Sunday, March 28, 2010

Hurt People Hurt People

This may sound funny, but ... While watching the new film Greenberg, I couldn't help but think of The Blind Side. That latter film, and particularly the performance by its star, was surely helped by its end-of-the-year release. Had it been released around now, would Sandra Bullock's work have been praised as much as it was? And by extension, would Ben Stiller have been Oscar nominated for his performance here if Greenberg had been released in November? Was Sandy's performance that much better than Stiller's? I guess we'll never know the answers, but the questions surely crossed my mind.

In Greenberg, Stiller stars as Roger Greenberg, a misanthropic New Yorker, who comes to Los Angeles to house- and dog-sit while his brother's family is on vacation in Vietnam. While he's there, he falls for his brother's personal assistant (Greta Gerwig) and reconnects with an old friend (Rhys Ifans) and an ex-girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

The film was written and directed by Noah Baumbach, and while it's still got the filmmaker's trademark dysfunctionality, it's not as caustic or cringe-worthy as others of his films, like Margot at the Wedding or The Squid and the Whale. Mostly, that's due to the performance of Stiller, who says all the wrong things, but remains a warm and likable man-child throughout, who you can't help but root for (and laugh with). Call this film a stretch if you want, but it seems like this is the kind of role that's gift-wrapped for a guy like Stiller (or Jim Carrey), who wants to show a deeper side without being a total downer, and Stiller does a real nice job with it.

As good as Stiller is, however, the real find is Gerwig. An indie movie favorite, this is her breakout role and she makes the most of it, giving a sweet, charming performance. Greenberg may be Stiller's showcase, but it's Gerwig who gives the film its real heart.

Those questions about release timing persist, because it would be nice to see Stiller and Gerwig get some recognition at year's end. Will they? Wait and see. Until then, Greenberg gets a B+ from me.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Should You Get in the Hot Tub (Time Machine)?

Sometimes, it's all in a name. Hot Tub Time Machine, like Snakes on a Plane before it, is a movie where all you need to know is spelled out right there in the title. Four guys in 2010 go to a ski resort, get drunk in a hot tub, and wake up in 1986. John Cusack, who produced and stars, seems to be having a better time here than he did in 2012. Other laughs come from Craig Robinson, best known as Darryl from The Office, and Crispin Glover (Back to the Future). Mostly, though, Hot Tub Time Machine is a bit of a one-joke letdown (yes, I was actually looking forward to seeing this one and was expecting good things). I laugh harder whenever I watch the Eddie Murphy/James Brown Hot Tub sketch from Saturday Night Live than I did at any point during this movie. So I'm only going to give it a B–.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Passover Tradition Continues

Like the youngest child asking the four questions, or the hiding of the afikomen, I, too, have my own Passover traditions. One of those is posting a rant about how much I hate shopping for Passover food. If you don't know, dietary restrictions during Passover prevent you from eating anything with flour or yeast in it. And if you're observant enough to keep the holiday, then you need to purchase Kosher for Passover food for eating during the week. While I'm not the most observant Jew 51 weeks of the year, I often joke that Passover is the one week when I find my religion. As a result, each year I have to buy these "special" ingredients and foodstuffs.

Sunday was my annual trip to Star Market to make these purchases (the holiday starts this Monday night), and like in years past, I was annoyed by how much I was being charged to buy food I didn't even want to buy. $6 for a box of cookies that might ordinarily cost $2.50. Cake mix for the same price, even though the cake is half the size of a normal cake (if not smaller). A jar of grape jelly for $4. A can of tuna fish for nearly $3. And those were the "sale" prices! Yes, that's what supermarkets do: They set a price for the Passover food, call it a "sale" price, and mark its regular price a dollar or so higher. It's like they're capitalizing on the horrible stereotype that Jews like their deals and would rather buy something on sale than if it was normally priced. And then, because we don't have the option, we buy all this overpriced stuff, which we only need for a week.

When all was said and done, I had spent $50 on Sunday for my K4P food — and that's not even counting the perishable stuff that I'll pick up this weekend. By comparison, on an average week, I usually spend about $20 for my groceries (the beauty of living by myself, I guess). So that's why I saved my receipt. When the holiday is over, I'll be partaking in my second Passover tradition: returning all my unopened food and getting my money back. The way I figure it, if the store's gonna overcharge me, the least they can do is take back and refund my money for the stuff I don't use.

Happy early Passover to all who celebrate. Grumble, grumble, grumble.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

One of My Favorite Days

Just a quick PSA, because today, March 23, is one of my favorite days of the year: Free Cone Day at Ben & Jerry's. Yes, it's a month earlier than usual (last year it was in late April), but who's complaining when we're talking about free scoops from Ben & Jerry's? So head on over to your favorite scoop shop between 12–8 p.m. and have yourself a cone. Yum.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Thanks Again, Google Maps

Yesterday, with the temperature up in the lower 70s and the sun shining bright, I decided I had two options for how to spend my day: I could go for a long drive or I could go for a long walk. I decided to combine the two and head out to the outlets in Wrentham. I'd been there beforemany times, in fact — but I never can seem to remember exactly how to get there. So I looked up directions using the Google Maps app on my iPhone and used the route it gave me.

Sure, I was skeptical when I was advised to go down Route 1 and take it all the way to 495 — instead of taking 95 to 495 — but given the nice weather, I decided to follow this unfamiliar route. After all, one of the last times I put my trust in Google Maps to get me somewhere, I really enjoyed seeing some new places.

Well, yesterday was no different. Sure, I'd driven down Route 1 before, but never starting all the way up in Dedham and never on a non-game or non-event day. Which means there was pretty much clear sailing through the 'burbs, and more significantly, no traffic in or out of Patriot Place yesterday. So when I had had enough of the outlets in Wrentham, I decided to take the longer way back and stop off in Foxborough at PP for the first time to walk around and see what there was to see. And it was an enjoyable place to spend some time on a non-game day. And then I stayed on Route 1 to go home, and decided to stop off at Legacy Place in Dedham — another nice place to spend an hour or so walking around.

All in all, mission accomplished. I had a nice drive, with the windows down and great music playing, and I got to walk around some nice areas and soak up the sun. Thanks again to Google Maps for getting me to my destinations and taking me there via a new route.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Time of the Season

Driving home from work tonight, with the sun shining, my sunglasses on, the window down, traffic moving well, and my radio playing loudly (song of choice: Owl City's "Fireflies"), I was reminded of just how much I love this time of year. And sure, it's easy to be happy when three days of heavy rain have just ended, but it's more than that. It's the confluence of the changed weather, a bright sun, Daylight Savings Time, and warmer temperatures that just make me so happy this time of year. And ... It's the start of baseball season. It's the opening of the ice cream stand at Pizzi Farm. It's the impending arrival of golf season. It's the reappearance of runners and bikers up and down Comm Ave. It's ... alright, fine, it's mostly the increased sunlight and the warmer temperatures after a long, cold winter.

And it's the happier mood of everyone around me too. How they all seem to come out of their winter cocoons all at once. Where I work, on days like today, the sun just shines on us through the window at 3 p.m. and practically blinds us — despite the shades. (Seriously. Someone today told me he had broken a sweat.) All of a sudden, there's a buzz in the air. More people are laughing. People can't sit still. No one is working. After all, it's hard to concentrate when you know it's so nice outside. There are so many other places you'd rather be.

So as we begin a stretch of days where the high temperatures are going to be in the 60s and the forecast is calling for a lot of sun, I hope I'm not jumping the gun tooooo much by wishing you a very Happy Spring. Woo hoo!


Monday, March 15, 2010

The Odd Couple

She's Out of My League comes from a long line of dweeb-gets-the-girl comedies, and like its predecessors, it's got a totally unbelievable and completely predictable story arc. In this case, geeky TSA officer Kirk (Jay Baruchel) meets hot-chick Molly (Alice Eve) when she leaves her iPhone behind after going through security before a flight. He returns it to her, and much to his surprise (and the surprise of his friends and family), she's interested in him. Will Kirk's insecurities (and her more attractive ex) get in the way of his happiness? (What do you think?)

Alright, enough synopsis. This is not the kind of film where you get bogged down in plot details. After all, the second you start questioning things, that's the sign that this isn't the film for you. Rather, it comes down to casting and chemistry, and I'm sorry to say, this film doesn't have it.

In other roles, Baruchel has been more engaging, but here, he is a guy so gawky and geeky and awkward, that you'll find yourself really wondering, what is this girl doing going out with him? Eve sure is attractive, but that's about all there is. Let's be honest: No woman this good looking would ever be this open-minded and tolerant of Kirk or his crude, obnoxious friends and family. Speaking of which, all the other supporting characters don't have much to make them likable. So, despite some decent chuckles along the way, She's Out of My League just isn't in the same league as, say, Knocked Up or The Girl Next Door. This isn't a dislikable movie, but I'm still only going to give it a 6.5, which (with a slight curve) would translate to a C.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

War Is a Drug

If you really want to know what kind of movie The Hurt Locker is, all you need to watch is one scene about a third of the way in, when Army Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) discovers a trunk full of explosives. Knowing his life could end any minute from now if he doesn't succeed in his mission to defuse the bombs, he takes off all his protective gear and says to a member of his team, without flinching, "If I'm gonna die, I want to die comfortable." That brazen, no-holds-barred attitude permeates Kathryn Bigelow's award-winning film.

When it first appeared in theaters last summer, Hurt Locker was one of those movies I kept putting off seeing, despite the rave reviews I'd heard about. And then when it started to win all kinds of year-end critics prizes and awards, I had hoped it would reappear in Boston-area theaters. Now that it has scored the Oscar for Best Picture, the film is finally back in more theaters, and I didn't hesitate to go see it.

While I wouldn't call Hurt Locker the best 2009 release I saw (that's still Up in the Air), I wouldn't contest Oscar voters' decision either. A gritty, suspenseful, often tough-to-watch film, Hurt Locker shows you what life is like on the front line for an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team during the Iraq War. Renner's Sergeant James is a ballsy hick who does things his way, to the consternation of his partners, Sergeant J. T. Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty). Shot with hand-held cameras that give a you-are-there perspective and ratchet up the intensity (but don't induce nausea), the film moves from one tightrope-walking set piece to another, and each time the stakes get higher — especially because we know how close these guys are to going home.

We don't learn much about Sanborn and Eldridge, but we see that James feels at home in these high-stakes situations where having just two options — living or dying — makes life easier than it is back in the States. Sure, when he's first introduced, James seems a bit stereotypical, and his tension with Sanborn is a bit cliched. But once the film settles in and we spend some time with these guys, we see that there's more to James than meets the eye. This guy has an addiction to dangerous situations, and the perception that any day could be his last drives him to take the kinds of risks that most other men (particularly the ones he works with) just can't.

Hurt Locker doesn't take any political stance on the war, but it does show how some people are just more cut out for Army life than others. Bigelow doesn't shy away from showing you what it's like in Iraq (so I assume) and what it takes to survive. This is not a movie for everyone, but it's certainly an impressive achievement — one that probably wouldn't be as good on DVD — and I'm giving it an A–.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Right to the Source

Green Zone, director Paul Greengrass' new film, takes us back to those exciting days in 2003 when the Iraq war was just beginning and the search was on for weapons of mass destruction. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) Of course, now we know that there never were any WMDs, but for Roy Miller (Matt Damon), a chief warrant officer in the U.S. Army, this is a new discovery — and he's pissed. The film focuses on Miller's search for an intelligence source known as Magellan, who was the person who sent the Army on its wild goose chase.

Reuniting Greengrass and Damon for the first time since their Bourne films (and Damon with Greg Kinnear, costars in the Farrelly brothers film Stuck on You), Green Zone is certainly an exciting two hours. Greengrass' beloved shaky-cam method of filming reflects the chaos of the situation in Iraq, and he keeps the action moving from start to finish. If only the film was less underwritten. Oscar nominee (and erstwhile The Office guest star) Amy Ryan, for example, isn't given enough to do as a Wall Street Journal reporter. And that shaky-cam stuff does get a bit nauseating. So while Green Zone is a compelling Iraq war action film, I'm only going to give it a B.


Sunday, March 07, 2010

It Was Great Fun

All you really need to know about Jamie Cullum is right there in the lyrics of the song "Mixtape," which appears on his new album The Pursuit. The song — which name-checks Nine Inch Nails, Louis Armstrong, Morrissey, John Coltrane, Cinematic Orchestra, De La Soul, Thelonious Monk, the Shangri-La's, and more — indicates the wide range of musical influences that are running 'round Cullum's head, and which result in a wide-ranging live show, such as the one he put on Saturday night at the House of Blues in Boston. (And if the list of influential artists doesn't give away what Cullum's live shows are like, then the image of an exploding piano on his album cover surely does.)

Backed by a strong four-piece band, Cullum took the stage and immediately launched into his stripped-down cover of Rhianna's "Don't Stop the Music." It was followed by "I'm All Over It" and "Get Your Way," the latter of which is on Cullum's second U.S. release, Catching Tales. The rest of the set list (which Cullum indicated he changes each night) featured plenty of tracks from The Pursuit (in total, he played seven of them), most of which sounded great — in particular, the Cole Porter song "Just One of Those Things," "If I Ruled the World" (a Tony Bennett standard), "Wheels," and the aforementioned "Mixtape." "Photograph," also from Catching Tales, was another highlight.

Some of the best moments of the concert were the quieter ones, such as when Cullum did a beautiful solo piano version of "Gran Tornio" (the theme song for Clint Eastwood's movie), and when he was accompanied only by a cello for "I Get a Kick Out of You." Both put the spotlight on Cullum's strong singing voice and, in the case of the former, his piano-playing skills. Also notable, though, was a fantastic, much more lively "These Are the Days," which started out as a cover of Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman," included some lines of Kanye West's "Gold Digger," and finished with Cullum taking the audience to church, repeating the refrain "I feel fine" over and over.

Not surprisingly, while Cullum came on stage wearing a jacket, long sleeves, and a tie, by the second song he had already shed the jacket and rolled up his sleeves. He made reference to the Berklee students in the audience, saying they'll probably criticize him for playing some false notes, but that he should be okay if he sweats a lot because then no one will notice. Sure enough, the guy worked hard for his applause and got plenty of it. Twice he climbed atop his piano and jumped off, he called for audience participation on a couple songs (including "London Skies," which he played solo on acoustic guitar), and two hours after he started, Cullum showed no signs of wanting to leave, throwing in an extra tune ("They Can't Take That Away from Me") after his band had left the stage after the encore. An appropriate song choice, for sure.

Saturday's concert continued Cullum's habit of exploding his reputation as simply a jazz singer. The mix of songs played also included a great version of Jimi Hendrix's "Wind Cries Mary" and an acoustic "Cry Me a River" that mashed together the jazz standard with the bass line from Justin Timberlake's song. And even though "Music Is Through" was a bit much (the band really needs to hold back on its playing; they totally drowned out Cullum), its house sound fit right in at a club venue like House of Blues — which by the way, was a more appropriate place for him to play than the Boston Opera House, where he played the last time he was in town. (Another similar misstep was having the band get too loud at the end on an otherwise lovely "All at Sea.")

The problem with a guy like Jamie Cullum getting more successful and putting out more albums is that the more material he has to choose from, the less he's going to play of his older stuff. I missed hearing "What a Difference a Day Made," "High and Dry," and the title track off Twentysomething, though I'm sure the latter song came off the set list because Cullum is now 30. And I was bummed (and surprised) that he didn't sing "You and Me Are Gone," "Love Ain't Gonna Let You Down," or his cover of "Not While I'm Around," all from The Pursuit (which I love, by the way). But what Cullum did sing was great. He was in fine voice, he displayed expert musicianship, and his enthusiasm was infectious. It was another top-notch show from one of my favorite performers.

Incidentally, Irish rockabilly singer Imelda May opened the show with a 45-minute set that included "How High the Moon," the song she performed at the Grammys with Jeff Beck. I didn't know the other songs she played, but her set was impressive enough that I'm gonna have to go pick up her album, Love Tattoo. If you've got tickets to a future Cullum show where she's the opener, don't be late.

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Friday, March 05, 2010

I'm Rooting for an Upset

I'm really hoping Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin are funny on Sunday night, because if they're not, then this year's Oscar ceremony will be one giant snoozer. After another long awards season when so many other trophies have already been handed out (the Golden Globes, SAG, Directors' Guild, Critics' Choice, etc.), there's not a whole lot of suspense left about who's going to win the Oscars. The top eight major categories (and at least three or four other awards) are already pretty well set. However, while some may say that means there's not much incentive to stay up until 12 to see the whole thing, I will definitely be watching until the bitter end — and maybe some post-show coverage too. I'm just not expecting to enjoy it much.

Need some last-minute help with your office Oscar pool? Want to know who I think will win? Here you go:

Best Picture: The Hurt Locker
Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Best Actor: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Best Actress: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Best Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique, Precious
Best Original Screenplay: The Hurt Locker
Best Adapted Screenplay: Up in the Air

I'll throw in these too:
Best Original Song: "The Weary Kind," Crazy Heart
Best Original Score: Up
Best Animated Feature: Up
Best Visual Effects: Avatar

It's worth noting that I actually haven't seen Hurt Locker yet, and that I don't agree with all the supposed winners above. If I had a vote, I'd choose Up in the Air for Best Picture, and either Carey Mulligan (An Education) or Gabourey Sidibe (Precious) for Best Actress.

In truth, I'm hoping I don't go 12-for-12 on my picks. An upset or two would be nice. But in lieu of that, I'm hoping Steve and Alec bring the funny so the show is actually enjoyable.

[Pssst ... Need an Oscar ballot? Here you go.]

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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Not So Wonderful

Early on in Alice in Wonderland, Alice's father tells some colleagues, "Nothing is impossible if you believe it to be possible." After seeing this movie, I can now say I believe it's possible for a Tim Burton movie to be pretty awful.

Less an adaptation of the Lewis Carroll novels than a story based on the characters in them, Alice picks up the action 13 years after Alice has returned home. Now a 19-year-old headstrong young woman, Alice follows the White Rabbit down a hole and thinks nothing of it; she believes her earlier trip to Wonderland was just a dream. Thinking she's back in a dream, she goes through the motions, quickly reacquainting herself with the Cheshire Cat, Door Mouse, and yes, the Mad Hatter (played by Johnny Depp). Since she's been gone, Wonderland (or "Underland," as it's called here) has turned into a bleak wasteland, and the Red Queen (a big-headed Helena Bonham Carter) is in charge. Alice's return means there's a chance that things can be set right and all can be wonderful again. If only Alice herself seemed a bit more interested in helping out.

It's hard to decide what I liked least about this Alice: the gloomy, creepy, almost gothic production design (even Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, weird though it was, had a gooey, candy center and a sense of whimsy); Mia Wasikowska's performance as Alice (she's got about as much charisma as a deck of cards); the silly (and not in a good way) script; or the fact that the 3D "effects" are absolutely unnecessary. In addition, Depp's one-note performance left me lukewarm, Anne Hathaway (as the White Queen) seems miscast, and, well, did I mention how bad Wasikowska is? Perhaps the only good thing about this movie is the fact that it moves rather quickly and is less than two hours long. Otherwise, Burton's got himself a real disappointment here. Alice is not fun, it's not cute, and it's not one for the kids. Really, it's maddening. I'm giving the movie a C–.


Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Not Over Him Yet

I wish Jamie Cullum made it easier for me. For the past four months, I've been hard-pressed to find one favorite track on his new album, The Pursuit. I started off liking the raucous swinger "You and Me Are Gone" the most, then moved on to first single "I'm All Over It," then side-tracked to the lovely "Love Ain't Gonna Let You Down." If you'd asked me two weeks ago, I might have told you my favorite track was "Mixtape," but at this present time, it's actually Jamie's beautiful cover of "Not While I'm Around," from Sweeney Todd. Which is not to say that the other tracks on the album are bad, and nor does it mean I've tired of the ones I no longer deem my favorite. It's just that The Pursuit is such an enjoyable album that I'll just get stuck on one song or another, and for a time, it's all I'll want to listen to.

When I first learned last summer that Jamie was coming back in November with a new album after a five-year absence, I was excited. So when I learned the album was only being released then in Europe, I was so frustrated that I ended up downloading it illegally. But it was so worth it, and now that the album is finally hitting U.S. stores today, I'm looking forward to buying it for real — the deluxe edition, of course, which comes with an additional four tracks and a bonus DVD.

I've been a Jamie Cullum fan since 2004, when I first read about him in Entertainment Weekly and ran out to buy his U.S. debut, Twentysomething. Since then, I've also seen the now-30-year-old British singer live a handful of times (never missing a show when he came to Boston), and I've tried to turn as many people as I can on to his music.

If you still haven't heard Jamie's music, then you're going to have to take my word for it and go pick up The Pursuit. A collection of eight originals and four cover songs that includes the above songs, plus Jamie's stripped-down, frisky take on Rihanna's "Don't Stop the Music" and his big big-band version of Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things," The Pursuit includes jazz, ambient, rock, pop, and swing influences, and it shows significant growth from Twentysomething (and his 2005 release, Catching Tales), when Jamie was dismissed by critics as "Sinatra in Sneakers." It's a mature, confident album that should win Jamie a ton more fans here in the States, people who might be resistant to jazz but could be taken in by his more edgy, house-driven sound. I can't really recommend this one highly enough.

Of course, if there's one thing I like more than Jamie Cullum's albums, it's his live shows. Jamie hits the House of Blues this Saturday, and I'll be there. Can't wait. Till then, I'll keep listening to The Pursuit, and who knows ... by Saturday I may even have a different favorite song.

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Monday, March 01, 2010

Movies I've Seen (2009 Releases)

Click on the link for my review:









9. 17 AGAIN






15. UP



18. (500) DAYS OF SUMMER




















38. 2012









47. NINE