Thursday, July 31, 2014

Ich bin eine leidenschaftliche Frau

Annemarieke van Drimmelen for Vogue Germany | model

Have you guys heard of the 'gamified', language-learning application, Duolingo?  My friends were telling me about it and I immediately knew I needed to hop on the bandwagon.  An addictive game-like app that will simultaneously teach me foreign vocabulary and grammar?  That's a no-brainer! 

I have wanted to learn German for years.  I lament that I didn't take at least the basics in high school.  Or college.  A trip to Munich after undergrad only solidified that I'd made a big mistake ignoring my desire to learn the language.  Of all the countries we visited, of all the languages we heard, listening to the locals speak German made me just seethe with jealousy. Why couldn't that be me?

When I returned to college two years ago for Deaf Studies & American Sign Language at Cal State Northridge, I vowed to take a class or two on the side.  Unfortunately, they had discontinued their German minor (and classes) several years prior.  Is it really that unpopular?

But now is my chance.  Last week, I started my lessons (it's FREE!), and I'm already finding that Duolingo is a really fun and easy way to break into the basic vocabulary.  Of course, that's as far as I've gotten:  the basics.  No telling yet how the application fares as grammar and lexicon get more complicated.  But I'm up for the challenge!

Right now, Duolingo offers lessons in Spanish, Italian, French, German, Portuguese, Dutch, and of course, English.

What about you guys?  If you could learn a new language right now, for free, what would it be?  One of these?  Or something else?  I'd love to know!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

My Favorite Pouf

Gretchen enjoying the Threshold pouf

Since John and I moved into our new place together, I knew that I wanted to start hosting dinners and parties for friends.  But that meant plenty of seating.  I'm sort of a design novice, but I'm learning and getting inspired. So what kinds of pieces should I be looking for?

For myself, I know that a good sofa and armchair are musts.  But what about floor seating?  Personally, when I'm at friends' apartments, I love when they have cushions or great carpet, because I prefer to sit on the floor.  When watching movies, writing, blogging, whatever!

I had purchased four of the fun and colorful Urban Outfitter floor pillows (I plan on buying more - they just stack so easily!).  Next, I wanted to get a pouf or two.  Normally, poufs are so uncomfortably to me.  Hard as a rock or completely unstable.  Who wants to sit on fabric that feels like wood?

But shockingly, I found one that is perfect.  And it's actually affordable!  Right now, Target has an amazing array of poufs, and I highly recommend the Threshold pouf.  The one I purchased (see above; my Mini Dachshund is a big fan) is soft and wide and - above all - comfortable.  And now they're on sale!

You just can't have enough places for people to sit.  And I may just have to claim this new pouf as my forever spot.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

AFI Top 100: #98 "Yankee Doodle Dandy"

Joan Leslie & James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

This past Sunday night, my heart grew three sizes. We hosted a low-key screening of our third AFI Top 100 film, Yankee Doodle Dandy, #98. It's been easily 13 years since I've seen this movie (it is featured on the list of Nominees for the Best Picture Oscar, my long-running personal challenge), so it was something I've ticked off in passing, along with many others. With that in mind, I realized... I didn't really remember anything about Yankee Doodle!

The plot is simple enough: A glamorized biography of legendary Broadway song-and-dance man, George M. Cohan, as only WWII-era Hollywood can deliver. But... was the movie any good? I hadn't the slightest idea. A stressful question, considering I'd strong-armed (not really) people into watching it with me. So I crossed my fingers, spouted a few warnings, and pressed play.

First, the plot. The above-mentioned 'tagline' is, quite simply, all the movie is about. George M. Cohan, born in 1878 to popular Vaudeville-performing,Irish immigrant parents, hits the road with the family as soon as he can stand up in tap shoes.

For decades, they tour the country as the "Four Cohans", edging ever closer to the big time.  Little Georgie Cohan is precocious and arrogant -- oh, and extremely talented. But his attitude costs his family many opportunities over the years, and in an effort to save them from his own failures, George sends the now 'Three Cohans' off to keep touring while he pounds the pavement of Broadway looking for his big break.

He sings. He dances. He acts. He writes every word and lyric. Some inventive cons and fast-talking later, George finds himself a rising star at the center of the Broadway theatre-scape.

His reputation as a "flag-waving patriot" is considered a negative; old-fashioned, Civil War-era jingoism -- that is until the World War breaks out. Soon, his hit musical theater songs, such as "Grand Old Flag" and "Over There," are ringing through the streets of not only Broadway, but the nation.

This is a very glossy view of Cohan's life, and that's evident by the fact that there are very few stakes throughout the picture. Cohan's troubles are always followed by towering triumphs, and that is only highlighted by the fact that he narrates the movie while sitting in the Oval Office in front of President Franklin Roosevelt. He made it, and we all know it from the start.

But to my surprise, there is a lot of humor in this film. The script is clever and creative, with a timeless quality. Cagney's Cohan peppers jokes, one-liners, and jabs like it's a compulsion, and he had me and my guests just cackling with delight. The scenes where he meets his longtime business partner, Sam Harris, as they both try to pitch separate stage productions to the same producer is particularly memorable.

Looking past the epic stage shows, sets and chorus girls, we glimpse briefly in frequent montage sequences (which, by the way, are so incredible and intricate, they put Vegas to shame) -- at its core, the movie is all heart.

James Cagney, best known for playing Hollywood gangsters, is spirited and joyous with a constant kick in his step. His charm carries the film and gives it life, particularly during scenes with his family.

It is rumored that George M. Cohan previewed the movie in 1942, the year of his death. His response was, "That was a good picture.  Who was it about?" Such a reaction encompasses the beautiful, yet wholly fantastical, film that is Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Hollywood's view of Cohan might be idealized -- even false, at times. But while it may be false, it is not dishonest. More than a biography of a man, Yankee Doodle Dandy is the patriotic pulse of a war-torn nation and audiences hungry for a tale about the American spirit. Cagney absolutely kills it at every second, whether he's making us laugh or making us cry.

And never in a million years did I expect to tear up like I did during the film's finale. The elder Cohan witnessing the march of soldiers heading off to battle as war breaks out for a 2nd time, as the sounds of "Over There" ring out... Cagney deserved every ounce of that Best Actor Academy Award.

In the end, I was very impressed. AFI knew what it was doing keeping this movie from falling off its list. I hope very much that it remains there in the future. Patriotism and flag-waving isn't as celebrated as it once was, which could make this movie seem antiquated and naive to modern audiences. But that's why we have films like Yankee Doodle to begin with -- to remind us just how magical and uplifting that American dream can be.

Rating:  ★★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews]

Check in next week for #97, Blade Runner!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Music Mondays: Ingrid Michaelson "Girls Chase Boys"

It has been a long week leading up to today, because I have been listening to this song non-stop -- and I just had to share it with all of you!  I've been a big fan of Ingrid Michaelson for years (she was a big feature during the early years of "Grey's Anatomy"), and her newest album, Lights Out, is just magic.  It delivers to us the lighthearted and oh-so-fun "Girls Chase Boys".

The music video has so many things I love:  Boys in lipstick.  Synchronized dancing.  And 80s throwbacks.  The video is an almost shot for shot homage to the 1988 Robert Palmer classic, "Simply Irresistible" -- but instead of hot ladies, Ingrid gives us the wonderful androgyny of the sexes:  boys and girls, in pink & black leotards and red lipstick and - I assume - heels, dancing together in unison.

Could you just die? I'm enamored.  Do yourself a favor and watch these videos side-by-side (be sure to mute the Palmer one) -- very interesting to compare them.  Moreover, it's delightful to see how impactful the video is now that it's not showing beautiful women just to show them.  Who doesn't love a guy who can full off a full red lip?

Artist:  Ingrid Michaelson
Song:  "Girls Chase Boys" download | stream
Record:  Lights Out
Directed By:  Andrew Elvis Miller

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Food & Lib: Hopscotch Tavern

This month, my sister, Stacy, and her husband are making the big move from Orange County to the San Francisco Bay Area -- more specifically, Livermore.  This weekend was their final push to load up the last of their things and head north.  John and I made the hour drive from North Hollywood to Orange to give them a hand, and after a sweltering day of (mainly the guys) heavy-lifting, it was time for some delicious grub.

Over the past year, I've been hearing non-stop tales of the burger on the dinner menu at Hopscotch Tavern in Fullerton.  Known for their selection of craft beer and whiskey (get it?? "Hops" and "Scotch"?), it didn't surprise me that my sister and new brother-in-law had been drawn to this place.  During our visit, we were promised a meal at what she describes as one of the best joints in the O.C.

A block away from Downtown Fullerton (an unexpectedly hip and fun stretch of restaurants, tea shops, and vintage furniture & clothing stores), Hopscotch has plenty of outdoor seating for soaking up the warm summer sun.  This current heat wave, however, had us looking for a spot inside.  Guests enter in the main bar area, where there is plenty of high-top seating and a massive, full bar.  If I could call myself a whiskey fan, I would have been in libation heaven.  Alas, I have yet to grow a taste for the stuff (unlike the rest of my family). 

We arrived just around 5 PM, much earlier than when the normal dinner crowd would be there.  I was told that Hopscotch can get insanely crowded, so if you're looking to snag a [comfortable] table for more than 4 people (as we were), getting there early is your best bet.  Not a problem!  I was famished and ready to get eating!


Their cocktail and whiskey menu was very extensive, and my sister ordered a classic Old Fashioned -- our waiter (not the bartender!) even impressed us with his orange-peel-garnish-singeing abilities right at the table.  Not often you get to see the drinks garnished table-side.  For myself, however, I ordered probably the best glass-under-$10 Malbec I've ever tasted.  I even passed it around for everyone to try.  Approvals all around from the critical crowd.  Without a doubt, I will be ordering a few bottles to serve at home for my next dinner party.

John spotted a plethora of mouth-watering options on the "Smalls" appetizer menu and insisted we try the Blue Crab Tots (pictured, above-left; $9) before tackling our burgers.  These are a meal in and of themselves!  The tater tot mixture doesn't skimp on the blue crab, which was flaky and moist on the inside, and the large portion comes with a flavorful cilantro chimichurri and spicy aioli for dipping.  Highly recommend these -- they would be particularly satisfying when just having drinks.  An full plate for the table will help quell anyone's munchies.

Finally, the moment I'd been waiting for.  THE BURGER.  Specifically, the Bradley Burger (pictured, above-right; $13).  But warning:  This bad-boy is only served on the dinner menu, available after 4 PM.  If you want the burger, be sure to go at the right time.

And man, is this mutha juicy!  Our entire table (6 people) ordered the burger.  The bun was soft and fluffy.  The pork belly was thick and flavorful, and how can you not love a huge portion of pork belly on anything?  Some unique flavors popped up, as well, and it took me some time to figure out what it was.  The burger includes Hopscotch's house-made pickles, which tend to have entire peppercorns.  I wasn't a huge fan of the peppercorns being ON the burger, so I quickly shook them off the pickle and proceeded to devour the rest of my plate.  The hand-cut fries were perfect, as well, and came with a house-made ketchup.

Fullerton is a ways away from Los Angeles, and not a place I had previously considered a "must visit" location.  But after seeing Hopscotch and the surrounding area, I know I will have to come back for a full day excursion.  There is just too much to see, and many of the adorable little shops close at or before 6 PM (so quaint!).  But Hopscotch is definitely a "must" on any visit to Downtown Fullerton -- especially if you're a burger and/or whiskey fan.  Oh.  And they also have a Cigar Patio.  For those so inclined. 

Have any of you been to Fullerton?  If so, where are some places I should hit up on my next visit?

Neighborhood:  Downtown Fullerton (Orange County)
Food:  Yes | dinner menu
Full Bar:  Yes | whiskey | beer | cocktails | wine

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Pop Art Pop Up: "Viva Hate" by Jeffrey Everett

"Viva Hate", inspired by Let the Right One In | via

I recently found the above print from the "Required Reading" show at Gallery 1988 (they have a 'West' and 'East' location on Melrose), which ran back in December.  The show focused on art inspired by famous novels -- this one is a great take on a scene from John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let The Right One In, entitled "Viva Hate."  I absolutely adore it.  Notice the blood?  And curious young Oskar?  Beautiful.  

I love Gallery 1988's spaces, and the shows they put on always feature the best in the world of pop culture-centric art.  Their annual Crazy 4 Cult shows are my personal favorite.  The original works on display tend to be significantly out of my price range -- but they are always selling cheaper, limited edition prints from their back room.  I have several from previous exhibits, and just yesterday, I bought "Viva Hate" for my gallery wall at home.

Hopefully you'll enjoy this lovely piece by Jeffrey Everett (co-founder of artistic duo Rockets Are Red) as much as I have, and if you feel so inclined, he has other art for sale here.  I'm doing everything in my power to keep from buying this one, too.  Only time will tell if I can manage that.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Just nail it in.

My living room gallery wall

I have had an obsession with filling my walls with art, floor to ceiling, door to window to door, since I was a little kid.  My childhood bedroom was wallpapered with a rotating array of photoshoot cutouts, movie posters, and magazine covers, all featuring my favorite things.  Mostly Angelina Jolie.  And David Duchovny.

Now I'm 28, and nothing has changed.  Maybe it was an aversion to bare white walls, which always made the room feels like a prison cell.  Artwork was the #1 thing that mattered in my living space, and even before I move my bed into a new apartment, I start hammering in nails.

Over the years, I've managed to filter out all of the excess movie posters and cutouts and have, in turn, collected a lot of amazing pieces.  Some pop art, some original works from close friends (like the construction paper rendering of me with my kitties from my friend Heather, an amazing illustrator); even calligraphy by my own hand.  All things that mean the world to me.

This past move in June, however, my sister, Stacy, advised me to take it slow.  Don't rush it.  Don't put it all up at once.  Give it time, and the right pieces would find their home on the walls.

So that's what I did.  I took my time, and added one picture, at random, on the wall above my couch, every day.  A spot check here and there, but I didn't plan it (a totally foreign concept for me!)  At the end of two weeks, it was finished.  And I think it worked out pretty well!

And of course, now I'm itching to add more (and wrap it around every room of my apartment!)  What do you guys like having on your walls?  Personal photos?  Art and posters?  Or do you like to keep them clean and bare?  I'd love to know!

That good ol' Netflix binge


For the first time in almost 5 years, I have re-activated by Netflix DVD membership.  It's not just streaming anymore, even though that's what I use 98% of the time.  I didn't realize how much I missed having a DVD in my hands;  putting the disc in the player (which has transformed into the boyfriend's Xbox One), and pressing play.  No buffering!

The reason for this change is in part because of the weekly AFI movie screenings -- not having access (through friends, my own collection, or streaming) to 50 out of 100 titles will prompt a girl to fork over that extra $7.99/month.  Alright.  $9.99/month, because I want Blu-Rays, duh.  And the nearest Los Angeles Public Library branch is like... way over there.  

Getting that red and white packaged disc in the mail the other day got me thinking.  A lot of memories, all pretty silly and linked to that nostalgic pang in the gut.  I've been a Netflix member since 2003, as a high school junior, and those little red packages quite literally got me through my college film program at Chapman.  I devoured movies and TV like it was my job, because essentially, it was!  When "binge-watching" meant plowing through three discs at a time, and then waiting patiently two whole days for the next batch of "House" Season 1 episodes (or, god forbid, driving all the way to Hollywood Video) ... a lot has changed since then.  My recent binge of "Orange Is the New Black," part of Netflix' brilliant original programming, is evidence of that.

So what do you guys remember binge-watching back in the day, or as we used to call it, "marathoning"?  Or did the advent of streaming kick-start that in you?  Or are you in a significant minority that has no idea what I'm even talking about?

For me, it was "The West Wing," "The X-Files," and of course "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (check out the re-vamped listing of my top 10 "Buffy" episodes here).  Whether on DVD, or recorded VHS tape -- I was an expert Pause-to-Remove Commercials Recorder -- I've been a pro marathoner since the '90s.  It might be my favorite past-time. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

AFI Top 100: #99 "Toy Story"

Woody & Buzz Lightyear, Toy Story (1995)

As weekly movie nights continue at the Johnstone/Grande household, we were joined by a handful of friends for our second AFI Top 100 screening.  This week?  #99 Toy Story.  It was a bit of a relief to present something that wasn't such a time suck, and at 81 minutes, Toy Story offered one of the most delightful at-home movie viewing experiences I've had in years.  

This now infamous Pixar creation - and the first fully computer-animated, feature length motion picture - tells the story of a cowboy doll named Woody as he struggles to maintain his position as "top toy" in his owner, Andy's, bedroom.  This once unchallenged title is threatened when Andy receives spaceman action figure, Buzz Lightyear, for his birthday.  Woody attempts semi-graciously to reason with this new toy:  Hey buddy, I know you're new here, but, just so you know...  Only to discover that not only does Buzz not care, he doesn't even realize he's a toy!  A back-and-forth begins as Woody's jealousy and anger builds, and he begins to lose everything he once held dear.

We're all familiar with this story.  It was such a part of my childhood, and my friends', I don't remember a world where Tom Hanks wasn't Woody and Tim Allen wasn't Buzz Lightyear.  These characters are iconic.  No less so now than they were 20 years ago.  The script is finite brilliance, each beat perfectly timed and each line hitting its mark. Joss Whedon has subtle influence here, having written an early draft and punched up certain lines -- everyone in attendance Sunday night had a world of fun randomly shouting out "That - that right there - that was totally Joss," like we even had any idea.  But Whedonverse fans just know, don't we?

Toy Story has this strange impact on me, and during this viewing (easily my 20th), I tried to figure out what that impact stems from.  Nostalgia, certainly.  That idea that we all had our "Woody" or "Buzz" somewhere in our own bedrooms growing up (all my other toys were jelly of my P.J. Sparkles doll).  Beyond that, the movie is just really intelligent.  It expects us to be intelligent.  It's witty and quick and doesn't beat around the bush.  It's one of the things that makes it a perfect movie.  Characters that, by their definition, should be lifeless, are in fact multi-faceted and complicated.  Certainly full of faults.  Even our two (sometimes one) dimensional human characters are wondrous.  Not because we get to know them but because of how the toys feel about them. 

While looking for pictures to feature in this review, I ran across this image.  And I welled up in a teary-blob, followed by spontaneous giggling at my own foolishness.  My office-mate even asked to make sure I was okay.  I simply said, "Nothing wrong, I just looked at this."  He totally got it. 

That's what it does.  Disney's Pixar created something special and it can't be denied.  It may not be their most impressive venture, but it's certainly their most groundbreaking.

Who knows?  Maybe the magic of Toy Story wouldn't be as alive and well today had it not spawned two brilliant sequels -- and one of the most emotional and satisfying trilogy endings in movie history (no hyperbole).  But the original is where it all began, and I predict it will rise significantly on the AFI Top 100 list in subsequent editions.  

What do you guys think?  Do you think it deserves a bump?  Or are you over it (i.e. dead inside)?  Let me know your thoughts!

Rating:  ★★★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews]

Check back next week for my review of Yankee Doodle Dandy at #98!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Music Mondays: Meghan Trainor "All About That Bass"

When your friends bombard you suddenly and out of nowhere on social media with links to a "must watch" video, you sort of have to click on it.  And this song was a suggestion from multiple friends and my sister, in response to my last few tragedy-filled, albeit addictive, 'Music Monday' selections.

The cure for the blues is "All About That Bass" by Meghan Trainor.  A body image boost for summer is exactly what the doctor ordered, and it doesn't hurt that Vine superstar, Sione Maraschino, can be seen shaking his 'booty-booty' all up and around in this video.  The beat!  The hook!  The pastels!  Play this at your desk at work today, and the entire office will be infected by that bass - no treble!

Artist:  Meghan Trainor
Song:  "All About That Bass" download | stream
Record:  n/a
Directed By:  Fatima Robinson

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Food & Lib: The Local Peasant

Basil Pepper Martini // The Local Peasant

On a busy stretch of Ventura Blvd. in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood, there is - hidden away behind an unfortunately placed bus stop - a pub by the name of The Local Peasant.  Easy to miss due to its lack of visible signage, its large, wall-size open air windows give passersby a glimpse of the lively crowd inside.  I've frequented this fair establishment a handful of times over the past few years, and its become one of my favorite places to celebrate events with friends (birthdays, Bachelorette brunches, reunions with high school friends, etc.)  Or even a good place to mingle and meet new people - maybe even spot a celebrity or two having a low-key Sunday brunch away from the Hollywood crowds.

Last night, the event happened to be for the birthday of my dear friend, Heather.  What better time to take a look at the food and libations that have become staples for me during each of my visits?

Now, before I get into my favorite menu items, I must say first:  The Local Peasant is one of the only brunch locations in the San Fernando Valley that serves alcohol brunches.  In fact, they have an immensely popular Bloody Mary bar, and fantastic Red Sangria.  Highly recommend.

Now, for some evening fare.  My drink of choice is the Basil Pepper Martini ($10) (above-pictured).  Featured on their "Post-Prohibition Cocktail" list, this vodka-based martini is light and delicious, and the only drink I've ever had garnished with a crunchy yellow (or orange) bell pepper slice.  Basil is a common garnish, but no less effective in making this martini almost too easy to drink.  Pair with a few of their appetizers, and you'll be in for a very satisfying night.


Speaking of apps, or as the Local P's menu calls them, "Bar Snacks"... by far the most enjoyable snack option is the decadent Cheddar Cheese and Bacon-covered Pretzel ($7) (above-pictured, left).  Do yourself a favor:  Stop reading this blog, and drive over to Sherman Oaks right now.  I'll wait.  Order this pretzel, and be sure to ask for the side of White Chocolate Peanut Butter dipping sauce.  Believe me, you won't regret it.  You'll even probably get a "Oh yeah, eating it right!" from the waiter (as the wait staff will likely give this recommendation if you don't choose it yourself). 

The saltiness of the pretzel mixed with the salty-sweet creaminess of the sauce... it's just downright sinful.  And this is no shy portion!  The pretzel is easily the size of a normal person's face, and can absolutely be shared between two or more people.  Just be aware, you might fight a little over who gets the last bite.  Oh and that poor standard grain mustard that accompanies the order? ... yummy as you may have been on your own, you just can't compete.

After that pretzel, you will probably be satisfied enough to end your food exploration right there.  But if you're not, there is always a way to feed that salty bacon habit by trying the Bacon & Eggs ($7), the Local P's take on deviled eggs (above-pictured, right).  Topped with a tangy, almost spicy smoked bacon, these eggs are creamy and gone way too quickly.  The only downside is that, with four to a plate, you'd have to place a few more orders to really appease the whole table.  But they're worth it, and one of the better deviled egg options I've discovered in the Valley.

Their "Main Grub" is not to be missed, if you are also partaking in lunch or dinner.  The burgers are top-notch, but it's certainly worth foregoing beef for a taste of their Crispy Chicken Sandwich, newly added to the menu (not pictured).

The Local P has a second location in the Woodland Hills neighborhood, which I have yet to try.  I can't imagine the food & lib is any less to-die-for over there, though considering Sherman Oaks' proximity to other entertainment and bustling neighborhoods, this locale is probably your best bet for a good night out.  Smaller, more intimate tables in the front section, and a back room with a projector screening movies or events with long wooden tables to fit all your friends.

Neighborhood:  Sherman Oaks
Food:  Yes | menu
Full Bar:  Yes | menu

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

AFI TOP 100: #100 "Ben-Hur"

Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur (1959)

This past Sunday kicked off the weekly viewing of the AFI Top 100 Movies of All Time contenders.  Beginning at the tail-end of the list, and working our way to #1.  

Kicking off this list at #100 is Ben-Hur (1959), starring Charlton Heston and directed by William Wyler.  This film, which won the Oscar for Best Picture that year, begins in 26 A.D. and tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur (a.k.a. Judah, Son of Hur), a young and wealthy Jewish prince and merchant living in Jerusalem, as he witnesses the steady Roman takeover of the city.  His dedication to his people and stance against Rome is tested when his childhood friend, Messala, comes back into his life.  Messala is now a tribune of Rome, influenced by the surrounding power of the State.  Despite his evident love for his old friend, his priorities are clear:  recruit Judah to the Roman cause and convince him to betray his Jewish brethren.

Spoiler Alert:  He refuses.  This refusal contributes to Judah, as well as his mother and sister, being unjustly arrested and tried for treason.  Not knowing what becomes of his family, Judah finds himself slaving away in the galleys of a Roman ship for more than three years -- with the prospect of one day seeking vengeance  the only thing keeping him alive. 

There is a B-story here that could almost be considered the main storyline.  Throughout Judah's journey and eventual freedom, there is a not-so-subtle littering of the life of Jesus Christ just on the periphery.  The revenge and hate that seeps through Judah Ben-Hur's veins is counter-balanced by the teachings of forgiveness that the people he encounters along the way are beginning to incorporate into their faith.  This parallel all culminates to a climax that, quite literally, washes all the characters of the sins of their past.

This is a film I saw many times growing up, and there are features I remembered distinctly:  the stunning beauty of the art direction (matte paintings galore!), being irrefutably scarred by the Valley of the Lepers, and of course, the epic enormity of the famous chariot race.

But one thing I didn't remember was just how religious the film was.  Pretty absurd, right?  Considering the movie is a remake of the 1925 film, Ben-Hur:  A Tale of the Christ.  Somehow, though, in my young state, the Christian under- and over-tones completely escaped me.  For my father, the Methodist minister and movie-lover, classic film-making history trumped religion every time.  

And so, as a result, I followed suit.  Re-watching the movie now, as an agnostic adult, I'm shocked at what went over my head as a child;  what didn't quite sink in.  The visual references aside, there are many instances where Judah and his family are affected by the religious change around them.  The storyline incorporates these details really beautifully, and it can't be denied that the "birth of Christianity" is at the core of the film. 

Stephen Boyd (Messala) and Heston
Technically speaking, this film is spectacular.  On more than one occasion, my movie night guests remarked loudly about the incredible lighting, the composition of the scenes, and the truly groundbreaking dolly shots.  Most who haven't seen Ben-Hur in its 3½ hour entirety are still aware of the climactic chariot race sequence -- yet there is so much more here to enjoy.  Wyler certainly takes his time navigating Judah's story, and at many points, it feels pretty laborious.  Yet I can excuse those pitfalls because, in some instances, dragging out a moment offered some of the best subtleties ever to grace Code Era cinema!  Rumors of writer Gore Vidal's influence on the character of Messala, and his suggestion to actor Stephen Boyd to play the role with a deep-seeded, unrequited love for Judah Ben-Hur, is a noticeably inspired undertone that immediately changes every moment of their interactions.  Given that any suggestions of homosexuality were forbidden by the Hayes Code at the time, watching Stephen Boyd's longing glances (completely unbeknownst to Heston) is a pure delight.

The American Film Institute originally listed this movie as its #72 pick for the first Top 100 Movies list in 1997, and it dropped considerably on this 10th Anniversary list.  And many believe it will likely fall off the list altogether in 2017's revised tally.... But I don't think so.  In fact, a predict a small rise.  While the religious aspects hold less sway over audiences now than they may have in the past, there is so much more to honor here.  And I'm happy to have revisited it after so many years.

Rating:  ★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews]

Check back next week when we watch Toy Story!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Music Mondays: Tove Lo "Habits (Stay High)"

Time to hit that repeat button and ignore the fact that this song is insanely tragic -- it's so dang catchy!  Songwriter-turned-singer Tove Lo, orignally from Sweden, is so hypnotic in this music video, the binge-centric theme perfectly reflects how I JUST. CAN'T. STOP. LISTENING. TO. IT.

Artist:  Tove Lo
Song:  "Habits (Stay High)"
Record:  Truth Serum EP download | stream
Directed By:  Motellet

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Tackling the AFI Top 100

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. (1924)

I've been thinking for some time now about finding a project. Something that would be consistent and challenge me to commit every week to either writing or developing some other skill.  And since it's been ages since I've written a creative or critical word, I think that it's time I give this lifelong goal a whirl...

Weekly viewings of the AFI TOP 100 Movies, beginning with #100 and working down to #1.

This potentially two year endeavor will be a challenge.  My tendency to fall of the face of the internet-world is legendary at this point, but I don't care.  For as long as I can keep this going, I hope to examine all of the films on this list -- whether they are worthy of such praise, if they truly are "must sees", or if they'll even be on that updated 2017 AFI 20th Anniversary Edition list.

I've challenged all my friends to join me in checking off every movie on this list (over the past 20+ years, I've managed to watch 94/100) with weekly movie nights that will prove to be the bane of everyone's existence, I'm sure.

What I find so compelling about the AFI list is just how fallible it is -- how flexible its evolution, and how debatable its rankings.  It's this that I look forward to discussing in what will hopefully become a weekly review of each film as we tick our way to the "best" movie of all time.

Follow along with my soon-to-be updated list here!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Music Mondays: Sia "Chandelier"

I mean have you ever? The unparalleled talent that is Sia released her first single for her album, 1000 Forms of Fear, titled "Chandelier", two months ago. I saw the video and was astounded by the sprite of a dancer flailing about the set of The Raid (j/k, but seriously, tetanus! yikes!)

The tragedy in the song is intoxicating, and to celebrate the release of 1000 Forms of Fear tomorrow, I want to celebrate the very first Music Monday by taking a manic swing on a chandelier. Watch above and enjoy.

Artist: Sia
Song: "Chandelier" | download | stream
Record: 1000 Forms of Fear
Directed By: Sia and Daniel Askill
Featuring:  Maddie Ziegler ("Dance Moms")
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