained is almost startling, and I can't say that a path to such a future is inconceivable even today. His vision of the ability of a government to monitor its citizenry and manipulate information would only be enhanced by modern technology. But today's reader may need more to buy the initial fall of the human spirit, possibly due to the ultimate failure of Communism.

While 1984 is not a page turner, it's definitely worth the read.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Casual Critic — Ernest Hemingway's Men Without Women

Short stories seem like the perfect hors d'oeuvre for a writer or a reader. A way to practice your craft or get that good feeling of reading something literary without too much pain. But as we all know, looks can be deceiving.

A while back I tried to enhance both my reading and writing habits by focusing on the short story. I'll spare you my writing struggles, but I actually believe reading short stories can be more difficult than reading novels, just as writing short stories is in some ways harder than writing novels. Of course, I've never had fiction of any kind professionally published, so maybe I should just shut up.

Anyway, I recently put my short story efforts on hold because I was having more success with novels. It's probably just me, but short stories come with too much pressure. I always feel like you're supposed to have all of the power, meaning, art, and whatever else a novel offers in 10 pages. But, I needed something short to read, and Ernest Hemingway's Men Without Women came highly recommended, so I gave it a shot.

Only after reading it did I realize I already owned Hemingway: The Short Stories, which included every story I'd just read. While research didn't return my wasted cash, it suggested that this, his second collection of short stories, helped solidify Hemingway's reputation as one of the major writers of the 1920s. It also offers some prime examples of what I love and loathe about short stories.

"The Killers" is what short stories should be all about in my humble opinion. It pulls you in to a simple environment and offers a self-contained story with an ending that leaves you thinking. Self-contained is the key phrase for me. It sounds like an obvious element of any text, especially short stories, but it's not. Just read "Hills Like White Elephants" — the story never reveals what it's about. You can't even say that it suggests what it's about unless you really delve into the symbolism of the story's surroundings. Only research confirmed that the couple is discussing abortion.

It may be argued that there just aren't many casual readers of short fiction, making strictly text-centered readings unimportant. I just think any writing needs to have its meaning at least directly alluded to in the text. Research, allusion, symbolism, and the like are wonderful parts of literature. But if the meaning of a story you wrote is only grasped by knowledge of something external, I think you're a practicing literary snob.

"Fifty Grand" and "The Undefeated" are interesting contrasts for me. Both are about sports figures grabbing the last bit of value — be it glory or cash — they can get from their sport. My familiarity with boxing made "Fifty Grand" a great read, yet the latter story did little for me as I know nothing about bullfighting. It made me wonder how much an author should pull a reader over the hurdle of such unfamiliarity. However, my enjoyment of "Fifty Grand," which offered no more explanation of boxing than was offered for bullfighting in "The Undefeated," suggests it's not really the author's concern.

Though not quite on the same level as "Hills Like White Elephants," the stories "An Alpine Idyll" and "A Simple Enquiry" also put too much on the reader. The reader certainly grasps the story easily enough, but there's just nothing special or overly interesting about them. Any meaning given each story seems to come from the reader's desire to put value on the events described. While unfamiliarity with the subject of each taint my view, I also felt "A Pursuit Race," "A Simple Enquiry," "Che Ti Dice La Patria," "In Another Country," and "Banal Story," lacked punch.

However, "Today Is Friday," "A Canary for One," "Ten Indians," and "Now I Lay Me," approach "The Killers" enough to make this collection at least worth reading. Each invites the reader in, offers a setting that is quickly discerned, and the story says something worthwhile about its characters.

Thursday, June 9, 2005

The Casual Critic — Sideways

The little I knew about Sideways was setting off my trying-to-be-cool alarm. Previews hinted at the quirky, being different for the sake of being different thing that never quite works for me. And while the movie makers' choice to drop the F-bomb with the very first word uttered in the film increased the alarm's volume to deafening levels, my cause for concern went unfounded for the most part.

While there were some very funny moments in the movie (quite possibly the best of which only made the DVD extras — a scene shot almost completely in the dark involving a fake vibrator), little stands out about it. Though there's a slightly unique angle where one of the main characters is a wine connoisseur, the story falls into this non-outstanding category. Two guys go off on a road trip to celebrate the end of bachelorhood of the one guy who is getting married.

The main characters, Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), do come of as very real, which may not be the compliment you'd expect. In fact, my first impression of these guys was that they fit right in with my brother's group — a bunch of guys playing grown up, when all they really want to do is hang out, specifically with each other, play golf, drink, and talk about getting laid. Jack never really exceeds these low expectations, screwing around the week before his wedding and lying for the "uncool" Miles in an attempt to get him into the act.

Sideways is ultimately Miles' story, which saves the film for me. A writer waiting anxiously to find out if his latest effort will finally make him a published author, Miles offered plenty for me to relate to. (The only problem there is that I'm a writer that's never even gotten that far, and I'm not sure the character works for anyone that hasn't stared at a blinking cursor in an attempt to write.) He's a tortured sole who realizes his life is nothing like he'd like it to be, but holds on to his fun side by staying close to Jack. Though I could have dealt with more on Miles, an odd scene where he steals from his mother was a weak effort to delve into his dark side. In the end, I was surprised to truly care about what happened to Miles.

One of the funniest parts of the movie is Miles' effort to retrieve the wedding rings Jack has left at his latest one-night stands' place . . . after hubby came home. A scene on the golf course when others try to play through and, possibly the funniest moment that actually made the cut, a failed attempt to purposely crash Miles' car into a tree, keep the film in the comedy section with little argument.

An ending that was cleaner than expected — too clean, in fact — left Sideways as a movie that is just entertaining.

Thursday, June 2, 2005

The Casual Critic — Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code

I don't even know where to begin with a review of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Never in my life have I read,
nor do I expect to ever again read, a novel that so continuously shocks a reader with historical facts — albeit disputed facts — that are so enthralling as to render the plot secondary.

The book has been on the bestseller lists for something like two years, so I fully accept my status as a Johnny-come-lately. But . . . oh, my God! This book absolutely has to shake the foundation of many firmly held beliefs of anyone who has ever stepped into a Catholic church as a member of the congregation, even those of us who have strayed from the practicing Catholics.

If, like me, you procrastinated in reading the book, the plot is still likely to be something that rings at least a faint bell. A murder in the historic Louvre leads to an examination of clues in paintings of Da Vinci that unveil a religious mystery protected by a secret society, the Priory of Sion, for 2000 years. The plot itself is above average, though I still wonder about the ending. One aspect of the ending was genuinely touching, though what I consider the ultimate ending (regarding the religious subject matter) left me disappointed. However, the more I think about it, I'm not sure it could have ended in a more satisfactory manner given the subject matter. Perhaps, the ultimate ending tried too hard to satisfy the reader.

Regardless, the historical lessons/speculations offered in the text are mind boggling. I was amazed at times to have realized I had just read huge chunks of text that (literally and figuratively) amounted to a professor's lecture of religious and art history, and been riveted the whole time. I still want to see pictures of The Last Supper and Mona Lisa, and reread those sections . . . and believe me, I'm simply not any artsy guy.

While I couldn't begin to say a word about the validity of the version of religious history offered, I really have little doubt it is well-grounded in fact. At the very least, many folks clearly accept this history as true. I'm struggling to even grasp my reaction to reading the story of Mary Magdalen, the sacred feminine, lost or hidden gospels, the existence of a gospel written by Jesus, a view of Jesus as a man, and even a living bloodline of Jesus, along with the Church's role in keeping these things quiet and the attitudes about sex wrought by the concept of original sin. Coincidently I began reading the Bible for the first time in my life just months ago. Reading The Da Vinci Code was like reading an accompanying text that seems irreplaceable. Whether true or not, it feeds anyone hungering for the truth about Jesus.

Brown deserves an incredible amount of credit for bringing the reader along this trail of intricate symbols without leaving us confused or belittled. I actually felt as though I was playing along as the characters tried to crack code after code. In the same vain, he allowed enough feasibility in the plot twists that, unlike many novels, they never really felt "implanted" for the sake of intrigue. Most importantly, though I imagine many would argue, he does not attempt to scoff at faith. In fact, Brown allows for the importance and value of religion, and that even if every word of the Da Vinci Code is true it does not disprove the existence of God.

Though I have minor hesitations in giving away my highest praise, mainly my initial disappointment in the end, you can't ask for more from a book.