The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: What Makes Us Cry at Movies (and TV)

When was the last time you cried at a movie? That’s a question posed toward the beginning of this Very Special episode of the SportsAlcohol.com podcast, in which Nathaniel, Marisa, Jesse, Sara, and Jon get personal about crying at movies (or TV shows): how often it happens, when we respect it and when we resent it, and why we react the way we do to certain types of emotional button-pushing (or lack thereof). Crying at movies is a near-universal topic, and we’ve tried to be very specific in our wide-ranging discussion that we promise is not a total bummer.

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The Disastrous and the Unpalatable: Yesterday’s Headlines and Tomorrow’s Political Films

For those who seek comfort and clarity in pop culture during uncertain times, 2016 has already been a tough year. The immense losses of Bowie and Prince sent immediate ripples of grief through the music world, while Rage Against the Machine regrouped in an act of real-time protest to Trump’s candidacy. Over in TV land Orange is the New Black fans are still reeling from how miscarriages of justice in the modern for-profit prison system manifested in the show. Film, though, by dint of its longer development and production periods, often aligns with politics by (un)happy accidents rather than deliberate planning. (Selma, to take one recent example, would have been an acclaimed biopic of MLK regardless of its timing; that it came out at a time of increased racial tensions in America made it an inadvertent touchstone for activists both online and on the ground.) It remains to be seen how long it will be before the aftershocks of the 2016 presidential race are felt in the medium. But, as the old saw goes, history’s usually repeating itself and, as someone who’ll take almost any excuse to fill in some of the gaps of my movie knowledge, I decided to see what, if anything, a few classics from the past could impart about our sorry present.

My journey began with the film I was most embarrassed about not having seen before: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which came out in the banner cinematic year of 1939. I had a passing familiarity with the famous filibuster scene and director Frank Capra’s other work, which led me to believe I’d be in for a pleasant, uplifting film about the power of government. However, the opening literal game of telephone amongst a group of venal senators laid that immediately to rest. It seems the chambers have always been a haven for corrupt, backbiting men, an insinuation that was not lost on the forty-five senators invited to the film’s premiere. Despite a sequence featuring a vaguely jingoistic tour through D.C.’s iconic landmarks, this is not a city where innocence escapes unscathed.

For those in need of a quick plot refresher: Jimmy Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, head of a Boy Scouts-esque group, brought in to fill a vacant seat as a coin-flipped compromise, his wholesome image pleasing to one side of the aisle and his potential to be manipulated pleasing the other. Smith is advised to introduce a land bill to build a national boys’ camp but, unbeknownst to him, the land he’s chosen has already been earmarked for a dam-building graft scheme. To his shame and frustration, the senators he thought supported him begin doing everything in their power to smear and vilify him until he’s forced to filibuster for 24 hours to stay a vote for his expulsion. If it all sounds a bit convoluted, that seems to be part of Capra’s point about how the immoral interests of a few can poison the whole well. Smith’s speech is inspiring to watch, his refusal to yield to repeated requests acting as a comical rebuke to petty bureaucracy. It’s also genuinely draining; he collapses immediately after a suicidal senator bursts into the chamber to confess his guilt and the film ends while Smith is being carried away, having exhausted itself along with its hero. Integrity, Capra’s film insists, is the responsibility of the individual, not the body, particularly a political one. In the early years of World War II this message was understandably inspiring; many theatres in Vichy France reportedly chose Washington as the last American film screened before a Nazi-imposed ban went into effect. These days though, when the Senate is more often a site of intense partisan gridlock, it’s usually the loudest and least helpful voices that end up breaking through.
Mr Smith
Indeed, a mere thirty-three years later the potential of the individual to enact change was already less assured. The Candidate, starring Robert Redford as an idealistic lawyer drafted into what’s expected to be a futile Senate run, was released in 1972, the same year as the disastrous Democratic Convention that George McGovern would eventually win on his way to a sound defeat in the general courtesy of incumbent Richard Nixon. Hunter S. Thompson immortalized that debacle in literature and the film captures, albeit with clearer, less drug-addled eyes, some of that same madness. The casting of Redford at the height of his golden-boy years is a stroke of genius and the manpower behind the scenes helps add to the authenticity; it was written by Jeremy Larner, who had worked as a speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy during his presidential campaign.

The film opens as a defeated politician gives a speech to his disappointed supporters. “Hell of a nice guy,” says one political strategist to another. The response? “He never had a chance.” This declaration is made by Marvin Lucas (played by Peter Boyle) and his resigned cynicism pervades the story that follows: Democrat Bill McKay (Redford), the son of a famous governor, is convinced by Lucas to run against a Republican incumbent believed to be unbeatable. Since he’s all but guaranteed to lose, McKay is told he can run his campaign as he likes and he jumps at the chance to spread his progressive values to the masses. When it becomes clear he’ll be demolished in the election to an embarrassing degree, however, he’s advised to tone down his message and broaden his appeal, only to find that the more he sells out, the higher his poll numbers climb. So much for honor, then. The end of the film mirrors the beginning except now we have a victory, for someone fully unprepared for what lies ahead of him. “What do we do now?” McKay asks Lucas before he’s dragged out of a hotel room by voters to celebrate, the camera lingering on the empty space he leaves behind before fading to the credits. Even four years ago the idea that a man, running solely on name recognition could be elected with such a generic platform was comical; what makes it chilling for a modern viewer is the implicit suggestion that the public ultimately doesn’t care as long as it’s backed a winner.

One of The Candidate’s most hilarious scenes shows McKay meeting Natalie Wood (in a cameo whose self-awareness seems questionable) at a campaign event. Rather than talk policy with the celebrity, he listens agreeably while she proceeds to recommend he put fresh fruit in his yogurt. Redford, though, was one of the most politically conscious movie stars of the era and four years later he would be instrumental in the making of All the President’s Men. The story of two reporters helping to dismantle the Nixon administration is public knowledge, of course, and has since permeated the cultural landscape in ways that can make it difficult for modern viewers to take seriously; my first real exposure to Watergate was via the 1999 satirical film Dick, the preening performance of Bruce McCulloch as Bernstein making Dustin Hoffman’s rakish interpretation retroactively comical. Yet there’s something invigorating in how earnestly the film prizes journalistic integrity in times of political corruption. The poster tagline proclaimed it “the most devastating detective story of the century,” and in many ways it is, though one that glorifies the nuts and bolts of such procedural work rather than the actual solution.

The film opens in media res, with the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters already in progress. Woodward (played by Redford) is still getting his sea legs at the Washington Post and is put on the case, which is believed to be of minor importance; instead it’s the first domino that ends up toppling a presidency. You know where it goes from here: at the behest of their editor and with the assistance of secret source Deep Throat, Woodward and Bernstein dig around, eventually connecting the five men arrested at the hotel with the Committee to Re-Elect the President (also known by its apt acronym CREEP) to Chief of Staff Haldeman all the way to Nixon himself. It’s a foregone conclusion but director Alan J. Pakula and screenwriter William Goldman smartly emphasize what the two reporters were up against at every turn. The D.C. they occupy is a shadowy place, seemingly without daylight; even when in their element on the newsroom floor they’re often dwarfed by their surroundings. The film pointedly ends before their work is even complete: in the final shot Nixon is being sworn in for his second term on a television while Woodward and Bernstein clack away on their typewriters nearby. A montage of teletype headlines preserves the rest for posterity. It’s a modest conclusion but then their reputations are already assured just by dint of being subjects of a movie. Still it’s heartening in this modern age to be reminded of the media’s potential to serve the greater good.

This (relative) positivity stands in stark contrast to the final film I watched, Medium Cool, which came out in 1969 during one of the most tumultuous periods in recent American history. It too takes the media as its focus though it centers on television rather than print, a medium whose potential to influence the general public was only just beginning to emerge. The film takes its title from Marshall McLuhan who wrote that the “cooler” the medium, “the more someone has to uncover and engage in the media” in order to “fill in the blanks.” Though its view of its subject is suspicious, even hostile, it’s also alive with the possibilities of cinema. Director Haskell Wexler mixes documentary style footage with his fictional story, capturing the anxieties and fears of his era in real time.
Dick Woodward
Ostensibly the film is about a cameraman for a news station (played by the brutishly charismatic Robert Forster) and his various personal and professional exploits but that’s really just an inroad to the sociopolitical commentary on the 1960’s last gasps. The parallels to 2016 are numerous and striking, from the discussion of the role of the media in public life and the rifts between the races and sexes to the palpable rage in the clashes between protestors and police. The climactic scenes were filmed at the 1968 Democratic convention, which erupted into a riot following anti-war demonstrations, and have an almost apocalyptic energy to them, a sense at any moment that things will run off the rails – at one point someone behind the camera yells out Haskell’s name to warn him off, a break in the fourth wall that feels truly dangerous. As a political statement it’s brazen and energizing; while the film doesn’t shy away from grappling with the shortcomings of the counterculture movement as a force for change, it’s clear what side Wexler falls on. Our humanity is lost, he seems to say, when we’re all reduced to spectacles for a camera. In 2016, though, with the 24-hour news cycle in endless motion, it feels too late to heed the lesson.

So what can these films tell us, aside from the fact that we’ve always been skeptical of our fearless leaders? Is there any reason to be hopeful about the future when the past is less rosy than we remember? These may be the wrong questions to ask. Stories by their very definition require conflict, or at least some kind of friction, and the political realm offers some of the very best. Even something like 2012’s Lincoln, which takes a more exalted view of civil service, understood this, finding as much to admire in the diligence and compromises it took to ratify the 13th Amendment as it does in the actual victory. As with almost anything worthwhile, the best work done in government is often the hardest. And some of our most timeless art is borne from trying times. Regardless of what comes to pass in November, it’s a safe bet it’ll inspire some great movies.

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Saturday Night Live at the Movies

Hey, have you guys heard about the new Ghostbusters movie coming out this week? Many of the film’s cast members have one obvious thing in common… that’s right, many of them were on Saturday Night Live (is there some other difference you were thinking of?). The casting of Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and (in a supporting role) Cecily Strong establishes a clear lineage with the 1984 original, which featured Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd acting out (and riffing on) an Aykroyd-cowritten script. The first film remains one of the most successful to star Saturday Night Live alumni, which got your SportsAlcohol.com crew thinking about how cast members on that program have made the transition into movies. Nathaniel, Sara, Marisa, Jesse, and Jon got together to talk about this rich history for roughly the length of a Saturday Night Live episode to talk about official SNL movies, unofficial SNL movies, and a whole lot of actors.

Listen and find the answers to the following questions, and more!

  • Does Mike Myers work without makeup?
  • Which one of us saw Bordello of Blood in the theaters?
  • How young is too young to watch Beverly Hills Cop?
  • What movie is an even less distilled expression of Aykroyd-ness than Ghostbusters?
  • Have Tina Fey and Amy Poehler really made it in the movies yet?
  • Which SNL players do we want to see star in their own movie?

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SportsAlcohol.com Founders in the Wild

There’s a new ARG that’s sweeping the nation where you have to try and find the SportsAlcohol.com founders in the wild. Here are some cheat codes.

Nathaniel Will Be at Kevin Geeks Out

12036970_1673214976245526_3521092882304315489_nNathaniel will be featured on Kevin Geeks Out, Brooklyn’s favorite video variety show/salon of nerdy ideas. The theme of the evening will be Star Trek, and, as KGO’s resident Planet of the Apes expert, Nathaniel will talk about the optimism of Star Trek vs. the pessimism of Planet of the Apes as two poles of ’60s sci-fi. It goes down at 9:30 pm on Wednesday, July 13 at the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn. BUY TICKETS HERE RIGHT NOW, SUCKERS.

Jesse on CBC Radio

JH film criticJesse was invited to chat on the CBC’s “Day 6” radio program about the sexism inherent in pre-release Ghostbusters bashing, because he’s woke as shit. LISTEN TO THE SHOW HERE, SUCKERS.

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Independence Day: Resurgence and Long-Gap Sequels

Happy almost Independence Day! And, perhaps, less-happy Independence Day! That’s right, the 1996 blockbuster is back with Independence Day: Resurgence, a direct sequel that’s already underperforming compared to the original (at least at the U.S. box office). Undeterred by bad buzz or lack of press screenings, Marisa, Nathaniel, and Jesse went to see it, then reconvened to discuss the movie, as well as what goes into an effective twenty-years-later sequel. We talk about what we thought of Independence Day: Resurgence, of course, but we also touch upon Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Dumber and Dumber, Wild Wild West, Space Jam, and lots of other stuff you might not expect.

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WIENER-DOG inspires the bold question: Does Todd Solondz hate us?

Twenty years on, and I’m still having trouble getting a bead on Todd Solondz. Wiener-Dog is not exactly a twenty-years-later sequel to 1996’s Welcome to the Dollhouse to accompany this weekend’s twenty-years-later sequel to 1996’s Independence Day. Yet briefly, it totally is. One quarter of the movie’s dog-connected anthology follows Dawn Wiener, the awkward twelve-year-old played by Heather Matarazzo in Dollhouse, as a thirtysomething woman played by Greta Gerwig.

Close followers of Solondz’s work will not a discrepancy: We were told at the outset of his film Palindromes that Wiener gained a bunch of weight and killed herself. It was a non-grace note in a movie that wasn’t even about Dawn Wiener, but did have its main character (her cousin) played by eight different performers. Since that movie, he made one called Life During Wartime that is a direct sequel to the movie Happiness, except with every single character recast. In Dark Horse, Selma Blair quietly reprises a character she played in Storytelling who no longer looks or acts much like she did in the earlier film. The title of the Dawn-resurrecting Wiener-Dog is also the cruel nickname the character was given at school in Dollhouse, but here actually refers to an actual wiener-dog, who scampers through a series of owners, including Dawn Wiener.

So, again I ask: What the hell is going on with Todd Solondz? Does he think of his filmography as an ongoing, mutating art project, where recasting characters throws them into ever more fascinating contexts? Or do a lot of actors not want to work with him again? Does he compulsively revisit aspects of Dollhouse to tweak expectations about how his movies will compare to his still-biggest success? Or can he not leave well enough alone? And am I being a nerdy pedant for finding it kind of annoying, for not ginning up the interest to see Life During Wartime because I thought Happiness was great and had no desire to see a different rep company inhabit and sequelize those roles?
Continue reading WIENER-DOG inspires the bold question: Does Todd Solondz hate us?

TRACK MARKS: What the Hell, You Weirdos Are All Too Good For “Creep,” by Radiohead?

I used to have a long-ish commute. As expected, sometimes traffic would snarl to a halt. On one particularly backed-up day, I looked up and realized I had no idea where I was. Even though I was overly familiar with every inch of scenery on my way to and from work, having driven the same route every day, I never really had the chance to stop and look closely at some of the things I was passing.

After seeing our Best of Radiohead list, I realize that “Creep” is that stretch of landscape. People pass by it so often that they don’t stop to really listen to it anymore.

Continue reading TRACK MARKS: What the Hell, You Weirdos Are All Too Good For “Creep,” by Radiohead?

The Top 25 Best Radiohead Songs

Let’s reflect for a moment on the beautiful oddity that Radiohead remains one of the biggest rock bands in the world, at a time when the very concept of “biggest rock band in the world” is often looked at as passé. If rock and roll’s moment has indeed passed, what in the name of the Beatles possesses people to follow Radiohead, of all artists, as if members of a religious cult, especially because said religious cult would not particularly worship rock and roll music as most people know it? It would be easy to ascribe the Radiohead following to their shapeshifting, and indeed there is an incredible variety of material across their nine-so-far records and various EPs, live cuts, and so forth. Yet it’s not as if A Moon Shaped Pool, their 2016 album and first in five years, is wildly unrecognizable as the same band that made The King of Limbs, which itself was not so radically different from In Rainbows, and so on, all the way back to the late ’90s (I’ll grant you that, OK, Pablo Honey sounds like a vastly different band, albeit an actually-pretty-good one; better, certainly, than the practitioners of Old Radiohead that cropped up in the early ’00s, a litany of Nerf Herders and Saves the Days to Radiohead’s Weezer).

In fact, it’s their ability to remain recognizably the Radiohead of the ’90s while going in different directions that makes them so exciting. A new Radiohead album, insular and strange and inscrutable as it can be, is still an event, the band’s mutations allowing it to survive the alt-rock boom, the rap-rock bust, the indie gold rush, the death of the album, and on and on. It was a no-brainer, then, that some of the founders, friends, and associates of SportsAlcohol.com would want to pledge our allegiance to the paranoid humanoids of Radiohead once again, through a list celebrating their best songs. Contributors were asked to send a ranked list of twenty; points were assigned accordingly.

In addition to your pals Rob, Marisa, Jesse, Sara, and special guest writer Maggie, we recruited a voting team ranging from people old enough to remember “Creep” playing on MTV to people who were born the year The Bends came out. Here are your Radiohead fans par excellence:

Darian Alexander is an attorney and Radiohead correspondent for Slate.
Emma Bennett is studying psychology and studio art at SUNY New Paltz.
Noah Casner is a drama major at New York University.
Timothy DeLizza is a lawyer, a fiction writer, and a gentleman.
A.A. Dowd is the film editor for The Onion’s A.V. Club.
Derrick Hart is an archivist and music fan.
Kate McKean is a literary agent, writer, and crafter.
Umer Piracha might love A Moon Shaped Pool more than anyone else who voted.
Ben Ross has had Radiohead blurbs locked and loaded for years.

The results heavily favored OK Computer, but well over half of Radiohead’s catalog received votes, including most of the new album. But why discuss the results when you can read a series of varied and passionate tributes to our collective favorites? Sometimes we had such varied and passionate responses that we doubled up the blurbing to get a fuller picture of this band we all love. Surprises, please:

The Top 25 Best Radiohead Songs (So Far)

Continue reading The Top 25 Best Radiohead Songs

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Peak TV Season Wrap-Up, 2015-2016

Summer doesn’t just mean blockbuster movies; it also brings about the official end of the TV season. Even though the era of “peak TV” means that the traditional TV-season model is crumbling, we still thought the summer would be a good time to circle back and examine some shows and trends from the past nine months. We talk about shows we love and shows we think get too much love! Where do Last Week Tonight, Girls, The Last Man on Earth, Better Call Saul, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The People vs. OJ Simpson, Catastrophe, and, yes, Love fall on that spectrum? Listen to Marisa, Sara, Nathaniel, and Jesse talking TV to find out!

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The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Summer Movies from 1996

Summer is here! It may not technically start until June, but Memorial Day Weekend is sort of the cultural kick-off to summer. It used to be when the first big summer movies would start to roll out, but those have been moved up to the first weekend in May. Our latest podcast throws back to a time when that tradition wasn’t quite in place; as per our now-annual tradition, we took a look back at the ten highest-grossing movies from summer 1996. Summer 1996 saw the release of a variety of audience favorites and forgotten non-gems; please enjoy our thoughts about a bunch of old movies and in some cases, what we were up to twenty years ago. What’s our favorite Michael Bay movie? What summer 1996 movies wouldn’t fly today? Which stars had hot streaks continue or crash and burn? These are the questions this podcast will endeavor to answer.

Spoiler Warning: Lots of spoilers for movies that are two decades old.

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