AFI #98: Yankee Doodle Dandy

Give my regards to Broadway, Remember me to Herald Square, Tell all the gang at Forty Second street, that I will soon be there!

I’m generally not one for musicals, but I can appreciate a great one when I see it. I liked The Sound of Music and The Music Man as much as the next guy. But I certainly had no understanding of the history of the Broadway musical nor the impact that George M. Cohan had on the American theater and popular culture. I do love history, so I was actually quite interested in seeing Yankee Doodle Dandy for the first time. I have to say I was not disappointed. I really liked Yankee Doodle Dandy!

The 1942 film tells the life story of George M. Cohan, complete with many wonderful recreations of his best Broadway shows. I think I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that Cohan wrote Over There and You’re a Grand Old Flag, but I definitely didn’t know he wrote tons of well-known hits including Give My Regards to Broadway. Over There, by the way, was written in 1917 and Cohan was later given the Congressional Gold Medal for it and other patriotic songs by President Roosevelt in 1936. Cohan is also recognized for his impact with a bronze statue in Times Square (something no other Broadway actor can claim). The guy had a great life and career.

But while the film is a great tribute to Cohan, it’s really a showcase for the rare talent of James Cagney, who won a Best Actor Oscar for his wonderful portrayal of Cohan. Most film fans know Cagney as the quintessential tough guy in great movies like Angel’s With Dirty Faces and White Heat…but the dude can sing and dance! Guys like Cagney were the original triple threats back in the day — they could act, dance and sing. Cagney was incredible in this role and his Oscar was well deserved. Cagney adds spark to the many musical numbers in the film as he tells the Cohan story through the many shows he wrote, produced and starred in. And while this film will always be remembered for the Yankee Doodle Boy number taken from Cohan’s 1904 Broadway debut Little Johnny Jones, you’ll be amazed at how many other great musical moments the film brings to life. Give My Regards to Broadway was also in Little Johnny Jones.

Yankee Doodle Dandy was directed by Michael Curtiz, who of course also directed Casablanca and White Christmas (Curtiz also directed Mildred Pierce which has just been remade as an HBO miniseries). The film is not a musical per se, but more a tribute to Cohan through music. It’s not as if the actors break into song in the middle of the movie like a true musical — I think that would have been a very bad idea. Instead it’s just a very creative biopic about a great American. I was struck as I watched this film about how different the concept of patriotism has become. Patriotism has morphed into a political tool with folks on both “sides” of the American political spectrum claiming it as their own. I think we could all learn a lesson about true patriotism these days…maybe we should all be made to watch Yankee Doodle Dandy together.

Next Up on the AFI list: #97 Blade Runner (one of my all-time favorites)

AFI #99: Toy Story

It’s hard to believe, but the original Toy Story came out in 1995. I saw it back then, and thinking back there was sure a lot of “buzz” about it (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). The hype was much more about the technology then it was about the film, which made me wonder how it would hold up after 16 years. As I suspected, it’s still pretty darn good — but animated technology has become even more spectacular in the past decade and a half.

So why did AFI put Toy Story on its list? After watching it today it has to be because of the computer animation since the plot was nothing special. I’m okay with that though because when an art form makes a big leap forward the film that sort of defines that leap is important. Avatar is a good story, but the 3-D is spectacular. I suppose The Jazz Singer had an even bigger impact on the film world when it became the first feature-length film to include sound back in 1927 (though The Jazz Singer didn’t make AFI’s list).

Toy Story is a great little movie, though I’d argue that Toy Story 2 has a better plot. I’d also argue Toy Story, which is the only animated film on the AFI list, isn’t even close to the best animated film in American history — I think Shrek is the best ever and enjoyed others more like Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc, and The Lion King to name a few. But Toy Story is fun and there are some nice gags. My favorite is subtle but hilarious…it takes place when slinky dog insults Mr. Potato Head and Potato Head takes his lips off and touches them to his rear end as in kiss my ass slinky dog! The other subtle moments I enjoyed were when Woody purposely gets Buzz Lightyear’s name wrong — he calls him Buzz Light Beer and Buzz Light Snack!

Toy Story would get three stars out of five for me if I were rating these films, and while it wouldn’t make my top 100 I can understand why AFI included it. Just remember, Buzz Lightyear doesn’t fly…he falls with style.

Next Up: #98 Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

How to Decide What to Read

I read a lot. Many of my friends ask me how I find the time, but truthfully I don’t think that’s the right question. You should ask yourself if you enjoy reading, because if you do you will find the time. I don’t watch as much television as I used to for example. I have a few choice shows, plus sports of course, but most evenings I’ll sit on the sofa and read.

Aside from finding the time to read, people always ask me how I find the books I read. That, my friends, is an art form! The fact is I am never at a loss for something to read because I keep a list of books I’ve run across that I’d like to read. You can do this with a simple word or excel file, or you can use a web-based tool like I do. I keep my list of to-reads on Goodreads, a wonderful free app that is sort of a social network for book worms. I have several “bookshelves” on Goodreads, including my “to-read” bookshelf, my “read” bookshelf and my “currently reading” bookshelf. Whenever I run across the title of a book that interests me I add it to my “to-read” list. Goodreads also helps connect you to other people who like to read, where you can share reviews and discuss books and authors. Another list I use is my nook wish list, which I use to keep track of books I may like to download and read on my nook.

But keeping track is one thing — how do I find out about all these books? Here are some tips:

  • The first place to look for good reading material is by looking for books by authors you already know you like. If you liked Franzen’s The Corrections, chances are you’re going to enjoy Freedom
  • There are tons of great websites specifically designed for book lovers. A few I keep up with include The Millions, the New York Times Books site, Arts & Letters Daily, and Books.
  • My favorite bookstore is Powell’s, which is a chain in the Portland area. The employees at Powell’s recommend books online under Staff Picks. Find an employee who has similar tastes as you!
  • Keep your eyes open for books wherever you are on the web. Lots of times I’ll read about a new book on, or The Daily Beast.
  • Use your smart phone to jot down a title you may find interesting while you’re flipping through a magazine at the doctor’s office or at a newsstand.
  • Check out all the award winners. Each year there are tons of awards handed out for books and Powell’s does a great job of keeping track for you. They have current winners and past winners listed nicely in their Award Winners section online. I just added A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan to my reading list after it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the other day.
  • Use the Literature Map to find authors you’ll like. This amazing website asks you to type in an author you like, then it suggests similar authors. How cool!

These are just some of the ways I find books to read. Now you may ask, with all these books on my “to-read” list how do I choose what to read next? Good question! That’s just a matter of mood. I just read a nonfiction book about food, so you can expect I’ll jump into some light fiction next. In fact, what am I doing blogging — I have to go decide what to read next!

A Rose by Any Other Name is Still Oasis

If you enjoyed music in the 90s you probably listened to your share of Oasis. For a while they were the biggest band on the planet, and of course Noel and Liam Gallagher did everything they could to throw it all away in a series of drunken stupors — now that was rock and roll! Oasis tried to stay together over the last decade, and even made some records, but nothing came close to classics like 1994’s Definitely, Maybe and 1995’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? which is one of the best records of the decade in my humble opinion.

Looks like they decided to try again, this time without Noel. Last year Liam formed Beady Eye along with former Oasis members Gem Archer, Andy Bell and Chris Sharrock and their first album, Different Gear, Still Speeding, was recently released in the U.S. The first track getting airplay is called The Roller and it really caught my attention when I first heard it the other day. Here it is for your listening pleasure:

It sounds just like Oasis to me; in fact, it sounds like early 90s classic Oasis. Fan reviews have been solid and Beady Eye concerts are selling out across Europe and Japan. As of right now they are only making a few North American tour stops this summer before returning to Europe for more shows. I plan to give the record a good solid listen before making any major declarations about the return of Oasis, but I’m definitely, maybe impressed with the first song. The video for another tune, The Millionaire, is on their website at and it has a wonderful 60s sound to it that is a nice homage to the band’s influences like The Jam, The Kinks and of course, the Fab Four. What do you think?

AFI #100: Ben-Hur

Today we kick off my quest to watch and review all 100 of the American Film Institute’s 100 Years 100 Movies. Some of my friends have asked me why I’m doing this and to them, and you, I answer simply — because I want to. ­čÖé

Ben-Hur (1959) is the tale of Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jewish resident of Judea during the first century B.C. The long story short is that he is betrayed by his childhood friend Messala and sent into slavery along with his mother and sister. While on a slave ship he saves the life of a Roman Consul who later adopts him as his son and so Ben-Hur returns to Judea to seek revenge on his old friend Messala.

I had not seen Ben-Hur before, so I was actually looking forward to it if for nothing else than to see the famous chariot race scene in context (I’d seen the race plenty of times but never in its entirety). Let’s get this part out of the way first — the race is pretty cool, especially given the special effects technology available in 1959. But by today’s standards it’s pretty campy.

And campy is actually a pretty good word to describe what I thought of Ben-Hur as a film. You know, just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s great and lots of times things from the past aren’t as good as we remember (like Yoo Hoo!) There were so many things I didn’t like about Ben-Hur I don’t even know where to start, but I’ll start with the acting. Charlton Heston was so melodramatic in this role I actually found myself laughing a few times at the most dramatic parts. He won an Academy Award for the role, and the film itself won a total of 11 Oscars including Best Picture. I know acting was different back then, but there are plenty of old movies where the actors don’t overact to the point of ridiculousness. I had a hard time getting past the fake drama. There were a few scenes that I actually found uncomfortable they were so corny, like when Messala and Ben-Hur meet for the first time in the film. They held each others arms far too long and as they gazed into each others eyes I thought for sure they were going to kiss. And there was lots of throwing back of heads and swooning and melodramatic death scenes. Campy I say.

Then there was the plot (Spoiler alert): I think the director, William Wyler, was really confused about what this film was about. The full title of the film is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. I think the story of Ben-Hur was plot enough to stand on its own, but Wyler throws in several scenes with Jesus that seem completely arbitrary and out of context. As Judah is being led off into slavery, he is given a drink of water by a mysterious stranger whose face we don’t see (but it’s clearly Christ). Later in the film he walks past a bunch of peasants sitting at the feet of a prophet (again, Jesus) but he doesn’t stop to listen. Then there is the end of the film, where Judah goes to witness the crucifixion and returns the favor to Jesus by giving him a drink of water, and then after a great storm he returns home to find his mother and sister miraculously cured from being lepers. Really? What does any of this have to do with the revenge story?┬á None of this added anything of value to the film, which at 212 minutes could have easily ended with Messala’s death and been a wonderful little revenge tale. I’m not criticizing the film as an atheist…I’m criticizing it as a viewer.

One of the things many people say about Ben-Hur is that it was great simply because of its production value given the time in which it was produced. It cost a ton to make and had more extras than any film in history (I think it still holds that record). But I’m not one to give a movie credit just because it was larger than life. I like a good plot and great acting. And some of my favorite films were extremely low budget. Let’s just say I thought Ben-Hur was mediocre and it wouldn’t make the top 1,000 in my list of top films. I’ll take Gladiator any day over Ben-Hur!

Next Up: #99 Toy Story

Reading My Way to Eating Smart

“I’m all lost in the supermarket, I can no longer shop happily.” — The Clash

Do you have any idea what to eat? It used to be so simple, you just opened the fridge and cooked up something that looked good. But nowadays it seems like every day there are new warnings about certain types of foods and new specialty diets that swear they have the answers. Eat like the Japanese. No, eat like the Greeks. No, eat like grandma told you. Aargh! Eating isn’t as fun as it used to be, despite what Anthony Bordain thinks. If you’re like me, you’re concerned about your health but you’re just not sure what’s right anymore.

I have a family history that predisposes me to adult-onset diabetes and heart disease. I’m healthy, but I’m a ticking time bomb. A few years ago, in his early 60s, my father had a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery. In order to stave off a similar fate I went to a cardiologist who ran some tests, told me I was fine, suggested I pop an aspirin every day and come see him again in five years. Thanks doc, but that still didn’t help me understand what to eat. So I started reading.

I haven’t set foot in a McDonald’s since reading Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. In Defense of Food gave me some good ideas and a manifesto (Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants). The South Beach Diet was a bust (have you ever tried to eliminate carbs?). All that reading led me to think seriously about eliminating red meat but I did not. And of course it made sense to increase my intake of fruits, veggies and super foods (whatever they are). Then I saw the film Food Inc. and that pushed me over the edge — I walked out of the theater having sworn off all meat except seafood. Yep, I became a pescetarian. That was two years ago, and in that time I think the only meat I’ve had (aside from fish) is half a grass fed beef cheeseburger and a few bites of turkey at Thanksgiving. Unfortunately I am exactly the same weight and bored to death at mealtimes. And I eat way too many carbs!

I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m not an ethical vegetarian — I’m a Darwinian so that would be hypocritical (survival of the fittest and all). I’m just confused and hungry. I saw an interesting documentary a few weeks ago called Food Matters, and that made me go out and buy multivitamins and a juicer. I’m still unsure about meat though. There are all those chemicals, antibiotics and all that darn corn. Corn huh? Maybe that’s the key?

So last week I picked up Michael Pollan‘s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and started reading. He’s the unofficial spokesperson for eating healthy, and he eats meat. The book begins by posing the question — what should we have for dinner? I’m halfway through the book and have no idea what to eat, but I definitely have a new opinion of what it means for a food to be “organic” and now I’m not even sure that means anything. I am also convinced that corn is evil and grass is good. But I hope the second half of the book actually helps me answer the “what to have for dinner” question because frankly I could really sink my teeth into a big juicy steak right about now! I’ll keep you posted. And if you know what the hell I should eat I’m all ears.

It’s Not Just What to Watch…But How to Watch

It used to be that if you wanted to see a particular film and you missed it in the theater when it came out you could grab it at the video store or wait until it showed up on HBO. Oh how the times have changed. When I decided over the weekend to watch and review the AFI Top 100 films of all time I never realized how many options I’d have to screen them. Technology has changed everything. Here are some of the ways I can watch the films:

  • Rent from Blockbuster (there is still one open in my neighborhood…for now)
  • Have it delivered to me via mail via Netflix
  • Stream it live to my computer via Netflix
  • Stream it live to my living room television via Netflix on my Roku box
  • Stream it live to my living room television via Amazon Instant Video (most titles are about $2.99)
  • Play it via Cox Advanced TV on demand
  • Stream it to my den television via Amazon, Netflix or another service via my son’s Sony PS3
  • Check out the DVD at the library
  • Rent it from Redbox
  • Use a torrent service to steal the film off the Internet (not that I would)

When I was just out of college there was this great little family owned video store on Burlingame Ave. just down the street from my apartment. I walked past a big video store to get to it because the woman who ran the shop knew everything about films and she stocked all the coolest indies and foreign films I liked. One day I asked her if she’d give me some advice on opening my own video store, and she told me I’d be crazy to open a video store. One day soon, she said, we’ll all be getting our movies via our telephone lines. This was before the advent of broadband and the popularity of cable modems, so while we’re not exactly getting our movies via the phone we are getting them directly streamed to our homes. Is it sad that the mom and pop video store is a thing of the past? Yes it is. But it’s hard to be too sad because thanks to technology I can pretty much watch any movie I want, when I want, without leaving my home. For a movie fan like me, what could be better?

Coming soon: I’ll explain all the ways I can listen to the new k.d. lang album without actually buying a CD!

Sing it Loud with k.d. lang

One of the downsides of the demise of commercial radio is that it’s hard to know when your favorite artists are releasing new music. It’s not as if you’re going to hear anything progressive on the local Top 40 station, so if you’re like me you get your new music news on the web or stay in touch with your favorite artists by liking them on Facebook and following them on Twitter. If you don’t do that, you probably had no idea k.d. lang was releasing her first studio album in three years tomorrow.

For my money, k.d. lang has the best voice in popular music and she’s been thrilling fans with her golden pipes for 25 years. I first discovered k.d. back in 1989 with the release of Absolute Torch and Twang, the first time I ever purchased anything even remotely similar to country music. I vividly remember turning up the volume really loud on “Pulling Back The Reins” and letting the music wash over me like a summer storm. I was hooked.

Over the years she has gone from alt-country crooner to pop┬ástar (see 1992’s Ingenue and 2000’s Invincible Summer) and back a few times, always relying on her amazing voice to inspire fans new and old. She did duets with Tony Bennett. Did a great soundtrack to a terrible movie based on a great book (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues), and last year released a retrospective. But it was perhaps on the biggest stage ever that she showed the world just how gifted she is when she performed an unforgettable version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

The first cut from the┬ánew record is called “I Confess” and here is┬áthe video. It’s classic k.d.:

Review: Black Swan

I have to admit I was reticent to see Black Swan because I have had bad experiences with director Darren Aronofsky, but on the other hand I have been in love with Natalie Portman as an actress since I first saw her in The Professional (one of my all-time favorites) when she was just 12 years old. Aronofsky can be brutal to watch — just ask anyone who has seen the rape scene in Requiem For a Dream. And frankly I didn’t care for The Wrestler so much either, despite the great performances by Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei. Why is everything so dark with you Darren?

Well, Black Swan is certainly dark. But I really enjoyed it. The short version of the plot goes like this: ballerina Nina Sayers is obsessed with perfection and at home lives with an overbearing mother who is a failed dancer herself. Nina finally gets her shot at the lead role in Swan Lake, but her director doesn’t think she can play the dark and seductive black swan because it does not fit her personality. At the same time she feels pressure from a newcomer to the troop, played seductively by Mila Kunis, who clearly can play the black swan. All of the pressure builds and Nina, who likely suffers from schizophrenia, starts imagining dark events which ultimately lead her to insanity and a “perfect” performance of the black swan. There…got it?

Spoiler Alert: I’m going to analyze the film and can’t do so without discussing the sordid details so if you have not seen the film you might want to stop reading here. Black Swan is a story of how striving for perfection can lead to self-destruction. Sure, Nina had external pressures, but undoubtedly the internal pressures drove her over the edge to insanity. She was prone to self-destruction earlier in her career, which is why her mother began to worry when she started scratching herself. But as the pressure mounted she began to have bad dreams and that led to hallucinations. These got worse as opening night drew closer, and ultimately she wanted perfection so badly she caused herself physical pain in order to mimic the suicide at the end of the ballet.

A lot of discussion about this film centered around whether or not Mila Kunis’ character was real — I think she was. But I definitely think Nina imagined many of the conversations and activities that took place with Lily. Did they have sex? I doubt it (although it was fun to watch!) It really doesn’t matter how much of what Nina did or did not experience was real because regardless she was over the brink. There has also been a lot of discussion about the final scene of the film…did she die or not? Again, it doesn’t matter. To Nina she reached “perfection” in her performance and that’s probably why Aronofsky left us unsure of the outcome.

This film made me think, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. It was hard to watch this young woman self-destruct, and Aronofsky’s portrayal of this insanity was compelling. As Nina danced the final scene in the ballet did she turn into a swan? No, but she felt like she did and Aronofsky used his camera to enable us to see the transformation. The film had moments of surrealism and that’s what made us believe Nina was going insane.

So, I really liked Black Swan. Portman definitely deserved her Oscar and it will likely be the first of many to come. If you only know Portman from the Star Wars films you are really missing out. Go back and watch The Professional to see how she got started. I also loved her in Beautiful Girls, Everyone Says I Love You, Closer and Garden State. But I still don’t recommend any other Aronofsky films!

What to Blog About

I’ve spent the past four years blogging at Valley PR Blog, a blog I co-founded to help bring together the Phoenix area public relations community. VPRB was much more successful than I ever thought possible, and it helped me build a name for myself in the PR and social media world both locally and around the world. It was fun, but PR was never my passion.

These days I’m working for Apollo Group as a communications professional and that side of my life is fulfilled. But I still feel the need to write, and I’m most comfortable writing in the blog format. So recently I asked myself what would I like to blog about for which I have a passion? The answer was easy enough — I love movies, music and books. OK, maybe love isn’t a strong enough term. I live for movies, music and books. When I’m not working or hanging with friends and family I’m usually reading, watching movies and always…sometimes at the same time as the other things…listening to music. If you’re friends with me on Facebook you know I’m always posting about the songs I like, the films I’ve seen and the books I’ve read. It makes me happy to share my love for this kind of entertainment. That’s what this blog is about.

Through this blog I’ll be sharing my thoughts on movies, music and literature…and perhaps some other similar topics. I may provide a review, or perhaps just a quick mention of something I’d like to pass along. I’ll do my best to provide links to the things I blog about so you can get more information, and when I can I’ll embed a song or a clip as well. I hope you’ll offer your opinions too, since I get most of my best recommendations from my friends who also like movies, music and books. And of course, whether you agree or disagree with me, I hope you’ll feel free to tell me what’s on your mind.

Along with the launch of this blog, I’ve decided to attempt a silly blog challenge with inspiration from the film Julie & Julia. No, I’m not going to eat my way through Julia Childs’ recipes. Instead, I’m going to watch, in order, all of AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies! I’m not giving myself a time limit, and my thoughts on those films will be interspersed throughout this blog, but I will try to get through all 100 beginning with Ben-Hur and ending with Citizen Cane between now and the end of the year. Interestingly enough, I have already seen 63 of the top 100…but most of them I haven’t seen in a while so it should be fun. And ironically, I’ve never seen Citizen Cane, which is considered by most aficionados to be the best film ever made. We shall see.

Thanks for reading and if you enjoy this blog please pass along the feed to your friends.