Thursday, July 29, 2010

Eternal Optometrist

The good news is that the titular gathering in Dinner for Schmucks lives up to its billing and is a very funny scene — perhaps the best in the entire movie. The bad news, however, is that the scene is not longer, and it takes almost an hour and a half to get to it. Until then, this film — about a guy (Paul Rudd) who must bring a loser (Steve Carell) to a dinner party in order to win a promotion — is only mildly amusing. Carell's character is weird, but I didn't find him to be the absurdly over-the-top weird, awkward loser that he's supposed to be. Jemaine Clement (from the late, lamented Flight of the Conchords) plays a character who'd have fit in better with the other wack jobs sitting around the table — particularly Zach Galifianakis' character, who is one of the film's highlights. Carell, however, despite his character's quirks, plays him with sweetness and heart. And when Rudd's character realizes the error of his ways, he's about an hour behind the rest of us. I'm giving Dinner for Schmucks a B–.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

It Really Is a Small, Small World

Anyone who knows me knows I have a soft spot for nostalgia. Reconnecting with old friends is, for me, one of the most fun aspects of Facebook, for example. And I've already told you about how I'm reliving my high school days by re-reading the journals I kept during those four years. So you can only imagine how much I enjoy reconnecting with people in the most random of places, far from the computer.

Case in point: I was out Monday night at a work-related event, and was chatting up a friendly woman I had just been introduced to. Turns out she grew up in New York too, and as we started to narrow things down, it became clear that not only were we from the same state, but we also had the same county, town, and high school in common, though she had graduated nine years ahead of me. And, she was very good friends with a good friend of my family.

But here's where it got really fun. I asked her where she lived, and was shocked to learn that she and I used to live on the same street. And then she dropped the real bomb: She remembered me and my sister, because she used to be our babysitter! Not only that, but she remembered our house (which her mother had sold to my parents), what it looked like, and even a time when a babysitting gig at my house went a little awry. It had been about 27 years since we'd seen each other, but there we were, at a random event at the top of the Colonnade Hotel, reconnecting and laughing about what a small world it is, and how cool and funny it was to see each other again (though to be honest, I didn't really remember as much about her as she remembered about me. What can I say? I was eight or nine the last time I saw her).

So, yeah. It's nice to rediscover people from your past on the Internet, but every now and then I enjoy doing it in real life too.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Jack Rebney Still Has a Lot to Say

In 1989, a man named Jack Rebney shot an industrial film meant to promote Winnebago motor homes. Shooting in intense heat and being pestered by flies caused Rebney to lose his cool many times, and all his expletive-laden outbursts were captured on film ... and then edited together into a legendary outtakes reel that eventually made its way onto YouTube, where it has achieved cult status. But whatever happened to Rebney? We know he was fired from his job a month after shooting, but that's the last anyone had heard from him. And thus we have the inspiration for the new documentary Winnebago Man, in which filmmaker Ben Steinbauer goes in search of a man once dubbed the angriest in the world.

If the initial search for Rebney was all the film was about, that'd be an awfully short documentary — especially because when Steinbauer does find him, he's just a nice older gent who is bewildered by the attention. Thankfully, there's more to the story than that, and more to the film too. Steinbauer fleshes out Winnebago Man by interviewing and soliciting brief commentary from some viral video "experts," including Douglas Rushkoff (who coined the term viral video). At least one interviewee is confused by the inquiry and the search. After all, if we get to know the people behind some of these videos (like the Star Wars kid or Alexsey Vayner, whose leaked resume video made him the laughing stock of the Internet), then they lose their charm and entertainment value, right?

Not so with Rebney. Thankfully, after his initial "dog and pony show," the old man turns out to be the cantankerous-grandfather-like figure Steinbauer (and fans like me) expect and hope he'll be. (One can't help but think he's the brother of Justin Halpern's dad.) It's fascinating to watch as this man, who has chosen a hermit-like life for himself on a mountain in northern California, comes to terms with his notoriety and the people who think of him in such an affectionate way.

Could Winnebago Man have been about more just than a search for one man, and instead been an examination of multiple people who gained, if not fame then infamy through YouTube, and a greater study about why we're so fascinated by them? Yes. That might have made it a more interesting film, with more of an insightful takeaway. But as a portrait of this one man, and why people are so fascinated by him, it's engaging and entertaining.

YouTube is, as one person describes it, a "modern-day freak show," and films like Winnebago Man might just go some distance toward reminding viewers that there are some real-life people behind the videos that make us laugh so hard. Hopefully those people are all as compelling as Jack Rebney. I'm giving Winnebago Man a B+. Do yourself a kindness and go see it.

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Monday, July 26, 2010

Family Matters

In the film The Kids Are All Right, a married couple is shaken up when their teenage children decide to seek out the sperm donor who fathered them. That the married couple is a lesbian couple adds another layer to the plot, but one of the standout features of this film is how matter-of-factly this is treated. And as played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, gracefully and naturally, this couple is one of the most normal, down-to-earth, relatable couples on screen in a long time — flaws and all.

The Kids Are All Right is that kind of movie; what might seem on its surface to be a "message movie" about how even lesbians can successfully raise children is just at its heart a movie about a family — any family — dealing with an unexpected circumstance. And heart is the key word here, since writer/director Lisa Cholodenko has imbued the film with plenty of it (Stuart Blumberg co-wrote the screenplay). Rounding out the cast are Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska (much better here than in Alice in Wonderland), and Josh Hutcherson, all of whom are wonderful.

In a summer full of bombast, The Kids Are All Right is notable not just because it's a well-made movie, but because it's the rare film that without gimmick, mockery, or heavy-handedness shows how important family is, and trusts that audiences will get that message no matter what type of family it is. I'm giving The Kids Are All Right an A–.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Not So Flavorful

I have to be honest: I'm not the world's biggest Angelina Jolie fan. I find her cold and severe looking, too rail-thin, and just not as hot as some other men do. (TMI, perhaps?) Her new film Salt doesn't exactly turn the tide for me. Here, Jolie plays a CIA agent who may or may not be a Russian spy. For the first half of the movie, I really didn't care which side she was on. Her character didn't engender much sympathy. And then, predictably, there's a twist, but it doesn't exactly make her more sympathetic — even though it's probably supposed to. Salt has some decent stunts, a good chase scene or two, and Andre Braugher in a really random blink-and-you'll-miss-him supporting role (seriously, what was the point of that??), but it's just an average summer flick that thinks it's more but really is just alright. You'll have forgotten it by the next morning. I'm giving Salt a B–.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I "Like" This

I'm a believer that the quality and quantity of the trailers shown before a film can adversely or positively affect the moviegoing experience, no matter how good the movie itself is. So suffice it to say, on Saturday, when I saw the awesome Inception, having the new trailer for The Social Network (i.e., the Facebook movie) playing before the film made the experience even better.

I'd seen the trailer a few times already online, and loved it, so I knew what trailer it was the second it began. But not everyone else in the theater had. Let me tell you, it didn't take long for them to catch on, and the place just went totally silent. And when it was over, there was a palpable buzz all around me. That movie looks incredible. Clearly, I'm not the only one who cannot wait till October 1, which is when it opens.

Check out the Social Network trailer for yourself. I've embedded it right here for your viewing pleasure.

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Monday, July 19, 2010

Life Could Be a Dream

We're not in Kansas anymore, kids. Again. Picking up where The Matrix left off, Christopher Nolan's new film, Inception, presents a reality that's not quite what it seems. And then Nolan layers it with twists and turns that only generate more questions and more questions. The film's like a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream. Or is it? Just how much of the action in Inception is real, and how much is a dream? That all depends on whether you want to swallow the red pill or the blue one.

How to explain the plot in simple terms ... Let's see: In Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a thief who can enter into the dreams of others and affect the subconscious of his targets. He works with a team that includes Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Ariadne (Ellen Page), and tries to enter the mind of a man (Cillian Murphy) so Cobb can plant the idea for him to dismantle his father's company, which will allow another man, Saito (Ken Watanabe), to maintain global energy domination. If Cobb is successful, then Saito will pull strings with the government, allowing Cobb to finally go home to his children, who he has been separated from for many years.

But it's not that simple. In each dream, all objects and characters are projections of the dreamers' minds, and may be lacking in details. It's also possible for one person's subconscious to affect another's, which is why Cobb keeps seeing visions of his late wife (Marion Cotillard). In addition, it's possible to go down many levels, and enter a dream within a dream, switching from one person's subconscious to another's. When you do so, time moves even slower, meaning that three minutes in one dream might be 20 minutes in another dream one level down. And to get out of the dream state, you either have to be killed or you have to fall backward. Oh, and how do you know if you're in reality or a dream? Each person has a "totem," or a handmade symbol. For Cobb, it's a top. In reality, the top eventually stops spinning, but in dreams it spins indefinitely.

Confused yet? Good.

Written and directed with confidence, and portrayed with high visual style, Inception is the kind of movie you need to pay full attention to for its full two and a half hour length; don't take your eyes off the screen for even a second, lest you'll miss a detail that might be important later. Nolan, writer/director of Memento and The Dark Knight, proves himself once again to be a master of intelligent big-budget entertainment, here concocting a film so twisty and carefully plotted, but yet still accessible and engaging. You might get tripped up trying to figure out whose mind you're in at various times (at one point, Ariadne actually asks, "Whose subconscious are we going into, exactly?" — likely a wink to the audience), but you'll never be less than engrossed in the action. And you'll leave the theater talking and questioning what you've seen, and wondering how much of it you can trust. Credit not just the direction, the screenplay, the cinematography, and the special effects for making the film engaging, but also composer Hans Zimmer, whose dark, ominous, and always-on score is reminiscent of his work on The Dark Knight (which is to say it's awesome).

That Inception lives up to the hype is merely stating the obvious. That it's so entertaining and one of the best movies of the summer (and the year thus far) is almost predictable. But all is true. More intelligent minds than mine can dissect the film more, and point out things I won't understand or appreciate till I see the film a second or third time, and talk about with others. But till then, Inception is getting an A– from me, and a hearty endorsement to see once, twice, or as many times as it takes till you figure the whole thing out.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Despicable Movie

I'll admit it: I have a weak spot for most animated films. Whether that's because I'm still a kid at heart, because animated films tend to be better than many live action ones, or some other reason is debatable, but chances are good that if a film is animated, I'll walk out of the theater raving about it. I won't be doing that with Despicable Me, however. This one is just not as much fun as its trailers promised it would be, and I'm surprised and disappointed to say I just didn't enjoy it all that much.

Despicable Me features Steve Carell as the voice of Gru, the world's second-most-feared super villain. Gru is determined to steal the moon, but first he's got to beat his brand-new nemesis, Vector (Jason Segel), and he's got to avoid falling for the three young girls he adopts (for less-than-pure purposes, of course). Yes, that means this one's a cute heartwarmer. So instead of being wacky and whimsical, and showing these two villains doing battle to one-up each other, we see Gru's heart melting for the girls. Don't go to this movie expecting lots of laughs.

If you go to Despicable Me, you can probably also save yourself a few bucks and not see it in 3D. Other than a cool scene on a roller-coaster, there's not much notable about the effect. In fact, save this one for the DVD, and let the kids enjoy it. Unlike, say, Toy Story 3 there's not as much to charm adults, and if you're like me, you'll be checking your watch a couple times, waiting for it to be over. I'm giving Despicable Me a B–.


Thursday, July 08, 2010

Tasty Treat

One of the problems with the cupcake scene in the Boston area — other than the fact that there's no Crumbs within the state lines — is that most of the places just don't live up to their names, or the hype. Kickass Cupcakes don't. Sweet's are not. Shot Cakes, while tasty and worth the trip, don't include alcohol shots. (Okay, fine. Maybe that one's a stretch.) And so on. Now there's Treat in Needham Center, and, well, finally the name fits. I went in on day two this past weekend (it opened on July 4), had a cupcake called the Plain Jane, and fell in love.

Let me tell you about the Plain Jane. First of all, the name is inaccurate. This cupcake was not plain in the least: it was chocolate cake with what looked like a scoop of classic vanilla buttercream frosting, chocolate fudge drizzle, sprinkles, and a thin slice of waffle cone. If you ask me, it should have been called the Ice Cream Sundae cupcake, because that's what it looked like. But that aside, it was awesome. The cake was moist, the frosting creamy and dense enough. Yum.

The Plain Jane cupcake was so awesome that I promptly bought six more to share with my coworkers the next day. Suffice it to say, they were a big hit. One person called the Triple Chocolate the best cupcake she'd ever had (I ate half of it, and let out a big "wow" after the first bite). Another said the Plain Jane/Sundae one was "fan-friggin-tastic." People were equally rhapsodic about the Red Velvet, Needham Cream Pie, Peanut Butter Overload, and Vanilla/Vanilla Plain Jane. I promised I'd bring more in sometime soon.

In the meantime, I'm telling you all. Treat is located at 1450 Highland Ave. in Needham (dangerously close to where I live). It's on Facebook and on Twitter. Technically, the store is in "soft opening" mode right now, and won't have an official grand opening till September, but it's already doing great business. Get over there before the word spreads even further and you're waiting out the door before you can enjoy one of these tasty treats. In fact, according to Treat's Facebook page, this weekend it'll be debuting the Lemon Drop, Hugs, Creamsicle, and Pink Lemonade cupcakes. Yum. Will I see you there?

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Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Seriously, Don't F**k My Mom

Alright, so maybe Norman Bates, who once claimed that "A boy's best friend is his mother," is the creepiest on-screen mama's boy. But the title character of the film Cyrus runs a close second. In the film, Cyrus (Jonah Hill) does everything he can to interfere with the budding relationship between his mother, Molly (Marisa Tomei), and John (John C. Reilly), a lonely and depressed guy who thinks he's finally found the right woman, until he meets her son and sees the creepy, truly dysfunctional relationship they have. John and Cyrus engage in some serious psychological warfare, some of which is quite funny, and Molly clearly doesn't see or understand what's wrong with the relationship.

Reilly and Tomei are both good, and Hill gives a decidedly more low-key performance than I've seen him give. As noted, the film has some good laughs, and it's generally pretty engaging. Does it drag a little bit? Yeah. Is some of the humor a little broad? Yes. But overall, Cyrus is a pretty engaging movie with a memorable line of dialogue that I'll be quoting — and maybe even wearing — for some time, and I'd say see it. I'm giving the film a B.


Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Summer in Michigan City

Growing up in suburban New York, I never thought that one day I'd get really excited about spending July 4 in Michigan City, Indiana. But after going there last year and having a great time, that's what's happened. So that's why I went to Chicago this weekend. Thursday and Friday I wandered around town (about 6 miles of walking, in fact), took a day trip to Evanston to see Northwestern (just for fun), checked out two of Chicago's leading cupcake places (Molly's and Sweet Mandy B's — both of which were tasty, but not as good as the hype), had some custom-made rapid-frozen ice cream at a place called iCream (really, that's its name), and finally got to meet my friends' daughter, who is totally cute. But spending the weekend in Lake Michigan was the highlight of the trip.

Like last year (and every other year), there was Drunken Salami (i.e.: salami that's been marinating in Scotch and Russian dressing for months, and then grilled — yum), beach time, sun, an awesome sunset, fireworks on the beach, a bonfire, s'mores, good friends, and a good time. "Chuck Wagon" was there, as were some other folks I had met last year. A bunch of young kids added extra excitement to this year's festivities. Oh yeah, and we also stopped at Dairy Queen on the way home. Can't go to Michigan City without doing that. It's been nice to be included in this traditional gathering now for two years, and it's no exaggeration to say that I'm already looking forward to next year's celebration. (And this is coming from a guy who used to think there was no better place for July 4th than Boston. How times have changed.)

Overall, like trips to Chicago in the past, this was a great one. Beautiful weather (alright, fine, maybe it was a little too hot), I went to went to favorite places (like the Bean), saw and did some new things too, and came home thinking I should go back more often. And as a bonus, I came home with a tan! So yeah, a good time had by all.

Want to see pictures?
Chicago and Evanston
Weekend in Michigan City

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