Wednesday, November 30, 2011

10 Is Enough

Anyone who knows me knows I'm a huge fan of Thanksgiving. Yes, I love me some turkey and gravy, a couple days off from work, time to see friends, maybe hang out in New York City and see a show, and just generally have fun. But one of the best things about Thanksgiving is that when it's over, that's when the coast is clear to break out the holiday music and play those songs on repeat for a month straight. That's basically what I've done since Friday, and thankfully, I've amassed quite a collection so there's a lot to listen to. Many of those songs have been included on my Very Marty Xmas mixes over the years.

Last year, I made one of my best Very Marty Xmas mixes, if not the best. I mean, it included the Puppini Sisters' cover of "Step into Christmas," Owl City's "Christmas Song," Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings' "Ain't No Chimneys in the Projects," Trijntje Oosterhuis' cover of "This Christmas," and Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart's "Can I Interest You in Hanukkah?" So when it came time to survey my remaining collection and see what was left — and what was new this year — a stark truth came to light: Nothing was ever going to be good enough as last year. It was my second-choice material, my remainders, the back-ups, the random novelty tunes ... plus new stuff from the likes of Justin Bieber. What a buzz kill that mix would be.

The 2010 edition of A Very Marty Xmas was my 10th anniversary edition. That means I've made 11 mixes, including a Best of. That's a lot of "Winter Wonderland," "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," "Sleigh Ride," and "All I Want for Christmas Is You." Yes, they're perennial favorites, but how many times can you hear the same old songs sung basically the same old ways?

So that brings me to a big announcement. My friends, to quote Boyz II Men: We've come to the end of the road. After 10 years of Very Marty Xmas mixes, I've decided to put away the Santa suit and stop making them. Last year's mix was the last. The time has come for me to pass the torch to a new generation. To step aside and maybe even grow up a little. To take a bow. To sit back and enjoy the season in full. And perhaps most importantly (as my family likes to remind me), to remember that, um, I am Jewish, after all.

I'm actually surprised by how easy the decision was. I had a great run and I'm extremely proud of the work I did. I can listen to my mixes (any of them) and they're still fun, what with their collection of songs and the interstitials I slid in for an extra je ne sais quoi. Those 11 mixes aren't going away, and I'd be more than happy to burn copies for anyone who wants me to. After all, I do still love the season and do still want to spread festive joy to all the good girls and boys. But I'm not going to make new mixes anymore.

When Jerry Seinfeld quit Seinfeld, he said you should always go out when you're on top so you leave people wanting more. After last year's mix, I can't think of a better time to walk away. Thank you very much for all the love and support you've shown me and the mixes over the past 11 years. They're what kept me going and what made it so much fun to make the mixes year after year.

I wish you and yours a very happy holiday season. I hope the A Very Marty Xmas mixes continue to liven up your tree trimming, parties, and other occasions from now until New Year's Eve, this year and for many years to come.

A Very Marty Xmas 2010
A Very Marty Xmas 2009
The Best of A Very Marty Xmas
A Very Marty Xmas 2007
A Very Marty Xmas 2006
A Very Marty Xmas 2005

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011


What can a guy like Harry Potter teach me about how to succeed in business without really trying? Well, maybe not a whole lot, but he sure can school me about how to succeed on Broadway. In the current revival of the musical, the boy wizard himself, Daniel Radcliffe, plays window cleaner J. Pierrepont Finch, who, with the help of Shepherd Mead's book of the same name, quickly rises up the ranks at a large corporation where no one really knows what anyone else is doing, and a smart, savvy, and charming guy like Finch can get ahead just by knowing the right people and saying the right things at the right time. The show was first produced in 1961, and was revived in 1995 with Matthew Broderick and a pre–Will & Grace Megan Mullally in the lead roles. This production opened in March, and I finally got a chance to see it over the weekend when I was in New York.

I'm a fan of the show (I saw the 1995 revival twice during that run, once with Mullally, and once when Sarah Jessica Parker replaced her), and while it's not perfect (the first act drags toward the end, for example), it can be good fun. Thankfully, this production is fun — lots of it. Directed (and choreographed) by Rob Ashford, it's colorful and lively, with bright costumes, an attractive set, and some appealing performances by an enthusiastic cast, including ones by Rose Hemingway (as Rosemary) and Tammy Blanchard (the daft sexpot Hedy La Rue), as well as fellow Brandeisian Mary Faber (American Idiot). Anderson Cooper supplies the voice of the narrator. And yes, John Larroquette is also in the show; he won a Tony Award for his performance as company president J.B. Biggley, but I was less impressed by him as I was with others in the cast.

It's really to Radcliffe's credit that the revival works so well. While not the strongest singer that's ever hit the Great White Way, the erstwhile Harry Potter brings an appealing quality to the role that no doubt has much to do with the fact that we've all watched him grow up and want him to succeed here. It's hard for "Ponty" to come off as slimy because Radcliffe portrays him as smart but not pushy, ambitious but not threatening (in any way other than a comic one, of course). Radcliffe's got decent comic chops and he throws himself into his choreography. The kid's got a future in musical comedy if he wants one. (Glee's Darren Criss takes over for Radcliffe in January, and Nick Jonas follows after that. It'll be interesting to see how different the show is with them in the lead role.)

Not all the songs in How to Succeed are classics (I could do without "Coffee Break" and "Paris Original," for example), but by the time the cast performs "Brotherhood of Man," you'll have a complete smile on your face. That the show has a happy ending is redundant after watching that number, but it does and you can't help but leave the theater singing.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, one of my favorite holidays. Of course it is; what could be bad about a day off from work spent with family, watching football, and eating turkey covered in gravy?

But Thanksgiving is more than that. As the name implies, it's a day to reflect and give thanks for those things that make life special and/or worth living. So with that in mind, here is my annual list (in no particular order) of some of the things I'm thankful for:

* My niece, Abby, who is growing up way too fast but still finds a way to make me smile every time we speak
* My nephews, Marc and Ian, who have a lot of mischief behind their adorable eyes. Can't wait to encourage them once they're able to talk and walk (apologies now to their parents)
* The Nutella-stuffed French toast and Cookie Dough Pancakes at In a Pickle. Yum. Just yum.
* Coworkers and industry colleagues who have become friends — and not just the Facebook kind. I'm a very lucky guy.
* The fact that I was able to see Clarence Clemons perform live with the E Street Band a handful of times before he passed away earlier this year
* People who call this a "blog post" and not a "blog"
* Twitter, which allows me to meet people, build relationships, learn, share, and much more on an almost daily basis — and get free food too
* Argyle
* Content
* Interviews with George Clooney, such as the one in the November 24 issue of Rolling Stone
* The counter at Johnny's Luncheonette, at which I eat many meals on (too many) nights when I just don't feel like cooking
* Full-zip hoodies from Roots Canada
* My couch, which is so comfortable that many nights I find myself sleeping on it instead of my bed
* The TV show Happy Endings, which is funnier and more surprising than I ever thought it'd be
* My mojo. Welcome back!
* Great movies like Moneyball and Martha Marcy May Marlene
* Cupcakes from Crumbs — especially the Half Baked
* And of course, all of you out there, whether you're seeing this on the blog itself or on Facebook. I really appreciate that more than six years after I started writing here, people are still interested in reading what I have to say.

What are you thankful for this year? I would love to hear your thoughts. Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving!


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Third Greatest Gift

True story: I grew up next door to Jim Henson. One day, after I was scared by his family's cat (no kidding), a teenage Brian Henson "rescued me," and decided to cheer me up by bringing me nextdoor to see some of his father's things. I don't remember everything I saw, but I do remember a giant Ernie in the living room. To a child as small as I was, Ernie was literally larger than life, and I was so excited. The experience made this Muppet fan an even greater one.

But you didn't have to have an experience like I did to grow up a fan of the Muppets. You just had to be a kid once (though it would help if it was in the 1970s and 80s when Jim Henson was around, when The Muppet Show was a TV staple and The Muppet Movie was brand new). And that's why so many of us (and the Walt Disney Company, too) are excited about Kermit, Gonzo, and the rest of the gang's return to the big screen in The Muppets. Alas, I hate to break it to you, but the movie is ultimately a disappointment. (I'll bet you didn't see that coming, did you?)

In the film, which stars and was co-written by How I Met Your Mother's Jason Segel, the Muppets have all gone their separate ways. On a trip to Los Angeles, Gary (Segel), his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), and his brother Walter, a Muppet, discover that Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), a businessman, plans to demolish the Muppet Theater to drill for oil. (Mischievous laugh.) So Gary, Mary, and Walter reunite the gang so they can put on a show and raise the $10 million that will save the Theater. Insert songs (many of which were written by Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie), and lots of jokes, and you've got the gist.

For the first 10 minutes of The Muppets, the film is everything you could possibly want: It's nostalgic and sickeningly sweet. The opening number, "Life's a Happy Song," is a catchy, fun, head bopper that'll be stuck in your head for days. But then reality swoops in, and no amount of wisecracks from Statler and Waldorf can right the ship. Tonally, this movie is just off. In short: It's a bummer.

For example, Kermit lives alone in a big, gated house and he's lost his zip. When we meet him, he sings a lament about how he misses the old gang. The guy's got regrets ... about Miss Piggy, about how he's let his friends down, about how they've all lost touch. Even after he reunites with Fozzie, Scooter, Gonzo, and the others (finally, about a half hour into the movie), there's still something off about Kermit. This is not the same dreamer who is the emotional center and can-do leader of his troupe. Today, he's a bit of a loser as he keeps giving up at the drop of a hat whenever the times get tough. That's just not right.

Kermit (and the movie itself) get little help from the story and even less from McKenzie's songs. Other than that first one, McKenzie has written some real stinkers, most of which are downers or forgettable ballads. (That said, "Me Party" may be the greatest song Flight of the Conchords never recorded. But having Amy Adams sing it is painful. And the less said about Oscar winner Chris Cooper's rap, the better.) McKenzie and Segel missed a real opportunity to have the gang sing a fun, upbeat, goofy work song when they rally to restore their theater. Instead, the Muppets clean to the sounds of Starship's "We Built This City." These are definitely not the same characters who long ago sang "Can You Picture That" or "Happiness Hotel."

The whole film just smacks of a desperate reunion tour you'd see your favorite band put together. They can still sing the same songs (case in point here, "Rainbow Connection") but they look older, they don't sound the same, they try a little too hard, and the spark just isn't there. No wonder Modern Family's Rico Rodriguez mistakes Kermit for a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

The Muppets doesn't fill you with hope or make you feel like a kid again. It's less a celebration of what we all love about the Muppets than it is a ploy to sell merchandise and theme park tickets. If only the movie could be a compilation of the great marketing efforts that have led up to the film's release. Those fake trailers and song covers and YouTube videos were the Muppets we know and love. The movie itself is not.

The Muppets is not completely awful (I did laugh a lot, particularly in the first half), but it's just not the inspirational, celebrational or — most important — Muppetational film I was hoping for. Last year, when Woody, Buzz, and the gang returned in Toy Story 3 after an 11-year absence, Pixar did it right. Kermit and the gang, and we fans, deserved something better ... something more like Toy Story 3. So I'm giving The Muppets a B–.


Monday, November 21, 2011

Perfectly Imperfect

One of my favorite pastimes is reading magazine articles about (and watching interviews with) George Clooney. The man's a charmer who just does everything right. He's got the life, but he's not rubbing it in. He's enjoying where he is now, and he's comfortable in his own skin. And why wouldn't he be? For Clooney, life is just about perfect right now, as the great and highly amusing cover story of the latest issue of Rolling Stone discusses.

In a way, that's what makes Clooney's latest film, The Descendants, so nice. In it, Clooney plays Matt King, a man whose life is decidedly not perfect, despite the fact that he lives in the seemingly perfect state of Hawaii. For starters, he's got a troubled relationship with his wife and a barely-there one with his two daughters (Matt even admits that he's the "backup parent"). Then, when his wife is in an accident and rendered comatose, he learns (from his eldest daughter of all people) that she was cheating on him. Oh, and throw in a complicated real estate deal that involves his many cousins and relatives. No, things aren't at all perfect for Matt.

And yet, this is totally the wheelhouse for writer/director Alexander Payne, whose most recent films (Sideways, About Schmidt, and Election) have each featured a put-upon man at the center. The Descendants is another gem — a dramedy about real people and real problems that's keenly observed and delicately portrayed. The film could have been a downer, but Payne (with the help of strong performances from Clooney and Shailene Woodley, who plays Matt's 17-year-old daughter, Alexandra) manages to navigate the balance between comedy and tragedy with characteristic ease. (Payne is credited as a co-writer of the screenplay with Nat Faxon and Community's Jim Rash.)

Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael also deserves credit; he initially shows the less attractive side of Hawaii, busting the myth that all is a beachy paradise, and as Matt comes to terms with his situation and his relationships improve, so too does the image of Hawaii that Papamichael shows.

Is The Descendants a perfect film? I'd say no. But it's a damned good one that's worth seeing. I'm giving it an A–.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Johnny and Clyde

Films like Clint Eastwood's latest, J. Edgar, really trip me up. You see, J. Edgar, which, yes, tells the story of J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is an ambitious, often well made film with some impressive acting. But it's also not one I felt much attachment to after the lights went up. Days later, I felt more obligated to write a review than compelled. When movies don't hit you on an emotional level after the fact, and don't drive you to go home and write about them, then that's kind of a bummer, even when they're good movies. That's the predicament I find myself in with J. Edgar.

Written by Dustin Lance Black (Oscar-winning screenwriter of Milk), J. Edgar tells the story of John Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose appetite for power brought him to one of the highest positions in the U.S. government — one he held for 48 years. In that time, he elevated the power and ability of law enforcement officials to solve crimes, and he would go to any lengths to pursue what he defined as the right thing.

Feared by many, Hoover was in some ways like the Tom Ridge of his day; his agency was charged with preventing domestic terrorism, a term that had a wide definition as far as Hoover was concerned. That's because Hoover was paranoid, protective, suspicious, and jealous. He held grudges, kept watch on figures like the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr., and allegedly kept secret files with information he could use to blackmail officials when needed. And this was ironic because while Hoover knew everyone else's secrets, he was protecting a giant secret about himself: that he was a closeted gay man.

Eastwood, Black, and DiCaprio have created a portrait of a man with lots of contradictions: While professionally he doggedly pursued any threat, personally he was a mama's boy who was vulnerable, scared, and closed off. The film isn't graphic about his relationship with Clyde Tolson (The Social Network's Armie Hammer), Hoover's Associate Director, protégé, and supposed lover, but it makes a clear case that the two had a relationship that was more than professional.

And DiCaprio is excellent, affecting Hoover's mid-Atlantic accent and mannerisms. As Hoover ages, DiCaprio's face gets covered up with more and more makeup; it's a showy job by the makeup artists, but DiCaprio's gruff and forceful acting shows through. For a change, he seems like a man, and not a boyish actor playing a man, and his more rounded appearance here helps the cause. (Hammer's makeup, on the other hand, is less convincing; just try not to giggle when the elder Tolson first appears on screen.)

The parallels to modern times here are unavoidable, as Hoover goes after any alleged threats to American security, no matter how small, personal, and irrelevant. And we see how Hoover let others do his dirty work while he took the credit (and blame). While interesting, chances are good the film would be a lot less relevant had we not lived through the past 10 years that we did. Black's screenplay is certainly suspicious of Hoover and his motives; parts of the film could be transposed to 2004 with few adjustments.

Yet despite the attempts to show what drove Hoover, something still feels lacking about J. Edgar. It's a swiftly moving and often enjoyable film, even with a two hour and 15 minute running time. But it's essentially told from Hoover's point of view as he dictates his memoirs to one typist after another (including one played, amusingly enough, by Ed Westwick, from Gossip Girl), and maybe that's where it all gets tripped up. While he thinks he is, Hoover is hardly a noble, heroic figure, so it's hard to really invest much of yourself in his success. After a while, the bullying just gets to be a bit much. Who wants to root for a bad guy you can't feel much sympathy for? (And a screenplay that's weighted down with pithy, cliché-sounding statements about how power corrupts takes away from the overall effect too.) So that's why, in the end, J. Edgar is only getting a B from me.


Monday, November 07, 2011

Distance Makes the Heart ...

Watching the new film Like Crazy, it's hard not to think that on at least a few levels, this is the movie (500) Days of Summer wanted to be. That is, a love story for young people, many of whom feel like they're too cool for conventional Hollywood romances, and that those films just don't speak to them. But whereas (500) Days had stars with indie cred (Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel), a hip soundtrack, and a contemporary aesthetic, it was just a little too self-aware to be as beloved as it so wanted to be.

On the other hand, Like Crazy tells a more realistic story of young love. Its stars are less well known (for now, anyway), the action unfolds without the hipster accompaniment of the Smiths, Feist, and Regina Spektor, and its natural aesthetic (handheld camerawork, completely improvised dialogue, etc.) make for an almost too obvious counterpart (despite a twee trailer that features music by Stars and Ingrid Michaelson). But is it a better movie?

In Like Crazy, two college students, American Tom and British Anna (Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones), fall for each other hard and fast. When the school year is over, and Anna must return to the U.K. (per the limitations of her student visa), she decides to disregard the law (and the advice of her parents and lawyer) to stay with Tom. This gets her barred from the U.S., and puts a real strain on the relationship (to put it mildly). Is the bond between these two strong enough to survive time and distance apart?

If you've ever been in a similar relationship, then you know just how challenging the situation can be, and how painful. Like Crazy doesn't shy away from this, focusing on all the minutiae that can eat away at a couple (missed calls, ignored or poorly timed text messages, etc.), and presenting more-available options for both characters (X-Men: First Class' Jennifer Lawrence and Charlie Bewley, of the Twilight movies). I won't spoil whether Tom and/or Anna remain loyal, but yeah ... over the course of four years, it's tough to be separated from the one you love.

Drake Doremus, Like Crazy's director, based the film on his own true life experience, and he's clearly rooting for these two to make it. If only I could root as hard as he is. After a while, the initial spark that burns so brightly (between our heroes and the film itself) fades. Watching Like Crazy, I felt like Tom and Anna themselves had given up, so as hard as they try to make things work is as hard as I had to try to believe that they actually wanted to be together. In the end, I just didn't buy it. And once I made the decision to not root for Tom and Anna to make it, I couldn't wait for the movie to end. Like Crazy only has a 90-minute running time, but its last third makes it seem even longer.

Which isn't to say I didn't enjoy parts of the film. Like Crazy is frustrating, but it features a totally likeable and winning performance by Jones that announces her as an actress to watch (just like Martha Marcy May Marlene did with Elizabeth Olsen). Adorable, modern, real, and almost the anti-Zooey (in that she doesn't have that dorky/cute thing going for her), Jones is a big reason why Like Crazy works when it does, particularly in the first third. Even though the film lets her down, Jones is someone viewers can easily fall for. Chances are good we'll have plenty of other occasions to do so in the future.

For now, though, Jones is in a film that, like (500) Days of Summer isn't as good as it wants to be. I'm giving Like Crazy a B–.


Friday, November 04, 2011

WaffleBot Saves Christmas!

What is there to say about A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas? It's funny (I'd say funnier than the last film, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay), the 3D effects are generally completely gratuitous (and some are very cool and/or very funny), there's a jolly soundtrack, Neil Patrick Harris makes another amusing appearance, you may never watch A Christmas Story the same way again, it begins well and ends well but has some slower moments in the middle, and there's a must-have holiday gift called WaffleBot that I totally want. I'm 37 and not really the target audience for this film, but I still laughed a lot (probably more than I should have) and enjoyed it. Maybe I got a contact high from all that smoke blowing around in 3D. So I'm giving A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas a "not low" B.

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Thursday, November 03, 2011

Robbery in Progress

If Law & Order, with its ripped-from-the-headlines plotlines, was ever made into a movie, it might be a bit like Tower Heist. The film tells the story of a bunch of luxury residence employees who plot to steal from the Bernie Madoff–like jerk who has defrauded them and left them without pensions. No doubt, the film will be like a wish-fulfillment fantasy for so many moviegoers. But here's my wish: I wish Tower Heist was a better, funnier movie. After all, the cast is top-lined by Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy, and it also includes Casey Affleck (no stranger to funny heist films, having been in all three of the Oceans movies), Matthew Broderick, and Alan Alda.

Actually, if you want to see a robbery, then this is the movie you want to see, because it's Gabourey Sidibe (yes, Precious herself) who steals the thing right out from under Stiller, Murphy, et al. Playing a Jamaican cleaning woman, Sidibe delivers her lines with perfect deadpan and impressive comic timing. She's a hoot. What a difference a couple years makes in her choice of big screen roles.

Tower Heist does have its moments — the plan comes together and is impressively staged during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade — but the whole thing is far-fetched, even for someone like me who can typically suspend his disbelief pretty easily. Put simply: I expected more from the film overall. Like Madoff's victims (though to a much much much smaller degree), you may feel defrauded too. I'm giving Tower Heist a B–.