Clearing the Netfix Queue

Netflix is great. I love being able to rent movies for as long as I want, and being able to pick from such a diverse selection. But occasionally (and I know I'm not the only one who does this) I just don't get around to watching that rental. For a long time. You know what I mean. The movie sounds interesting, you put it in your queue, but when it arrives, it's not something you want to watch right this minute...

In my case, I toss the little red packet onto a director's chair – the designated area for "to watch" items – sure that I will watch it the next day. Most of the time I do. But sometimes... sometimes they sit there for a while. It's not that I don't want to watch the movie... I just don't want to watch it right this minute, you know...

A month goes by. Movies that I am much more interested in watching pile up in the queue. I should just send the film back, right? I can always rent it again some other time. But I don't. Another month goes by. Now, once again, I've come to another movie that I want to watch, just (you guessed it) not right now – and now I have two movies that I'm not watching right away, taking up two spots of my precious Netflix queue.

I think that it is situations like this that keep Netflix in business, actually. All this time I'm paying my $14.95 a month, as two disks sit unwatched. Oh, and the disks in questions are Blu-Ray, so it's an extra dollar for them.

Then I start to feel guilty. What if there is someone out there who is desparate to see the movie that I have? What if it is their favorite movie of all time, but they can't see it. They've been waiting for weeks. Hoping, praying that the moron who's had that film rented for months now will finally return it. Yes, I know that's not the way Netflix actually works. But guilt is guilt.

So this weekend, I decided: Enough is enough. I'm going to watch both of these movies this weekend, dammit, and then send them back. One on Friday night, one on Saturday night. And finally, I did just that.

Julie & Julia (2009). 123 minutes, Columbia Pictures. Directed by Nora Ephron.

This is a delightful, funny, heartwarming, and charming movie. I resisted it for quite a while. Saying to me, "Hey, it's Meryl Streep and Amy Adams in a Nora Ephron fim about female empowerment, romance, and fulfillment in two different centuries!" is not a way to get me into a theater. "Hey, it's about a blogger!" is also not a way to get me into a theater. After all, I'm a blogger myself, and I have to think that watching a movie about me working on my blog would be only slightly less boring that watching an experimental film about bread rising.

But this film is about Julia Child. And I love Julia Child. Or at least, I love her cookbook. I've had Mastering the Art of French Cooking as one of my basic cooking books for years. It's the go-to source for all of the basic techniques of food creation. In my opinion, you can just remove the word "French" from the title of the book. Almost everything in the book is the basics of how to cook good food. Julia teachs how to hold a knife. How to slice every kind of vegetable. How to prepare every type of meat. What the various types of basic sauces are, and how to make them.

I've absorbed so much of what Julia teaches in the book, that when I describe a recipe that I've created or tweaked on my own, I will frame it in terms of techniques from the book. "Well, first, you start with a basic Julia Child White Sauce, the cream version that's in the Sauces chapter, and then..."

Julie and Julia is a story of two different people in two different centuries, linked together across time by a love of cooking and writing. The "Julie" of the story is Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a modern-day woman just turning thirty. She lives in a small Queens (New York City) apartment with her husband Eric (Chris Messina), and works at a grinding government cubicle job, answering phone calls from angry members of the public. She's foundering in life; her dreams of being a writer are slowly fading away, and she feels increasingly that only the strength of her loving husband keeps her going. She needs a change. She needs a project. And so, in late 2002, she decides that her project will consist of cooking every single recipe in Julia Child's seminal cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, over the period of exactly one year. And she will write a blog about the entire process, and how it changes her life.

The "Julia" in the story is, of course, Julia Child. The film begins in 1949 as Julia and her diplomat husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) arrive in France, to begin a four-year assignment there. While Paul is busy at his new job, Julia tries desperately to find something to keep her busy. She begins taking French lessons. She tries her hand at learning how to make hats. She learns how to get around Paris, and enjoys shopping and the markets. Every night, she and Paul eat a fabulous French dinner at a different restaurant. One night, Paul tells her to do whatever it is that she likes most. "I like to eat!" she says. And right then and there, she decides to enter culinary school and become a chef.

Although Julie and Julia never meet, their stories parallel each other. The film works by cutting back and forth every ten minutes or so between the two characters and the two different time periods. Julia Child becomes a chef, and then, with the help of two other female French chefs, decides to write the ultimate English language book of how to cook in the French style. We watch her struggles and triumphs over the decade it takes to bring the book to life and finally see it published to glowing reviews. We pass through a variety of different diplomatic posts for the Childs, until the McCarthy era puts an end to their style of open and casual diplomacy.

Back in 2002, we watch Julie Powell as she works her way through Julia's book, now in its 47th printing. Her daily blog postings become more and more famous. The New York Times writes an article about her efforts. And Judith Jones – the still-living publisher who approved Julia Child's book nearly fifty years ago – schedules a visit to see how she's doing.

The whole movie is done in a bright, cheery, almost whimsical style that suits the story matter perfectly. Meryl Streep, always wonderful, is awesome as Julia Child. Although the modern parts of the movie are fine and dandy for what they are, it's the period pieces set in France of the 1950's that are the heart of this film. I also have to give a special shout-out to Jane Lynch (currently famous as evil cheerleader coach Sue Sylvester on Glee), who plays Julia's sister Dorothy to perfection.

It's a happy movie, and I won't keep you in suspense: It has a happy ending. Julie Powell ends up turning her blog into a book, which becomes this movie. And Julia Child does get her french cooking book published, which becomes a best-seller, leading to her becoming a TV star on the long-running cooking show The French Chef.

9 (2009). 79 minutes, Focus Features. Directed by Shane Acker.

My second feature of the weekend was a much, much different kind of film. 9 is a computer-animated fable that takes place after an apocalypse has apparently destroyed every living plant and animal on the face of the Earth, including all of humanity. The only "living" things are nine rag doll things, created by a dying scientist in an attempt to ensure that life will continue. Each doll has a hand-written number on its back, in the order they were created. To the last one, 9, he has left instructions and a special device that, he hopes, can restore life to the planet. But he dies before he can give 9 the instructions on what he's supposed to do next...

And so 9 comes to life in a dead world, his first sight the dead scientist's body lying on the floor in front of him. Soon, he meets up with the other eight rag doll things that were brought to live by the scientist as well. Who are being chased and captured by some bizarre robot that has the skull of a dog for a head. And there's this little green disk thing that glows with these odd symbols and –

You know, I'll just stop right there with the plot summary, because it doesn't matter. 9 is quite enjoyable when taken at the level of "Wow! Does this look cool!!" But taken on the level of narrative or characters or plot – no way, man. Just forget it. 9 is probably the best-looking film I've seen in a long time that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. I'm actually serious when I say it's fun to watch – I certainly watched the whole movie, and didn't feel bored or cheated at all. But it really is just sort of a moving art piece.

The set design and artwork on 9 is stunning. The look of the devastated alternative steampunk future world is beautifully desolate. The odd creations concocted by the Brain Machine to go chase and... uh... kill, I guess... the rag dolls are a joy to watch. But when the movie was over, I thought "Huh. That would've made a really great short film".

And lo and behold, a look at the extras on the disk reveal that, in fact, 9 was a short animated film originally, and was later expanded into a full-length feature. The original short film is included here as well. I watched the short. It had everything that was cool in the feature, without the meaningless plot and expensive voiceover actors. I can see immediately how it must've impressed the hell out of anyone who saw it.

But. For the life of me, I can't understand why anyone wanted to turn such an excellent little short work into a puzzling feature length film. I started putting together possible scenarios in my head: Did the studio want the talents of creator Shane Acker, but the only way to get him was to agree to make a feature-length version of his short? Did he have an even stranger idea that they turned down in lieu of this one? Did they look at District 9 and say "Hey! We should take some other science fiction short film and turn it into a feature too!" Did they approve the entire concept while stoned? Inquiring minds want to know!

Enough about that. Summing up my weekend double feature: Julie & Julia is a near-perfect little film with both comedic and historical elements that should appeal to just about everyone. 9 is a odd but artistic experimental film that will probably appeal to die-hard science fiction fans and/or animation buffs only.

And now, my Netflix queue is clear and I'm ready for further punishment. If only I could remember what's coming in the mail next...


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