Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Etc.--New York Sports Withdrawal, the Oscars, American Idol

I'm a big sports fan--specifically, the New York teams. The fiancee and I now live in Bucks County, PA, which is lovely and features no coverage of the teams I like.

As a constant reminder of my geographic misfortune, the fans here are positively rabid. I think it's a requirement that residents in the Philadelphia area must own a Roy Halladay jersey or believe that Thaddeus Young is the next Moses Malone. Eagles fans are utterly and lovably deranged. I've never seen a town embrace a team so close to their collective bosom. Even Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania, co-hosts a studio show and it's viewed as being completely normal.

I haven't gotten sucked into the hysteria. My allegiances are set. I'm a Mets, Giants, Knicks fan--always will be. But it's odd to watch games with no rooting interest. The experience is calming, devoid of the hang-wringing of my younger days. Honestly, watching the Knicks-Bulls playoff series of the early 1990s was a joyous form of torture. The Mets were that way too.

And I miss it. The Knicks have done nothing since James Dolan and his gigantic ego took over. With all the astoundingly bad hires and deals (e.g., Jerome James, Steve Francis, Eddy Curry, and, yes, the Carmelo deal), it's been like watching your best friend dump his awesome girlfriend and then date a procession of tarts and floozies...As for the Mets, they've accepted being second place to the Yankees. It's hard to stay interested in a team that doesn't have any confidence in itself.

What's taken the place of rabid, frothing-at-the-mouth devotion? Writing. I get the same sick, excited feeling in sending off an article, that I used to get watching John Starks take three pointers from inadvisable angles. Instead of following box scores, it's job boards and writing blogs. Instead of tracking my teams' fate in the newspaper, I follow mine with every clip, pitch letter, and signed contract.

This may sound foolish, but so is sports fandom: You get utterly and hopelessly wrapped up in the events of people you'll never meet, who may not be around in a year or two. I'm not going anywhere, and neither is writing. Plus, I'm an active participant in my own fortunes.

I hope not to lose perspective. Should I cancel that order of "Croatto" jerseys?

1.) That was some Oscars telecast, huh? Just a hint to the producers for next year's show: Don't go for cool points. Billy Crystal was a gigantic ham, but at least he wanted to be there and knew how to move a show along. You need leave-it-on-the-floor entertainers, not someone like James Franco, whose whole contemptuous persona is the antithesis to this kind of event.

Other than that, awesome show. Oh, and the prolonged, confusing tribute to Lena Horne wasn't a condescending gesture to African-American interest groups, who were upset over the lack of black nominees. (I'm having a hard time mustering sympathy, but that's a minor point.) Really, it was seamless. It wasn't contrived at all.

Also, Anne Hathaway, it wasn't your fault. You needed a comedic catalyst to help you out. You'll be fine. And you didn't leave your grandmother hanging.

2.) Read a headline on Yahoo! about some "American Idol" finalist crying on air about his elimination from the show. This isn't surprising--people cry all the time--nor is it news. You know what would have been newsworthy? If the kid vomited all over the front row. I would have read that story and actually started watching "American Idol," a show I can't stand, to see if anyone else upchucked on Ryan Seacrest after "Beatles Night" or "A Salute to the Oak Ridge Boys" or whatever uninspired, sing-for-the-cheap-seats nonsense was on. Also acceptable: A rejected contestant throwing a Peter Finch in "Network" meltdown or strangling a judge.

3.) If you've watched the NCAA basketball tournament, then you've seen the commercial for Lowe's featuring the young homeowners learning to become handy. This spot bothers me for about 3,000 reasons--righty tighty!--but mostly because of the couple. The husband looks like a thinner, dorkier version of Ben Folds, but his wife resembles Minka Kelly's younger sister. Commercials never get couples who look remotely compatible. Dad always looks like the sad folks who wear stained sweatpants in public and believe the waitresses at Hooters really like them, while Mom looks like a pole dancing nutritionist.

4.) Really enjoying "GQ" recently. Amy Wallace's piece on Charlie's Sheen downward spiral was insightful without feeling sordid. And the magazine's "Open Letter" is always spot-on.

5.) The saddest thing about Borders closing down? Where the hell are these people going to find work? Lauren Roberts, my terrific editor at BiblioBuffet, writes about what happens when she treats the employees at her local, soon-to-close spot like human beings. Read it here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Or...I've Never Kissed a Girl

Sadly, there was no "My Millennium Falcon is in the shop" bumper sticker.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

(Movie) Scenes from a Wedding

A couple of weeks ago, I had the honor of being the best man at my brother's wedding. My responsibilities stretched over three days and then the recovery time--which coincided with preparation for a new gig and myriad assignments--was lengthy. I didn't get a good night's sleep until Thursday night, nearly a week after the festivities began.

To start, I wanted to do a blog on the wedding. Someone said I should review the festivities, which seemed like a good way to become instantly ostracized. The good thing is that were plenty of moments that reminded me of movies.

Here they are in no discernible order.

1.) The best man toast--I kept thinking of what not to do, and Steve Buscemi's hilarious meltdown from "The Wedding Singer" kept popping into my head. ("Harold wouldn't punch his landlord!") I thought of the never-seen, curse-ridden wedding toast that George gave on "Seinfeld." Jerry's description: "It was like a Redd Fox album. There were old people there."

It turned out well probably because I channeled the nervous confidence of Woody Allen's old stand-up albums for inspiration. I probably said "um" about 15,000 times, just breaking Angelica's Huston's record on Barbara Walters' 1991 Oscar interview special.

2.) Before the ceremony--I was walking nervously in the hall, running last-minute errands and rounding up my parents, principals, etc. My friend Rich remarked that I looked like Doc Brown from "Back to the Future" obsessed about the flex capacitor.

3.) Before the ceremony, part II: My brother was eerily calm. I was afraid of losing the rings, not getting the rabbi his payment, sputtering sentence fragments during my speech. For a while, I was sweating, which conjured images of Albert Brooks' disastrous newscast in "Broadcast News."

Please note that my inclusion of "Broadcast News" does not mean that I endorse that movie. Far from it. James L. Brooks has never met a dramatic moment he couldn't turn into a three-ring circus.

And, yes, that diatribe was part of my toast. I also talked for five minutes about how much I hated "Up in the Air."

4.) At the reception: Talking to a friend of mine, who remarked that his wife's delivery date is scheduled for the day after the release of "The Green Lantern." This instantly made me jealous because my wedding date (Aug. 20) is a notoriously slow time for movies.

5.) At the reception, part II: Was talking to my sister-in-law's cousin. I know the cousin very well, but had never met his girlfriend. I said something to the effect of, "Oh, every time I see you, it's only for a quick sliver of time..."

As the words tumbled out of my mouth, I thought of Vince Vaughn sandbagging Patrick Van Horn in front of his dour girlfriend in Swingers: "No, we played football on Wednesday, and I didn't see you call anyone..."

That was not my intent--and everyone realized that--but it's further proof that I should probably let the fiancee handle all pleasantries. I should stick to nodding and cramming my gigantic head with lunch meats.

6.) At the reception, part III: The fiancee and I had not idea that we'd spend so much time talking and mingling. Astonishing: It probably took us about an hour to go from one end of the reception hall to the other. I'm a good conversationalist, but I'm not that good.

So, my apologies to anyone who thought I sounded like the mentally challenged groundskeeper in "Bad News in Breaking Training" who could only say "Hello. How are you?" I'll make it up to you in a few months.

On a serious note, I want to wish David and Darcy all the luck and love in the world. May this be the first of many Hollywood endings.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Review of Poetry

Opened in Philadelphia yesterday. Catch it if you can. Powerful, moving stuff.

This review originally appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina)

Popular culture frequently treats the elderly in a hi-and-goodbye fashion. Once in a while a writer bestows a soul upon someone with noticeable wrinkles, but most characters over the age of 60 are usually placed into one of three categories: genial kook, sage crank, or wacky comic relief. Even the great actors heading into their golden years can't catch a break. Robert De Niro's explosiveness has morphed into comic irony. Dustin Hoffman, one of the best actors of the last 40 years, is now an invaluable supporting player. The days of Harrison Ford opening a movie on his own are long gone.

Director/writer Lee Chang-dong's subdued and powerful Poetry (opening March 4 at Ritz at the Bourse in Philadelphia) features a 66-year-old Korean maid as its heart and soul. Mija (Yun Jung-hee) is a sweet lady who expresses herself in platitudes and memories. You run into folks like her everywhere. Maybe she's an overly chatty relative or the cashier at the supermarket. She has no interests, no social awareness. Smiling politely and nodding is the best conversational tactic. You won't feel that way after the credits roll.

The people in Mija's life barely perform those simple gestures. She lives in a cramped apartment with her teenage grandson Wook (Lee David), who talks to her in commands when he's not ignoring her. Mija boasts of having a close relationship with her daughter, Wook's mother, though she's never around. We catch the end of one phone conversation that features Mija pleading with her to get Wook to use less electricity. Even Mija's clients can barely maintain polite interest. She's described as stylish and pretty, words used to humor her or serve as the preface to a request.

Then her uneventful life gets thrown into tumult. Mija is forgetting words, and her doctor's concern leads to a grave prognosis. There are more immediate problems. A girl at Wook's school kills herself, a terrible event made worse when it's revealed that Wook and his friends' unimaginable cruelty led the girl to jump off a bridge. The school and the police want to keep the story quiet, which requires that each of the boys' families pay five million won—or roughly $50,000. Mija does not have that kind of money, not that Wook or her ethically shaky associates care.

The only solace for Mija is a poetry class where the instructor wants the students to write a poem b the end. For Mija, the class is a pleasant diversion, a chance to tap into the artsy instincts people say she possesses. But despite looking at flowers and trees for inspiration, nothing comes. What does happen is that Mija becomes obsessed with the deceased young girl, unknowingly embarking on a journey that slowly awakens her soul. Unlike most films, which would squeeze in a spiritual rebirth after a musical montage, Poetry takes its time telling the story. We know Mija, whose quest for expression is not just an artistic endeavor: It's about justifying her existence and the girl's. .

Lee's leisurely approach allows the tension and drama to sneak up on us. The emotional shifts feel all too real; understanding is earned the hard way. The tension between Mija and Wook--Yun and Lee David give stripped down, painfully human performances—is unbearable. The grandmother gives her oblivious, unconcerned grandson every chance to show remorse. She thrashes out; she leaves a memento of his callous behavior on the breakfast table. The kid just curls under the covers or turns on the television, not realizing that he's spurning his lone ally's help. Lee destroys the carefully constructed lie where Mija has resided for so long. He swiftly deflates her love affair with flowers: They're featured in a photo with the ill-fated girl; before a blunt diagnosis, a humorless doctor says that the pretty flowers in her office aren't real. Like a child, Mija is flattered and sweet-talked by the men in her hush money ring.

Mija finds her voice and ends up writing a moving poem that certainly isn't about flowers or trees. It's one she deserves to write, and it serves as the perfect conclusion to Lee's haunting exploration on what it means to be human. Poetry doesn't give us a homogenized, happy-faced triumph—it rips the blinders from our worldview. The movie is hard to watch, but empowering in a way few dare to be. [NR]

Film Round-Up for March 2011

Not much to report here, just proof that January and February are the coldest months if you're a movie reviewer. Except for Making the Boys--that was excellent.

Oh, and another thing: Poor, poor Kelly Lynch.

These reviews originally appeared in ICON. (Thanks, Trina.)

Kaboom (Dir: Gregg Araki). Starring: Thomas Dekker, Juno Temple, Haley Bennett, Chris Zylka, Kelly Lynch. Pansexual college freshman Smith (Dekker) is pursuing the normal campus activities—beach sex with anonymous hunks, drug-induced one-night stands with kinky coeds—when he starts being pursued by mysterious figures in animal masks. This leads, logically, to the discovery of a powerful secret society to which he is intimately connected. I feel fortunate to have taken away that much. Araki, who also wrote the script, cannot commit to any storyline or style for more than five minutes. The movie has no identity, no compelling point of interest. It's about cynical college kids lifted from The Rules of Attraction, another awful movie! No, it's a murder-mystery! Wait, wait, it's really a conspiracy thriller! Regardless of genre, what's onscreen is incomprehensible and condescending. I think Araki wanted to comment on today's dissatisfied and adrift youth, but by making his characters little more than pop-culture spouting sex machines, he shows how little he cares about the characters or the audience. All Araki is concerned with is context-free shock. Kaboom isn't a movie. It's an 86-minute long slap in the face. [NR] *

Making the Boys (Dir: Crayton Robey). In 1968, Mart Crowley's play The Boys in the Band opened off-Broadway. At the time, it was considered groundbreaking because it depicted gay characters with real problems. The show quickly became a hit, moving to Broadway and inspiring a movie and touring shows. Its success was a double-edged sword. As the sixties morphed into the sexually empowering seventies, critics scoffed at the play's stereotypes and self-loathing attitude. After his second play flopped, Crowley traveled the world aimlessly before becoming a producer on Hart to Hart. The show's cast had difficulty landing roles after the play; sadly, some succumbed to AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s. Robey deftly juggles multiple angles regarding the play (its development and influence, the story of its cast and creator) and how social history has influenced its legacy. The interviews make the film, with a tart and eloquent Edward Albee emerging as the best. The legendary playwright, after reading The Boys in the Band, deemed it a "highly skillful work that I despised." Regardless of your take on the play, Robey offers a heartfelt story of gays' emergence in popular culture. [NR] ****

Carbon Nation (Dir: Peter Byck). The press release for this documentary features such adjectives as "optimistic," "solutions-based," and "non-partisan." "Humdrum" isn't among them. Byck travels across the United States to learn how forward thinking individuals and businesses are reducing carbon output, which is leading to global warming and related maladies. Though it's nice to see an objective, friendly stance on an environmental issue, it makes for a movie that has the passion and urgency of a science class lecture. Its biggest mistake is to not have a symbol—the way Cool It employed Bjørn Lomborg or Gasland featured director Josh Fox as the ignored everyman—to make us care about what's going on. The topic alone is not enough to justify the film's existence. Byck, whom we don't see, tries to compensate by being cheeky and sarcastic with the script and interviewee bios. That, plus Bill Kurtis's smooth, wink-wink narration, makes us long for Byck to express himself instead of hiding behind coyness (say the title out loud) and the same old pleas for environmental action. [NR] **

Immigration Tango (Dir: David Burton Morris). Starring: McCaleb Burnett, Carlos Leon, Elika Portnoy, Ashley Wolfe. Uninspired, transparent romantic farce features two Miami couples committing domestic duplicity so sexy Russian business student Elena (Portnoy) can avoid deportation. She agrees to marry and cohabitate with hunky Mike (Burnett), the boyfriend of her best friend, Betty (Wolfe). To keep up the ruse, Elena's chef boyfriend, Carlos (Leon), shacks up with Betty, a law student whose rigid demeanor exists solely to move the story along. The four friends quickly discover that the arrangement creates new feelings—and awakens dormant ones—that complicate everything. Morris, who also co-wrote the script, tries to goose a plot that's been rehashed in countless sitcoms and movies. He wants a genial comedy that deals with heavy emotional issues, an impossible compromise. Morris seems to know this, since he happily dumps any dramatic wrangling for the requisite sunny solution. Immigration Tango is not charming, and it's certainly not convincing. There's no reason for the original two couples to be best friends outside of screenwriter's convenience. The rest of the movie follows suit. [R] **

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Book of the Month, March 2011

I love books. They're fun, educational, and you may learn some new and interesting curse words.

When I interviewed Susan Orlean a couple of years ago, she mentioned her admiration for "New Yorker" writer Joseph Mitchell (pictured). I had never heard of him, but since I love Orlean's stuff--she just finished a new book on Rin Tin Tin--I made it point to find Mitchell's stuff.

Last year, I was in a used bookstore in Poughkeepsie, NY when I found Mitchell's "Joe Gould's Secret," which is about a legendary NYC vagabond/bohemian who has spent years working on an all-encompassing work called "The Oral History."

I just finished the book--Mitchell's, not Gould's--which is divided into two parts: Mitchell's profile of Gould and the aftermath. Both are exquisitely written and show that part of good writing is good reporting. Mitchell chased down Gould's associates, took copious notes (seriously, I don't know how he captures such long quotes), and spent lots of time with his subject. What you get is a tender look at a self-created, malleable personality who somehow defines New York.

The book was made into a movie, starring Stanley Tucci (as Mitchell), Ian Holm (as Gould), Steve Martin, Hope Davis, and more. So, I need to add that to my never-ending Netflix queue.

Thanks literature for leaving me hopelessly behind in my movie watching! Damnit!

Read in peace.

"IV" Does Not Equal "N"

After a six-month hiatus--not a title misspelled, not an unintentional pun displayed--my hometown movie theater really outdid itself.

It took me about a minute to decipher the first title as "Unknown." And I was standing in front of the damn thing. How is anyone driving 45 mph going to figure that out? "Gee, honey, I never heard of that first one. Is it Russian or something?"

The other three aren't as spectacular, but pretty fantastic. "Beber" actually means "to drink" in Spanish. I'd like to imagine some uptight intellectual all excited that he's seeing some Almodovar-inspired masterpiece, only to discover he's watching the celluloid PR spin of a shaggy-haired pop star.

Also I find it amazing that both words in "Gnomeo and Juliet" are spelled incorrectly, while "Just Go" sounds like a pathetic plea to visit the movie theater: "Come on, just go inside. We'll be your best friend."