Monday, October 31, 2011

A Teacher and a Leader

Creepy, unnerving, well acted, and just plain ole beautifully made, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a must-see movie that you won't soon forget. That's mostly because of the subtle, heartfelt, and heartbreaking performance by Elizabeth Olsen (who has the unfortunate luck — for now, anyway — to be best known as Ashley and Mary-Kate's younger sister). It's the same kind of performance that made Carey Mulligan a star in An Education two years ago. Thanks largely, but not completely, to that fine work, MMMM is one of the year's best movies.

In MMMM, Olsen plays Martha, a young woman who runs away from a cult in the Catskills after two years, and goes to live with her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy) in Connecticut. Over the course of the movie, we flash back to see how Martha — renamed Marcy May by the menacing and seductive leader, Patrick (John Hawkes) — found love and acceptance in the cult but eventually had to break free. (Whenever an outsider tries to contact a resident, the women identify themselves as "Marlene," thus the fourth name of the title.) Writer/director Sean Durkin and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes skillfully turn this inviting setting into a nightmarish compound, a place no woman should ever be near. It's an abusive culture where having sex with Patrick is called a "cleansing," and where women are subservient and lower-class citizens.

In Connecticut, Martha keeps her thoughts and memories to herself, thinking she can deprogram herself. This is easier said than done, though; Martha's inner turmoil and painful memories are difficult to overcome. As a result, Martha never quite gels with her family, and Lucy feels increasingly challenged by the sister she barely knows anymore. Martha remains paranoid that Patrick and his minions will eventually catch up with her, and her fears make it nearly impossible for her to move on.

What makes the film so good, other than Olsen's performance, is that Durkin knows how to exercise restraint. He makes great use of silence in order to ratchet up the psychological thrills and haunting tone. All that needs to be said, in both words and music, is right there in Olsen's face. This results in a very personal and intimate film that you'll be watching closely. It doesn't take much to see how Martha or any of the other women could be sucked in to this cult life, and we feel every pain point that Martha feels along the way. It's barely a few minutes into the film when she calls her sister and asks to be picked up, and God damn it if you don't feel scared and helpless too, even though you don't know very much about the girl or what she's been through. Hawkes, too, is excellent. His cover of "Marcy's Song" will give you shivers.

Story notes that raise questions have unsettling answers later on, and the whole thing ends on a note that will leave you completely uncomfortable. You won't be able to look away from Martha Marcy May Marlene, and you'll be talking about it for a long time after the lights come up. I'm giving this one an A–.


Sunday, October 30, 2011

Wegmans Is No Stew Leonard's

According to some of my friends, the opening of a Wegmans store in Northborough was akin to the second coming, or the Cubs winning the World Series. Getting excited about the opening of a supermarket is not a foreign concept to me, but apparently, this was different. "It's not a supermarket," they said. "It's an experience." Cool, I thought. I grew up in New York, and shopped often at Stew Leonard's, where there are samples around every bend, and whimsical touches like singing/dancing food help make the shopping experience more fun for shoppers of all ages. So suffice it to say, I know what it's like when a store goes above and beyond to make grocery shopping different and a more enjoyable experience. Would Wegmans be anything like that?

The opening of Wegmans was such a big deal that when it opened, some friends and I actually made plans to go. And that day finally arrived yesterday. I woke up at 8 a.m. (Yes, 8 a.m. on a Saturday!) so I could meet up with my friends in Hudson and so we could get there at a decent hour. I expected trouble getting to the store, but two weeks after opening day (October 16), getting to the parking lot and finding a space was no sweat. Had the excitement died down already? Nope. Inside, this massive store was crawling with people. It was 11 a.m., and seriously, it was jam packed. That's a good sign, I thought.

We decided to start on the far end and work our way over to the prepared food and café section. That meant our first stop was the alcohol and beer area, which was impressive. A giant, diverse, and well priced selection meant we were tempted by the many craft beers and flavored drinks, like Chocolate Whipped Vodka. I had a party to go to last night, and was able to find a fun, seasonal brew to bring with me.

I was led next to the cereal aisle, and was told that the store-brand cereals were just as good as, but cheaper than, the name brand ones. So I stocked up on the Chocolaty Rice Crisps and Marshmallow Treasures (i.e., Cocoa Krispies and Lucky Charms), while my friends bought four healthier boxes. (Taste test still pending.)

Blah blah blah ... We shopped. I'm not going to go aisle by aisle telling you what we bought. But here's the thing: Despite the great selection of food, it didn't take me very long to be disappointed, and to realize — and say — that we weren't in some exciting, unique store like I'd been led to believe. We were just in a supermarket. So my mind turned pretty quickly to thoughts of what foods I actually needed while I was there. I picked up a few other Wegmans-brand items, but basically, it became less exciting as I walked up and down aisle after aisle, with promises of abundant samples not amounting to much, and hopes of something, I don't know, more becoming letdowns.

Wegmans is a nice store, but my experience shopping there yesterday didn't even come close to the first time I went to the new Star Market in Chestnut Hill, with its creatively named aisles and enthusiastic customer service people asking repeatedly if I needed help. And of course, it didn't compare with Stew Leonard's either. At Wegmans, there was very little whimsy, very little above and beyond, and not nearly enough to make the hype worth it.

What there was, however, there was a lot of. I'll say it again: This is one gigantic store. There's a lot of food, and a lot of people.

Here's what did impress me about Wegmans, though: Over the course of the day, I tweeted about going there five times, including a Foursquare checkin when I first arrived. Three of those times, the @wegmans Twitter handle responded to me, and did so within minutes. One time I simply retweeted what they said to me, and added that I was impressed with the customer service, and they responded to that. That's good stuff. The quick-on-their-feet Twitter response, even (especially!) on a Saturday, shows just how much Wegmans prioritizes a good customer experience. (I wouldn't be surprised if someone comments on this blog post too.) That's the "above and beyond" that I was hoping I would find in the store itself.

To be clear, I'm not saying I had a bad time at Wegmans. I just didn't think the store was all that, especially compared to places like Stew Leonard's. Sorry to all my devoted friends, but despite all the hype, Wegmans is just a supermarket — a nice, big, well-stocked one, with good online customer service, but a supermarket nevertheless.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Smell of Bastards and Truth

Attractive to look at but not particularly exciting to watch, The Rum Diary finds Johnny Depp in one of his more personal projects, one that won't likely find a large audience — and deservedly so. Based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson, a close friend of Depp's, the film tells the story of writer Paul Kemp (Depp), who relocates from New York to Puerto Rico, where he hopes the lifestyle will be less stressful and the drinks more plentiful. There, he meets Sanderson, a shady businessman (Aaron Eckhart), who involves Kemp in a deal of questionable legality. As if that's not enough, Kemp is distracted by Chenault, Sanderson's beautiful fiancée (Amber Heard, sexier and more alluring here than she ever was on The Playboy Club).

In development for more than 10 years, Rum Diary is like a lukewarm beverage: It's got some taste, but it's certainly not refreshing. Other than Heard, the only other notable thing about this overly long film is the often beautiful cinematography by Dariusz Wolski, who captures Puerto Rico in all its seedy and glamorous charm. Not even Depp seems all that interested in what's going on; it's almost as if he signed onto the film (and produced it) as a favor to his late friend, just so it would finally get made. If Depp's not interested in what's happening, then why should we be? And that lack of engagement is what helps makes Rum Diary, to borrow a line from Richard Jenkins' character, "vividly average." So I'm giving it a C–.


Monday, October 17, 2011

Clooney for President?

That all in politics is not as it seems is hardly breaking news. Alas, in the film The Ides of March, that's exactly the theme. In George Clooney's latest writing and directing effort, Ryan Gosling plays Stephen, the junior campaign manager for Presidential candidate Mike Morris (Clooney). Over the course of the week leading up to the Ohio primary, Stephen goes from devoted fan and supporter of Morris to, well, let's just say he gets a reality check. Young but hardly naive, Stephen is a fast-rising player in the political arena, and his drive to get ahead and protect his candidate leads to some less than ideal decisions. As a result, Stephen's boss, Senior Campaign Manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), begins to question whose side Stephen is really on: Morris' or his own.

A taut political thriller, Ides of March doesn't tell a completely new story, but its twist on a familiar theme is told well, with a top-notch cast that includes the aforementioned actors, plus the always reliable Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, and Evan Rachel Wood. To his credit, Clooney (in his acting, writing, and directing) makes Morris a less than perfect candidate, but not a guy you can't support. (Also notable is the irrelevancy of his political party.) Morris is a complex character, but he is not the focal point of the film. That would be Stephen, and as the real lead of the film, Gosling gives yet another great performance, his third of the year (after Crazy Stupid Love and Drive).

As election season moves into high gear, Ides of March provides an excellent and entertaining complement. It doesn't make any grand statements about politics, or the people behind the scenes, but no matter. The action moves swiftly and the film overall is engaging. I'm giving the film a B+ ... and despite what we see here in the character he plays, I'm also giving Clooney my vote (but then, I'm already biased).

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Friday, October 14, 2011

Gotta Dance

I don't know who it was that asked for a remake of the seminal Kevin Bacon film Footloose, but it sure wasn't me. Nevertheless, we now have one in theaters. But before you all get your panties in a bunch and gasp in horror about how Hollywood could possibly do this to one of the greatest movies of our childhoods, I'll ask you to calm down, take a step back, and remember this one very important fact: The original film wasn't very good. It may have gained sentimental value over the years, and some people look back on it now with great affection, but Footloose won no awards in its day — not even for its soundtrack. (I know. This is a harsh truth. You'll thank me later.)

So it's a mixed blessing, then, that this new Footloose is in many ways a carbon copy of the original, from Kenny Loggins' title song playing over the same foot-focused opening credits, to the teaching Willard how to dance scene, to the choreography of the final dance, which takes place while Blake Shelton's countryfied cover of the song plays. Does that mean the film is short on creativity? Sorta. But does it matter? I don't think so in this case. I mean, like a decent cover version of a beloved song (Shelton's "Footloose," for instance), it's still a good song, even if it's missing a certain je ne sais quoi and doesn't sound exactly the same. And that's pretty much what this Footloose is: A decent cover version of a beloved movie.

If you grew up in the 1980s, then you know the basic plot of the film: City kid Ren McCormack (Kenny Wormald, bravely and gamely taking over for Kevin Bacon) moves to Bomont, Georgia, a town where dancing and rock music have been banned (in 2011, that a town could or would ban music seems a bit hard to believe, but oh well). Ren's rebellious spirit shakes up the town, and catches the attention of the Reverend's daughter, Ariel (Julianne Hough), whose own rebellious spirit gets her into some hot water with her father (Dennis Quaid). Some of the details of the plot have been changed (for example, Ren is now from Boston, not Chicago, and his mother is dead), but nothing too significant. It's the same movie with a fresh, sexier coat of paint. Again, not necessarily a bad thing. (I'd rather watch Hough shake her tail feather any day than watch Lori Singer. Wouldn't you?)

Like the original, this Footloose is by no means a great movie, but it does have its moments of fun. Hough and Wormald make a very attractive couple, and those songs you loved in the original still sound great (I'll admit that my feet and hands were tapping during the opening and closing numbers, and at various other times too). Will you smile when Ren calls out those same bible verses in the city council meeting? Sure. Will you giggle with recognition when Ren throws up the confetti at the end and yells, "Let's dance!" Totally. If you answered "no" to either of those questions, then this new Footloose isn't for you. But if you can stomach some awkwardness and tolerate a whole lot of similarities, and if the original film occupies a sweet spot in your memories, then you may just have a surprisingly good time watching this remake. I'm giving Footloose a B.

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Thursday, October 06, 2011

Insanely Great Jobs

Many, many people will write tributes to Steve Jobs today that will be better than mine, so I'm not going to compete with them. But I wanted to take just a minute to recognize his passing by recalling one of my most memorable Steve Jobs experiences, from January 2007, when the iPhone was first introduced to the world. I was at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, one of the coolest events I got to go to for work (I had a different job at the time), and rather than walk the convention floor looking at TV after TV, awesome new cell phones, and all kinds of other high tech gadgets, I was in the press room "watching" the live blog coverage of Steve's keynote.

Here's what I said about it back then:
But as cool as some of the products at CES were, none came close to the iPhone. I was in the press room on Tuesday when details first started to emerge about it, and as people were logging onto Engadget and other sites, you would hear about it all across the room. "Oh cool!" "Did you see that?" "Check this out." "Oh man, I so want one of those." "Oh wow." It was pretty exciting, as "you had to be there" kinds of things go. Microsoft might have used the tagline "Welcome to the Wow" to launch Windows Vista at CES, but the iPhone was the real Wow of the show — and it wasn't even there. (Apple has its own show, in San Francisco.) And of course, I totally want one.

Indeed. Despite everything else going on, the press room during that hour or so was the place to be. (I later learned that a future coworker, who I didn't know at the time, was there too.) The buzz in the room was palpable. I think everyone in there knew that with this keynote, Steve had essentially rendered everything at CES that year moot. Nothing in Vegas could compete with it. After that keynote, nobody cared about TVs or the suddenly lame cell phones on the show floor anymore.

But it wasn't just the iPhone itself that was exciting. It was Steve's confident, playful presentation of it. Steve Jobs' keynote speeches had a unique kind of power, whether you read the updates on Engadget or watched the video later that day (or listened to the remix). When Steve gave a keynote, you blocked off time on your calendar and were glued to your computer while it was happening. You hung on every word because the guy was such a great speaker and what he was talking about was always so cool. He knew how to captivate you, how to make you want something you didn't even realize you wanted. That's because Steve was a master showman and salesman. He loved the products he was introducing as much as you did, and that showed. That 2007 keynote was no exception. It was an instant classic. (It should be noted, by the way, in full disclosure, that it took me more than two years to actually get an iPhone. Talk about restraint.)

I'll miss the Steve Jobs keynotes, and I'll miss his new product introductions. I'm glad I got to experience that one in 2007, and will always remember it.

Oh, and one more thing ... As if the iPhone, iPad, iPod, Macintosh, iMac, Apple TV, MacBook Pro, and other devices weren't enough, Steve was also one of the founders of Pixar. Without him, we'd never have met Woody, Buzz, Nemo, Dory, the Incredibles, and so many other indelible characters. That alone would be significant. But Steve had Pixar and Apple. Wow. What a legacy.

For that day in 2007, and lots of great moviegoing experiences before and after, I just wanted to say, "Thank you, Steve Jobs." He was a true innovator. My life is better because of him and his creations.


Tuesday, October 04, 2011

6 Things I'm Not Going to Apologize For

It's the week between Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur. The custom is you're supposed to spend this time repenting for your sins and apologizing to people for anything bad you may have done to them during the year so that on Yom Kippur (which begins Friday night at sundown), you have a clean slate. But I'm not the apologizing type, so I'm not gonna do that. In fact, here are a few things I'm not sorry for:

I'm not sorry for giving up on the Red Sox last month. I'm no pink hat, but I know when something's a lost cause. And even though the team did win a few times in September, and always gave me a glimmer of hope when it did, I was never really fully on board.
That said ... I am sorry that the season ended with Terry Francona leaving the team. It wasn't his fault the team sucked this year.

I'm not sorry for eating that entire package of Triple Double Oreos all by myself. They were tasty, and downright addicting.
That said ... I am sorry that they weren't Triple Double Stuff Oreos. That would have made them really awesome.

I'm not sorry for playing my radio a little too loudly in the morning while I'm getting ready for work, not to mention the hour or so I spend hitting the Snooze button every nine minutes, which more than likely wakes up my neighbor upstairs before she'd like to be awake. I figure it's only fair after the annoyance she's caused me with her vacuuming and housework at odd hours.
That said ... I am sorry that the music playing is usually Britney Spears' "I Wanna Go," LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem," or some other annoying song, because I don't like that stuff either.

I'm not sorry for liking a whole handful of female-centric new shows, including Ringer, Revenge, Pan Am, and New Girl. All are enjoyable and feature some very attractive women, and I hope they stick around. I'm also not sorry that I'm having second thoughts about choosing Person of Interest over Grey's Anatomy.
That said ... I am sorry that Rachel Bilson's show Hart of Dixie was really lame, 'cause I like me some Summer Roberts. And I'm also sorry I still haven't watched the first two episodes of Prime Suspect yet. One more missed episode and I just give up on it entirely. (That's the rule.)

I'm not sorry for putting out candy corn so early in the season. Yum.
That said ... I am sorry that ... no, actually, there's nothing to be sorry about here.

I'm not sorry for downloading James Morrison's new album The Awakening two weeks before it's released in the U.S., even though I knew it was illegal. As I've said before, if an album is going to be released in one part of the world, and I'm a big enough fan of the artist, then I'm going to find it. And now that I've heard The Awakening, I'm glad I did it. This is another very enjoyable album from the soulful British singer/songwriter, who I think is a mix of Ray LaMontagne and Paolo Nutini.
That said ... I am sorry that James Morrison hasn't found more fans here in the U.S. Maybe The Awakening will change that.

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Saturday, October 01, 2011

A Close Call for Me and Terry Francona

Over the course of the nearly eight years since he was hired as manager of the Red Sox, Terry Francona gave fans lots of great memories, both large and small. There were the 2004 and 2007 World Series wins, of course, as well as the way he embraced Jon Lester after Lester's no-hitter in 2008, the way he would always give Dustin Pedroia a hard time, the way he stood by his players, his incessant gum chewing ... and so many others. But here's one of my favorite Terry Francona memories, a true story you may never have heard before.

In April 2005, a day before the home opener at Fenway, I was driving down Beacon Street in Brookline, probably a little bit faster than I should have been driving (what a surprise), and I made a right turn onto Webster Street. It was then that I noticed someone entering the crosswalk. So I slammed on the breaks, and thankfully, I was able to stop just in time so this person could cross. But this was not just anyone in the crosswalk. When the car stopped, I realized that this random, friendly looking, bald-headed guy was Terry Francona.

Tito lived in Brookline, so he may have been on his way home. Or maybe he was just out getting some fresh air and some much needed exercise (days earlier he had been rushed to the hospital after suffering chest pains). Either way, there he was, right in front of me, just out for a walk, one day before he was due to get his World Series ring.

And yes, I almost hit him with my car.

When I came to that realization, I let out a big "Phew!" and was completely beside myself. To think that if I was not paying attention, or had stopped my car a second later ... well, there could have been a very very very very bad scene right there in front of the Marriott Courtyard, one that would definitely have made me the most hated man in Red Sox Nation for years to come. (I'd surely not have been named the team's new general manager a few months later.)

Alas, Tito continued on unscathed, without even looking up at me or realizing what had happened, and he was present and accounted for at the ring ceremony the next day. Thank God.

While my memory may be a little more dramatic than the reality actually was, I still look back on the day knowing that I had the fate of Red Sox Nation in my hand. And now, with Tito officially out as the manager of the Red Sox, it gives me the chance to tell the tale once again.

Thank you very much for everything, Tito. You will definitely be missed. And yes, I'm sorry for almost hitting you with my car.

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