Monthly Archives: December 2011

Eight Nights of Hanukkah, Eight Nights of Movies: Night #8


Unfortunately, the end of Hanukkah has arrived. But even as you prepare to put the menorah away, there is still one more night worth of a movie left. And what better way to end Hanukkah than with a movie by Mel Brooks, the master of Jewish humor, and of randomly inserting Yiddish jokes into his work.

“Spaceballs” isn’t even the funniest Mel Brooks movie; that honor goes to “Blazing Saddles.” It isn’t the even the smartest; that honor goes to “The Producers.” It doesn’t even have the best Jewish joke; that honor goes to the Jews with Space joke in “History of the World: Part 1.” However, “Spaceballs” just seems like the perfect movie to recommend, maybe because for some time, it was the funniest movie I had ever seen.

“Spaceballs” satirizes both the “Star Wars” movies, and the general way movies were made in the 1980s. Darth Helmet’s (Rick Moranis) ridiculously gigantic helmet is hilarious enough, but the self-referential nature of “Spaceballs” is what helps to make it a minor work of genius. There is one scene where the characters watch themselves watching “Spaceballs.” Most notably though is the scene where the Yoda-spinoff Yogurt (Brooks) explains the concept of merchandising. Its a hilarious and spot-on scene that should be shown in every film business or marketing class. As a kid, I would really have loved to have Spaceballs the Lunchbox, though.

“Spaceballs” remains a standout, and could teach those supposed movie satires made nowadays (I’m looking at you, Seltzer-Friedberg) a thing or two. My only problem with this movie is that if Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) is a Druish princess, who once had a huge nose pre-plastic surgery, then why do her and Lone Star (Bill Pullman) get married in a Church? I guess it’s just as Barf (John Candy) says: “funny, she doesn’t look Druish.”

Watch this clip, and learn a thing or two about merchandising:

Movie Review: Heavenly Creatures

Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures,” the breakthrough film from the director of “The Lord of the Rings,” might as well be in a genre of its own. Call it fantastical nonfiction. That is, it bridges the great divide between fantasy and a frightening reality that actually occurred.

In 1954, quite, rural New Zealand was shaken by murder. Two teenage girls had murdered one of their mothers in what one could describe as “a crime of friendship.” The two were caught, imprisoned, and later paroled on the condition that they would never see each other again. Jackson did not make a story about the trial but rather about the events that led up to the murder, based on what is true, what is thought to be true, and what can’t be true under any circumstance.

The events of “Heavenly Creatures” take place in and around the small town of Christchurch on New Zealand’s southern island. The two teenage girls, Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) meet in Catholic school. The introverted Pauline is immediately transfixed by Juliet, and how Juliet will talk back to the French teacher without even thinking about it. The two soon become inseparable best friends. They frequently escape into a fantasy world that they created, one that brings them away from their dull, suppressed lives. The fantasy starts to become too real and while the girls are present physically in reality, they are mentally gone.

After feeling that their friendship is becoming unhealthy, Pauline and Juliet’s parents make the decision to separate the two of them. The separation does no good and instead drives the pair into bouts of insanity. They ultimately hatch a sinister plan to be together forever, one that, even they admit, could only end in tragedy.

“Heavenly Creatures” is a movie of many questions, and many frightening possibilities. The whole story is one giant question about who the driving force of insanity here is. Were Pauline and Juliet naturally troubled, or were their descents into insanity caused by their separation? In a society that stressed conformity and deemphasized creativity, perhaps madness and fantasy were the only means of escape. However, this in no way justifies the terrible actions carried out in the film’s terrifying finale.

A driving force in the narrative of “Heavenly Creatures” is the widely circulated rumor that the two girls in question were lesbians. This is not played for an exploitative purpose, or to create controversy, but rather it serves as a lens into the psyche of these two teenage killers. Could physical love have explained why they were so inseparable, and why they so despised both the religion and the adults who raised them?

“Heavenly Creatures” is one of the great underappreciated gems of the 1990s. Jackson showed the ability of a director who would soon be able to make great movies on a much larger scale. The fantasy world created in “Heavenly Creatures” is one that seems fake, yet so tangible. The creatures the girls create look like a cross between Play-Doh and those little green toy soldiers. The special effects, while dated by today’s standards, still look impressive for something made outside of Hollywood, and without a blockbuster budget. I can’t wait to see what else the other filmmakers of New Zealand can offer in the years to come.

“Heavenly Creatures” begot not only a great director, but also two great actresses. This was Winslet’s debut role, and from her performance one could see why she would later become an international star and an Oscar winner. She gets so into this role, and she is so sinister yet so innocent at the same time. Lynskey  unfortunately has not achieved the same level of success as Winslet. She has had bit roles in a few very good movies (“Up in the Air”) and a few very good TV shows (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”), but she never achieved real stardom. Her performance here is as subdued and creepy as her character. She acts mostly through her narration and her disgruntled facial expressions and most of the time, you can never tell whether she is about to scream or about to kill someone. Hopefully, Lynskey makes a comeback one of these days.

There have been a lot of scenes of violent cruelty in movies, but few have effected me as deeply as the ending scene of “Heavenly Creatures” did, despite being so quick and so sudden. What creates the impact is that there is 90 minutes of dread building up to it. Like in the ending of movies such as “The Conversation,” making an entire movie based off dread until the very final minutes is ultimately more rewarding. The more you wait, the more horrifying the crime feels. Peter Jackson is a master of suspense in disguise.

“Heavenly Creatures” should be seen for all of the reasons that people watch movies in the first place: to be transferred off to a place they normally wouldn’t be able to go to, to feel sympathy for people we shouldn’t feel sympathy for, and to simply be thrilled. We see both a foreign country in a time few of us would’ve known it in, and a world that exists entirely inside of two girls’ heads. Juliet and Pauline might be murderers, but they are also angst-ridden, isolated teenagers that anyone could relate to. It also shows a director’s admirable mission to painstakingly tell a difficult story right. And tell it right he did.

Eight Nights of Hanukkah, Eight Nights of Movies: Night #7


Spielberg had to appear on this list one of these nights. So why didn’t I include “Schindler’s List,” cinema’s most thoughtful portrayal of the Holocaust, or “Saving Private Ryan” which I learned in Hebrew school has something to do with Jewish values? It wouldn’t take a post from me to get you to watch either of those. However, six years after being released, no one seems to want to watch “Munich.” It’s a depressing subject for sure, but it its also as captivating a political allegory as it is a thrilling and suspenseful film.

“Munich” is based on the tragic events surrounding the 1972 Munich Olympics, in which members of the Israeli Olympic team were kidnapped and subsequently murdered by Palestinian terrorists. Spielberg recaptures the terrifying image of a hooded kidnapper standing on a terrace, and the chilling line said by a news anchor, “they’re all gone.” In response, the Israeli government assembles a team of Mossad agents to target and kill the terrorists. The team includes Eric Bana as the conscience-ridden Avner, as well as Daniel Craig and Ciaran Hinds.

When “Munich” was first released, it was greeted with much controversy. Many claimed the film, a work of historical fiction, to be anti-Israel. To believe that such a devoted, charitable Jew as Spielberg would ever make a film against his spiritual homeland is as ridiculous as the alien spaceship emerging out of the ground at the end of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

While “Munich” does suggest that perhaps some of the people killed might not have been involved in the kidnapping, and at one point it does allow one of the terrorists to speak, this is not saying that Israel should not exist. It is rather a universal statement as old as time about the dangerous tole that revenge takes on the individual and that in the terrible Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both sides forget that we both bleed the same blood. In today’s polarized political environment, saying that both sides could be at fault is a small miracle.

Politics aside, “Munich” is something that few acknowledge it to be: an extremely well-made thriller based on the principles of film in the era that Spielberg first began working in (1970s) and the filmmakers of the past that inspired him (Hitchcock). One scene involving a phone, a bomb, and a little girl, will have you at the edge of your seat, begging you to wonder how it could possibly end.

One of Spielberg’s greatest pitfalls throughout his career is how easily he can fall into the trap of sentimentality. “Munich” is another one of his film’s about the importance of family, but it never falls into the trap of sentimentality. The ending is hardened, but also very thoughtful. “Munich” will evoke an intense political and theological discussion on this seventh night of Hanukkah but above all, everyone will enjoy the fact that for once, the Jews are the ones who are doing the ass kicking.

Eight Nights of Hanukkah, Eight Nights of Movies: Night #6

A Night at the Opera

As today is Christmas, I almost considered making this a cheat day and recommending multiple Christmas classics. However, “A Christmas Story” runs for 24 hours straight, and almost everyone has seen “Elf” at this point. Instead, I decided to dig back really far and pull out a Marx Brothers classic from 1935.

Any Marx Brothers movie could have made this spot, but “A Night at the Opera” manages to stand out. “Duck Soup” could have made for the mirror scene alone and “A Day at the Races” for the scene in which they try and be doctors. However, nothing beats “A Night at the Opera” in both its wit and its slapstick. The four Jewish brothers from New York City got their start in vaudeville before hitting the big screen and bringing their crazed theatrical antics along with them. Comedy would never be the same.

The end of the silent era allowed comedians to make movies that portrayed humor not just through bodily movements but also through dialogue. The Marx Brothers were masters at wordplay, and Groucho was truly Hollywood’s first smart ass. The scene in which Groucho and Chico start tearing up the parts of a contract they don’t agree with (“there ain’t no sainty clause!”) is masterful at both types of comedy.

Of course, the highlight of this movie is a miracle of slapstick: the stateroom scene. Characters keep piling and piling on into a tiny room as they keep ordering more and more hard boiled eggs, until someone opens a door and everyone falls out. It is not necessarily the part where everyone falls out that is so funny, but the ensuing madness, and the question of how many people can possibly fit into this room before the inevitable collapse. Sometimes, it is the telling of a joke, and not the eventual punchline, that can be funniest.

“A Night at the Opera” is a comedy that is truly timeless. To entertain people for over seven decades for is a rare gift that only the greatest of comedies can provide. Here is something that both you and your grandparents can laugh at together.

Movie Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Most filmmakers forget the importance of opening credits. They usually serve to say who made the movie, but they never tell a story of their own. David Fincher never fails to make mind blowing openings. Think of the neurons and brain passages at the beginning of “Fight Club.” When the opening credits for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” finish rolling, you’ll have learned everything you need to know about Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) without even knowing it. It is the intersection of a brilliant filmmaker with a brilliant technological mind, just as Lisbeth is the intersection of a brilliant investigator with a brilliant hacker mind. Welcome to a Sweden without rules.

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a thriller that utilizes everything a movie has at its disposal (camera, lighting, music, etc.) to the fullest extent, and thus pulls off the year’s most fully realized motion picture. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a triumph of everything. Like its incredibly complex narrative, one piece of the production would not fit in without another.

To outline the entire mystery would take up too much time. To simplify it all would be too hard. However, I’ll do my best to sum it all up. The movie begins after Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a journalist from Stockholm, is convicted for ethics violations based on his story on banker Wennerstrom (Ulf Frieberg, who looks eerily similar to Julian Assange). The trial costs him both his reputation and his life savings. Escape comes in the form of wealthy patriarch Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) who wants to hire Mikael to investigate his own family.

Vanger brings Mikael to his home, which is chillier and more isolated than even The Overlook Hotel. Vanger asks Mikael to find his missing niece Harriet, whom he believes was murdered 40 years prior. In his long, tedious investigation, Mikael finds a family that is even more deranged than the average dysfunctional family. Neo-Nazis may be the least of his problems.

Mikael has a great researcher’s mind, but there is something about him, he is submissive and subdued; he can find pieces of the puzzle but he can’t fit them all together. That’s where Lisbeth comes in. Lisbeth is the wunderkind hacker who performed Mikael’s background check for Henrik, and she is hired again to aid in the case. While Lisbeth has a brilliant mind, she is deemed a sociopath by society. While she is an outsider, like God’s lonely woman, she can find out any bit of information on any person by simply clicking a button on her computer. If all of a director’s movies and characters are supposed to exist in the same universe, then she would single handily destroy Mark Zuckerberg of “The Social Network” in a hacking contest, and then probably try and kill him for that comment about comparing women to farm animals.

There is something about being considered the lowest common denominator in society that makes someone able to get away with anything, which is what makes Lisbeth such an effective detective. Thanks to all of her piercings, her distinctive hairstyle, and the tattoo on her back that gives the movie its title, Lisbeth Salander is the year’s most unforgettable movie character.

Mikael and Lisbeth make a great team, as they both serve as each other’s foils. Mikael is a very safe and journalistic detective, while Lisbeth, who already lives above the law, is not afraid to break the rules in order to crack a case. She is the Jake Gittes to his Bob Woodward. As an abused woman herself, and through her actions, Lisbeth serves almost as both a protector and a crusader of the independence of all women. It is no wonder this case takes on special interest to her, as it involves catching a killer of women.

Craig delivers a stone-faced performance as Mikael Blomkvist. However, he is not quite an action hero here, he is more of a civilian, and his fear in the face of danger is not like the Bond we’ve seen him as. While I sometimes had trouble believing that he was Swedish, his timing in certain situations makes me believe that he would make a great comedic actor.

Mara, meanwhile, delivers a flawless performance that will merit her an Oscar nomination, if not a win. It is a stunning transformation from her role as sweet Erica Albright in “The Social Network.” Here, she creates an indelible performance using silence and actions over words. For what she goes through at the beginning of the film and everything she must bare, this is a brave performance. The way she responds to her rapes is that of someone who is both hardened and incredibly emotionally scarred. Mara brings out both features in the character throughout, making Lisbeth feel more heroic than sociopathic to me.

The movie’s final shot, showing her riding off on her motorcycle alone while everyone else around her is warm in the Swedish winter with company, evoked the endings of so many great westerns to me. In this day and age, the hacker is America’s new outlaw, and she is the queen of the new age isolated cowboy. The ending is not so much a plot cliffhanger as a character one. I cannot wait to see the next movie not just because of the story, but because I will get to see more of these characters, learn more about them, and spend more time a part of their lives.

It is hard to take a novel that is already so popular on its own and make it a unique movie. I admit I have yet to read any of Stieg Larson’s Millenium Trilogy, but I plan to pick up the novel version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” as soon as possible. Fincher shows that there was a reason to adapt this novel to the screen. It is not just some regurgitation. While the movie perhaps moves a little too fast towards the end, it is only for the reason of fitting in as much of Larson’s original story into the first movie as possible.

The atmosphere created by the film is a master class example of how to turn setting into a character, and how to use it to build suspense that holds for over two and a half hours. The snowy landscapes, combined with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s mood building score, which begins with Karen O’s shrieking cover of Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song,” will leave you a state of panic and thrill for the entire running time. Hitchcock would have been proud.

The team behind this movie, Fincher, Reznor, Ross, writer Steve Zallian, and producer Scott Rudin, is the best new team of mainstream movies in Hollywood. All of their efforts makes “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” come together so spectacularly. It is always a great team, and not just one mind, that can make a truly great movie complete. And the series can only get better from here. Few movies nowadays have the ability to be shocking and controversial. However, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” steps it up another level, and earns its R-rating. And it wears that badge with pride.

If you liked this movie, you’ll also like: Fight Club, The Ghost Writer, Se7en, The Searchers, The Social Network, Chinatown, Memento, No Country for Old Men, Casino Royale, The Shining, Vertigo, Any Ingmar Bergman movie about sad Swedish people in the snow 

Eight Nights of Hanukkah, Eight Nights of Movies: Night #5

Wet Hot American Summer

Every summer, hundreds of thousands of Jewish children from the Northeast (mainly Long Island, Westchester County, New Jersey, and Southwestern Connecticut) are taken from their homes. The food is poor, and the conditions are less than sanitary. They are isolated far away from society, with barely a cell tower in sight. They are forced to leave their friends, families, and even their iPhones behind. God forbid they must go without Words with Friends for eight weeks.

I am talking about summer camp, of course.

I can say this is all true firsthand as I am a Jewish summer camp survivor. I am a veteran of five summers at Camp Island Lake. I can’t quite pinpoint what draws Jews in particular to summer camps. Perhaps it is the need to be around Jews, congregate with them, breed with them, and eventually create future generations of nice Jewish doctors and lawyers who will marry your daughter.

But I digress. “Wet Hot American Summer” best captures the summer camp experience. Usually, a movie that I believe perfectly captures something I have experienced in my life does so because it is totally realistic. In this case, “Wet Hot” brings back this previous part of my life because it is utterly ridiculous. It takes place at the fictional Camp Firewood in the 80s, but it was filmed at Camp Towanda, which is basically down the road from my old summertime stomping grounds.

“Wet Hot American Summer” came from the comedy group behind MTV’s “The State,” who would also later go on to make Comedy Central’s eccentrically brilliant “Stella.” “Wet Hot” was largely panned and ignored at the time of its release. Ten years later, it has become an unlikely cult classic. The humor of “Wet Hot” is as bizarre as anything you’d expect from the minds of Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain. Some of the major comedy set pieces include a raft that doesn’t move down raging rapids, a falling satellite, and a talking can of vegetables. All of these scenes made me feel nostalgic for a decade I didn’t even grow up in.

The ensemble is just as funny as the absurdist situations, and many actors in this movie went on to become superstars (a young Bradley Cooper makes one of the boldest moves of his career here). There is also a scene where a few of the characters go into town for the day, become drug addicts, and then return back to campus totally fine. This is funny not just because the transformation occurs over such a short period of time, but these seem like the kind of people that this would happen to. I also always wondered what my counselors would do when they went into town for the day. They might as well have been doing this every single day.

“Wet Hot” might not go over too well with your older relatives (they will probably use words like “stupid” and whatever the opposite of “clever” is), but it is close to the modern day equivalent of the Marx Brothers, the other Jewish absurdist comedians. More on them tomorrow night.

Eight Nights of Hanukkah, Eight Nights of Movies: Night #4

A Serious Man

This is a ser- I’m a ser- I’m, uh, I’ve tried to be a serious man, you know? Tried to do right, be a member of the community, raise the- Danny, Sarah, they both go to school, Hebrew school, a good breakfast…

“A Serious Man” begins with the blast of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” linking the past to the present, and drowning out a dull Hebrew school lesson. In this day and age, what does it mean for a Jewish man to be a serious man? If you are looking for a movie that is both religiously faithful and an existential mind trip for the halfway point of Hanukkah, then look no further. This is the first and probably the last movie you’ll ever see that’s based on both the Talmud and Schrodinger’s Cat.

Who else could have made a movie like this than Joel and Ethan Coen. It is based partly on their own childhood growing up in a Jewish family in a mostly Jewish suburb of Minneapolis, and the rest is a lot of things that could have happened, but probably didn’t. “A Serious Man” begins with a short parable that takes place in a shtetl. It might explain every one of the following events we see, or none of them. Maybe it is what the Coen Brothers say it is: their attempt to create their own Jewish fable. The rest of the movie focuses on Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a father who goes through a crisis of faith after his wife leaves him and he begins to lose his children to the 60s. No one, not even a string of rabbis, can provide him with guidance.

“A Serious Man” is funny not in a haha kind of way, but more in the kind of way that if you watch it multiple times, the ultimate mind f**k of it all is kind of hilarious. This is the Thinking Man Jew’s kind of movie. And that is not to say that anyone can’t like this movie. However, some people might not appreciate “The Goy’s Teeth” quite as much. For those who are passionate people watchers, especially of the Jewish kind, this movie gives a prototype of every Jew you can think of. Some will find stereotypes, others will find hilarious objects of affection.

“A Serious Man” definitely will not inspire as much joy and laughter after a candle lighting as say, a Woody Allen or a Marx Brothers movie, but it will definitely inspire fervent debate and conversation. If you are really curious about what that cut to black at the end means, I only have so many answers. Instead, I would refresh on your Bar Mitzvah torah portions. And then pick up some physics textbooks. Philosophy might work, too.

If this movie makes you crave for from the Coen Brothers tonight, I would check out “The Big Lebowski” immediately afterwards. It’s a great movie but that’s just like, my opinion, man. 

Movie Review: Young Adult

Upon associating the name Diablo Cody and Young Adult Fiction together, the first things that come to mind are words like “yoseph” and phrases like “shut you freakin’ nard, Bard!”. I am not a “Juno” hater like many are, but phrases like these make being hip seem a little bit square. However, upon viewing her latest collaboration with director Jason Reitman, “Young Adult,” I found a writer who is starting to come into her own with her words, and a director who can bring those words to life.  

“Young Adult,” like “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” is a victim of bad marketing. It seems the only way to sell a semi-romantic dramedy nowadays is to make it look bright and predictable. “Young Adult” is two things you’d never expect it to be: ambiguous and unpredictable. 
The anti-hero of “Young Adult,” Mavis Gray (Charlize Theron), is introduced in a position that we find her in during various parts of the movie: sprawled out face down on a bed, hungover, and watching the Kardashians. There is something about watching the miserable lives of people on reality TV shows that makes a people feel better about their own rotten lives. Gray has become a semi-successful writer of a young adult book series. The peak of her book’s popularity has waned. Despite being 37-years-old, she is more like a girl than a woman (if you want to understand the difference watch this).
Mavis comes from the small town of Mercury, Minnesota. She is living the dream of everyone in Mercury, as she has now moved to the big city (Minneapolis that is, or as Mercurians call it, “The Mini Apple”). Maybe it’s because she’s feeling alone, or maybe because she was still a little drunk from the night before, but an email spreading the news about the newborn baby of her high school boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) sends her packing her bags (including her Paris Hilton-sized dog) back to Mercury. On her journey back, Mavis has thoughts of returning back to her glory days, of being queen of high school again, and winning the happily-married Buddy back. 
It turns out that Mavis is now more of a Queen Bitch and Mercury is a cookie cutter of small town USA. The town she once knew now includes a Staples and a Kentucky Fried Taco Hut. This is how the Canadian Reitman likes to portray America: a land of excessive brand name dross.
Mavis is now the late 30s loser who used to be cool in high school. Pity, the loser usually isn’t supposed to be the protagonist. That is what makes this story more challenging and ultimately more rewarding: the audience must get over their inhibitions and realize that they must find a shred of humaness inside of a character who seems to totally lack it. Cheers to “Young Adult” for making us stick with a character who is unlikable from start to finish.
The more time spent in Mercury, the less this feels like the happy conclusion to a teen fantasy and more like a horror movie in which wounds are opened and then repeatedly stabbed at. While at her favorite bar, Mavis forms an unlikely friendship with Matt (Patton Oswalt), the former high school loser who became partially crippled after falling victim to a vicious hate crime. Matt now spends his days holed up in house, making action figures in his bedroom and distilling bourbon in his garage. He is the kind of person who should’ve gone farther in life than he did. Oswalt’s Matt is the perfect foil to Theron’s Mavis. This is the performance that will earn him the Oscar nomination he should’ve received for “Big Fan.” Not that he isn’t equally deserving of it here. Comedians can be great actors because they tend to wear their emotions on their sleeves. 
But was Mavis’s life so bad, or was she just looking for more problems to have? As she says at one point, her looks made people think she was perfect and impervious to problems. Everyone has baggage and what really matters is how we handle it.  This message is simple and old as time. But Theron’s nuanced, sometimes funny, and sometimes heartbreaking performance, adds a new dimension to it. Living in the best moments of the past is simply a device to obscure something painful. It is the most powerful form of denial there is. And when a few truths are revealed during the painful yet ingeniously written baby naming scene, it feels like Mavis is learning everything at the same time that the audience is. 
Earlier this year, I saw “Bad Teacher” and pondered what a better version of that movie would look like. Well, “Young Adult” is what “Bad Teacher” would’ve been if it actually tried. Making a despicable character the protagonist isn’t necessarily about making them likable enough to give them a pass for their wrongdoings, but rather to make them interesting and three dimensional enough for anyone to want to see what they will do next. It is kind of like watching a train wreck. However, this time, I didn’t want to see the train go off the rails. 
Jason Reitman has always made off-kilter films about characters who make questionable decisions. Whether that be sticking up for tobacco companies, getting pregnant as a teenager, or firing people for a living, Reitman’s four-film winning streak ends not with someone who is bad in what they do for a living, but rather the way they act. With “Young Adult” and his previous feature “Up in the Air,” Reitman begins to turn toward more ambiguous territory; and the more ambiguous he gets, the better his movies become. 
“Young Adult” could have gone the cliche way and portrayed a montage of Mavis turning her life around, probably by working out, walking her dog, and going to an AA meeting, but five minutes is not enough time to fully take in somebody turning their life around. The important thing is not how she turns her life around, if she ever does, but that she has learned the lesson she needed to learn. She was a beautiful fish in an ugly pond. That didn’t earn her love, but rather sorrow.
“Young Adult” won’t put anyone in the cheeriest mood this holiday season. However, there is nothing more reassuring in the holiday season than someone realizing what they should be holding dearest in their life. “Young Adult” is a gift of tough love.  

Eight Nights of Hanukkah, Eight Nights of Movies: Night #3

Radio Days

“Annie Hall.” “Manhattan.” “Hannah and Her Sisters.” I could have gone with any of these timeless Woody Allen classics, so why did I choose “Radio Days”? It wasn’t an attempt to be original (“Annie Hall” is an easy choice, but it is a deserving one at that), but rather that “Radio Days” may just be the ultimate Jewish family comedy, and both a heartwarming and heartbreaking nostalgia trip.

Set during the 1930s and 40s, “Radio Days” is told in a series of vignettes that all connect back to the audio device that once ruled the world. Allen himself is never present onscreen, although he is the story’s narrator. A very young Seth Green is Allen’s stand-in onscreen under the name Joe. Joe obsesses over the radio so much that it starts to concern everyone in his family, especially his father (Michael Tucker). Joe is the youngest in a loud and rowdy household that includes an aunt and uncle and grandparents, as well as a family of Communists that live next door. His Uncle Abe (Josh Mostel, perhaps better known as Principal Anderson in “Billy Madison”) brings home a huge bag of fish everyday and eats them. Raw.

 Allen so lively brings about an era in which imagination was king. It’s funny to hear Joe’s parents complain that he’s rotting his brain away by sitting in front of the radio all day, and think that parents said the exact same thing about television decades later.

“Radio Days” is as much about the stars of radio as it is about the listeners. One in particular is Sally White (Mia Farrow) who has a difficult time making it as first, as listeners couldn’t see beautiful face but could hear her voice, which sounds exactly like Lina Lamont’s fingernails-on-a-chalkboard voice in “Singin’ in the Rain.” Luckily, one of these two people was actually able to make it.

Joe’s family, who spends all their time in Rockaway, and the radio stars, who spend all of their time at fancy parties, never come together. However, the idea Allen wants to bring about is that the radio brought these stars, these stories, into Joe’s living room, and they never left. That is the beauty of radio, of television, and of film: they make the unreal become a very real part of our lives. In that sense, Joe’s family came to life for me and almost felt like my own. However, arguments, while frequent for us, never amount to debating whether or not the Atlantic is a greater ocean than the Pacific.

While the movie’s end is sad in one sense, as the stars of radio realize they will not shine forever, it is also optimistic in that sense. When one star flickers and dims, another one shines, and a new opportunity comes about. Celebrities might not be famous forever, but the art they create makes them immortal.

“Radio Days” is that lasting artifact of Allen’s self-deprecating humor and a prime example of why the king of neuroticism can never be dethroned. While it is funny, it is also so realistic. If you’ve ever had more family members piled into your house than you can count, and you remember it as a terrifying yet hilarious experience, then you should pile every single one of those family members back together in one room and watch “Radio Days.”

Eight Nights of Hanukkah, Eight Nights of Movies: Night #2

Eight Nights of Hanukkah, Eight Nights of Movies is a new series in which for each night of Hanukkah I will recommend a new movie to watch. Each movie might have been made by a prominent Jewish filmmaker, or embodies a prominent part of Jewish culture. Because I missed the first night, as I was embarking on a great Florida migration, I will recommend two for the second night.

Inglourious Basterds 

Here is a movie that needs no introduction, as I can barely go a day (or a blog post) without talking about it. With “Inglourious Basterds,” Quentin Tarantino earned the title of Honorary Jew for fulfilling any little Jewish boy’s childhood fantasy of getting vengeance on the Nazis. But it is not just a violent, one-dimensional revenge fantasy but rather a morality tale that dares us to ask whether or not our enemies can actually be human. This might be the only movie of its kind that will actually make you feel like a more enlightened human being. The movie also includes moments of gripping suspense and utterly insane hilarity. Despite the newfound enlightenment you may have found, it will not stop you from standing up and cheering after the movie’s history-bending twist (most people probably know what it is at this point but if not, I will spare the spoiler). No movie will make you feel prouder to light the menorah tonight.

Leaves of Grass

I didn’t really think “Leaves of Grass” was as brilliant as some believed (Ebert called it a “masterpiece”). It is flawed and its narrative probably made more sense in novel form, but it is certainly “whacky” and inventive enough for me to recommend to the more adventurous cinephile. Edward Norton is brilliant as always, this time giving two performances in one movie, one as a philosophy professor and the other as a drug dealer. Most shocking about “Leaves of Grass” is that it reveals that there is indeed a Jewish community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. That is, in case you were the kind of person who likes to track down Jews in random parts of America. It is partly based on writer-director Tim Blake Nelson’s life growing up in a Jewish family in Tulsa. “Leaves of Grass” is not just a crime-thriller-satire but an examination on Jewish identity. I can’t say I “get” the whole thing but if one of you does, please feel free to explain it to me.