Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Etc.--The Humanizing Effects of the NCAA Tournament's Early Rounds, Parental Phone Calls, Reading Maxim in Public

I'm extremely lucky to work from home. I can wear whatever I want, start my day when it pleases me, and have access to the entire joint. There's no waiting for the bathroom to become free, no supervisor to pretend to like. It's a joy.

But, man, can it get monotonous.

With my wife teaching nine months out of the year, usually it's just me here. I can't chat with co-workers or swap gossip over lunch. Because I'm my own boss, no one is bringing in doughnuts or springing for free Chinese food on Fridays. Outside stimulation can be rare. I don't commute to work and when I'm really busy--which has been frequently, thank God--there are days when I don't step outside except to get the mail. A trip to the bank or post office can become positively enchanting, like I'm Jeff emerging from his basement nest.

That's why the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament are essential to my well-being. Not only is it great to get fresh sports during the peaks and valleys of the weekday instead of ESPN's canned commentary and stale highlights. I actually feel like I'm part of the workplace collective--the same folks who are checking their brackets and refreshing Yahoo! for score updates, who will schedule their lunch breaks around the 8 vs. 9 match-up and Jim Nantz. For once, I don't feel so isolated.

It almost makes me want to work in an office again. But then I'd have to wear pants and not spend my mandatory hour watching Larry Bird highlights on YouTube.

*When I become a parent and my kids move away--which should be when, age 35?--I'm going to insist that my wife and I make the phone calls. Here's why.

My mom is the one who calls our house 95 percent of the time, and it's usually for very pleasant reasons: to catch up, schedule a dinner, those kinds of things. Dad hates the phone. When he calls, it's to confirm a previously arranged visit involving home improvement that I'm too clumsy to fix.

The other reason is to inform me of an emergency, usually the death of a relative.

Last week, my dad called my cell--and I froze. I had not destroyed the coffee table or broken a window, so I assumed it was bad news. Even worse, since my parents were in Florida, I assumed my mom was in the kind of danger that only a tropical climate can provide. Was she mauled by a pelican? Involved in a drug cartel?

Thankfully, it was none of those. He just wanted to settle a Mets-related dispute between him and a friend. I breathed a sigh of relief and happily informed my dad that Jay Hook won the team's first game in franchise history.

I can't remember the last time I felt so relieved to answer a baseball question.

*Speaking of parents, I know that I'll be a good one. For one thing, I will not unwrap an issue of Maxim magazine in front of my wife and young kids, as I saw some moron do a few months back in the Orlando airport. "Can you watch the kids, hon? I just want to get a quick glimpse of Katrina Bowden's ass before we board."

*I was at a screening in New York, when I had a brief conversation with another critic. Thinking we were finished, I wrote some notes in my planner, when he started the conversation again. Once that ended, I started reading my book only to have a third helping of unstimulating rhetoric forced down my throat.

That's every "not interested" hint I had in my arsenal; none of them worked. I think I need some new moves. Here are a few: lighting myself on fire, curling into the fetal position, running out of the room screaming, singing my responses like I'm in a '50s style musical.

*Recommended reading: Sandy Hingston's piece on the demise of the young adult male; Robert Andrew Powell's book, "This Love is Not for Cowards". And how about a hoozah for Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, who have taken their considerable movie reviewing talents to Deadspin.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Review of "John Carter"

I'm done beating the horse. You can read the review, which appeared in The Weekender, right here. Instead, I'm going to focus on some vaguely related highlights.

1.) I snuck in a homemade chicken salad sandwich into the theater, and Hoovered that bad boy in like five minutes. Fresh wheat bread, thinly sliced tomatoes, a pinch of salt and pepper. And, yes, pecans were involved. Outstanding work.

2.) After the movie ended, I went to the multiplex bathroom. As I headed toward the sink to wash my hands, there were two men at the urinals. One was relieving himself normally. The other man stood with his pants around his ankle, his bare ass exposed to the restroom denizens.

Was that right?

It couldn't have been, so I did something I hate doing in public restrooms: I looked back, lingered from a safe distance, and beheld two wobbly cheeks of confirmation.

3.) Since I don't want to linger on this particular Carter, here's a picture of Gary Carter. R.I.P., Kid.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Book of the Month: March 2012

I love books. They're fun, educational, and they are helpful in the preparation of food.

Aside from movies, sports are my other passion. I think the connections are easy to spot. Following a season of Major League Baseball or the NBA is a lot like following a year of movies. New stars emerge. Old reliables again prove their worth--or begin their slide into irrelevancy. Teams, like heavily anticipated blockbusters, can disappoint us. (I am convinced the 2011 Phillies were "Captain America: The First Avenger".) Or like some great indie that builds momentum slowly, a team can come out of nowhere and surprise us. This would be the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals.

The San Antonio Spurs are like Merchant-Ivory films; the Yankees are like the Weinstein Brothers. I could do this all day.

Sports feature storylines and high drama and miraculous endings, which is why so many movies about sports get made. But there are many great books that feature sports. And, here's a secret: They can be savored in the same way as "Raging Bull" or "The Damned United" or "Major League".

Jeff Pearlman recently wrote "Sweetness," a wonderful biography of Walter Payton, the famed Chicago Bears running back. The best thing about the book is how Pearlman peels away Payton's good citizen facade and reveals a flawed, fragile soul whose life was marked with infidelity, drug use, and a crumbling marriage.

The tone is not salacious. Pearlman just tells a great story of a man--thanks to nearly 700 interviews--who worked tirelessly to become a legend but lost his confidence once the cheering stopped.

Being a football fan isn't a prerequisite here; you just have to enjoy excellent books that dare to reveal a legend's soul. How hard is that?

I should also mention that Pearlman has been remarkably helpful as a source for my "Athletic Supporter" column at BiblioBuffet. He's never been too busy to answer an email or help out with a story. For that, I'm extremely grateful.

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

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Film Round-Up for March 2012: No Room for Rock Stars, The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, Rampart, Jiro Dreams of Sushi

The shiny, happy version of the Film Round-Up, where I wonder if I'm becoming the new Mark S. Allen. Seriously, I can't remember the last time I liked everything I saw.

These reviews appeared in the March issue of "ICON" and are reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)


Jiro Dreams of Sushi (Dir: David Gelb). "I don't think I have achieved perfection," says Jiro Ono, 85, a world-renowned sushi chef who hones his skills in his small Tokyo sushi restaurant. There are no other pursuits in a life dedicated to exacting standards and routine. Gelb's charming, artfully filmed documentary—food is frequently prepared in slow motion to the strains of classical musical—playfully examines the mixture of quirk and dedication required in this particular creative endeavor. What elevates the film beyond quaint treasure is its emotional heft. Gelb reveals how Jiro's passion has both strained and united a family. Jiro's older son, Yoshikazu, forever waits to take over the restaurant and impossible expectations; at a second location, younger son Takeshi can't charge the same prices as his father—he doesn't have the old man's reputation. Jiro expresses everything through work—all he's known since leaving home at age nine—including love for his sons, who have learned from a culinary master. This is a touching, satisfying, and mouth-watering film that makes it points slowly and sweetly. [PG] ****

The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (Dir: Marie Losier). Genesis P-Orridge, the industrial rock pioneer and performance artist, met a willowy young NYC-based dominatrix named Lady Jaye in the early 1990s. The two lovers were so consumed with the notion of becoming one that they endured multiple surgeries to look like each other. For his part, Genesis got breasts, dressed in women's clothes, and adopted Lady Jaye's blonde locks. The mirroring also doubled as a piece of performance art known as "Creating the Polymorph." Losier's jittery, homespun documentary follows Genesis's life and the couple's time together, switching between mundane scenes (a birthday party, Genesis through his albums) to unusual snippets of performance art to a concert tour. The film's herky-jerky style and artsy insistence will irritate some, whom shouldn't lose sight of how Losier captures the humanity behind the incomprehensible. What you're watching is a compelling, ultimately sad love story. The packaging is just different. [NR] ***

No Room for Rockstars (Dir: Parris Patton). For years, the Vans Warped Tour has funneled counterculture musical acts into the mainstream. No Doubt, Eminem, and Blink 182 were part of the raucous outdoor summer concert series before becoming chart toppers. Patton follows the 2010 tour, which covered 93 cities and nearly 30,000 miles in 52 days, and its various personalities. They include Mike Posner, whose appearance coincides with staggering commercial success; 19-year-old Cristofer Drew of Never Say Never, a sensitive heartthrob whom the teen girls adore, struggles for normalcy after three years on the road; and Mitch Lucker, the heavily tattooed screamer of Suicide Silence, who relentlessly tours for one reason: to provide for his daughter. At each stop, Forever Came Calling, an unknown California-based band confined to a decrepit van and a non-existent budget, sells homemade CDs and inches their way toward notoriety. Despite a lack of investigative crunch or conflict—the film is part of Warped Tour promotions—Patton ably captures the color and chaos that contribute to a labor of love. [NR] ***

Rampart (Dir: Oren Moverman). Starring: Woody Harrelson, Robin Wright, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Ned Beatty, Ice Cube, Ben Foster, Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver. In 1999 Los Angeles, veteran police officer Dave Brown (Harrelson) has become irrelevant. His racist views and strong-armed tactics make him dangerous, especially in a city still hurting from the Rodney King beating. At home, his two ex-wives (Heche and Nixon, playing sisters) are tired of the headaches and make it clear that they don't need him. When Brown is involved in two high-profile job-related scandals, the LAPD wants him gone. Brown's desperate insistence that he's a victim, the target of a cover-up, quickly causes his life to unravel. Harrelson's blistering performance of a pathetic soul searching for a happy ending that will never arrive keeps our attention even when Moverman (The Messenger) and James Ellroy's script covers the same ground. A sobering, unforgiving look what happens when heroism passes its expiration date, captured with gritty flair by cinematographer Bobby Bukowski. Foster, who was Harrelson's co-star in The Messenger, also produced. [R] ***1/2

The Big Review: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Before my brother and I moved away, we would occasionally visit my grandmother and bring a movie to watch on her VCR. The movies had to be pleasant because she pretty much stopped following movies after "Oklahoma!"

Consequently, it was hard to find stuff that the three of us could enjoy. I remember watching "The American President" and "Sleepless in Seattle." Watching "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen," I couldn't help but think, "She would have really liked this."

"Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" is the perfect "Grandma movie," and I mean that as a compliment.

As for my other grandmother, Grammy Dot, she watched everything. In Florida, Gram and her pals Sal and Rose would sneak into the movies. She adored Bruce Willis, and enjoyed the "Die Hard" movies. And I remember her getting all schoolgirl giggly recalling Bruce Dern's bare ass in "Coming Home."

Wow, I miss my grandparents.

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


This year the multiplex offered two releases timed for Valentine's Day: The Vow, a scented candle of a movie with The Notebook's stale aroma, and This Means War, an adrenaline-laced romance from the auteur behind Charlie's Angels that for some reason starred Reese Witherspoon. (I did not see the second movie. Witherspoon's confused expression in the previews struck me as a dire warning.)

The more adult date movies, stuff like An Officer and a Gentleman or Out of Sight, are hard to find these days. As Mark Harris lamented in his brilliant essay for GQ, "The Day the Movies Died," a trip to the neighborhood movie house once meant that "adults were treated as adults rather than as overgrown children hell-bent on enshrining their own arrested development." Grown-up crowd pleasers have been shelved for can't-miss, profit-generating products aimed at shiny new things. Which would explain why Witherspoon, who turns 36 in March, still chases the youth vote.

Those factors have contributed to Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, an adaptation of Paul Torday's novel, opening in the anonymous month of March. The movie is a throwback in the best possible way, featuring adults with problems that can't be solved by special effects or wardrobe changes. Directed with uncharacteristic restraint by Lasse Hallström, who ripped out our heartstrings with Chocolat and The Cider House Rules, his latest film surprises us with its lack of saccharine guile.

Events begin when young consultant Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) reaches out to Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), Britain's fisheries expert, on behalf of her wealthy client, a sheikh who wants to introduce salmon fishing to Yemen. Harriet believes this will improve "Anglo-Yemeni relations." Alfred immediately dismisses the project as "fundamentally unfeasible."

That would be that, except violence in the Middle East has the British prime minister's publicity maven (Kristin Scott Thomas) searching for good news there that she can attach to the UK. She finds Harriet's email regarding the salmon project and puts it on the fast track. Alfred, the embodiment of the stuffed-shirt academic, hates the idea. The sheikh’s plan is a waste of time, nothing more than the extravagant whims of a deluded, well-funded hobbyist. Harriet, of course, disagrees, backing up her points with science and hard data. Pressure from work and at home, plus the promise of a big salary, forces Alfred to collaborate with Harriet on the fishing equivalent of a mission to Mars.

A funny thing happens. Alfred becomes fascinated by the project's ambition and the ideals of the kind sheikh (Amr Waked), who views fishing as a religion that's open to all. But it's Harriet, whip-smart and PR pretty, who energizes him. Clearly the two are destined to share a toothbrush, so Hallström and Simon Beaufoy (the wry, heartfelt screenwriter of The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire) concentrate on their growing rapport. The delivery is surprisingly uncutesy, like the scene where Alfred corrects Harriet (who guessed his measurements) on his pants size when they both look terrific in formal attire or how he brings her a sandwich during a rough patch. His attraction to her goes beyond the physical. "She's a friend," Alfred screams at his suspicious, emotionally distant wife (Rachael Stirling). Harriet's professional façade hides a scared kid; Alfred's kindness is a balm to her. Right before Harriet and her new solider boyfriend (Tom Mison) make love, she tells him to "please be nice to me." Alfred and Harriet are proficient in everything else, except as people in relationships. They need each other, especially since their current partners are concepts. Harriet barely knows her boyfriend, but the newness excites her. Alfred's wife, constantly traveling for her job, has become a co-worker he sometimes shares a bed with.

The selling point behind any romance is its leads—they must resemble us in some way. Harriet's premature swooning and Alfred's complancey fit the bill, but Blunt and McGregor's ability to evolve throughout the movie instead of offering one trademark emotion is crucial. (That's one reason why The Vow, starring the permanently dour Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum—whose defining characteristic is his apparent devotion to ab workouts—so ponderous.) Blunt and McGregor soften throughout the movie, and we follow suit. When things get too mushy, Scott Thomas, channeling Peter Capaldi's profane spin doctor from In the Loop, offers a riotous, curt complement.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen charms us slowly and assuredly, offering us a sparkling romance in real-life terms. Harriet learns that you can't fall in love with an idea. Alfred discovers that a soul mate compels you to exceed your own expectations. Hallström does nothing more than reveal that there is a fish for every line, an idea that may not be sexy enough for big box-office. But for an enchanting, relatable romantic comedy, it's pretty close to perfect. [PG-13]