Thursday, September 29, 2011

Decent Odds

Cancer isn't funny. Anyone who's been touched by the disease knows this. And yet, sometimes the only thing you can do to cope is laugh. That's the crux of the new movie 50/50, the story of Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who at 27 learns he has cancer. The film was written by Will Reiser, and is loosely based on his own experience — both with the disease and with his best friend Seth, who had a hard time dealing with it too. Seth is actually Seth Rogen, who costars in the movie as Kyle, and who attempts to bring much of the comic relief to the film. That pretty much tells you what kind of "cancer movie" 50/50 is; it's not one that wants to make you cry. Instead, it's a buddy movie that shows how hard it is for guys to communicate real emotion, even when the emotions they're dealing with are so very real.

Which is not to say the movie doesn't have emotion. As Adam, Gordon-Levitt gives a nice, sensitive performance that captures his inability to understand what's happening to him. And as Adam's mother, Anjelica Houston gives a brief but realistic performance that avoids cliche. But Rogen, real and awkward though his experience may have been, is a bit much. I found him overbearing and unfunny. Given that there's a lot of Rogen in the film, that's a real shame, because Gordon-Levitt's quieter and more restrained performance is just about the polar opposite. (Anna Kendrick also costars as Adam's barely-out-of-med-school therapist.)

No tears are shed and Adam does beat the odds (no spoiler there; Will did write the movie, after all), but thanks to Rogen, the movie unfortunately remains a bit unwell. So I'm just going to give 50/50 a B.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Play Ball

For baseball fans, especially Red Sox ones like me, the new movie Moneyball couldn't have arrived at a better time. That's because Moneyball reinstills a love of the game, one that can't be tarnished even by a losing team. It's a top-notch Hollywood entertainment, featuring an old fashioned star turn at its center, and it instantly became my favorite movie of the year (so far) as soon as the lights went up. Batter up, indeed.

Moneyball is based on the (supposedly great) book by Michael Lewis (who also wrote The Blind Side), and tells the story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), a once-promising baseball player who in 2001 was general manager of the Oakland A's and still felt like he had something to prove. Oakland, you see, is not one of the rich teams like the Yankees or Red Sox, and doesn't have the deep pockets those teams do to "buy" good players. So attracting big names is always a challenge. Young upstart Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) turns Beane on to the then-radical approach of Bill James, which focuses more on stats like on-base percentage than home runs, and costs a lot less to execute. So Beane adjusts his (and the team's) priorities, shunning the name-brand players and instead seeking the undervalued, overlooked ones. And wouldn't you know it, the strategy works. (No spoiler there; this is a true story.)

If you're not a baseball fan, you may enjoy Moneyball. But it sure does help if you have a love of the game and appreciate the "inside" talk and statistical minutiae that forms the basis of much of the dialogue. Of course, when you have a guy like Pitt delivering that dialogue, the film gets infinitely easier to watch. That's because as Beane, Pitt gives one of the most deceptively good performances of the year. It's so good that it looks like he's not even acting — just coasting on his charm. And Pitt sure does make it look easy. (Then again, when you're speaking dialogue that was written by both Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, that has to raise your game.) More so than in many of his other performances, Pitt has the same All-American aura that Robert Redford once had. Watch for Moneyball and The Natural to be shown as a double feature soon.

Pitt and Hill have a nice chemistry together as they bounce (and explain) concepts, ideas, and mathematical formulas off each other. It's great banter in the trademark Sorkin style. You may not follow all the details, but it sure is fun to listen to — and it's often very funny, too. Director Bennett Miller (Capote) knows better than to interfere with stylish camerawork and other filmmaking tricks, so he pretty much gets out of the way, letting the screenplay and the actors do all the work. The result is an inside-baseball story with grit and class, one that shows the best teams aren't always the ones with all the money.

Moneyball is a tale of underdogs for the dirt dog in all of us. If you can't root for your own hometown team (or even if you can), you'll surely root for Moneyball. I'm giving it an A–.

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Monday, September 19, 2011

Lots to Watch

Many people look forward to the fall. They enjoy the cooler weather, the chance to start anew, and the return to normalcy after a vacation-filled summer. But not me. Each year around this time, the fall TV preview issues of Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide arrive in my mailbox and I'm reminded that for at least a couple weeks, I'm not going to have much of a life as I struggle to watch all kinds of new shows. And if I do try to have a life, then my DVR is going to get a workout and I'll be up late as I time-shift my TV watching.

I know, woe is me.

So allow me to continue an annual tradition of sharing which shows I'm going to try and watch this season. Thankfully, a couple shows have already debuted, so I've already previewed them. One made the cut (Ringer) and one was knocked off my list (Up All Night). But plenty of others remain.

Here's the list:

Monday: How I Met Your Mother, Two Broke Girls, Gossip Girl, Hart of Dixie (welcome back, Summer Roberts!), The Playboy Club

Tuesday: Glee, New Girl, Ringer

Wednesday: The X Factor, Modern Family, Happy Endings (so happy this show is coming back), Revenge

Thursday: Community, The X Factor (results), Charlie's Angels, The Office, Person of Interest, Grey's Anatomy, Whitney, Prime Suspect

Friday: Thankfully, this is a night off (until Shark Tank comes back, that is)

Saturday: Saturday Night Live

Sunday: The Amazing Race, Pan Am

And of course, I also want to watch at least the first episodes of Two and a Half Men and CSI, just to see how Ashton Kutcher and Ted Danson do. Then there's Hawaii Five-0, which will feature John Locke himself, Terry O'Quinn, in a recurring role. So I know I'm gonna give that a shot too.

I know I'll never watch all of those shows, and believe me, I don't really want to. But for now, I'm overcome by curiosity, so I know I'm going to try to watch as many as I can. As with seasons past, the rule of three applies: If I miss three episodes of any one show, then I give up. So come November, I know I'll be watching only a fraction of the shows I listed above. Until then, I hope I have enough room on my DVR.

What about you? What shows are you making room for on your DVR?

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

He's Got a Fast Car

What is Drive? From the font treatment used on the poster and in the opening credits, as well as the songs on the soundtrack, you might think it was either an '80s movie or a throwback. With a star like Ryan Gosling, and a cast that also includes Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston, you might think it would be an award-worthy, must-see movie. And with a plot that centers around a movie stunt driver who is a getaway car driver in his spare time, you might think Drive would be an exciting action film. Wrong on nearly all counts.

Drive does feature Gosling as a movie stunt driver who drives a getaway car for criminals in his spare time. One day, he meets a neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and her son, and his involvement with them, and her just-home-from-prison husband, spirals into a messy situation. Lots of potential there, especially since Gosling generally gives a cool, smoldering performance. He doesn't say much, but his look and his actions say a lot. Ultimately, though, Drive is a bit of a confusing mess. I'm not quite sure what kind of movie it's trying to be, and in the end, it left me cold. So I'm giving Drive a C+.


Monday, September 12, 2011

All Paid Up

If you were to make a mashup of Munich and Inglorious Basterds, you would have The Debt. Like Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nominated film, this movie explores the toll revenge takes when Israeli agents seek to even the score with enemies of their people, and features a cast that includes Ciarán Hinds. And like Quentin Tarantino's also-Oscar-nominated film, it features Jews kicking ass (specifically, a strong female Jew kicking ass), and a revenge plot involving Nazis. With direction by Oscar-nominated John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) and a cast that also includes Oscar winner Helen Mirren, The Debt takes a rightful place with those other films.

The Debt flashes back and forth between two time periods: 1966 and 1997. In that later year, we meet retired Mossad agents Rachel (Mirren), Stefan (Tom Wilkinson), and David (Hinds), who are brought together because of a new book about their mission in 1966, when the trio (played, respectively, by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Sam Worthington) tracked down and kidnapped Dieter Vogel, the former Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen), in East Berlin, and killed him. Or did they? In 1997, developments call their successful mission into question, and send one of the three back into secret duty.

A tense thriller, The Debt is carried by strong performances across the board. But it's the ethical and moral issues that left the greater impact on me. The trio's mission is simply to kidnap Vogel and bring him home to stand trial. That is how it is decided they will right the wrong. But when things go awry, the trio has other options, ones they don't want. As at least one character says, they are not murderers, they are people of peace. No matter how many deaths Vogel caused during World War II, how great must the crime be to merit an equal response? As noted, this is a similar issue covered in Munich, and here it is no less an intense conflict, especially as Vogel, now held prisoner and a witness to the interactions and frustrations between the trio, begins to exploit the situation, playing anti-Semitic mind games with any of the three who listens.

Chastain, whose Rachel is not just caught between right and wrong, but is also the focal point of a love triangle, shows how challenging the dilemma is. Her simultaneously tough and fearful performance is a mile away from the ones she gave in The Help and Tree of Life. And in Rachel's later years, Mirren communicates less through words than by facial expressions how that answer never gets easier.

Right and wrong is not as simple as black and white. And in The Debt, our "heroes" earn your support and your sympathy. That doesn't make what they do any easier to watch. I'm giving the movie a B+.


Sunday, September 11, 2011


Until I was 22, I was a New Yorker. The plan was that after I graduated from college, I would move back to New York, and get a job and an apartment in the city. But things don't always go as planned. In February 1997, I made the decision to leave New York and move to Boston. And it's at least partly due to that decision that I consider myself one of the lucky ones. As we observe the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I can look back on that day and know I was nowhere near the World Trade Center. Instead, I was in Boston, on my second day at a brand-new job, being told about the benefits package, when the first tower was hit.

Of course, this all is not to say that I wasn't affected by the attack or the events of 9/11. It's just that I know that I didn't lose any friends or family members that day, and however my life was changed, it's nothing compared to the hundreds of thousands of people who were there, or who lost someone close to them, and who have never been the same since. Today, more than most days, those people are on my mind and in my heart. I may never have met those we lost, but through the moving tributes I've heard and read, it's hard not to feel a real sense of loss. And I do know many people who were in the World Trade Center area, were close, or who lost someone on September 11, 2001. So my heart goes out to them, because I'm sure today won't be an easy day.

Ten years later, the world is a very different place. If you can read this, then consider yourself one of the lucky ones too. We must all band together to celebrate life and never forget.


Thursday, September 08, 2011

This Movie Is Sick

If you're anything like me, you're gonna need to take a long Purell shower after seeing Contagion, Steven Soderbergh's thriller about a mysterious airborne illness that wipes out a significant portion of the world's population. And that's just for starters. You won't be able to touch a glass or piece of silverware in a restaurant, put your hand on a subway pole, or pass along a folder in your office. You won't want to eat bacon, or give another person a hug, either. Heck, you may as well just stay home and contain yourself so you don't incur any risk of catching a similar virus.

Of course, I'm exaggerating there, but only a little. Contagion is a completely alarmist movie, one that'll make you uncomfortable from the first sound of a cough on screen. That cough comes from Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), who arrives home from a business trip to Hong Kong not feeling quite right. She infects her son, and within days, they're both dead — to the shock of her husband, Tom (Matt Damon), who is somehow (and unexplainably) immune. The quickly spreading disease affects others both in China and the United States, as well as in Europe and other parts of the world, and soon members of the CDC and WHO (played by Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, and Marion Cotillard) are on the case trying to find the source and create a vaccine. Oh, and there's also a conspiracy theorist (Jude Law) who believes the government is not really doing the best it can to help those affected and stop the spread of the disease.

Scared yet?

An effectively made movie, Contagion moves as quickly as the mysterious disease, helped along by some strong performances (Fishburne in particular imbues his role with a whole lot of gravitas) and a score by Cliff Martinez that's reminiscent of the techno/industrial sound in The Social Network. Some of the dialogue and plot devices (oh my God, he just touched that!!) are a bit corny, and Soderbergh loves to linger over things like a bowl of peanuts sitting on a bar, but overall, you can't watch Contagion without feeling like you'll never go to the bathroom and not wash your hands again, and you won't be able to scold someone who doesn't cover his mouth when he coughs. Oh, and just a warning, you're gonna see more of Gwyneth Paltrow than you ever thought you would. Good times, for sure.

If this review seems a little over the top, that's because it's in keeping with the tone of the movie, which is similarly heightened. But it's a good movie, all things considered — much better than Outbreak, anyway. I'm giving Contagion a B+.


Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Oh, Brother

Contrary to popular belief, the new film Our Idiot Brother was not written or directed by my sister and brother-in-law. In a way, that's a shame because Ned Rochlin, the character at the heart of the movie, is such a good-hearted, lovable guy, that it would be nice if he actually was modeled after me. But no matter. Ned (Paul Rudd) sees the good in everyone and everything, telling the truth and doing it all with good intentions. For example, he really believes a cop has had a bad day when he traps Ned into selling him marijuana. This nice streak runs counter to his siblings, who each have their own problems and live their own deluded lives. When the sisters welcome Ned into their homes and lives, he leaves each one of them changed.

As you might assume, this dramedy is the latest in a long line of summer indies featuring quirky families (see Little Miss Sunshine, among others). Like the others, it features a likeable cast, a handful of laughs, and a not-too-challenging plot. Our Idiot Brother, like its lead character, grooves along easily, and delivers its simple message of treating everyone with love and honesty in enjoyable fashion. An award-winner this is not, but Our Idiot Brother deserves to be welcomed into your family. I'm giving it a B.


Friday, September 02, 2011

Join Us in the Twitter Break Room

Yesterday, my friend Ann tweeted that it was her four-year anniversary of being on Twitter. "See you in the break room for cake this afternoon!" she said. And that got my mind spinning about how cool a Twitter break room would be, because it would be there that you could hang out with all the cool people you are connected with on the social network.

If you use Twitter as actively as I do, then chances are this concept sounds cool to you too. Over the past two years, I've met lots of people on Twitter. Many of them I don't know offline, but they add value to my life because they're either funny, insightful, or they tweet solid information (sometimes all three). A handful of them wished me happy birthday this year from as far away as Australia. Others have made watching the Lost finale, the Oscars, or the Super Bowl more fun. Celebrities and famous people (B- and C-level ones, typically) make me feel like I'm part of the "cool kids" crowd (even if I'm waaaay off on the periphery of the crowd, looking in).

People I have met offline I've gotten to know more through their tweets. I can say I've even dated people I met on Twitter. Others have made business trips and conferences more enjoyable. Speaking of which, industry colleagues I tweet with have made me feel a part of a great community of smart, fun people. And that's just part of it.

On any given day on Twitter, I laugh and I learn, and I share the laughs and insights with my own network of followers. In short, my Twitter experience includes a wide range of interesting, informative, amusing, and friendly people. It's a great mix of people who've gotten to know me and who've allowed me to get to know them, making all of our lives better in the process.

Again, I know I don't know the majority of the people I follow on Twitter offline, but that's not always the point. It's about connecting, interacting, and engaging. Being open to dialogue, not just a pusher of content. It's about using information and personality to bridge barriers and find commonalities. I've used Twitter to expand my knowledge and broaden my network. Making actual offline friends — those that I've made as a result of or with the help of Twitter — has been both inevitable and a great bonus.

As Andrew Dubber once wrote, Twitter's not stupid. You just have boring friends. Allow me to second that: If you're on Twitter and you don't enjoy it like I do, then it has to be because you're not following the same people I am (1,312 at current count). If you'd like to meet any of them, we'll be in the break room, having cake with Ann. Come join the party!

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Thursday, September 01, 2011

Six Years Later, Still Blogging

September 1 means different things to different people. I have a handful of friends who call it their birthday. Here in Boston, it's moving day (and holy hell, there are a lot of people moving today). For others, it's the start of a new school year. But for me, September 1 will always be the anniversary of the day I started this blog. This year marks six — count 'em, six — years I've been blogging, and I like to mark the day, not just to look back on what I've written, but to pat myself on the back for my dedication. It's no secret that I'm lazy and easily distracted. When I started blogging, I hardly thought I'd keep this blog going for one year, nevermind six. But I have, and I'm really proud of myself for that.

Of course, a lot has happened in those six years. For one thing, the rise of social media. Count me among those who say Twitter and Facebook have siphoned off the interest in and patience for blogging. That's why my posts this past year have been overwhelmingly devoted to movies I've seen, and not other things I've been up to. My thoughts on other topics and experiences often get doled out in 140-character tweets and quick status updates. (Lots of them, but still.) And yet, time and again, I come back to my blog to share longer-form thoughts, whether they be about my nephews, travel experiences, or, ironically, Twitter itself. I may have written my last blog post this year, but thankfully, that wasn't literal.

So ... Six years in, this blog may not be the active one it once was, but it's still alive and well. And I'm going to keep on writing. Happy blogiversary to me, and as always, thanks for reading.