6/13/2009

Best West Wing Episodes Ever

The whole show was extraordinary, but a few episodes stand out.  Here are the ones that I find myself revisiting on DVD time after time ....

  1. Season 2, episodes 1/2 - In The Shadow of Two Gunmen.  Dare you to identify more riveting television than the first  30 minutes of this two-part episode, which portray the minutes/hours directly proceeding an assassination attempt on President Bartlett.  Not only is this episode a rush of pure adrenalin, but it's also a fascinating lesson on the procedures that kick into place during such a crisis. See the staff at GWU Hospital jolt into action as they realize the call they just received on the red "emergency use only" phone isn't a drill.  See Secret Service agents enclose the Vice President in a rugby-like scrum as they hasten him away from an honorary appearance back to the White House.  See the highest-ranking members of the military and intelligence communities sitting tensely around the table in the Situation Room, wrestling over whether the assassination attempt is the work of a random madman or the beginning of World War 3.  Riveting. And then ... and then Sorkin et. al. changes gears, giving us 90 minutes on how the members of Bartlett's inner circle came to be recruited, a chance for viewers to regain their breath while the writers showcase everything they do so well: a little slapstick (CJ falling into a swimming pool), a little human interest (Josh's father dying), a little liberal commentary on current events (Sam trying to talk an oil company into buying oil tankers that won't leak), and a big, whopping dose of idealism (Josh becoming a convert after hearing Candidate Bartlett admit that if it comes down to a choice between helping constituents or making milk a little cheaper for children in poverty, he'll screw his constituents every time).  This episode could be a primer on how to create good television.
  2. Season 2, Episode 22: Two Cathedrals.  The whole episode is amazing, but it's the scene where Bartlett stands in the middle of National Cathedral railing at God in Latin that takes my breath away.  Before that, you get the sudden, senseless death of Mrs. Landingham (Bartlett's long-time personal secretary and friend) followed by a series of vignettes which show her, as a young employee at Bartlett's prep school, pushing young Jed to merge his academic precociousness with a social conscience, ultimately shaping him into the man he is to become.  Her ghost, figuratively and literally, haunts Bartlett throughout the episode as he faces a momentous decision: whether to brave the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (namely, announce his run for reelection, literally moments after confessing to the country that he has MS and has been hiding the fact for the past 4 years), or continue to fight for the principles he believes in. As Democratic leaders scramble to anticipate the enormous political chaos about to descend upon their party, as the members of Bartlett's inner circle struggle to cope with feelings of betrayal, and as a freakish, out-of-season tropical storm heads towards Washington D.C. to wreak havoc, Bartlett wrestles with his inner demons - questioning himself, questioning his purpose in life, even questioning God - standing right there in His face in the nave of the National Cathedral, demanding to know why duty, faith, and trying to do one's best aren't enough to satisfy Him.  A question most of us have asked at one time or another, but - believe me - it's a whole lot more impressive in Latin.
  3. Season 1, Episode 10 - In Excelsis Deo.  It's Christmas at the White House, which means it's time for another amazing West Wing holiday episode.  In this outing, Toby comes to be notified of the death of a homeless Korean War vet and, upon learning the man has no family (other than a brother who is also homeless), arranges for him to be buried at National Cemetery.  The President, upon learning that Toby has invoked his name in order to arrange for the funeral, confronts Toby in the Oval Office, asking him impatiently: "You don't think, if we do this, every homeless veteran is going to come out of the woodwork demanding to be buried at Arlington?"  To which Toby gravely replies: "I certainly hope so, sir."  Meanwhile, we learn that Mrs. Landingham's sons died during the Christmas season while serving in the Vietnam War,  which explains how she and Toby end up as the only mourners at the graveside on Christmas Eve as the haunting strains of The Little Drummer Boy (performed by the Harlem Boys Choir, in a brilliant juxtapositioning of the graveside service with a special command performance in the pine- and holly-draped White House foyer) blend with the retorts of the rifles fired by the military honor guard as the veteran's coffin is lowered into the earth.  I dare you not to tear up.
  4. Season 2, Episode 8 - Shibboleth.  The plot about whether or not to give asylum to a group of persecuted Chinese Christians is the perfect pick for a Thanksgiving episode, but it's the subplot involving CJ and the turkeys that elevates this episode into my top 5.  No matter how many times I see the episode, the scene in which CJ asks President Bartlett to pardon an extra turkey still makes me howl. 
  5. Season 3, episode 66 - Posse Comitatus.  Bartlett faces one of those ethical dilemmas that only world leaders understand: whether or not to order the assassination of a foreign leader (ostensibly a US ally) who, intelligence reveals, has been actively sponsoring terrorist attacks against the US.  Agonizing over his decision, Bartlett grumbles, rhetorically, why this decision has fallen to him: "Because you won," his chief of staff Leo McGarry shatteringly replies.  Meanwhile, the stalker who has been threatening CJ's life is finally captured, freeing CJ and her secret service bodyguard  to finally admit that they have feelings for each other ... only to have the secret service agent gunned down in the course of a convenience store robbery moments later.  But what sets the episode apart is how the two plots are entwined via a "spectacle" musical a la Andrew Lloyd Webber called "The War of the Roses," the finale of which is a song featuring the words: "And glorious in war shall be made glorious in peace," which swells in the background as CJ's beau falls dead onto the ground among a spray of crushed roses, and as U.S. rangers coolly, professionally carry out the assassination of the world leader at a small Caribbean airport.  Not for nothing, the episode also contains one of the best Bartlett put-down of all times, delivered by the Pres as he's copping a smoke in the back of the theater across from the Republican candidate for president, Texas Sen. Bob Ritchie, who has just drawled (in response to the death of CJ's agent), "Crime ... boy, I sure don't know about that." To which Barlett devastatingly replies: "And, by the way, 'Crime, boy, I don't know about that,' is when I decided to beat your ass."
  6. Season 5, episode 17 - The Supremes. A seat on the Supreme Court opens and the Bartlett administration strains against the suffocating political reality that prevents anyone other than (yet another) moderate being confirmed by a Congress controlled by the opposite party. And then Josh Lyman comes up with an extraordinary idea: why not free up two seats and nominate both a brilliant liberal (played by Glenn Close) and a brilliant conservative? It's the speech at the end that takes my breath away, delivered by William Fitchner as conservative justice Judge Chris Mulready in the course of a conversation with President Jed Bartlett (paraphrased here): "Where's the brilliant dissenting opinion? The one that some law clerk digs up from a file late one night and that - 20 years later, 50 years later - emerges to fundamentally alter our perception of law? " As happens so often when watching this show, the episode makes me dream about how great a true democratic society - one in which people discuss ideas, rather than just yelling them at each other - could be.
  7. Season 6, Episode 22 - 2162 Votes.  It's party time at the Democratic National Convention, where all delegates are required to do is wear funny hats, cheer a lot, rubber-stamp the party's nominee, and then play with the balloons.  Or not.  Though it's hard to imagine it happening in real life, this episode posits a dead heat between three candidates (Santos, Russell and Hoynes) going into the convention. But wait ... just when you think things can't get any more dramatic, a fourth candidate emerges from the floor to challenge the front-runners, and then all hell really breaks loose.  Though unlikely, there's nothing here that isn't technically/legally valid, and the resulting chaos and makes for utterly riveting drama as each campaign scrambles to salvage their political lives.  Plus you won't want to miss the galvanizing speech Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) delivers to the convention towards the end of the episode: I sure wish our politicians could whip up that kind of rhetorical dazzle!  I, for one, wanted to hop in my car and dash off to the nearest polling place to vote for the man.

    Honorable mention
  8. Season 2, Episode 10 - Noel.  This is the episode in which Josh Lyman struggles to cope with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (resulting from the wound he received during the assassination attempt noted above).  Adam Arkin does a fabulous job as the traumatologist who is called in to talk Josh down from an impending crisis, but the teary moment is when John Spencer as Leo McGarry, speaking to Josh as he prepares to leave the White House, shares with him an anecdote, the moral of which is: "No one understands despair like someone whose been there before, and lived to tell about it." Say what you will, the West Wing writers sure knew their way around a holiday episode.
  9. Season 2, Episode 17 - The Stackhouse Filibuster.  As Congress attempts to recess for the Thanksgiving holiday, a cranky senator launches a filibuster that holds up passage of a health care bill.  Feel free to appreciate the episode as an informative primer on miriad ways that Roberts' Rules of Order can be used to stall Congress, but what I love about the episode is the marvelous twist at the end when Donna discovers that the Senator is on the side of angels and the White House sets aside political considerations to do the right thing for the Senator, his grandson who is afflicted with autism, and their consciences.
  10. Season 1, Episode 5 - Crackpots and These Woman. It's "Big Block of Cheese Day" at the White House, a chance for organizations that aren't usually given a hearing (i.e., crackpots) to present their issues to members of the senior staff.  Toby is at his sarcastic best mocking the group of World Bank protesters he is assigned to, while Sam finds himself rethinking his ideas on UFOs and CJ struggles to cope with a briefing from "Cartographers for Social Justice," an organization that advocates the adoption of a more spatially accurate world map that shows all the continents upside-down.  Very funny!
  11.  Season 2, Episode 5 -And It's Surely to Their Credit.  Ainsley Hayes's first day in the White House is a disaster.  And then, just when her idealism is about to crack, Sam Seaborne steps up and saves the day, delivering a blistering retort to two obnoxious Congressional staffers, superbly backed up by John Larroquette ripping the paint off the scenery as White House Chief Counsel Lionel Tribbey. Plus, the episode is full of geeky Gilbert & Sullivan humor, which there just isn't enough of in the world.
  12. Season 2, Episode 9 -Galileo.  This is the one where Jed Bartlett, space geek, spends the whole episode looking forward to doing a live address to America's schoolchildren about landing the Galileo space probe on Mars - only to have the mission fail the night before the broadcast.  Instead of a train wreck, we get one of those marvelous morality lessons that West Wing does so well, delivered by CJ (and paraphrased here): "So maybe this is what we tell a million school children out there: You think you get it wrong sometimes?  Why don't you come down here and see how the big boys do it!  It's about going to the blackboard and raising your hand and not being afraid to fail."  Here, here.
  13. Season 2, Episode 3 - The Midterms.  Not that I'm exactly outing myself as a liberal here (think that ship sailed a long time ago), but adore watching Martin Sheen as President Bartlett take on conservative radio talk show host Jenna Jacobs, delivering an increasingly blistering series of biblical quotes designed to demonstrate the hypocracy of those who are okay with a metaphorical reading of the Bible most of the time but who insist on a literal interpretation when it comes to any passage regarding homosexuality.

6/12/2009

12 Favorite Television Shows



I'm not a huge student of television - just a regular kid growing up in the 60s/70s/80s, the time period when television expanded from 3 fuzzy channels to 1000+ channels so crisp you could sharpen a ginsu knife with the resolution.  As a result, not a lot of internal debate was required to compose this list.  I imagine my picks aren't be too dissimilar from the choices of critics who actually know what they're talking about (which came first: critics or public opinion?), with two notable exceptions:

(1) Unlike critics, I'm allowed to omit shows that may have been brilliant and ground-breaking but that I personally didn't care for - so long, All in the Family, Seinfeld, and The Mary Tyler Moore show!  (All of the share the same fatal flaw: too whiny.)

(2) Also unlike critics, I'm allowed to include shows that are widely acknowledged as cheesy/unoriginal/awful, but that I thoroughly enjoyed anway.  See, isn't my way more fun?

Feel free to suggest shows that I've omitted but that would have made your list.
  1. West Wing. The show had everything: brilliant writing, superb acting, and often-gorgeous cinematography, overlaid over the inherent tension generated by setting the show in a melieu in which people are forced to make decisions that impact millions.  Though the show had a definite liberal bias, it never shied away from moral, ethical, or political complexity.  And somehow it managed to do all this without losing its sense of humor.  Once Aaron Sorkin left the writing staff the quality of the scripts somewhat declined, but a bad episode of West Wing is still far superior to a great season of most other shows.
  2. Meet the Press.   For those who preferred the non-fiction version of West Wing, there was Meet the Press.  Loved the show's format and ability to explore issues in-depth, from a variety of different perspectives - back when that meant inviting guests that represented a genuine spectrum of political views, not just radicals from the left or right.  I never watched the show without feeling simultaneously smarter and dumber than I had been an hour before.
  3. M*A*S*H.  Come to think of it, I liked M*A*S*H for many of the same reasons I liked West Wing.  It was topical, edgy, tense, and yet always funny.  You laughed because otherwise you'd have to cry. The stuff of great drama.  
  4. Star  Trek.  It was cheesy.  It was melodramatic.  It was poorly acted.  And yet, it still managed to explore universal themes that no other TV program was addressing.  Star Trek made me ask myself questions I otherwise wouldn't have considered, such as 'Is it ethical to interfere with another race, even if  your motives are noble?', 'Is there any way to safely travel back through time without jeopardizing the future?' and 'Will life on other planets look like humans with prosthetic ears - or does the universe have a bigger budget for special effecits?'  I still think of the show everytime someone opens a flipphone, makes a note on their ipad, or doors whooosh open at my approach.  Still waiting for someone to invent the transporter: it can't be long now, can it?
  5. Mission Impossible. You knew that every show would have the following: a basic caper/heist plot, things that weren't what they seemed to be, a moment when you thought everything was going to blow up in the team's face, and a happy ending that featured the members of the MI team converging on a car/boat/plane for their successful escape.  And yet you still watched it, because what the writers/actors did, they did well: kept you thinking and entertained for an entire hour. Also, the show had the best television theme song ever.
  6. Law & Order.  So many cop shows to choose from!  From Dragnet and Adam-12 to more recent additions to the canon like Cold Case and New Amsterdam.  What sets Law & Order apart is the "order" part: the way the show forces its audience to understand the interrelationship between crime solving and prosecution ... and the compromises that both sides are all too often forced to make in order to keep the system notionally functional.  Though the cast has changed over the years, the acting has generally been quite good, and the writers of the show continue to produce scripts "ripped from the headlines" that defy pat, sitcomly solutions. 
  7. Hill Street Blues. If I had to pick a single favorite cop show, however, this is the one I'd pick.  Sure, I enjoyed Magnum and Miami Vice, Rockford and Kojak, Starsky & Hutch, Hawaii 5-0, Dragnet, and NYPD Blue - but in my mind Hill Street Blues stands apart as the first show that slapped me in the face with the reality and complexity of what it really means to be a law enforcement agent: the violence, the damaged lives, the moral ambiguity, the ethical compromises.  The show was raw and rivetting, and spawned a host of followers (Homocide, In the Heat of the Night, NYPD Blues, The Shield, The Wire) that probably show up on other lists - but I'm giving the nod to the one that initially inspired them.
  8. The Simpsons.  And now for something completely different ...!  Simply put, no show produces laughs as consistently as this animated series, and what makes it better is that the laughs are usually at our expense.  The show has an equal-opportunity approach to satire, sparing neither easy marks (sci-fi fans, fast food, disco) nor issues of political/social sensitivity (immigration, racism, global warming).  My personal favorites are the episodes featuring Sideshow Bob, but asking someone to name their favorite episode of The Simpsons is like asking them to name their favorite flavor of ice cream - they're all good.
  9. The Wonder Years.  Of all the family-based shows (Cosby Show, Brady Bunch, Andy Griffith Show, Full House, etc.) this was my favorites because it felt both nostalgic and real at the same time. The plots were seldom exceptionally memorable - but then, it's not exceptional moments that make childhood memorable: it's the sum total of all the summer days, first loves, dogs, bicycles, snowstorms, favorite teachers, broken bones, best friends and life lessons that one accumulates during those first 12 years that forms the memory you carry with you for the rest of your life, a concept that this show seemed to get.  The acting was lovely, the scripts sweet, and I admit I cried at the last episode when the first person narrator wraps up the show with the following words: Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you're in diapers, the next day you're gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place, a town, a house, like a lot of houses. A yard like a lot of other yards. On a street like a lot of other streets. And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back...with wonder.
  10. The Daily Show.  Lots of shows have done political comedy well (Saturday Night Live, Smothers Brothers, Laugh-In, etc.) but Jon Stewart (a graduate of my alma mater, the College of William & Mary, by the way) took the genre to a whole new level, for which I am eternally grateful.  The successful operation of our democracy is predicated on the existence of a free Press acting as a fourth check and balance: as newspapers downsize and evening news programs increasingly devote their air time to traffic, weather, and stories that tie-in with whatever new show their network is about to launch, thank goodness we have shows like The Daily Show (and the ever-improving Colbert Report) to remind us of the sometimes merely laughable, often much more serious activities of our politicians and leaders. 
  11. The Twilight Zone.  Before there were X-Files, Twilight Zone challenged viewers to disbelieve the obvious, consider the improbable, and accept the impossible.  Some episodes were chilling, some were thought-provoking, some moralizing, some just plain weird - but they all made you think.
  12. Picket Fences.  I gather most critics default to Twin Peaks when choosing an edgy, weird, noiry drama series for their lists.  Unfortunately, I somehow missed Twin Peaks (am only now catching up thanks to Netflix) - but thoroughly enjoyed Picket Fences, which was cut from the same mold.  The town of Rome seems like any other small town ... until the mayor dies of spontaneous combustion, a cow gives birth to a human child, and the sheriff's son develops stigmata.  You had to watch every week just to see what wild new subplot the writers would come up with next.
Other shows that I've enjoyed but that don't quite make the list: Murphy Brown (Mary Tyler Moore Show with less whining), Northern Exposure, ER, Frasier, Scrubs, Friends, The Carol Burnett Show, Cheers, My Name is Earl (The Simpsons without animation),  Jeopardy, Saturday Night Live, Malcolm in the Middle, Spin City, Wild Kingdom, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, Scooby Doo, and Pinky and the Brain.

As you may have figured out by now, I've never gone for subscription services like HBO, so I'm not intentionally dissing The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Mad Men or Carnivale - just haven't had a chance to watch them.  I am, however, intentionally dissing American Idol, the Oprah Winfrey Show, 24, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  (Oh, and I can't comment on Lost because I had a class that night and so never became a regular viewer.)

6/03/2009

Most Romantic Movies Ever Made


What exactly makes a movie "romantic"? Is it romantic tension or sexual tension (or both)? Also, how are you supposed to compare classic explorations of love like West Side Story with frivolous romantic comedies like Sleepless in Seattle?  I've decided that the only way to be fair and comprehensive is to divide the genre into types, which gives me an excuse to include all my favorites ...
  1. Star Crossed Lovers. The most venerable of all genres, this one has been around since well before Shakespeare penned Romeo & Juliet. Goodness knows why we enjoy being tormented by stories of love and lovers torn tragically asunder, but we do. We love it so much, in fact, that over the years this genre has spawned a host of subgenres, each well-represented by romantic classics.
    1. First, there's the Married to Someone Else subgenre, as represented by Casablanca, Out of Africa, Bridges of Madison County, Now Voyager and Frenchman’s Creek. You’re not just crying because of love thwarted, but also because the characters who make the anguished decision to place marriage, duty and honor above their own happiness are just so damned noble.
    2. There’s the Dead But Not Forgotten subgenre, in which the lovers are separated by that whole pesky not being alive thing. Think The Ghost & Mrs. Muir and City of Angels. But at least you have the consolation of knowing that eventually the lovers will find themselves on the same side of the Great Veil; and I, for one, like to think that Mrs. Muir is going to have the time of her non-life when finally reunited with the Captain.
    3. The granddaddy of them all, however, is definitely the Separated by Class or Race subgenre. It was good enough for Shakespeare, and it was good enough for the directors of such blockbusters as Titanic, West Side Story, Officer and a Gentleman, Pretty Woman, and Dirty Dancing. Tony and Maria, separated by race. Rose and Jack, separated by class (and, eventually, a whole lot of water). Edward and Vivian, separated by the whole legitimate businessman/skanky woman of uncertain virtue thing. For obvious reasons, movies in this category have a tendency to end badly. Tony gets shot. Jack drowns. But sometimes the screenwriters take pity on us and seemingly insurmountable circumstances are surmounted by a grandiose gesture, as when Richard Gere whisks Debra Winger away from her dreary factory life in Officer and a Gentleman, or when he climbs up the ladder to rescue Julie Roberts from her tower. And no one puts Baby in a corner …!
  2. Moving On. Who would have thunk it … a whole genre devoted to spouses who die and the loved ones they leave behind. Always. Sleepless in Seattle. Ghost. Truly Madly Deeply.  PS: I Love You. While we all say that we would like our spouses to find a way to be happy if – God forbid – we should predecease them, don’t we really want them to ache for us the way that Holly Hunter aches for Richard Dreyfuss in Always? The way Demi Moore aches for Patrick Swayze in Ghost? The way Juliet Stevenson aches for John Rickman in Truly, Madly, Deeply? Don’t we secretly want them to call radio stations and talk about how unforgettable we were, a la Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle? Of course, after an appropriate amount of time we also want them to nobly give us their blessing to move on … and all the better if moving on means new love in the arms of a hunky, square-chinned Adonis a la Brad Johnson in Always. (Sorry – you guys have to settle for Meg Ryan.)
  3. Sweet, Sweet Torment. They simmer. They glare. They brood – oh, how they brood! Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck. Lawrence Olivier as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Not the kind of guys you want to take home to mama, but don’t we all secretly wish that we had the power to drive men mad with desire for us?
  4. Bad Boys & the Women Who Love Them. Bad boys, bad boys … whatcha gonna do? They revel in their own irredeemibility, and yet we can’t help loving them. Gone With the Wind's Rhett Butler is an unabashed scoundrel, but did you see anyone else at that ball worth dancing with? Dennis Quaid in The Big Easy is another rascal, but there’s something about that Cajun accent and that wicked smile that makes us willing to forgive him anything.
  5. Waiting for them to Figure It Out. Sometimes the romantic tension is there from the start, but it takes a whole movie for one or more of the characters to wise up. In When Harry Met Sally, Harry meets Sally at the beginning of the movie, but it takes a whole reel before he realizes that he is in love with her. And thank goodness for Cuba Gooding Jr.'s performance or I’m not sure any of us would have had the patience to stick around long enough to see Jerry Maguire finally figure things out. For all my irreverent bashing, however, I discover that two of my favorites -- Emma and Strictly Ballroom —fall into this category. We should all be so lucky to have a Mr. Knightly or a Fran out there waiting for us to notice them.
  6. Lovin’ the Wrong Man. Related to the previous category but deserving of a category of its own, this one is all about the ones who are in love with Mr. Wrong, while all the time Mr. Right is right there, under their nose, just waiting for them to come to their senses. It’s enough to make you want to reach into the screen and give them a good shaking. At least in While You Were Sleeping and Sabrina, Sandra Bullock and Audrey Hepburn do eventually hook up with the right brother. But what is Julia Ormond’s problem in Legends of the Fall? Okay, so Brad Pitt is gorgeous, but why can’t she see that Aidan Quinn is the only one capable of making her happy?
  7. Workin’ My Way Back To You. You have to love a guy willing to jump through hoops to prove that he is worthy of his inamorata’s love. Whether it’s leaving their guitar behind (Goodbye Girls) or reliving the same day over and over again until they get it right (Groundhog Day) or possessing the desperation (not to mention the upper arm strength) to hold an enormous boombox over their heads while Peter Gabriel croons In Your Eyes (Say Anything), there’s something irresistably compelling about a man who wants your love badly enough to work for it. (Be honest now – doesn’t hearing that Peter Gabriel song on the radio still make you want to take Lloyd Dobler to bed?)
  8. Save Me, I’m Yours. Of all the genres, I confess a weak spot for this one. It may be primitive, but give me a guy with courage, strength, and moral fiber and I will go weak at the knees every time. (And if he happens to be wearing a loincloth, a breastplate, or a mask, my bodice may just bust of its own accord.) Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans. (“Stay alive, no matter what occurs! I will find you.” – Oh, you will find me – I’ll make sure of that.) Russell Crowe in Gladiator. (“Leave this place and never think of me again.” If he really meant it, then he shouldn’t contrive to look so damn good-looking in that torn tunic.) Cary Elwes in Princess Bride. (“As you wish.” Enough said.) Be still my beating heart.
  9. Going, Going, Gone. Man meets lady. Man and lady fall in love. Man (or lady) falls sick and dies. The end. While a part of me resents movies in this category for being unabashedly manipulative, some of them are so well done that I find myself able to forgive them, even as I am reaching for the nearest box of tissues. Love Story. Finding Neverland. Hint: If a characters coughs early in the movie, assume they’re a goner and start emotionally preparing for the inevitable.
Want to suggest a movie I’ve neglected, or propose a category that I may have overlooked? Let me hear from you!

6/02/2009

10 Best Speeches from Movies


So many great movie speeches to choose from!  Fortunately, my job is made easier by the fact that I haven't seen a lot of them.  So here it is, with (I'm sure) many omissions ... my nominees for the 10 greatest speeches from movies.  For the sake of brevity am excluding one-liners ... would need to do a top 100 list to catch all of them!
  1. "Greed is Good" - Wall Street (1987).  Decades from now, scholars won't need textbooks and analysis to understand the 1980-2010.  That era's narcassistic, Darwinian flaws are all laid bare in this marvellously succinct speech by Michael Douglas in his role as Gordon Gekko, an unrepentent arbitrageur, stock trader, and corporate raider. 
  2. "America Isn't Easy" - The American President (1996).  They should make this speech part of the required curriculum in every civics classes in every high school in America.  It reminds us that democracy is hard, that our election process is dangerously superficial, and that we need serious people to address the serious problems that our nation faces.   [Michael Douglas again: the man knows how to pick a role!]
  3. "People Will Come" - Field of Dreams (1989).  "For it is money they have, and peace they lack ..." intones James Earl Jones in this paoen to the nostalgic (albeit impossibly sentimentalized) notion of a past time when our country was simple, people were innocent, and we still embraced the possibility of magic.   
  4. "St Crispin's Day" - Henry V (1989).  Probably unfair to throw this one in, since it was authored by Shakespeare!  While Kenneth Branaugh does a brilliant job of delivering this powerful speech, it's the soaring rhetoric of the language that catches your breath and wrenches it out of your lungs.  Each time I replay this scene, I'm struck anew by the realization that people join the military today for basically the same reasons they did 1000 years ago:  for honor, for glory, for love, and for the hope of immortality.
  5. "Today We Celebrate Our Independence Day" - Independence Day (1996).  Another speech designed to rally the troops, but with a more global message.  Because, face it, if we can't all agree that aliens intent on destroying humanity deserve to die, what hope is there that the nations of the world will ever find common ground?
  6. "The Most Important Discovery of My Life" - Beautiful Mind (2002). What truly is logic? Who decides reason?  This speech is a powerful reminder that mankind's pursuit of science and understanding must be tempered by humanity and, yes, love. 
  7. "I'll Be There" - Grapes of Wrath. (Sorry, don't have video clip for this one.)  We intuitively know that the people we love go on living even after they leave us, but this universal truth has never been stated with such simplicity and grace as in this scene from the immortal John Steinbeck classic.   The text of the speech is as follows: Well, maybe it's like Casey says. A fella ain't got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul, the one big soul out there that belongs to everybody. Then....(Ma Joad: "Then What, Tom?") Then... it don't matter. I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere…wherever you can look. Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beating up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready…And when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise, livin' in the houses they build, I'll be there too.
  8. "I'm the Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth" - The Pride of the Yankees.  This speech is a lovely reminder that happiness isn't about getting everything you want; it's about being wise enough to appreciate everything you have. 
  9. "Closing Argument" -To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).  Lots of great courtroom speeches in the movies (indeed, this spot almost went to the great Bible speech from Inherit the Wind), but none that can hold a candle to this lyric plea for social justice, delivered with brilliant reserve by Gregory Peck.
  10. "Was it over when the Germans Bombed Pearl Harbor?" - Animal House.  I had to include this speech because it is just so uniquely American.  How like us, as a country, to charge into the breach armed only with a shaky (at best) understanding of history but an unshakable sense of moral authority!

6/01/2009

Top 15+ Routines from So You Think You Can Dance


As the daughter of a dance teacher/choreographer, always seemed unfair that I didn't inherit my mother's dancing ability.  However, I did inherit her love of dance, and So You Think You Can Dance is the first show in ages that I actually rush home to watch.  Admit my reason for posting this list is entirely selfish - looking forward to consolidating links to all my favorites in one place, so that I can watch these amazing routines as often as I like!
  1. Benji and Heidi, mambo, "Black Mambo."  You don't need to watch those ballroom dancing competitions on Saturday afternoon television - just watch these two nationally-ranked performers show you how the mambo is done!  (Gentlemen, take note: no matter how geeky you look, learn to dance like Benji and you'll have to shake the girls off with a stick!)
  2. Jakob and Molle, waltz, "Ordinary Day."  Nothing ordinary about this exquisite performance.  Usually when I think of the waltz, my imagination conjures visions of stuffy people in gilded ballrooms.  But this routine made me realize what the waltz can be at its best: energy, joy, and experiencing - if only for the length of a dance - what it must feel like to fly. Add a touch of nostalgia (the costumes, the scenery, the sweetly innocent "boy meets girl" storyline) and you get one of my favorite SYTYCD routines ever.
  3. SYTYCD Company, contemporary, "Ramalama (Bang, Bang)."  From nostalgia in the park to ... zombies!  This show definitely explores the extremes of dance. But how can you not love this twisted, brilliant routine choreographed to a song that sounds like the music zombies would make if they could form their own band?  (FYI, the male dancer who's clearly better than all the others is the routine's choreographer, Wade Robson.)
  4. Dominic & Robert, hip hop, "Scars."  Does it get creepier than zombies?  One word for you: clowns.  The frenetic choreography of this piece perfectly complements the disturbing score, creating a dance that you'll remember ... in your nightmares!
  5. Kayla and Kupono, contemporary, "Gravity".  This dark but utterly riveting routine personifies the horror of addiction: both the intoxicating grace with which it tempts the addict, and the brutality with which it imprisons them.  The choreography stands alone but - serendipidously - it's performed here by two dancers who can act, and the result is a performance so haunting that you may have trouble shaking it off afterwards.  If you ask me, this should be mandatory viewing at rehab clinics everywhere. 
  6. Nick and Melody, jazz/broadway, "All That Jazz."  This steamy routine is liquid awesome by way of Bob Fosse, poured over a glass full of Broadway. Bartender - bring me another one!
  7. Brandon and Janette, jazz, "Ruby Blue."  Fun, fun, fun!  Part silent film, part Raiders of the Lost Ark, this routine made me laugh aloud even as the intricate, tongue-in-cheek choreography left me dazzled - performed brilliantly, by the way, by two of the best dancers ever to appear on the show.
  8. Danny and Lacey, samba, "Hip Hip, Chin Chin."  Steamy, sensuous, sultry, and sexy, sexy, sexy!  No wonder those Latin countries have the reputation they do!  To be fair, have to split the credit for this one three ways: the choreography is smoking, the song is tight, and the performers don't just land it - they nail it.
  9. Neil and Sabra, jazz, "Sweet Dreams."  (aka "the table dance")  Who choreographs a dance about a business negotiation?  After this you may be wondering, why hasn't anyone choreographed a dance about a business negotation before?  Be prepared to be dazzled by storytelling, the athleticism, the precision, and this one breathtaking moment when Neil vaults over Sabra and the table.   (Forget dance - someone sign that boy up for the U.S. Olympics gymnastic team!)
  10. Twitch and Katee, contemporary, "Mercy." (aka "the door dance")  Not the most challenging or demanding routine, but definitely one of the most entertaining.  The choreographer seems to be channeling Amy Winehouse by way of the Alvin Alley Dance Company.  Another example of how the right story + the right choreography + the right music + the right dancers = magic.
  11. Courtney and Mark, jazz, "The Garden." And now for something completely different ...!  This is so strange, which I'm sure is what makes it so fascinating. Sexual energy literally explodes from the dancers with each lunge, kick and pounce.  Feirce!
  12. Twitch & Alex, hip hop, "Get Outta Your Mind."  The routine features a hip hop-dancing therapist trying to help a classically trained ballet dancer patient get his freak on.  Which is the stuff of great drama - but when you add the fact that Twitch really is a hip hop God, and Alex really is a classically trained ballet dancer, you get magic.  
  13. Kent and Neil, Broadway, "Damn Yankees."  Don't know if this will make anyone else's "Top 15" list, but for me this energetic, acrobatic routine represents pure Broadway magic with a heaping plate of "Gee Whiz!" on the side.
  14. Adichike and Comfort Hip Hop, "Falling." The choreographer of this routine has perfectly captured the raw pain of breaking up with a partner who is bad for you. Alicia Keyes should consider making this the official video for her song.
  15. Jaimie and Hok, Jazz, "The Chairman's Waltz" (aka "The Hummingbird Dance").  For all they talk about the importance of different styles of dance, SYTYCD has a blind spot with respect to ballet.  Which is a shame, because this luminous performance shows that ballet can be about a lot more than tutus and toe shoes.
  16. Chelsea and Mark, Hip Hop, "Bleeding Love."  Who knew hip hop dancing could make you cry?  Dare you not to be moved by this simple but exquisite piece of choreography depicting a wife trying desperately to compete for the attention of her workaholic husband. 
  17. Lindsay and Cole, Paso Doble, "Unstoppable."  The paso doble is hard to pull off - unless the male dancer manages to successfully channel the inner ferocity of the dance, the formulaic moves can come off as painfully awkward rather than masculine.  And then, finally, in the show's ninth seasons, two gifted dancers show how it's meant to be done.  Adrenalin-inducing!
  18. Tiffany and Eliana, Pole Dance, "When You're Good to Mama."  This number will make you wonder why burlesque ever died.
  19. Ensemble, Jazz, "Fame".  Every time I watch this number by choregrapher Wade Robson I'm reminded of a great line from the musical Amadeus, in which Mozart celebrates opera for its ability to transform 20 voices speaking all at once from cacaphony to beauty. In this case it's 20 dancers all going about their own business, except that Wade Robson turns all that cacaphony into something gorgeous.