Monday, August 31, 2009

Not So Far Out

In the new movie Taking Woodstock, we get to see some of the behind-the-scenes stuff that resulted in one of the most famous concerts of all time. The legend of Woodstock (which happened 40 years ago this summer) is, of course, a large one. Pity, then, that this movie doesn't really come close to generating the same level of excitement that you'd hope it would. Granted, the lack of a typical soundtrack is a nice departure — no sign of Crosby, Stills & Nash's "Woodstock," Jimi Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner," or other relevant tunes on the soundtrack — but by leaving off those recognizable touchpoints, Taking Woodstock doesn't, ahem, get very high.

Set in the summer of 1969, the film tells the true story of Elliot Tiber (Demetri Martin), whose parents owned and managed a run-down motel in White Lake, NY. When Tiber hears of a "hippie festival" that needs a home, he offers its organizers accommodations and puts them in touch with a friend, Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), who has a field that would be perfect. The rest, as they say, is history.

You might assume that any film about Woodstock would be overly cliche because of the stereotypes now associated with it — the music, the attendees, the scenes so well documented, etc. Well, as noted, there's not even a hint of the music you'd expect on the soundtrack. Richie Havens is heard softly in the distance, and an updated version of his "Freedom" comes on over the end credits if you stay long enough. And sure, there's a lot of peace, love, and drugs, but the film is not as concerned with the concert as much as it is with how it came to be — and with the liberating effect it had on Tiber. That's sort of a shame, because Taking Woodstock could have used some more of that fun. As it is, Martin and Levy, two very funny people, are left to be very serious and dull, and the chuckles come from Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff, from Broadway's Spring Awakening), for example, not because he's a funny character, but because he's such a recognizable figure and it's amusing to see him on screen.

On the good side, I liked Liev Schreiber's very natural performance as Vilma, a transvestite Marines vet who offers Elliot and his family protection. It could have been a very gimmicky performance, seeing this very masculine guy in a dress, but Schreiber plays it totally, ahem, straight, and it just works. The film itself does not, however. It's too long, too dull, and is not a must-see, since it really fails to capture the excitement of the concert and the surrounding events. Instead, check out the new 40th anniversary edition of the Woodstock movie. As for Taking Woodstock? I'm giving it a C.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Baking Up an Activity

I'm a traditional kind of guy, so when I get wind of a big storm approaching the area (no pun intended), I do what any domestic-minded person would do: I seek out a project to keep busy. After all, if I was going to be stuck indoors during a heavy rain and wind storm (as was predicted yesterday), I didn't want to spend the entire day on my couch watching the funeral and burial of Ted Kennedy.

So what was my project? Well, I came across a new blog this week (new to me, anyway), Beantown Baker, and I decided to make one of the recipes I found there: Cookies-N-Cream Cupcakes. No cake mix involved; this was an actual recipe I had to follow, from scratch. So, after being rescued for the first half of the day (thanks, Kelly!), I got to work later in the afternoon (coincidentally, right as the storm started to subside).... Aww screw it. Who cares about the story. Let me just cut to the chase: YUM. And, because I'm on a sort-of diet and don't want to be a pig, I'm bringing most of the cakes in to work to share with my wonderful coworkers. (You're welcome.)

You might say, as I did, mission accomplished: I avoided most of the funeral and burial, I kept busy with a project, I made good use of my kitchen, and I made something tasty. Actually, it's kind of cool — between these and my whoopie pies, I'm developing a fun repertoire of snack foods. What will I cook next? All I need is another storm to find out. Stay tuned.


Starting a Legacy

I decided to drive down to Dedham today to check out the brand-new Legacy Place. Located at the intersection of Rte. 128 and the VFW Parkway (exit 15A on 128), the outdoor shopping center is a pretty nice place to spend some time. Sure, not all the stores and restaurants are open yet (many are due to open in the next two months, and at least a couple won't be open till the spring), but the architecture and design of the place, plus some nice landscaping, make it a pleasant place to wander around. And that's exactly what I did, stopping into L.L. Bean, City Sports, the Apple Store, the Showcase de Lux movie theater, Yankee Candle, and others. I also looked into the soon-to-open Whole Foods, Brooks Brothers, J.P. Licks, Met Bar & Grill, and Borders. I even bought something. It's just a shame Legacy Place is only opening now, as summer draws to a close, because once the weather gets colder, I can't see myself wanting to spend much time outdoors here. But for now, it's a nice new place to go.


Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sad Days

With coverage of Senator Ted Kennedy's funeral and burial on TV for most of the day today, it occurred to me what a strange contradiction this makes for the average person. Suffice it to say, no one likes funerals when it's someone they know — especially if it's someone they love. I remember when my grandmother died and how hard the day of the funeral was. I remember forgetting my sunglasses in Boston and not being able to hide my red, watery, frequently teared-up eyes. I remember how I didn't want to watch her burial, didn't want to say goodbye. How my senses were heightened and could not hear laughter or any lighter-mood sentiment without feeling sad. So why is it that on a day like today, people everywhere (myself included) find it so easy to sit in front of the TV for hours watching a funeral? Not that I spent all day on my couch, but I watched a bit of it, and when I was in my car, the radio was tuned to WBZ so I could hear the funeral. I even set my DVR so I could watch later on, if I chose. I did a similar thing earlier this summer when Michael Jackson died. Even though I was in Chicago, I still listened to the memorial service on my iPhone with the I Heart Radio app.

Funerals make for profoundly sad days. That we make those going through them have to deal with their own pain plus the inconvenience of cameras documenting it is a rather cruel thing to do. And why do we do that? Is it because we have no real connection to the deceased that we are able to watch so effortlessly? Is it because of the catharsis of living vicariously through the aggrieved that we want to watch, or is there some perverse — not thrill, per se, but something similar that makes viewing a famous person's funeral must-see TV? It can't just be curiosity. I mean, I can't stand funerals. So why do I watch? It's so strange.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Road Rage

How long does it take to repair a quarter-mile stretch of road? I've been asking that question a lot lately because more than five months after it began, construction work on the stretch of Commonwealth Ave. near Boston College continues, and it shows no real sign of nearing completion. For many months now, I've been complaining about the many potholes in the area, which still haven't been filled in, and the disturbance that some of this construction work has created. I'm sure I'm not the only one in the area who's growing frustrated by the pace of the work. After all, it started in the spring when things were slow, and now, just as the college students are coming back and the roads are getting more crowded, it's still going. Hopefully it won't be much longer till Comm Ave is a nice drive again, and I don't have to deal with being rerouted or driving over potholes or rocks or around construction trucks anymore.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

He's the One

It was a hot night on Saturday at the Comcast Center (formerly the Tweeter Center, formerly Great Woods), but just like he's done so many times before, Bruce Springsteen brought the power and didn't let a silly little thing like 80-degree-plus heat get in the way of a great show. He even replaced his familiar call of "Is there anybody alive out there?" with "Is it hot enough for you?" But that wasn't the only departure from the script — he frequently shook up his planned setlist, playing songs out of their intended order and inserting a few extra requests along the way. It added up to an experience that felt significantly different from the shows I saw back in April (night one and night two).

Most noticeable for anyone who'd seen one of the earlier shows was the lack of an overall theme. The "Seeds" and "Johnny 99" pair was still there, as was "Hard Times (Come Again No More)," and Bruce still did his schtick about building a house during "Working on a Dream," but the schtick was cut in half, kept brief, and not overdone. Like last summer's show at Gillette, this show was less about promoting a new album (he only played one other song from Working on a Dream, "Outlaw Pete") and more about pleasing the fans. So in place of these reminders of how hard the times are, we got a handful of summertime party tunes: "Rosalita" and "Hungry Heart." "Dancing in the Dark" (complete with a little girl brought up on stage to dance). The audience-requested, temperature-appropriate "Burning Love." A Detroit medley of soul tunes, like "Devil with a Blue Dress" (inspired by an audience member's blowup doll in a blue dress with devil horns that caught the band's eye). And the evening's closer, "Twist and Shout."

Song after song after song, Bruce performed these and other classics like he was doing so for the first time, never relenting on the energy or enthusiasm (frequent drinks and douses by a wet sponge surely helped). Openers "Jackson Cage," "She's the One," and "Working on the Highway," the excellent "Backstreets," and Jimmy Cliff’s "Trapped" (another audience request) all were great. Thrown into the mix as an audible was the beautiful "If I Should Fall Behind" (dedicated to a couple in the audience who had seen Bruce 224 times — no kidding). And yes, he also played concert mainstays like "Lonesome Day," "Badlands," "Waiting on a Sunny Day," and of course, hands-down, the best six minutes in live music, "Born to Run." And it was all a thrill, as always.

And then, as if the show couldn't get any better, Jay Weinberg, Max's son (who turns 19 in a couple weeks), slipped behind the drum set for the encore, doing as he did back in April and taking the show to more exciting heights. I've said it before and I'll say it again: That kid can play.

So, another reliably good Springsteen show. How he and the E Street Band (making its first appearance in Mansfield, by the way) kept things going for just shy of three hours in that heat, I don't know. I mean, the guy's turning 60 next month(!!) and it's not like he was wearing shorts and a t-shirt like I was. But suffice it to say, it was worth the sweat.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Jews Kicking Ass!

In the new film Inglourious Basterds, writer/director Quentin Tarantino offers up a revenge fantasy that I can totally identify with: dorky-looking Jewish guys killing Nazis. And sure enough, when Adolph Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, and hundreds of Germans get what's coming to them in the same brutal style that they have shown millions of other innocent people, it's a cool thrill. Still, the movie itself leaves a bit to be desired, so the fantasy never quite feels complete. And as a result, Inglourious Basterds is a bit of a disappointment.

Set mostly in Nazi-occupied France in the early 1940s, Basterds presents an alternate universe where it's possible that a hillbilly U.S. Army Colonel named Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) could assemble a secret ops team made up of American Jews (played by folks like The Office's B.J. Novak and Freaks and Geeks' Samm Levine) who are all out to take their revenge on the Nazis. Raine gives them all this assignment: Bring me 100 scalps of any German soldiers you can find. (This being a Tarantino film, you can bet they do.)

Simultaneously, Shosanna, (Mélanie Laurent), whose family was killed by Nazis in a tense opening scene, seeks to take her own revenge at the movie theater she now owns, where the Nazi party will host the premiere of its latest propaganda film, Nation's Pride. Basterds, for reasons I can't quite understand, is broken up into chapters, and it doesn't fill in a whole lot of the Basterds' backstory, or even their midstory. We have no idea who this Raine guy is, or how the Basterds were assembled. Nor do we know how they're able to get around France without being detected. Tarantino just cuts to the chase, so to speak, and only shows them in action. And in fact, Shosanna is perhaps the most fully developed character in the whole movie.

In characteristic style, Basterds is very violent at times. But in a way, I didn't find it violent enough. I wanted the film to be looser, grittier, funnier, less talky, and more over the top. I wanted more action, more brutality. More ass-kicking by the Jews. More scenes like the one where Eli Roth's Staff Sergeant Donny Donowitz, a baseball bat-swinging Nazi hunter from Boston, beats up on a German soldier. And I also could have done without the distraction of Mike Myers (under some heavily caked-on makeup) playing a British government official. In short, Basterds is a long way from Pulp Fiction and the much better films that Tarantino was making in the mid-1990s. So that's why it's only getting a C+ from me.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Eat It

I don't buy this whole diet thing. Oh, sure, you could probably tell by some of the things I post on here that I'm not the healthiest of eaters (exhibit a or exhibit b, anyone?). But in true Gemini style, there's an opposite side of me that truly does want to lose some weight. And it's been a constant struggle between the two sides for a long time now. Doesn't take a genius to figure out which one is winning.

I don't mind telling you that August was supposed to be the start of Martin Eats Healthy — or at least, Martin Eats Healthier. And I have made some impressive strides in that department (relatively speaking). For example, I rarely eat frozen chicken nuggets for dinner anymore. Now my meals consist more of actual meat — chicken, mostly. And instead of eating pasta as a side dish, I have either eaten corn on the cob, or broccoli, or carrots, or string beans, or some combination of them. For breakfast, I've stopped eating chocolate chip muffins, and now I eat a yogurt every day with some fruit (cantaloupe).

Generally, it's alright. I have actually become somewhat addicted to corn on the cob this summer (much to the dismay of my teeth). But the yogurts? I have tried a few different flavors, and a couple different brands, but they all basically have the same tart taste, no matter what the flavor supposedly is. I've even been to that new place, Chill, in Cleveland Circle, and had the tart yogurt — but I have to say, it wasn't great (I mean, compared to real ice cream, anyway). I've had salad for lunch, but it's just not filling enough, and nor is a yogurt in the morning. A couple hours later and I'm hungry again.

Of course, I haven't cut out bad foods entirely (still a few of those), but yeah, at least I'm trying. Eventually I'll get it through my skull that eating better (relatively speaking) is only half the puzzle, and the other half is I need to exercise more. But that'll happen in due time. Maybe if I start to see some actual results, it'll encourage me to do more. But until then, I'm just not sure I'm cut out for this whole diet thing.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Funnier Film Is Unforeseeable

During a radio interview, a British government official says that a proposed war in the Middle East is "unforeseeable." Thus begins the movie In the Loop, a hysterical political farce about U.S. and U.K. relations, and how this simple comment escalates into a possible declaration of war. To spoil the film would be impossible — I dare say it would be "difficult difficult, lemon difficult." There are so many great lines, a ton of great insults, and some splendid profanities that you may need to see the movie a second time to make sure you heard it all (check out the brilliant trailer below for a sampling). Performances across the board are really good; nearly every actor is so natural that it makes you think the whole thing's been improvised. (Who's in it? Well, David Rasche, Steve Coogan, and James Gandolfini for starters, but also Anna Chlumsky, from My Girl, and the very very funny Peter Capaldi, who plays the Prime Minister's press secretary.) And even though the film runs nearly two hours, you won't even notice because the laughs come so fast and furious and thus, the movie moves pretty quickly. How many jokes are there? Well, if it's any indication, there are two — TWO! — involving the movie I Heart Huckabees.

I love In the Loop, and I think I'll be quoting from it for quite some time. It's one of the smartest comedies to come along in a long while, and it's definitely one of my favorite movies so far this year. Check it out for yourself. If you don't, I may have to use you as a meat puppet. I'm giving In the Loop an A–.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Just What America Needs?

In the kind-of annoying trifle Paper Heart, comedian Charlyne Yi (who you might remember from Knocked Up) plays herself in a mock documentary about love. She claims she doesn't believe in it, and so she heads off with her director and friend Nick Jasenovec to interview random folks across the country about why they believe in it. Along the way, she meets and develops a not-love (or is it?) relationship with Michael Cera. Sounds cute enough, but the film actually shares quite a bit of fakery with other mockumentaries, such as Sasha Baron Cohen's Borat or Bruno. For one thing, Nick the on-camera director is not really Nick Jasenovec but an actor named Jake Johnson. And Yi and Cera were actually dating at the time, and were long after the film wrapped (apparently, they just broke up last month).

Yi the character is sweet and innocent. But she's not someone I wanted to spend much more time with. And more importantly, the film is just random and rambling. There's no lesson learned, no point made. It's really just pointless and lame. The Yi-Cera "relationship" would seem to be the central plot that ties the whole thing together, but the conceit of the film (that Cera doesn't like to be on camera) dooms that. As a result, the whole thing just ends. And then you learn about Nick not being the real Nick, and the movie feels more like a cheat — especially because unlike Baron Cohen's films, this one is meant to feel more real.

So I didn't really like Paper Heart. Yes, it's sweet and it's short, and you don't laugh at the real people like you do in a Baron Cohen film (which here is a good thing), but between Yi's character and the fakery, I just can't recommend it. So I'm giving Paper Heart a C.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Single Minded

I won't lie: I'd like to be in a relationship right now. But the reality is that I'm not, and I'm fine with it. Actually, it's quite nice.

Case in point: last weekend I had an unfortunate cooking incident involving pancakes (don't ask), so this morning when I woke up, I decided I didn't want to mess around with imperfection. I got in my car and drove to a place where I knew I could have good griddle cakes: IHOP. In Harvard Square, of all places. I took a magazine with me, and I sat there at my table, alone, eating my breakfast. And I was happy. (It wasn't the first time I've dined by myself, either.) Spur of the moment idea, instant activity. No one to convince, no one to stop me. And sure enough, the pancakes were tasty and I was content. With no other place to be, I walked off my meal by wandering around the Square, popping into one store or another, stopping to browse a magazine or two at the Out-of-Town newsstand. I even hung out at a farmer's market. And when I was ready, I left.

Yesterday, I had a similar kind of day. I needed an activity, so because the weather was so nice, I decided to go on a drive — all the way to the Stoughton Triangle, my name for the intersection where you'll find IKEA, Costco, and Jordan's Furniture all next-door to each other. Yes, the last time I went to IKEA, I was let down, but so what? Even if all I did was have lunch, it would still have been something to do. So I got in my car, rolled down the windows, turned up the radio and went. Thankfully, I found what I needed (and then some), and I had a tasty lunch as well. Then I had a tasty "snack" at Costco, and after buying a thing or two, I meandered my way back to the city. Mission accomplished.

When you're single and unattached, with no obligations, you can do such things. You keep your own schedule, going where you want to go, doing what you want to do, and doing it when you want to do it. And sure, maybe I'm a little too used to it at this point — it's probably not such a good thing to be so comfortable hanging out solo at age 35 — but do you see me complaining?

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It's a Sign

While driving through Watertown earlier today, I saw this sign. Anyone know which two ways you can drive on Pleasant Street? Is it really up and down?


Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Joy of Cooking

A word of warning: Do not go to see Julie & Julia on an empty stomach. By the time the movie's over, you'll feel downright famished. (That's meant as a compliment, just in case it isn't clear.) And that's not just because there's a lot of food in this movie, and it's not just because the food looks really good. It's because the movie is such a treat that you'll just want to eat it up.

Julie & Julia is based on the book of the same name by the real-life Julie Powell (played here by Amy Adams), who decided to kick-start her life in 2002 by spending a year cooking every recipe in Julia Child's cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and blogging about it (before blog was a household word). The movie doesn't just make Julia Child an inspiration, it also makes her a character, by weaving in the story of Child's own life in Paris during the 1950s (this part is based on My Life in France, Child's autobiography). The movie shows how these two women found more than a hobby in food, and how their passion for cooking transformed their lives.

As Child, Meryl Streep is nothing short of a total pleasure to watch. She plays this woman with so much joie de vivre that it's no wonder Child had so many fans. Nailing the chef's sing-songy accent and walking around with a perpetual smile on her face, Streep is goofy, great fun, and just delightful. You almost wish the entire movie was about her (and it probably could have been). Thankfully, Adams and the other members of the cast (including Streep's Devil Wears Prada co-star Stanley Tucci) are all enjoyable as well, and the jumping back and forth between the two stories is handled smoothly.

If anything, the meal is a bit over-cooked; writer/director Nora Ephron could probably have trimmed about 10 minutes and it would have been fine. But like Child herself would probably say, it's alright to make a mistake or two when the end result is so tasty. I'm giving Julie & Julia a B+ and wishing you a hearty bon appetit!

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Monday, August 03, 2009

Sad Clowns

They're two of those unfortunate truisms about show business: funny people always want to be taken seriously, and when the cameras are off and the crowds have gone home, those same people who make us laugh are often very unhappy people. Trying to understand the off-stage life of stand-up comics has been a longtime fascination of movies and television, and with the exception of Seinfeld, I can't think of too many other movies or TV shows that have been as funny when the comic wasn't performing. (Punchline, anyone?)

The latest such portrait, Funny People, continues this idea. In the film, George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is a successful comic actor (and the star of such low-brow films as MerMan and Re-Do, the latter featuring his head on an infant's body), who learns he has a rare terminal blood disease. Depressed, lonely, and vulnerable, he starts to lash out on stand-up stages. It's at one such gig that George meets an up-and-coming comedian, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), who isn't very good, but shows promise. George hires Ira to be his assistant, writer, and friend, and the two begin to forge a relationship.

Ira's "friendship" helps reveal just how selfish George has been over the years and how little connection he actually has with other people. As there always is, there is a girl who got away: Laura (Leslie Mann). Thinking he's dying, George reaches out to her and the two become friends again. Then, when George learns that the experimental meds he's been taking have actually worked (not a spoiler if you've seen the trailer), he decides to pursue the now-married-with-children Laura and win her back. Will this second chance at life (and love) redeem George and lead to happiness?

Written and directed by Judd Apatow, the man behind the very funny The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, Funny People isn't a comedy per se as much as it is Apatow's attempt to be deep and serious. As such, you won't find a whole lot to laugh at here. In fact, given how much time George spends wallowing in his unhappiness (the whole first half of the movie), you might actually find yourself wondering why the film was called Funny People in the first place. The film is overly long (some might say endless) and almost like two different movies in one. Clearly, in his attempt to make something higher-quality, Apatow overdid it a bit, and needed a better editor (both on his screenplay and the movie itself).

In front of the camera, I wouldn't say anyone gives their best performance here. It's not that Sandler can't handle a more serious role (check out Reign Over Me or Punch-Drunk Love for proof of that), but he and Rogen and the rest of the cast just don't seem to know what to make of the material, and they sort of muddle through. It's a shame, because given the film's pedigree — in addition to the top-line cast, there are cameos from some comedy greats, and two very amusing bits with James Taylor and Eminem — you expect more.

Ultimately, though, Funny People is a misstep for Apatow. It's not that the film isn't funny enough, it's just that it doesn't really accomplish its goals of providing new insights or creating likable characters. I hope that with his next film Apatow will return to form. I'm giving Funny People a C+.