The Year in Review (-10): The Best Films of 2004

Day three of the 4-day Year in review (plus 30 years ago, 20 years ago, and today’s 10-years ago reviews). I don’t know about you, but 1994 was a weird year. There weren’t a lot of good candidates for the top ten films of the year, but the top three were as strong of contenders for best movie of the decade as you’re likely to find. 2004, as it turns out, was similar, but not. I instantly found 8 movies that I would immediately put on a top ten list… and about 20 movies that were… good, but not great. So numbers 9 and 10 on this list get put there on account of their box office appeal, and no other reason. Clearly somebody liked them, even if that somebody wasn’t me.

Let’s get it on.

10. Shrek 2

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I don’t like Shrek, and Shrek 2 was just more of the same stuff. But lots and lots and lots of other people do, so it makes the list. Unfunny Mike Myers as a big green ogre making anachronistic jokes, unfunny Eddie Murphy pretending he’s a funny donkey, and a cast of annoying fairy-tale-inspired characters.. That’s the Shrek movies in a nutshell. Anotnio Banderas’ Puss in Boots is the only bright shining star in this franchise, but even he can’t bring the highest grossing movie of the year higher than #10 on the list of best films of 1994.

9. The Incredibles

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To wash the bad taste of Shrek 2 out of our mouths, let’s go with the best cartoon of the year, The Incredibles. While this movie isn’t the best of the Pixar lot, The Incredibles is possibly the best original (non-comic-book-based) superhero move ever. Like many Pixar movies, they lift the premise heavily from another source… you may find next year’s Avengers 2: The Age of Ultron very similar to the Incredibles. They both use the “self-healing, self-improving robot” as their bad guy. In spite of this, the family dynamics, the tension and action, and the comedic elements all work exactly like you’d expect from Pixar. A worthy film for any film library, adult or kid’s.

8. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle

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I have to be honest, I usually hate stoner movies. I didn’t like Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I was never a fan of Dazed and Confused. Don’t even get me started on Cheech and Chong. But Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle managed to somehow transcend this hatred. Smart, witty script, talented actors, and Neil Fucking Patrick Harris. With one fell, mind-blowingly awesome swoop, Harris shed the Doogie Howser skin and became something transcendent. Bonus footage: put the DVD in and let it sit on the main menu for a while. There’s like… 30 minutes of dialogue as Harold and Kumar wait for you to hit play. Win/Win.

7. The Passion of the Christ

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Mel Gibson won Academy Awards with Braveheart. He won box office acclaim with the Lethal Weapon movies. He won international derision with a drunken rant in Malibu. But he won the award for goriest, hardest-core Bible movie of all time with The Passion of the Christ. Christian audiences flocked to this movie like no other. If you don’t include the three Narnia movies (which hold spots 2, 3 and 4 on the all-time chart), Passion of the Christ outsold the fifth-through-twelfth all-time box-office-leading Christian films…. combined.

6. Team America: World Police

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It would be difficult to imagine a situation where someone could say “a raunchy rated-R parody of America, Americanism, 90s action movies and the War on Terrorism was one of the best movies I saw this year.” But with Team America: World Police, 2004 was that year. The brainchild of South Park masterminds Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Team America featured extraordinarily catchy parody songs, silly characters engaged in serious romance and action, and just the most rated-X sex you’re likely ever to find puppets doing.

Double bonus extra points for the “Dicks, Pussies and Assholes” monologue at the film’s climax. That is possibly one of the most brilliant pieces of double-entendre dialogue ever penned.

5. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban

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Episode three of the eight-part Harry Potter saga introduces us to my favorite secondary character, Professor Lupine, who ends up playing equal parts protagonist and antagonist in the film. The kids are all grown up now, in their middle-to-late adolescence, which means Emma Watson has started moving rapidly from “cute and precocious” to “extraordinarily attractive,” so there’s that, too.

Seriously, though. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban immediately leaves the happy-go-lucky first two Harry Potter films behind, and heads toward darker, more dangerous waters. There’s a serial killer on the loose, Voldemort is trying to come back, and the only thing they seem to have in common is an intense focus on young Harry. Daniel Radcliffe gets his his first chance to really emote, as feelings of rage, fear, and exhilaration are in ample display here. The movie easily works its way into the top 5 films of the year.

4. Dodgeball

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“If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball!”

You all know by now that one of my favorite story memes is “plucky underdog wins against superior forces.” Dodgeball has that in spades. It also has Alan Tudyk in a fantastic character bit, Vince Vaughn doing exactly what he does in every movie to perfection: playing the unflappable everyman, and Justin Bateman as an unforgettable color commentator for ESPN 8 (The Ocho). Casting is perfect, slapstick is perfect, film is perfect. I’ve noticed that of my top 10 films of 2004, seven of them are cartoons or comedies. Huh.

3. Mean Girls

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Mean Girls managed to pull off the seemingly impossible: it combined chick-flick with coming-of-age teen comedy and merged them brilliantly. Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams and Tina Fey all bring a perfect sense of comedic timing, and the film is spot-on accurate in nailing how the cliques we discovered in John Hughes movies in the 80s have evolved into today. If Lindsay can’t pull off a Drew Barrymore and turn her life around, Mean Girls will not only be the 3rd best movie of 2004, but also the best film of her career.

2. 50 First Dates

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Speaking of Drew Barrymore!

Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore have undeniable screen chemistry, but it has never been so wonderfully displayed as in 50 First Dates. an imminently charming romantic comedy about a marine biologist living in Hawaii who falls in love with a girl with unusual amnesia: every day she wakes up believing it’s the day before a big accident she had several years in the past. Her family (including Sean Astin in a hilarious bit role as her ‘roid-popping brother) and friends have been meticulously arranging their lives to make her feel like it’s still that day in the past. Made well before Sandler began treading the Eddie Murphy path of fading comics, 50 First Dates is fresh, funny, sweet and heart-warming. Great date movie. Great movie, period.

1. Spider-Man 2

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The absolute best of the five Spider-Man movies made in 21st century, Spider-Man 2 pits Peter Parker against his worst enemy yet: his own insecurities. At the time this movie came out, I was dealing with an identity crisis involving responsibility. I had been given a task that was not quite beyond my ability to handle, but absolutely required that if I were to tackle it, it would be at the expense of everything else I’d wanted to do with my life.

So the movie hit me pretty hard when Peter had to face that exact same dilemma, albeit it with a crisis of super-hero identity. To see him come to grips with his inner demons, find the focus he needed, and save the day found strong resonance with me, and with audiences around the world The #2 movie at the box-office in 2004 turns out to be the best film of the year.

 

And that’s my list for 2004. We looked at 1984 on Friday, 1994 yesterday, and 2004 today. Tomorrow we will close out the year in review with the actual year in review: the best movies of 2014. What do you think? Did I nail them? Did I utterly blow it? Dis I miss something? Let me know! Comment below or knock me out on Twitter (@gawainthestout).

See you tomorrow!

 

The Year in Review (-20): The Best Films of 1994

Welcome back, film fans!

At the end of each year, I look back in the wayback machine at the previous year, and then ten years, 20 years, and 30 years past that for the best ten films of that time to see how well they’ve held up and just hold some awesome nostalgia parties. With the demise of 2014, we looked at 1984 yesterday, we’ll look at 1994 today, with 2004 and 2014 coming on Sunday and Monday.

1994 was a difficult year for me to judge. My first pass through the 250 movies that came out that year left me with only six movies I’d put on a “best movies of the year list.” So I went back through the ranks and looked for films that maybe merited a higher spot, even if they weren’t favorites of my own. Without further ado, the top ten films of the year-20, 1994.

10. Pulp Fiction

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Quentin Tarantino had cut his teeth with the cult hit Reservoir Dogs in 1992. 1994 saw him strike gold and mainstream accolades with Pulp Fiction, a modern masterpiece of American cinema. Samuel Jackson and John Travolta reinvented themselves with their iconic roles, and the concept of time-and-storyline-hopping became the avant-garde methodology of choice for years to come.

9. Dumb and Dumber

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Do you want to hear the most annoying sound in the world? NYAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

Jim Carrey was on top of the world in 1994, with three movies in the top 20, two of them in the top 10, and Dumb and Dumber at the top of the pile, the sixth highest grossing film of the year. You couldn’t shake a stick without running into a Jim Carrey movie, or a guy in the office imitating Ace Ventura, this movie, or Fire Marshall Bill. I hated Dumb and Dumber the first time I watched it, but over time it has grown on me. I recognize now that this movie exemplified “stupid men’s comedy” better than any film before it, or since.

8. Speed

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Keanu Reeves had dabbled in action adventure with Point Break. He’d explored thrillers with Bram Stoker’s. But in 1994’s Speed he hit his stride and made the biggest movie of his career. Only the three Matrix movies have done better at the box office. With Sandra Bullock, Jeff Daniels and Dennis Hopper in extra-crazy mode, Speed became the runaway hit of the year (you see what I did there?). With this film, Keanu finally realized what his destiny was. Johnny Mnemonic and Chain Reaction would follow in the next two years and The Matrix was just beyond the corner. Pop quiz: You’re about to become one of the most successful action stars of the early 21st century. What do you do? WHAT DO YOU DO?

7. The Professional

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Luc Besson does one thing, and he does it well. He writes tight, action-packed thrillers that always feature strong, defiant, resilient women. You might remember Le Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element, this year’s Lucy. In 1994 he made his strong woman a 12-year-old girl (Natalie Portman, in her screen debut) who taught a hardened assassin to love.  The Professional is a fascinating study in how French cinema varies from American films: Besson is the master of taking both French and American elements and merging them into a fascinating melange of cross cultural action and suspense. With The Professional he gave American audiences an exotic European flavor in their gritty thrillers, and we loved it.

6. Stargate

It’s hard to argue with the success of Stargate, or the immense appeal of its central idea: an ancient society of dominating aliens once built and used a series of planet-hopping portals to rule the known universe: while on Earth, they were known as our Egyptian gods. Stargate told a compelling story of freedom, redemption, man’s rise against his gods, and how to spawn three television series and a half dozen made-for-TV sequels, and gave Jaye Davidson his only other role after The Crying Game. James Spader and Kurt Russell play off each other well and the effects hold up well even today, 20 years later. In a year when there was an absolute dearth of good science fiction, Stargate easily works its way into the top ten films of the year.

Stargate-stargate-the-movie-25135540-1000-440[1]Even if the director had a weird fetish for flashing “Don’t make me use my God powers” eyes.

5. The Shawshank Redemption

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For my money, The Shawshank Redemption is one of the best adaptations of Stephen King’s works. I say that in full admittance that I have only read two Stephen King books, and the short story that this movie was based on was not in either. The quiet grace with with Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) finds a way to not only survive but transcend his prison cell is inspiring and profound. I don’t watch many dramas, but this one I will watch anytime I see it on TV (along with that damned tear-jerker The Green Mile).

4. Clear and Present Danger

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Harrison Ford (“Mr. Franchise Movie Star” to you, Mister) returned to the Jack Ryan series with Clear and Present Danger in 1994, a film that looked at America’s dirty dealings with drug lords in Central America and how Good Guy Jack Ryan finds the CIA (and himself as a result) implicit in dangerous, deadly affairs. In typical Ford style, he delivers the lines and the explosive action, assisted by an already-gnarled Willem Dafoe. The sniper-training scene is one of my all-time favorites.

3. The Lion King

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There is no denying that The Lion King belongs on this list. It was the highest-grossing animated of all time for ten years, and still stands at #2 all-time 20 years later. The songs are infectious, the story is deep and heart-felt, Jeremy Irons delivers his evil villain lines with so much flavor you wish you could eat them. Brilliantly funny and wise secondary characters, James Earl Jones yet again fathering the best heroes in all the multiverse (that man has fathered more protagonists….), and again, the music. You don’t always see the songs from a Disney film dominate pop radio like this one did. Imagine Frozen’s “Let it Go” — and multiply it by two. “Circle of Life” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” both topped the charts, and both were in the top 12 most-played songs on pop radio in 1994.

2. True Lies

 true-lies-1994-07-g[1]You have no idea how hard it was trying to find a picture from this film that wasn’t from the striptease scene.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is a spy with a cover so deep, his wife of 16 years has no idea. Roseanne Barr’s disgraced ex-husband, Tom Arnold is his surprisingly hilarious partner. Jamie Lee Curtis, looking hotter than she had in a decade (and instantly jumping to the top of everyone’s MILF list), and Bill Paxton in his crazy character acting best. True Lies is a fantastic movie, and one of Arnold’s absolute best. It’s exciting, fast-paced, sexy, funny, smart and just as much fun as a movie can be. True Lies was not just one of Arnold’s best, it was also his last truly great movie. Think about that for a while.

1. Forrest Gump

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Forrest Gump is… amazing. One of my favorite movies. I would say it’s my favorite Tom Hanks movie… except it’s not. He’s had one that rises even higher than Gump. That guy impresses time after time after time (I think we’re going to see more of him tomorrow when we look at 2004). The thing is… Forrest Gump sneaks up on you. He’s a simple man, with what seems to be a limited emotional capacity, so he’s pretty much just set on “optimistic and unflappable.” We see him weather Vietnam, his mother’s demise, successes and failures all with the same emotionless aplomb. When something finally does hurt him, we have lent him our emotions and invested so heavily in his life that it hurts us. It hurts beyond belief. The best movie of 1994 is one of the best movies ever, but bring a handkerchief when you watch it. You might need it by the end.

 

And that’s our list. Yesterday we looked at the year in review (–40) with 1984. Tomorrow we’ll be reviewing this year (-20) and the top ten movies of 2004. What do you think of this list? Did we miss anything? Agree? Disagree? Please, comment or hit me up on Twitter (@gawainthestout). I’d love to hear what your favorite films of 1994 were.

 

The Year in Review (-30): The Best Films of 1984

Instead of just a breakdown of this year’s films, I’m going to stretch back in time, and do one for each of this year, ten years ago, twenty, and thirty years ago. How have the best movies of decades ago fared? Which movie stood the test of time? Let’s find out by going as far back as my movie-going goes, all the way to the wild and wooly 80s, a time we call: 1984.

#10. Beverly Hills Cop

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There was a time, long years ago, when Eddie Murphy was funny. Like, drop your jaw, roll on the floor with disbelief funny. Few people remember this. Murphy has been blazing the trail for fading comic actors for years: fat suits, drag, Disney films. But in 1984 he was at the top of his game, and Beverly Hills Cop was the biggest film of the year, beating — get this — Indiana Jones at the box office. An R-rated comedy, starring a black man was the #1 movie in America. THAT’S how good Beverly Hills Cop was, that’s how great Eddie Murphy was. Great films transcend social boundaries.

#9. Top Secret!

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In 1980, the Zuckers blasted open a wide wide world of tongue-in-cheek, absurdist comedies with Airplane! They would ride this wave for many years, but for my tastes, 1984’s Top Secret! was the cream of the crop. Headlined by a young, sexy, insanely charismatic Val Kilmer in his prime, the movie comes across as just silly compared to the raunchy comedies of today. Nevertheless, with great parody songs like “Skeet Surfing” and an iconic cow-humping scene (you heard me), Top Secret! remains one of the best films of 1984.

#8. Gremlins

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There’s this guy, Chris Columbus (the Hollywood guy, not the “sailing to America” guy) that you probably have heard of. He’s produced kid movies like, oh, the first three Harry Potter movies, the Fantastic Four movies, The Percy Jackson movies, the Night at the Museum Movies. That guy. Well, 30 years ago, when he was just a nobody, he wrote a script about a kid who inherited a cute little… thing. A thing you shouldn’t ever get wet. A thing you definitely never, ever wanted to feed after midnight. Gremlins took the monster movie, turned it on its ear, added a healthy dose of comedy, and became the surprise hit of the year, launching good Mr. Columbus’ career faster than the Santa Maria on Nitrous Oxide, if that’s even a metaphor.

#7. Red Dawn

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The recent remake of Red Dawn is, surprisingly, a worthy reboot of this classic “American underdogs are the most dangerous dogs on the planet” movie. 1984 was the middle of the Reagan Renaissance, and one of its greatest art revolutions was in war films that cast Americans as the ultimate good guys. Red Dawn has everything a teen movie about resistance fighters struggling to free themselves from sadistic invaders could ever need: Patrick Swayze and Tom Cruise at their hunky best, Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey (the girls of my Freshman year dreams) and the stupidly popular super-weapon of bad guys in the 80s: the Soviet HIND. Movies like this helped America finally start to shake off the damage to its psyche that Vietnam had caused. The Wolverines still stand, 30 years later, at #7.

#6. Buckaroo Banzai

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The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension makes me the saddest for this list, because even though it is a cult classic, even though it has a stellar cast of future somebodies (Jeff Goldblum, Peter Weller, John Lithgow) and even though it is a smart and funny-as-hell movie, it, of the ten films on this list, holds up the most poorly, It had a very small budget, and the farther away from 1984 we get, the more it shows. Still, effects aside, we have just reached the point in the list where every film has iconic scenes and quotes that no one ever forgets. Did you ever hear that phrase “Wherever you go, there you are?”

Look up who said that first.

#5. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

You can’t have a movie in the 80s or 90s without having a Stephen Spielberg blockbuster — except for the years he was making Oscar-winning art movies. In 1984 we got the second of the Indiana Jones movies, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In this episode, Indy travels to India with sidekick Short Round (runner up for “Worst Indy Sidekick”) and sexy-but-annoying Willie Scott. It’s not the best Indiana Jones movie, but that doesn’t matter. I spent six hours standing outside the new Regency Cinema in Fresno to watch this movie, and so did everyone else in Fresno. This was the first “Everyone MUST SEE THIS MOVIE” movie I ever experienced. It deserves the top 5 spot from the sheer force of will of every geek on the planet sharing its memories.

#4. Sixteen Candles

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The 60s had beach blanket teen party movies. The 70s had disco and pot coming of age films. In the 80s, we had John Hughes flicks. Teenagerism and the very memes that defined life as a subadult were penned and filmed by John Hughes. His string of generation-sculpting hits included The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Some Kind of Wonderful but they started with Sixteen Candles, which introduced us to John and Joan Cusak and Gedde Watanabe, gave Molly Ringwald her first starring role, and set the standard for high school romantic comedies. It is easy for me to say that John Hughes was possibly the most influential comedic director of my life. He wrote my favorite comedy, my favorite road trip movie, and my favorite romantic comedy. Sixteen Candles was his first big hit, and it stands the test of time, earning the fourth spot with ease.

#3.The Karate Kid

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In 1984, underdog movie archetype The Karate Kid connected with audiences so strongly it became the fifth biggest movie of the year. How rare is that? Sure, lots of movies with martial arts have made the bigs, especially with the rise of Wire-Fu, but only two other movies specifically about the martial arts have broken into the top ten since: The Karate Kid 2, and Kung Fu Panda, 24 years later. There has never been a more quotable, enjoyable, good-natured, family-friendly, heart-warming movie about a boy learning martial arts and fighting in a brutal (well, brutal for the San Fernando Valley) tournament for the love of a girl beneath a fantastic soundtrack of energetic 80s montage music ever.

End of story.

#2. The Terminator

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It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

badabumpbump-ba-dump. BaDaBumpBump-Ba-Dump. BADABUMPBUMP-BA-DUMP!

30 years later, as Google buys robotics companies left and right, Japanese engineers create near-artificial intelligence, and social media infects everything, I have to wonder, time and time again, DIDN’T ANY OF THE PEOPLE WHO WORK ON ROBOTS WATCH THIS MOVIE?! This was the first movie where the bad guy got top billing, was played by a an automaton with an unintelligible accent, the only face on the one-sheet, and it fucking worked. The Terminator is a masterpiece of small, terrifying science fiction film-making.

#1. Ghostbusters

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An invisible man’s lying in your bed. Who’re you gonna call? Today, maybe 911. But in 1984 the answer was obvious. Ghostbusters was, is, and always will be a comedy classic, with cast members Bill Murray, Dan Aykoyd, Rick Moranis, Sigourney Weaver, Ivan Reitman (who also penned and directed), Annie Potts and Ernie Hudson all at the absolute top of their game (that cast! WOW! Right?!). Fantastic physical effects (the commentary track for the Ghostbusters DVD has some amazing insights into how they did some of the things they did, I highly recommend it), a script so tight nearly every single line of the movie is quotable, and a 12-story-tall marshmallow all blend together into the best movie of 1984, and one of the best films of all time. As Peter Venkman might (and did!) say: “We came, we saw, we kicked its butt!”

 

And that’s my list. What do you think? Did I miss one? I know Amadeus didn’t make the list, or Star Trek III or Footloose — like with every year there were good candidates that didn’t make the cut. Shoot me a comment below or Tweet me @gawainthestout. Let’s talk about it.

Stay tuned tomorrow when we jump forward 10 years to the mystical year of 1994, when a simple man flat out dominated the box office, beating a dead lion, 5 other feel-good comedies, and Quentin Tarantino? The 10 best films of 1994. Right here. 24 hours from now. Be there!

My Christmas Wish for the World

I am not a spiritual person. I don’t know if there are mystical beings out there who created us and provide for us in times of need. Still, in the spirit of the holidays (whichever specific franchise you subscribe to), I offer this prayer for the world, for things it seems to be in desperate need of these days.

May God heal the wounds that time cannot.

May he bring peace in the heart of chaos.

May you find solace when justice fails.

May grace and forgiveness follow you, love and hope lead you, and faith never fade from your sight.

 

It has been a strange, sad, interesting year, full of change. Loss, gain, more loss, more loss, and a plethora of goals cut loose and abandoned. My last wish for all of you is that for all the disappointments that threaten to swallow whatever joy you have in this world, may the universe provide you with that one, solitary thing you need to keep your spark alive.

My kindling is out. Take care, my friends.

 

Words I Don’t Use Anymore

My fantastically awesome cousin Amanda posited a question on Facebook today. I started going, and kept going and by the time I got done, realized I oughta put my answer on the blog, so everyone could read it.

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You know what words I don’t use anymore? The stupid offensive ones that no one told me were offensive.

My cousins and I called each other n*gger all the time. I was a n*gger, Don Martin was a n*gger, we were all n*iggers. I didn’t know that I could o
nly use that word in reference to black people until I was in high school. I wouldn’t have ever known it was offensive until I met someone who took offense to it. I certainly had no idea that there was a color requirement on it.

Wetbacks and beaners. In Fresno we had lots of those. These are (in my mind) even more offensive than n*gger, especially since you don’t hear Pitbull calling all his homies “Beanahs” or such in his raps. Of course both of those are pretty crude and offensive. I haven’t used them since high school.

I don’t use dyke or fag anymore. I still use queer, but only in reference to “Smear the Queer” — a game I miss, since you’re not allowed to play games with offensive words anymore. The point is — most people, when they become aware that something is harmful to other folks — even folks they don’t know! — they stop using those words.

I never used kike or gook or chink or spic or wop or “soul-less, readheaded potato-sucking irish pansy,” but I suppose if I did, I would have stopped using those too. There are so many good reasons to hate a person or be angry or upset with him. Skin color or country of origin is a pretty stupid one.

There’s lots of words I don’t use anymore, but there’s even more words I wish we would use more and more and more, because they’ve become chronically underutilized. Tolerance. Forgiveness. Kindness. Patience. Friendship. Brotherhood.

Love. Faith. Hope.

Redemption. Honor. Integrity.

Compassion.

We are so focused on ourselves, so afraid of people around us, so angry at “the other guy.” There’s a better way out there, and we used to pursue it.

I wish we would try chasing that dream again.

Giving Thanks

Today I am thankful in stages.

Right now, i am thankful I have an alarm clock.

In an hour, I will be thankful for my health and ability to walk uphill a mile.

In two hours I will be thankful for Amtrak.

In 5 hours I will be thankful for my family, my wife, my children, and maybe my pets (they’re on double secret probation).

In 7 hours I will be thankful God invented turkeys.

In 8 hours I will be thankful I packed those stretchy buffet pants.

In 12 hours I will be thankful for football.

In 18 hours I will be thankful for my bed.

Every day is a day full of mystery and wonder and we have so much to be grateful for. We have the blessings of electricity, refrigeration, wireless communications, infinite entertainment, and far-reaching transportation — Every day! The vast majority of our friends and family are healthy. Very few of us are struggling under such poverty that we cannot live in a house will walls, floors, carpets, and toilets.

Yet, here is the only single day of the year we stop to give thanks for all this. So here I go.

Thanks, God. Or thanks, Science, progress, Republicans, Liberals, and Oprah Winfrey. Or just thanks, mom and dad. Whoever it was who got me here, you didn’t do that bad of a job. Maybe it could have been better, but it sure as hell could have been a lot worse. And I am most thankful that it isn’t.

John Wick Could Have Been An Oscar Award Winner — Here’s Why It Isn’t

“They used to call him the boogeyman.”

“The boogeyman? He’s supposed to be the boogeyman?”

“No. He’s who you called to kill the boogeyman.”

Thus we get introduced to the legend of John Wick, established just shortly after seeing three tragic events happen to what appears to be just a normal, mortal man, and an opening shot of him crashing his car and bleeding out on an anonymous street corner. And with that we are drawn into a densely imagined criminal underworld populated with rogues and villains, friends, foes, and where everything that isn’t business is intensely personal.

To say that this is one of Keanu Reeves’ best movies in years is an understatement of epic proportions. At least three places in this film he emotes so heavily you forget that Reeves is the master of emotionless deadpan. The action sequences are fresh and crisp, the supporting characters fill their roles well, and the setup is so powerful, the audience is gut-wrenched into wanting to support this very, very bad man doing very, very bad things.

635494961822000008-BEAGLE-JOHN-WICK-MOV-JY-3400-68084492[1]Let’s just say the dog wasn’t the only thing leaving bodily fluids on the floor and furniture.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. To me it seemed like Reeves’ personal Unforgiven – a movie that took Clint Eastwood from Hollywood gunslinger to Hollywood legend and Oscar winner. In that film, Eastwood plays a man still inwardly grieving the loss of his wife while trying to avoid the life of violence he left behind for her. His tale of redemption is a failure, though, and in his wake all he leaves is an aftermath of violence and regret. John Wick reaches for this same star, but doesn’t quite reach it. Here are the four reason why I think it missed the mark.

 

It’s Too Much Like Unforgiven

As I just mentioned, unfortunately for me, because now I’m going to have to write something more about a bullet point I’ve already spoiled, this move reminded me very much of Unforgiven. Former killer who escaped his violent past experiences great personal tragedy, and gets sucked back in, for the wrong reasons, experiencing (and dealing out) more personal tragedy along the way. It’s a tried and true meme for Hollywood, and we’ve seen several action films, dramas, and thrillers with this setup in the recent past.

Just because John Wick does it better than any film since Unforgiven doesn’t take away from the fact that Unforgiven already got an Oscar for this story. The Academy isn’t likely to give their awards to films — even great ones — that follow the same path laid out by previous winners. If anything, they like to pretend that they reward creativity and genuine originality, even while promoting and managing the most derivative film industry on earth.

In Unforgiven, the kid tells William Munny, “I guess he had it coming,” after experiencing his first gunfight and murder. Without even a pause, Munny replies, “We’ve all got it coming.” John Wick seizes on this too hard. Each person Wick meets on his path of vengeance reminds him about the consequences of coming back into the fold after leaving it. It’s a constant reminder that a life lived in violence is bound to end in violence. “You and I are cursed,” the antagonist tells Wick. “On this, we agree,” Wick says in return.

UnforgivenLandscape[1]To be fair, the two movies do not share the same skyline. 

It’s Too Much Like Constantine

The last time I wrote the words “Keanu Reeves’ best movie in years” it was almost 10 years ago for Constantine. The problem with that, is John Wick borrows heavily from that movie, too. We have the solo protagonist who has dedicated his life to a special form of killing. He’s quite good at it. So good, in fact, the devil himself would come from hell to collect his soul when he died, just to gloat at finally beating the son of a bitch. That’s John Constantine’s legend amongst the demons and angels his world is populated with. John Wick’s own mythology is just as elaborate, and when he learns his son has made an enemy of Wick, our primary antagonist begins drinking and smoking heavily, and becomes prone to bouts of hysteria. He’s facing his own personal angel of death. The two are epic bad-asses in their worlds. The similarities are too strong.

400px-C-Constantine-Big-Gun-Pica[1]They also both appear to star Keanu Reeves. 

And their worlds are too similar. Midnight’s club in Constantine, where angels and demons can intermingle, and a pact of neutrality prevents anyone from taking a side while in the bar is in place at the Continental, a Switzerland of hitmen, where the rules of neutrality are so strong, even talking about business is forbidden.

Wicks friends are killed just to slow him down, in the same way as Constantine’s. Sure, these are easy motifs of the action genre, but it links these two films together, and diminish the originality of the newer, better one.

It Has Too Much Speed

The world-building here is stunning in a way. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad builds an immense, gloriously imagined underworld for Wick and his enemies to play in, but don’t give us any time to appreciate it. The film moves too fast, especially at the beginning, and by the second act climax things are moving so fast you start to wish you hadn’t ordered the Muto-sized Diet Coke at the concession stand, because if you leave now, there’s a good chance you’re going to miss someone getting their ass kicked hard.

You get the feeling that the director was unsure about how to handle quiet moments. Great films always have them: scenes where it seems like nothing is happening, but in truth, the actor is changing. The situation is changing. The stakes are changing. Paradigm shifts, contrary to the Dilbert cartoon purporting otherwise, often happen in silence; and John Wick doesn’t give us enough of them to appreciate how fast the film does move once the pot is on boil.

Five more minutes with Daisy, the funeral, and Willem Dafoe at the beginning would have not only better established these characters’ connections, but also their strength. Five minutes of quiet time near the midpoint — like John McClane pulling glass out of his feet and talking to Sergeant Powell in Die Hard — would have added depth and subtlety to a film desperate for it.

323098-r0000159_1_[1]Yippie-Ki-… God Damn my feet hurt. 

 

Its Set in the Matrix

I don’t know if this should bother me — well scratch this. I know it didn’t bother me; I loved it — but I think the combination of the elaborate world-building side-by-side with how well everyone in this film knew each other became a detriment to the drama. Every single person John Wick met, except for the antagonist’s son and cronies, he knew. He knew the antagonist, he knew everyone at the Continental, including most of the guests. He spoke perfect Russian and knew the doorman at the secret Russian club, the hot bartender at the Continental’s club, the owner of the Continental, everyone. He knew the head of the Russian mob, and everyone in the mob, again — except his son — knew him. The body disposal guys knew him. The Continental hotel clerk knew him. The local police officer on the “outside” knew him, knew what he did and was apparently ok with it.

This is simply not consistent with reality. In my experience, and in every great film, there is an element of the unknown. There are surprises. There are twists. Things happen that you simply can’t prepare for, and John Wick suffers from the same malaise that infects action films today: the protagonist is simply the greatest killing machine that has ever lived. That’s the Matrix. That’s not earth.

Liam Neeson in Taken is an unstoppable killing machine. Stallone in the newest Rambo (and all of the Expendables films) is an unstoppable killing machine. For all it has going for it, at the end of the day, John Wick is just another generic, unstoppable killing machine. That’s all the Matrix films ended up being. Agent Smith and Neo punching each other for two hours while the rest of the cast wandered around pretending they mattered.

agentsmith[1]Lots and lots and lots of Agent Smiths. 

What made Die Hard an amazing film, and the greatest action film of my generation (better than all of its sequels, combined) is the fact that John McClane wasn’t an unstoppable killing machine. He was, in fact, very stoppable, and survived his experience in the Nakatomi building almost more through luck than raw skill and superior training. It gave the film a sense of real danger. It made the protagonist accessible. Today’s action films are like gun porn. Lots of plastic jiggling around, bodily fluids ejaculating all over the place, and people breathing heavily and bumping into each other over and over and over again until someone cries out and it’s over.

I think if John Wick had managed to avoid that, it could have been a generational favorite, and an action film classic. As it is, it’s still pretty damn good. 4.5 Glocks out of 5.

 

Today, I’m Thankful for Hell Week

One thing you learn (or ought to learn, if you’re paying attention) is that *everything* you are taught in Marine Corps boot camp comes with subtext. As a screenwriter, you become aware of subtext early on: the best dialog is always saying something more than just the words coming out of the actor’s mouth. Whoever scripted our activities at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, back in 1987 was a master wright. I learned things in the most novel, unexpected ways — lessons that hold tight to me even today, a quarter century later.

One of the very first lessons? How to lace your new boots. Laces go in and loop left over right, left over right, left over right until you get to the top. This simple drill reinforces how you’re supposed to cross your legs when you sit on the ground: left leg tucked over right. Later, on the firing range, you learn this is the optimal position for cross-legged sitting marksmanship, and the official position for competitive marksmanship.

It’s little things like that that stick with you.

Or big, big things, like hell week.

Hell week is fun — in that way that things can only be “fun” once they are far enough behind you they don’t physically hurt to remember anymore. It works like this: for one week, your platoon gets to feed the entire camp. The entire camp. Every meal, for a week. Which maybe doesn’t sound bad if you just think about it really quickly and move on, but it sounds worse and worse and worse the longer you think about it.

We got up every morning about 4:00, I think. No reveille for the Hell Weekrecruits: we’re up MUCH earlier than the bugler this week.  Drill Instructor Sergeant Riviera, would pace us as we bustled out of our racks, out of the barracks, and to the chow hall, where we had been broken into various groups: bakers making bread and desserts, cooks shucking corn and peeling potatoes and cooking both, servers washing dishes and preparing to serve several thousand hungry men in a quick, military manner, and the troublemakers, back in the pot shack, washing pots and pans all day. We’d cook breakfast, have everything ready for the morning rush, and about 9:30 when it subsided, wash everything and cook a new pile of mess for lunch.

About 2:00 or so, after the lunch crowd fell away the pot shack crew would get a 30 minute respite of sunshine, sloshing through the mess hall. “Oh look: a parade,” said Drill Instructor Sergeant Auld. “I love parades.”

Thirty minutes for everyone, then back to cleaning, prepping, and preparing for dinner. We’d feed everyone on the base, clean up the kitchen area, wash all the dishes, scrub the floors, and generally just work until someone yelled to stop working: we were done for the day.  It might have been 9:00. I don’t know. You lose track of time when your entire existence for a week is wake up, work, go to bed. We were so tired, Drill Instructor Riviera didn’t even do his usual pacing of the runway, whispering to us of rumors of war in Panama, in Granada, in a far off place called Kuwait.

There’s more to this lesson than learning all the various skills and aptitudes required to feed a military installation, of course. Everything in boot camp is subtext. Hell Week’s lesson was endurance. Not just physical endurance — anyone can learn to hike for 8 hours a day. But the mental endurance required to do a job, and do it well enough that thousands of other people literally placing their life in your hands would be safe — for uncounted hours, for as long as it took to get the job done.

This is a major shifting point in boot camp. When you come out of Hell Week, you’re more than just recruits. The Marine Corps threw one of their biggest challenges at us, and we caught it. Caught it, picked it up, and carried its fat, heavy, awful ass for a week. Coming out of Hell Week we knew: we’d proven we could do anything.

This week, 25 years later, I’m facing a 3-day work week (thanks, Thanksgiving!) — but still need to clock 40 hours of work. Yay 13-hour work days. Yay waking up so early there’s a good chance you’ll run into someone coming home from Last Call. But I’ll do it, and I know I can do it, because I’ve done it before. That sort of lesson never leaves you.

 

Ooo-rah.

 

 

How Adolf Hitler Helped Create Great European Fast Food

sandwich

 

Today I learned that Adolf Hitler is at least partly responsible for my second most favorite food in Seattle. My first favorite is Buca Di Bepo. Mmmmm. But who can afford to spend $100 every night on spaghetti, amiright?!?

So, let me explain. No. That would take too long. Let me sum up.

You’ve heard of shawarma, right? Tony Stark’s favorite post-workout meal. It’s basically kebab meat in pita bread. That sort of thing is popular world-wide and has been for centuries. Anthony Bourdain’s autobiography mentions how he tried some in the Ottoman Empire during the 1800s — except they called it döner.

 

Anthony-Bourdain-courtesy-of-the-Travel-Channel-[1]He would often prep and serve the meat for the Sultan himself. 

Anyway, that’s where **GODWIN’S RULE ALERT** Hitler comes in. After World War II, Germany was faced with an unprecedented worker shortage. Most of the men of construction age had been killed or fled the country for being of the wrong ethnicity. So the country opened up its borders and initiated guest worker programs for folks from other countries to come take the jobs that no German, frankly (French pun intended) was alive to do.

A vast number of these workers came from Turkey, and the Turks — after renaming poor Constaninople — brought with them, the Doner. You know how immigration works. You go to a country, you work hard there, and sometimes (a lot of times) you decide to stay. Today, more than a million and a half people of Turkish descent live in Germany, and continue to eat their Doners — or Turkish Pizzas as they’re sometimes called. Except in Germany they’re called Türkische Pizza.

One thing led to another, and Germans, what with their fondess for all things that are “breads and meats with spice” adopted the doner as their favorite quickie meal. The doner is the Burrito Supreme of Germany, and in 2010, it was revealed that Germans eat about 400 tons of kebab meat every day, most of it served in doners.

That’s where I come in. Having just moved to Seattle I’ve been investigating fun new food locales, and I discovered Seattle Doner Kebab, conveniently located right at the front door of my office building. Literally they couldn’t be closer unless they were sitting on my lap right now, shoveling meat into my mouth.

downloadWhich I would not say no to. Ladies?

The food is bountiful. Flatbread? They need to call it fatbread. Or flatloaf, or something. there’s just so much of it. The spices and flavors are amazing. The doner is fantastic, and my new second-most-favorite food in all of Seattle.

It makes me wonder. With as many foreign workers and existing migrants President Obama has opened the door for… how soon before we start to have ethnic foods that a part of the American tradition? What would they call such a thing? Mexical food? Spanish-American Cuisine?

Tex-Mex?

doner_1[1]Heil Doner!

The Motivating Mark of Humiliation

I had a friend who used to be amazed that I could start almost any anecdote with “Back when I was a…” and then interject a career path as far flung from my current one as you could think of… over and over again. It doesn’t really speak well for my ongoing search for career satisfaction, but it sure helps add flavor to my anecdotes. That said…

Back when I was an insurance salesman, I had one of the best bad bosses ever. RJ looked a little like Mick Foley after a hard round in the steel cage, minus the blood. His shirts were ill-fitting, he smelled of chronic cigarette abuse, and he gave not one fuck to anyone not deserving a fuck, most especially the slacker agents he had working under him. As far as RJ was concerned, the sad sacks working his desks were just hoping to skip from paycheck to paycheck on the merits of our company’s reputation, and not actually do any selling.

foleyGreat job on the Simmons account, Clary. GET BACK TO WORK!

To be fair, this was true of some people. Most of us, though, worked as hard as we could to make minimum quota (16 policies a week) for fantastic commissions (IF you made quota. Otherwise it was minimum wage for the week). We worked hard for the money, but we also worked hard to avoid the Pineapple.

Before I explain what the pineapple was, let me flash forward 20 years, to the mystical future world of 2014. It’s a different era. People are sensitive toward each other’s feelings. People are more concerned with the well-being of their fellow workers and managers most definitely don’t say mean things about their employees. They certainly don’t ever ridicule an employee who’s done poorly. To do so looks bad, and looks are far more important than actually solving problems through decisive leadership and (gasp!) targeted bullying.

Earlier this year I recommended that — in order to turn a company around that was suffering from massive creative and performance stagnation — we publicly mark employees who’d failed to meet their expected development targets for the week. The company was spinning its wheels and could not get projects done on time, ever, mostly because of an powerful sense of inertia caused by certain employees stonewalling in every way possible.  My recommendation was that we give them something like The Pineapple, but in a good-natured, happy way, so as to not upset the “Good Energy” we all had from working happily, and without conflict.

b72d0139632ace99d8e879dddbec2ace[1]It looked exactly like this, except it was stuffed (like a Teddy Bear)
so RJ could HURL IT FULL FORCE in his wroth

 

If you didn’t make quota at our agency (a very popular, very well-known high-risk auto insurer in the Los Angeles area), you didn’t make good money. Motivator number one. If you didn’t work late every night until you made quota for the week, RJ would hound your ass every minute of the next day to make sure you did. Motivator number two. If you were 90 seconds late to work (“Doors open at 8:59, you better be on the phones by 9:01, cupcakes!”) you got your ears chewed off and fed to rabid dogs. Motivator number three.

But the Golden Pineapple of Shame was reserved for the worst of the worst. The lowest of the low, the most wretched and villainous of the wretched hive of scum and villainry that was our office. The Golden Pineapple of Shame went to the employee who made a mistake. And if you got the Pineapple, it was yours for the rest of the week or (if you were lucky) someone else messed up worse.

RJ would deliver the Pineapple like a big league closer delivering the last pitch of the game. High, over the plate, and 120 miles an hour. That’s how mine got delivered. “DAN!” he shouted (I, uh, went by Dan when I worked here, for reasons that are, quite possibly, another blog post). “THIS ONE IS YOURS!” You could see the heads of the other agents ducking and know exactly what was coming. The Golden Pineapple of Shame.

See, I had misquoted a guy on his insurance, and not just any guy, but a radio host — on the same radio station as the not-yet-famous Ryan Seacrest. He was a pretty big deal, and if he got mad that he’d been quoted one rate… only to find out after he’d left that the rate was actually substantially higher (it was)… well, that was a huge hit for the company. Pineapple earned.

The secret of the Pineapple was this: the mistake by itself was pretty bad. Most people would go “Crap. I can’t do that again.” Others might not take it so personally. “It’s just a job,” they’d say. “Whatevs.”

But if you had that pineapple on your desk, every day reminding you of your failure. Reminding you of how you utterly screwed up so badly the boss needed to make an example out of you? That stays with you. That haunts your dreams, and if you can help it… you NEVER make that mistake again.

Motivator number four. Bam.

I believe our society is missing its Golden Pineapples of Shame. People are content to go about their business and be mediocre. There’s no shame in doing lousy work, or being a poor citizen, or letting your neighborhood fall apart while you play Xbox and complain about your health care benefits. There’s no one smacking you in the head with a stuffed pineapple, shaming you into doing a better job, taking pride in your work, and focusing on NOT making mistakes.

I learned a lot from those crazy Scientologists. I heard they ran into some problems a few years after I left, but I bet RJ is still there, quietly seething because he’s not allowed to shame his employees into better work. Think you know which insurance company I used to work for? Give you a hint: “I can’t take that bet.”