Putting This Place In My Rearview

It’s snowing where I am.  Yes, you read that right.  The kids in the neighborhood are on Spring Break and it’s snowing right now.  I’m watching it gently fall as I type this.  That’s what I get for living in Ohio, right?  I know, I know.  And usually around this time every year, I try to talk my 340px-Map_of_USA_showing_regionshusband into moving out of state.  The only problem is, we don’t know where to go.  Setting aside the obvious economical issues of the day (crappy housing market, limited job possibilities, etc.), there are a great many things to consider.  For example, my hubby and I actually did move to coastal Virginia after graduating college.  We found jobs, got an apartment and for the most part, settled into the area.  And there were several aspects of Virginian life that suited us, not the least of which was living within 20 minutes of the ocean.  The weather was perfect – never too much below freezing in the winter and keeping the changing seasons.  Since fall is my absolute favorite, I don’t know that I could live without it.  But I also need hot summers.  In fact, the hotter, the better.  In those ways, Norfolk, VA delivered.  What we didn’t care for was the rather extreme congestion of the area, the somewhat higher cost of living and the slight but significant cultural differences.  I won’t get into detail but I will say that I never felt like I quite fit in with the people around me.  For the first time in my life, I understood the differences between a “northerner” and a “southerner.”

So, we returned to Ohio and got new jobs and a house and six years later, here we still are.  Not committed to staying, per se, but without a clear picture of where it is we’d like to go.  We’ve traveled a bit in recent years and found things we’ve liked in several cities.  I love Boston, for example, and my husband fell for San Francisco, which also impressed me.  But the outrageous cost of living there keeps me grounded in reality.  We both enjoyed Seattle and plan to return for an extended visit as soon as time and means permit.  We had a blast in Moab and the two Portlands, Oregon and Maine.  Vermont’s lush vegetation took my breath away and Sacramento’s sunshine made it hard to leave.  I didn’t see nearly enough of Colorado  – both it and the Black Hills of South Dakota have been calling my name for too long.

All things considered, I don’t think I’m suited for the South or the cold Midwestern states (North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin) but the Pacific Northwest, California, Colorado, and the New England states seem like real possibilities.  I’ve never been to Arizona or New Mexico but I don’t know that my husband would like the extreme summer heat.  So, today I offer you a poll.  Click on the place you think is most suitable for us given all I’ve mentioned above (assuming we’d be able to find jobs, that is) and if you’d like, leave your reasons in the comments below.  Feel free to be specific; on this fine, snowy spring day, I’m open to suggestions.

~Nikki

I’ve Seen The End, I’ve Seen The Beginning

Wristcutters movie posterThe title sounds promising, am I right?  Intriguing and odd, appealing to fans of offbeat indie flicks and hipsters who pride themselves on thinking outside the box.  I admit the name caught my attention (no, I’m not a hipster, thank you for asking), much more than the title of the short story on which it’s based: “Kneller’s Happy Campers” by Etgar Keret.  But, while it is everything the title suggests, and is mildly entertaining, I can’t come up with a good reason why it’s on Entertainment Weekly’s “The 50 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen” list.

Wristcutters: A Love Story is about a young man, Zia (Patrick Fugit) who commits suicide after his girlfriend breaks up with him.  Once deceased, he resides in a particular place in the afterlife reserved for people who’ve committed suicide that is just like life, “only a little worse,” where he works at a pizza joint and becomes besties with Eugene, a Russian musician who “offed” by electrocuting himself onstage immediately following a gig.  Shea Whigham plays Eugene and he and Fugit have reasonably decent chemistry as two very unlikely friends.  When Zia learns that the girl who broke his heart and led him to slit his wrists, the lovely Desiree (Leslie Bibb), subsequently killed herself and is now looking for Zia, he and Eugene set off in Eugene’s pos car to find her.  Along the way, they pick up Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon), a beautiful girl who claims she’s landed in suicide purgatory by mistake and is seeking the “People In Charge” to appeal her case.  They cross paths with a few unusual characters and eventually find something better than what they originally sought.

It’s a good premise and an effective hook but the problem is, once it has you, it doesn’t exactly know what to do with you.  Patrick Fugit is damned delightful (why isn’t he in more things?) and the performances are good enough but the story itself leaves much to be desired.  Tom Waits has a small but seemingly significant role – I say “seemingly” because he plays Kneller, leader of a sort of commune called “Kneller’s Happy Campers,” who eventually helps Zia find Desiree and even inadvertently helps Mikal find the PIC but his character and place in the story is so bizarrely surreal, it feels much less important than it should.  Mark Boone Junior (of Sons of Anarchy fame), Nick Offerman and Will Arnett all have cameos but even they fall relatively flat.  The humor is mediocre, the plot weak and the resolution, while not exactly disappointing, is far from gratifying.  And that’s the biggest problem with Wristcutters: it never gets you invested enough in either the story or its characters to evoke any real emotion.  It’s just merely okay.

I’ve certainly seen worse movies and at 88 minutes in length, it won’t waste much of your time.  But I can’t say I recommend it.  There are many more satisfying ways to spend an hour and a half.

~Nikki

Break My Heart And Bare My Soul

Breaking Bad -posterI watched the first two seasons of Breaking Bad more than a year ago on Netflix and became instantly hooked.  Nevertheless, after finishing the second season, I had to walk away from it.  Not forever.  And certainly not because of any defect with the series itself.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  I needed a break from it because of its commitment to realism, which is far superior to any television show or film I’ve ever seen that deals with addiction.  There isn’t the slightest bit of romanticism or glamor.  It is pure, stark addiction in all its ugly glory.  And because of that, it actually got so painful to watch that I had to step back and breathe for a bit.  Thankfully, I’ve never battled addiction (other than a few years spent nursing a nicotine addiction which I’ve long since given up and a current love affair with dependence on caffeine which I believe to be relatively harmless) but I have been close to a few who have and listen, if you know nothing of it, count yourself lucky because it is one of the most grotesque, heartbreaking and utterly useless experiences to have ever plagued humanity.  I’m speaking specifically of drug and/or alcohol addiction which is particularly abundant in Breaking Bad (season 2 especially).  Hence, my year-long respite.  Finally, a couple of weeks ago I returned to the phenomenal series, ready to brave whatever cold truth it had to throw at me.  And folks, let me tell you, it is so worth it.

I am now nearly all caught up.  I have but one more episode to watch before the final eight episodes air this summer and all I can say is that this show is one of the smartest, well-planned and superbly executed shows ever created.  EVER.  No exaggeration; it is nothing short of extraordinary.  The growth and changes (some evolve, some devolve) in every character are stunning and even though some major major major shit happens – I’m talking insanely tense, gripping shit – the show’s pace is expertly managed.  It doesn’t rush anything.  Not in the smallest, slightest way.  Which adds to its realism because it feels like the pace of life.  There are these moments that are kind of slow and calm and at first you think, why are they dwelling on this?  And then you realize – it’s because this is just like life.  Those quiet moments in your life during which you actually get to pause and think about your own problems, recent events, the world around you or even just take stock.  They never last too long and that’s probably a good thing but they do crop up now and again and the writers of Breaking Bad not only perfectly depict them but they carefully weave them throughout to lull you the way those moments do – those brief periods in your life that very slowly enfold and evolve, making you forget just how quickly time is passing and how much of the world is changing and then all of a sudden you’re waist-deep in it and everything’s happening so fast, you barely even understand and suddenly it’s over and you remember to breathe – that is exactly how this show is!  Never have I seen such an eloquently paced series.  The balance they have struck makes Breaking Bad feel more real than anything else on TV, certainly now, maybe ever.

Not that its pace is the only thing that makes it so utterly real.  The characters themselves could be anyone – you, me, your neighbor, your sister, Breaking Badyour brother-in-law, that guy you chat with in the break room every morning.  Watching them as individuals and their relationships to each other progress, change and evolve (or sometimes collapse) over the course of five seasons feels wholly natural, as honest and organic as the memories of your own personal relationships.  The outstanding acting by the entire cast, and the two leads in particular, give their characters a depth that’s far from standard.  Bryan Cranston deserves ALL THE AWARDS.  He and Aaron Paul will blow your mind and break your heart again and again and again.  And again.

Breaking Bad is a dark and heavy series and surely not for everyone.  Nor is it the kind of show you can put on and watch in marathon fashion.  It’s too intense for that.  I can stand only two episodes back to back before I need a break but that speaks more to its merit than anything else.  Because just as if it were real life, the shit they get into will wear you down.  You’ll find your heart racing, your palms sweating, your breath staggering and your chest aching as you watch and more than once, you’ll thank the universe that this isn’t your life.  Simultaneously, you’ll thank it for giving you this show.

~Nikki

More Than Words

The WordsHow does one find the words to discuss the film, The Words?  This is a tricky one to talk about, as the good and bad cancel each other out to equal my least favorite of all emotions when it comes to entertainment, the dreaded “MEH.”

Bradley Cooper and Zoe Saldana star as Rory and Dora, a young (and ungodly beautiful) couple trying to make ends meet in NYC, while Rory fulfills his dream of becoming a published author.  This is no easy task, and the strain takes its toll on them both.  Dora is crazy supportive though, and before long, they get married.  They shoot off to Paris for a honeymoon (despite the fact that narrator Dennis Quaid – in a moment that perfectly exemplifies where this flick fails – just finished explaining how poor these two are), where Dora finds this gorgeous old leather case that she buys for her new husband as a kind of wedding present.  Some time later, back at home, Rory discovers a weathered-looking, typed manuscript in one of the folds of the case, clearly overlooked by Dora and the shop owner who sold it to her.  This film’s greatest success lies right here, in these moments of wonder and discovery wherein Rory, the writer struggling tirelessly to find his voice, to come into his own and gain success at his chosen craft, becomes so captivated by this hidden work that he decides to preserve it by typing it all out on his computer.  At this point, his intentions are only to see in on the screen and to keep it from being lost again.  A day or two later, he enters his apartment to find an emotional Dora who showers him with praise for the beautiful work she saw on his computer and read without his permission but it was so compelling she couldn’t help herself and finally! it’s the kind of story she always knew he had in him, the depth and beauty she never doubted was there and now he finally released it onto the page!  Rory begins to contradict her, to explain that the work isn’t his, but who can resist such ardent enthusiasm?  In a moment of profound weakness, Rory allows her to believe the story is his.

Dora eventually convinces Rory to submit it to his publisher and he foolishly gives in.  Somehow, Bradley Cooper and directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal manage to convey Rory’s insecurity and doubt, his being swept away in the search for recognition and success.  Because he isn’t just some schmuck who steals someone else’s work and passes it off as his own.  Yes, he does present this work by an unknown author as his story and he does gain tremendous success from it but his drive for doing so – his longing for the success he never reached on his own and the years of relentless hard work without reward somehow make it seem understandable.  That is, until the day an older gentleman approaches him in the park and begins to tell him a story, his story, in fact, that so closely resembles the one Rory printed and published and for which, he is now famous.

Jeremy Irons plays the nameless old man whose work is ripped off and he is such a captivating presence on screen, Cooper’s performance suffersThe Old Man by comparison.  Anyone who has seen Silver Linings Playbook knows that Bradley Cooper is capable of truly great acting but in The Words, he doesn’t quite deliver.  The real defect of the movie, however, lies in the third layer of this story, the one containing the narrator.  Remember the narrator?  The famous, adored present-day author Clay Hammonds (Quaid) tells us Rory’s story and it quickly becomes obvious that Hammonds is the real-life Rory, telling his story to a star-struck lit student, Daniella (Olivia Wilde), making this a story within a story within a story, which sounds so much more interesting than it is.  It would have been leaps and bounds more enjoyable without the Quaid-Wilde layer, which added nothing to the story itself and whose scenes felt like filler, a useless distraction.

The Words isn’t a total waste of time; it’s just one of many films that aims higher than its reach.  Much like its leading character, it wants and strives for a level of greatness that simply isn’t there.

~Annie & Nikki

If You’re Warm, Then You Can’t Relate To Me

Warm Bodies movie posterAh, the zombie apocalypse.  It has become its own genre in American pop culture.  How many books and films have been written and produced about people trying to survive in a post-zombie-apocalyptic world?  Countless stories have been told, most of them dramatic, many action-packed, some with social statements woven in and others with comedy interspersed.  Which got me thinking that pretty much everything that could be done with the zombie genre has been done.  And then came along Warm Bodies.  And I realized that just because I couldn’t imagine anything new to bring to the genre, that certainly doesn’t mean that no one else could.

Warm Bodies isn’t all that original a story when compared to, say, any typical romantic comedy.  What sets it apart is that it combines the zombie genre with the romantic comedy genre – two seemingly incompatible kinds of stories – and it does it, somehow, well.  The film is narrated by a fellow whose name, he thinks, begins with the letter R.  Beyond that, he can’t remember.  Because, you see, at some point prior to the beginning of the story, R was bitten and infected and turned into a zombie.  Yes, the zombie apocalypse arrived, infecting millions, killing millions of others and changing the landscape of human society and relationships as we know it.  The initial wave of zombies created by whatever unnamed cause are completely and utterly lost to it, eventually becoming little more than skeletons incapable of any thought or drive beyond hunting and seeking food in the form of human flesh.  But some of the folks who are bitten later, such as our main protagonist R, manage to retain some small hint of cognition, some tiny remnant of their former human selves.  In search of food, R encounters Julie, an uninfected human and daughter of the leader of the community of remaining unscathed survivors.  For reasons he doesn’t understand, he saves Julie from other zombies rather than eating her himself and develops, well, a sort of crush on her.

And here’s the thing.  As a scientist who has studied infectious epidemics, it almost makes sense.  Because there is just the smallest hint of truth in the very basic foundation of it.  You see, the thing that makes a novel infectious agent (virus, bacteria, etc.) so potentially lethal to humans isn’t just related to that particular agent’s ability to cause disease – its newness makes it cause a worse disease.  The reason being that our imperfect bodies have much more trouble fighting off something they’ve never seen before.  Our immune systems are more easily overtaken by a microbe the first time it encounters it.  This has happened throughout history with the influenza virus, smallpox, measles, pertussis (which causes whooping cough) and countless others.  The second and third waves of people to encounter these organisms fare better.  Not that there are no casualties, but they tend to occur in smaller numbers than their predecessors.  Warm Bodies plays on this phenomenon to create a particular kind of zombie – the kind that isn’t entirely overtaken by whatever virus or pathogen led to its becoming a zombie.  The first wave of people to become infected with the zombie disease is ruined by it.  They lose every shred of their humanity, all memory, their capacity for emotion and any instinct other than hunger.  After some unspecified length of time, newly infected people, while still turning into flesh-eating zombies, form a bit of resistance.  They retain the minutest amount of cognitive thought and can even mutter monosyllabic words.  This resistance is encouraged by emotion (love, especially) and has the potential to “cure” the zombie of its being a zombie and return it to a human state of being.

Author Isaac Marion wrote the book on which screenwriter/director Jonathan Levine based the movie and though I haven’t read the novel, I have heard that the meat of the story is the same.  The flick is silly and light-hearted, not to be taken too seriously, and for the most part, it Nicholas Houltworks, at least in part due to the performances from its two lead actors, Nicholas Hoult as the zombie, R, and Teresa Palmer as the girl who inspires his heart to beat again, Julie.  Hoult and Palmer play their respective roles with surprising charm and their chemistry together really sells it, making it almost believable that the spark between them is powerful enough to triumph over the zombie plague.  John Malkovich adequately plays the part of Julie’s father and leader of the small army of remaining people trying to salvage what they can of the pre-zombie world, and Rob Corddry, who plays M, a kind of friend of R’s who is inspired by the bond that develops between R and Julie, is delightfully funny.  Dave Franco and Analeigh Tipton also offer charming side characters who get more than a few laughs.

What makes Warm Bodies even easier to enjoy is the certain fact that it never takes itself too seriously.  There are sober, heartfelt moments that touch places of real emotion but the film doesn’t try too hard to make you cry.  Neither does it make any attempt at social commentary or satire, nor aspire to be an outright comedy.  Instead, it is a thoroughly enjoyable and harmonious blend of love story and light comedy that just happens to be set against the backdrop of the zombie plague.

Can’t wait to see what else they can do with this genre.

~Nikki