Showing posts with label Top 5 Lists. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Top 5 Lists. Show all posts

October 17, 2016

Top 5 Episodes of The West Wing: Season One

The West Wing credits for the Pilot episode in season one.

It’s been fascinating to watch the resurgence of popular TV series on Netflix and other streaming services. For many people, shows like The Gilmore Girls and Twin Peaks are brand new. One of the best examples is The West Wing, a major hit for NBC in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Despite some limited gender representations, the show was largely ahead of its time when it premiered in September 1999. There are still many devoted fans today, and the West Wing Weekly podcast is making new ones.

Hosted by Hrishikesh Hirway and actor Joshua Molina, the West Wing Weekly is the perfect companion for how we watch TV. Listeners can easily follow along with each week’s discussion, which covers a single episode in chronological fashion. I watched The West Wing during its original run, though I didn’t stay until the end. In the age before DVR, I definitely missed some episodes. This podcast inspired me to go back and check out the show along with Hirway and Molina. It’s been a blast to re-connect with the series and its beloved characters.

Following along with the podcast, I’ve recently completed the first season of The West Wing. What I forgot was how funny the show was; we remember the big speeches and forget the jokes. Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford, and Rob Lowe in particular are so good at drawing laughs. There are no duds in this cast; I don’t blame Moira Kelley for Mandy not developing. They tackle important social issues, and Aaron Sorkin’s writing gets preachy at times. However, it rarely feels too heavy and remains a light romp through the political world. It’s hard not to love the idealistic characters and wish for more of that from our politicians. It’s no coincidence that many are drawn to this show during our incredibly ugly election cycle.

What I didn’t recognize enough before this viewing was The West Wing’s confident direction and tight editing. Sorkin’s writing receives most of the credit, but Tommy Schlamme’s work is also so important. Their collaboration is what makes The West Wing click right from the pilot. I should mention the paternalistic side of the show, which comes out in conversations like Bartlet and Leo praising “these women.” There’s a similar trend in Sorkin’s Sports Night, which aired at the same time. There are strong female performances across the board, but not every story line clicks in 2016. Still, these are minor reservations given how much is right on this show.

It was difficult to prepare this list of my five favorite episodes from season one. The average quality is high, so there are few obvious misses. I eventually trimmed down the list to nine and chose the stories that shined most with me. To be clear, it’s impossible to say what’s truly “best”. We all look for different things in our favorite TV series. When I thought back to my favorite moments and story arcs, the standouts began to emerge. Ranking them was nearly impossible; the difference between the leaders and honorable mentions is extremely slim. I’d love to hear about your favorites in the comments section below this post. Let’s get to it!

Richard Schiff as Toby in The West Wing's In Excelsis Deo episode.

Honorable Mention: “In Excelsis Deo” (1.10)

I couldn’t find a way to place it in my top five but felt that I needed to credit Richard Schiff’s incredible work in this episode. Toby’s efforts to arrange a proper funeral for a homeless veteran are quite moving. Toby is often a grumpy character yet reveals so much humanity for a guy that has no one. It’s an interesting change of pace for a show that spends most of its time inside The White House. Schiff’s understated performance never makes it feel like he’s playing for an Emmy. All it takes is a look at his face to see the emotions in Toby’s heart. It’s a brilliant performance that reminds us that Schiff was regularly The West Wing’s unheralded star.

5. “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” (1.19)

A prevailing theme of season one is the administration taking the safe route on tough issues. They’re idealistic yet can’t seem to find a way to enact change. The reluctance comes from the top, though Bartlet is showing signs of shifting his tune. “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” does an excellent job depicting the challenges around every corner. Republicans threaten retribution if the FEC nominations don’t go their way. Discussions around “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” are stalling, and a memo written by Mandy identifies their weaknesses. It’s all bad.

What I love about this episode is the way it recognizes those issues and shows the bravery in standing up for something. The argument between Leo and Bartlet (which rarely happens) does such a good job in showing us the worries and doubts within the President’s soul. He wants to support his principles but also hopes to get re-elected. Leo reminds him that he can’t play conservatively, and it leads to a rousing finale. The dour faces of the senior staff quickly change to hope and inspiration. They serve at the pleasure of the president and are ready for war. It’s one of the best “hell yeah!” moments in the season and makes this a standout episode.

Martin Sheen as Bartlet in Take This Sabbath Day of The West Wing.

4. “Take This Sabbath Day” (1.14)

I love Joey Lucas. Marlee Matlin brings so much to the smart political operative that became a recurring character. She first appears in this episode and catches Josh’s eye. Their first meeting is one of the season’s funniest moments and quintessential Bradley Whitford. That moment adds a light touch to a story that involves Bartlet’s struggles to decide whether to commute a sentence and stop an execution. The final scene of Bartlet sitting with his childhood priest Father Cavanaugh (Karl Malden) is torturous but understandable given the emotional stakes.

“Take This Sabbath Day” also provides another classic moment when Toby’s rabbi (played by The Sopranos’ Richie Aprile, David Proval) gives a sermon designed for him. It’s a great moment because it’s silly yet doesn’t shy away from the issue. Sorkin’s script gives an even-handed look at the death penalty and reminds us that the situation is never easy. The scene where Charlie describes possible revenge against the person who killed his mom doesn’t follow the expected path. The way the show digs into the issue without getting too preachy is quite effective.

Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, and Bradley Whitford in The West Wing episode Pilot.

3. “Pilot” (1.1)

It’s rare for any show’s pilot to be so fully formed; even some great series have mediocre pilots. That trend makes the achievements of The West Wing’s pilot even more astounding. From the very first walk and talk with Leo hearing about the day’s issues, it never strikes a false note. In a re-watch, it’s surprising to note how late Martin Sheen arrives on the scene as Bartlet. I’m glad that Sorkin changed his mind about making the President a minor character. The focus is on the staff working for Bartlet, but he also becomes a key figure.

Barlet’s grand entrance gives him a chance to cite the 1st commandment and take down some conservative Christians. It’s a classic Sorkin moment where the heroes show off their superior intelligence against ideological enemies. We organically meet Josh, C.J., Toby, and Sam without needing huge swaths of exposition. Sorkin also doesn’t slow the pace so we can understand every minor part. We’re off to the races before our minds can grasp what we’re seeing. The episode flies by and sets the scene without the usual growing pains. It remains one of the top pilots in TV history.

Jorja Fox in The West Wing season one finale What Kind of Day Has It Been.

2. “What Kind of Day Has It Been” (1.22)

What’s amazing in this jam-packed season finale is how the cliffhanger isn’t the most interesting part. The headline is gunmen firing at the president and staff, but that’s secondary to the rest of the story. We begin at the end and then jump back to fill in the blanks. The recurring gag of the signal for a rescued pilot is funnier because we see it without any info. Each guy does the move of the plane taking off totally differently. Despite the tense ending, it’s refreshing to see joy from the group after the victory of retrieving the pilot. This isn’t a dour finale.

There’s also an intriguing scene with Josh and Vice President Hoynes where we learn a little of their past. We’ll see more of it in the season two premiere “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen”. If I’d combined this episode with those two hours, it would easily be the top choice. Considered on its own, it falls just a little behind my top pick. There are so many great moments, particularly Leo’s dressing down of Josh for talking about the lost soldier in PR terms. That scene ends with a one-sided attempt at a hug that’s pitch-perfect. Despite my initial comments, the shootout also works as a strong ending. Once the credits roll, I dare anyone not to go right into next season to learn what happened.

John Spencer and CCH Pounder in the West Wing episode Celestial Navigation.

1. “Celestial Navigation” (1.15)

When I sat down to compile these rankings, one of my first thoughts was the “secret plan to fight inflation.” Josh’s disastrous attempt to sub for C.J. in the press room (and its aftermath) draws a smile every time I think about it. He’s smart and capable in his job but is no super hero. Sorkin enjoys cutting his characters off at the knees when they get too cocky. Josh’s attempts at sarcasm fall flat, and the reporters eat him alive. The moment when he explains the situation to Bartlet is classic comedy. When you combine this scene with Toby and Sam driving lost through Connecticut, the result is such an entertaining episode.

The odd part of “Celestial Navigation” is the weird framing story with Josh telling the events to a crowd at a speakers series lecture. He’s revealing quite a lot of information that just happened recently. Another thread has Leo speaking with Deborah O’Leary (the great CCH Pounder) about her openly calling the Republican party racist. Pounder does remarkable work in a brief scene with John Spencer. There’s just so much happening in this episode!

I’ve yet to even mention that Toby and Sam must retrieve Justice Roberto Mendoza (Edward James Olmos) from a local Connecticut jail. Incorrectly stopped for drunk driving, Mendoza doesn’t take racial profiling lightly. Olmos brings pride and heart to the Supreme Court nominee; the scenes in the jail are quite moving. The star power from the supporting cast helps lift this episode to the top of my list. It covers important social issues while offering big laughs. Few shows could match The West Wing with this combination, especially during its heyday.

Just missing the list: “A Proportional Response” (1.3), “The Short List” (1.9), “He Shall, from Time to Time…” (1.12)

The West Wing covers issues specific to its time period, but it still feels timeless. Despite its political setting, the show comes from a long line of workplace dramas and comedies. It’s refreshing to spend time with these characters, and we’ll follow them almost anywhere. We’re now rolling through season two, which builds well on the opening year. New characters join the fold, and the pressure on Bartlet grows towards a classic finale. Once we finish that season, I’ll return here to rank my favorites from that season. By the end, I’ll put together my top choices from the entire run. It will take a few years to reach that point, but it will be a great ride.

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October 3, 2016

Sing Street and the Top 5 John Carney Music Sequences

The band members from the film Sing Street, directed by John Carney.

In a pop culture world dominated by so many viewing options, it’s tough for directors to make their work stand out from the pack. Great films can arrive and disappear quickly, and it takes both luck and a unique perspective to thrive. A prime example is John Carney, who’s carved out a niche following the surprise success of Once in 2007. Packed with heart and music, Carney’s films work as modern fairy tales. There’s enough realism to keep us on board, yet we know they’re optimistic fantasies. We believe that Carney’s characters are capable of amazing things and root for them to succeed.

Another factor in Carney’s success is building killer soundtracks. It’s easy to love the characters when their songs are so good. Once wouldn’t provide the same impact with the typical actors in place for Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. We never doubt that the Guy and Girl are talented musicians capable of writing classic songs. The hurdles are bigger in Begin Again, particularly with a well-known star like Keira Knightley. Even so, she sells Gretta’s skills from the first performance at open mic night. It falls a little short of Once, but matching that gem is nearly impossible. Knightley and Mark Ruffalo play music lovers clinging to that enthusiasm to overcome sad times. Both deliver great performances that strike a chord, especially as their bond grows.

This brings me to Sing Street, a love letter to the music of the 1980s. It’s an easy sell to viewers that grew up listening to artists like Duran Duran, A-ha, The Cure, and even Phil Collins. Our entry point is a 15-year-old music fan looking to start a band; the difference here is the innocence. Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is just discovering music with help from his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor). He’s initially a terrible singer and can’t play guitar, but that changes quickly once the floodgates open. Conor writes good songs very quickly, but it’s hard to care because we’re so charmed.

Carney understands how to delve into universal themes, and that’s why his films click with a wide range of viewers. I haven’t been 15 in a while, but I still remember what it’s like as a teen to pine for a girl that seems out of reach. Resembling a young Fairuza Balk, Raphina (Lucy Boynton) is only a year older than Conor yet looks so different. Standing on the porch with a cigarette hanging from her mouth, she is rock ‘n’ roll. Conor’s idea to cast her in a music video (for a band that doesn’t exist) is transparent but cute enough to work. Given the tight deadline, Conor pushes himself to new heights. Watching Conor learn how to write songs with his new buddy Darren (Ben Carolan) is brilliant. Like the Guy and Girl in Once, they just get how the other thinks when it comes to music.

A key factor in Sing Street’s success is Carney’s choice to cast unknown actors in lead roles. Only Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy are recognizable as Conor’s parents. It’s similar to the wonderful Lukas Moodysson film We Are the Best!, which also took place in the ‘80s and used fresh faces. Both depict kids in working-class families that face economic challenges. The music helps Conor push aside the fact that his parents are getting divorced. Raphina is struggling as a model and connects with Conor’s idealism. They make a good pair, and he doesn’t seem so much younger than her by the end.

Another joy with Carney’s films is the pure fun in the music. Even a goofy number like “Drive It Like You Stole It” connects because everyone commits to it. This is the type of song that 15-year-olds would play when they’re just getting started. The anti-authority message of “Brown Shoes” charms because it’s such a basic sentiment. Don’t create dumb rules just to be in charge! The upbeat acoustic beat of “A Beautiful Sea” is a melody that would work in any era. The songs fit in the ‘80s but aren’t trapped by them. Carney is 3/3 in directing movies that send me scurrying to pick up the soundtracks. They’re a blast to experience and lose little in repeat viewings. I can’t wait to see what Carney does next.

Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo lead the band in Begin Again.

Top 5 John Carney Music Sequences

I’m only familiar with Carney’s three major projects, and it was still hard to narrow the list to five choices. To avoid tipping the scales too much, I’m restricting my picks to no more than two from a single movie. I had so much fun researching this list and fell into a YouTube rabbit hole of great scenes. The top pick was easy, but the rest were difficult. I couldn’t help but include one honorable mention at the start. This is my site, so I set the rules! I’d love to hear your choices and suspect they’ll differ quite a lot from mine. This is by no means a definitive ranking.

Honorable Mention: Shooting the Video for “The Riddle of the Model” — Sing Street
The band’s first video shoot is so lo-fi and wonderfully fits with the ‘80s. Along with the ridiculous outfits, the scenes of them running through the streets are so familiar. It’s the type of video that kids trying to imitate their idols would make. The song is perfectly odd yet actually works as its own thing. It’s silly, weird, and energetic in the best way possible. There are so many little touches in this scene, including the dummy in case Raphina doesn’t show.

5. The band records “Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home” on the roof – Begin Again
Performed at night on a rooftop with the whole band, “Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home” is the culmination of their entire project. With Dan (Mark Ruffalo) grabbing a bass and his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) adding the guitar solo, it’s such a communal atmosphere. Everyone’s having a great time and just enjoying the process of playing music. This scene is the essence of what I love about Carney’s films. The extra touch of neighbors yelling at the band near the end makes it even better.

4. Dan sees instruments backing Gretta for “Step You Can’t Take Back” – Begin Again
Near the start of Begin Again, Gretta (Keira Knightley) performs “Step You Can’t Take Back” solo at the urging of her friend. There’s a strange moment at the end where Dan seems crazily excited by the song. Later on, Carney brilliantly shows us the other side of this scene. Dan sees the piano, bass, and other instruments backing Gretta. The record producer arranges the song in his head, and it’s a cool peak inside Dan’s mind. The shot of all the instruments playing with Gretta would be ludicrous in lesser hands, but it works here.

3. Conor imagines a Back to the Future scene for “Drive It While You Stole It” video – Sing Street
I love the idea that Conor views a prom in the U.S. through the lens of Back to the Future! What’s especially fun is that the dance in that movie took place in 1955. While not quite reaching the heights of “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie” in God Help the Girl, Conor’s fantasy is so charming. Including hand claps, a sing along, and even a saxophone, it’s such a blast to hear. The lyrics are fairly dumb, but they also fit the overall theme. It’s Conor’s life, and he’s not messing around. Watching up-tight characters letting loose and wearing cool outfits is a bonus.

2. The Girl sings “If You Want Me” while walking the streets at night — Once 
I’ve seen Once many times, and it’s easily one of my favorite films. I struggled mightily to leave off certain scenes, particularly “When Your Mind’s Made Up”. The list’s top choice was easy, but this one was trickier. Seeing Marketa Irglova take center stage with only headphones and a piece of paper is brilliant. When you add Glen Hansard’s voice to the mix, it all clicks. Even when viewed over and over, there’s still so much power from this scene. It’s just the Girl walking through the street, but it’s that direct approach (along with the gorgeous song) that makes it work.

Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova play Falling Slowly in Once.

1. The Guy and Girl play “Falling Slowly” in the music shop — Once
I first saw Once on a whim; my wife had free tickets to an early screening. Hansard, Irglova, and Carney were doing a traveling roadshow to promote the film. I liked it from the start, but this scene is where I fell in love with the movie. The song is beautiful, but it’s the way the characters interact while playing it that makes it work. It’s so simple too! They just sit down with a guitar and piano and create something incredible. The joy they get from playing together is evident, and that connection crossed into real life. You can’t fake that kind of chemistry.

Related Articles

Begin Again Review
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January 2, 2015

Top 5 Movie Discoveries in 2014

Museum Hours, directed by Jem Cohen

One of the biggest challenges for film fans is striking a balance between checking out the latest releases and catching up with past greats. A glance at my viewing history shows the push and pull of these two groups throughout the year. This blog's structure makes it easier to stay on track, but it's still a challenge. The benefit in looking back is discovering incredible movies for the first time. Some have received tremendous acclaim, while others are recent but less recognizable. I've looked back at 2014 and identified five choices that stand out from the crowd. These films made a huge impression right away and have stuck with me throughout the year. I've included a quote from my original post about each pick, and they've been listed chronologically by release year.

The Wages of Fear, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)
Clouzot finds moments of humanity during the journey, but the end result leaves a hollow feeling about our future. The changes of the industrial age will destroy the world, and even determined individuals can’t stop their inevitable destruction.

Pierrot Le Fou, directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Pierrot Le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)
Godard’s taking risks and pushing us out of the narrative, and that freewheeling style is enjoyable. On the other hand, his daring moves feel a little hollow since it’s all for show. It’s this contradiction that makes Godard interesting since we’re still in a recognizable film world.

The Battle of Algiers, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo

The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
All of this has happened before, and it will happen again. The cycle of war and upheaval is harder to understand here in the States, but it’s a common trend around the world. This story gives insight into the challenges facing any nation under foreign rule.

Museum Hours, directed by Jem Cohen

Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, 2013)
How many of our friendships revolve around adoring movies, music, or another pursuit? It’s this passion that makes us human and brings depth to every connection. That nuanced enjoyment rings true and builds an intimate connection with this intriguing film.

Drug War, directed by Johnnie To

Drug War (Johnnie To, 2013)
The bloodbath says plenty of the futility of pursuing the drug trade. The authorities are enforcing stiff penalties on crimes and doing everything they can, but the end result is a blitzkrieg of violence. Is there any point to the entire pursuit? To doesn’t give a clear answer, but it’s hardly an upbeat portrayal of this war.

Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel

Favorite Posts

Beyond the movie reviews, I also wrote periodically about TV series and theme parks in 2014. Some of my favorite pieces were essays not specifically directed towards a certain film. I've included my two favorites below about the hate for Wes Anderson and the rise of contrarian thinking among film critics.  I've also included my post about one of the best pop-culture events in 2014, the release of Whit Stillman's pilot of The Cosmopolitans for Amazon. I'm hoping that we'll see more episodes from that series next year. It's been another great year for this site, and I have exciting plans for 2015. If you've read my writing, commented or the site, or just dropped me a line on Twitter, thanks so much for taking the time to connect in the past year.

Wes Anderson Hate and the Case Against Filmmakers
What irritates me about simplistic vitriol against Anderson and other filmmakers is that it disregards their ability to grow and evolve. The music world has similar artists like Belle and Sebastian that lost devoted fans because they weren’t following a certain path. Their reaction makes sense, but it also leads to one-note criticisms.

The Contrarian: Resisting the Urge with Film Criticism
Another factor is the impact of our expectations, particularly with older films. The best writers identify their biases and use them to craft their pieces about movies. There’s nothing less thrilling than reading a takedown of a classic from someone convinced they’re doing a public service to the dummies who love it.

Adam Brody in Whit Stillman's The Cosmopolitans

Whit Stillman’s The Cosmopolitans: Wit, Charm, and Loneliness in Paris
Stillman lived in Paris for years as a writer, so he understands the mindset of these characters. He’s certainly spent time at cafes discussing art and trying to make sense of the world with friends. It’s that personal connection that makes this show more than an exercise.

What were your favorite movie discoveries in 2014?

April 30, 2014

Top 20 Bruce Springsteen Songs

Compiling a list of 20 favorite songs from most artists would be no problem, and many barely deliver enough choices. Bruce Springsteen is something else entirely for me. Tracks might rank below the top 50 yet still are favorites that I can’t wait to hear. Popular singles like Hungry Heart and Radio Nowhere didn’t make it, and even such thrilling deep cuts as Thundercrack and Back in Your Arms fell short. Where could they fit in such a short list? It’s difficult for me to separate studio versions from the live performances, so these picks are impacted by how they play on stage. That’s where Springsteen really shines and finds new ways to enhance familiar tunes. Despite the challenges in formulating this list, it was a blast to give a close listen to so many classics while preparing it.

20. The Rising
Come on up for the rising
Despite having great success with the reunion tour, Springsteen hadn’t released a true studio album with the E Street Band since Born in the USA. This song was a signifier that he wasn’t planning to ride the wave and just play the hits on tour. I grew a bit weary of all the 9/11 connections after the album arrived in every news story, but the title track remains one of the more powerful songs from his latter career.

19. Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny
One of Springsteen’s early live scorchers, Rosalita still packs quite a punch in the live setting. It’s a classic party song that captures the essence of what made their ‘70s shows so incredible. Clarence Clemons’ saxophone joins the guitars to take the journey towards greatness in love, or at least with the record company. If hearing this tune doesn’t make you want to dance, you have no soul.

18. Incident on 57th Street
We may find it out on the street tonight, now, baby
On a different note, this ballad is another epic from 1973 with great emotional depth to it. There’s an intense sadness to the story, yet the characters retain hope that something better can happen. They’re heading out in the streets to figure it out, one way or another.

17. Youngstown
My sweet Jenny I’m sinking down, here darlin’ in Youngstown
Beyond having lyrics with the name “Danny Heaton”, this song makes the list because it works so well in its very different studio and live forms. The original from The Ghost of Tom Joad is spare in the vein of that album, but it comes alive on stage. It was a staple of the reunion tour, and the blistering solo at the end is always a highlight.

16. Because the Night
They can’t hurt you now, they can’t hurt you now
This pick is totally about the live performance, which brings such ferocity to a song that came to prominence in a different variation by the 10,000 Maniacs. The piano opening sets up the rousing chorus that remains one of Springsteen’s most emotionally charged songs. It also includes yet another killer solo, which gives Nils Lofgren a chance to really shine.

15. Drive All Night
I’d drive all night again just to buy you some shoes
This is one of Springsteen’s most melancholy songs about a guy who’s lost his love. The character’s willing to do anything to get back with his girl, and the imagery conveys that desperation. Another great Clemons solo supports this mood and delivers quite a gem.

14. Tenth Avenue Freeze Out
From the coastline to the city, all the little pretties raised their hands
Easily one of the most quintessential E Street Band songs, Tenth Avenue Freeze Out is a straight-up dance song that gives everyone a chance to shine. It gained added relevance after Clemons’ death and allowed Springsteen (and us) to come to terms with this loss.

13. Kitty's Back
Ooh, what can I do, ooh, what can I do?
I’m filling the back half with epics from The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle. While I wouldn’t list it as a favorite album, its highs are way up there. Kitty’s Back is a great slow burn tune that ends in a crescendo of excitement. Seeing it live is quite a treat.

12. Racing in the Street
I wanna blow ‘em all out of their seats
Following Born to Run's success, Springsteen was embroiled in a lawsuit with his former manager and wasn’t able to record. The effects of this experience permeate through Darkness on the Edge of Town, and there’s a real sadness to the material. A prime example is Racing in the Street, which offers a gloomy look at a guy struggling to stay afloat.

11. No Surrender
We made a promise we swore we’d always remember
Despite only placing one song in this main list, my appreciation for the Born in the USA album has grown considerably over the past few years. It’s such a great pop album filled with anthems that incorporate Bruce’s rare talents. My favorite track is No Surrender, which nearly didn’t make the final cut. It’s a rousing sing-along that’s a nearly perfect driving song.

10. The Promised Land
Mister, I a’int a boy, no, I’m a man
We’re rolling through the classics at this point, and few rouse up the crowd more than this choice. The harmonica fits perfectly with this mid-tempo tune, which describes the frustrations of a working class hero. The imagery is some of Springsteen’s best, and the character stays upbeat despite the challenges.

9. Backstreets
Stranded in the park and forced to confess to hiding on the backstreets
While the attention goes to the hits from Born to Run, the secret weapon of that album is Backstreets. The fourth track comes right before the title song and delivers a less promising take on the future. The narrator describes exciting times in the dark of the night, yet there’s sadness in every line. The piano melody and Springsteen’s emotional vocals say all we need to know about where this story is heading.

8. The River
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?
Inspired by the life of Bruce’s sister, this somber tune feels so personal. The intimate story of a teen couple whose lives are changed by a pregnancy is brutally honest. When family takes over and the economy goes bad, the excitement of youth is just a fond memory.

7. Out in the Street
Baby out in the street, I just feel all right
One of the most inspiring performances of the Live in New York City special was seeing the entire Madison Square Garden crowd pumping their fists and singing along to this upbeat song. Few things are more fun than joining a mass of strangers to shout “when I’m out in the street!” at the top of our lungs. No matter what’s happening during the work week, we’ll all be stars once the weekend arrives.

6. The Promise
Every day it just gets harder to live, the dream you're believing in
There are many versions of this gem floating around, including the full band song on the Darkness set. My choice is the solo piano song on 18 Tracks. Written during Springsteen’s legal battles in the ‘70s, The Promise is filled with disappointment. It references the more hopeful Thunder Road, yet there’s little sense that good things are on the way.

5. Atlantic City
Everything dies baby that’s a fact
Many fans believe Nebraska is Springsteen’s best work, and it’s hard to argue too strongly against that idea. Even so, only a few individual songs rank up high for me. Atlantic City is an exception and works brilliantly in the full-band format. The raw feelings of the original recording are still there, but they spring to life with the wider instrumentation beyond it.

4. Born to Run
Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run!
What more can I say about Born to Run? I’ve seen it performed in concert so many times, yet I still pump my fist and sing along like it’s the first time. Springsteen took his shot at greatness and made it, and this song was his ticket to the big time. Watching him tinker with producing it in the documentary Wings Over Wheels is fascinating and shows how much he realized its importance. The result is one of the greatest rock songs of all time.

3. Thunder Road
It’s a town full of losers, and I’m pulling out here to win!
Here’s another song that embodies what makes him legendary. It uses his classic imagery of cars, young lovers, and the hopes that life will get better. The harmonica opens this tale and bring a classic feel that eventually gives way to a full-band crescendo of greatness.

2. Badlands
I want to find one place, I want to spit in the face of these badlands!
This Darkness opener comes alive in the live setting. Springsteen plays it at nearly every show, and it can crank up the energy at the start or bring the house down at the end. It remains one of his most engaging anthems despite the hardships in it. No matter what obstacles he faces, the narrator is going to push until he take charge of his life once again.

1. Jungleland
The hungry and the hunted explode into rock'n'roll bands, that face off against each other out in the street, down in Jungleland
Born to Run remains my favorite Springsteen album, and it closes with an epic tale that contains everything that I love about his music. Its ambitions are off the charts, yet it hits right at the heart and doesn’t feel pretentious. When Clemons’ solo takes over and leads us into the final verse and chorus, it’s such a rousing finish to a record that is essentially perfect. This song is number one by a mile.

Here are 10 other worthy contenders that just missed the cut from his massive catalog:

Adam Raised a Cain
Born in the USA
Brilliant Disguise
Candy's Room
Dancing in the Dark
Prove It All Night
Reason to Believe
She's the One
Streets of Philadelphia
Wrecking Ball

What are your favorite Springsteen songs? Where did I miss with this list?

February 14, 2014

Top 5 Worst Bond Villains

Die Another Day

One of my favorite things about the James Bond franchise is that it’s tailor-made for lists. When you have 24 official films to consider, there are plenty of different ways to tackle it. An obvious choice is looking at the bad guys, who can range between brilliant charmers and the most generic dummies imaginable. While it’s pretty easy to identify Goldfinger, Blofeld, Sanchez, and Silva near the top, picking the worst is trickier. There are many worthy candidates. It was a tough job, but I’ve stuck it out and uncovered my least favorite Bond villains. I doubt any of these will be a shock to long-time fans. I should note that I’m avoiding henchmen and sticking with the main enemies. That list is for another day. Let’s get this rolling! Will the guy with the most ridiculous plan for world domination please stand up?

Robert Carlyle in The World Is Not Enough

5. Renard (Robert Carlyle), The World is Not Enough
"You can't kill me. I'm already dead."
I’m a big fan of Robert Carlyle and have enjoyed a lot of his performances, especially Dr. Rush in Stargate Universe. That fact makes the disappointment of seeing him fall short as a Bond villain even tougher. You could argue that Renard isn’t the main villain, and that question is debatable. The final battle in the submarine to save Istanbul is between Bond and Renard, so he’s driving the plot. The idea of a villain who can’t experience pain due to a bullet in his brain is silly, but that isn’t the real problem. Carlyle tries his best to inject menace into Renard, but he just comes off as a stooge. It’s more of a symptom of the Brosnan era than the acting, but he gets pulled into the muck either way.

Louis Jourdan in Octopussy

4. Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), Octopussy
"Mr. Bond is indeed of a very rare breed... soon to be made extinct."
It’s hard to find a more forgettable Bond film than 1983’s Octopussy. While it’s more competent than its follow-up A View to a Kill, at least that movie had Christopher Walken and Grace Jones. Beyond seeing Roger Moore dressed as a clown and knife-throwing twin brothers, there’s little to remember. One of the issues is the main villain, Kamal Khan, who never grabs much attention. Jourdan is fine as the Afghan prince working with a rogue Soviet general, but there’s little that sets him apart from your typical villains. The movie is a weird hybrid of a silly comedy with a more traditional spy film, and it barely registers.

Charles Gray in Diamonds are Forever

3. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Charles Gray), Diamonds are Forever
"As La Rochefoucauld observed, humility is the worst form of conceit."
Sean Connery returns in this complete mess of a movie, which even wastes the iconic Bond villain. Instead of just having one Blofeld, we have multiple guys made to look identical through plastic surgery. Bond kills him in the opening, yet it means nothing. Charles Gray is so dull and pales in comparison to both Telly Savalas and Donald Pleasance. He’s a cookie-cutter villain who’s disposed of in a particularly lame fashion while trapped in a submarine. It’s unfortunate because this is his last appearance as the lead villain (not counting Never Say Never Again), and it’s such a wasted opportunity. It will be interesting to see if the Daniel Craig Bond gets a chance to face off with the iconic villain in the future.

Michael Lonsdale in Moonraker

2. Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), Moonraker
"James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season."
In The Spy Who Loved Me, Stromberg’s plan was to destroy the world and establish a new civilization in his water base. In the next Bond film, Hugo Drax wants to do the exact same thing! The only difference is the setting of outer space. With his serious face and villainous facial hair, Michael Lonsdale is the obvious villain as Drax. At least Stromberg had some style! Who wouldn’t want to live in his base? Designed to capitalize on Star Wars’ success, Moonraker is cheesy fun. It’s also terrible and suffers due to a bland villain.

Toby Stephens in Die Another Day

1. Gustav Graves/Colonel Moon (Toby Stephens/Will Yun Lee), Die Another Day
"You see Mr. Bond, you can't kill my dreams. But my dreams can kill you."
The last Pierce Brosnan film opens with such potential. Bond is captured and imprisoned in North Korea, which is quite a change. This makes its utter failure even more painful. Gustav Graves’ ice palace is set up to match the famous bases of the past, but everything is so reliant on CGI. The plastic surgery twist doesn’t work because we didn’t get to know his original self. With invisible cars and high-tech lasers, who has time to develop the bad guy? He’s the victim of the excesses, and that leads to the franchise’s worst installment.

January 24, 2014

Top 5 Non-Fight Scenes from the Rocky Series

Rocky on the Art Museum steps in Rocky Balboa.

Looking back at the Rocky films, it’s easy to boil them down to a generic formula. Rocky Balboa faces a new challenge and must summon his rare determination and grit to succeed. This is especially true in the third and fourth installments, which are filled with montages and flashy devices to keep us fist pumping and shadow boxing at home. The other installments are a bit different, but all have classic sequences that stick with you. It’s easy to call out the scenes from the boxing matches that fit this bill. Let’s make this a little harder. I’ve seen the six movies so many times, and choosing just five six moments was a real challenge. Even so, watching them again reminded me of the depth within a franchise that’s easy to ridicule. To all the haters out there, my reply is simple: I must break you.

Honorable mention: The Russia training montage, Rocky IV
I could probably fill this list with the training sequences, so I’m just covering them with this entry. It’s a close decision, and the iconic run up the steps in the first film could easily fit here. Still, I’m trying to spread the wealth among the series. Rocky’s training in Russia works because it’s simple and quiet. The shot of him climbing up the giant snow mountain and shouting “DRAGO!” is silly yet also shows the difference this time. The “back to basics” training feels epic and sets up the final fight really well.

Rocky and Adrian in the skating rink in Rocky.

5. Rocky and Adrian at the ice skating rink, Rocky
Each time I go back and revisit Rocky, it’s refreshing to recall just how relaxed it feels. Rocky has the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he’s still just trying to live his life. The awkward first date with Adrian says so much about both characters. A prime example is their conversation after he bargains for some minutes at the ice skating rink. The camera follows them as they circle the rink and finally connect. The added touch of the angry worker counting down the time remaining just adds to the feeling this is a special moment. Their bond really begins here, and it shows Adrian recognizing there’s more to this guy than just another neighborhood “creepo”.

4. Rocky and Apollo Creed in the hospital, Rocky II
This early scene in the sequel might feel like a throwaway, but it’s such a key moment for Rocky. Even though he went 15 rounds with the champ and nearly won the title, doubts remain in his mind about whether the fight was legit. Both guys are in rough shape and at the hospital, and it’s a rare quiet moment after the chaos. This scene also shows why Apollo is so adamant later that he must fight Rocky again and knock him out convincingly. Many think he lost their first fight, and he must squelch those critics and prove his superiority.

3. The final scene between Rocky and Mickey, Rocky III
Rocky and Mickey’s relationship has been a driving force in the series and evolved into a father-son connection. The tragic death right after Rocky’s loss to Clubber Lang is a bit manipulative, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of their final scene. In a sense, this moment splits the entire series into two different stories. Mickey tried to protect Rocky from someone like Clubber, and now he has to stand up and become something different. Despite the silliness in much of Rocky III, Burgess Meredith’s presence grounds the story and reminds us of the characters’ roots.

Rocky's speech to his son in Rocky Balboa.

2. Rocky’s speech to his son, Rocky Balboa
The success of the sixth film astounds me, and it’s a true sequel to the original Rocky in many ways. An interesting subplot is the anger of Rocky’s son, who wants little to do with his father’s fame. Rocky keeps holding his tongue and letting the young man go his own way, but that approach only does so much. Stallone pulls together every challenge in his life and throws it into a speech that is about much more than boxing. It brings chills just to think about how much I love this scene. The only way to do it justice is to place the words here:

Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place. And I don't care how tough you are; it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard you're hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!

Rocky and Mickey in his apartment in Rocky.

1. Rocky’s angry tirade (“it stinks!”) to Mickey, Rocky
It’s remarkable to watch the first movie and see the anger between Mickey and Rocky. The trainer believes the prodigy has wasted his talent, while Rocky feels abandoned by his former mentor. When Rocky gets a shot to fight Apollo, Mickey approaches him with a different attitude. This is also his last shot at the big time. Seeing through this offer, Rocky shuts Mickey down and launches into a painful tirade about his life. While Mickey heads down the stairs, Rocky angrily tells us how he really feels about the fight. It’s an honest, brutal outburst from a guy who’s seemed upbeat for most of the film. It changes their relationship and shows the stakes for both men. Stallone has never been better, and it’s clear that he drew on his own experiences as a frustrated actor for this moment.

What are your favorite non-fight Rocky scenes?

January 16, 2014

My 2014 Movie Resolutions

It’s common for movie fans to start the new year with resolutions about their viewing habits. Bloggers are especially interested in this pursuit. A few weeks ago, I concluded my post about 2013 discoveries by deciding to avoid setting any specific goals for 2014. Since that time, I’ve thought a lot about what I hope to accomplish with this blog and my movie going in the future. My current focus is on getting healthier, and having a plan makes that goal a lot easier. That quest has reminded me about my need to have stated objectives for films. I’ve changed my mind and developed five precise movie resolutions for 2014. Vague goals like “I need to watch better movies” aren’t specific enough to change anything. The actions below are measurable and should keep me focused on the end result. I don’t expect to complete them all, but they aren’t so challenging to make success impossible. Each resolution is just a small step forward from my movie watching activities last year.

Watch (and write about) 15 films directed by women.
Last year, I saw only eight movies with a woman running the show. That number is way too low and would be even sadder without the Women in 2013 marathon in September. There have been plenty of recent stories about frustrating trends for women behind the scenes. This is a good example. And here’s another. Women aren’t getting hired as directors due to tired stereotypes about genres and skills. Artists like Lake Bell, Amy Seimetz, and so many others deserve more attention. I plan to spotlight rising young filmmakers who deserve more attention in this male-dominated industry.

See 40 films released in 2014.
This number seems crazily low for a movie fan, but it’s still about 25 percent more than my 2013 output. One reason for this limited number is the focus of my blog, which looks towards films from all eras. I would like to stay more on top of the latest releases, so this is a starting point for that initiative. There’s nothing worse than reading a top 10 list from a writer I admire and realizing I’ve seen none of the choices.

Visit the movie theaters 12 times.
This is only a slight upgrade from my paltry 2013 amount, but I’m trying to set realistic goals. Going once a month doesn’t seem outlandish and keeps my expectations grounded in reality. It also forces me to really choose the most intriguing options each time. It’s no surprise that I haven’t seen anything that earned a Razzie nomination this week. That’s one benefit of having limited time to reach the theaters.

Watch 20 foreign films, including five released in 2014
I’ve never shied away from subtitled films, but it’s easy to get stuck within certain viewing patterns. There are far too many exciting things happening in other countries to stay focused on American releases. I’ve set up a secondary goal of seeing five 2014 movies to keep me from just diving into obvious directors like Kurosawa and Godard. Finding a balance with the old and the new is a top priority this year.

Attend five local special events or film festivals.
I’m really excited to try and achieve this goal in the upcoming year. St. Louis has a surprising number of interesting film festivals. The St. Louis International Film Festival arrives every November and deserves more attention beyond this city. There’s also the excellent Webster University Film Series, which frequently brings in selections unavailable elsewhere. Meeting this requirement should not be difficult, even considering my busy schedule.

I know that many of you would complete these resolutions within a few months. My current schedule requires me to be more realistic and focus on obtainable goals. That’s the key with any plan and should make this a successful project. I will revisit this list at mid-year and ensure that progress is happening. This blog is coming up on its third anniversary in March, and I’m hoping to keep expanding my scope and connections within the blogging community. Access to a wide range of films has never been easier, and it’s thrilling to interact with so many intelligent voices every day. Let’s do this!

What are your 2014 movie resolutions? 

January 1, 2014

Top 5 Blog Discoveries of 2013

2013 has been one of the most eventful years of my life. We have an amazing new baby girl (our second), I finished graduate school, and I started a new job after working at the same place for more than 10 years. Back in January, I posted five resolutions for the new year that would guide this blog and my movie viewing. Although it could always be better, 2013 was a success by these standards. I watched a lot more documentaries and caught fewer dull movies (if you forget Jack Reacher). Here's what I resolved to do nearly one year ago:

1. Participate more fully in the film community.
2. Seek out intellectually satisfying blogs and podcasts.
3. Avoid generic, predictable films.
4. Expand my movie-watching horizons.
5. Focus more on depth over frequency.

It was a challenge to make it to the theater, so I wouldn't call myself an expert on the latest releases. However, I still caught up with nearly 150 films, so there were plenty of cool discoveries. I've pulled together five of the most refreshing ones from the past year, though others would definitely qualify. Some are highly regarded but were still better than I expected. I've also included quotes from my original reviews along with the picks.

5. Across the Universe (2007): There’s so much happening on screen beyond the main plot, and it brings such vitality to every moment. Taymor brings together this challenging project with grace, and we rarely see the strings behind each scene. 

4. Monterey Pop (1968): Pennebaker brilliantly uses a “fly on the wall” approach to give the feeling of being in the crowd. His cameras provide clear views of the band along with an intimate look at the crowd. It’s a subtle approach that captures the energy of being in Monterey without going over the top.

3. The Interrupters (2011): James shows us the obstacles they face around every turn to make this happen. He doesn’t manipulate us and lets the events speak for themselves, which is the perfect approach to this complicated subject.

2. Ace in the Hole (1951): Wilder’s script is harsh and morose, yet it still provides an engaging ride. Its points about human nature and falsehoods remain poignant today, and this film deserves more interest from modern audiences. 

1. Oslo, August 31st (2011): We feel so strongly for Anders and want him to make the right choice, but there's a uneasy feeling that it's not going to happen. The final scenes are heartbreaking yet fit completely within the framework built in the opening frames. 

Looking forward to 2014, I'm not making any specific resolutions for the new year. There are still so many films to check out across every genre, and I've missed plenty of classics. I might focus more on recent fare, but there will be plenty of older movies in the mix. I'm looking forward to another great year and hope to discover a lot more surprising films.

December 23, 2013

My Favorite Films of 2013

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Midnight

I’ve had plenty of great experiences watching movies in 2013 and have just scratched the surface on what’s out there. Having missed so many key releases, it doesn’t seem fair to create a normal Top 10 list. Even narrowing it down to a Top 5 list wouldn’t be fair because it would come from such a small sample size. However, I would like to spotlight some of my favorites from the past year. The five choices below might not all qualify as the best films, but they were the most memorable choices for me. I’ve added three movies that just missed the list plus aspects of others that have stuck with me since the initial viewing. I’m hoping to catch up with a lot of the other 2013 releases in the upcoming months. The positive side of missing them originally is having a wealth of options for home viewing. I’d love to hear about your favorites in the comments section! I’ve also included quotes from my original review (with one exception) that summarize my original reaction to each film.

Before Midnight (Richard Linklater) – “It’s haunting to watch Jesse and Celine lose their way, but those problems make their lives more poignant.”
It seems incomprehensible for a film to rank as my least favorite in a trilogy and still be a favorite. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have such a clear understanding of what makes Jesse and Celine tick. The romance is still there, but the challenges of real life have made everything more difficult. Idealized love gets a lot more complicated when kids enter the picture. The opening hour shows the couple trying to re-kindle that passion, but hints creep up about issues beneath the surface. When chaos erupts, it’s a difficult but spellbinding experience. Delpy is especially good at showing Celine’s manic behavior, which might seem overboard yet springs from true assumptions. It’s a tough, intriguing continuation that expands the characters without betraying them.

LisaGay Hamilton in Go for Sisters

Go for Sisters (John Sayles) – “The personal challenges outweigh any political message, and that makes for a riveting experience.”
I’m a John Sayles apologist and can’t say enough good things about his films. Even so, I’ll admit that his output during the past decade hasn’t been as sharp. This trend makes the success of Go for Sisters even more refreshing. He creates two intelligent African-American female characters that are embodied with great depth. Yolanda Ross and LisaGay Hamilton both give excellent performances as high-school friends reconnecting under difficult circumstances, and Edward James Olmos shines in a supporting role. Sayles again reveals his ability to depict connections within a community that surround the main story.

Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon) – “Whedon gets the chance to pull back from the blockbuster world, and the result is a joy to experience.”
After his gargantuan success with The Avengers, Joss Whedon thrives in the small-scale setting of this charming Shakespeare adaptation. It doesn’t hurt to have so many familiar faces on hand from his TV shows and movies. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof make a sharp couple as Beatrice and Benedict, and Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Sean Maher, and many others thrive in supporting roles. The black-and-white cinematography is perfect for the classic tale even when it’s moved to a modern setting.

Matthew McConaughey in Mud

Mud (Jeff Nichols) – “This slow burn of a film grows on you because the characters are so well-defined.
Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) has only directed three films, but he’s already shown the ability to depict a believable community. His characters have depth and rarely explain their true motivations at the start. Matthew McConaughey’s Mud is intriguing to the boys because he’s a mystery. He lets them into his world as the pursuing forces surround him. Nichols gives characters their own arc while still moving the story forward. Tye Sheridan brings such heart to Ellis, who’s looking for any hint that love is possible while his parents drift apart. It’s a moving, effective tale that rarely hits the expected notes.

Sam Rockwell in The Way Way Back

The Way Way Back (Jim Rash, Nate Faxon)
One of my best viewing experiences this year was seeing this film in an empty theater on a rare night out with Erin. Jim Rash and Nate Faxon use the formula but supersede it because we’re drawn to the characters. Sam Rockwell injects such life into the story as the mentor who helps Duncan (Liam James) escape from the doldrums. Any film that can sell a ridiculous dance sequence and make me laugh out loud deserves a lot of credit. It wears its heart on its sleeve but never falls prey to the expected tropes.

Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha

These three films just missed the top group and are equally deserving. Here’s a quick blurb from my original reviews about each one.

In a World... (Lake Bell) – “There’s a confidence and maturity that’s often missing from debut filmmakers.

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach) – “The pivotal factor is Gerwig’s performance, and she delivers the strongest of her excellent career.

Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh) –“Soderbergh shows how idealistic visions of love can only go so far when the entire system is corrupt.”


These films didn’t make the list, but they had elements that I really enjoyed. Here are some reasons they kept me engaged:
  • A celebrity culture that’s run amok in The Bling Ring
  • Found footage done right in the believable Europa Report
  • M83’s music that sets the tone in Oblivion
  • The epic visual scale and grand ambitions of Pacific Rim
  • The Britney Spears music interlude in Spring Breakers
  • Benedict Cumberbatch’s looney performance in Star Trek into Darkness
  • The serene beauty that masks the villainy in Stoker
  • The parade of guest stars and dorky insanity of This Is the End
  • Upstream Color’s confounding and inexplicable mystery
  • A ladder of zombies piling into Israel in World War Z

What were your favorite films of 2013?