Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mercy Mercy Me

In Larry Crowne, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts team up to save the world from an invasion of alien robots. And it's all in 3-D! No, not really. In this modern-day dramedy, Hanks stars as the title character, who gets laid off from his job at a Target-like big box retailer because his lack of a college degree makes him unpromotable (he opted for the Navy when he was 18). To right the wrong, and help his future prospects, he enrolls in a community college, where he meets (and falls for) his speech professor, played by Roberts.

I call Larry Crowne a "modern-day" dramedy because the film has a plot that reflects the current reality of so many people who've been laid off from their jobs. And yet, Larry Crowne also feels like "The Bad Economy for Dummies," because it is such a feel-good, accessible film that you don't really worry about the main character because you know everything's gonna be alright. As if that's not enough, there are lame references to "new media" and use of terminology like "knockers." Plus, you've got Hanks and Roberts in the leads (and on a motor scooter) and a soundtrack that's heavy on boomer-favorite Tom Petty. Oh, and there's a happy ending too where (spoiler) the two main characters fall in love. Suffice it to say, this isn't Up in the Air or The Company Men.

I know I'm not exactly the target audience for Larry Crowne. The film's definitely geared more toward people like my parents, and they will love it. That's not a bad thing. I mean, despite all I just said, this isn't exactly a bad movie. It's definitely better than the trailer made it seem. Hanks exudes a winning charm, as always, and even though the love story between him and Roberts' character (whose name is Mercy, by the way) seems forced and contrived, the two have a nice, easy chemistry together. It's always enjoyable to watch Tom and Julia on screen, despite your resistance, whether they're alone or together (as with Charlie Wilson's War).

Still, as noted, the film just feels so middle of the road and safe that it's hard to get too engaged. And for God's sake, hide your eyes during the totally ridiculous, cheesy, and unnecessary closing credits. Larry Crowne may not be "spectacular" entertainment, but it's a pleasant (if long) 90 minutes. I'm giving it a B–.


Monday, June 27, 2011

Conan the Destroyer

Last year, when Conan O'Brien was (unfairly) fired as the host of NBC's The Tonight Show, he didn't take it very well. Viewers saw that in the days and weeks leading up to his last show, as he piled on the jokes at his soon-to-be-ex-employer's expense. And those of us who saw O'Brien's Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour got a taste of that too, as each show included a few jabs at NBC and a bunch of self-deprecating jokes about the situation. But behind the scenes was an even angrier person, and in the new documentary Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, we get a chance to see a little more of that side.

Thankfully, though, Conan — who says at one point early in the film, “Sometimes I’m so mad I can’t even breathe" — decided to funnel his emotions into something positive. As it turned out, the 32-city tour was not so much about Conan venting and getting his fans to rally behind him (unlike a certain former Two and a Half Men star's tour was). It was more like live therapy in front of his fans, and a way for Conan to laugh and exorcise his frustration and disappointment (in himself as well as NBC). In Can't Stop, we get to ride along as Conan's mood and outlook change, and he sees just how much love there is for him across the country.

Of course, like any comic, there's a constant need for approval. That's nothing new. But in Conan's case, there's also a never-ending need to entertain. Here, we watch as Conan and team put together the tour, and then take it from Eugene, Ore., to Atlanta, going practically nonstop for those few months. He does his show. He doesn't take actual days off. He greets hundreds of fans along the way, even at times when making pleasant chit-chat is the last thing Conan feels like doing. No, Conan doesn't stop, and the film seems to imply that he just doesn't know how to stop.

You may get whiplash from the speed and quick editing employed here; there are lots of quick cuts and no long scenes. That means you get to see a lot, but you don't see much of each thing. Thus, as a document of the tour, this is hardly comprehensive.

On the other hand, there are some really nice, and revealing, backstage moments. I particularly enjoyed watching Conan interact with his assistant, Sona. Despite her being constantly put-upon, and often the butt of Conan's jokes (including when he makes her speak into a banana during a meeting), it's clear there's a great deal of mutual affection there, and that's really fun to watch. And it's cool to see Conan give so much of himself to his fans, even when they turn him off (as in the anti-semitic fan who drove for hours to a casino to see Conan, only to be told he was too young to get in).

Conan deals with nearly every situation with a laugh — after all, that's the best defense. That means that even though Conan's quips often do carry more meaning, there's maybe not as much of the "off" Conan as we may want. But I'm not complaining: This entertaining collection of raw footage shows a man going through a real professional rough patch, and coming out smiling. As someone who's been through similar (though not identical) frustration, I felt a kinship with Conan at the time, and watching Conan O'Brien Can't Stop I have to say I like the guy even more now. This is a film for (and in many ways, a tribute to) the fans, but I suspect those who don't watch his show will like it too. I'm giving Conan O'Brien Can't Stop a B+.

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Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Big Man Was a Friend of Mine

Clarence Clemons was known as the Big Man, largely because at 6 feet, 5 inches tall and 270-plus pounds, he was literally a big man. But the nickname was appropriate because on stage, Clarence had a presence that was bigger than life. He wasn't showy or over the top like some other rock stars — including his bandleader and friend, Bruce Springsteen. But he was always cool, always just to Bruce's right, waiting to pick up his sax and do his thing. And when Clarence got up to play ... Wow. This man of few words, this gentle giant, let his instrument do all the talking. When Clarence took center stage for one of his solos, it was a transcendent experience. Every time you heard "Jungleland" live, it was awe-inspiring. Stunning. Powerful. An out-of-body experience. One of my favorite parts of any Springsteen show.

So it goes without saying that the loss of Clarence Clemons Saturday night, due to complications from a stroke one week earlier, was a huge loss — for the music world and for me personally.

I'll never forget the first time I saw Springsteen and the E Street Band live. It was the 1999 reunion tour, in Boston, at what was then known as the FleetCenter. Somehow, my friend Holly and I were able to score third-row center seats. (I'm still not sure how we did it.) Even though I was not as huge a Springsteen fan then as I am now, the show was incredible. Of course, any show would be incredible from those seats, but a Springsteen show? You have no idea.

At the end of the concert, as everyone was applauding and cheering wildly, I stood there directing my applause in Clarence's direction, and mouthing the words "thank you." Clarence looked right back at me, put his hands together, and gave me a sort-of swami salute, slightly bowing in my direction. It was his way of saying "you're welcome." And sure, he was doing this a lot, and in different directions, to acknowledge everyone in the arena. But it didn't feel that way to me. At that moment, Clarence was connecting with me, and me alone. There was no one else in the FleetCenter. It felt special, even if it was hardly unique. How cool is it that Clarence made me feel this way in a room full of thousands of other people. I was a changed man after that concert.

No wonder fans feel such a deep connection to Springsteen, the E Street Band, and Clarence himself. The Big Man wasn't just a musician, or a performer. He was a friend. There's a reason that when Bruce was introducing the band in concert, Clarence was always last — even after Patti Scialfa, Bruce's wife. There's a reason that when Bruce played "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out" with the Band at his Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, he said, "This is the important part" before he sang the "Big Man joined the band" section. Clarence was someone we rooted for, cheered louder for, felt loyal to. He gave as much to us in his performances as we gave to him. Clarence was not just the Big Man, he was the man. The foundation. A rock. He was irreplaceable.

When I remember the Big Man that was Clarence Clemons, I'll remember his soulful contributions to songs like "Jungleland," "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out," "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)," and others. But I'll remember that hot August night more, and how that one concert experience turned me into an E Street fan for life.

Thank you, Clarence. I'll miss you.

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Those Good and Crazy People

The truth is, I'm not anti-marriage. One day I hope to find someone I love enough to want to spend the rest of my life with — and hopefully she'll feel the same way about me. But until that happens, I'm a perpetual third- or fifth-wheel. And admittedly, I go back and forth between being alright about it and yes, being lonely. Kind of like Bobby, the lead character in Stephen Sondheim's Company. The classic musical, one of my all-time favorites, was recently revived in New York with a cast including Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Colbert, Patti LuPone, Jon Cryer, and Christina Hendricks, and for a brief time, you can watch a recording of those performances on the big screen.

Company has no real plot. It's basically a collection of anecdotes strung together as 35-year-old Bobby (Harris) goes from couple to couple, each of them either doting on him or too wrapped up in themselves to notice Bobby's not comfortable being around them. None of the couples presents a real good example of why Bobby should want to be married, and yet they all feel sorry for him because he's not married. What does Bobby himself want? He doesn't seem to know, nor does he seem to be in any rush to figure that out. As a result, he continues to be emotionally detached, watching everyone live their lives while he is essentially watching from the outside. As one friend tells him on her wedding day, "I'm afraid to get married, and you're afraid not to."

The show is awesome for a number of reasons, one of them being Sondheim's songs, which at times have such a contemptuous attitude toward married people, and at times hit the single person's conflicted attitude toward settling down right on the nose. The show is funny, thought provoking, insightful, and not the typical "jazz hands" kind of musical. And as a 37-year-old singleton, I can identify with a lot of it.

The last time I saw Company, five years ago, the show left a real impression on me. So any future productions get measured against that one. This one just didn't have that same effect. Produced by the New York Philharmonic, the draw here was certainly the cast. However, the talent across the board was mixed. Harris makes for a truly charming Bobby; it's not hard to see why all these people would love him. He's more than capable of carrying the show, and his performance is eager to please. The problem is that while Harris has a fine singing voice, it's just not as strong as the character requires. For example, "Marry Me a Little" was fine, but "Someone Is Waiting" sounded like it was more of a challenge.

Among his co-stars, the acting was good, but again, singing was the real problem. Songs like "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" sounded off, and, well, Cryer, Colbert, and Hendricks aren't known for their singing anyway. Better were Martha Plimpton and especially Kate Finneran, whose "Not Getting Married" was one of the show's highlights. And then there was LuPone, whose performance was the best of the lot, not surprisingly. "The Ladies Who Lunch" was definitely the show's peak.

In addition, the show felt long and it dragged at times. I seem to recall the 2006 revival using an abbreviated book, and this production had no such tweaks. Also, the recording was basically a video of the show and not a high def film, which made watching the show on screen instead of live less engaging and fun. It wasn't exactly a home video, and it wasn't a film either. I never knew if I should be applauding, even though that seemed to be the natural reaction.

So is it worth finding a theater showing Company in the next couple days? Perhaps only if you're a devoted fan. Otherwise, check out the well produced DVD from the much more elegant 2006 revival.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Six Degrees of Mutants

The superhero prequel X-Men: First Class imagines a reality in which mutants, led by Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), played a critical role in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Fascinating stuff, and a pretty cool concept. It's the execution here that's the problem, and I hold Kevin Bacon to blame. Cast in the role of scientist and fellow mutant Sebastian Shaw, Bacon is worse than a villain; he's someone you don't even like watching. Oscar nominee (for Winter's Bone) Jennifer Lawrence has the opposite problem; she doesn't make much of an impact as Mystique, the shape-shifter who will grow up to look like Rebecca Romijn. The action and special effects here are cool, and I did like the revisionist history angle. But the metaphors were less a turnoff when they were more subtle, like in the second X-Men movie (seems no one learned from the last X-Men film). So I'm giving X-Men: First Class a B.


Monday, June 13, 2011

Super, Indeed

The next time you hear someone say, "They sure don't make 'em like they used to," tell that person to go see Super 8, a throwback movie so retro that you may think it was made 25 years ago (even the poster gives you that impression). That's intended as a compliment, of course, as is the fact that writer/director J.J. Abrams has made a movie reeking with old fashioned Spielberg-ian charm, in the best way. After all, as the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

In Super 8, it's 1979 in Ohio, and Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his friends are spending the summer making a horror movie. One night, while shooting at the train station, the kids witness a crash of epic proportions, a crash that has a strange effect on the town. When the U.S. Air Force arrives, that only raises more questions: What was the train carrying, and is there a connection between the crash and the strange phenomena (pets running away, microwaves disappearing, car engines vanishing, people being abducted) that have become commonplace? Joe's dad (Kyle Chandler), the sheriff's deputy, butts heads with Air Force Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich) until he gets answers. Meanwhile, the kids try to solve the mysteries on their own, while hiding that they know so much about what happened.

Yes, there's a creature, and no, you won't see it until very late into the movie. But that's not the point of the film. Super 8 is a story about innocence lost, about friends discovering something bigger than their wildest imaginations, about an alien creature that just wants to go home, about a father and son who don't see eye to eye ... In other words, it's a movie with all the classic Steven Spielberg themes (no wonder Uncle Stevie signed on as the film's producer). Abrams has expertly crafted a movie that pays tribute to the movies of his youth while adding a modern twist, just like he did with Star Trek two years ago. Super 8 is full of wonder, it's exciting, and it's a perfect movie for summer (except that it's way smarter than the average summer movie).

To spoil any of Super 8 surprises or to tell too much about the movie would spoil its charm. You want to go into this film knowing as little as possible, so your eyes can be as wide as the young stars'. And yes, you want to stay until the very end; the kids' film unspools over the end credits. From start to finish, Super 8 is a film you can't take your eyes off. It's one of the year's best so far. I'm giving it an A–.


Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Life and Death, and Dinosaurs Too

You know the classic Burt Bacharach song "Alfie?" Well, after seeing Tree of Life, you may be asking, "What's it all about, Terrence?" The film, written and directed by Terrence Malick (Badlands, The Thin Red Line), is a meditation on fathers and sons, the meaning of life, what it means to be a man, and probably a whole lot of other stuff too. (You get that sense from the poster.) Actually, instead of a movie, it's more like a two hour and 15 minute tone poem: There's little dialogue (no kidding, two characters never speak to each other for the entire first hour of the film), lots of atmospheric shots, little to no plot, short monologues (delivered in a whispery voice over as if they're a prayer to God), and a whole lot of choral and swelling orchestral music on the soundtrack. Throw in Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and some dinosaurs too (yes, really), and the whole thing feels like an exercise in filmmaker indulgence. (Or hubris, depending on your preference.)

It's not that I'm against such things. After all, in characteristic Malick style, the film is gorgeous to look at and listen to. It's just that I really don't know what to make of Malick's films. While I liked The Thin Red Line, The New World left me baffled. And Tree of Life left me similarly impressed but also kind of cold. I know that's a cop-out, so oh well if you're looking for a more thorough and thoughtful review here. Pitt, as a mercurial Texan father in the 50s, and Penn, as his grown-up son in the present day, are both fine, though it's worth noting that Penn's barely in the movie, and he spends nearly all his time looking pensive and thoughtful. Which is probably what you'll look like after seeing Tree of Life too. I'm giving this one a B–.


A Very Good Birthday, Indeed

Not to get all girly or anything, but ... not being married and not having kids, I've always put a bit of a special significance on my birthday. My thinking goes that my birthday is the one day when it's all about me for a change, so people should show me a little attention. I mean, is that really asking so much? And truth be told, I've kind of kept a tally over the years; each year, I remember who didn't call or email or somehow get in touch. I joke, and I know it's petty, but I do.

So believe me when I tell you that there's no such tally this year. That's because, to put it simply, there were many, many people who did acknowledge the day. I had more than 175 posts and comments on my Facebook wall. Nearly 20 tweets. Lots of emails (personal ones, not just the many "special offers" from businesses whose mailing lists I'm on). Some phone calls. Text messages. I had birthday cake. Cupcakes — lots of cupcakes. Lunch. Dinner. And much more. Honestly, I was overwhelmed by all the love and attention. There were times during the day when I was struggling to keep up with the email notifications and messages.

The in-person drive-bys, the personal emails, and phone calls were great, don't get me wrong, but it was the Facebook and Twitter posts that left an impact. I know some people don't put a whole lot of weight on social media relationships, but let me tell you, when you're getting told every couple of minutes that someone else has said "Happy birthday," it's pretty cool. After all, it's not just Facebook that notifies you these days, Twitter does it now too. When people you don't even know — people who live halfway around the world — feel a connection and want to wish you happy birthday, that's really neat. (And it just goes to further prove the point that Twitter can be worth it if you put in the time and use it correctly.)

Let this blog post serve as my thank you to all who acknowledged my special day, the so-called Day of All Days, in all the different ways that you did. I really appreciate it because, well, maybe you read my post yesterday about how I wasn't exactly in a celebratory mood. And you probably didn't know this, but I had woken up prematurely, so I was tired and cranky, and I really wasn't feeling social (in the conventional sense) when I got to work in the morning. But somewhere between 6 a.m. when I woke up, and the arrival of 150 cupcakes from Baked by Melissa at 11:00 a.m., my mood changed and I began to feel good about the day. What a difference a few hours and a ton of emails made.

Someone once said to me that a good birthday is defined as "having people that care about you take the time out to recognize that." So by that measurement, my 37th birthday was a very good birthday, indeed. (That's one item done off my summertime to-do list.) Thank you for making it such a great day.

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Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Happy Birthday?

Here we are again. It's my birthday. Number 37. The Day of All Days. Let this blog post serve as my traditional "taking stock" blog post, even though this year, truth be told, I'm not all that sure how I'm doing on this most special of days. I know I'm doing better than I was last year, and I think I'm happy — but you shouldn't think you're happy, right? You should know. This year, I just don't know how I feel.

The truth is, I'm tired. Tired of being complacent. Tired of being lazy and inert. Tired of feeling frustrated, disappointed, and let down. Tired of being irritated, bitter, and angry. Tired of being fickle. Tired of settling. Tired of dealing. Tired of rolling with the punches. Tired of waiting. Tired of being patient. Tired of letting life happen without me. Tired of not caring enough to do anything about it. I'm 37. This is not how things are supposed to be. This is not how I used to be.

So today, I find myself in need of a major kick in the ass. A jump start. A hitting of the restart button. A refresh. It's kind of like when I turned 30 and decided to throw myself out of a plane. I need to make change happen, and I need to start with myself.

But forget all this. Today is my birthday. Today I want to be happy. Today I will be happy. There will be celebration, and much merriment will be made. There will be friends and laughter and good times. And cupcakes — I suspect that today there will be lots of cupcakes.

Then tomorrow I will wake up and start the task of finding real happiness, so that I can say definitively that I am happy.

And on that note, happy birthday to me. Here's to a great year ahead.


Monday, June 06, 2011

After Midnight

I've always been a sucker for nostalgia — looking through old photos, rereading old journals, watching old home videos, remembering "good ole days" gone by. And it's this time of year when I get especially nostalgic, what with my birthday just days away, the anniversary of my college graduation just passed, and me taking stock of how my present compares to my past, and if I'm better off now than I was. So you might say that it was more than appropriate timing for me when I saw Woody Allen's very enjoyable new film, Midnight in Paris, a modern-day fable that celebrates nostalgia.

In Midnight, Owen Wilson stars as Gil, a frustrated American writer visiting Paris with his fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her family. Gil is right at home in Paris; he loves the architecture, the romanticism, and the entire atmosphere of the place. The only thing that could make it better is if it could be Paris in the 1920s. Inez, however, would prefer being back in California in the present (she calls Paris "corny"). One night, Gil is out walking and he's magically (and unexplainably) transported back to the 1920s, where he meets and parties with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Pablo Picasso, and Gertrude Stein. Suffice it to say, he's reborn, reenergized, and happier than he's ever been.

Woody Allen has always been a guy who lives in the past; nearly all his films employ the same old-timey title sequence and music, despite the setting of the film itself. Here, he's confronting the question of whether those so-called good ole days were indeed better than the present day. A character played by Michael Sheen dismisses nostalgia as a denial of a painful present. And indeed, we often see the past as a less challenging time. Our troubles, what little of them there were, had to be less troubling then. Those earlier days are always romanticized. Who wouldn't want to live in another time?

Here, as lovely as modern-day Paris is, the Paris of the 1920s is better. The people are more interesting, more attractive, and more glamorous. Things are new, fresh, and exciting ... more fun. In the roles of some of those 1920s personalities, Woody has cast such actors as Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Alison Pill, and the always radiant Marion Cotillard, who all bring a fun energy to the film and make that period more attractive. And yet, as Woody shows, for those whom the 1920s represents the present, the 1920s aren't as attractive as Gil thinks they are. Does everyone long for the past, no matter what time period it is?

It's not just the aforementioned people who are well cast. Owen Wilson does a nice job, giving one of his better performances in recent years. Even though he's playing a Woody surrogate, Wilson makes the character his own. McAdams (Wilson's co-star in Wedding Crashers) is also good, representing the modern sensibility that Gil doesn't buy into. The film is light and breezy, totally charming, with a witty and engaging screenplay. Midnight is a very Woody Allen movie; aside from the distinctive titles and music, and standard 90-minute running time, you can hear his voice in much of the dialogue (especially Wilson's, of course). I dare say it's one of Woody's best films of the past decade, my favorite since Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

In Midnight, Woody makes an undeniable statement that there's nothing wrong with living in the past. Since it looks like he has no reason to change his ways, I'm looking forward to what he does in the future. For the present, I'm giving Midnight in Paris a strong B+.


Thursday, June 02, 2011

A Reunion I Could Watch

It may be hard to believe — I know it is for me — but this year marks 15 years since I graduated from Brandeis University. In less than two weeks, members of my class will gather on campus for our 15-year reunion. Of course, if you're a longtime reader of this blog, then you won't be surprised to learn that I have no intention of attending any of the events. Not after the great time I had at our 10-year reunion (munch munch munch).

Still, I'm a sucker for nostalgia, so over the Memorial Day weekend, I got out my home videos from senior year and watched them, start to finish. That's right: I have video footage (shot on a hi-8 camera that I got for my 21st birthday) of those so-called "good ole days." It includes orientation, graduation, some BBQs and parties, random wandering around campus, lots of silliness in my mod, midnight buffets, and much more. I watched as my modmates cleaned out the refrigerator in our messy kitchen, as my classmates celebrated Labor Day, as folks reflected on how the year was going, as friends came over for a Friends season-two premiere party, as my fellow editors on The Justice worked hard, as my roommates went on a run to the grocery store, as people grew increasingly frustrated that I always had my camera out, etc. etc.

At some points while I was watching, I found myself wondering if I actually experienced senior year for myself ... or if, like Mark Cohen in Rent, I just spent the year documenting the whole thing. (No wonder people were getting annoyed with me — I was really annoying!) Sometimes I watched and felt embarrassed for the people on screen; other times I was embarrassed for myself (and not just because of my oversized round tortoise-shell glasses). There were lots of people I hadn't seen or thought about since the last time I watched the videos (at least 10 years ago), some of whom I was happy to see again and others I had forgotten about completely. It was both amusing and disappointing that the people I am tight with now are barely in the videos, and the people who are all over the videos are barely in my life now (with a couple exceptions).

And yet, it was also pretty cool to be able to dig into that time capsule. I didn't watch everything, but I played the tapes in their entirety. (Some clips I had to fast-forward through.) My senior year was a lot of fun (or at least, the camera wasn't rolling when things weren't fun), and I had some good times with some good people — even some people I don't think of too fondly today. One day I'd like to edit together this footage into something more watchable. There's certainly some interesting material to work with. But in their current form, the tapes serve as a nice memento from days gone by. Like my high school journals, these videos remind me of who I was and show me how much I've changed. And at the very least, it was worth it to see the clip where one friend told me, "I don't know when you're going to watch this, but know that you were loved here."

Watching the videos didn't make me want to go to Reunion any more than I already did, but they provided me with a reunion-type experience. This year, that's enough for me.