Archive for November, 2014

A Writer’s Review of Julie & Julia

Julie_and_julia poster

Release Date: August 7, 2009

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Starring: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, and Chris Messina.

Written by: Nora Ephron. Based on a work(s) by Julie Powell, Julia Child, and Alex Prud’homme.

Directed by: Nora Ephron

(Spoiler Level: Low.)

Greeting, hacks and scribblers. At long last (and with no valid reason to procrastinate further) here’s the first in what promises to be a very long-running series of my reviews on movies about writers. Before we dive in, perhaps you would like to take a peek at the Introduction to this series by clicking HERE. If you’ve already read the intro feel free to hang here with me while the newcomers travel back in time to see what this is all about. And while we wait we’ll sip some tea and talk about other things. That’s a lovely sweater jacket—J.C. Penney?

sweater jacket

Ah, I see everyone is now back and more or less accounted for (although it’s safe to say there’s little or no accounting for some of you).

Ahem.

Reviewing movies about writers. The idea was prompted, sort of, by Julie & Julia, the film version of what happened when Julie Powell decided to document her attempt to cook every one of the 524 recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child in one year. She damn well does it and the blog went viral. Nora Ephron (screenwriter and director) clearly knew a good stew when she smelled it.

The Whiz-Bang Synopsis:

A culinary legend provides a frustrated office worker with a new recipe for life in Julie & Julia, the true stories of how Julia Child’s (Meryl Streep) life and cookbook inspired fledgling writer Julie Powell (Amy Adams) to whip up 524 recipes in 365 days and introduce a new generation to the magic of French cooking. Stanley Tucci co-stars in director Nora Ephron’s delicious comedy about joy, obsession and butter. Bon appétit!

My Take on Things (or why this movie made the cut):

Julie & Julia practically screamed to be the first entry in SoC (“Scribblers on Celluloid,” duh). The primary audience for Mott’s Ruminations (all three of you) is likely made up of fictioneers; scribblers and hacks who would not read a memoir if their lives depended on it. But in the end, J & J may well turn out to be the movie with more to say about writing than any of the gazillion flicks to follow.

The movie is based on two books, Child’s My Life in France, and Powell’s blog-turned-book Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously. There is of course another book that may be considered the third star of the movie: Julia Child’s first book, the essential cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking. So we have a film based not on one book, but three. That of course does not supply the requisite ingredients for a SoC entry. But the movie chronicles the actual writing of two of the three books. (My Life in France came later and is the basis for what we actually see Julia Child doing in the film, part of which is the writing of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.)

Entertainment Quotient:

It would be easy to simply say that I friggin’ loved this movie. Because I did. There is much to love here and little to disdain (even for the most jaded critic). Even the notoriously tough critics at Rotten Tomatoes averaged this film at 70% positive, labeling the movie as “Fresh” (as opposed to “Certified Fresh”, which requires a positive rating of 75% or better. Thought I should clear that up).

It’s been said often but I’ll go ahead and say it again: Meryl Streep is brilliant. She can do anything. Period. I won’t belabor this, but any film she stars in almost demands two viewings: one to sit in awe of how completely she owns whatever character she is playing; a second to actually follow the story line once you’ve stopped shaking your head at how the hottie who sang and danced in Mamma Mia!, then played Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, could so mesmerize us as the embodiment of the galumphing, high-spirited Julia Child. Just…wow, okay?

Stanley Tucci as husband Paul Child is as charming as charming gets. The chemistry between Tucci and Streep makes the onscreen couple a pure delight to watch. We want to be them. We want a Julia, we want a Paul, we want what they have.

And Amy Adams? This generation’s Meg Ryan, plain and simple. I love her. She’s on my list (if you’re a fan of the show Friends you know all about The List). Nuff said.

The movie jumps artfully back and forth through time, showing us Julia Child’s search for “something to do” in 1950s Paris through her neophytic attempts at cooking, then hopping forward to the early 2000s where Julie Powell is also in search of something to do that will define her in a way her call center job does not. And whether it’s Child’s Paris or Powell’s Queens, we want to be there. Nora Ephron knows her stuff and knows how to enchant the viewer with even the most common of locales (I could so live in Powell’s dingy and cramped apartment). Add to this a rare lighthearted and lilting score by Alexandre Desplat (one of my favorite composers incidentally) who typically elicits a darker sort of melancholy, and there’s really nothing to despise.

I’m an easy touch for this type of movie (I don’t believe there’s such a thing as chick-flicks, only insecure males) and this film touched me in all the right places. Delightful.

The Writerly Element:

There is much here to glean for the writer. At its heart, this movie is about both Julie and Julia trying to find themselves through creating something.

Julia Child fell in love with French cooking, the decadence and buttery artistry of it all. She was smitten and when it came time to ask herself, “Who am I? What can I do that is truly mine?” she looked to her passion: Food. She wouldn’t take no for an answer when the dominatrix headmistress of Le Cordon Bleu told her she had no talent as a cook. Rejection after rejection. We’ve all tasted it and, if we are any shakes at creating anything at all, we shrug it off. It is the only answer to rejection: Screw you, I’m going to do it anyway. Child did not give up, and before long her passion for cooking morphed into a passion for helping other American housewives accomplish the same. Kismet being what it is, she gets involved with a couple collaborators already working on a cook book. For me this is not so much chance as it is the natural culmination of pursuing your goal. To wit: do the thing you love, do it with great gusto, and the Universe will place people and circumstances into your path (or you into theirs) to help realize your goal.

The crushing self-doubt we writers face is evident here as well. The film bounces back and forth between Child (“I’m not a real cook”) and Powell (“I’m not a real writer”). Both are challenged by well- or ill-meaning friends and family with the question: “Why are you doing this?” Powell struggles at the onset with the soul-destroying cry of all beginning writers: “You’re not a writer unless someone publishes you.” (This happens to be untrue, by the by, but it is engrained in our DNA to believe we are only writers if someone buys our work.) We learn that Powell has written half a novel before giving up (haven’t we all?). But even this does not stop Powell, because she knows in her heart that what she really wants to do is communicate, which is what writing is. She tells her husband, “That’s what’s great about blogs, you don’t have to be published, you just go online press enter and there it is.” There is a delicious moment of recognition for me when Powell expresses her joy (and not a little amazement) that her blog has begun receiving comments from people she doesn’t know. I remember clearly the first time a book of mine received a glowing (hell, it was gushing) review by someone I did not know and from whom I had not solicited the review. I wept the first time I read that review, because I knew I had connected with someone in a powerful way.

We’ve all had dreams of winning the lottery (whatever that might mean for you) and exactly how we would feel and react when we saw our numbers come up. That moment is depicted with aching clarity when Julie Powell comes home to a glut of voice mails from editors, agents, and sundry publishing types wanting to represent/publish/interview her. For a struggling writer (Hi, I’m Mott and I’m a struggling writer) this is the kind of scene you rewind and watch over and over again. Because we see it as truth—sure, it’s a shiny, brass-ring kind of truth, but something in us believes it, and we want to applaud for her even while a deeper part of us kind of hates her for it. A similar thing happens when Julia Child’s mammoth cook book is repeatedly struck down (I just love it when Tucci’s character says, “Fuck them.” Now that’s support.) before she finally opens the mail and finds…The Letter. That mythical letter promising money in exchange for our written words. I dare you not to smile along with Child in that moment. And I defy any struggling writer to not rejoice out loud when Julia receives her hardbound copy of the book in the mail and practically explodes with excitement.

In the end, this movie is about passion, and following that passion; finding the thing you love and doing it no matter what. At one point, Julie Powell says, “Julia saved me.” As metaphor for the muse (or that unnameable passion that drives us to write in the hopes that someone somewhere will want to read our words), it doesn’t get any plainer than that.

Why Bother:

Call this section the takeaway section. Why, in a nutshell, I think this is an important movie for writers—better yet, why it was important to me. Why bother to watch Julie & Julia? Because I tend to question myself, damning myself for a hack and wondering if it’s worth the effort. Both Julie Powell and Julia Child helped me see the folly in that. It’s clear from the beginning of this film that Julia Child is all about fearlessness. Speaking to her television audience as she cooks, she says, “Never apologize. No excuses, no explanations.” I may just print that out and frame it above my desk.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 Quills.

Final Thoughts:

I will let Julia Child’s character take the mic on this one, because in the end, this is the heart of the writer in all its childlike glory:

“I just want to savor this moment, the moment when anything is possible…you can just imagine they’re going to love everything you did and it’s going to sell a million copies…and it will change the world.”

We’re getting closer, folks. Clearly I have been lax in getting started on the never-ending blog series “Scribblers on Celluloid.” Well heck, I’ve been busy, okay?

the-dangers-of-procrastination

If you’re wondering (all three of you) exactly what the deuce I’m babbling about, take a peek HERE for the details and come right back (that’s right, just click on the word HERE…or even THERE).

Okay, everyone back? So then.

It has been suggested that (while I procrastinate further) I supply a list of the proposed movies up for review. It’s a long list, and I’m not sure what will be gained by it, but here it is. Keep in mind that many of these may not make the final cut.

500 Days of Summer; 7 Psychopaths; 8-1/2; 84 Charing Cross Road; 20,000 Days on Earth; A Closed Book; A Face in the Crowd; A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints; A Man for All Seasons; A Mighty Heart; A Murder of Crows; A Pure Formality; A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries; Ace in the Hole; Adaptation; Adult World; Alex & Emma; Almost Famous; American Splendor; An Angel at My Table; Angel; Anonymous; Another Woman; As Good as it Gets; Ask the Dust; Atonement; Author, Author; Bamboozled; Barfly; Barton Fink; Basic Instinct; Beautiful Dreamers; Beautiful Kate; Becoming Jane; Before Midnight; Before Night Falls; Before Sunset; Being Flynn; Bestseller; Blue Car; Bright Star; Broken Embraces; Burn After Reading; Call Northside 777; Capote; Carrington; Cartas a Elena; Castle of Blood; Certified Copy; Children of the Century; Chinese Coffee; Claire’s Knee; Closet Land; Cloud Atlas; Cole; Contempt; Crime Wave; Croupier; Da; Deathtrap; Deconstructing Harry; Delta of Venus; Diary of a Wimpy Kid; Eternity and a Day; Factotum; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; Fellini’s Casanova; Finding Forrester; Freedom Writers; Funny People; Gentlemen Broncos; Good; Halflight; Hamsun; Hannah and Her Sisters; Heart Beat; Hed Wynn; Hemingway and Gellhorn; Henry & June; Henry Fool; Her Alibi; His Wife’s Diary; House by the River; How to Kill your Neighbor’s Dog; Howl; Hunger; Hysterical; I Capture the Castle; I Remember Mama; Il Postino; Impromptu; In a Lonely Place; In the Land of Women; Infamous; Isn’t She Great; Iris; Joe Gould’s Secret; Julia; Just One of the Guys; Kill Your Darlings; La Discrete; La Dolce Vita; Leave Her to Heaven; Leaving Las Vegas; Limitless; Listen Up Philip; Love and Other Disasters; Love Streams; Manhattan; Martian Child; Me and Orson Welles; Midnight in Paris; Miss Potter; Missing; Moliere; Moulin Rouge; Mother; Motherhood; Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont; Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle; Murder of Crows; My Brilliant Career; My Favorite Year; My Left Foot; Naked Lunch; Nim’s Island; Nine; No Place to Go; Nora; Notre Musique; Numb; On the Road; One Day; One True Thing; Orange County; Orpheus; Pandemonium; Paperback Romance; Peep World; Permanent Midnight; Pinero; Poetic Justice; Possession; Priest of Love; Prick up Your Ears; Providence; Purple Violets; Quills; Raven’s End; Reds; Reprise; Resurrecting the Champ; Rich and Famous; Riding in Cars with Boys; Roman de Gare; Rowing with the Wind; Ruby Sparks; Russian Dolls; Salinger: American Masters – The Life of the Writer; Satansbraten; Scoop; Secret Window; Sex and Lucia; Shadowlands; Shadows in the Sun; Shakespeare in Love; Shattered Glass; Sideways; Sinister; Slam; Sleuth; Slipstream; Snow Falling on Cedars; Somewhere in Time; Something’s Gotta Give; Sophie’s Choice; Starting Out in the Evening; State of Play; Storytelling; Stranger than Fiction; Stuck in Love; Sunset Boulevard; Swimming Pool; Sylvia; Teacher’s Pet; Tetro; The Accidental Tourist; The Adventures of Mark Twain; The Answer Man; The Basketball Diaries; The Best Bar in America; The Best Man; The Bird with the Crystal Plumage; The Boys are Back; The City of Your Final Destination; The Dark Half; The Diary of Anne Frank; The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; The Door in the Floor; The Dying Gaul; The Edge of Love; The End of the Affair; The Flower of My Secret; The Front; The Front Page; The Ghost Writer; The Great Beauty; The Help; The Hoax; The Hotel New Hampshire; The Hours; The Last Station; The Libertine; The Lost Weekend; The Mask of Dimitrios; The Master; The Motorcycle Diaries; The Muse; The Night Listener; The Ninth Gate; The Paper; The Paperboy; The Passion of Ayn Rand; The Perks of Being a Wallflower; The Pillow Book; The Philadelphia Story; The Player; The Prize Winner; The Pumpkin Eater; The Raven; The Reader; The Rum Diary; The Royal Tenenbaums; The Singing Detective; The Shipping News; The Soloist; The Squid and the Whale; The Stoning of Soraya M; The Third Man; The Tiger and the Snow; The TV Set; The Vanished Elephant; The Whole Wide World; The Words; The World According to Garp; The Wrong Move; The Year of Living Dangerously; Through a Glass Darkly; Tom & Viv; Topsy-Turvy; Total Eclipse; True Crime; Twixt; Veronica Guerin; Vincent, Francois, Paul and the Others; Waiting for the Moon; Welcome to Sarajevo; White Lie; Wilde; Winter Passing; With a Friend Like Harry; Whisper of the Heart; Wonder Boys; World’s Greatest Dad; Young Adult; Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key; Zodiac; Zorba the Greek.

You still with me? Makes your eyes cross a bit, doesn’t it?

So there it is. In all its very long glory. I’d bet a nickel there are at least a few on this list you’ve never heard of. There are more than a few for me, and that’s what excites me. I am looking forward to watching these, certainly with a writer’s eye, but also for the pure discovery. I truly hope this is fun for all of us.

There are a few titles I did not include. These are the more obvious ones: The Shining, Misery, etc. Those missing few are movies I’ve seen many times and I don’t want to let myself off so easy. I may well return to them if I survive the list above. We’ll see.

Incidentally, if you’ve seen any of these please do not feel compelled to add commentary about the films. Seriously—don’t do it. As I said, they may not all make the cut, and if they do the films you saw may not find their way into this blog for two years or more.

That’s it for now. I can’t think of any more less creative ways to put this thing off, so I hope to have the first movie, Julie & Julia, viewed and reviewed in the next week…or so.

Now off with you, I have other things to avoid doing.

So I had this wacky idea that an ongoing movie review would be just the thing to revitalize Mott’s Ruminations.

“Hang on there, Sparky,” I hear you saying. “Mott’s Ruminations is not a movie blog, it is a writing blog.”

Indeed. But here’s the thing: It has not been any kind of blog lately and it’s high time that lapse was remedied. And my way around the Movies versus Writing issue is that I will be reviewing movies about writers, or writing, or books or whatever. (Also, it’s my blog and I can do whatever the heck I want, so there.)

kid sticking out tongue

I’ve gone on an exhaustive hunt for these writerly movies, the only criteria being that it has to say something about writers, or the writing life, or maybe just the redemptive power of books or writing in general. As Stephen King said in his wonderful book On Writing: “Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.” I believe this. I might add to that (forgive me, Mr. King) by saying that writing can also be a way through life, a sort of beacon of sanity we carry with us or before us or wherever it is beacons generally do their best work.

cloaked dude

Through recommendations (thank you, Facebook Folk) and Google, Wiki, IMDb, etc., I have gleaned nearly 300 movie titles (jump to THE LIST) that someone at some point felt worthy to be added to a list of movies about writers. (Incidentally, if you are searching for a list of anything, Pinterest will seem like a godsend at first, but be ye warned: you will get lost therein. A winking Siren will beckon from a sidebar and it will be days or weeks before your loved ones smell a funny odor issuing from under your office door and enter to find your moldering corpse craned over your keyboard, some barely-lingering electrical impulse causing your finger to still tap-tap-tap at the mouse as your milky-dead eyes stare unseeing at a never-ending stream of pictures of food. I’m just sayin.)

So then, the plan is this: I’ll watch one movie per week (unless I get stuck on Pinterest) and blog my thoughts on that movie. My rating will be in quills (see what I did there?), with each movie receiving 1 to 5 quills, 5 of course being best. I will judge each movie (with a bit of commentary) based on three elements:

1) Overall quality and entertainment quotient of the movie. This will include how I felt about the acting, pacing, cinematography, etc. Basically if it was enjoyable. (A note on this: I am extremely easy on movies in general. I don’t go into a viewing expecting to hate it—if I had that mindset I wouldn’t watch it in the first place. If it entertains me on some level I’ll probably review it kindly. If it doesn’t I will stop watching and it won’t make the cut for the blog.)

2) How I feel the movie treated writers and/or the writing profession.

3) My takeaway; i.e., what I feel the movie reveals about the writing condition and what I learned from the movie (if anything) as a writer.

Any or all of the above categories may change at any time, but that’s the planned format.

A Guideline or Two: Now, this hardly seems something that should need to be addressed, but I’d like you take a quick peek at the three categories above. Notice the use of the words “I”, “felt”, and “feel”. They all point back to me, which means everything in the forthcoming blog series will be my opinion. Wait, I can do that better. Ahem. Everything in the forthcoming blog series will be MY OWN FRACKING OPINION! Why oh why do I feel compelled to point this out? Because I am constantly astonished at how simply expressing an opinion can bring out the meanness in people. “Hey, I loved so-and-so in that such-and-such movie.” “You liked that? You must be a frickin idiot, that movie was trash and I can’t believe you made it through the first ten minutes.” “Well gee, thanks, I feel better now that you’ve belittled something I had a great time with.” See what I’m getting at here? My opinion is just that: My Opinion. Just as yours is yours. Calling someone’s taste into question on anything is (in my fracking opinion) no different than calling someone an idiot because they like pickles and you don’t. In the area of critiquing art—be it movies, books, what have you—slamming someone because they like something is the height of arrogance. It basically says “I’m smarter than you and my opinions matter more.” You’re not and they don’t. I mention all this because I want to make it very clear what I AM NOT interested in, and that’s dissenting opinions. This blog series is not a debate; it is not a sounding board for you (any of you, gosh darn it) to show off your knowledge of any of the areas on which I will be judging these films. If I say someone gave a fine performance I really do not want you to give me seven erudite reasons why that particular actor sucks. I’m serious about this. It so happens I do know a thing or two about acting and directing, and a good deal more about writing, but none of that matters, because I am not trying to teach you or sell you anything. This blog is first and foremost for me; an attempt to keep my fingers limber and ruminate (ah yes) on the writer’s life. I welcome your comments but keep them civil; otherwise, I will disable comments. Sound a little petulant? As Flip Wilson would’ve said: You bet your bippy it’s petulant.

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I want this to be fun, for me, for you, for us all. Be nice. Please. Okay? Okay. Enough of that.

One movie per week. I really will try to do this. If you’ve done the math, you’ve noticed that at one per week I have well over five years of material here. I’ve numbered them all, will throw them into a random number generator and let the fates decide what comes next. Each will be vetted as they come up and may well get tossed if they seem a bit too out on the periphery of writing. Even if a good deal of these get tossed I will be at this a while. I’ll try to keep it interesting and I’d be delighted if you would share it far and wide. Blogs rarely go viral and I don’t expect this one to. But that Julie chick did it with her blog about Julia Child. Which, come to think of it, is sort of what inspired this idea; an idea for a blog that has nearly unending subject matter sitting out there for the taking. So, as a nod to Julie Powell and her considerable achievement, Julie and Julia will be the first movie. Thereafter it will be random. And what a random and glorious assortment of flicks it is. From foreign to domestic, current all the way back to the ‘40s.

Oh, and in case you were wondering: Why “Scribblers on Celluloid”? Because it amused me. Scribblers indicates something done with a pen or pencil, both pretty much antiquated devices for conveying words onto paper. And who on earth uses paper anymore? Celluloid is every bit the anachronism to film as scribbler is to writing. Heck, the word film itself is nearly outdated. Celluloid went out of fashion long ago; it’s too flammable; too explosive.

Ahhh, flammable and explosive. Is there a better metaphor for gloves-free writing? I think not. I leave you with this charge: Go figuratively out into your world, to your computer or laptop, and set something on fire.

EXPLODE