Movies: Groundhog Day (1993)

Testing the theory of gravity in the worst way possible.

“…standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”

When I first stumbled across this movie by accident, I was unimpressed. It mostly seemed to be Bill Murray doing his usual cynical-guy routine, something he excels at and has honed to a fine art since the early 80s. Seen it, done it, bought the movies. Yawn.

I was expecting a mild comedy I’d watch once or twice, and planning to come away with maybe a chortle and possibly even a laugh or a guffaw. But that’s not what happened.

Suddenly I was watching a man deconstruct himself.

Something happened about halfway through the film that made me sit up and pay attention. I’m trying to identify the moment, and what woke me up was Phil listening to Mozart as he reads. He pauses, looks around and realises how simple and elegant the music is, how beautiful it sounds. I can almost see him wanting to get up and shake people and make them realise how precious the seconds of our lives are. And then he smiles and goes for piano lessons.

Suddenly I was watching a man deconstruct himself. He slowly breaks into parts and then re-builds himself in a better shape as I looked on. By the last act, I was hooked with the story and completely in love with this movie.

It’s one of what I call “seasonal” movies for me, an annual treat. As trite as it sounds, I always make a point of watching it in February. It’s so strongly linked in my head with late winter that when a TV channel played it in June this year, it wasn’t right at all.

This is a spring-and-hope-returning film, a promise of a new year just getting into its stride. Summer isn’t right for it, no more than winter is right for Weekend at Bernie’s.

Groundhog Day always makes me melancholy as it draws to its conclusion. I’ve been enjoying the experience so much, I don’t want it to end. I’ve had the same feeling with books I love: I see only thirty pages left, and realise I won’t be spending any more time with these people, and mourn that they’re gone from my life and their time is short.

I feel the same way about this. Too quickly, far too quickly, we’re into the third act, Phil is at that piano in front of everyone in the town, and I realise that my time with him is nearly over. This movie could be three hours long and I probably wouldn’t notice.

I always want the fantasy to continue for a little longer. As the credits roll, I imagine Phil and Rita living their eternity where it’s always February third…for both of them.

Goodbye, Phil. I’ll miss you. See you next year, old friend.

Do you have any “seasonal” films that you only watch at certain times of the year? Let me know!

Movies: Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978)

Everything you need to know about this movie in one frame!

“Hey, could somebody please pass me the ketchup?”

When this film came through the post, my wife said, “I can’t believe you rented that. It’s a turkey of a movie!”

Once again, she underestimates my tolerance for bad films…and I’ve sat through a lot worse than Killer Tomatoes. At least AotKT isn’t going for high art and falling laughably short. No one making this was expecting anything but to have a blast and maybe make some cash on the side.

And let’s face it, you call a movie Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, it’s a bet you’re not going for an Oscar.

I’d mention the budget, but there was none. I’d mention the acting, but it was awfully, terribly, wonderfully bad. When the first scene has a woman doing a bad acting job while she’s washing dishes, you know this is going to be a laugh a minute.

The dancing military men was the strangest part.

That it wasn’t, but it had me genuinely laughing at some parts and just scratching my head in others. The dancing military men was the strangest part. To quote Penny from The Big Bang Theory, “The only way I could explain it would be to a therapist…with dolls.”

There are moments of genius humour though: A very cleverly edited phone call between a reporter, her boss, the man she’s following and his boss was a real standout. Brilliant! (Also, that’s pretty much the whole cast!). There was a hilariously badly dubbed Japanese scientist that cracked me up every time “he” spoke.

And kudos to the guy who did the entire film while dragging a parachute. That sucker looked heavy, and he’s getting some very physical stuff done while he’s hauling it around.

Aghhh! My eyes! My eyes!

However, I realised the real horror of this film about halfway through: It was made in the 1970s. Yes, the decade that taste forgot. And it shows.

Item! Check out that lovely dark blue sofa. With those burnt orange curtains, and the pumpkin carpeting. Colours that just scream to be together, huh? Aghhh, my eyes, my eyes!

Oh, that quilt cover! Restrained and subtle colouring there. Matches the puke green walls perfectly though, huh?

Proof that at least some of this movie was shot on grass. Or maybe that’s the carpet?

One last warning: AotK is not a film to be consumed while sober. Do not attempt to operate heavy machinery immediately during, between or after consumption.

It won’t be worth watching again…but just turn your brain off and roll with it. I’ve seen worse!

Have you watched any movies so bad they end up being good? Let me know!

Movies: Stand by Me (1986)

“The kid wasn’t sick. The kid wasn’t sleeping. The kid was dead.”

I can narrow down when I first saw Stand By Me to a period of two or three years in the late 1980s. I’m guessing ‘87 or early ’88. I remember which room of the house I was in and where I was sitting.

I remember it so well for a lot of reasons: My brother rented it (on VCR tape!) and brought it home with some other movies and some friends. They watched the other movies first; to this day, I have no idea what they were.

Then they stuck on Stand By Me and promptly fell asleep. But I never felt less like sleeping in my life. I sat there completely captivated by it. Hey! Kids my age! And not acting like they were five years old!

By the times the credits rolled, I loved this movie.

But there was more there. The power of the acting and the strength of the characters pulled me into their world and their search for the kid killed by a train. I had a moment of uncertainty and doubt when they fell in the swamp and went down to their underwear: I’d seen quite a few films where that happened and the characters never get dressed again, but the film thankfully picked itself up and carried on. By the time the credits rolled, I loved this movie.

It was a long time before I discovered this was a Stephen King novella in a four story collection called Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption, and I was just as enchanted with the story as the film. Dig it out and read a copy when you get a minute.

Then in 1990, something happened to my brother. He was driving too fast on a slippery road, rolled the car he was in, and died.

I didn’t see SBM for another few years after that, and suddenly it had more relevance than ever. After all, the last time I’d seen it, my brother was sleeping four feet away from me. It changed from a film to become a personal where-were-you-when moment for me.

In April my older brother Dennis had been killed in a Jeep accident. Four months had passed but my parents still hadn’t been able to put the pieces back together again.

Check.

Chris:  Gordie?
Gordie:  Why did you have to die?

Gordie:  Why did he have to die, Chris? Why did Denny have to die? Why?

Check and check  again.

It’s a movie that resonates for me on so many levels. It touches the part of me that still grieves for a dead brother after nearly thirty years.

You won’t have the same experience as me watching it, I realise that. It’s a very personal journey for me, as much as it is for Gordie LaChance.

Stand By Me is more than a movie for me: It’s a memory and an experience, one of the mileposts of my life.

Review: Eleanor and Park

5/5

Park doesn’t think much of Eleanor when he first sees her on the school bus. And Eleanor doesn’t think much of Park when she’s forced to sit next to him either…

Wow. That was something else.

Where to start with E&P? I’d start with the ending, but to do so would feel like a major spoiler, and it’s not something I want to spoil for anyone, even by dropping it under the safety of hidden text. Just read the book for yourself, then we’ll talk about the ending.

I wanted to talk about the ending so much when I finished it, I almost bothered my book-buddy friend on a Sunday night when she probably had better things to do. I would have asked my wife about it, but she’d have to read it first, and I didn’t want to wait that long.

But enough ending-related vagueness. What can I tell you about this book?

The simplicity of the writing pulls you in and along for the ride. The sentence structure is simple, almost an elementary level. But those simple sentences have complex themes poured into them. It’s like minimalism for writing; all the power is underneath the words. It drags you down the page and pulls you through the book.

There are no easy answers to the questions asked around the edges of this story. Eleanor is pushed into hard and uncomfortable shapes by the world she lives in. She cares deeply for her brothers and sisters, but finds she can’t drown with them and she can only save herself when the waters close over her head. Park, by comparison, seems to have life easy, but there are undercurrents to his life that make his footing less secure than it seems.

I liked the additional complexity of having it set in 1986 as well. Eleanor can’t simply reach into a back pocket and call 911, any more than she can call Park. He’s only a few blocks away, but it might as well be miles.

And how lost Park is without Eleanor, the music gone from his life both metaphorically and literally. The songs he’s never going to be able to listen to again. Ah, man.

It mirrors our “first times” so perfectly and makes us ache for everything to be new again.

I loved the way this book made me remember how it all felt. It mirrors our “first times” so perfectly and makes us ache for everything to be new again, for the first touch of a hand in ours.

(Falling asleep listening to your love on the phone, the conversations about nothing that mean everything. The first time you ever made someone a mix tape. Yeah, I’m that old I can remember doing those: The careful selection and editing, the struggle to get everything to fit onto a 90 minute space. Trying to squeeze your personality down to thirty songs. Even though I didn’t get there until I met my wife – my own Eleanor in style and bearing if not by name – until ten years later than Park, I still went through it all.)

I was almost blubbering and had to stop sometimes when I was reading this, because it’s so fragile, what Eleanor and Park have.

I felt like I would break it by looking at it for too long, and that would make my heart ache for its lost beauty.

It’s wonderful to watch these two fall for the first time, as we have all fallen. And in watching, we remember when they were us.

Books of the year: 2018

Another year on Goodreads!

My year in books at Goodreads.

I’ve been a member there since 2012, which raises an eyebrow from me when I think about it. Six years of reading habits!

22 books this year, which sounds about average for me. One every two weeks seems about right!

I managed to knock two books from my I-will-read-everything-by-Dickens list. Hard Times was a surprise for me: I was expecting something in a prison, or more brutal, but it wasn’t like that all. It’s one of my top four Dickens novels (so far!).

Two five stars highlighted there for the outstanding The Hate U Give, an extraordinary first novel from Angie Thomas. Read it!

And I loved Eleanor and Park (review coming in Jan 2019!), a book myself and my pen-friend are still discussing on and off.

The Stephen King’s this year followed a pattern of single female characters in peril. Of those, Dolores Claiborne was the highlight, but I enjoyed The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon right until the closing pages.

Endings being a weakness of King’s, he also managed to ruin Gerald’s Game for me by wandering off into some sub-plot I didn’t need to know.

More disappointments this year than highlights: Scythe didn’t really work for me, and Release was even worse. I expected better from Shusterman and Ness… Challenger Deep is more like it, guys!

The Children of Men spent too long on unnecessary backstory and the plot just plodded along, and Gray Mountain was John Grisham out of the court room and out of his comfort zone.

Three new fiction authors this year: PD James, Gillian Flynn and Joe Hill. Of those, I think Hill is the one I’m likely to go back to.

I already have some books lined up for next year (Dry, The Loneliest Girl in the Universe and The Quiet at the end of the World. Thanks, Becky!), and there’s the sequel to A Handmaid’s Tale due in November.

I should have finished all of Dicken’s novels by this time next year, which is something in itself! Then it’s on to his short stories. How did this man have time for ten children and two wives?

What books did you read this year? Which ones stick with you and which did you forget you’d read? Let me know!

A word from the quiet guy in the corner

I don’t like Christmas.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There are bits of it I enjoy…mostly the eating parts and the buying presents parts. I like buying people presents, thinking of something unusual to match their personality. I dislike wrapping them because I genuinely suck at it (ask my wife), but that’s another story. The tree looks nice, and I like all the lights.

But this is what Christmas is mostly about for me: People get friendly. People get sociable. People want to hug. Which is fine…but I don’t. Raised voices and laughter make my anxiety spike all year round, and there’s ten times more of it at Christmas. There’s ten times more of everything that makes me anxious at Christmas. Lots of people shopping and the endless crowds make it spike even more. I usually have a little patience for queues, but the pushing and pulling of Christmas erodes it even more.

The enforced jollity of it all makes me nervous. I really…really…do not like social gatherings at any time of year, and Christmas is everything magnified. There’s a staff party at school on the last day of term. I work with these people all year round, but I’m not going. I’m not going, and I’m still anxious about it, and it’s four days away. My wife thinks I’m being miserable and grumpy about it. I hated going to my own family parties, when such things existed. Parties aren’t somewhere I go to relax after a day at work.

Grumpy is my default behaviour when I’m in a social situation that’s making me anxious. I get grumpy a lot this time of year, as you can imagine.

The triggers for Christmas make a lot of it anxiety by association for me: Christmas songs and brass bands playing, it all adds up by association. Ugh. Make it all stop and go away!

Please, don’t invite me to anything. Just leave me alone. It’s nothing personal. If you need me, I’ll be in a puddle in the corner, exhausted and stressed.

I don’t hate you, or really hate Christmas. It’s just who I am.

Movies: The Greatest Showman

* Claws sold separately.

“Do these smiles seem fake? It doesn’t matter where they come from. The joy is real.”

Two minutes into this, my wife said she knew exactly where it was going. Penniless man becomes rich, forgets the friends who helped him, has a major setback, and discovers his real richness is his friends and family.

No surprises there in the storyline, to be honest. But it’s a musical, after all, and the story really only exists to join the songs together.

I loved the way some of the shots were framed so symmetrically. I noticed it a few times – in the Jenny Lind scenes and when Barnum is leaving to go on tour with her and his kids run after him.

The colour choices were all grand as well. It was nice to see a film not done in orange and teal for a change. I liked the solid and thick colours of the costumes and sets, all with the feel of a well loved and well used circus.

I wonder how well the soundtrack will hold up.

And Hugh Jackman, as usual, looks like he’s having a blast running through all his songs and routines.

What didn’t work so well for me (and my wife) was the choice of a contemporary soundtrack. Contemporary isn’t something I listen to a lot, so for me it bounced me out of the numbers more than pulling me into them. I found a lot of repetition going on because I was analysing the music rather than enjoying it.

It felt unfamiliar to my ears, so it felt uncomfortable. I do wonder how well the soundtrack will hold up in a decade or so, but people still listen and watch Cats and Chess, after all.

But when I could relax into the numbers, I enjoyed them more: The This is Me song was a showstopper. I adored the part where the bearded lady spins while everyone else is in slow motion. I loved the Rewrite the Stars trapeze song and the routine was wonderful and inventive. I’m still humming the Million Dreams song a few days later, so they did something right!

But it felt like there should have been more wonder…there should have been more spectacle and amazement. More songs and routines like the trapeze and the slow-motion spin. I should have been blown away more.

It isn’t something I’d watch more than once all the way through, but I’d watch parts again – the This is Me song and Rewrite the Stars, in particular. It’s a shame; there seemed so much potential there that wasn’t used.

Review: Moondust

2/5

In 1999, Andrew Smith was interviewing Charlie Duke, astronaut and moon walker, when he was interrupted. A fellow moon-walker had died, and now there were only nine of them left. Inspired and motivated by the fact that soon there would be none, Smith set out to track them down and talk to them about their experiences…

The first thing to note about this book is how much harder it would be to write today. Now, instead of nine, there are only four left (October 30, 2018). Soon there will be none, which is an astonishing thought: For three years, mankind sent people to the moon and then never bothered again.

Smith has no idea how to talk to introverts.

I know a fair bit about the Apollo program, but Smith throws facts and information into his mix that I wasn’t aware of. He develops relationships with some of the astronauts, and struggles with others. I was most fascinated by the two introverts – Neil Armstrong and John Young. Armstrong avoided all attempts at a face-to-face interview, but Young was stranger: He sat with Smith at a conference table, not opposite, but one chair offset, and gave his bare replies to the wall.

Smith has no idea how to talk to introverts, which I found amusing, since I am one and he’d presumably have as much trouble talking to me. He seems a pleasant enough fellow, but I wonder about his skill as an interviewer if he can’t get what he wants from his subject.

The most annoying thing about the book is Smith’s writing style. Here’s a sample of his compound, complex sentence structure:

“Houston would never win a beauty contest, but Bean’s neighbourhood on the edge of town is lovely, like a series of causeways cut through a friendly forest, saluted by all manner of towering, weeping trees, no one’s idea of Texas.”

…and he runs these throughout the book. Full stops, man. Use. Them.

Also, Smith drops references to the 1960s and assumes his audience is familiar with them. He talks about “Warhol’s Electric Circus” as though we know what he means. Some context would have been nice.

This is a book as much about Smith’s journey as the astronauts. He wonders why he feels motivated to do this project and shifts from controlling fathers to the astronauts as mirrors for ourselves.

At some point, he realises, the experience stopped being the astronauts and became our expectation of it. We all went to the moon, and we all came back with something different.

But we also all came back with the same thing: How fragile we really are.

A conversation

I work in a school, and I was sitting in the staff room the other Friday, reading Eleanor and Park, lost in my own world. There were two other people in the room with me when one of them started talking.

I watched their conversation for a while, listening to the rhythms and the sounds rather than the words. I tried to sketch it out as a graph, just for fun.

One person suddenly started talking into the silent staff room – loud enough to make me jump, hence the 9 on the vertical scale at the start. The second person answered at a lower tone of voice.

It was like listening to an abstract piece of jazz.

Then person one started talking about a TV show I don’t watch (“Did you watch The Apprentice last night?”), and they were off. That’s about 11 on the scale on the bottom. Their words intertwined, sometimes lower, sometimes higher. It was like listening to an abstract piece of jazz, full of counterpoints and sudden sounds. They both laughed at 21, by the way, a nice harmony.

It tailed off before suddenly restarting again at 25 (“Nick!”), then again at 30, when I went back to my book.

I don’t know how well these two know each other outside their respective school areas. But I found the interplay between them fascinating, and the way they seemed to become friends inside of a few minutes amazing.

Some people make that look so easy.