Wednesday, June 30, 2010

How Far I've Come

I've been spending a bit of time lately with the me I used to be.

Freshman year of high school, my English teacher, Mr. Montgomery, assigned us a class project to begin keeping journals. I was so into it that when the official assignment was over, I kept on writing for myself. I checked in almost daily, beginning each entry with "Hey Mont," which was what I always said when I walked into class or saw him in the hall. I wrote in my journal all through high school (and over the summers), and when I left for college in the fall of 1992, I left behind eight notebooks that pretty much documented my life over those four years. As you might imagine, it's something I'm really proud of. The collection (plus a couple of failed restarts) is one of my most significant possessions.

About three weeks ago, I decided to bring up my journals from the basement and take a trip down memory lane. It's been a long time since I've done this, and I was instantly struck by how lame, fickle, and impressionable I was. Oh, and did I say lame? For example, multiple times I wrote about how uncool I thought people who drank alcohol were. "I haven't smoked, drank alcohol or done drugs yet and I don't ever plan to," I wrote during the fall of sophomore year. Other times I would bitch about something — a person, a class, whatever — and then an entry or two later, I had completely changed my opinion. You'd think I truly hated going to summer camp if all you read were the entries from the first half of summer 1989; by August, camp was the best place ever (no kidding), somewhere I wrote about for months after.

In addition, I used some pretty awful language — and I don't just mean grammar and spelling (I must have misspelled "honnestly" about a bjillion times, for example). C-words, f-words, racial and ethnic slurs, derogatory terms ... I couldn't believe this was me who had written such things. It was horrifying.

I was also embarrassed to see just how little game I had with the ladies back in the day, and just how gullible I was when people said and did things to me. I mean, really ... the BS I bought that people told me. Apparently, I just missed making the tri-state softball team at camp (something that really did ease the pain of not making the cut at the time). Apparently, some of my classmates really would have dated me if they didn't have boyfriends. There were people I thought were my friends but who clearly weren't. And so on. It's ridiculous the crap I believed back then.

But it wasn't all bad. It's fun to remember how much I enjoyed calling up WPLJ and either winning contests or introducing songs or whatever. I did that a lot. I was totally into the first Batman movie (even though I didn't love it when I actually saw it). As noted, I had really fond memories of camp and the people in my group (despite saying a lot of mean things about them during the summer). There were so many women I had crushes on that went unrequited. And I truly hated New Kids on the Block. Too funny.

The point is, reading my own words more than 20 years later is both scary and totally amusing. I had forgotten so much of what I said and did, and reliving it (in small doses) is quite an experience. Still, how great is it that I have this document of my high school years? When I'm older, I can share these with my kids and say, "This is what I was like." It's a time capsule that photos could never capture, and it's truly invaluable to me.

I'm only in December of sophomore year right now (just after I appeared in the school production of Ten Little Indians) and I'm looking forward with mixed emotions to continuing. One thing I know for sure: I'm not the boy I used to be, and I'm proud of how far I've come.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Life in Progress

It's unfortunate but true to say that over the years, Joan Rivers has been reduced to a caricature. Between her "Can we tawk?" catchphrase, her jewelry-hawking on QVC, her plastic surgery, and her award-show red carpet interviews, it's gotten hard to take Joan seriously anymore. And yet, at age 75, Joan's still around. And not only that, she's riding another wave of popularity. What's her secret to success? Well, as we learn in the new documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, it's simply hard work.

In the film, we see Joan at both her best and her worst. The doc actually begins with an extreme close-up of her face, minus the makeup, and it's a good indication of just how revealing Piece of Work is going to be. We see Joan as the bitchy comic many of us love, but it's the quieter moments that are more interesting. Joan's biggest fear is a calendar with no appointments. As she says, not only is she not ready to retire, but she's addicted to work — and perhaps just as important, she needs some way to pay for the extravagant lifestyle she leads. When people say she opened the door for women, Joan snaps back, "I'm still opening it."

Piece of Work covers a year of Joan's life, one that includes the opening and closing of her autobiographical play, her roast on Comedy Central, and her appearance on Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice — and we learn that the Apprentice gig was even sweeter for Joan because after she left The Tonight Show to launch her own late-night talk show on FOX, Johnny Carson blacklisted her and she hadn't appeared on NBC since.

The film presents a portrait of a woman many probably see as care-free and mean-spirited, and reveals her as someone who is just the opposite. She takes her career very seriously, particularly her acting; say what you want about her comedy (and good luck when she replies), but please don't tell her she's a bad actress. That she can't take. She's devoted to her family and you can tell she's also very attached to her staff (all jokes to the contrary). She laughs, she cries, she dishes out the insults, and yes, she can't take the ones slung at her as well as you think she can. What it comes down to is that Piece of Work presents Joan as innately human. If you didn't love the woman before seeing the movie, you certainly will after.

Is this the most insightful documentary ever? No. "At the heart of every comedian lies a sad clown" is a theme we've heard and seen many times before. But Joan is an engaging presence, and the anecdotal style of the film makes for a quick year in the life. I'm giving Piece of Work a B+.


Monday, June 28, 2010

A Mea Culpa

Nearly two years ago on this blog, I wrote that I had tried every pizza and sandwich shop in Cleveland Circle, and all of them had failed to impress me. Well, I need to apologize, because since then, I've become quite a fan of Pino's.

It started when my sister, brother-in-law, and niece were here in December and we wanted to grab some pizza for lunch. I settled for Pino's because it was closest to me, but was pleasantly surprised by the pie. Since then, I've gone back many times and have never been disappointed. The dough is great, the cheese never runny, and the slices are always served at a perfect temperature. I'm no food critic, but I know what good pizza tastes like. In fact, I dare say the pizza at Pino's is just as good as the pizza at T. Anthony's, my other favorite local pizza joint.

So consider this a second apology. I apologized to Eagle's Deli soon after the original post went live, and now I'm coming around to Pino's too. Let my continued patronage be my penance.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Fugly Five

You don't go see a movie like Grown Ups because you think it'll be good. You see it because you like the stars and you hope it'll be funny. Thankfully, you get what you pay for. Adam Sandler and his pals Kevin James, Rob Schneider, David Spade, and Chris Rock star as childhood friends who reunite (in "New England") for the funeral of their beloved basketball coach and decide to stay together with their families over the July 4th holiday at a scenic lake house. There's really no more plot than that. Good times and insults follow, as do other fellow former Saturday Night Live stars like Maya Rudolph, Colin Quinn, Tim Meadows, and, in a brief cameo, Norm MacDonald (plus Salma Hayek, Maria Bello, and Sandler movie mainstay Steve Buscemi).

Grown Ups is good-hearted fun, and it's the kind of easy-going movie that a high-minded, legitimate critic would hate. Thankfully, I can be easy to please sometimes, and I enjoyed hanging out with these guys for an hour and 45 minutes. It's like Sandler told his buddies, "Let's go up to Boston for the summer. We can hang out and make a movie." And they all agreed. Sure, I wish Chris Rock had more to do, and I wish the token conflicts weren't so lame and easily resolved. But scenes like when the gang heads to a water park and zips down the waterslides are so light and fun that you can't help but smile. I laughed a lot at Grown Ups, and even if some of the chuckles came too easily, I'm not complaining. That's all I wanted from this movie anyway. I'm giving Grown Ups a B.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Some Things Happen for a Reason

Knight and Day is what you might call a "Snuggie movie." That is to say, it's more about the marketing than the actual product. You've got your big, media-friendly stars (Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, reunited for the first time since Vanilla Sky — maybe you've seen them on TV or magazine covers lately). And you've got your cutesy title, which doesn't really have much to do with the movie other than the fact that it's easier to sell than the original title, which was Wichita. What more do you need?

Right: A compelling plot and a witty screenplay, for starters. Knight and Day is about Roy Miller and June Havens, who "meet cute" in the Wichita airport (actually, he planned it). Roy's got something to do with a battery, but is he a good guy or a bad guy? Who cares: He's Tom Cruise, so naturally, June falls for him. And they travel from Wichita to Boston to Brooklyn to an island somewhere to Austria and to Seville, Spain. Boston looks great; it's amazing that they were able to shoot some of the chase scenes on "the I-93," as June unconvincingly calls it. But that's really the only reason for a Bostonian to see the movie, if you get a thrill from seeing the city on the big screen.

Knight and Day needs more laughs (intentional ones, that is) and more of a reason to exist, other than because it all sounds so marketable. Save your money. I'm giving Knight and Day a D.


Monday, June 21, 2010

Being an Uncle Isn't All Good

They say there's no downside to being an uncle. You can play with a kid, get him or her all riled up, laugh, always be on his or her good side, etc ... and then, when things go sour, you just hand the kid back to the parents and they deal with it. And for the most part, I agree with that. It's always fun spending time with my niece, Abby, whether it's in person or on the phone as I drive home from work. And when she gets cranky, well, that's not my problem.

This past weekend, I got to spend a lot of time with Abby because I went down to New York for Father's Day and stayed at her house (she'd tell you it was her house, but really it's my sister and her husband's). I was there to cheer her up when she learned the pool was closed for the day, I was there to push her on her new swingset, I was there to clink our glasses and say "cheers!" when we were eating, I was there when she was a mess eating an ice cream cone, I was there to put her on my shoulders as we went to see the ducks and fish in a local park, I was there to read her a story before bedtime, and I was there in the morning when she woke up wearing cupcake pajamas (I know, how awesome) and wanted to play.

And then I had to leave. To see Abby's smile turn to a look of worry and sadness was heartbreaking. She was hanging out with her cousins, but she got right up and left them so she could walk me out to my car. And then, well, this happened:

There's no downside to being an uncle? I don't agree. Having to say goodbye to my little buddy really and truly sucks.


Friday, June 18, 2010

Sunnyside Up

It's been 11 years since Woody, Buzz, and the gang were last on the big screen, and in that time, it's not just Andy (their owner) who has grown up. The passage of time is what gives Toy Story 3 so much of its emotional heft. No matter how old you are, and whether you see it with or without a child sitting next to you, it's hard to deny that this third film hits you in all the right places. It's surely worth the wait. And then some.

In TS3, Andy is now 17 and days away from leaving for college. Woody assures the gang that even though they've been neglected for a while, when Andy leaves, they'll all be together, in the attic, not donated to a mysterious "day care" center or relegated to the trash. Well, he's wrong, and after a couple of twists, they all end up at Sunnyside Day Care, a bright, colorful paradise filled with lots of other toys — and more importantly, lots and lots of kids who can't wait to play with them and who will never outgrow them, like Andy has. To tell any more of the plot would be to spoil it. But suffice it to say, Sunnyside is not what it seems, and the toys soon realize how good they had it when they were with Andy.

Told with just the right mix of humor, sentiment, and creative visual flair, TS3 is a real treat. Kids who did not grow up with these characters will surely find much to enjoy, but undoubtedly, it's the adult members of the audience who will likely get the most out of the film.

TS3 begins with a 5-minute Wild West fantasy sequence that reintroduces the characters in amusing fashion. How fun to see them all again, you think, and then Randy Newman's "You've Got a Friend in Me" starts playing over the soundtrack and soon you're back in 1995, when we were first introduced to these characters, and you're filled with such warmth. How genius are the folks at Pixar that these characters — these animated, computer-generated characters — are able to engender such fondness even after all this time?

Of course, that's just the beginning, both literally and figuratively. The quality of the animation since 1995 has come a long way, and even if the 3D doesn't add excitement and thrill like it does in some other animated films, it's subtle and adds great depth to this picture (no one is doing 3D animation these days as well as Pixar is).

I'll admit, I didn't think the screenplay was as strong as those for the other two TS films, but it almost doesn't matter because the big-picture themes (we all grow up and need to let go of our childhood eventually, but friendship is everlasting) are so powerful and so richly portrayed, and the characters are still as endearing as ever, that when the toys are in real danger (yes, it's true — and it's also not very kid-friendly), you actually fear they may not make it to the final reel. (In a scene that takes place in the scariest animated trash compactor ever — the Boston Globe's Ty Burr called it a "very convincing depiction of the gates of hell" — I actually thought I was watching an episode of Lost, with its concept of "Live together, die alone.") And then, in the last 10 minutes, it's hard to watch the film without getting choked up and teary, as I was. (Thank God for the 3D glasses, which hid my tears quite well.) I don't care what you say — if your eyes aren't watery at the end of Toy Story 3, then you're not in the right theater.

No one could make a third film in a series like Pixar has. It doesn't take a new owner for this franchise to have new life, but you get the sense at the end of Toy Story 3 that Woody, Buzz, et al could be back again before long. Let's just hope they don't wait another 11 years. I'm giving this film an A–.


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Nothing Personal

A few times during the film Solitary Man, Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas) is out of focus. This filmmaking choice is just a literal representation of the man, who, after hearing that he may have some cardiac issues, decides to make all the wrong choices and has to deal with the consequences. He has a loving wife and family, and he throws them away to sleep with younger women. He has a successful chain of car dealerships, and he makes some shady business decisions that result in him losing his livelihood. All this is a gigantic case of denial: Ben can't face the fact that he's not the young guy he once was.

As played by Douglas, Ben is a man on the decline. And it's such a shame because he has so many things going right all around him that he just doesn't want to see or acknowledge. Thankfully, Douglas seems to know full well what he has here and he makes the most of the role, giving a nice, lived-in performance. Douglas hasn't been made to look younger here, like he is in other movies, and this adds another level to the characterization. Surrounding him is an excellent cast that includes Susan Sarandon, Jenna Fischer, Jesse Eisenberg, and Douglas' old pal, Danny DeVito. It's nice to see these two back on screen together again; they still have a warm chemistry after all these years.

In a summer of flashy, big-budget releases, Solitary Man won't be a stand-out performer. But it's worth seeing for Douglas' performance, and because you shouldn't make the same mistake that Ben does, going after more attractive offerings at the expense of the quality things he's already got. I'm giving Solitary Man a B+.


Monday, June 14, 2010

Take Your Shot

Do you remember Trani, that unfortunately named place in the North End where the featured menu item was cupcakes injected with ice cream? I definitely remember it. Well, it has closed and been replaced by a pizza place — yes, just what the North End needed, another pizza place.

But last week, on my birthday, a coworker (thanks, Suzy!) came into the office with exciting news. It seems a new place just like Trani has opened up in the Burlington Mall, of all places. It's called Shot Cakes, and it has the same basic premise: cupcakes injected with ice cream. There's one big difference, though: Whereas Trani had basic chocolate and vanilla cupcakes that you wouldn't necessarily want to eat without the ice cream, Shot Cakes has a whole selection of awesome flavors that are great as is. Red Velvet, Cookie Dough, Cookies and Cream, Brownie, Frosted with sprinkles, and so on. Add in ice cream and some hot fudge (or any of the other toppings, like peanut butter or caramel) and, well, WOW!

Barry and I went to check this place out on Saturday, and I had a Chip Shot Cake Quake. That's a chocolate cookie dough cupcake, injected with vanilla ice cream, topped with hot fudge, and served in a cup. It's kind of like a sundae, minus the whipped cream. A-MA-ZING. Moist cake, yummy fudge, and ice cream too. It wasn't overwhelmingly heavy or filling. And it cost less than $4. Had I been alone, I might have had a second. (Or a third.)

One curiosity was why there was not a bigger crowd waiting for their own Shot Cakes. Maybe we were there at an off time (who knew such a thing existed at a mall food court), but on the off chance that this place isn't getting the attention it deserves, I wanted to put up a blog post here (yeah, 'cause that will bring the place LOTS of attention). If you like cupcakes and ice cream — and really, who doesn't? — then by all means make a trip to Burlington and check this place out. (Just get in line behind me.)

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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Do It Again?

Almost six years ago, in celebration of my 30th birthday, I went skydiving. It was both a gift and a challenge: I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, and if I could, then my thinking was I could never use the excuse that I was too scared to do something ever again. To this day, it remains in my list of the top 3 things I've ever done.

Though I said almost instantly that I wanted to get right back into the plane and do it again, time has tempered that excitement (my experience taking trapeze lessons did too). On the fifth anniversary this past October, I actually said I was happy with both feet on the ground. But now I've sorta got that itch again. For one thing, a coworker of mine has been talking about wanting to do it. And now Chris Brogan — yes, the Chris Brogan — has gone and written about going skydiving for similar reasons (plus a charitable donation) and, well, if Chris Brogan is going to do it, then I want to too. It doesn't hurt that I could probably use another kick in the arse right now as well.

What do you think? Should I throw myself out of a (not so) perfectly good airplane again?

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Who Could Be Scared of a Jeffrey?

At the beginning of Get Him to the Greek, Sergio (Sean Combs, aka P. Diddy), an executive at a big-time record label, is yelling at his staff, who are trying to come up with a "game changer" idea that will help the label and maybe even save the entire industry. Aaron (Jonah Hill) has a crazy thought: What if we focused on the music? After all, isn't that why they all got into the business in the first place? It seems Aaron's all-time favorite singer performed at L.A.'s legendary Greek Theatre 10 years earlier. Aaron thinks it would be great if they could get him back on that stage and have him revisit the site of his greatest show. Of course, the idea is dismissed. When this scene was taking place, I started to smile: Was Get Him to the Greek going to be a great commentary on the state of the music business? Ha. Don't be so silly.

But alas, even though Aaron's idea is the one that does eventually get the boss' approval, it's in the service of comedy, not commentary. And as it turns out, the singer is not exactly Bruce Springsteen or anything. Instead, he's Aldous Snow, who you may remember from Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Played again by Russell Brand, Snow is your prototypical stereotypical British rock god: he's loud and obnoxious, he sleeps with any woman he can, and he's either drunk or high most of the time. Sergio gives Aaron an almost impossible task: Get Snow from London to Los Angeles in 72 hours so he can do the show. Let the laughs begin.

Thankfully, Greek is actually a pretty funny movie. If anything is surprising about it, it's that most of the laughs don't come from Brand. Instead, they're supplied by Hill (who mostly plays the straight man) and Combs (who overacts and overemphasizes his lines, but to good effect). Writer/director Nicholas Stoller (who also directed Sarah Marshall) keeps the action moving at a good pace, and the songs sung by Snow are both catchy and amusing (and yes, totally ridiculous). In total, Greek doesn't exactly break new ground, but it's better than it probably should be, and I laughed quite a bit. So I'm giving it a strong B.

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Monday, June 07, 2010

Celebrating My Double Life

Among MOTs, the number 18 has great significance. The word for "life" in Hebrew is "chai" (pronounced more like "hi" than like the kind of tea). The two Hebrew letters that make up the word "chai" have the numerical values of 8 and 10, so "chai" equals 18. As a result, on special occasions like weddings and bar/bat bitzvahs, many Jews like to give gifts in denominations of 18. In keeping with that idea, today, on my 36th birthday, I'm celebrating double chai — or in English, my double life.

No, I'm not outing myself here as a secret agent or a superhero, or revealing some deep, dark secret about myself. I'm just saying that lately, I've felt like I've been living a bit of a double life. Some days I'm happy as a clam, stress-free, and optimistic. A joker. A guy who likes to have a good time and make other people smile. That's the Martin that most people see, and that I'd prefer people know me as. But in true Gemini style, I've also got another side of my personality that's, well, not those things. And too often this year I've felt bored, frustrated, lonely, annoyed, and just plain old down.

It's weird. 2009 was such a great year for me, and as predicted, 2010 has not been so great. I can't quite put my finger on why (or maybe I don't want to), but I'm feeling stuck in a kind of confused, "in between" state right now. Is this where I thought I'd be when I turned 36? Not at all. When did things take a detour? Could I have done something differently? What happened? So no joke, quite often in the past couple weeks, when I've thought about what I want for my birthday, I've found myself saying, "I want to go back and live the last 15 years of my life all over again" — sort of another take on the "double life" concept. If only. So today, to be totally honest, I've got mixed emotions about my big day. (What a difference a year makes, eh?).

But enough of that. Today I'm hoping that my birthday, since it falls pretty evenly in the middle of the year, will be the beginning of a new 2010 for me. And instead of the time machine, I'd like lots and lots of cupcakes, maybe some ice cream, and some good friends to celebrate with me. Lest you forget, it's the Day of All Days, and that's reason enough for me to be happy. So bring on the celebration. Here's to a great day and a bigger, better year ahead! Happy 36 to me.


Sunday, June 06, 2010

Changing Over

I spent a good chunk of the last day of my 35th year doing what any other good straight male would do: I changed over my closet from winter to summer. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) I kinda had to do this, now that the temperatures have gotten consistently warmer and all. An unfortunate truth about my condo is that my closets are too small to keep all my clothes upstairs. But the other truth is that I'm a bit of a pack rat (as has been well documented on this blog), so every now and then it's good for me to go through my stuff, see what I've been hanging on to for way too long, and just get rid of anything I haven't worn or that's weathered and old. You'd be surprised at how many shirts and sweaters I just never wore all winter, despite thinking I would. Or how many of the same color shirts I owned. And some things I just wore too often and needed to get rid of them. And, I've been buying some new clothes lately that I needed to make room for.

I guess deep down, I wanted to do this today because I thought there was something metaphorical about cleaning up and renewing myself, and purging some old and unwanted belongings, the day before I turn another year older. And what the hell — yes, I also thought I'd get a blog post out of it (and given how few and far between they've been lately, that was a bonus).

Cliches and cheesiness aside, it felt good to do this. Not only did I get rid of a bunch of shirts, tshirts, and sweaters, but I also cleaned my apartment in the process and got in some exercise (walking a heavy tub up and down the stairs to and from my storage unit wasn't easy). And, another bonus, I have a nice donation to make to an organization like Big Brothers Big Sisters.

So now I'm sitting here in a cleaner apartment, with less than I had at the start of the weekend, and I'm feeling good about waking up in the morning.


Saturday, June 05, 2010

Welcome Home, Old Friend

The crowd was justifiably loud when Conan O'Brien took the stage Friday night at the start of his first Boston show on the Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour. This was the former Tonight Show host's first paying gig in his hometown (he grew up in Brookline, if you didn't know), and after more than three months off the air, we who love Coco were eager for some of his goofy Irish charm. Conan brought that and more in a show that was eager to please, even if it maybe ran on a little too long.

I won't even begin to quote Conan's jokes, but suffice it to say, he knew his audience Friday night and filled his show with lots of local humor — there were shout-outs to New Kids on the Block, Kelly's Roast Beef, Eagle's Deli, Chet Curtis, the Kennedys, and other area institutions. Plus, Conan ran through a long list of local towns during his monologue. The Dropkick Murphys made a surprise appearance to sing (what else?) "I'm Shipping Up to Boston." And yes, Conan made his entrance wearing a Paul Pierce Celtics jersey, and went on a tear about what would have happened had there been a game on at the same time as his show.

Joining Coco on this tour are other old friends, such as Andy Richter, LaBamba and other members of the Max Weinberg 7 (now, without Max, known as the Legally Prohibited Band), Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, and even the Masturbating Bear. There have been lots of other surprise guests on the tour; in New York earlier this week, Conan, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert had a dance-off. At Friday's show, in addition to the Dropkick Murphys, Ed Helms (from The Hangover) made an appearance.

The nearly two-hour show had a lot packed into it — there was even a hashtag in case people wanted to tweet before, during, or after the concert. It's safe to say, though, that with so much going on (a mix of jokes and music and clips), the show was bound to run out of steam every now and then. Some jokes kinda fell flat, and some songs just seemed unnecessary. For example, after all this time, I think it's safe to say that despite our loyalty, most of us are not still obsessed with the fact that Conan got a raw deal from NBC. I think he can kill a lot of those references and make the show in its remaining weeks more about his comeback than his frustration.

Still, it's hard to deny that it's great to see Conan back doing what he does best: entertaining his fans. The guy worked tremendously hard Friday night — the finely styled pouf of hair on his head was a sweaty mess by show's end — and it was hard not to walk out of the Citi Performing Arts Center Wang Theater with a smile on your face. So I say Welcome back, Conan. I'm still with you.

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