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  • Jeff Marker

    believer, husband, dad, teacher, film geek, bookworm, musician, writer, researcher, DIYer, vegetarian, Bulldog, Buckeye

Snow Days Evolution

It’s important to know oneself. (Right, Aristotle?)

We in Georgia are in the midst of a very rare winter storm that has nearly all businesses, government institutions, and educational institutions, including mine, shut down for days. The university where I teach closed Monday night, is definitely closed through Thursday, and depending on how quickly things melt, how efficiently road and power crews can work (bless them), and how much pressure our university president feels to act cautiously (likely a lot), we might be closed on Friday, too. Which means I might be stuck inside the house from Tuesday through Sunday.

This is not a healthy scenario for me.

Here is a day-by-day visualization of how I tend to respond to these breaks.


DAY 1:
Yay! It’s a snow day!


Let’s play!

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THE BLOB Opening Titles

Movie credits as pop culture history. And this might be the best part of the movie. Man, I feel sorry for Steve McQueen in this movie. The script is so much more disastrous than the blob.

No One Drinks the Merlot: My Review of SOMM

SOMM3SOMM is not the first documentary about wine, but it’s certainly one of the most engaging. The word somm is short for sommelier. SOMM follows four sommeliers – all friends – through the process of preparing for and taking the exam to become master sommeliers, as designated by the Court of Master Sommeliers. It is a secretive process and exclusive world, and this is the first time the Court has allowed anyone to film this much of it.

Even if you have no interest in wine at all, it’s fascinating to watch and listen to these aspiring master sommeliers do tastings. Alan Rickman’s character in Bottle Shock and Paul Giamatti’s in Sideways have nothing on these real, fanatical wine connoisseurs. They sniff, they stir, they examine visually, they sip, they swish, they spit, all the while rattling off adjectives and comparisons that describe every quality of the wine. Much of the time, they are doing blind tastings in which they are presented six glasses of anonymous wines, and they must use their senses to determine the variety, the region of origin, the winery, and even the year of the vintage.

SOMM7The descriptions of the wine’s bouquet alone can be outrageous. The tasters reference everything from baking spices to wet earth to cat pee to a freshly opened can of tennis balls. During one scene of the guys sitting around a table tasting wine and ribbing each other, the description “freshly cut garden hose” causes a heated debate. It’s impressive what these guys can do, but it’s also rather absurd. The film, as well as the sommeliers–most of whom have a great sense of humor about all of this, recognize that absurdity and allow us to laugh along with them.

As you can imagine, it’s also quite entertaining to hear the girlfriends’ and wives’ assessments of life with an aspiring master sommelier. Those are some of the best interviews, and if the movie has a weakness, it’s probably that it doesn’t spend enough time on the guys’ relationships with their significant others or their friends outside of the wine world (then again, maybe they don’t have any friends outside of the wine world?).

SOMM4The filmmakers don’t delve too deeply into the life or psyche of any one of their subjects, but on the other hand, it’s not necessary. One can infer a great deal about the character of anyone willing to put himself through this exam and to devote nearly all of his waking hours to studying something so minute as fermented grapes.

Besides, SOMM is too busy with other topics to devote time to the guys’ other halves.

The doc also gives an overview of the history of wine and of the process by which it is made. At one point in the film, an interview subject says that studying to become a master sommelier is a bit like traveling the world through wine. The film works that way, too, but much more literally. The crew traveled to numerous locations in six countries (most of the film was shot in the U.S., Germany, France, and Italy). SOMM thus is somewhat of a travelogue, too.

SOMM covers a lot of ground, but everything ultimately comes back around to the Master Sommelier Exam. We know these four men just enough to really care whether they pass, and the filmmakers masterfully keep us in suspense until the announcements are made.

SOMM9It couldn’t be any more obvious that SOMM was a labor of love. The exuberance, dedication, and just sheer toil of the filmmakers saturates the film. Director Jason Wise filmed for three years–and the crew consisted of Wise and one other person for two of those years. The post-production process was obviously just as arduous. Over two-thirds of the production was filmed without a budget, with borrowed cameras. Anyone who knows film will spot the care and craft that went into this supremely well-made piece of work.

SOMM is playing in limited release around the country and is available on iTunes. It’s essential viewing for foodies and great fun even for everyone, whether you believe wine comes from a perfectly aged bottle or a freshly opened box.

About After Earth Being Called the Worst Movie Ever…

ImageThe critical reaction to After Earth is a lesson in how much external factors can influence a film’s reception. Numerous critics are calling it one of the worst movies ever made, many comparing it to Battlefield Earth. Some are speculating about the grave damage this will do to the Smith Brand, especially after the movie’s wretched $27 million debut weekend. (Gotta give a nod to Jonathan Hickman for first bringing this up. I shrugged off his suggestion that this might do lingering harm to Will Smith’s bankability, but I know now he had a point.) I gave the movie a modest seal of approval, mostly for the restraint shown by its director, M. Night Shyamalan.

But then, I had the benefit of naivete when I saw it.

First, I didn’t even know Shyamalan directed it until I arrived at the cinema. His name does not appear in the U.S. trailer, and I hadn’t had time to do the usual recon before the screening. (And really, does it usually matter who directs a blockbuster? Unless it’s Joss Whedon or Christopher Nolan, the movie is going to follow a template provided by the producers anyway.) A fellow reviewer mentioned Shyamalan’s involvement as we were waiting to be let in. So I didn’t endure the week of dread that precedes every Shyamalan release since his movies went from pretty good to embarrassing to unbearable.

By the time I walked into the theatre, I had extremely modest expectations – especially since I have yet to see a really good blockbuster this summer. Iron Man 3 was horribly written, Fast and Furious 6 was horrible in every possible way, and I missed Star Trek Into Darkness, about which I hear good things (although it troubles me that the STID screenplay apparently just riffs on setups the franchise has used before). I wasn’t asking for much from After Earth beyond uncomplicated entertainment.

Second, I know almost nothing about Scientology. I simply don’t care about it as a belief system, I am not fascinated by cults, and gossip bores me to death. That pretty much eliminates any reason for me to know the least bit about Scientology.

But if I had known something about Scientology prior to seeing After Earth, I’m fairly certain I would have responded totally differently. Jump over to The Hollywood Reporter and read this convincing guest column by former Scientologist Marc Headley. It seems that each key piece of advice that Will Smith’s father character gives to Jaden Smith’s son character comes straight from Scientology. That constitutes a lot of the film’s dialogue. Much of the film’s imagery and symbolism apparently have roots in Scientology, too.

In hindsight, it’s impossible to regard the movie in the same way I did when writing my review. I simply missed all of the propaganda. I now know this is a much shallower, disingenuous movie than I thought.

So, do I now think this is one of the worst movies ever? No, absolutely not.

Movies worthy of being put in the Worst Ever category are marked by incoherent stories and incompetent craft. Neither can be said about After Earth. Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender is a better candidate for worst movie ever, especially given the outstanding source material he had to work with. Few animated series have ever been written as well as Avatar, yet Shyamalan and his crew completely bungled it.

Another recent candidate for Worst Movie Ever is Fast and Furious 6. Several scenes could be removed from that movie and the story wouldn’t change. That story is forced and contrived to begin with, and its MacGuffin makes no sense. If you have yet to watch it, I’ll bet by the beginning of the third act you can’t even remember what this “Nightshade” thing even is, nor will you understand how it is driving the story – nor will you care. It is incoherent storytelling. And oh, how ridiculous the chase scenes are.

Yet, Fast and Furious 6 currently has a 72% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while After Earth has a 12%. Neither movie deserves its rating. The former isn’t that good, and the latter isn’t that bad.

But in the case of After Earth, we can clearly see the effects of three things. 1) Piling on the disdain for Shyamalan. Let’s face it, lots of people were never going to give this movie a chance because Shyamalan’s stock has fallen so low. I can’t say I blame those people. Shyamalan has been given every opportunity to become one of the most successful directors in Hollywood, but he has blown it. The only difference between me and them is that I had the chance to temporarily forget all of that. 2) The Scientology angle. 3) A lot of people seem to resent how Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith are using their industry clout to construct a career for their son.

It seems clear at this point that After Earth never had a chance, at least in the US. Perhaps it will recover a bit overseas, where it might not be saddled with the same baggage. Here, though, it was as doomed as the Earth-dwelling humanity which the movie represents.

The Tiger Woods Redemption Plan is Almost Complete

Tiger-Woods-Lindsey-VonnRemember when Tiger Woods was the most hated man in America? Well, he is now on his way to being another example of how a celebrity athlete (and really, any celebrity) can redeem his public image. By my count, he is on step four of a process that includes five key elements.

1. Time

We are Americans. We have the shortest collective memory on the planet. The main thing any disgraced public figure needs to do is just wait. We will forget. How often do people mention Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal these days? Or Rob Lowe’s hotel room escapades? Or what Kobe Bryant did in that hotel room? Or, or, or. We could list scores of examples.

Woods’ dazzling fall from grace began in December 2009. In pop culture terms, that’s an eon ago. Back then, no one had even heard of the Harlem Shake.

I’m sorry, the what?


2. The love of a good woman

This is a standard device in the movies, especially Westerns, and it works in real life, too. If you want to transform the outlaw gunslinger into an accepted member of the community, you give him a respectable love interest.

John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) is a classic example. The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) recently escaped from prison and seeks revenge. Dallas (Claire Trevor) is a prostitute driven out of town, but Ford manipulates her character masterfully. Another character gives birth to a child, and there’s a much-discussed scene that has Dallas holding the newborn baby while all of the men dote on the child and completely change the way they look at Dallas. Ford deftly moves Dallas from one archetype, the Whore, to another, the Mother. She is redeemed. So when Dallas falls in love with Ringo and fights for him, it redeems Ringo. He must be good deep down if this good woman loves him, right?

Lindsey Vonn is Tiger’s Dallas. And she is perfect for the role. She is a successful athlete herself and has (mostly) earned her fame through ability. She is respectable. Yes, she is fond of posing for pictures in bikinis or less, but these days that comes with being the face of a women’s sport (I’m not condoning that, by the way, just observing). She is beautiful, pale skinned and blonde, and competes in a sport that constantly provides her a snowy white backdrop. Good grief, if this were a movie we’d be praising the writer, production designer, and costume designer for their brilliant use of symbolism. Compared to the women with whom Woods cheated on Erin Nordgren, Vonn is downright virginal.

And now, the media are even presenting her as the Mother figure. Exhibit A: the headline, “Lindsey Vonn Plays Mom As She Takes Tiger Woods’ Kids to School,” and text of this New York Daily News article.

lindsey as momdallasbaby

See what happened there?

3. Begin to Win

Woods took some post-scandal time off, then his play was shaky for a while. Fast forward. Woods won The Players earlier this month. It doesn’t have quite the marquee, quasi-heroic value of a major tournament, but it’s a high quality win. And Woods has reclaimed his #1 ranking. The days when the media referred to him as “disgraced golfer Tiger Woods” are long gone. He is back to being “world no. 1 Tiger Woods.”

As Stax songwriter/singer William Bell says, “Everybody loves a winner.”

4. Some other jerk paves the high road

Sergio Garcia, you can stop apologizing, because I guarantee you, the Tiger Woods publicity team cannot thank you enough. Garcia made an unequivocally racist joke at some dinner associated with the PGA Championship, suggesting they serve Woods fried chicken. Read about it here.

Garcia’s racism does two wonderful things for Woods. First, it makes Woods a victim, and that automatically evokes sympathy. Especially when the victimization is as ugly as blatant racism (I’m sorry, a fried chicken reference isn’t implicit – Garcia knew what he was saying; it was blatant and intentional). Second, it allows Woods to be magnanimous. Take a look at part of Woods’ response to the remark on Twitter:

“I’m confident that there is real regret that the remark was made. The Players ended nearly two weeks ago and it’s long past time to move on and talk about golf.”

Aside from being a deft use of the passive voice (whose real regret is it?), it’s a show of forgiveness, of sorts. Woods and Garcia have been chipping at each other for a long time, but suddenly Woods is on the high road. If Woods demonstrates forgiveness to others, he will earn forgiveness in return. Garcia gave Woods the ideal setup to do just that. Woods suddenly looks like the bigger man in a situation, which didn’t even seem possible three years ago.

5.Win big

The only thing Woods still needs to do is win a post-scandal major. As this article points out, Kobe Bryant provides a nice example for Tiger. Two championships did wonders for Bryant as he moved on from his own scandal, and an equivalent accomplishment will do the same for Woods. He is one major tournament win away from fully recovering his image and turning his infidelity and depravity into a footnote. Woods is back on his game, and it seems only a matter of time before he wins another Masters, U.S. Open, or Open Championship.

I promise you, when he does, Lindsey will be there to embrace him just yards away from the 18th green. If his kids could be there, it would really complete the picture. There will be tears of joy over the full culmination of his comeback. The announcers will play right into the moment and aver that Woods’ troubles are far in the past and he is once again the envy of every young golfer in the world. The media will provide the purifying waters, and Woods will emerge from them, redeemed.

Look, I’m not writing this to attack Tiger Woods the Man. I do not know him personally. We can never know celebrities merely by being familiar with their public images. Maybe he has genuinely changed. Maybe he never deserved to be demonized in the first place. I don’t know, and frankly, don’t care.

But witnessing the fall and rise of Tiger Woods’ image is yet another fascinating study in American celebrity and media, and it says a whole lot more about us than it does about Tiger Woods.

More BRAVE Character Redesigns

If you think it’s terrible what Disney did to Merida from Brave, just take a look at how they’ve updated the triplets.


Argo, Ben Affleck Named Year’s Best by Southeastern Film Critics’ Association

argoThe Southeastern Film Critics’ Association, of which I am a member, has tallied the votes and announced the results to the public. My own ballot didn’t look exactly like the overall results, of course, but I think we as a group did very well in a year which, surprisingly, gave us a lot of good stuff to choose from. Here are the press release and the results. Take a look.

The Southeastern Film Critics’ Association has voted Ben Affleck’s period thriller Argo the best motion picture of 2012. The organization, whose 48 members represent electronic and print media outlets in nine Southern states, also named Affleck best director in its annual poll.

Argo was far and away the most-mentioned film on our critics’ ballots,” SEFCA president Philip Martin said. “While there were other films that had more first place votes, Argo was consistently well-regarded by our membership and it ended up winning the poll by a comfortable margin.”

In a much closer race, actor-director Affleck was named “Best Director” over Kathryn Bigelow, whose Zero Dark Thirty edged out Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln for the second spot in the critics’ poll.“It’s interesting that the top three films are all dramas based on historical events,” Martin said. Argo is a dramatization of the joint CIA-Canadian covert operation that extracted six fugitive American diplomatic personnel out of revolutionary Iran in 1980; Zero Dark Thirty is about the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden after the September 2001 terrorist attacks and Lincoln is about the 16th president’s efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution that would formally abolish slavery in this country.

Daniel Day-Lewis became the first three-time winner of the group’s “Best Actor” award for his performance as the title character in Lincoln (Day-Lewis previously won the award for his work in There Will Be Blood in 2007 and in Gangs of New York in 2002) while Jennifer Lawrence was named “Best Actress” for her turn in the dark comedy Silver Linings Playbook.

Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild was the overwhelming choice for the group’s Gene Wyatt award, given for the film that “best evokes the spirit of the South,” with Richard Linklater’s Bernie — yet another dramatization of a true story — finishing second.

“Overall it was an amazing year for Southern film,” Martin said. “I can’t remember a year when we had so many excellent candidates for the Wyatt Award. Our members nominated 13 different movies for the award — and one actor: Matt McConaughey, for appearing in the Southern-set films Killer Joe, The Paperboy, Bernie and Magic Mike in 2012.”


zero-dark-thirty-01TOP TEN
1.    Argo
2.    Zero Dark Thirty
3.    Lincoln
4.    Moonrise Kingdom
5.    Silver Linings Playbook
6.    Beasts of the Southern Wild
7.    The Master
8.    Les Misérables
9.    Life of Pi
10.    The Dark Knight Rises

Winner:    Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Runner-up:    Joaquin Phoenix, The Master

Jennifer-Lawrence-Silver-Linings-PlaybookBEST ACTRESS
Winner:    Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Runner-up:    Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty

Winner:    Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Runner-up:    Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln

Winner:    Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
Runner-up:    Sally Field, Lincoln

Winner:    Lincoln
Runner-up:    Moonrise Kingdom

affleck directingBEST DIRECTOR
Winner:    Ben Affleck, Argo
Runner-up:    Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty

Winner:    Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola
Runner-up:    Zero Dark Thirty: Mark Boal

Winner:    Argo: Chris Terrio
Runner-up:    Lincoln: Tony Kushner

Winner:    The Queen of Versailles
Runner-up:    Bully

Winner:    The Intouchables
Runner-up:    Amour

Winner:    ParaNorman
Runner-up:    Frankenweenie

Winner:    Life of Pi: Claudio Miranda
Runner-up:    Skyfall: Roger Deakins

Winner:    Beasts of the Southern Wild
Runner-up:    Bernie


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