A few days ago here, I wrote about how a movie seems to become better or worse for us over time, like either milk or wine. What I’ve been wondering about today is how our appraisal of a movie changes, even before we’ve seen it! What judgmental fools we all are. I’d been hopeful about Walter Mitty, but when it finally came out, there was one collective shrug from both critics and friends of friends of friends, and I did the same. Another Martin Scorcese movie with Leonardo DiCaprio seemed like a sure shelling out of $9, but I still haven’t seen Wolf of Wall Street, and I’m not sure I want to, even after the Best Picture nomination.

The same thing happened to me with Saving Mr. Banks. Seemed like a promising concept, though I’ve never quite watched Mary Poppins from beginning to end and didn’t feel any particular connection to that movie. I like Tom Hanks, but talk about overexposure, which I also wrote about a few days ago. And I have mixed feelings about the Disney brand. For these and other mostly irrational reasons, the movie quickly lost its luster for me.

But yesterday I came across a movie gift card I’d forgotten about and just wanted to see a movie, a near-daily impulse, and said, what the heck, Disney it is. And what a pleasant surprise. (Maybe that’s the key. Lower expectations. Marketers should try this. Instead of the booming trailer guy’s voice, let Woody Allen do the voice-overs. “The movie’s OK. It’s really really OK. Maybe not Ten Commandments OK, but it’ll do in a pinch. If you want to sit for two hours, you might as well sit in front of this picture.”)

One of the questions I ask myself: Is this a movie that needs to be seen on a big screen? That was another strike against Saving Mr. Banks because I decided, No. Again, this is before I’d seen it. But the movie is stunningly beautiful. Don’t wait to watch it at home, even if you have 3-D, Hi-Def with 24K gold plated cables. I’m shocked that the movie didn’t get a Best Picture nod or a Best Acting nomination for Emma Thompson, who is remarkable in this.

The movie flashes back and forth seamlessly between Australia 1906 and London / Los Angeles 1961, an ambitious ploy that works extraordinarily well. Thompson’s character, Mrs. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, wary of a Disney adaptation of her book, is impossible to please, which will have you smiling throughout because Thompson is so good. As the cause of her surliness unfolds, via the flashbacks and Disney’s persistence, the movie comes together powerfully and movingly. This movie should soar to the top of your list for movies to see.

Confession. The movie began at 7:10. Wolf of Wall Street began ten minutes earlier, so I poked my head in and was ready to abandon Disneyland for Wall Street if I was drawn in. The first five minutes are pure Scorcese, with the camera swiveling around expertly and the sudden freeze frame with the voice over, but I’d had enough. The main character was doing something with a straw and a woman’s posterior and drugs(?) that I didn’t need to see. It might be blasphemous to suggest this, but I think some of Scorcese’s work is overrated. Slap another director’s name on this current movie and replace DiCaprio with a no-name talent, and no one pays attention to this movie.

What do four guys talk about on the way home from a Chicago Blackhawks game? Among other things, fast food. Nate recalled the times he would be drawn to Taco Bell, McDonald’s, or KFC. We passed a White Castle’s and everyone groaned, only Brian not ever having tried that particular delicacy. Karl insisted he had to try it, to torture himself at least once. As I sat there, I realized I NEVER have a yearning to pull into any of these fast food emporiums.

But I do have one weakness. When I was a kid, Mama made her own red gravy, pasta, and bread. If we’d had a cow, she would have milked the cow every day and pasteurized the milk between loads of laundry. So it’s not that she banned fast food. The prospect simply never presented itself. But one time when I was in 7th grade, on an after school field trip I think, the chaperone decided to stop at Burger King, and that’s when I tasted my first Whopper. My mouth still waters when I recall that first delectable bite, the best thing I’d ever eaten, I thought. As anyone who has eaten a Whopper knows, however, the last bite is never quite as good as the first, and that last swallow is always filled with tangy regret. But that initial memory has stayed with me, and every now and then, maybe once a year, I pull into a Burger King drive-thru, unable to tear myself away, lured into reliving the thrill of my first time.

This is not a paid endorsement. Or an endorsement of any kind.
I went to see Her today. It’s a strange and evocative movie that dares you to get sucked in by the premise that a man can have a relationship with a computer. You resist at first, but not for long because the setup is gradual and clever, and Joaquin Phoenix is vulnerable and likeable and you want him to be happy. And Scarlet Johansson’s voice of the operating system is pretty alluring. I’m still not sure what to think of the movie, but I liked it and it got me thinking about how honest we really all are with each other, and even when Phoenix’s character does become more honest because, after all he’s interacting with a computer—why not?—he still fumbles, which spurs your thinking about human nature and grip of the past on us all. It’s quite a lot to think about. And the near future is rendered so realistically, you don’t feel like it’s that far into the future—or that unrealistic. Maybe we’re already there in important ways, always gazing a few feet in front of us at a screen rather than toward each other.

About midway, Amy Adams appears, and my first reaction was, Really? I mean, I like Amy Adams. I think she’s talented and cute and convincing. There was a time when people complained that there weren’t enough quality women’s roles in movies. I haven’t kept track, but there seems to be a spate of good movies out there lately with strong female characters. But does Adams have to play them all? Her role in this movie seemed minor at first, but the more screen time she had, the more I had to admit that she was a solid choice, even at the risk of overexposure. At least she chooses good movies to be in. I can list scores of other talented actors who seem to consistently take on roles in horrible movies. Care to offer any names?

I’m not quite sure why this happens. You see a movie, you laugh and cry and your heart throbs a little more insistently while jawing on popcorn. Some change occurs. You leave feeling good and you recommend the movie to friends. Then, time passes, and you begin to feel less enamored of the movie and decide you didn’t enjoy it as much as you first thought. You still recall the immediate enjoyment you had, but the film begins to pale. Some version of the opposite happens, too, of course, though less frequently. Not that I can recall ever being swayed from hating a movie to loving it. But what happens is this: the movie stays with you, it grows on you, you replay some of the scenes as you’re walking down a hallway maybe, taking on the cockiness of one of the characters or feeling his pain. And the movie becomes…better.

Any thoughts on why this happens?

My daughter recently told me that this just occurred to her with American Hustle, which we saw together and enjoyed. As soon as she said it, I harrumphed in agreement. Or hmmmm-ed. Yes. I felt the same way. For her, she worried that it might beat out 12 Years a Slave for Best Picture Oscar. And that started me thinking. About why our reactions change. Because of other movies we see? Because movies need to spark some primal emotion in us? Because movies need to be more than just entertainment for them to haunt us? (By the way, I want to be haunted, and doubt that a movie like Anchorman will ever achieve that. Now, Caddyshack? A whole different story.)

I guess I don’t want to think about this too much. But I would like to hear other theories.

For me, I can’t stop thinking about the Coen Brothers’ new movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, which should win Best Picture Oscar but won’t—mostly because people (marketers?) insist on labeling it a comedy, which it ain’t, though there are plenty of light moments. I’d heard the film was about fame, why some achieve it while others are left wanting. And yes, this seems to be the main theme. But the roadblocks that appear on the way to fame are gray. Luck certainly plays some role. But how complicit are we in the process? It’s an intriguing question, and the answers the movie suggests are, well, haunting. And now the music has gotten into my head. Only the music at first. But as I’m listening to the soundtrack on headphones during walks, the lyrics too. And this character Llewyn is real, and I think I have to go see the movie again. 

Woody Allen did not show up of course to receive his Cecil B DeMille Award at yesterday’s Golden Globe Award ceremony. I suppose one can view his continued absence at such awards as modesty, stubbornness, indifference, pomposity. But however you regard the behavior, you have to admit, he’s consistent. I mean, it’s a huge honor, and still he didn’t show. Here’s his reasoning, as quoted in the Chicago Tribune on January 12, 2013, which seems like a useful way to view one’s artistic pursuits, whether the product is a song, a book, or a casserole:

“I realized the less preoccupied you are with yourself, the better you do. You don’t want to read that you’re a genius, you don’t want to read that you have no talent, you don’t want to read how gifted you are or what a lowlife you are. The best thing is to just work.”

I can’t stop reading Nicholson Baker’s novels, though I hesitate to call them novels. They read like mini-essays that include quiet observations that you might find in a poem. Precise and vivid and peaceful. You feel like you’re sitting on a couch next to the author listening to him spin little yarns of wisdom. In this last one I read, A Box of Matches, the entries are made up entirely of his thoughts each morning as he rises early and approaches the fireplace. No plot. No forward thrust. But always engaging. If you’ve been meaning to read more poetry but can’t force yourself to slow down to do so (because reading poetry is more demanding?), try reading Baker.
Speaking of poetry, here’s another novel full of some of the richest sentences you’ll read anywhere: Alice McDermott’s newest book, Someone. There’s plenty of plot here, but McDermott offers it up in flashbacks and flash-forwards, all handled masterfully. The plot centers around a woman and her family, but the satisfaction in reading this book comes not from finding out what happens next but in sharing this character’s intimate glimpses into what it’s like to live a life. Some of the scenes are joyous and sweet, others are torturous in their specificity, especially one birthing scene that you won’t soon forget. This is easily one of the best books I’ve read in a while.
I’m always drawn to those “Best of” lists that come out at the end of the year, so I thought I’d create my own. I have not made any attempt to be objective or comprehensive. When I list Best Novel of the year, for instance, this means I read the book in 2013 and flew through it. The book didn’t even have to be published in 2013. 
Best Novel

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick.

Earlier this month, I reviewed his other book, Heading Out to Wonderful, which is also a fine book. But RW, set in 1909 Wisconsin, is gripping, one of those books that you read with dread because you see what’s coming and know more than the characters. The writing is rich, and the ending is satisfying and earned.


Funniest Book

Still Foolin’ ‘Em by Billy Crystal. I just finished this today. I found myself both laughing aloud and wiping my eyes because the humor is balanced well by sweetness and poignancy. He calls it “leaving a tip,” revealing something about himself amid the jokes. As with any good memoir, you root for him to succeed, even though you know the outcome. Throughout, Crystal holds nothing back, revealing his most intimate fears and joys.

BEST BIO Bruce by Peter Carlin (reviewed earlier)
Most Thought-Provoking Book
The Universe Within by Neil Shubin (reviewed earlier)

Best Movie
Nebraska (reviewed earlier)

Best Concert
Elton John. The guy played for nearly three hours without a break or breaking a sweat. I was most impressed with his improvisation.

Best line
Carlos Santana: To grow, “Sometimes you have to commit career suicide.” I imagine someone thinking: Well, yeah, easy for you to say since you’re so successful, which serves as a kind of safety net. But I think his advice could apply in a more modest way as well. I taught high school for over 30 years, and I always found myself, not risking the security of my job, but moving in directions that challenged me and pushed me from my comfort zone.

Most Surprising Discovery
Nicholson Baker in his book, The Anthologist, reveals that Carpe Diem does not mean seize the day. Translated carefully, the phrase means Pluck the day, which is much softer, which suggests we appreciate each summer petal, which would never have been remembered!

Best Health News
Every winter my hands become so dry that I get these little annoying cuts. Solution: use coconut oil as hand lotion. Skin still feels a little rough, but no more cuts. Second discovery: once the oil dries, apply some ordinary mild lotion for baby smooth skin.

Strangest Headline
Notable Deaths of 2013. Every year newspapers print something like this. I always think, aren’t all deaths notable? 

Best Kitchen/Bathroom “Gadget”
We have these grates on our oven that have accumulated layers of grease that we can never clean, no matter the product. Well, I discovered a $2.49 item that did the trick: a scouring stick. No chemicals, no harm to the grates. Just a little elbow grease.
About a week ago I posted a couple of reluctant recommendations. I have another. Nicholson Baker’s Traveling Sprinkler. The reason for my reluctance: the book reads more like a series of meandering blog entries than a novel. Not much happens, other than the smoking of cigars, the eating of mixed nuts, the sprinkling of lawns, and other mundane activities, all of which unfold loosely and as if on a whim. When plot does appear, the book becomes endearing and sweet.

So why am I recommending the book? The narrator, Paul Chowder, is a poet who, without a hint of pretention, observes his world with such precision that you feel as if you’re on a calm expedition with the most able tour guide. As an aspiring songwriter, the narrator offers especially intriguing observations about the composing and appreciation of music, returning often to Debussy—and then he ties such observations to other astute observations about politics. Did you know that the poet Archibald MacLeish helped establish the C.I.A.?

I usually need a little more plot, but this quirky book kept me turning pages and always thinking. 

How’s this for a great book title: “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” The one posing the question is Nobel Physicist Richard Feynman. He addresses this question, along with other intriguing mysteries, including why the space shuttle Challenger exploded. Anyone familiar with this disaster knows full well about the failure of the shuttle’s O-rings, but most don’t know the story of how the O-rings became the focus of the investigation, which is fascinating and which is ultimately a story about human failings. Feynman was the guy who helped direct the investigation toward these little pieces of rubber.

He also explores mysteries such as the atoms in the phosphorous tissue in our brains, half of which are replenished every two weeks. How do the new ones know what to do!

Feynman’s writing can be clunky, but his voice in these brief essays and letters is true. And he’s not afraid to show his vulnerabilities. The sections on his first marriage are particularly moving. More than anything, the book will leave you with a sense of wonder about nature.

I’ll end with an inspiring passage that is categorically not clunky:

“It is our responsibility as scientists…to proclaim the value of…freedom; to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed; and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.”


Why does this idea make so many feel uncomfortable?
Sometimes I read books or see movies that I love but refrain from mentioning here because I wonder about their broader appeal. We’ve all gotten recommendations that, for us, turn out to be duds. I suppose any recommendation could turn out that way because tastes are so particular, so I will forge ahead, knowing that these picks may not suit everyone.

Robert Goolrick’s novel, Heading Out to Wonderful, may haunt your dreams for a while. Set is 1948 Virginia, the book is about a man without a past or future who searches for a place to call home. As always, I hesitate to offer up details because (1) those details are so easy to find, and (2) I’m afraid of spoiling the pleasure of turning the page and learning that the plot takes you here and not there, which is why when I read reviews my eyes become a little glassy. I just want to know if the reviewer was floored by the story and by the writing. In this case, for me, yes and yes. The writing reminds me of John Steinbeck and Fred Chappell and Rick Bragg. And if you don’t know the latter two, do something about that. Goolrick’s is a fine book with exquisite writing, full of poetry and nuance, gentleness and dismay. I take back my reluctance. Read this book.
I’m also wary of movie previews. Dann Gire in The Daily Herald writes scathingly about how they ruin movies. I must admit, I have a harder time looking away from these because they are jewels in themselves. But I do wish they would show less.

I walked into the theater to see the movie Nebraska, knowing very little. I’d read a review, in which my eyes glassed over of course, but I could barely recall a single detail, for which I was grateful. This was, for me, a deeply satisfying movie, about an old man who convinces his son to escort him to Nebraska. So it’s a father/son road trip. That should be enough information, right? You just want to know if I was floored by this movie, right? Well, I’ve already said I was, so I will simply add that the movie is beautifully shot and includes moments of dark humor and tenderness and wisdom. The acting is outstanding. How actors achieve this high-wire effortlessness never fails to impress me. 

I suppose the reason for my reluctance is that I wonder what young people will think of the movie. As a grown man who lost his father about two years ago, I can’t help but view nearly every old man I meet through this lens. So many old men have the same grizzly glare and befuddlement and gleam that I saw in my old man. In the movie, when Will Forte, who plays the son, becomes exasperated or proud, I couldn’t help but think back on the last couple of years I had with my own father. And this movie became, for me, a sort of gift.