Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Fall Movie Diary: The Counselor

Date: October 29, 2013
Time: 5:00 pm
Place: Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline
Company: Derrick
Food: Greek wrap with chips and salsa, peanut butter shake
Runtime:  1 hour, 57 minutes
Rating: R
Director: Ridley Scott

Quick Impressions:
When we left the theater, my husband remarked, “I think the most important thing I learned from that movie is that I’m not sure I want to see Blade Runner 2.”

Clearly Ridley Scott has reached a stage in his career where he cares less about pleasing a crowd than about exploring issues that fascinate him.  Of course, it’s not every day that you get a chance to direct a screenplay written by Cormac McCarthy.

The Counselor could have been titled Not Everyman.  (You should widen your eyes and kind of shrug as you say “every” to convey that this moral dilemma is a bit specific.)  It feels very much like a present day take on the medieval morality play, except that it’s set in a slightly askew alternate reality where everybody is extremely weird, especially Cameron Diaz. 

I’m being a bit glib, but I’m not actually joking.  Seriously, this is a morality play.  You can tell because the main character is simply called Counselor roughly one hundred percent of the time.  (But—get ready for some irony—people keep giving him advice!)  Meanwhile he crosses paths with a woman named Maleficent who keeps pet leopards, has a gold tooth and a full body predatory cat tattoo, and sends devout men of God running in the opposite direction.   Okay, her name is actually Malkina, but she’s dating some guy who’s obsessed with Greed (and butterfly shirts).  All the basic components of a morality play are there. 

The one unfortunate thing that McCarthy and the others have forgotten is that morality plays are extremely boring and nobody likes them.  (I’m just kidding.  Plenty of people love them, but I’ll bet those people don’t spend too much of their time and money at the movie theater.)

This movie is going to have a really hard time finding an audience.  The Counselor is not bad, but it doesn’t really work as a movie.  All of the best and most profound parts of the film—the stuff that you really want to take home with you—come in the form of philosophical monologues delivered by minor characters.  In my opinion, this would all work better on paper.  There’s definitely brilliance in The Counselor, but it’s ultimately not a very satisfying movie.  It really shouldn’t be a movie.  I’d be interested in reading the screenplay, and—admittedly this is just a guess—I think this work will have the most long term success as a written screenplay, as literature (especially because it was written by Cormac McCarthy).  The screenplay will probably be studied at length, but the movie may be forgotten by Thanksgiving (except that scene with Cameron Diaz and the car.  That’s going to have a very long pop culture life).

The Good:
This movie has several strong points.  One of them is cinematography.  Practically every other shot seems loaded with intense symbolic meaning.  If you wanted to rewatch this movie several times in order to write some type of visual analysis, you certainly wouldn’t be wasting your time.

I also found the costuming quite delightful—almost distracting.  And this is coming from a person who almost never notices what people are wearing.  (I select all my clothes primarily based on two things 1) Comfort and 2) What happy place/event they remind me of.)

But how can anybody fail to notice Javier Bardem’s wonderful silky butterfly blouse?  And once you notice that, it’s hard not to pay attention to his pink tinted glasses and crazy, flowing hair.  Then I noticed how different Michael Fassbender’s clothes were in the same scene, and how they reflected his personality so perfectly.  Based largely on Cameron Diaz’s look, I’m guessing that the rich visual symbolism the film is cultivating isn’t just limited to landscaping and furniture.  In this movie, what people wear matters, and it’s also very diverting for the eye.

In terms of the ideas it conveys, the screenplay is also quite good (if a trifle heavy handed and obsessed with decisions and their consequences and sinister foreshadowing/echoing callbacks.)  Unfortunately, it’s all a little too good.  (Sometimes, it seems like various cast members are self-consciously reading aloud from a short story, like they’re high schoolers performing Shakespeare or—an even more apt comparison—making a movie to get extra credit in their English class.)

Brad Pitt sort of makes this work.  His line readings and mannerisms seem very affected.  It’s like he’s some hard-boiled character in a classic film noir.  But because Brad Pitt is a cool guy who makes the “cool tough guy” character at least compelling if not natural or sincere, this artificiality looks okay on him.

Cameron Diaz has less luck.  I heard some early Best Supporting Actress buzz for her earlier this year, but after seeing the movie, I just don’t know.  (Well I do know, actually.  It will never happen because the category is too competitive this year, and the movie is not doing well.)  Diaz makes some unusual choices.  The best choice is taking this role in the first place.  The part is good.  I can see why any actress would kill to play it, especially somebody like Diaz who usually plays a more sympathetic character (or at least a less calculating one.  When Diaz misbehaves on screen, it’s usually out of laziness, emotional problems, or desperation).  This is a really good part for her, but ultimately, her performance just doesn’t work for me.

Penélope Cruz, on the other hand, is fantastic, and delivers what is easily the most natural, believable (not to mention likable) performance in the film.  She seems like she’s in the moment, naturally reacting to what’s occurring around her, whereas Diaz seems like the whole time she’s sitting there thinking in glee, “Yes!  I’m playing a huge sociopathic weirdo with an awesome part, and I’m nailing it!”

But to be fair, the contrast between the natural performance of Cruz and the affectations of Diaz may be intentional.  It is quite possible that the movie wants us to notice this.  The more a character is mired in worldly vices, the less natural and more contrived his or her behavior becomes.  In fact, given the caliber of the director and screenwriter, I’m almost certain that this distinction is deliberately made.  Probably Cameron Diaz is delivering precisely the performance Scott is asking her for.  And, admittedly, she is very captivating and memorable as the character.  Malkina is going to remain a talking point on her filmography for years, I’m sure.  To me, though, the performance (while entertaining) is not particularly Oscar worthy.  (But I suppose it’s not impossible that she could get a nomination.  Academy members don’t call me up begging for my opinion before they vote, so you never know.  (I liked her much better in Vanilla Sky, and I thought Penélope Cruz gave the superior performance in that movie, too.  Of course, I hated that movie, so my opinion really should not be valid.)

If I had to nominate anyone from The Counselor, I’d pick Penélope Cruz based on the strength of her performance.  (But she always gives strong performances, and her part is pretty small here.)  Javier Bardem is extremely compelling and fun to watch, too, but I don’t expect a nomination for him, either.  (It is funny, though, to imagine the two of them showing a clip from this movie at their kids’ elementary school on Career Day.  I know that would never happen, but can’t you just imagine the baffled reactions of all the stunned kids in the class?)

Now Michael Fassbender is interesting because he’s also in Twelve Years a Slave which will likely be a big Oscar contender.  Best Actor is way too crowded for him to get a nomination for this, but he pulls off a very impressive display of grief/horror/despair/regret/guilt/torment in the big DVD scene, so potentially his strong leading performance here may help him to win a supporting Oscar for Twelve Years a Slave.  Time will tell.

What really impressed me about the cast of The Counselor is that it just keeps coming.  (And I’m not talking about the car scene.)  A lot of people turn up in this film (some of them very late).  There’s Rosie Perez, John Leguizamo, Natalie Dormer, Goran Visnjic.  I really never thought I’d see Rosie Perez giving one of the most natural, understated performances in any film, but she’s stunningly good here.  And I was delighted by John Leguizamo.  He has a very watchable moment.

Best Scene:
The one scene from this film that everybody is going to remember and talk about forever is that thing with Cameron Diaz and the car.  What does it mean?  (I have some ideas, but they’re not important right now.)  What matters is that this is something Javier Bardem’s character can never forget, and we’re never going to forget it either.  Movies can impress an audience in two ways.  One is by being memorably excellent.  The other is by being memorably strange.  Even the most jaded audience in the entire world has never seen anything quite like this.  Bardem is actually the one who makes the scene so much fun (if that’s the right word) to watch because of his hilarious/ horrifying narration.  (Sometimes I found myself wondering if Bardem was involved in a real life deal that went bad, and as punishment, he was forced to make this movie.)  (I’m just kidding.  If Ridley Scott had asked me to be in a movie written by Cormac McCarthy, I would have signed on in an instant.)

Best Scene Visually:
It’s hard to single out just one scene here.  Obviously, I’ve made it clear that I’m obsessed with Javier Bardem’s butterfly shirt, but there’s a lot more to love in the movie than that.  What really gets me is Michael Fassbender’s house.  We get all these shots of the gritty reality of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, and then we see Michael Fassbender drinking wine or whisking some culinary delight in his sterile white house that looks like where his android character from Prometheus would live.  (On his own time, he’s always either lounging in bed, whisking, or drinking—unless he’s out at a luxurious restaurant or watching a rousing game of polo.)  I guess what I’m getting at here is that I like the way each character, area, and theme of the film is so visually distinct and well defined.  And I like Javier Bardem’s butterfly shirt.

If I must choose one scene that really worked for me, it was the body being pushed into the landfill. I also thought it was extremely heavy handed, but it’s stuck with me.

Best Action Sequence:
Brad Pitt’s final scene is one we see coming from a mile away, but that’s part of the fun.  (Fun isn’t exactly the right word, but we’ve been set up for this from the very beginning.  We’ve been expecting it for some time.)

I also like the scene where the truck is retouched and repaired.

Best Thing About the Movie:
There are three great moments in this film.  One is the conversation with the diamond cutter, and his speech about a cynical industry where things are defined solely through their imperfections.  Another great speech comes near the end of the movie when the Counselor learns that he must now live with the consequences of his actions.  Also enjoyable is the bit with John Leguizamo and the guy in the drum.  All of these moments are little mini philosophical discourses that the film gives us as food for thought, and they’re very well written speeches (though the fact that they’re always given to minor characters is not the most conventional choice for a wide release movie).

The Negatives:
Several moments in this movie are so odd that it’s hard not to want to burst into (tonally inappropriate) laughter.

As I’ve been saying this whole time, as literature, The Counselor is very intriguing.  As a movie, it’s pretty weird, and not likely to please…well, anyone (except maybe Cormac McCarthy.  It must be fun to imagine a character, then say, “And I’d like him to be played by Javier Bardem on the big screen.”)  It’s that odd film where the script is exceptional, the cast is top-notch, the production values are high, and the director is talented, but still the overall results are kind of a cinematic disaster.  The Counselor is just not a very good movie.  It doesn’t seem well suited to being a movie.  That’s the main problem. 

What movie gives all the best parts to minor characters with no stake in the central conflict?  (Actually, there’s an answer for that I now realize.  It’s—a romantic comedy.  This kind of wise speech making happens all the time in romantic comedies.  The couple in question is just about to break up forever over some really some thing, but then a well-timed, unexpected speech from Wise Uncle Salvador—or whoever—makes the protagonist have an epiphany about the meaning of true love and totally saves the day.)

The difference is that here, by the time Fassbender’s character has the epiphany, it’s totally too late for him to save the day.  As we might expect from Cormac McCarthy, the message of the film is a bit bleak and depressing.  (The one positive glimmer of hope for me was that at least one of the characters went to mass regularly and believed in the healing power of Reconciliation.)  But if there’s anything to be hopeful about here, you’re going to have to bring it with you along with your own belief in an afterlife because (as the movie makes patently clear) life here on earth is horrible and meaningless. 

(Okay, that’s a stupid reduction/misreading of the point, but my point is, this movie is extremely bleak and depressing—if you even understand what’s happening at the end.  On the one hand, it seems impossible that anybody wouldn’t, but on the other hand, there was a woman in The Gravity audience with me who seemed baffled about several major plot points, so I’m sure this movie would lose her (and probably others).)

The other huge problem is that we’re not really invested in any of the characters.  Like I said, all the best and most meaningful lines are delivered by minor characters.  The only character at the center of the story who gets really amazing stuff to say is Cameron Diaz, and she delivers those lines like she’s reading them out of a story in a literature anthology. 

By the end, Michael Fassbender has a pretty epic total breakdown, but—not to be rude but—who cares?  (We probably all should care because this could happen to anyone—except that it couldn’t.  The whole dilemma is so incredibly avoidable and oddly specific.)  I wish we knew something more about the counselor before he got involved in all this in the first place.

And—this is just a minor scene—that scene where Rosie Perez wakes up with a start of sudden shock and feels at a photograph on her wall is really just too heavy handed to the point of being ridiculous.  (The corpse dump scene is like that, too, although it’s also probably true that if these extremely pointed scene weren’t there, some audience members might not understand important connections/what was happening.)

I enjoyed watching The Counselor but it’s not very effective as a movie.  I have a feeling the screenplay might make a captivating read and a worthy object of study as a piece of literature, but as a movie, the whole thing just feels strange, depressing, and oddly inadequate given the copious talent involved.

Still it will undoubtedly be remembered for one bizarre scene involving Cameron Diaz and Javier Bardem’s car. 

If you’re looking for something different, The Counselor definitely is that.  Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, and Javier Bardem give strong, compelling performances, and Cameron Diaz is unforgettable.  But in a season absolutely loaded with exciting, potentially award winning movies, it’s probably safe to skip this one unless you’re a huge fan of Cormac McCarthy and want to consume absolutely everything he’s ever produced.

"The wind is blowing our cinnamons away!"

"Sentences!!! I said cinnamons!"

Penelope's Sentences

1.  One day Bubby and I were eating vanilla ice cream.  (Actually, mine was cherry, and his was vanilla.)

2.  I was driving the car, and we had an accident, so we called roadside assistance.  Then we picked some flowers by the roadside.  Bubby picked rocks, and I picked flowers.

3.  One day, Bubby was driving me along the avenue when our favorite stuffed animals fell out of the car because the windows were open, and we had forgotten to close them.

4.  Bubby fixed the car engine because it was broken.

5.  Mommy was driving Bubby and me down the avenue because Daddy had a cold.  Mommy couldn't see where she was going, so the car ran into a pile of stuff, you know, like junk.  The engine just broke apart.  The whole car broke apart, in fact.  Then Mommy bought us vanilla ice cream from the Roadside Cafe Ice Cream Bar and Candy Store.  (Getting the ice cream was my idea.)

Today we read Little Critter's The Trip by Mercer Mayer.  It's a hilarious alphabet book that we're thinking of buying to read with a new baby because it teaches the alphabet very hilariously.  (It totally cracked up Penelope.)

Me: What else rhymes with "joke"?
Penelope: Noke.
Me: Noke?  What does "noke" mean?
Penelope: I don't noke!  I made a joke!

Me:  If you don't know the answer, you take a wild...
Penelope: Dancer?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

My Adorable Lunch Date

Today Nellie and I went to lunch at Olive Garden.  I've been wanting to do that with her for some time, and since Christina told me Sylvie's recovering from croup, and I chickened out of the play date, I thought today seemed like a good time for our lunch date.  (To my relief, Penelope was happy enough to go to lunch that she recovered from her disappointment about the play date rather quickly.)  To be honest, Nellie was so cranky last night, and she took so long to wake up that I thought she might be sick, but she's not--although she did sneeze about five hundred times while we were out.

Anyway, Olive Garden is Penelope's favorite restaurant, so she's been very excited for this promised outing.  This seems crazy because she's four-and-a-half already, but this is the first time Penelope and I have been out to lunch alone together.  It was such a nice date.

We sat in the bar.  At first, they wanted to seat us in the huge wrap around booth nearest the hostess station, and we took the bait--until Penelope realized it stunk there.  We were sitting very close to the bathroom, and it smelled like sewer water as if one of the toilets had recently flooded.

So we moved to a booth way over at the other end of the bar where it smelled much better.  The bartender waited on us, and both Penelope and I really liked her.  She seemed to really like Penelope, too, who was being pretty darn adorable.

At one point, she told us, "I'll have that salad right out for you ladies," and as she walked away, Penelope observed jauntily, snuggling down into her seat excitedly, "Oh?  Did you hear how she called us?  Ladies!  I think I like that--ladies!  I could get used to that!"

When the server brought the salad, she asked if we wanted cheese.  I answered, "Sure."

As she was grinding it, Penelope whispered to me loudly, "I just remembered that this is the kind of cheese I don't like."

The waitress was like, "Uh oh."  Then she asked, "Do I need to bring more salad?"

I was like, "No, this is fine.  She's just going to pick all the black olives out, anyway."

She said, "I can bring her a little dish of black olives if you want."

I said, "Oh she'll love that."

Penelope was like, "I am also crazy about these croutons.  They are so tasty, and they're so healthy for you."

I was like, "Well, they're tasty anyway."

When she brought the olives, the bartender was like, "Here you are, miss."

Penelope confided, "She sure knows how to talk to people!"

Penelope gobbled up her olives and also ate two tomatoes and half of the croutons.

We had a lovely conversation.  For a long time we talked about how I didn't like milk as a child because Penelope is obsessed with hearing "what else naughty things did you do?"  This all started when she asked me what Grandma used to pack me for my school lunches.  I replied, "Well, I was weird, and I didn't like any kind of lunch meat or peanut butter and jelly for some reason, so..."

She was like, "So you always had tuna fish.  I remember this.  I've heard about this."

Then I was telling her about how in first grade, my mom always sent me a quarter with my lunch because she wanted me to buy a carton of milk.  She scrimped and saved to give me that quarter every day (seriously because we lived in El Cajon then, and Southern California is expensive).  Meanwhile, I couldn't stand the taste of white milk--especially served quasi warm in a paper carton.  So obviously I didn't buy the milk.  For a quarter, you could also get an ice cream bar--which I loved.  But what did I do with my quarter?  I threw it into the bushes--every day for at least two months.  That way, I couldn't buy the milk.  It was out of my control.  So I felt less guilty.  Towards the end of that time, a girl in my class named Anna began noticing that I threw my quarter into the bushes every day, so she asked me if she could have it to buy an ice cream bar.  Then I began giving my quarters to Anna.  Oddly enough, it never even occurred to me to buy myself an ice cream bar.  I was just so relieved to be rid of the quarter so I couldn't buy the milk.

I said, "When Grandma found out she was so devastated.  She was like, 'Sarah, do you know how hard it is for me to keep coming up with those quarters every day?  I have to save and plan so carefully!'"

Nellie asked, "But how did Grandma find out?"

I explained, "One day it was getting close to Christmas, and I suddenly realized that I could be saving the quarters.  So I had this picture frame on my wall that had a picture of Uncle Rob holding some wires and looking crazy.  It was a plastic picture frame, and it was deep and hollow in the back.  There was a round hole on the back of it, so I started sticking the quarters in there.  Then one day, the frame got too heavy, and it came crashing down while I was at school, and quarters exploded all over my bedroom."

Penelope immediately demanded, "What else naughty things did you do?"

I replied, "Well, I wasn't trying to be naughty.  I just didn't like the taste of milk.  When I was at home having dinner, I used to dump my milk down the sink when Grandma wasn't looking."  (This is all pretty funny when you think that I'm lactose intolerant.)

Penelope asked, "How did Grandma find out about that?"

I said, "Well, most of the time she didn't.  I got away with it.  But I wasn't trying to be bad.  I just really didn't like milk.  I hope that when you go to school, you tell me if you don't like your drink.  I think you should be able to drink something you like--water or even juice is a better choice than just not drinking milk."

As it turned out, Penelope did not like the peach-mango smoothie that she was currently (not) drinking.  She said anxiously, "It tastes a little too sweet to me."  I took a taste, and she was right about that.  It was insanely sweet.  But the waitress (who was really the bar tender) graciously switched it out for us, and Nellie ended up with a Shirley Temple, heavy on the cherries.  (When a drink is sweeter than a Shirley Temple, you kind of know that's sugar overkill.)

(She didn't switch the drink because of the conversation.  She hadn't been drinking it the whole time and even asked, "Can I have another drink of yours?")

I also told her about how La Frontera didn't used to be there when Grandma and Grandpa first bought the house in 1998.  I said, "There was nothing here but that Walmart, and a McDonalds.  One day before school, Grandma and Aunt Merry found a cow wandering around in the neighborhood.  I was at college, but they told me all about it."

Penelope said, "And you didn't know what a cow was?"

I said, "I knew what a cow was!!"

She explained, "Well, I'm sorry, but you just said how there didn't used to be anything back in those days."

I said, "Well, there were cows!"

Anyway, she had macaroni and grapes, and I had chicken parmigiana.  When our server asked us, "How is it for you ladies?" I replied, "Everything's great."  As she was walking away, Penelope added enthusiastically, "Yeah, and the same is true over here.  Everything is just great," which made the bartender laugh.

Since we were having such a marvelous time, we even decided to split a dessert.  Penelope came around to my side of the booth and sat next to me for dessert because her hands were cold (so she ended up putting her hat over them because we hadn't brought Pinkie.)

Penelope selected a chocolate mousse covered brownie thing (which was phenomenal) and I had a cappuccino (which came with a biscotti that fascinated Penelope who was also very interested by the contents of the bar and the football preview on the TV).  Impressed by the painted plate, Penelope told our server, "This looks even more delicious than it did on the menu!"

She replied, "Yeah, and it's not usually that way, is it?  Usually you see it on the plate and think--is this what it is?"

Nellie was really sweet, too.  Halfway through dessert, she observed, "Oh, I've been taking these bites too fast.  I forgot that we were sharing.  I'd better take littler bites."  I thought that was very gracious of her.  She shared most of the cake which was for the best because I was already feeling like I'd eaten the whole state of Texas.  (At first I panicked, but then I realized I could just not eat dinner.  I mean, usually I eat yogurt, banana or apple, then dinner.  Today, I just ate the dinner in the middle as lunch.  So that ended up working out.)

In the end, she was so covered in chocolate that I teased, "Nellie and the Chocolate Factory.  Nellie is the chocolate factory!!!!!"

She thought that was just hilarious and giggled and giggled and giggled.

We were going to clean up in the bathroom, but it smelled so sewery from the outside that we decided to spot clean her in the car instead.  (We had bottles of water in there, and I always stuff my pockets with clean napkins before leaving the house because I'm OCD like that.)

Originally I had planned to take her to the Castle playground in Wells Branch because it's close to there, and we keep walking from the duck pond to the castle and then getting a text that we need to hurry home and leaving almost immediately to power walk back to the car and drive home.

But on the way into Olive Garden, Penelope noticed the pet store, so we decided to stop there and look around after lunch.  She's been wanting a pet for Christmas, and while she had a puppy or kitten in mind, I have been trying to talk her down to something that lives in a cage or aquarium.  So we looked at fish, turtles (which I personally think are wonderfully adorable and the best choice), tarantulas, lizards, snakes, ferrets (the cutest animal in that store by far but also clearly the most trouble), guinea pigs, rats, mice, hamsters, gerbils, and birds (a definite no go).  The ferrets were so adorable, but the turtles are almost as good and not nearly as much trouble.  When we mentioned that we might be looking for a first pet to teach us about taking care of pets, the girl at the store suggested a beta (which is a really good idea.  I think we might actually do that one.  They're cheap, beautiful, and--as pets go--incredibly easy to care for.  Plus you get the fun of decorating an aquarium.  Penelope liked the skulls.)

After that, we went to Barnes and Noble to use the bathroom.  While we were there, we discovered that they have a huge Manga section that I'd never noticed before (because, um, neither Derrick nor I is into Manga.  I'm not saying I have any philosophical objection to it.  I've just never gotten into it.  But Penelope is just fascinated by anime and manga, so she wanted to look through all the books--which is tricky because it's not always easy to find something remotely appropriate.  I mean, none of the stuff is exactly age appropriate, but there are things that are okay for her to see.  She was just fascinated.  It's so interesting to me how kids have their own personalities and obsessions.  I mean, when I was little, I was obsessed with the movie Oliver! and the show Bewitched.  It wasn't like anybody was trying to interest me in them.  I just happened to see them and got hooked.  I mean, in the case of Oliver!, the family was watching the movie on HBO.  I remember my Grandma liked it.  But Bewitched just happened to come on after Ho Ho the Clown.  And as soon as I saw it by accident one day, I was like, Ho Ho the Who/Who Cares Anymore?  Whenever I think how odd it is that Penelope gets these intense obsessions independently at such a young age, I remind myself that I was the same way, just with different stuff.  I also used to be fascinated with the movie Rebecca when I was three and four because I just didn't understand where the pervasively spooky mood was coming from.  How could people be so scared of someone who was dead but wasn't a ghost?)

By the time we left Barnes and Noble, we had a book, a Beanie Baby dalmatian, and a birthday present for Grandma.  By that time, it was really too late to go to the park, so we decided to save that for tomorrow after our appointment with Dr. Burger and before it's time to get Gray.  We have to take back our library books, anyway.

We had a lovely, lovely, wonderful day, though, largely because we have the same idea of what constitutes a good time.  Let's go out for Italian food and chocolate mousse, look at some cute ferrets, and wander around the bookstore for an hour.  She's a wonderful date!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Fall Movie Diary: Don Jon

Date: October 22, 2013
Time: 8:20 pm
Place: Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane
Company: Derrick
Food: Greek wrap with chips and salsa, peanut butter shake
Runtime:  1 hour, 30 minutes
Rating: R
Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Quick Impressions:
We’re playing catch up this week, first Cloudy 2 and now Don Jon.  My husband and I have noticed over the years that Joseph Gordon-Levitt somehow does not ever make bad movies.  Ever.  We’ve discussed this several times.  Is he exceptionally shrewd at choosing projects, or does he just have the world’s most phenomenal agent?  Now that I’ve seen his directorial debut, I must conclude that his impressive filmography is more than mere good luck. 

Written and directed by Gordon-Levitt, Don Jon looked promising from the preview.  The theatrical trailer does a good job of setting up a timely and genuine dilemma.  The conflict between Jon and his girlfriend is both a) often seen and b) hard to solve.  Honestly since viewing the trailer, I’ve been dying to know, “How are they going to resolve that?”  I genuinely had no idea what the second half of the movie would offer as a solution.  I really wanted to find out.  My husband was intrigued, too.  And we could tell immediately that this is not the kind of movie we would ever get the opportunity to watch at home, so we pretty much had to see it in the theater.  I’m glad we finally found a time to squeeze it in before it leaves the big screen for good.

The Good:
We were both favorably impressed with Don Jon.  There’s a lot to love here.  First of all, the film has the same bright, bold, crisp, energetic quality as the preview.  In terms of cinematography, there’s nothing too fancy or artistically heavy handed going on, but the film is a pleasure to watch.  From a strictly aesthetic point of view, it looks good.  The soundtrack and score are also good (unobtrusive, yet the music creates a pervasively positive and hopeful mood even when the characters are undergoing hardships).

Honestly I think a film on this topic is overdue.  It’s strangely refreshing to see a (reasonably authentic) story about porn versus romantic comedies versus reality from a male point of view.  (I’m not sure why the story had to be set in New Jersey unless Gordon-Levitt wanted to lure Tony Danza into the cast by making the family extremely, excessively Jersey Italian.  Maybe Gordon-Levitt has addressed this in an interview someplace.  I’ll look for answers later.)  Meanwhile, although the accents sometimes feel a touch overdone, the dilemmas the characters face all feel pretty real.

Even though it has some very funny moments and definitely leaves the audience with a positive feeling, Don Jon is really more of a coming of age story than romantic comedy.  (I think the previews make it clear what kind of movie to expect.  The only thing the previews don’t tell us is how the situation will be resolved, and that third act is pretty surprising.)

The way to realize the full comedic potential of Don Jon, though, is to contemplate that some of the people in the theater with you are there on a first or second date.  Imagine how some of them must be squirming!  Isn’t that kind of funny?  A couple on an early date was sitting near us while we watched the movie Gravity, and based on the woman’s reactions to everything in that film, I’m pretty sure she would have stormed out and broken up with the guy if he’d made the mistake of buying tickets to Don Jon.

I’m not saying that couples shouldn’t watch this movie.  (My husband and I thoroughly enjoyed it.)  But it would be quite awkward to watch with someone you don’t have an open, honest, secure, basically transparent relationship with.  As my husband and I chatted about the movie in the car afterwards, we realized that this is not a film to watch with a huge group of friends.  Conversations afterward are bound to be painfully awkward.  Masturbation is not a subject most people want to speak about in front of…well, in front of anyone (especially in mixed company).

But I applaud Joseph Gordon-Levitt for making the film.  I truly think it’s timely, relevant, and thought provoking, mainly because it seems so honest.  Ordinarily if we get a movie about porn addiction, we get it from a very stereotypically female point of view.  Porn addicts in movies are often presented as weird, sleazy, sick (or pathetic) types who are devious in other ways as well and deserve to be avoided or dumped.  Occasionally, we do get a more (again stereotypically) male-oriented presentation of sex addiction.  But guy-centered movies about sex addiction tend to be either over-the-top depressing (like Leaving Las Vegas with sex addition swapped in for alcoholism) or deliberately crude for comedic purposes.

This is just a true story about a young man trying to grow up and find a meaningful relationship (and a functional life).  Like many (probably the majority) of young men today, he’s been inundated with pornography from a very young age.  (Even the most well-meaning, vigilant parents are not going to be able to insulate their teenagers from the nearly omnipresent tidal wave of titillating images being thrust upon them.  The internet is full of porn, and—as Don Jon shows us—even network television is flooded with commercials that use sex to sell any product, however unlikely. 

(My own family is fond of a girl we call “Whip Lips” who ostensibly sells a fast food burger with onion rings on it, but clearly actually sells the world, the flesh, and the devil.  Also onion rings.)

Even teenagers not looking for porn are probably going to find some (and how many are actively not looking?  Surely more are passively looking than are actively not looking).

Wisely, the film doesn’t even attempt to tackle some of the thorniest problems with pornography (i.e., the potential exploitation of women, human trafficking, lack of safety leading to disease, etc.)  This movie isn’t about the potential evils of the porn industry.  It’s about the effect of excessive pornography consumption on one man’s real life.

As the key part of Jon’s fantasy life, pornography offers him something that his everyday reality does not.  Porn is the only thing that gives him true release, the one thing that really makes him happy.  The thing is, he’s not happy, not anymore.

I think it’s great that the movie is addressing this head on because it’s a topic that never gets talked about in a serious yet casual way.  The kind of stuff we see in the movie is just part of everyday life for so many people, yet for others, it’s unfamiliar (and sometimes shocking or even disturbing). 

(It’s tempting to say that for the average male, this film covers familiar territory, while for the female it ventures into unseen areas, but that’s definitely an untrue generalization.  I do think that the difference between men’s fantasy lives/view of reality and women’s as presented in the movie is broadly true, though.  There are going to be some women who identify more with Jon, and some men who are much more like Barbara, of course, but this movie has a very classic “battle of the sexes” quality to it, kind of like a present day Adam’s Rib, only focused on a very different part of the body.  I have a feeling Katharine Hepburn would not approve.)

Some women (maybe even some men) may have a negative visceral reaction when they see a guy repeatedly clicking through a porn montage and then throwing a used tissue into his wastebasket.  Think how men might react to a film featuring repeated scenes of pad and tampon disposal accompanied by extended narration about heavy flow.  (I’m not trying to say that menstruation is the female equivalent of masturbation or anything stupid like that.  I’m just pointing out that what is simple routine to one person may be something obscene, never seen, and upsetting for someone else.)

There’s something very refreshing about talking about something like this (a legitimate issue/huge part of life for many people) so openly and in such a relaxed, natural way.  So Don Jon gets points from me for being about a relevant, timely topic rarely discussed in mainstream film.

The movie is also well written.  The way its structure reflects its content is extremely compelling.  For what seems like an eternity, everything is given to us in short cuts, highly repetitive, a rigid, regular routine.  Then suddenly in the final act everything changes and becomes flowing, organic, confusing, natural, more like actual life than like the regularity of a well-oiled machine.  That’s quite well done.

The assembled cast is also fantastic, and Gordon-Levitt gets pretty universally great performances out of them, impressive for a first time director.

The Performances:
Scarlett Johansson never used to do as much for me as she seemed to do for other people (maybe because I never introduced her to my mother), but she’s steadily risen in my estimation over the past decade, and now I think she’s wonderful.  She’s become a great actress, and she gives a pretty powerhouse performance here.  (The thing is, the performance is better than it has to be.  She takes it to a level that isn’t necessary.  Less would have been perfectly serviceable, but she gives more.)  As an added bonus, with the Jersey accent, she sounds almost exactly like she did in the SNL parody trailer for Unstoppable.  (“That’s the Chrysler Building!”)  Never fails to bring a smile to my face!

Julianne Moore is also very good (as usual), playing perhaps the most compelling and enigmatic character in the script.

Glenne Headly (who I always think of as Tess Trueheart from Dick Tracy) makes Jon’s mother seem so sweet, quirky, and charming that you want to go over to her house with a bottle of wine and see if she’ll serve you a plate of that delicious spaghetti.

Playing Jon’s amusingly phone-addicted sister, Brie Larson (whom I finally placed as the girl from 21 Jump Street after the movie had ended) gives a mostly silent comic performance but gets a great line late in the film that she delivers with gusto.

Playing Jon’s best friends, Rob Brown and Jeremy Luke are both pretty convincing in their parts.  Neither of them gets much to do, but they both do a good job with what they’re given.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt himself is completely convincing in the leading role (although I’m still not sure why he chose to make Jon an Italian American from New Jersey.  Personally, I would be nervous to write myself a leading part in the movie I’m directing and ask myself to portray a character with an ethnicity other than my own.)  As far as I can tell, he pulls off the accent just fine, but I’ve never even been to New Jersey.  If I were from there, I might feel differently.  Accent aside, I think Jon comes across very clearly as a character, and Gordon-Levitt portrays him just as well as he wrote him.

Of course, the real casting coup here is getting Tony Danza to play Jon’s father.  I’ve heard (repeatedly from various sources) that Tony Danza used to do porn before he broke into legitimate acting.  I’ve also heard that these stories about Danza’s past are complete fabrications.  What’s the true story here?  I have no idea.  What’s important is that while scouring the internet for the truth, I’ve learned tons of scary new sex tips bound to terrify my husband.  No, actually, what’s really important is that surely I’m not the only one who’s heard all those Tony Danza porn rumors, so casting Danza in a movie about porn addiction is genius.  The best part is, he gives a killer performance, stealing every scene he’s in and hopefully convincing the world that Tony Danza needs to work more.  (I was going to end this paragraph with a Who’s the Boss? joke, but perusing Urban Dictionary has convinced me to keep my mouth shut and leave well enough alone.)

Oh yeah, and Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway look like they’re having so much fun filming their cameo.  I’m starting to think that Tatum is better in cameos than actual roles.

Best Scene:
When Barbara first catches Jon “reading e-mail,” her reaction is incredible.  Scarlett Johansson is better than I ever expected here, and Gordon-Levitt matches her in intensity.  She explodes.  He implodes.  The scene is gripping.

This moment resonated with me more than any other in the film.  I love that she’s so genuinely, obviously, deeply upset.  Johansson conveys her emotional state beautifully.  I also love that she can’t see anything problematic about her insistence that A) He tell her the absolute truth, and B) He tell her exactly what she wants to hear with no discussion.

In that moment, I felt Jon’s pain.  It’s so easy to empathize.  How can he be honest when she refuses to hear the truth or discuss his feelings/point of view?  How can he tell her the truth when the immediate consequences will be devastating?

Johansson is just incredible here.  Barbara’s reaction seems so over-the-top but thanks to great acting from Johansson, it also feels real.  Maybe Barbara is unreasonable, certainly she’s controlling, and probably she’s both naïve and manipulative, but her shock is genuine and her sense of betrayal is real and deeply felt.

Gordon-Levitt plays the moment very well, too.  The pain and panic in his eyes as he scrambles to think of a suitable response come across so poignantly.

Best Scene Visually:
I love the visual (and spoken) repetition of the scenes that comprise Jon’s basic routine.  He’s very honest about his priorities.  (The things he says matter most to him clearly do.)  He’s rigorously ritualistic about his life.  Personally, I liked all the quick cuts—body parts, stained glass window scenes, whatever.  These little slices of Jon’s life repeated again and again help situate us in his reality, the world as he sees and lives it every day. 

My favorite thing to watch is the way he incorporates his penance into his work-out routines.  Watching, I thought, It must be so convenient to be a young Catholic lothario.  It all works out.  You sin.  You go to confession.  You say your “Hail Mary”s while you do your curls or pull-ups.  You stay in great shape, body and soul.  Maybe my problem is lack of juicy enough confessions.  Maybe if I sinned just a little bit more, I’d have better looking abs.

Best Action Sequence:
I like all the scenes with Jon in the car, particularly the “punching” scene and the “singing” scene. 

Funniest Scene:
The first time Scarlett Johansson shows up at dinner, Glenne Headly and (especially) Tony Danza are fantastically entertaining.  Probably all of the movies funniest moments, though, involve Julianne Moore playing someone refreshingly off kilter. 

The bit where Jon’s disappointed by what he finds over and over again in the laundry basket is funny, too, if perhaps a bit…um…well…you’ll know what I mean when you see it.

The Negatives:
The ending is rushed.  I do like what the ending doesn’t give us.  But what it gives us instead feels like a bit of a fantasy, too.  I mean, it’s highly convenient that someone shows up who is missing two distinct things that can be neatly rolled into one and delivered (without guilt in a mutually beneficial short-term arrangement).

I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but afterwards, I was like, “So if porn is the fantasy of immature men, and romantic comedies are the fantasy of immature women, is this ending what both men and women really want—to be Xed by Y?”  I think it’s a fair question.  (And if you’ve seen the movie, surely you can fill in the variables for yourself.)

Early on and then repeatedly, Don Jon makes the very clear point that society/culture has done both Jon and Barbara a disservice.  He enjoys the fantasy of porn more than being with a flesh and blood woman and views real relationships through that lens.  She enjoys the fantasy of the romantic comedy leading man more than being with a real man and views real relationships through that lens.  The movie really hammers home the existence of these two opposing (and both limited, flawed, crippling) world views.  But—even though I don’t think this is the only way to approach the issue—I believe that there’s a (potentially large) degree of truth in what Don Jon is trying to say here.

Porn isn’t real.  But romantic comedies aren’t real either.  I basically agree with the point the movie is making.  (Obviously making porn carries way more of a risk than making romantic comedies (although Anne Hathaway certainly takes a lot of heat), but Don Jon is only concerned with the effects of viewing porn and romantic comedies, which I think are pretty commensurate.)

I am a bit disappointed, though, by the way Don Jon handles the character of Barbara.  At the beginning, both Jon and Barbara are clearly immature, selfish, and (most of all) naïve (perhaps ignorant).  Over the course of the movie, we get to spend a lot of time with Jon and see him begin to mature.  Barbara, on the other hand, seems to become increasingly horrible and unsympathetic as the story unfolds.

I’m not sure that it was necessary to make her so awful.  If we can forgive Jon for being immature, why can’t we forgive Barbara?  If the story were told from her point of view, I’m quite sure it would look very different.  (While I was watching the way she manipulates him early on, I thought, Yes, but you probably have to be a bit manipulative if you look like Scarlett Johansson.  I mean, surely a hundred guys hit on her every ten seconds.  She can’t just give them all what they want out of a misguided effort to be “nice.”)  What I’m getting at is that we see that Jon is an imperfect person who is influenced by the place he comes from.  Why aren’t we ever invited to consider what has made Barbara the person she is?  Up close, Jon is reasonably sympathetic.  With distance, he might look pretty rotten.  I wish the story got a little closer to Barbara and offered some redemption for the character in the audience’s eyes.

Don Jon held my attention for its entire ninety minute runtime.  The last act is genuinely unpredictable, and first time writer/director Joseph Gordon-Levitt manages to coax terrific performances from the entire cast.  Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, and Tony Danza are particular standouts.  The movie asks provocative, honest questions and has a positive energy that left me feeling uplifted.

Let me be perfectly frank, though, so there’s no confusion.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt spends about a fourth of his screen time in this movie narrating his own masturbation scenes as he shows us quick cuts of the porn he’s viewing on his laptop or handheld device.  So if you don’t want to spend the movie marveling at his ambidextrous talents, perhaps you should see something else.  Definitely leave your kids at home (where they will almost certainly be accessing alarming internet porn while you’re out at the movies for the evening).  (At least that will keep them from playing hide-and-seek or tag, the two most dangerous games ever played by children as we know from recent releases Prisoners and Gravity.)

Monday, October 21, 2013

Penelope Says

September 22

Penelope gets mad when I try to fast forward through commercials. I totally get why she wants to see show previews and toy commercials. But just now, she made me watch one for CLR all surface cleaner. Halfway through, she pointed out, "We might need CLR in case we have any tough stains like that. Maybe you should think about your bathroom." She added pointedly, "It's called CLR."
11:25 pm

September 23

Me: When Daddy gets here, we will have to go straight to bed because you have to go to the dentist tomorrow morning!
Penelope: No! But I'm nocturnal! If I have to wake up early, I'm scared I might not survive!
12:30 am

Penelope's dental check went swimmingly--no cavities and a pink bouncey ball!! Now we just need to figure out Derrick's gallbladder and my reproductive system (the riddle of which may never be solved)! Still, it's not even 1:00 yet! We are getting stuff done!
12:54 pm

Derrick: (laughing at the trucks in front of us who changed lanes for no reason) Haha! That's the lane that ends.
Me: (singing) This is the lane that has now ended, and you're about to be rear ended.
Derrick: That was clever.
Me: I'm so clever! Why doesn't anybody pay me for it?
Derrick: I pay you--all of my salary.
Me: Except what goes to your gallbladder.
Derrick: Damn gallbladder! Cutting in on your action!
Penelope: (wisely) No matter how far you go, there's still cars.
1:28 pm

Derrick: You know how you can save yourself from dehydration with urine? By putting it in your anus.
Me: What?!
Derrick: At least that's what they said on that website.
Me: Yeah? What website? Craigslist?
1:31 pm

Penelope: (overjoyed on the playground) The big kids aren't here today! Now we can put our ball through those hoops!
Me: Well, we can try.
Penelope: (excitedly running over to the basketball court) Watch me dribble, Mom! I'm a great dribbler! You are going to love this! (she shows me, the ball bounces once, she makes contact twice) WOW! TWO! I've never done two before! Usually after the first dribble, I just like dribble it away! This is an amazing day for me!
(Moments later)
Penelope: Whoa Mom! You made it go through! YOU ARE AMAZING!

At least playing with her is fun!
5:35 pm

Me: (to Penelope who is looking for her dust rag) I don't know where it is, but tomorrow will you help me clean my bathroom. I don't have any CLR, but...
Penelope (leaning over the back of the chair, whispering to Derrick excitedly): It helps you cut through mold, and it's a very good cleaner.
Derrick: So I heard. (To Me) She's going to go into marketing.
9:01 pm

Me: Maybe we could read Many Moons. That's about a little princess who asks for the moon.
Penelope: Why does she ask for the moon?
Me: Because that's what she wants.
Penelope (slightly alarmed, anxious): But God doesn't give it to her, right?
Me: No, she doesn't get to keep the real moon.
Penelope: Good grief! The moon is for everyone!
9:33 pm

Penelope: I'm going to help you get a baby.
Me: You are.
Penelope: Yes with my magic. (slides up next to me) You see, I can draw an oval very well. So... (with her index finger, traces an oval on my belly) I will draw the egg in here. (Pats it, says with a scrunched nose) And now we'll just see!

Earlier today, we passed a glass bottle smashed all over the sidewalk on our walk. Penelope immediately said, "This is terrible! It's a good thing we're wearing our shoes! But little doggies don't even have shoes! And neither do kitties or birds or pigs! People should think about what they're doing! I love all the little creatures! AMEN!"

And I was like, "How sweet," until I realized that possibly that was a call for vengeance on her enemies.
10:24 pm

I've always loved The Nightmare Before Christmas, but Nellie picked out Tim Burton's original storybook from the library, and this is the first time I've ever read it. It's so charming!

"The moon that hung over the new-fallen snow
Cast an eerie pall over the city below,
And Santa Claus's laughter now sounded like groans,
And the jingling bells like chattering bones.
And what to their wondering eyes should appear,
But a coffin sleigh with skeleton deer.
And a skeletal driver so ugly and sick
They knew in a moment, this can't be St. Nick!
From house to house, with a true sense of joy,
Jack happily issued each present and toy.
From rooftop to rooftop he jumped and he skipped,
Leaving presents that seemed to be straight from the crypt!
Unaware that the world was in panic and fear,
Jack merrily spread his own brand of cheer."

Then a bit later...
"There were screams of terror, but Jack didn't hear it,
He was much too involved with his own Christmas spirit!"
10:29 pm

Penelope: (hugging Derrick) I'm sorry you have a goal bladder!
10:31 pm

Penelope (dancing down the stairs, singing over and over): Who does not like chocolate? [chock-LETTTTTT!!!!]
10:32 pm

Penelope is playing with Darth Tater and “his baby” (a toy Chicken McNugget).
11:18 pm

September 24
While thinking up rhymes for "rumble"...
Me: What about a kind of bee? There's a honey bee, and a...
Penelope: Funny bee?
Me: A funny bee! Well I meant a bumble bee.
Penelope: Oh that's true. But can you put "the funny bee" on the list, too? I have a good feeling about him. I think we should keep him around.
3:18 pm

While Penelope was not reading...
Penelope: (playing with Mrs. Potato Head) Mrs. Potato said she doesn't want to do our reading.
Me: Really? Well, now Mrs. Potato Head doesn't have a nose. There, she can just smell the grapes and think about how her nose got taken away.
Penelope: Or I could just take it away back! (steals the nose and puts it back on, in a funny voice) "Oh, I don't want to do our reading," says Mrs. Potato.
Me: Well, I'll just take away Mrs. Potato Head's mouth and put it in her butt. No free speech around here.
Grandma: Yesterday, Penelope threatened to stick her head up my butt to punish me.
Me: Hmm. Well, I think that would be more of a punishment for Penelope.
Penelope: "MMMffmfmfmm," says Mrs. Potato.
3:23 pm

September 25

Penelope's got this library book we were reading tonight called Insects That Work Together. Every time I see the title, I get a flash of two wasps in suits (but not wearing the jackets) sitting on opposite sides of the desk in the same cubicle, each holding a cup of coffee and glaring suspiciously over at the other. Yes they work together all right, but you can bet they're not happy about it!
1:15 am

Penelope: (at random in the pool) Doesn't (glug glug glug) pool...oh (glug glug)...n (glug) ay?
Me: Are you asking if pool has an "A"? No, it's P-O-O-L.
Penelope (exasperated sigh): NOOOO! I SAID, doesn't Poirot have a pince-nez?
Me: OHHHH! Yes, he does.
Penelope: (indignantly) Well, that's what I THOUGHT!
6:12 pm

Penelope: I'm going to smell this flower.
Me: Okay. Does it smell good?
Penelope: Actually, it didn't really smell like anything.
Me: Oh I'm sorry.
Penelope: It's really all right. (To the flower) Thank you anyway, little flower, and God bless you.
7:47 pm

September 26

At our picnic with Will and Sylvie at the playground…

Little Boy: Let's play in the castle.
Will: No we're going to play Toy Story 2.
Little Boy: Okay. I'll be Buzz Lightyear. She can be Jessie. You can be Woody, I guess.
Will: No, I'm going to be Buzz.
Little Boy: No, I'll be Buzz. You can be Woody.
Will: Actually, I'm going to be Buzz, but you can be the fake Buzz.
Little Boy: Oh yeah. There are two Buzzes. I'm going to be the real Buzz Lightyear, and you can be the other Buzz.
Will: No I'm going to be the real Buzz.
Little Boy: No, I'll be the real Buzz. You can be the other Buzz.
Will (in a very agreeable voice): Okay, YOU can be the Other Buzz.
Little Boy: Okay.
Will: (grins) Okay.
8:18 pm

As we left the pool...
Penelope: I'm keeping an eye on that hornet.
Me: Okay.
Penelope: We don't want him to get in the car.
Me: Penelope, he's nowhere near the car. I'm not going to let him get in the car.
Penelope: (as I strap her in, wisely squinting over my shoulder) Well, it's okay for now because I see him way over by that tree.
Me: He's not anywhere near us.
Penelope: Oh no, but he's coming closer. I see him heading this way now. OH! I think he sees us. AND OH NO!!!! HE'S GETTING BIGGER AND BIGGER! MAYBE HE HAS MAGIC BECAUSE I SEE HIM GROWI...(laughs) Oh. That's a bird.
Me: You crazy girl! That's a mocking bird!
8:26 pm

Me (to Penelope who has been fascinated by and asking a lot of questions about the seeds on the ground): Look Nellie! This one's broken in half. Now we can see what it looks like inside!
Penelope (with a gasp, in a delighted voice, as if she's totally transported by rapture): Awww! That's so beautiful and also so gross!
8:33 pm

Penelope (with Orangey Snake wrapped around her head): Look at me! I am the Ancient Egyptian Snake! (hisses) See me slither!!!
10:35 pm

Penelope (following me into the laundry room, as my leg hits something): What are you doing?! Will you quit knocking over all the wine bottles! I'm going to call you Mommy Knocky-Over-Pants.
Me: Mommy Knocky-Over-Pants, huh? Are you Nellie Knocky-Over-Pants?
Penelope: (shaking her head with a wicked smile) No, you're the only Knocky-Over-Pants we have!
10:50 pm

September 27

Penelope (jumping around singing just after bed): Hello, you fool, I love you! (to me) Remember that?
Me (singing): Come on! Join the joyride!
Penelope: When I hear that song, I imagine Le Beak from my Jake [and the Neverland Pirates] show singing it. Then she falls into her own trap in the trees!

That reminds me, while "Joyride" was playing in the car, Nellie asked, "Did they crash? He just yelled, 'Ouch!'" And I had to explain about singers yelling, "Ow!"
12:58 am

Penelope (talking about how she was trying to jump high enough to reach Grandma's parents): Heaven is too far to reach, but they're all having tea in my heart.
1:02 am

Penelope's new favorite song is "Joyride" by Roxette. Derrick found it and she spent the whole first verse yelling in joy, "Yeah! Yes! OH YESSSS!"
7:11 pm

Meanwhile, I've decided my new favorite song is "Uprising" by Muse which I'd somehow never heard until yesterday. Gray just volunteered, "Oh, yeah. My dad loves this song. I mean...not my dad...my dad...I mean not my dad. I mean not my dad, my dad..." (Twenty more seconds of this)..."I mean my other dad. You know. Adam."
7:41 pm

At least Best Western has a sense of humor. There is a single paper towel on the counter that says, “Complimentary Guest Towel. Courtesy of Best Western. Take this towel with you on your travels, and use it however you like.”
8:37 pm

Signs you're a bad housekeeper...
Penelope (at the Best Western in the shower): Has anybody ever used this shower before? I've never seen a shower this clean.
Me: They must use CLR.
P: Yeah! Who cleaned this?
Me: The hotel has a maid.
P: Good thing they don't have you. Are we ever coming back here later? I'd love to take a bath!
9:40 pm

Penelope (singing in the tub): Don't cook me until I'm hungry!
Me: What?
P: The water was so hot I made up that song!
9:47 pm

So the pool was fun except the water was -59 degrees and there was a pervasive swarm of mosquitoes. Gray evaded them by staying submerged, but Penelope and I were not so lucky. When we gave up, Penelope said, "That was a very exciting adventure! That's never happened to us before!"
9:55 pm

September 28

Grandma: (to Nellie) How are your mosquito bites this morning?
Me: Last night in the shower, I was like, "Oh no! You have a big one right there! It's swelling!" And she was like, "Mom, that's my nipple!"
Dad (like I'm crazy): Yeah, I always mistake mosquitoes for nipples. It must be genetic.
Me: No! I thought it was a bite! I didn't have my glasses on.
9:50 am

Gray (as the Taylor Swift song "22" comes on the radio): Ohh! I thought she said "dress up like Hitler."
Me: That would be '42.

Take note, Weird Al.
4:04 pm

Me: You know, it used to seem so silly and cliche to have robots taking over the world in sci-fi plots, but lately it's started to seem a little creepy.
Derrick: What if they've already taken over? Computers control the internet.
Me: (getting a little freaked out) You know, I was just complaining the other day that people seem so black and white in their thinking lately, like everything's become so polarized...
Derrick: (In a creepy voice) If we're too busy fighting each other (in a creepier almost robotic voice with a eerily creepy face) who will fight the robots?
6:36 pm

Penelope: (as I'm getting the kids' some food) Where did you get that milk you used to give me?
Me: What milk?
(She holds up a baby bottle)
Me: Um, from my breasts! I can't give you that right now.
Penelope: But I need to feed Pink and Yellow because they are my babies. Pinkie, I'm going to feed you first because you're my favorite.
7:49 pm

September 30

Apparently Penelope really missed us this evening. While we were gone, she asked Mom several times, "Do you think Mommy's downstairs now, and she just forgot to come up and get me?" When I got here, she showed me all her pictures of various Draculas, werewolves, and pumpkin patches. Since we've been home, she's written us three love notes, drawn my portrait, brushed my hair, given me a (very enthusiastic) back rub (even using her face), promised to get me ready for a future party she's planning including putting on my shoes ("if you will just teach me how to put on shoes. And if you show me how to use a bar of soap, I can help you in the shower as practice for if I ever take a shower with my team mates.")

Currently, she's working on Daddy...

While brushing his hair...
Penelope: Dad, you're going to love this. I'm going to make you look so cool like a rat.
Me: Like a rat?
Penelope: I mean a really cool rat who plays rock and roll.

While giving him a massage...
Penelope: Did I hurt your goal bladder?
Derrick: No, it doesn't hurt right now.
Penelope: I'm going to have to use my foot.
Derrick: Oh that feels good! Can you get my lower back?
Penelope: (matter of factly) You don't have a lower back.
1:24 am

Just after Penelope welcomed me home this evening...
Penelope: Mom, can I have a kick kack? (She and Grandma bought a Halloween bag of mini Kit-Kats at the store today.)
Me: Sure.
Penelope: Of course, I know I've already had quite a few kick kacks today.
Me: Oh, you have?
Penelope: Oh, well, not really so many. It was like...some amount, but I can't be sure about that right now. I'm thinking it probably wasn't really so many actually. I'm almost sure I didn't have any kick kacks while you were gone. We can never know for sure, but I think I probably haven't had too many really.
1:28 am

Penelope: Daddy, have you ever been in a band?
Derrick: No, I never have.
Penelope: Well, you're in luck because we're going to have a band. And it's going to have all the instruments.
1:30 am

Me: What book did you pick out for us to read? Oh, Bats in the Library!
Penelope: If you'd like to know why I want to read this book, it's a fascinating response.
Me: Oh, well, please let me hear this fascinating response. Why did you want to read the book?
Penelope: It's because I'm a vampire.
11:56 pm

October 2
Derrick looked so cute in his hospital gown and bonnet. I really wanted to take his picture, but they took me out before I got the chance. This surgery center staff is reassuringly nice, all very kind and warm. Next time I see my husband, he'll be lighter a gallbladder.
12:53 pm

Derrick is out of surgery and very sleepy. It's so strange to see him resting in a hospital. He looks so sweet, and his hair is so fluffy.
3:33 pm

October 3

Penelope and I made new characters to play Soul Calibur. (We seem to make a new character each every night.) This time, I made a guy with goat's legs called Billy, and she created a guy named Edward Stick who fights with a giant stick. One of his moves is using his stick to launch himself into a cartwheel, and usually he then kicks his opponent with both legs. It's pretty hard to escape this attack...

Penelope: (over and over again) Edward Stick is going to kick!
Me: No! No!!!! Edward Stick, please don't kick!
Penelope: Sorry Billy, I'm feeling killy. Have a kick from Edward Stick!
Me: Please do not kick! Please, Edward Stick!
Penelope: Sorry Bill, I have to kill. A gentle kick should do the trick. Have a kick from Edward Stick. Now it's time to do my kick! Watch out Bill, I'll kill you quick! Edward Stick is going to kick! Kick kick kick and a kickety kick!

This is all extra funny because as created by Penelope, Edward Stick fights in a giant pirate hat, enormous purple boots, a frilly shirt, and his underwear. He's quite a guy!
1:05 am

October 4
Penelope: Ooh! A pink rose petal! It smells just like bubblegum! I'll give this to Daddy. I think my little presents are making him well faster. I'm gonna hold on to this beauty and always treasure it!
1:48 pm

October 5

Penelope: And dear God, please help my mom not to freak out about anything else for a hundred years. Amen. (Rolls her eyes) There! The Lord be with both of us—’cause you always have those big panic attacks about everything!
2:31 am

October 6

Me (watching my fantasy opponent's score): What? How can their defense have another point? The offense was supposed to score. How could the defense still be scoring?
Penelope: (laughing at me) Well, Mom, football is about scoring points. So probably everyone is trying to score.
1:29 pm

Me (talking to myself as a kid on a bicycle swerves aimlessly down the center of the street): Little boy! Look where you're going!
Penelope: He looks mad.
Me: Well, he can be mad, but he needs to stop riding his bike down the middle of the street.
Penelope: Maybe he doesn't want life.
Me: He doesn't want life? You mean he doesn't want to live?
Penelope: Yes, maybe he no longer wants his life. Maybe somebody broke his heart, and now he just can't want life any more, so he rides down the street looking angry and hoping his life will end.
Me: Well that's a bit tragic! Let's just hope his mind was somewhere else just now and he lives on to practice better bike safety!
6:41 pm

October 7

We took Penelope's fall portraits today. (I'd been waiting for some less punishing weather.) She wasn't too excited when she heard we might go to the park. Where did she want to take them? In the cemetery, of course! (Seriously, I'm waiting for the day when instead of being mommy to four-year-old Penelope I'm fretful mother to Goth teen Circe Nightshade.)
5:41 pm

Penelope: Grandma, may I have some of that delicious banana bread?
Grandma: (gets her some) Yes, isn't it delicious?
Penelope: Yes! The moment we tasted it, I started dancing!
Grandma: Well you should put that on facebook! (she repeats it)
Penelope: And then it made me fall into the chair and lift up my leg over my head!
Grandma: Well, I'm not sure we need to put that part on facebook!
7:26 pm

October 8

Me: (reading) "Pioneers who settled on the Great Plains became known as 'sodbusters' because they cut up the sod (grass with the roots and dirt still attached) to clear field and build their houses."
Penelope: Wait. So they built their houses out of grass and dirt?
Me: Yep.
Penelope: But that's not good at all! You shouldn't build your house out of grass! I bet they had wolves come in!
Me: Well, look at this picture. Sometimes they'd be cooking dinner, and snakes would fall in through the ceiling.
Penelope: Didn't they have movies then at all? Didn't they have books?
Me: They had books.
Penelope: Well then why aren't they familiar with "The Three Little Pigs"? Those first two pigs who didn't build their houses out of bricks didn't even believe the wolf could get them. They mocked him. But we all know what happened to them. I can't believe these people didn't pay attention and learn that lesson. You do not build a straw house or a wooden stick house, or wolves will come in. The story is very clear about that. You should build a safe house out of bricks. If they had books, then what is their excuse?
1:06 am

Penelope: (chanting in a booming voice as she beats a drum): The snakes, volcanoes, and fire ant hills! If you let a spider bite you, he will bite your nose! (to me) This is a tough love lullaby for tough babies.
1:09 am

Penelope: (earnestly) Something hurts under my tongue, and that's not good because I might want to yell, scream, cry, or--I don't know!--lick?
12:35 am

Me: (as we pretend) Oh look at that cute Santa Claus on the piano. I hope that Santa shows up again this Christmas.
Penelope: Oh I think that's actually that girl--when she was a baby--who always shows up in our stories and saves us at the last minute by rescuing us.
Me: Oh the one who swoops in on her jetpack.
Penelope: Yes, that's her.
1:42 pm

Penelope (after four rounds of tag at the playground): It sure is hot out here today!
Me: Well, it feels hot after playing all that tag.
Penelope: (pointing over to the plants lining the swimming pool fence) Well, you can see it's hot. Just look at those poor plants. They're so hot, they can't even sway. You can hardly tell they're alive.
Me: Well, they're not swaying because there's no breeze right now--which may also be why it feels so hot to you.
Penelope: Can I get some acorns?
Me: Can you lick some acorns?!!
Penelope: No, I said can I get some acorns!
Me: Oh, I thought you asked if you could lick them.
Penelope: (laughing as she gathers acorns) And you were like, "Um. No."
Me: I just never know what's going on.
Penelope: See. That proves it. It's just too hot out here. Oooh! These acorns are burning my hands!!
3:36 pm

October 9

I guess it's getting close to Halloween. Some self-proclaimed "creature" is in my bed, possibly Dracula.
12:53 pm

So in our pretend game, Nellie and I are adversaries. She just presented me with this "book" she made by ripping out still joined tablet pages. Her mocking laughter—HO! HO! HO!—continues across every page until the end of the book.
6:52 pm

The Universe on TV: All our dreams could come true in a parallel universe.
Penelope: Oooooh! In a parallel universe, I could be very happy!
9:01 pm

October 10

Penelope: Well that's not nice! They're stepping on him! That isn't very good for the Bears. Look! Look how mad he is! Is that the guy who was getting stepped on? He looks pretty mad about that!
10:15 pm

October 11

Penelope: His pickle is sticking out! He has no pants or underwear!
I look and see a picture of the Chili’s pepper dressed in only a jacket on her menu.
7:00 pm

October 12
Nellie: (lying down burying herself in rocks on the playground): I have to bury myself because all of my family has died. This is where I go to be near their graves. It makes me so sad. My brother died of cancer. My baby brother, some bad guys poked extra holes in his nose and all his breath ran out, so that's how he died. My mother, somebody gave her too much wine when she was just a little girl, so she kept drinking that wine and eventually went crazy. She ran off into the hills and died from eating dirt.
Me: What happened to your father?
Penelope: Oh, Papa? He died of sickness.
Me: How terrible! What sickness did he have, the flu?
Penelope: No. Cholera.

She's now burying herself in rocks singing a melancholy dirge. Can't keep up with the lyrics.
2:04 pm

October 13

Penelope's latest masterpiece--a vampire bat feeding on a young bull. Notice the purple vein in the bull's leg. On the left, we see a close up of the tiny cut the vampire bat has made on the bull's leg. The bat is going to stick his tongue into the cut "to slurp the blood with his tongue." Penelope adds, "You notice the vein is purple because he is a young bull." [Photo to follow]
12:31 am

October 14

Penelope (watching Katy Perry perform on SNL): Look at how she's sexy and hot. Why is she so sexy AND hot?
Me: What do you mean?
Penelope: I'm just talking about how she looks.
Derrick: But for a lot of people, "sexy" and "hot" mean the same thing.
Penelope: I'm talking about she's beautiful, and she's got moves.
12:44 am

Penelope: Mom, can I draw on my new doodle pad?
Me: That's why I got you a new doodle pad.
Penelope: Well yeah! Because I ran out of my old doodle pad! (moments later) Mom come and look at this new Halloween house I'm making. Check out this spooky pumpkin on the porch, and did you see this pumpkin garland that's hanging just under the upstairs windows?
Me: Oh yes, that pumpkin garland really gets us in the holiday spirit. Get it? (spooky voice) The holiday "spiriiiitttt!" Boooooo!
Penelope: Nice touch, Mom!
6:37 am

Penelope: How come Nanny and Pawpaw never had any children?
Me: What?! Nanny and Pawpaw do have children! Daddy and Uncle Jason are their children!
Penelope: Oh yeah! What was I thinking?!
Me: (absent-mindedly as I gather the laundry off the couch) When Daddy was little, Nanny was his mommy and Pawpaw Harley was his daddy. Just like when I was little, Grandma was my mommy and Pawpaw Harley was my daddy.
Nellie: (incredulous) Pawpaw Harley was your daddy????!!!!
Me: (realizing what I said) Oh, no! I mean Grandma was my mommy and Daddy was my daddy.
Nellie: What?!
Me: (exasperated now) I mean Grandpa! Grandma was my mommy and Grandpa was my daddy!
Penelope: If you say so!
Me: Well, when I said "Daddy" I was thinking of my Daddy...who is Grandpa.
Penelope: Uh huh.

I can't imagine how she could get confused about this!
6:41 am

Penelope (singing as she colors her Halloween house): It's blood! It's blood!
There's blood coming up
the chimney with care!
It spatters all around!
6:43 pm

Penelope (drawing her spooky picture): Wait! I have to add the rubber bats. See, they're attached! (Singing) And the rubber bats were hanging there, fluttering in the black night air! (Points) And see all the blood instead of ashes coming out of the chimney? Doesn't that give you a spooky feeling?
Grandma: Blood instead of what?
6:50 pm

October 15

Penelope has enticed me into watching, "the newest Charlie Brown" on Netflix. She means "I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown." It's cracking me up.
1:39 pm

October 16

Penelope: Can I have a carrot?
(I peel her a carrot then look for her water glass to refill it.)
Penelope (while I'm in the other room): Oh I am so freezing! I feel like I'm turning into a snowman!
Me: Oh I'm sorry, do you...?
(Suddenly I notice her holding the carrot up to her nose, grinning at me.)
Moments later...
Penelope: Mom, can I have another carrot?
Me: Sure.
Penelope: No! Wait! Can I have a hotdog?
Me: Sure!
Penelope: I love hotdogs! Hotdogs are the theme of my life! Well...and macaroni. Also sugar! I have such a sugar tooth that all my teeth are sugar teeth! They call me Little Nellie Sugar Tooth With All Her Sweet Teeth!
1:17 am

Penelope: Look at all those birds up there.
Me: I wonder what they're up to.
Penelope: I'll bet they wonder, too. They say, what's going on up here? Who is leading us?
Me: Maybe they're so busy because they know there's going to be a storm.
Penelope: (laughing) How could the birds know the weather? They don't have cell phones! How could they use the app?
4:40 pm

Penelope (from where she is "washing dishes" in the kitchen): Scrubbin' that! Scrubbin that! Well now that's all clean. What should I do now? I don't know. Die probably!
Grandma: Don't die.
Penelope: I won't. I was just joking about that. (in a spooky voice) But mayyyybe I will die...one day!

That shouldn't be funny, but she sounds like she's introducing a Halloween movie.
7:58 pm

October 17

Me: What else rhymes with "vine"?
Penelope: Midnine.
Me: Midnine? What does that mean?
Penelope: You know. It's like when it's past nine o'clock but not yet midnight. It's sort of a little joke, like the old poem says, "We all will dine at midnine."
Me: Is that if you can't stay up until midnight?
Penelope: Yes, that's the time to dine for kids like me. It's very spooky but not so late.
3:30 pm

October 18

Penelope: Wait! When it is going to be Easter? Is it going to be after Halloween or what?
Me: Here's how it's going to go--first Halloween, then Thanksgiving, then Christmas, then your birthday, then my birthday, then Easter.
Penelope: Aww man! I don't want it to be my birthday.
Me: Why not?
Penelope: Because then I've got to turn five!
Me: So what's wrong with turning five?
Penelope: I just thought when you get older, you know, your style changes and stuff.
12:38 am

Derrick: Sweetie, you need to quit falling down on yourself.
P: But it's gravity that's pulling me down!
1:30 am

Oh deary me,
this is not good!
There's an ostrich in this tree!
It should be a bee!
Funny how it seems urgent to have a poem contest at bedtime!
1:32 am

On the one hand, I've showered, finished writing for the night, and am tucked cozily under my covers reading. On the other hand, it has become increasingly clear that there is a (very noisy) owl right outside my window. If he's as close as he sounds, the pictures could be phenomenal.
2:50 am

Penelope (when her brother pauses for breath during his anecdote about playing football, clearly trying to take charge of the conversation): I will tell you the names of all these butterflies...
Gray: How can you tell them apart? They're so symmetrical.
Penelope: (ignoring the question): This one's Charles...
6:47 pm

October 19

Penelope: I'm trying to do my stories, but Mommy keeps exploding them.
Gray: Keep talking, Mommy. Keep talking.
Penelope: Finally peace and quiet so I can tell my stories!
Gray: Nooo! Keep talking, Mommy.
Penelope: But I tell my stories to MYSELF QUIETLY inside my HEAD!!!!
1:07 pm

Gray: Hey remember Rapunzible!!! I mean...
Grandma: Rapunzible!!!
Me: Hey babe, nice hair! You look Rapunzible!!!
Gray: I mean that part where she's like happy and then sad...
Nellie: No I am the one with Rapunzible hair!
Derrick: Yes, I remember. "This is the greatest day of my life! I'm the worst daughter ever!!!"
Me (in two voices): (man voice) "I have opposable thumbs." (Woman voice) "I have Rapunzible hair."
Derrick: Was that funny in your head?
Gray: Now I'm sad because you said that to make fun of me.
Me: Oh I'm sorry. But weren't you referencing that part of the movie to make fun of me?
Gray: Oohhhh...I'm not sure that's relevant...
Penelope: (taking the entire exchange completely seriously and genuinely in distress): No but I keep telling you that I am the Rapunzible one because I have the longest hair in the family!!!!
1:23 pm

We couldn't find a song we like on our usual stations--so we found "In the Mood" on 40s on 4...
Grayson: This is World War II music. I can picture it. Black and white. Hitler's dancing in the bunker while the bombs hit New York...or I mean London!
1:52 pm

Penelope: (listening to “Wire Brush Stomp”) I think I might need a book this is so fancy.
Me: A book?
Penelope: You know an instruction book to teach me how to dance.
Gray: Makes me sick just thinking about it.
Penelope (shrilly while doing crazy jitterbug moves in her car seat): Yeeeeeahhhh! Me, too!!!!
1:57 pm

Penelope (as Gray finds her bag of Jelly Bellies in the most intensely terrifying voice ever): Those are MINE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Gray: May I have one?
Penelope (in the sweetest most friendly delighted voice imaginable, immediately): Yeeaahh!
7:56 pm

Me (as Gray and Nellie giggle): What's all this giggling about?
Penelope: Not you this time.
Me: This time?
(Gray sends her frantic signals.)
Penelope: Forget that line.
Me: That last line?
Penelope: The first line. Oh yeah, and the last line. And the middle line, too. Just forget all the lines.
8:08 pm

October 20
Commercial trick-or-treaters: He's a dentist, and he's giving out floss!
Penelope (scoffing): Floss! You shouldn't eat floss! He must be a really bad dentist!
4:32 pm

On our walk...
Penelope: (pointing to a for sale sign in someone's yard): What is up with all those red signs I keep seeing?
Me: That's a "for sale" sign. That means those people are trying to sell their house.
Penelope: (laughing) Sell their house?! Why would they do that? Then where will they live?
(I explain for several minutes how buying and selling houses works.)
Penelope: Then why is that man just not happy anywhere?
Me: What do you mean?
Penelope: That guy. Why doesn't he ever like the house where he lives? Why does he keep selling them?
Me: What guy?
Penelope: That guy whose face was on that sign. He must have some kind of scheme buying and selling all those houses because I have seen his face all over this neighborhood!
Me: (realizing) Oh, no, sweetie. That's a picture of the real estate agent! (And then another explanation.)
7:39 pm

Penelope: (draped over Derrick watching the Colts/Broncos game) So what you are saying to me is that you like both teams?
Derrick: Yes, I like them both. I'm a little bit torn.
Penelope: Uh oh. So you might have to root for both teams! Aren't you puzzled?!

[There's not a good way to punctuate that. It was both an exclamation and a dramatic question.]
10:32 pm

Penelope: Dad, what's 5+90?
Derrick: 5+90?
Penelope: Yeah?
Derrick: 5+90=95
Penelope: Whaaaaaaat? How much math do you know???!!! Tell me all your math.
Derrick: That's a lot of math.
Penelope: Then teach me half of what you know. Teach me what's one half of one.
Derrick: One half of one is one half.
Penelope: (giggles like it was a joke, then decides) Okay. (craftily) Then what is one plus two plus three?
Derrick: One plus two plus three is six.
Penelope: WHAAAAAAAT? I didn't know you could add THREE numbers!
11:09 pm

October 21

Penelope has named the pumpkins we got at the pumpkin patch--Bowl (the big round jack), Banana (the little yellow gourdy/squashy looking thing), Giraffe (hers to carve), Hill (Gray's to carve), Vampire (the pale fairy tale), Sorcerer (the warty one), Moon, Cantaloupe, Peach, Sun (the four tiny ones, some of which are stripey). She is counting the days until we carve them next weekend. Yesterday, when she woke up, the first thing she said to me was, "I'm so excited!!!! It's already been one day!!!!"
4:53 pm