Sunday, May 30, 2010

Guilt Makes Her Give Back

In the movie Please Give, Catherine Keener stars as Kate, the owner of an antique furniture store in New York. Like a lawyer who hangs around a hospital hoping to score new clients, Kate and her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt), pounce when there's a death, buying up the deceased's furniture for cheap and selling it in the store for a significant profit. It's not that easy, though. Kate is wracked with guilt about what she does, and she tries to balance out her lifestyle by giving money to homeless people and volunteering — a fruitless pursuit because it's motivated more by pity than by compassion. And that's not lost on Kate's daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), who is dealing with body image issues and could use some compassion from her mother.

Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener (the excellent Friends with Money), Please Give is less story and more character study. The biggest plot point is that Kate and Alex are waiting for their elderly neighbor to die so they can buy her apartment and expand theirs. However, despite the morbid-sounding details mentioned here, the screenplay has more laughs than you might think — there's a particularly funny scene involving Abby wearing underwear on her head to cover over a zit. Also, the acting is generally very good. Keener (a regular in Holofcener's films) is especially great, and so is Steele. (Amanda Peet and Rebecca Hall round out the cast.) Please Give may not be a must-see on the big screen, but it'll make a good rental. I'm giving it a B.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Faith Rewarded

At the start of every new TV season, viewers like me have important questions to answer: Which new shows will be good enough to invest our time, energy, emotion, and precious DVR space in? Which will be worth watching after a good (or bad) pilot, and sticking with for the years to come? In some cases, it's a difficult choice between two shows on at the same time, and in other cases, the choice is made for you. Such was the case with Lost in the fall 2004. Coming from J.J. Abrams, the creator and executive producer of Alias (and Felicity), watching Lost was a no-brainer for me — and after watching the brilliant pilot episode, I was hooked instantly.

Six years later, it's bittersweet to say that my leap of faith (confident though it was) was rewarded many times over. Bittersweet, of course, because Sunday night the journey ends with the series finale. Not since the finale of Friends have I been this excited and sad to see a show end its run. It's been a good one, to say the least. I didn't always follow what was happening, and I didn't always pick up on the details and Easter eggs, but I sure did love the narrative and the characters (John Locke especially) and the acting and the production quality and the music (by Michael Giacchino) and the writing. I loved how watching the show gave me an instant bond with fellow fans, who were always ready and eager to discuss the show as soon as you told them you watched it too. I loved going back and watching old episodes in retrospect and discovering new things. I loved the mystery, the anticipation, and the excitement that always came with the show's premiere and finale episodes each season. I loved Henry Ian Cusick as Desmond and Titus Welliver as the Man in Black. I loved discovering the elaborate websites that were built to increase the show's mythology. And I loved that the writers and producers were always surprising me and exceeding expectations, continually raising the bar for how good a TV show could be.

Thursday night, the show's executive producers, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, participated in a live Q&A that was broadcast in movie theaters across the country. I watched from the Regal Fenway here in Boston, and even though the event was taking place in New York City, it was hard not to feel a part of something special. You knew everyone in the theater and everyone in New York was a huge fan with tons of questions, and a passionate attachment to the show (many folks in New York were wearing themed t-shirts; one guy was wearing a full Dharma Initiative jumpsuit). As Team Darlton shared anecdotes, dropped hints about the final episode, evaded some of the audience questions, and gave insights about earlier scenes and plot points, I felt even more a sense of loss. These are two great, talented, smart, funny guys, and we fans have been so lucky to have them and their work in our lives all this time. (I don't know if you listen to Darlton's weekly podcast, but I think I'm going to miss that as much as the show itself.)

One thing Damon said in the Q&A was that writing the final episode was like preparing for your own wake, and being able to plan exactly how it will go, what people will say, and how you will be remembered. It was an appropriate metaphor, I thought. Sunday night, I'm blocking off the full five and a half hours to watch the recap, the episode, and then Jimmy Kimmel's "Aloha to Lost" special. With Carlton and Damon in charge, I know I will not be disappointed. I'll just be a bit sad when it's all over. Thanks for six great seasons, guys!


Thursday, May 06, 2010

Summer Is Back

Iron Man 2 begins with a bang. Or, perhaps more appropriately, with a zip, zoom, swish, and a bang — not to mention a rockin' song by AC/DC playing over the action. Those are the sounds we hear as our hero flies through the air amidst fireworks and then lands to wild applause. "Oh, it's good to be back," exclaims Tony Stark, after shedding his Iron Man costume. The expression could go many ways. In my world, it applies not just to Stark, but also to Robert Downey Jr., the Iron Man series, and summer movies in general. Yes, IM2 kicks off the summer season in high style; this movie is a great big ball of fun.

The action picks up six months after the original left off. Stark has gotten cockier and more self-involved, partly due to the fact that he's given the world the longest stretch of peace ever, and he's done it all by himself with his own invention. As he says when called in front of Congress to turn over his weapon, "I've privatized world peace!" Meanwhile, across the world in Russia, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) is duplicating Stark's weapon and plotting revenge against him because Stark stole ideas and credit from Vanko's recently deceased father.

I don't want to minimize the plot details, because unlike most other summer blockbuster type films, this story isn't paper thin. But I'd rather tell you how good the movie is. Downey Jr. is at his rakish, charming best, and he's surrounded by a cast that's equally fun to watch — including Don Cheadle and Scarlett Johansson. Rourke, our villain, doesn't have much to say, but he certainly commands the screen. When he confronts Stark for the first time at the Monte Carlo Speedway, on the attack with his whips of energy, it's awesome. The screenplay, by Justin Theroux, is solid and funny. Director Jon Favreau (more an on-screen presence here than in the first film) keeps the action moving, and the story grounded in an almost-real reality. Yes, there's probably more I can say, but when you enjoy a movie, generally it's not because one thing or another sticks out. It just all works well together. Such is the case here.

In short, as noted, IM2 is a perfect kickoff for the summer movie season. It's great fun and it's actually well made. Will it be just the first in a fantastic string of movies over next few months? Wait and see. I'm giving Iron Man 2 a B+.


Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Two Cute

Two years ago today I became an uncle, and it still qualifies as one of the happiest days of my life. I say one of and not the happiest because since that day, as I have watched her grow up, Abby has brought me many other days of happiness. There was the day I first saw her smile, the day she fell asleep on my chest, the days she came to visit me for the first time in Boston, the day I first saw her walking, the day I heard her say my name for the first time, and many others. I'm sure being a parent has similar, if not greater, joys, but until then, I can't think of anything in my life that I enjoy more than being than Abby's uncle. The guy who calls her during dinner and smiles when she says "Nom nom nom" like Cookie Monster because she knows it's me on the phone (that's one of our "things"). The guy who always has videos on his iPhone to share with her. The guy who made her a star on YouTube. The guy who finally got Abby to go in the pool when we all went to Florida earlier this year. And the guy who can't wait to see how much better life can get as Abby gets even older.

So today, on the occasion of her second birthday, I just wanted to take this opportunity to wish my niece a very happy second birthday. Woo hoo!


Monday, May 03, 2010

Everybody Loves Kristin

Kristin Chenoweth — the original Glinda in Wicked, the boozy April Rhodes on Glee, the Tony-winning star of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and an Emmy winner for her role on Pushing Daisies — is one of those actresses who everybody knows and everybody loves. So when I got the chance to interview her recently for Continental magazine, it was definitely a thrill. Chenoweth was just as sweet and nice and fun and bubbly as I'd expected her to be, and she gave me "good quote," which I used in the article I wrote about her, which is now live.

I interviewed Chenoweth because she's back on Broadway in the first-ever revival of Promises, Promises. If you've never heard of this musical, it's based on the Oscar-winning film The Apartment, which starred Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Chenoweth stars as Fran Kubelik (the MacLaine role), who is having an affair with an executive who will never commit to her. Sean Hayes, from Will & Grace, makes his Broadway debut as Chuck Baxter (the Lemmon role), a coworker of Kubelik's who has a crush on her. Baxter rises up the corporate ladder because he's gotten in with some horny executives, to whom he rents out his apartment each week so they can (individually) hook up with their mistresses. (Martin Lieberman fun fact: In high school, I was in a production of Promises, Promises, and I played one of those executives, a guy named Eichelberger.) Mix in a book by comedy God Neil Simon, great music from Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and an early 1960s Mad Men-esque setting, and you've got a fun, poignant, timeless and yet totally current musical.

As I learned during our chat, Chenoweth and I were both in productions of Promises, Promises when we were younger. "I was Fran, and I had a very limited understanding of what this girl was going through," she told me. "Now, I know." Regarding Fran, Chenoweth continued, "this is a woman who has spent a lot of time with the wrong man hoping it’s going to be different. And I don’t care who you are, I know just about every woman in my life has a story like that. It doesn’t even matter how old you are. You can be 19 or you can be 40. That’s something that stands the test of time."

Of course, I also asked Chenoweth why she thought Wicked has touched such a chord in so many people. "There is in every one of us a little bit of Elphaba and a little bit of Glinda," she explained. "Elphaba, who is green and is immediately outcast because of that, actually has quite a tough little exterior but is not so tough on the inside. Glinda is pretty on the outside, but what drives her? Insecurity. And then she grows into heartbreak. The show is about love and forgiveness and friendship, and those are the reasons why it has become a classic. Nothing makes me prouder than to have been a part of something like that."

So that's just a taste of what we discussed. If you'd like to read the whole article, go right ahead and click here. Enjoy!

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