Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"N...As In Not Working."

If you'll indulge me, an imaginary conversation between the theater manager and the town's giant letter distributor.

Manager: What are you talking about, Demetri?

Demetri (in vaguely threatening accent reminscent of Teddy KGB in "Rounders"): That is business, my friend. Costs go up.

Mananger: Ns are the money letters. What am I going to do when "Transformers" and "Planet of the Apes" come out?

Demetri: That not my problem. People will understand. You pay price or make ahdjustment. It very simple, no?

Manager: It looks like a drunk dyslexic is putting up these titles. "Pa Da" sounds like an early Mira Nair film, and "Ha Gover"...What is that French, Scandinavian? No one's gonna know what's playing.

Demetri (blows cigarette smoke, knows his next move): I tell you what. You either stop crying like a lihtle guryl or pay $500 per "N" and every other Sajack letter. That is deal.

Manager (trying to control himself, but must break free): I'll see you in hell, you crazy Russian. I don't need you or your precious consonants.

(Hangs up phone. Fueled by inspiration, he rushes to the lobby and screams to the heavens.)

Manager (yelling to employee): Kyle! Get some black paint and a shitload of straws. I just solved our letter problem!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Screw You, J.J. Abrams!

I know it's wasteful and kills trees, but I initially write most of my reviews in longhand. I really enjoy the feeling of a nice pen on paper, and I would like to think that the intimacy finds its way to the writing.

Plus, it's wonderful have a new perspective, aside from a blindingly white Microsoft Word document and an office whose window looks directly onto a strip of grass and a tarp-covered barbecue.

Sometimes, however, the process leads to what you see here.

There's nothing more frustrating than writer's block. I know it will pass--I just have to work a little harder for the words--but it's a major inconvenience. The clock is marching forward, the deadline is not changing, and your brain is not cooperating. It's an awful, interminable wait.

What's baffling is that I had plenty to say about J.J. Abrams's "Super 8," but I didn't know how to express it or where to start. Everything sounded trite or pompous or boring. So I wrote and scratched. I watched TV. I read a book. I called my mom. I cursed Abrams and his vivid imagination.

After three hours of struggle, I finally wrote a lede that I was satisfied with and moved to the office to put together the rest. I finished at 2:30 a.m., awaking at 8 a.m. to revise it.

An hour or so later, I filed the review...and I lost another chunk of my sanity.

Friday, June 10, 2011

TCNJ Magazine Profile: Kevin Kasha of Anchor Bay Films

I'm not a big fan of patting myself on the pat for a job well done, because I immediately assume that my hubris will lead to a "Scarface"-like topple from the top of my ego-built perch. The goal with writing is to keep getting better, to keep challenging myself. Needless to say, there's not a hell of a lot of self-satisfaction in my suburban Pennsylvania digs. But I can't imagine doing anything else.

With that said, I'm really happy with my profile for TCNJ Magazine on Kevin Kasha, who has also worked for Miramax, Vestron, and New Line. (He's also a gigantic Steve McQueen fan.) Maybe it's because it was the first story where I appreciated the storytelling value of additional sources; maybe it's because Kevin was a very direct, likeable guy; maybe it's because the Jersey kid who loves movies reminded me of myself a bit.

I don't know, but I'm happy with the story. I hope you are too. Read it here.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Book of the Month, June 2011

I love books. They're fun, educational, and they're instrumental in the construction of fun, affordable forts!

Given my Herculean work on this blog over the last few days, I'm going to keep things really simple this time. My last post for The Etc. featured my thoughts on the encroaching popularity of tablets, which I fear are making bound books irrelevant.

Well, Nicholas Carr wrote an excellent book last year called "The Shallows" that really explains why I feel the way I do. In fact, I reviewed the book for "BookPage." You can read the review right here.

That's it for now. Until next month, read in peace.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Film Round-Up: June 2011

Your classic mixed bag: Two good ones, two "meh" ones. Good to see Sabrina Lloyd (pictured)around these parts again. Had a bit of a crush on her when "Sportsnight" was on. Then she was on "Ed" and after that, like, poof.

By the way, if you're getting tired of watching reruns, rent "Sportsnight" on Netflix. It's the nearly forgotten, Aaron Sorkin created dramedy that was based on ESPN's SportsCenter. It's exquisitely written, beautifully acted (it's where Peter Krause and Felicity Huffman cut their teeth), and, well, it's about sports.

Of course, it was on for only two seasons. Man, I hate television.

As always, these reviews previously appeared in "ICON" and are reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)


Mr. Nice (Dir: Bernard Rose). Starring: Rhys Ifans, Chloë Sevigny, David Thewlis, Christian McKay, Omad Djalili, Crispin Glover. In the 1970s, Oxford graduate Howard Marks (Ifans, Greenberg) became one of the world's biggest drug smugglers, using ingenuity, business sense, and international connections to bring hashish from Pakistan into Europe and later the United States. At one point, Marks (who for years went by the alias Donald Nice) was virtually untouchable thanks to his supposed position as a spy for MI6. Of course, the good times came to a crashing halt. The movie, based on Marks's book, comes undone due to two crucial flaws: We never understand Marks's motivations to go big and tempt fate, and Ifans's surprisingly tame performance provides no incentive for us to care about anything that happens. Thewlis easily steals the film as Marks's unhinged, porn-loving IRA drug associate, while Sevigny, as Marks's wife, can't even muster a consistent English accent. McKay's sideburns are impressive, though. Save yourself the trouble and re-watch Traffic or Goodfellas. [NR] **

Make Believe (Dir: J. Clay Tweel). Documentary follows six skilled magicians as they prepare for the World Magic Seminar's celebrated international teen competition in Las Vegas. Among the more interesting subjects are 17-year-old Krystyn Lambert, who is predicted to become a legendary magician—if her type A personality doesn't do her in; Bill Koch, a 19-year-old from Chicago, who abandoned a college scholarship to prepare for his last chance to win it all; and Hiroki Hara, 18, who hones his craft relentlessly in his remote, picturesque Japanese village, studying videotapes frame by frame and transforming dollar store purchases into stage props. Tweel does zero editorializing and just captures his subjects' souls, whether it's Krystyn obsessively organizing books during a tour of her library job or Bill comparing himself (without irony) to Michael Jordan after winning a Chicago magic show. Like the ventriloquist documentary Dumbstruck, Make Believe doesn't just poke fun at passionate oddballs. Though Tweel's effort isn't as emotionally stirring as its odd job predecessor, the director reveals the glorious torture involved in capitalizing on one's potential. Adults and teens will nod their heads in recognition. For screening information, visit www.makebelievefilm.com. [NR] ***

Hello Lonesome (Dir: Adam Reid). Starring: Harry Chase, Lynn Cohen, James Urbaniak, Nate Smith, Sabrina Lloyd, Kamel Boutros. Quirky, but endearing, character study features three separate storylines. A lonely voice over artist (Chase) lives in suspended adolescence (and denial) at his bucolic retreat; an elderly widow (Cohen) strikes up a friendship with her sardonic, divorced, and considerably younger neighbor (Urbaniak); and a New York City couple (Smith and Lloyd) find their burgeoning relationship undercut by devastating news. Writer/director/producer Reid has some trouble sustaining the momentum of every storyline – Smith and Lloyd's succumbs to a draggy, O.Henry-like finale – but we're drawn to these lost souls and their peculiar life issues. Reid's straightforward, you-can-figure-it-out approach to the material is a big asset. Veteran actors Urbaniak (Robert Crumb in American Splendor) and Cohen (Miranda's housekeeper on Sex and the City) are wonderful. Thank goodness Chase, in his film debut, is solid. After all, he is a real-life voice over artist. Also available on demand. [NR] ***

The First Grader (Dir: Justin Chadwick). Starring: Oliver Litondo, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge. After the Kenyan government promises free primary school education, the response is overwhelming; parents are determined to enroll their kids. One old, illiterate man is determined to join them. Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge, a Mau Mau veteran in his eighties, endured unimaginable physical and emotional pain in helping Kenya free itself from British colonial rule a half-century before. Now, he wants the education he missed. Luckily, the sympathetic, dedicated head teacher (Harris) at a nearby school agrees to teach him. While her decision to put Maruge with 50 six-year-olds attracts international attention, it also angers townspeople and her supervisors. Fact-based, inspiring tale benefits from the heartfelt performances of Litondo (whose last appearance in a feature film was in 1984) and Harris, but the script's patriotic ballyhoo and heavy-handedness – stylized flashbacks figure prominently, the dialogue is essentially a collection of abbreviated speeches – almost turn Maruge's heartbreaking and triumphant story into a parody. Maruge died in 2009. [PG-13] **

The Big Review: Midnight in Paris

I love Woody Allen, but good god was this lousy. Kind of intrigued as to why so many people are digging this movie. Could this be my "Up in the Air" or "Benjamin Button" of 2011, a flick everyone loves but I despise? Stay tuned.

Best part of the movie, seriously: Carla Bruni. Usually presidential wives look like dowagers from a Three Stooges skit. Here and Michele Obama are starting a delightful new trend: First ladies you want to see in their underpants! You can bet "Maxim" is already on it.

This review originally appeared in the June issue of "ICON" and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)


Every five or six years, Woody Allen makes a wonderful film that reaffirms my admiration for him. In between those creative peaks lie efforts ranging from mildly entertaining to exasperating. Allen's latest, Midnight in Paris, resides in the valley. But it's a troubling film, because the writer/director displays a fatigue that requires more than the anticipated turnaround.

Not surprisingly, the setting is Paris, where Gil (Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams) have tagged along with her wealthy parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) for a lavish sojourn. Inez longs to partake in Paris's glittery attractions. Gil, a successful but fatigued screenwriter working on a serious novel, is tickled by the city's cultural past. He's just dying to walk the streets in the rain.

Inez, who can barely tolerate her fiancé's flighty, romantic nature, pals around with her overbearingly academic friend, Paul (a criminally underused Michael Sheen). One night, frustrated and uninterested in after-dinner activities, Gil walks back to his hotel. Hopelessly lost, he sits down to gather his thoughts. The clock strikes midnight. An old timey car appears, Gil enters, and he is mysteriously chauffeured to the Paris of his dreams, a 1920s bohemian paradise featuring Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody, talking a lot about rhinos), F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), and all his other artistic heroes.

Even better, Gil, an unapologetic admirer, is their equal. And he gets to return to this legendary coterie night after night. In between getting writing advice from Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and giving Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van) movie ideas, the young writer falls in love with Adriana (Marion Cotillard), the resident "art groupie." Even her dalliances with Hemingway and Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) can't separate these old souls, though their love of the past might. Despite the decades-crossed romance, Allen keeps the proceedings simple: Gil heads to his designated spot each night, waits for his space-time continuum carpool, lives it up Jazz Age style, and heads back to present day. It's a pretty stagnant arrangement, which paints the time travel aspect as a cheap narrative gimmick to enhance a pallid romantic comedy with a weak, obvious moral. The past, it turns out, isn't necessarily better.

Midnight in Paris is rife with useless, condescending enhancements. Introducing cultural icons in scene after scene doesn't add mystique; it makes Allen look like a hypocritical know-it-all. (If anyone is in love with the past, it's Allen, who in his films refuses to acknowledge any musical, literary, or comedic movement developed after 1945.) Giving Paris a cinematic ass kissing—including an interminable opening sequence of the city's street life—doesn't infuse the story with urban poetry; it shows artistic desperation, a hope that scenery will do the work of a functional script and good acting.

Allen deflates his promising material by choosing the easy way out. No one in the past questions Gil's futuristic wardrobe. Inez's growing rapport with Paul is handled via cutting remarks and summaries, not with scenes between the two of them. Gil stealing Inez's earrings to give to Adriana could have been a madcap comic moment. Instead, it becomes a strained commentary on how rich folks don't trust the help. Allen's refusal to play with the story's time travel aspects, save for one scene near the end, is baffling. Wouldn't it have been fun to have Adriana land in 2010 while a surprised Gil has to cover her tracks? How would she react to a world ruled by Thomas Kinkade and John Grisham, where Starbucks is the cultural hotspot?

Characters we like don't stick around for long. Pill is a delight as Zelda Fitzgerald – you want Allen to mix her up in Gil's double life – but she's part of the movie's interminable parade of literary celebrities and is soon gone. Before he's banished to the script's margins, Paul is positioned as a snobby foil for Gil, except Allen doesn't give the latter enough intellectual ferocity to fight back. Some characters we can't wait to never see again, especially Inez, whom McAdams transforms into a pampered, shrill screaming machine. Granted, we need a reason for Gil's nocturnal strolls but McAdams is downright vituperative, like she's filming the sequel to Mean Girls. Inez could have been sweetly doubting or lovably frustrated, a straight woman thrown by her fiancé's loopy demeanor. McAdams's work here is so abrasive and isolating that I'm forgetting why I liked her in the first place.

Allen never seems fully invested in anything—the storyline, the characters, the jokes. At least with duds such as Melinda and Melinda and Hollywood Ending there was a sense of creative certainty. Like Gil, Allen is adrift in Midnight in Paris. At age 75, the legendary filmmaker doesn't have much time left to get everyone—including me—to love him again. [PG-13]

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Etc.--Books vs. Tablets, My Bridal Registry, Fireworks

Recently, I summoned up enough courage to put on a tie, get up before noon, and head into New York City for an in-house editing job. One thing that struck me as I took New Jersey Transit over a few days was the number of people reading from iPads or similar devices.

That's where I had a shuddering realization: I'm starting to hate technology, which means I'm on the edge of plummeting into complete fuddydum. Soon, I'll be complaining about sex on television and how today's music has no pep.

Technology has made me very happy. It allowed me to meet my fiancee (lovely girl, smart as a whip, plays the piano), make my living (look whose blog has sponsorship? Heeyy!), and maintain my apartment at temperature that doesn't make me sweat like Patrick Ewing.

But tablets and deep reading (the definition excludes magazines, newspapers, websites etc.)? It's a purposeless innovation.

I'm all for anything that gets people reading, but are the buyers of iPads, Kindles, et. al. really interested in the activity or are they into the gadget? The same way that buying a pull-up bar isn't going to automatically get you a sculptused body, a tablet isn't going to make you into a reader. That comes from embracing the culture of reading, which involves, well, life. It's having your parents read to you as a child, finding a book that spoke to you during a hard time. It's the thrill in finding that words and sentences have an ineffable magic, a redemptive quality, that means you have to read. It's never a choice.

We spend hours staring at a screen. We watch television, type e-mails, send text messages. It's nice to be able to take a break, slow down, and invest the imagination to entertain ourselves. Putting a book on a tablet puts reading on the same urgent, skimmable level as text messaging. And it's not. We can't forget that reading--intense, escape from the dreariness reading--has a soul. Technology doesn't. You do.

/Written from my iPad

--Went wedding ring shopping with the fiancee the other day. We were looking at rings, when the proprietor (who was helping us shop) commented that my future wife had a nice body.

Three things about this remark:

1.) How unusual it was. It's not like we were shopping for body stockings, unless a nubile figure flatters the ring in some way.

2.) I had no idea how to respond. This was a sweet lady whom I've known for years. "Back off, whore" seemed too aggressive, and "Really?" seemed like an invitation for disaster. Should have gone with my brother's option: raise my hand to the woman and declare, "Up top, bro!"

3.) The fiancee was positively tickled. Sure, she's flattered by a charming old lady's comment, but she screams bloody murder at the dude who made kissy faces at her during a toll stop at the New Jersey Turnpike.

Women, am I right?

--Speaking of marriage, we have a bridal registry. It's very nice, but it's stuff for the house and our life together. The fiancee also gets gifts at the bridal shower. I get nothing, except the joy of lugging gifts home. Thank you, no!

I think men would be a lot more keen on marriage, if there was a registry for them. With that said, let me get the ball rolling. We're registered at Macy's, but guests can also get me any of the following:

*NFL Blitz arcade game
*A pallet of Parmesean and Basil Wheat Thins
*The complete "30 for 30" series on Blu-Ray...and a Blu-Ray player.
*A shopping session with Walt "Clyde" Frazier
*A Tama drum set. Since it's my special day, I want a Keith Moon-sized set. Don't half-ass it. You love me, right?
*A week at Mets fantasy camp...no, make it, on the actual Mets.
*An IV drip of Dunkin Donuts' chai tea.
*A production deal for my unpublished high school play, "Diner Theater."
*Beard trimming lessons from Sean Connery.
*A vacuum cleaner. (We really need one.)

--A couple of weeks ago, the fiancee and I went to a minor league baseball game that featured post-game fireworks. I was joking around with my brother-in-law that the fireworks were going to be lame, but then a strange thing happened: About midway through we were captivated. Lesson learned: Like pizza, "Goodfellas," and SportsCenter, fireworks are never boring.

--OK, so I hated "Midnight in Paris." Michael Sheen was wasted. You know where he isn't? "The Damned United." Watch it.

--The only good thing about the royal wedding? TCM showed "Roman Holiday."

--Now that Oprah's retired, who's going to tell us what to read? Time to step up, Conan.