Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Best of the Decade: #20: Death to Smoochy


Death to Smoochy

This has to be one of the most criminally under appreciated movies of the last decade. Roger Ebert actually chose this as the worst movie of 2002, but he was so wrong. Death to Smoochy is a work of dark comic genius. Its comedy is so black that it's practically purple. I loved this movie before I had kids, and after, when I was forced to watch some of the most god awful shit they call kids television shows, I came to appreciate this film even more. There's a bit of parental revenge in watching a movie that runs children television stereotypes through the gutter. Watch out, there are very few sympathetic characters here.

My favorite quote: "Sorry I smell like piss, but you know how it is."

Best of the Decade: #21: Mystic River


Mystic River

To give you an idea of the impact this film has had, I'll outline a familiar conversation I've had with a lot of people. It goes like this:

"You went to grad school for writing?"
"Any famous instructors?"
"Dennis Lehane."
"Don't know him. What'd he write?"
"Mystic River."
"The Clint Eastwood movie? That was a great movie."

Or that may be a reflection on how poorly read most people are, even if they say they love to read mysteries. Anyway, Eastwood took a dark novel (not to mention fantastic) and turned it into a moody, Shakespearean tragedy (the Lady Macbeth similarities are intentional) that earned Sean Penn his first Oscar. But as good as Penn is, Tim Robbins is brilliant. Penn had the showier role, but Robbins's portrayal required a lot more skill to pull off successfully.

Another observation of American filmmaking over the past decade: Eastwood with his many critically successful films (Letters from Iwo Jima, Changeling, Million Dollar Baby, etc.) has become arguably the best film director during these ten years, equal only to Scorsese and Van Sant.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Best of the Decade: #22: Changing Lanes


Changing Lanes

The studio wanted you think this was some revenge thriller in the same vein as Double Jeopardy or some other piece of shit. It's not, it is something much more gripping than a superficial concept. Instead this film is about two men who struggle with what is right and how to treat another human being. Its story seems simple. Ben Affleck and Sam Jackson get into a fender bender and spend the rest of the film getting back at one another. Hell, it sounds like the premise of some wacky comedy instead of a deeply intellectual film about morals and ethics. Neither character is deliberately malicious, though their anger gets the better of them at crucial times. They both feel remorse after the fact, but their conflict escalates. Affleck and Jackson show off their best work here.

Screenwriter Michael Tolkin is no stranger to dark films about the human condition. Though it has its faults, check out his The Rapture, which he also directed.

Best of the Decade: #23: Zoolander



Oh, how many of these types of lists fail to mention the stupid? Sure, you have your Schindler's Lists and Raging Bulls, but what about the movies that make you laugh because they are so ridiculous? To rectify this injustice, I give you Zoolander; a movie so idiotic that it borders on genius.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Best of the Aughts: #24 Road to Perdition


Road to Perdition

The role of Michael Sullivan is not your typical Tom Hanks nice guy. He's a mob enforcer working for crime boss Paul Newman; but he's not malicious about it. He's almost a sympathetic mobster (probably the one sort of false note in the whole picture). Sullivan only kills when he's backed into a corner, such as when his boss's son (Daniel Craig) tries to execute Sullivan's entire family - Craig only succeeds in killing the wife and youngest son. In order to protect his oldest son, Sullivan flees from Newman's forces and seeks revenge on the mob family that betrayed him.

This film goes beyond a typical revenge tale. Director Sam Mendes, while proving himself quite capable of handling the actions scenes throughout, focuses more on the mood of the Depression Era Midwest and how those surroundings (and the circumstances that each character finds him or herself in) affects each role. This is a showcase of excellent acting from not only Hanks, but from Newman, Craig (in a role that offered a bit of a glimpse into his ability to take on a whole new Bond a few years later) and Jude Law.

A special mention should go to legendary cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, who pulled off a gorgeous looking film. Sadly, it was his last film. He was awarded an Oscar posthumously for his work.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Best of the Aughts: #25 Wonder Boys


Wonder Boys

Michael Douglas plays Grady Tripp, a writing professor who suffers under the shadow of early success and fame from his first novel. In the years since he was the wonder boy of the literary world, he has unwittingly embraced his failure to live up to the astronomical expectations everyone had (and still has) for him. Rather than finish his second novel, he continues to write it, reaching close to 3,000 single-spaced pages before a pivotal scene in the film where it all blows away into the Ohio River - an image more frightening than a 1000 horror films to any writer. His current wife leaves him, his mistress (also his boss's wife) tells him she's pregnant, his editor (Robert Downey, Jr.) comes to snoop on his progress on the book and a slightly strange wunderkind student (Tobey McGuire) causes him an incredible amount of grief.

To label Douglas a boy is a bit of a stretch, even if you consider that his first book was published 7 years prior to the beginning of the movie; it would put him just north of middle age when success hit. The character in the book by Michael Chabon was much younger. But once you get over that obstacle (at least Frances McDormand, who plays his mistress, is more age appropriate than most movie girlfriends); the movie unfolds into a fascinating character study that hinges on Douglas being at his best, which he is.

Also, where else will you get to see Spider-Man and Iron Man hook up?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

There Are Just So Many to Choose From: More Best of the Decade

If I had made a Best of the 1990's list, there would be a hell of a lot more independent and foreign films than I have for the current decade that's fading away. I saw everything that came out; going to the movie theater at least twice a week. Now, I barely go once a month, and then it's to see something like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (don't be disappointed, but it isn't on the list). Looking over the list I have compiled, there aren't as many indies and very few foreign films. Sorry about that.

But to get to the top 25 quicker, let's list the rest of the runners-up.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barbar of Fleet Street

Ghost World

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan


Dancer in the Dark

Billy Eliot

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang



The Mist



Little Children





Million Dollar Baby

A History of Violence

Iron Man

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Paranoid Park
While Gus Van Sant's Elephant won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, I think this film is better. This story of a teenage skateboarder who commits manslaughter is absolutely mesmerizing to watch. With films like this and the riveting Milk, Van Sant has transcended from mere film director into a true artist.


Batman Begins

Children of Men

Mulholland Drive

The Tao of Steve
A movie that theorizes that all guys named Steve are awesome. I can't understand why I would want to include it here.


The Hangover


Oh, so greatly under appreciated. Though it lacks the unique magic of Ivan Reitman's earlier movie Ghostbusters, which it closely resembles, Evolution is none the less a really fun movie to watch.

Spirited Away

Super Troopers

High Fidelity

Donnie Darkko

No Country for Old Men

Stranger Than Fiction

Monsters, Inc.


A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Bowling for Columbine

Requiem for a Dream

In the Loop

American Gangster

V for Vendetta

The Descent



Lost in Translation

Pan's Labyrinth


Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

Observe and Report

The Bourne Trilogy (The Bourne Identity; The Bourne Supremacy; The Bourne Ultimatum)

The 40-Year-Old Virgin

Fahrenheit 9/11


The Incredibles


X-Men/X-Men 2
But avoid Brett Ratner's dog turd of a sequel, X-Men: The Last Stand.

Star Trek

Training Day


Best in Show



What Planet Are You From?

Cast Away

The Contender

As good as Bennett Miller's Capote was, Douglas McGrath's take on Truman Capote's efforts to write In Cold Blood was actually better. Philip Seymour Hoffman took home an Oscar, but Toby Jones was born to play the role. If this film had made it to theaters first, Hoffman would probably still be waiting for an Oscar.

The Perfect Storm

Kill Bill, Vol. 1 & 2

Friday, November 20, 2009

More Runners-up, Best of the Decade

The continuing the list of great movies of the decade, but didn't make the top 25:

The Others

Punch Drunk Love

Spider-Man/Spider-Man 2
It's hard to put the superior Spider-Man 2 on the list and not include the first. It's like Godfather part II without the original. Instead of coasting on the success of Spider-Man, the second movie expanded on the mythology and added further complexity to the characters. The third film tried to do the same, and who knows, without the emo Peter Parker it may have fared better, but ultimately, it suffers in part 2's shadow. One complaint: Did we really need a shirtless Alfred Molina?

Requiem for a Dream

The Queen


Across the Universe
Anyone who has watched any of director Julie Taymor's other films (Titus, Frida) knows the woman is a true cinematic visionary, and this movie further proves that genius. What superficially looks like a weak premise (stringing together a movie based on Beatle's songs), proves to be a wonderful experience of fantastic visuals, great music and heartwarming storytelling.

Michael Clayton

A Prairie Home Companion

Fight Club*
*originally released in October of 1999. OK, not technically a movie from this decade, but the film missed the mark by 2 1/2 months and has become such a phenomenon that it deserves a place somewhere. (My fairness trigger wouldn't allow me to place this in the top 25 - it would have been closer to top 5, but I feel comfortable with it listed here). This film is not only a kick ass movie, it has become a modern male anthem about apathy, internal disappointment and searching for meaning. This is a case of the perfect director with the perfect material aided by the perfect cast. David Fincher's masterpiece is a lot more playful than Chuck Palahniuk's novel, but doesn't lose any of the edginess of the original story. I'll admit, I wasn't really blown away by the movie when I saw it in the theater, and looking at the box office, no one else was either, but the more times I watched it, the better it became. I've probably seen this movie about 30 times over the past ten years, probably more than any other film on this list.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Best of the Aughts: More Runners-up

Some more runners-up of the best movies of the decade as decided by me, because this is my blog. Again, no particular order:

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

The Constant Gardner

Bad Santa

Brokeback Mountain
This one nearly made the top 25. Ang Lee's heartbreaking film about a love affair in an environment of intolerance and ignorance should have won Oscars for Best Picture and for Heath Ledger's powerful performance. Instead, the homophobic yet, self-proclaimed, self-congratulatory "liberal" Academy voters, most of whom are well past the age of ancient, chose that shit bird movie of pretension, Crash. One of the biggest blunders in Oscar history.



8 Mile

Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle
In what could have been just another dimwitted stoner movie, Harold and Kumar actually did something quite admirable: it showed that minorities in movies don't have to be staid stereotypes required to represent their race; rather they could be your average, everyday schlubs who just want to get toasted and chow down on some tasty sliders like everyone else. The sequel, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay went even further by tackling racial stereotypes and American attitudes toward, well, just about every minority, but the simpler premise of the original was subversive enough to promote diversity without making people think that's what it was doing.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Swimming Pool

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Best Movies of the Last Decade

American Film, a great magazine I wish was still around, surveyed a number of critics in 1989 to establish a Best Films of the 1980s list. This list was very influential to me as my understanding of the art of cinema was still forming. I was branching away from the mainstream and finding enjoyment from films off the beaten path. Movies that weren't shown anywhere near where I live (and still aren't), but thanks to the family VCR and magazines like American Film, Premiere and Film Comment; I was able to establish a great understanding of film - it was an obsession.

Anyway, I thought I would post a list of the best movies I've seen over the past ten years as a sort of homage to that American Film list. Now, I haven't seen as many movies as I once did. This list won't have as many smaller, lesser known movies as a list concocted of the films of the 1990s, but I think there are some really special ones here. I'll list some of the runner-ups over the next couple of days and post individual comments on each of my top 25 films. Hopefully one a day (or so) until the end of the year.

Here are a few to get started. These are in no particular order:

United 93
The Whole Nine Yards
The Wrestler
Shaun of the Dead
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Whale Rider
The Machinist
Gosford Park
Igby Goes Down

I Swear I've Been Busy

My God, it's been over 5 months since I posted on this thing! OK, I have been busy writing, not every day, or even every week, but it has been constant. And the writing hasn't focused on short stories, hence the reason for the lack of published stuff out there recently. No, I've focused on the two books (I know, I know, work on one at a time, but I'm a rebel). The good news is that I'm getting close to the finish of one, but the sacrifice has been blogging and keeping up with other blogs. It was either that or completely ignoring the entire family; that wouldn't have been too bright. So, in order to get back into this thing, I'll try to post a few things over the next month and a half; but it's not going to focus on writing - for the moment. From now until the end of the year, I'm going to list my best movies of the decade. I hope you'll enjoy it.

Monday, June 08, 2009

End of Acts

I'm one of those writers who thinks in the three act structure. I could never write some sprawling Russian novel with 500 characters - not going to happen. Maybe I'm limiting myself or it's an artistic wall I'm not talented enough to overcome, or I'm just too artistically lazy to want to overcome. I think it's a direct result of coming to writing through movies. I had a writing teacher once say that movies are a great short cut when discussing craft, which I agree with. I learned story structure through movies, most all of which follow the three act set up. The best example: Witness. I've seen thousands and thousands of movies, some more than 20 times, so I've been conditioned. I'm like one of Pavlov's dogs, the one who drools at the sight of a Blockbuster.

I have Syd Field to thank for this. The first book of craft I read was his Screenplay. I bought it when I was a freshman in high school. I highlighted it, took notes, etc. I learned the insides and outs of everything he wrote about. So, I'm a slave to his paradigm. If you are not familiar with this, Field has deconstructed just about every film within a certain structure: Act 1, Plot Point 1, Act 2, Plot Point 2, Act 3. That's a pretty simplified breakdown, but you get the idea. This is how I think when I think about plot. For close to 20 years (funny to think about, but it's true) this is how I've visualized story structure.

So, on to my point. The ends of acts suck. Do you know why? Because you have to begin again. You've gone through an entire act. Everything you've put down on paper (or on the blank screen) to this point is for the payoff at the end of the act. And BAM! You hit that plot point and the story is shooting off into another direction. It feels good for a moment. You can look behind you and see where you've come. You tend to celebrate the milestone. Great job, Steve! Then reality sets in. Not only are you not finished, but you have to start a new act. The momentum you felt push you towards that major plot point isn't behind you anymore. You have to find some new force to guide you through. That means another beginning. It's like page one all over again.

OK, you have your characters and you have the MacGuffin, but things cannot remain the way they are. You must manipulate the characters, throw up some twists and turns and pick up the pace. In some cases, the end of an act is a climax in itself - and that is where I am now. The characters I've started to develop need to react differently, but not out of character. New obstacles arrive and disrupt their normal existence. They will not go about their day as if nothing has occurred. How boring would that be? How much of a talentless hack would I be if I let that happen?

So, I'm at the end of an act and I'm not looking forward to pushing the story up another hill. I know that once I've reached this next peak, the momentum will carry me - but I'm a writer in the middle of writing, rational thought doesn't get through this thick skull.

OK, back at it. One foot in front of the other... I think I can...I think I can...I think I can...

Friday, May 29, 2009

Continuing On and the Lottery

So, I've slowly gotten back into the writing habit. So far it has been a few pages here and there, but it has been productive. I wrote an entire chapter, realized that the emotions of the characters should have been switched and need to rewrite it with opposing viewpoints. It's an interesting way to examine characters - how would they act differently if their attitudes and thoughts were opposite of what they would normally be? Well, the answer is that they wouldn't be the same characters. You'd might as well slap different names on them. Man, I wish I could just wake up and have this thing finished.

And speaking of the easy way out, now that I'm a homeowner, scratch that, a mortgage owner, I've come to believe in the healing powers of the Powerball. Over the past few weeks I have worshipped the Powerball at the local convenience store. I've even sprung for the powerplay for a buck more. With each easy pick, I plead with the lottery powers that be to help shed my massive debt. It seems like prayer is the best avenue for someone whose debt has gone from three figures to six in the past five weeks.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Where to Begin Again

So, the writing pace has slowed quite a bit over the past six months, By slow, I mean just about stopped. I did finish a short story over that period, but that's about it. There have a been a few notes written down in various places and a couple of sentences typed out now and again, but for the most part my energies have been focused elsewhere; mainly, in buying a house. But now that it's been over two weeks since the closing and most of our boxes have been unpacked, I'm ready to start writing again. The trouble is where do I begin?

Friday, May 01, 2009

Writers Wanted

Calling all writers, there is a new program that needs you. The Society for the Advancement of Young Writers is looking for volunteers to help young writers in the school systems throughout the United States.

It's mission statement:
The Society for the Advancement of Young Writers (SAYW) is devoted to the inspiration and education of young students in the craft of creative writing.

The website basically houses a database of writers available to teachers and school administrators in their communities. Please, check out the site and seriously consider joining.

From the website:
If you are an author that would like to participate in your local schools’ creative writing efforts, please send an e-mail to: saywmember@kidlitszine.com. In the body of the e-mail please provide an e-mail address where you can be reached by schools and the geographical region in which you’d be willing to help. Please also state if you require a fee (usually small covering enough for lunch and gas) or if you would do an engagement for free. Last, please indicate in which genre you work.

In addition to the writers database, the program also developed a webzine for young writers called Kidlits.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

But What of the Guys?

So, I was in Target the other day getting stuff for the new house (the reason I have been away from the blog for a couple of months) and I happened to wander from the hardware aisle down to the movies and books section as I am known to do. I usually browse quickly through the titles, imagining a DVD collection to rival the local Blockbuster or a library with a need of its own librarian. As I looked through the books I began to notice that these aren't meant for male readers. Now I'm not above reading The Bell Jar or The Dogs of Babel (a book, that if you have not read it, you must do everything in your power to go get); but these books are not targeted toward guys. If given the option of reading The Time Traveler's Wife and watching Kelly's Heroes, the typical dude is going to cozy up with Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas and Don Rickles. But what do you expect? I counted maybe ten books that the average guy would read, while there was more than 150 for female readers.

I know that women read more than men, but they are catered to more. Marketing is geared toward women, the types of books published lean toward the typical female taste in stories and the books pushed by bookstores and other sellers are stereotypically meant for women. There are Guy Books out there, but usually one has to hunt for them. Gischler's Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse is a great example of a Guy Book: violence, survival and hot chicks. But you're not going to find that book as you're strolling through Target shopping for a shower curtain, or at the local Wal-Mart making fun of nature's mistakes who roam the aisles there, or even shelved in the small magazine section of the grocery store. No, you have to specifically drive to a bookstore and search through the books to find it; and the typical guy doesn't like to shop just to shop.

Guys will read if they find something they like, but usually that book will fall into their hands through a series of events that rival a Rube Goldberg nightmare. When I worked in a paper mill during the summers while in college, I would find copies of The Executioner books in various places (also a lot of porn mags). These books seemed to go from one worker to another. Mack Bolan kept me company through some long hours of nothing to do. And I, like my fellow reader before me, would leave the book wherever I happened to finish it so the next worker would have the chance to read it.

I think publishers and book sellers need to take a chance on male readers, or more of a chance than the half-ass effort they do now. The buyers employed by Target should find some of these Guy Books and push them onto the floor where they will catch the eye of a dude walking pass the book section (a section they usually avoid like ladies lingerie... well, most men at least). Or maybe start a book section in Home Depot or Lowe's. I think there is a market out there that's being ignored, but I hope someone somewhere will tap into it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Flash Fiction Challenge: Pieces of History

From the creative genius known as Patti Abbott comes another flash fiction challenge. This time, those who participated were given a sentence or two from another participant to begin the story. This is what I came up with. I feel sorry for the poor bastard who received my prompt. Anyway, here's mine:

Pieces of History
By Stephen Allan

Bruce kept the bullet in a small pillbox. He would show it proudly to visitors at the nursing home. This bullet ended the life of Henry Lee Patrick, he would tell people. It blasted out of my service revolver and lodged into the gangster’s ticker. Most of the residents of the home knew who Patrick was, at least the ones who still had all of their marbles, and got a kick out of Bruce’s story; but the boy scouts and girls scouts who came every Saturday to volunteer had never heard of the St. Louis criminal. No one’s ever told you about the great Mississippi crime spree of 1947? Good Lord, Patrick and his men were up and down both sides of the Mississippi River knocking over one bank after the other. Had the whole country in a tizzy for near close 3 months that summer. The kids, who normally looked bored and a bit bothered to visit the home, usually just answered with a blank stare as if they didn’t know what to do in a conversation. Well, I ended that crime spree, Bruce would say and indicate the damaged slug pinched between his fingers before putting it back into the pillbox. That’s my little piece of history.

Bruce told his tale until he received the letter from Charlotte, North Carolina. It was typed on flowery stationary and smelled faintly of perfume and cigarette smoke. The signature was familiar.

Bruce had spent over sixty years telling the story of how he killed Patrick and he came to believe it was true. Fact and fiction were bent at first, then mixed together over the years and finally, in Bruce's past two years at the home, blended into a smooth version that had more lies than truth. Yes, Henry Lee Patrick was dead and yes, the slug Bruce kept in the pillbox was dug out of Patrick's heart; but Bruce didn't pull the trigger.

Dear Bruce,

It seems that our stories no longer need to match and I am able to free you of your obligation. This life would not have happened if it were not for you, so you should not be sad in knowing that it has ended. I have instructed my daughter to mail this letter when I pass away. She is very beautiful and has no idea of the gift you have given her. Without you I would have gone to the gas chamber for sure and she would never have been born. I've included a photo of her and her family. Know this is what you have accomplished.


Bruce looked at the photo, and then crumpled it up along with the letter and stuffed it into the pocket of his robe. He opened his drawer, grabbed the pillbox and his lighter and walked out of his room. He made it passed the nurses' station and through the ballroom and down the small staircase that led to the outside garden that overlooked the ocean. The autumn wind felt pleasant and cool against his face. He looked around to make sure no one was watching, especially any of the nurses, because he was afraid someone would stop him. When he was satisfied that he was alone without any spies, he walked to one of the outside ashtrays and set the letter and photo in it. He lit the paper and picture and watched it burn for a moment before walking towards the water. At the fence he looked down at the rocky shoreline. The tide swished in and out rhythmically and he just stood there until he couldn't stand the cold any longer. He pulled the pillbox out of his pocket and dropped it into the water.

Bruce never told the story of Henry Lee Patrick ever again.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

House Hunting

Been doing the real estate thing. Looking at house after house; what can we afford, what do we need in terms of space, how much effort do we want to put into anything requiring the letters DIY?

What do I want in a house? Space, location, yard, character, garage, a furnace I don't have to worry about? Is this permanent? The terms of the mortgage makes it seem so. Should it be something small with the intention of moving later on down the road in ten years or so? What does that mean in terms of staying around here? What does it mean in terms of where I am in life? Is it time to realize that I'm in my mid-thirties and that I'm an adult for better or worse? Is it time to realize where I'm at in terms of a career? On the upward swing of academic administration. Yippee!

What is a house? OK, I know the four walls and a roof thing, but what does it mean to an individual? How does it define? Am I split-level ranch? Am I colonial? Perhaps bungalow? Am I new or am I aged with character? Isn't a house one of the first things that tells you about a person? You meet someone and go to their house and you make all kinds of assumptions according to their taste in a house (why they bought it, what is it that appeals to them) and how they decorate it. Is it because I have such a hard time identifying myself that I have a hard time determining what type of house I want, or even choosing what I want most in a house.

The DIY route means less time doing anything else. I guess you can get a place to where you want it - or live in hope of getting it there - but is it worth the time and effort? I'm not afraid to do the work. I know I can do it; I'm a bit rusty with everything, but it's like riding a bicycle, right? Less time reading, less time writing, less time seeing films, less time playing with the kids.

It's going to be a long process...

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Can't Blame Him

Is it just me or is Apollo staring at Starbuck's chest in this picture?

Oh, I cannot wait for the series to return in a couple of weeks. Any predictions on the final cylon? I'm still thinking Roslin. OK, geek moment passed, go about your business.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Non-Oprah Book Club: Asylum

Gothic settings, passion, sex, jealousy, tragedy, insanity; could you ask for anything more? Told from the point of view of Dr. Peter Cleave (a most unreliable narrator indeed), Asylum is the story of an unhappy wife who has an affair with one of her husband's psychiatric patients; a decision that leads to incredible ecstasy, as well as incredible sorrow. Patrick McGrath has a tendency to slip under the pleasantries of human nature and expose its most gruesome truths.

The catastrophic love affair characterized by sexual obsession has been a professional interest of mine for many years now.

- First line from Asylum by Patrick McGrath