Friday, July 29, 2011

Don't Cowboy Up

In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly magazine, the creators and cast of Cowboys & Aliens explained that to them, the whole joke of the movie was in the title, so they consciously decided to play the rest of it straight and serious. (Actually, they say it was producer Ron Howard's idea not to make the film like a western version of Men in Black.) Big mistake. This action film, about an alien invasion in the late 1800s, is so serious that it's not very fun.

Cowboys & Aliens had all the makings of a good-time summer flick. Aside from its title, it stars James Bond and Indiana Jones, it was directed by Jon Favreau, and it was written by the guys behind Star Trek and Lost. But unfortunately, Harrison Ford just ain't the star he used to be; that cranky, cantakerous act of his gets old here in a hurry. Daniel Craig fares a little better, but the script doesn't really make you care all that much for the plight of his character. And, well, the movie just kinda wastes the rest of the cast too, by not giving them the chance to loosen up and make light of the concept of an unexplainable attack from above (the characters never once use the word "aliens," instead calling their invaders "demons").

As a result, Cowboys & Aliens is a real disappointment. That's why I'm only giving it a C.


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Can They Kick It?

A documentary for fans, and made by a fan, Beats Rhymes & Life tells the story of the rise and fall and rise and uncertain future of A Tribe Called Quest, one of the best rap/hip hop groups of the last 20 years. Through interviews with group members and others (including The Beastie Boys, Monie Love, De La Soul, The Jungle Brothers, and Common), we learn how the group was formed, how it found success with a unique sound, and how eventually, differences, miscommunications, pride, and ego led to the group's breakup in 1998.

Actor Michael Rapaport (Friends, Prison Break, Mighty Aphrodite) set out to make his movie in 2008, when A Tribe Called Quest reunited and went on tour. The film captures not a triumphant return to the stage but a fractured and tenuous relationship among the band, with unresolved issues that threaten any long-term reunion plans. In this footage and the accompanying interviews, Q-Tip is presented as ATCQ's brains and leader, and Phife Dawg as its heart. And those two just can't seem to see eye to eye. It's a love-dislike relationship, with wounds that cut deep. And the film, in natural, not augmented ways, helps you see the discord is very real and heartfelt.

The rest of the movie is like that too. Neither a slick documentary, a PR puff piece, or an amateurish home video, Beats Rhymes & Life feels instead like an affectionate tribute to an influential music group, warts and all, made by a guy who really likes them. It's filled with great music and well shot interview footage. I wouldn't say the movie was essential viewing, but it's a fun documentary and worth the hour and a half if you're a fan of hip hop and rap. I'm giving Beats Rhymes & Life a B.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

For the Kids

When my niece, Abby, was born, my sister and brother-in-law told me they were committed to visiting Boston twice a year so that I could be more a part of her life, and so she could see where I live. They've done just that. Now that I have two nephews, the same philosophy holds true. And this weekend, the boys — and their sister and their parents — came to visit me. Like Abby's first visit, it was a low-key weekend, but that doesn't mean we didn't have fun.

We took Abby — and her friends Quackers and Quackers' Big Sister — on a Duck Tour (one item that was on my Summer 2011 To-Do List). We took Abby to In a Pickle, where she had M&M Pancakes (and her mommy and I had yummy Nutella Stuffed French Toast). We ate marshmallows (because that's what you do on vacation, apparently). I showed Abby my office and introduced her to some coworkers. We went to a BBQ. We walked around downtown, and Abby rode a carousel on Boston Common. And the boys? They rode everywhere in their stroller, sleeping often (and sometimes not often enough), attracting attention and smiles from all who passed them by. I think they enjoyed themselves. I know I enjoyed showing them off.

One day not long from now, Marc and Ian will be a bit more engaged in the trip to visit their uncle, like their sister is. For now, it's still a good time. I look forward to their next visit, a few months from now.

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

She Told Ya She Was Trouble

When news broke yesterday that Amy Winehouse had died at the age of 27, the news was less shocking than it was just sad. After all, Amy was a singer who burst on the scene in 2007 and created an immediate buzz with "Rehab," a song that would later go on to win the Grammy Award for Record of the Year (she won four other awards that year). And that song seemed to tell you everything you needed to know about Amy, a troubled singer who had problems with drugs, drinking, and the law. "They tried to make me go to rehab," she sang, "and I said 'No, no, no.'" Ultimately, that's what derailed her career and now seems to have ended her life as well.

But while Amy was best known (and often mocked) for that song, she was much more than a one-hit wonder, and deserves to be remembered less for her troubles than for her awesome music. In fact, the entire album "Rehab" came from, Back to Black, was brilliant. And it wasn't even her debut album, as many people think. That would be the 2003 release Frank, an album less well known in the U.S., but still notable for tracks like "Fuck Me Pumps," "Stronger Than Me," "Cherry," and "I Heard Love Is Blind."

When I first discovered Amy's music, in December of 2006, it made an immediate impression. Over the next year, I would go on to write nine blog posts about her. More than four years later, my appreciation for Amy's music has not subsided. Back to Black is simply one of my favorite albums of all time. It's on the desert island top 3. There's hardly a bad track on it: "Rehab," "Me and Mr. Jones," "Tears Dry on Their Own," "Wake Up Alone," "You Know I'm No Good," and the title track are just the ones I've played most often.

On Back to Black, Amy (with the help of producer Mark Ronson) perfected a blend of Motown soul and hip hop, with a sound that was a cross between Lauryn Hill and Ronnie Spector. Amy fueled heartbreak and pain into songs with hooks and melodies that were anything but painful. There's attitude — so much attitude — and self-confidence, coupled with an awareness of her own failings. "I told you I was trouble. You know that I'm no good," she sang on one track. It's an incredible album — one that should be in every music fan's library. No wonder she won those five Grammies for it (and I still say she should have won Album of the year too).

So many times in recent years I've hoped that Amy's troubles were behind her, and that she'd return to making music. Instead, those two albums (and one-off tracks like "Valerie") will be her legacy. And that's a damned good legacy, if you ask me. It's great to hear that in the wake of Amy's death, Back to Black has shot to number one on iTunes. I hope more people will check out her music, and will realize just what a talented singer/songwriter we've lost.

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Friday, July 22, 2011

When Dylan Met Jamie ...

Among the many things we can thank When Harry Met Sally... for is the not-breaking news that try as they might, men and women just can't be friends because sex always gets in the way. If they could, then many, many, many movies would never have been made. Among them: Friends with Benefits, a new film in which two impossibly good looking, single, emotionally detached people decide to sleep together but not date. (Yes, it's pretty much the same plot as No Strings Attached.) Will these two eventually get over themselves and fall in love? What do you think?

Alright, you know going into the movie that the plot isn't exactly suspenseful. So is the rest of it enjoyable and worth the 105 minutes? Eh. The film starts out with one of the squarest sequences, in which corporate recruiter Jamie (Mila Kunis) tries to convince hot-shot L.A.-based designer Dylan (Justin Timberlake) to take a job in New York at GQ magazine. In one night, the pair go from Rockefeller Center to lower Manhattan to a busy, bustling Times Square — by subway, apparently — where a flash mob, of all things, seals the deal. (There's another flash mob at the end of the movie. What is this, 2009?) And then you still have to wait about 15 more minutes till these kids start sleeping together. Talk about delayed gratification.

Thankfully, when they do, it's worth it. And no, I don't mean that in a sketchy, pervy way. Timberlake and Kunis look like they sure had a good time making the movie (wouldn't you, if this was your job?), and they get along well on screen. After impressive dramatic performances in The Social Network and Black Swan, it's fun to see these two back in lightweight roles. We're not talking Hepburn and Tracy here, or even Crystal and Ryan, but I could stand to watch these two for a bit longer.

Unfortunately, the film itself just isn't as hip and cool as it wants to be. The dialogue tries a little too hard, the characters aren't terribly believable, and much as the film tries to be ironic in its attitude toward romantic comedies in general, some of it just comes off as lame. As charming and enthusiastic as Timberlake and Kunis are, it's possible they're a little too "stary" (Timberlake especially) to make the story even remotely plausible.

Granted, I'm not the target audience here; I'll admit that the 20somethings who sat behind me when I saw the film were laughing and enjoying it more than I did. Plenty of stuff could have been cut to make FWB a tighter, better movie. (Woody Harrelson's gay sports editor could have been excised completely, for example.) I kinda felt sorry for Richard Jenkins, who plays Dylan's Alzheimer's-afflicted dad, because this great actor deserves better. It all adds up to a less than beneficial moviegoing experience. So I'm giving FWB a B–.


Monday, July 18, 2011

It Doesn't End Here

For some reason, I never did get into the whole Harry Potter phenomenon. I only read the first book from start to finish, and have only seen the first and third movies. On a 1-10 scale, with 1 being muggle and 10 being wizard, I'd probably be a 3. But being a pop culture junkie and a sucker for hype, not to mention an avid reader of Entertainment Weekly, I felt not just obligated to see the final film in the series, but mildly prepared — no matter what my more obsessive fan friends said. And I've gotta say, even without all the background or emotional investment, I still thought Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 was great. So there!

Epic, intense, and really violent, HP7.5 is all about what the entire series has (apparently) been building to: The showdown between Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, who has grown into a very nice actor) and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), the evil wizard who killed Harry's parents. Nearly the entire staff and student body of Hogwarts is on alert, and ready to defend the school and stand beside Harry. Talk about loyalty under difficult circumstances. This is no ordinary children's movie.

I can't pretend to appreciate HP7.5 on any level other than as a self-contained film, but on that level, it succeeds wildly. The story builds nicely, the stakes feel real (even if the whole thing's a fantasy and we know who will win), the effects are convincing, and the acting all around is impressive. I can't say I feel compelled after seeing HP7.5 to go back and watch the other five films I missed, but I didn't feel lost during this movie either. This one is satisfying on its own, and definitely worth seeing, even if you're like me and haven't seen all the others.

Harry Potter is the boy who lived (no spoiler there), and based on how good the final film in the series is, I'm sure he'll live on a whole lot longer. I'm giving Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 a B+.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Front Page

Despite the fact that I work at an online company producing online content, and I'm a blogger and a tweeter, and I certainly spend more than my share of time tooling around the web, truth be told I still consider myself an "old media" guy. It's certainly convenient and easy to find information and read articles online, but that doesn't compare to the tactile feeling of holding a newspaper or magazine in your hands and flipping through the pages. Reading an article online often doesn't come with the same design and layout, and it's certainly not as permanent as an actual printed piece of media. So the new documentary Page One is a movie right up my alley.

The film shows us about a year in the life of the New York Times, with its ups and downs, big stories, and personal dramas. (And beautiful office, by the way.) These are dark days for the newspaper business, what with many big-city dailies shutting down or moving completely online, budgets tightening due to a less lucrative advertising climate, other businesses whose model is to aggregate content from others, and the focus more on making money than on telling good stories. (As Sam Zell, chairman of the Tribune Company, says at one point, "I'm not a newspaper guy. I'm a business man.") But at the Times, the lights aren't out just yet. The film shows us a handful of reporters and editors — among them, David Carr, Brian Stelter, Tim Arango, and Bruce Headlam — who nobly continue to fight the good fight in the name of respectable journalism.

You might think a movie with the name Page One would focus mainly on what it takes for a story to make it on page A1 of the Times. You'd be wrong. And indeed, we never do get to see any real conflict between the editors about what stories will get top placement. Instead, the film's real focus is the Times itself, and whether it's still as essential a publication as it used to be. There are lots of talking heads who discuss how relevant a print newspaper is in this day and age, and what a significant role the Times had — and continues to have — in society. Much of the film focuses on how the Times decides to cover the Wikileaks story, and it proves to be a nice metaphor, what with the way Julian Assange just put his info on the web for all to see, rather than giving it to the traditional media (compare that with the Pentagon Papers in 1971).

Director Andrew Rossi certainly picked some interesting folks to follow — Carr especially. The gravelly voiced media desk reporter is one of the best ambassadors the paper could have (despite being a former drug addict). He's insightful, determined, funny, smart, passionate, hard working, and fiercely loyal to the Times. Carr is a real old-school newspaper guy. Compare him to the much younger Stelter, who was an independent media blogger before the Times hired him, and now "embodies everything about new media," according to a colleague. True enough, Stelter is a blogging, tweeting, tech-loving, writing machine. (Carr says he's convinced Stelter is "a robot, assembled to destroy me.") The juxtaposition of these two makes up the inner heart and soul of the paper.

For journalism junkies, Page One is terrific fun. It's quick moving, funny, great looking, and provocative. Of course, one of the questions the film doesn't raise intentionally is: Why aren't there more women at the Times? Ninety-five percent of the film is male-driven, and given that the Times recently named Jill Abramson its executive editor, that seems a bit curious — especially since Rossi had a sense that then–executive editor Bill Keller was about to leave his post. Rossi also chose to put the spotlight on media reporters, rather than "hard" news reporters, so that adds an extra layer of self-centeredness to the film's "story."

At the end of the film, Keller declares that "journalism is alive and well, and feisty" at the New York Times. And how. Page One makes you want to go out and buy a newspaper, to keep this national institution running strong. I'm going to keep on reading, if only because I want to know what stories David Carr and Brian Stelter will report on next. I give Page One an A–.


Monday, July 11, 2011

Not Horrible At All

Apparently, there are some people in the world who don't like their job. Imagine that. These people are either going to really love Horrible Bosses, or cringe because it just hits too close to home. In the film, three friends played by Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day, plot to kill their bosses because, well, those bosses are horrible people. They're overbearing, they're abusive, they stifle growth, they demean, they're disrespectful, they sexually harass, they insult ... and that's for starters. To avoid getting caught, Nick, Kurt, and Dale (Bateman, Sudeikis, and Day's characters, respectfully) take a cue from Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train and plot to murder each other's boss. But nothing goes as planned, of course.

The film is great fun, and well made. Each of the actors — the aforementioned leads as well as their bosses, played by Kevin Spacey (worse here than in Swimming with Sharks), Colin Farrell (in an absurd but hysterical comb-over), and Jennifer Aniston (eat your heart out, Angelina Jolie), plus Jamie Foxx, as the guys' "murder consultant" — turns in a solid performance, and the script by John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein, and Michael Markowitz has a bunch of quotable lines (including a Good Will Hunting reference that I am not going to include here). I even love how in one scene, a Muzak version of the Gnarls Barkley song "Crazy" plays in the background. Nice touch.

After a smart, well plotted first half, the film does start to sag a little about two-thirds of the way in, but it pulls itself together in the end to leave you smiling. That is, if your mind isn't racing with ideas. I'm giving Horrible Bosses a B+.


Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Chicago, I Love You

It's official: I love Chicago. I mean, I love Boston a little bit more. But in a head to head competition, these days I may have a tough time picking between the two cities. If I ever left Boston for good (and I have no plans to do that), I'd make a beeline to Chicago. That's just how I feel after a fantastic long (and yet still too short) weekend in the Windy City. It was my annual July 4 trip to Chicago, which means I also spent time in Michigan City, Indiana. Combined, it was just awesome. Some highlights:

  • For the first time in a while, I hung out on Michigan Ave. with people, and that made for a more fun day (and better pictures too). Typically I get a day on my own because, you know, folks have to work. While that's fine, and I can very easily (too easily) amuse myself downtown, it was so much better to spend the day wandering around with friends.

  • In Michigan City, I was crowned Drunken Salami King — an honor I shared with Sporkful podcast co-host Dan Pashman. What's Drunken Salami? That's a secret. But suffice it to say, it's a salami that's been marinated for months (seriously) in scotch and Russian dressing (and maybe some other stuff too) and then cooked on the BBQ grill. It's delicious. (Really.) Every year there's a king or queen crowned, and suffice it to say, it's a very big honor.

Other highlights? I don't know ... It was all good. I'm not going to go on and on about my awesome Blizzard from Dairy Queen, or my first trip to Sprinkles, or the ominous-looking clouds over Chicago on Friday that passed right over, or the great conversations, or the Sporkful meetup, or the fact that I got a sunburn but not really, or the awesome fireworks pictures I took Saturday night, or the great flights on Southwest Airlines. The whole trip was a highlight.

Best of all was that I was out of Dodge, I was happy, I relaxed, I laughed, and I really enjoyed myself. Just sitting on the beach Saturday afternoon, listening to the waves crash on the shore ... That didn't suck. I needed this trip, and it delivered. If only I'd stayed longer.

So now I long for my next trip to Chicago, and look forward to the next time I'll be able to see the people, the buildings, the Bean, my friends, the whole scene. Damn, I love that city.

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4th of July Pops Concert Could Be Better

Anyone who knows me knows that I enjoy few things more than watching the Boston Pops and the fireworks on July 4th. Which is why it's a shame that I hadn't been down to the Charles in so long to see it live. Last night I corrected that, and got a chance to introduce my friends Justine and Nick to the awesomeness as well. Seriously, no city in America (as if the "in America" part really needs to be said) does July 4th festivities like Boston does. None. I've seen the New York fireworks. They're big, but that's all they are. And they don't have the Pops. So there.

But here's the thing: While I love the fact that the whole country gets to watch some of the show, I do think the national broadcast is what's wrong with July 4th in Boston. And being there to watch live brought this home for me. National audiences see so little of the Pops concert. In essence, they see the Pops play "backing band" for whoever the special guest is. They see the lame patriotic sing-a-long. And yes, they get the "Stars and Stripes Forever," including 3 of my favorite minutes of the year, but because the whole night now is geared around this national broadcast, it sorta ruins the rest of the concert.

Used to be that the "1812 Overture" was the penultimate number. Now it's in the middle, with only a small section replayed for the whole country, and it's anticlimactic. The headliner gets more attention, with the Pops playing second fiddle. And the commercials — the excessive commercials — cut into the flow of the concert, and kill the momentum.

Or so it seems. During the commercial breaks, that's when the real Pops music is played. Last night we heard the Pops' versions of "Sweet Caroline" and "Shipping Up to Boston," plus the theme from E.T., among other numbers, during the commercials.

Don't get me wrong: I really enjoyed last night's concert and fireworks. The Pops were good, Martina McBride sounded great, and the fireworks were incredible. Song choices may have been obvious (Katy Perry's "Firework?" Owl City's "Fireflies?"), but some of the fireworks themselves — like the ones during "Firework" that burst and then burst a little bit faster — were very cool.

Why can't the national broadcast be extended by 30 minutes so the rest of the country can see and hear more of the good stuff? It does a disservice to the Pops and to audiences, both at home and along the Charles. Sure, there's nothing that compares to being there to watch the Pops and see the fireworks live. Watching on TV is never a close second choice option. But it could be better, and I hope some day it is.

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