September 28, 2013

I NEED YOUR HELP! Fund The Brattle and Send Me To The 2013 Watch-A-Thon!

Hey there friend-o!

Two weeks from today the Brattle is staging their Watch-A-Thon, a two day marathon of 24 cult and classic movies, as a fundraiser to keep this wonderful theater up and running and showing all kinds of totally awesome flicks well into the future.  I really want to attend and watch as many movies as possible, but in order to do that, I'm gonna need your help.

As you're no doubt aware, I'm currently a little more than halfway through my year-long effort to watch a movie I've never seen each and every day.  Suffice it to say that I've spent quite a bit of time (and money) at different theaters all over Boston in my daily cinematic quest and it's given me a great new appreciation for the Brattle specifically.  They've given me the opportunity to not only catch some stellar indie and underground films like Cheap Thrills, I Declare War and A Band Called Death, but also to see some fantastic classics like Enter The Dragon, 12 Angry Men and Foxy Brown the way they were always meant to be seen.  And let's not forget about all the cool events they've held like the Boston Underground Film Festival or the recent Cornetto Trilogy Triple Feature Pub Crawl with Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in attendance.  I absolutely live for this stuff and I'm constantly grateful that I live in a place with a moviehouse that goes above and beyond to deliver the best cinematic experience possible.

The Brattle has been very kind to me these past seven months and I'd love to return the favor.  In order to participate I need to raise $240, which really isn't a crazy amount.  I'm hoping to surpass that goal, especially because there are prizes for the biggest fundraisers.  But I don't have a lot of time left, so I'm trying to really get this thing into gear before it's too late.  You can either donate flat amount or you can pledge per each film that I watch.  (I can tell you that I plan to attend both days but probably won't watch every movie, just most of them.)  And hey, the list of films screening is right here, so if any of them strike your fancy then there are individual tickets available.  Come along and I'll save you a seat!

Please click here to donate to my campaign.  Even if it's just a small amount, (I think the lowest possible donation is $10) it'll all add up in the end and every little bit helps.  And pass it on!

PS - I'm planning on having a big final screening/birthday party at the end of February and I'm really hoping I'll be able to hold it at the Brattle.  Raising them a bunch of money certainly can't hurt my chances.  So for those of you in Boston, think of this as an investment in an awesome future party.

September 27, 2013

DON JON Has A Lot To Say About Love. Also A Lot Of Porn.

"Unlike porn, real pussy can kill you."
When it comes to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Not many child actors have been able transition into an adult career so smoothly, with most either dropping off the radar entirely or at least going through a pretty rough period involving drugs and/or alcohol.  Somehow JGL seems to have completely sidestepped these common pitfalls and established himself as a talented and artistic force who's equally comfortable in a big budget superhero film like The Dark Knight Rises or a super low-budget, virtually unseen dark comedy like Hesher.  He's got an incredibly broad appeal - to use that oft-quoted phrase, women want him and men want to be him.  The collective that he's cultivated under his hitRECord umbrella somehow feels both aimless and ambitious, sprawling and overlapping in a thousand different directions at once with no greater agenda than "making art."  It's an effort that feels like it should be pretentious or absurd, but I've been to one of his live shows and I've seen both the raw energy and the sense of community that ripples through the crowd and how the guy feeds on that connection.  I think it's been a very freeing experience for Gordon-Levitt, allowing him to explore all sorts of creative urges on his own terms and giving him a sense of confidence that's belied by his youthful appearance.

That sense of confidence is an overwhelming force throughout Don Jon, which Gordon-Levitt wrote, directed and stars in.  Nothing about this project screams "first time director" or "actor's vanity project," and it's clear that his close relationship with director Rian Johnson has really paid off tremendously.  There's a keen visual style that pervades the whole affair, with a bright color palate and a propulsive energy that gives the story a strong sense of forward momentum, which is doubly impressive considering how much screen time is devoted to watching Don go through the same cycle of repetitive daily tasks.  (Workout at the gym, clean his apartment, family dinner, church on Sunday, etc.)  The film is playful and electric and just plain fun.  And man oh man, does Gordon-Levitt understand the power of a good music cue.  It doesn't hurt that he's assembled a supporting cast that is pitch perfect in every role;  Don's got an amusing pair of friends in Rob Brown and Turtle look-a-like Jeremy Luke and his family is just as entertaining.  Brie Larson makes a great Silent Bob in the form of his little sister Monica while Tony Danza and Glenne Headley score one great laugh after another as Don's pasta-slurping, well meaning parents.  Just seeing those two working again is a treat, but each get a few shining moments that really elevate the characters above simple one-note stereotypes.  And there are a few great cameos in the various fake Hollywood films with titles like Special Someone and the hilarious So Fast, So Hard.

Scarlett Johansson gives one of her most naturally likable performances in years.  I think she's been fine as Black Widow, but something about that role has always felt forced to me, and Whedon's dialogue often seems to baffle her.  In the Marvel universe, it feels like she's doing a tough girl schtick, but here the overblown Jersey accent and privileged persona of Barbara Sugarman fit her better than one of her character's many curve-hugging velour sweatsuits.  Julianne Moore is the kind of beautiful mess that you can't help but fall in love with, providing a perfect counterbalance to Johansson.  She's wonderfully damaged, someone who been through the wringer and understands the difference between envy-inducing eye candy and a real emotional connection.  Initially I expected her character to fill the increasingly frequent role of the older, wiser "romance mentor" who has a brief encounter with the protagonist and teaches him the lessons necessary to go win back the hotter, younger girl.  But I was pleasantly surprised to see this story go in a very different direction, one that ultimately feels far more emotionally satisfying than your typical romantic comedy.

More than anything else, that's what impressed me the most about Don Jon, its ability to not only avoid the many trappings of the romantic comedy genre, but to really dig into some big ideas about the nature of relationships, the struggle of experience vs. expectations and how the unrealistic constructs of film unduly influence our sense of realistic romance.  And even more impressive, Gordon-Levitt does it all through the use of porn.  Lots and lots of porn.  And I don't mean cutesy staged Hollywood porn, I'm talking actual porn from from real websites like PornHub or RedTube.  You see, Don is addicted to watching porn to the point that he'll even get out of bed in the middle of the night and fire up his laptop while the pretty young thing he just finished fucking is asleep in the next room.  Don (and his father) is a shameless objectifier of women - Jamie practically twitched every time he referred to Barbara as "the prettiest thing [he'd] ever seen." - but his smut obsession actually runs deeper than that.  It's ritualized, no different from going to the gym or watching the game with his boys.  He knows that it's a bad habit, but treats it on the same level as swearing, something he can confess at church on Sunday, then say his Hail Marys over bench presses at the gym and get back to the business at hand.  (Nyuck nyuck.)

For Don, porn is the ideal that no sexual encounter can ever live up to.  Even when he meets Barbara and he's convinced she's everything he's ever wanted, and even when she makes him wait an interminable amount of time (for him) before having sex, it still just doesn't satisfy in the same way.  Interestingly enough, Barbara is actually in the same boat, enraptured by saccharine Hollywood romcoms that prize the drama of the chase over the day to day banality of a real relationship.  She's therefore completely ill-equipped to deal with a real flesh and blood guy who likes to clean his own house and jerk off to the internet.  He doesn't fit within her definition of a leading man despite the fact that he's smart, capable and attractive, just as none of Don's sexual partners can properly fill the stilettos of his favorite porn stars.  Now I'm a total sucker for a good romantic comedy, but I'm also the first to admit that the majority of them are lazy and terrible, full of contrived situations and characters that lack any semblance of real human behavior.  I've always felt that the best of these movies turned me into a hopeless romantic from an early age and probably made me a better boyfriend who was always willing to make a big silly gesture of love when the occasion called for it.  But I hadn't really considered the pernicious influence such films may have had on my relationship expectations.  Equating it with the sexual attitudes generated by porn might feel a bit simplistic, but I think it's actually a scarily apt comparison and one that I'm suddenly shocked isn't made more often.

Don Jon might be the perfect date movie.  As I joked while hosting trivia the other night, if you're a dude and you like porn, chances are your girlfriend or wife likes Joseph Gordon-Levitt so there's something there for everyone.  It's the kind of film that's both supremely entertaining on the surface, but also emotional and thought provoking underneath.  I guarantee that lots of you, men and women alike, will smile and laugh throughout the film and then find yourselves getting into some pretty real and serious conversations with your significant others on the car ride home.  It's virtually impossible to watch Don Jon without walking away with the desire to turn the mirror back onto your own relationship.  And hey, a little bit of healthy introspection is always a good idea and something that most of us probably don't do often enough.

Now let's see what Joseph Gordon-Levitt does next.

Title: Don Jon
Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headley, Brie Larson
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Revere Hotel Boston Common (IFFB Screening Series)

September 24, 2013

THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR And HOPSCOTCH Make Me Long For Analog Espionage

"Money is too expensive to be earned that way." 
"You play games, I told them a story."
It wasn't until later that I realized I had inadvertently bookended the two days of Noteworthy Reunion with a pair of old school spy movies, Sydney Pollack's Three Days Of The Condor starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway as well as George Neame's Hopscotch, starring Walter Matthau, Ned Beatty and a babyfaced Sam Waterston.  Furthering the coincidence, both films center on an upstanding CIA agent who's betrayed by the Company and forced to go on the run from the fellow agents who are trying to kill him.  However, tonally they couldn't possibly be any different; Condor is a dark and deadly serious thriller while Hopscotch is a comedic, globetrotting romp.  But looking back on both movies, what I'm struck most by is my fondness for this era of low-fi, analog spy tales.

James Bond was staple of my youth.  I still have fond memories sitting on the couch with my dad and watching the old "13 Days Of 007" marathons on TBS, including the time that someone hacked the station and broadcast a few minutes of porn instead.  (I just spent ten minutes Googling this and found no corroborating evidence that it actually happened, but I swear that it did.  Either that or it was a REALLY awkward dream I had.)  Over the course of fifty years, that franchise has embraced a number of different styles and directions, so there's pretty much a Bond that appeals to everyone no matter what your tastes.  I've always been a Connery man myself, but I've really never met a 007 I didn't like.  But I also feel a particular kinship with Pierce Brosnan because that iteration of the character really falls right in the sweet spot on the timeline of my life.  Timothy Dalton's dark take on the character, which is actually pretty close to Daniel Craig's current version, effectively stopped the franchise dead in its tracks with License To Kill when I was only six years old.  Bond lay dormant for over half a decade until Brosnan took over the role with 1995's GoldenEye, right at the point where I was starting to appreciate the actual craft of filmmaking.  THe movie turned out to be an absolute monster hit and also spawned a massively popular video game that some of my friends still play today.  Brosnan's Bond was not only charming and capable, but more importantly he was fun!  He was clever, sexy and he had a whole new arsenal of amazing gadgets that wowed audiences.  But over the course of seven years, Brosnan was eventually hoisted on his own pitard, drifting from fun and exciting to silly and absurd.  Brosnan's run became the embodiment of too much of a good thing, and by the time Bond found himself driving a remote control invisible car around the North Pole, audiences were done.

Too many of our modern spy movies hinge upon crazy gadgets and/or some kind of future-tech MacGuffin, and unsurprisingly the same principal has begun to take hold of our real life espionage.  In a world where enemies are tracked and monitored by orbital satellites before being eliminated by unmanned drones, the art of proper spycraft is dying a slow death, but it's hard to say whether life is imitating art or vice versa.  Still, try to remember the last time you watched a spy film that didn't involve thwarting a doomsday weapon or someone getting out of a jam via some technological toy that looks cribbed from a comic book.  If it didn't, then chances are that the hero was some kind of unstoppable killing machine, a crack shot who's able to disarm and pummel anyone to death with their bare hands in the blink of an eye.  Guys like Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt or Bryan Mills are entertaining to be sure, but it rarely feels like they are in any real jeopardy or, for that matter, are actual flawed, mortal human beings.

I love spy movies about smart guys who can think their way out trouble but can also kick a little ass when necessary.  Spy Game, Argo, Sneakers, all of the (non-Affleck) Jack Ryan films and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy rank among my very favorites and I'll happily add Hopscotch and Condor to that list.  Redford's Joseph Turner and Matthau's Miles Kendig are each men who rely primarily upon their wits to anticipate a threat and stay one step ahead of the enemy, as opposed to waiting until they're cornered and then relying upon brute force.  Matthau engages in a particularly great game of cat & mouse, constantly toying with the CIA and making an absolute monkey out of Ned Beatty's agent Myerson.  Since the film is set in the late 70's the whole affair is charmingly low-tech, with Kendig sending chapters of his tell-all memoirs by postage and evading the authorities without even so much as a wig or an accent.  (That is, until the film's final scene where he appears as a surprisingly believable Indian.)  Hopscotch actually feels like the kind of movie that would be ripe for a remake these days, as it's a simple premise but not the kind of source material that's so well known as to feel in any way sacred.  In fact, I had never even heard of the movie until I saw it pop up on a list of recent additions to Netflix Instant.  Then again, I feel like some of the brazen fun might not translate as well in the modern era.  Watching Tom Hanks or George Clooney sending encrypted emails just doesn't have quite the same appeal.  Of course, put Bill Murray or Steve Martin in that role and my ticket is sold.

There is one caveat to my appreciation for Three Days Of The Condor.  I found the romance between Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway to be a little troubling, as she falls for him despite the fact that he basically holds her hostage in her own home and is kind of a dick to her the whole time.  It would be one thing if she was actually drawn into danger with him, because then at least she would form a connection with Redford based on his ability to protect her.  Hardly the strongest basis for a lasting relationship, but at least it's understandable.  Instead, most of their relationship can essentially be boiled down to a case of Stockholm Syndrome.  And the ultimate secret behind the Agency's desire to kill him feels a bit weak.  But Redford is Redford and his onscreen charisma is simply undeniable.  He can make even the more problematic of romance stories feel vaguely palatable.  (There's a reason he appears frequently on the above list of my favorite spy movies.)  To be honest, I'm somewhat astounded that someone hasn't already tried to remake this one either.  I feel like Paramount would've backed up a Brinks truck to Brad Pitt's front door years ago.

Perhaps we've hit the point where my best hope for the kind of espionage films I love so much is to wait for a period film set in the days before cell phones, wifi and digital anything.  That's probably a big part of why I enjoy FX's The Americans so much, because so much of the Soviet agents' time is spent spent cultivating assets, surveilling marks and planting bugs the size of a deck of cards.  Then again, Daniel Craig's modern run on James Bond has really turned a corner for the franchise.  Sure he's got some gadgets and yeah he can take down a room full of thugs without flinching, but he's a far cry from the last days of Remington Steele.  And soon we'll be getting a whole new Jack Ryan in the form of Chris Pine, and he's a character that has always been an analyst first and foremost.  I'm sure he'll end up blowing some stuff up, but surely it has to be a step up from The Sum Of All Fears, right?

To paraphrase the great Rocky Balboa, "If Bond can change, and Jack Ryan can change...maybe every spy can change."

Title: Hopscotch
Director: Ronald Neame
Starring: Walter Matthau, Ned Beatty, Sam Waterston, Glenda Jackson, Herbert Lom,
Year Of Release: 1980
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (Laptop)

Title: Three Days Of The Condor
Director: Sydney Pollack
Starring: Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Max von Sydow, Cliff Robertson, John Houseman,
Year Of Release: 1975
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD

September 22, 2013

I KNOW WHO KILLED ME And Who Killed Lindsay Lohan's Career

"People get cut.  That's life."
Lindsay Lohan is an easy target these days, but let's not forget there was a time where she was an adorable red-headed moppet that held America's heart in her hand.  Unfortunately, she proceeded to drain the life from that heart and inject it into her face before grinding up the remaining husk and snorting it off a bathroom mirror.  At this point it's quite simply impossible to take her serious in any role and her career has been reduced to a series of parodies of her own unfortunate reputation, as evidenced by Lifetime casting her as Elizabeth Taylor solely for the inherent snarky Twitter value.  I'll admit to a morbid curiosity in The Canyons, but that has less to do with Lohan and more to do with baring witness to just how far director Paul Schrader, a.k.a the man who wrote fucking Taxi Driver, has fallen.

It's sometimes difficult to pin down the exact moment when a career makes that shift into unsavory territory; sometimes it's a slow decline while other times it's an abrupt left turn.  Following the mega success of Mean Girls, Lohan's off screen antics started to bleed into her work on projects like Herbie: Fully Loaded or Georgia Rule.  She tried going the indie route with stuff like Prairie Home Companion and Chapter 27.  While none of those movies are very good, at least she was working with talent the likes of Robert Altman and Jane Fonda, so there was still a sense that she might be able to pull out of free fall at some point and get her shit together.

That was before I Know Who Killed Me.

Look at her filmography.  I Know Who Killed Me is unquestionably the point of no return and, having now seen the film, it's easy to see why.  The most painful part of watching this turd of a film is the tragic amount of effort on display.  Lohan is trying really hard to be dark and edgy while director Chris Sivertson is trying equally hard to be smart and trippy.  Unfortunately both fall way short of their goals, and the audience is left watching a laughable performance in a film that's about a subtle as a brass knuckle kidney punch.  What's worse, it's not even a very entertaining kind of terrible.  I suspect there's a way that everyone involved could have turned into the skid of the awful script and turned this into a kitschy bit of fun.  Instead I walked away with an almost allergic reaction to the colors red and blue.  Oh well.

Live-tweet nonsense follows below.

If you ever decide to watch I Know Who Killed Me, you're going to feel the strong urge to drink heavily.  Embrace it.  Don't try to be a hero.

Title: I Know Who Killed Me
Director: Chris Sivertson
Starring: Lindsay Lohan, Julia Ormond, Neal McDonough, Brian Geraghty, Garcele Beauvais, Spencer Garrett, Gregory Itzin, Paula Marshall
Year Of Release: 2007
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD

September 16, 2013

Still Living In TREK NATION After 47 Years

"Star Trek is more than just a show.  It's a philosophy."
Last week was the 47th anniversary of the birth of Star Trek, which first aired on NBC the evening of September 8, 1966.  Anyone who knows me can attest to the profound influence that show has had on my life.  (I've read the Star Trek Encyclopedia cover to cover.  Twice.)  It hooked me when I was young and it's never really let go since.  I may not have gone to a convention in a while, but I still identify myself as a Trekkie without a nanosecond of hesitation.  In fact, since moving back to Boston, I've happily reconnected with a group of guys that I essentially became friends with in back 6th grade because we were all obsessed with the franchise.  I still have a signed copy of Leonard Nimoy's I Am Not Spock from the time we all went to see him speak at Berklee.  Even though we're all now adults (relatively speaking), we still talk about Trek with the same nerdtastic glee we had in middle school.

For me, Star Trek served as the gateway drug into the larger world of science fiction.  I was a brainy, unpopular kid attending a Catholic elementary school and not quite buying into this whole "God and Jesus thing."  While I certainly enjoyed the hell out of Star Wars, I loved Star Trek not only for its optimistic view of the future, but for its strong roots in the complex scientific theories that truly fascinated me.  The only things I'd ever learned in a science class up to that point had been about the water cycle and diagramming the different parts of a flower.  It makes me drowsy just remembering it.  Aliens, time travel, alternate universes, faster-than-light spacecraft...this was the good stuff!  More importantly, it felt real and immediate, while Jedis and The Force were a bit too mystical for my tastes.  Once I sunk my teeth into concepts like evolution and the Big Bang, it was as if something clicked in my brain and I was irrevocably hooked.  Thanks to Star Trek, I gobbled up all the science I could find, and once I got to high school I was eventually able to take fascinating classes like Cosmology, Advanced Physics and Astronomy.

Gene Roddenbury was the mastermind behind Star Trek, a show which he initially pitched as a sort of outer space western. ("Wagon Train to the stars" is a familiar phrase to any serious Trekkie.)  Trek Nation, a documentary produced for the Science channel but now available on Netflix, details the journey of Roddenbury's son Rod as he visits conventions and interviews family friends, die hard fans, writers, producers and cast members in an effort to better understand the father who was beloved by millions but felt so distant from his own family.  By Rod's own admission, he was never a very big Star Trek fan as a kid, a fact reinforced by old family photos of his multiple Star Wars themed childhood birthday parties.  Rod never really understood the appeal of Trek; to him it was just the job that kept his father away from home for 12-14 hours a day. That youthful rebellion continued into Rod's high school and college days, as he moved east, took on the appearance of a surfer with long, bleached hair and studied to become an astrophysicist, only to discover he had no aptitude for the field. (I chuckled watching his older family friends politely refer to this period as the time when he was "off doing [his] own thing," as opposed to getting involved with the family business.  Ironically, I assume this is how some of my own east coast family members refer to my time in Los Angeles.  I guess that shit truly is universal.)  Sadly, it wasn't until after Gene Roddenbury's death in 1991 that the younger Roddenbury really started to delve into the world of Star Trek in order to understand just how much his father's work meant to so many people across the globe.

My biggest criticism of Trek Nation is that it really feels like a documentary made for TV.  It's way too trigger happy with its chyrons, constantly identifying people on screen multiple times when only one or sometimes even no ID is necessary.  (I think Nichelle Nichols is named about six times.)  The film also covers a lot of history that any Trekkie worth his salt should already be very familiar with and it often feels very disorganized, moving in a vaguely chronological order without ever feeling like it's telling an actual story.  Obviously Rod has a lot of unresolved issues when it comes to his relationship with his father, and while he often says that his conversations with the fans helped him to better appreciate his father and Star Trek in general, we never really get to see any of that happening.  It's mostly just a collection of short clips of Rod wandering around conventions and talking to strangers in costume.  It's a real shame, as it feels like there's a lot going on just under the surface that never actually ends up on camera.  Rod almost has the demeanor of a guy trying to evolve from being a privileged, angry youth who always thought his father's greatest achievement was totally lame, but by focusing more on the history of Trek than on his own personal journey, the film suffers from a lack of any true emotional throughline.

Trek Nation does make some great use of old interviews with cast and crew members as well as a lot of great archival footage, including some truly fantastic images of the very first Star Trek convention that I'd never seen before.  It looks like a truly wacky event filled people wearing homemade costumes, often of generic aliens and creatures that aren't even Trek-related.  And while I would have liked to see more of Rod's sense of discovery, we do get a lot of really great material featuring his late father, including multiple archival interviews and audio recordings.  Rod even managed to sit down with both George Lucas and J.J. Abrams, who are each briefly entertaining but neither really contributes very much to the larger conversation.  There is, however, a great moment where Rod shows Abrams an old interview in which Roddenbury says that he wants someone to eventually step in and revive his characters and the larger franchise almost exactly the way Abrams has done, much to the chagrin of all those Trekkies who love to hate on the rebooted Abrams-verse.  It's not all hero worship though; Roddenbury frequently cheated on his wife Majel Barrett (who portrayed Nurse Chapel, Lwaxana Troi and the voice of every Federation Starship computer starting with The Next Generation) and he was notoriously difficult to work with, particularly in his later years.  Rod doesn't shy away from any of the dark shadows on his father's personal or professional lives and, as Rod himself says, digging into Roddenbury's flaws actually humanizes the man who's reputation and personality were always larger than life.

I often feel that I owe the man a personal debt of gratitude.  If not for Gene Roddenbury, I might never have been exposed to the wonderful writings of Hawking, Einstein and Feynman, or the musings of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ronald Mallett and Carl Sagan.  If not for the Starship Enterprise, I might not have become so enthralled with computers and technology, a field which is currently paying my rent.  And if not for the great storytelling and dynamic characters, I might not have studied acting and directing in college, leading me to move to Los Angeles and eventually meet my wife.

So thanks, Gene.  You always dreamed of making the world a better place, and in my case you certainly succeeded.

Title: Trek Nation
Director: Scott Colthorp
Starring: Rod Roddenbury, Majel Barrett, J.J. Abrams, George Lucas, D.C. Fontana, Bjo Trimble, Rick Berman
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (Laptop)

September 13, 2013

Laughing Through 9/11 With Terrorist Comedy FOUR LIONS

"You're gonna die in that gear, lads."
"More than likely, but it's for a good cause."
September 11th, 2001 was my second day of college.  I had followed up my single Monday class with an 8 AM stage lighting course that morning.  Since it was the first class and it was early as shit, the instructor essentially handed out the syllabus, gave us a quick overview on the class and sent us on our way, so I was headed to the dining hall to grab a quick breakfast when I passed one of the very few students I had known from high school.  She said that there had been some kind of bombing at the World Trade Center, to which I replied, "Another one?"  I had vaguely remembered the car bombing in 1993, two days before my 10th birthday, but that had been a relatively small affair, killing about a half dozen people.  For whatever reason I had assumed that something similar had happened again and I had no appreciation for the scale of what was unfolding until I walked into the dining hall and saw the entire room sitting silent, staring at the TV screens in horror.  A few minutes later I watched as the two towers collapsed and that's when I realized that this was going to be one of those moments, like JFK's assassination or the first time we walked on the moon.  For the rest of my life I was going to remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I learned about the attacks on September 11th.

I remember walking back to my dorm and seeing the entire financial district evacuating, an ocean of suits streaming across the Boston Common.  I remember arguing with myself about whether or not to leave the city; the flights had left out of Logan Airport, so the idea of terrorists still lurking in the city of Boston seemed not just possible but likely.  The only reason I stayed put was because if there was more violence to come, the subway seemed like a very probably target.  Most of all I remember calling my mother and making her pull out a matriculation list of my high school's senior class and trying to get in touch with as many people as possible who were either from New York or going to school there.  School was canceled for the remainder of the day and from that point on, everything changed.

The 9/11 attack is easily the most influential major world event of my lifetime*, barely edging out the election of the first African-American President of the United States.  I remember the Oklahoma City Bombing and I was even at the memorial there the day before they executed Timothy McVeigh, but I didn't have a proper grasp on the scope of that attack when it happened.  Oklahoma seemed very far away, and at the time I couldn't figure out why it was such a major news story.  Sure, I intellectually understood that that such an attack could happen anywhere at anytime, but it didn't really sink in on an emotional level until after 9/11.  Luckily I didn't personally know anyone who died that day, a fact that still astounds me to this day, but watching it play out in real time and seeing the far-reaching impact over the years to come made it all the more real.

Since I was in theater school at the time, I instantly became fascinated with the artistic impact.  I devoured every new monologue, play and film I could find that was directly about or influenced by the September 11th attacks.  It felt like the easiest way for me to resolve my own feelings about the incident.  (I even spent a few years writing a script of my own about a kid who intentionally goes missing after the attack.)  There are just as many misses as there are hits when it comes to 9/11 movies; for every World Trade Center or Loose Change, there's a Zero Dark Thirty or United 93, the latter being a film so powerful it made me literally tremble in the theater.  I've never watched the movie since, despite having purchased it the moment it hit DVD.  I'm even fond of some of the more minor works, like Reign Over Me with Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle or The Guys with Sigourney Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia.  And I've been meaning to revisit September Tapes, a found footage movie about a journalist who travels to Afghanistan that really threw me for a loop when I saw it in theaters back in 2002.  I'm curious to see if it still holds up over ten years later.

For whatever reason, September 11th kind of snuck up on me this year.  I don't know why, but for whatever reason I just didn't realize the date was coming up until it was already on top of me, and suddenly my Facebook feed was filled with everyone's personal remembrance of that day.  I really wanted to watch something that was related somehow, but I'd seen most of the 9/11 films years ago.  I started looking into some documentaries on Netflix, but nothing was really jumping out at me.  And then I suddenly remembered that I still hadn't gotten around to watching Chris Morris's black comedy Four Lions, about a group of inept, wannabe British Muslim terrorists.

As I said on Twitter, if you're going to watch a satire about suicide bombers, you might as well watch it on September 11th.

I've never been offended by a joke.  When it comes to comedy, the only thing that really matters is whether or not it makes people laugh.  Sure there are difficult subjects out there, and some people are just never going to find certain topics to be amusing.  For instance, my wife can't get on board with any kind of rape joke.  She finds the act itself to be so abhorrent that trying to make light of it in any way feels disrespectful to the countless victims across the globe and trivializes a morally reprehensible crime.  She's certainly not wrong and her reaction is just as valid as the next person's, but that's what makes comedy so damn difficult to master; it's incredible subjective and the success of a joke lies just as much in the hands of the audience as it does in the performer.  A single joke can land a dozen different ways depending on who's telling it and who's listening, but I'm a firm believer that no subject matter should be off limits.  Comedy is often a vital indicator for how we deal with tragedy, so in that light everything feels like it should be fair game, especially the things we fear the most.

Four Lions is nothing short of brilliant, portraying five would-be jihadists who desperately try to plan a suicide bombing in downtown London despite their complete lack of competence and/or guile.  Omar, Waj, Hassan, Faisal and Barry all have an earnest enthusiasm to prove themselves as potential martyrs for the cause, even if they clearly have absolutely no idea how to go about doing it.  They can't settle on a target (Barry has his heart set on bombing a mosque in order to motivate the moderates) because they're all too focused on making videos and taking pictures with (replica) guns.  They drape themselves in the trappings of terrorists, but for the most part they seem more concerned with looking like badasses than actually following though on all their talk.  It's an amusing collection of characters: there's the meek chemist who wants to strap explosives to trained crows, the blustering bully, the enthusiastic simpleton, the hip-hop loving adolescent and the level-headed ring leader trying to keep it all together. Director Chris Morris is a veteran of British television; he played Denholm on The IT Crowd, a character who, appropriately enough, is best remembered for abruptly committing suicide in the opening scene of the second episode of the show's second season. The easy way to describe Four Lions would be to call it Al Qaeda by way of The Office, but in truth it's so much more than that. 

The smartest thing the film does is to portray the leads as ordinary dudes - Omar has a wife and child who he speaks openly with about his plans for martyrdom, even editing the group's hilariously bad suicide videos in his kitchen over breakfast.  Hell, he tells his son bedtime stories using The Lion King to illustrate his radical Muslim ideals, portraying himself as the noble Simba railing against Skar the Western imperialist.  Despite their violent agenda, they're all sort of...sweet.  You can't help but love these guys even while they're planning the murder of innocent civilians and that's no easy feat.  After a while you get the distinct feeling that they're never actually going to get around to attacking anyone, or if they do that the whole thing will end in an light-hearted comedy of errors.  Luckily for us, Morris is smarter and more ambitious than that and the film's final moments are simultaneously violent, funny and heartbreaking.  And as the cherry on top, we get a few quick, clever glimpses of the British authorities constantly going after innocent Muslims who better fit the stereotypical terrorist image.  It gives the film a much needed sense of balance.

I'm sure there are plenty out there who would consider terrorism and suicide bombers nothing to joke about and it's hardly my place to tell them they're wrong.  But I get nervous when anything becomes so sacred that you're not allowed to make jokes about it.  We need comedy, it's an essential part of our humanity.  Frankly, without it, we're fucked.  Besides, in the face of a tragedy as devastating as September 11th, laughing is the best way to push through the anger and the grief to a place of true understanding.  That understanding leads to compassion and ultimately to forgiveness.  And make no mistake, the only way to eradicate the hate and fear that motivates a person to kill themselves and thousands of innocents is to put aside our differences and come together as fellow human beings.  

And what better way to bring people together than with laughter?

*One could very easily make the argument that the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision is actually more influential, since it was so completely nonsensical that the ruling literally stated that it could never be used as precedent in any future cases.  If Gore gets sworn in as President (since, ya know, he won the election) it's certainly possible that his administration actually pays attention to the memos describing Bin Laden's plans to attack the U.S. using commercial airliners and perhaps the 9/11 attacks are not (as) successful.  Either way, Gore certainly wouldn't have gone after Saddam Hussein.

Title: Four Lions
Director: Chris Morris
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Kayvan Novak, Nigel Lindsay, Adeel Akhtar, Arsher Ali, Preeya Kalidas
Year Of Release: 2010
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (TV)

September 11, 2013

YOUR SISTER'S SISTER And I Both Start Strong Before Tapping Out Too Early

 "I really think your face is going to annoy me right now."
The second day of Noteworthy Reunion started with a clutch Dunkies run before a few folks had to exit back to the real world.  The rest of us had a low key afternoon, largely fueled by Bud Light Strawberitas and avacado egg rolls.  We listened to some of the group's various recordings over the years, which may sound self-indulgent but was actually anything but.  The young'uns got to hear the earliest incarnations of the group while we old folks were blown away by Noteworthy's most recent album.  The host's parents stopped by with some friends in the early afternoon so we sang a few tunes on the front porch, including "A Little Help From My Friends" by The Beatles and Billy Joel's "Lullabye," two songs that have been passed down among multiple generations of the group.

Afterwards, some people retired for a midday nap around this point while others gathered in the living room for a movie break.  I anticipated such an occurrence and, during our early morning jaunt into town, I scoured the discount DVD rack at Walgreens in search of something fun.  I chose Orphan, a horror movie I've never seen even though the totally bonkers ending has already been spoiled for me.  Tragically I was unable to get the house DVD player working and had to abandon that plan.  It's a shame, as I really think that would have been a great crowd for Orphan's particular brand of crazy.  What's worse, I almost brought the cables that would've let me plug my laptop into the TV, but left them at home at the last minute.  I'm still pretty sad about it.

By the time night rolled around I started to wish that I too had crashed out that afternoon.  I was the oldest member of the group present at Reunion this year and lately I've been starting to really feel my age in the lamest of possible ways.  Around 11:30 that night, as the party was starting to really kick into gear again, I was suffering from some pretty awful heartburn.  I guess that's what happens when you straight booze and smoke for two days without drinking any water or eating anything that even vaguely resembles healthy food.  This just in: getting old sucks.  I feel like next year I'm gonna have to spend the week before Reunion getting extra sleep and hydrating so that I can make it all the way through and keep up with the babies.  I was forced to take myself out of the action for a bit, so I pulled out my laptop in search of an alternative movie option for the day and settled on Your Sister's Sister, really for no other reason than, like Reunion, it was largely set in a house in the woods.

Lynn Shelton is a filmmaker who I find incredibly interesting.  I saw her most recent film Touchy Feely at the Independent Film Festival Boston but was so underwhelmed that I ended up abandoning my write up in favor of Bobcat Goldthwait's great Willow Creek.  In that film, Shelton was able to elicit strong performances out of her actors, especially Rosemarie DeWitt, but the story never coalesced for me in any meaningful way, burning through its quirky premise and not really amounting to much of anything else.  I suppose that's the danger of working in a largely improvisational style - it's easy for the plot to get away from you.  Most people hear "improv" and they think comedy (Thanks Drew Carrey!) and while there's plenty of laughs in both Touchy Feely and Your Sister's Sister, it's the drama that really drives these films.  I've done some improvised drama back in my theater days and I totally love it.  Dramatic improv has the ability to be incredibly powerful in the hands of the right performers and I found that style to be compelling enough in Touchy Feely to give Shelton another look.

Here's how the trailer sold Your Sister's Sister to me: Mark Duplass plays Jack, a guy who's still in a funk a year after the death of his brother.  His best friend/his dead brother's ex-girlfriend Iris (Emily Blunt) convinces him to go spend some time alone at her father's cabin in order to clear his head, but when he arrives late at night he finds Iris's sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) already there drinking away the relationship she just walked out on.  One thing leads to another and, a bottle of tequila later, she and Jack end up sleeping together.  But when Iris arrives the next morning, everything becomes more complicated, especially when she admits to Hannah that she might actually have feelings for Jack.  I love small character/relationship pieces with simple, believable setups like that.  (I've certainly been in similar situations in the past, where I had feelings for someone but couldn't actually be with them for one reason or another so I ended up hooking up with their friend instead as some kind of weird emotional proxy.  What can I say, infatuation is a messy business.)  I'm even willing to live with a certain degree of the classic rom-com "everybody's lying to each other and running around under false pretenses" schtick so long as the characters are interesting and there's an honest payoff at the end.

Here's what the trailer left out though: Hannah is a lesbian.  Now, I'll still believe that after a lot of tequila, honest conversation, heartbreak and a little flirting, that she and Jack would end up having sex.  She even says something to the effect of, "It's been a while since I climbed on that particular horse," which clearly implies that she's at least slept with guys before.  It's a little janky, but DeWitt and Duplass really sell that moment on screen so I'll allow it.  It's the film's later big reveal that I have a real problem with; it turns out that Hannah really wants a kid, which immediately makes Jack suspicious of their brief fling.  She points out that they used a condom and Jack dismisses the whole thing, but then he remembers that the rubber was hers and not his, so he digs it out of the trash can and fills it up with water, revealing that the thing has a dozen holes poked in it.

That's the point where the film really kind of lost me.  Tonally, it's such a weird left turn from everything that's come before it that suddenly the entire story seemed downright silly.  And there's still a lot of emotional scene work to follow, as Iris and Jack are forced to figure out their feelings for one another in the face of their complicated history while Iris is simultaneously pissed at Hannah for deceiving her and Jack is still an immature mess of a person.  There's so much strong emotional material to worth with just in those three very real relationships that the added pregnancy complication just completely gilds the lily.  It's too over the top and frankly feels like a plot device that was borrowed from a lesser film.  The three stars all do strong work, which is the only thing that keeps the film moving at that point on.  (Also, props to comedian Mike Birbiglia, who's great in the film's opening scene.)  Blunt, Duplass and DeWitt are all extremely capable improvisers and their natural dialogue builds a sort of breezy chemistry between them.  DeWitt in particular seems to fit very well with Shelton's style and I look forward to the day when they make a film together that can actually sustain itself the whole way through.

I hung out with the Noteworthy crew for a while longer before finally succumbing to the will of my aging body and crashing out on the upstairs couch once again.  The next morning we made one more Dunkies run before we cleaned up the house and bid each other adieu.  Warren and I were the last to leave, and after we dropped our friend Erin off at the Hartford airport, we continued the trek back to Boston.  Reunion has always been my favorite event of the year and I don't expect that to change anytime soon.  But it's been interesting to watch the tone of the event and the makeup of the participants shift over time.  This year, due mostly to scheduling, there were no current members of the group in attendance.  While it's something we've talked about doing in the past, it's never actually happened before.  The same goes for inviting spouses, significant others and children.  Right now we all look at Reunion as a weekend away from the world to cut loose and party with our favorite people, but as the years march on it's becoming more about reconnecting with the folks you haven't seen in ages.  At some point I expect that "alumni only" will become the standard for future Reunions.

As the age gap widens between the youngest and oldest Noteworthians, (it's currently sitting somewhere around 19-31 years old) it can certainly make for a slightly bizarre environment when we all get together.  We really do consider ourselves to be one big family, but just like any family there are multiple generations at play, and it's understandable to be drawn towards our contemporaries as opposed to some young upstarts who can give me a dissertation on twerking but don't understand my Saved By The Bell references.  (Obviously that street goes both ways.)  As someone who's still able to attend shows on a regular basis I'm probably the oldest member of the group who's closest to the youngest members, but when the time comes for me to leave Boston again I expect that will alter my attitudes about Reunion and my relationship with Noteworthy as a whole, especially if I end up living somewhere far away from everyone else.  Will I ever get "too old for Reunion?"  I certainly hope not.

I'm not an old man yet.  But I'm getting there.

Title: Your Sister's Sister
Director: Lynn Shelton
Starring: Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mark Duplass, Mike Birbiglia,
Year Of Release: 2011
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD (laptop)

September 10, 2013

Kicking Off Noteworthy Reunion Weekend With DIRTY GIRL

"The trick is to dance in your own world.  Let them come to you."
At the start of my sophomore year of college, my roommate's girlfriend Caitlin decided to start an a cappella group.  Considering that Emerson is full of acting and musical theater majors, it was a little surprising that the school didn't already have one (or several) but it seemed that the college had a longstanding tradition of short lived groups that would maybe get through a single performance before disbanding.  My high school had four different groups by the time I graduated but, despite my myriad extra curricular activities, singing was the one thing I never never took up.  So it only makes sense that, other than theater, a cappella would become the only activity I really got involved with in college.  We started out with about 18 members, quickly lost a few and gained a few more, but against all odds the group managed to stay together and put on a few shows each semester.  We even pulled off a few road trips to perform at other schools like Amherst and Syracuse.

The reason we were able to succeed where past groups had failed was a matter of simple chemistry.  We all very quickly bonded and became great friends.  When we weren't rehearsing we hung out between classes and we threw epic parties.  In fact, we always used to joke that we were actually "a drinking group with an a cappella problem."  I'm proud to be an original member and I'm even prouder to watch the group thrive and prosper over the last 10+ years.  While we old folks still see each other for weddings and childbirths, we've also had the chance to get to know the younger generation of Noteworthians by attending the current shows and, more importantly, our annual Reunion.

For the past seven years, Noteworthy members past and present have gathered together in a different location for a long weekend filled with booze, music, bonfires, booze, food, laughter and oh, did I mention booze?  Drinking games are a popular pastime with us, whether it be Beirut, Kings, Quarters or massive games of Flip Cup.  We've managed to invade a number of locales over the years, including the woods of New Jersey, Petaluma CA, Martha's Vineyard, Nashville, and Burlington, VT.  We typically hold Reunion over Memorial Day weekend, which is also the weekend I got married last year.  About a dozen Noteworthy alum came to the wedding and sang a few songs during the ceremony, which made the weekend feel like a sort of mini-Reunion.  The rest of the members stuck around for the school's alumni weekend while Jamie and I were honeymooning in Greece and Egypt.  This year we pushed Reunion to Labor Day weekend and met up in Hartford, CT.  Since it was only a short trip from Boston I offered to drive a car down and invited all the locals to crash at my place the night before so we could get a (vaguely) early start.

Anticipating how the day would turn out, I woke up and knocked out my movie for the day while most people were still sleeping.  I wanted to choose something that was somehow appropriate or related to the weekend's activities.  If I hadn't already seen (and hated) it, the obvious answer would have been the recent Anna Kendrick college a cappella movie Pitch Perfect, but I went another route entirely.  I chose Dirty Girl, an indie about Danielle (Juno Temple), a foul mouthed, promiscuous young girl in Oklahoma in the late 1980's who befriends the overweight gay boy in her class (Jeremy Dozier) and the two soon embark on a road trip to find Danielle's unknown biological father.  Where's the connection to Noteworthy, you ask?  The connection is none other than singer Melissa Manchester.

Shortly after I graduated, the group took in a girl named Hannah.  Hannah was local to L.A. and her folks lived not too far from the apartment I was sharing with two other Noteworthy guys, so when she'd go home for vacations we'd invite her over to to hang with the L.A. alums.  Hannah was very funny and I liked her right away.  It wasn't until much later that someone said to me, "You know her mom is Melissa Manchester?"

To which I replied, "Who's Melissa Manchester?"

"She's a singer from the 80's.  You know Melissa Manchester, she sang 'Don't Cry Out Loud.'"

"I have never listened to or heard of that song before."

This was considered by some to be a totally ludicrous statement.  Apparently 'Don't Cry Out Loud' was a fairly popular song that had managed to totally escape my ear over the years, and I like to think I have a passable familiarity with the music of my youth.  Somehow this one had snuck past me.  I've met Melissa Manchester multiple times and even crashed a July 4th BBQ at her house one year, where I and the other Noteworthy alums were coerced into singing the National Anthem.  Ya know, for 'Merica.  She's a very sweet woman and if one of her songs came on right now I still probably wouldn't know it.

But I remember hearing stories about Dirty Girl from Hannah even before the film was released.  Clarke, Danielle's gay partner-in-crime, is a huge Melissa Manchester fan, and a lot of her music is written into the script, including the final scene in which Temple sings the song at a school talent show.  When writer/director Abe Sylvia went to Manchester to secure the rights to her music, she fell in love with the script and not only allowed them to use her tunes, she even co-wrote (along with star Mary Steenburgen) and performed an original song for the film called 'Rainbird' that ended up on an early list of potential nominees for the Best Original Song Oscar.  Plus, if you're paying attention you can see her playing the piano accompaniment during the talent show.*

It's easy to see why Manchester would be fond of the script.  It's sharp and funny and often feels like a sweet throwback to the great roadtrip and coming of age comedies of the 1980's.  The story of bonding between two misfits on a quest to find themselves is downright adorable, thanks in large part to the two leads, but there's an undercurrent of earnest pathos as the two disillusioned youths attempt to make sense of their own complicated family relationships.  Danielle has a sweet but dim mom (Mila Jovovich) who's jumping headfirst into the goodie-goodie Mormon lifestyle courtesy of her new boyfriend, (William H. Macy grabbing a quick paycheck) leaving Danielle with no hope other than her bio dad to pull her out of the dull world of suburban Oklahoma.  Clarke, meanwhile, has a redneck father (Dwight Yoakam) who's determined to therapy/punch the gay out of him, while his sweet mother (Mary Steenburgen doing some of her best work in recent memory) tries to quietly love and protect her son from her asshole husband.

But it's the two leads who really carry this movie and they do it with aplomb.  Juno Temple is an actress that Hollywood has been in love with for years now and I'll admit that I've never really seen the appeal.  She's always had an odd, otherworldly quality that's been well utilized for characters like Dottie in the fantastic Killer Joe, but made her seem unconvincing as a normal human person.  But this is the movie that turned me around.  Danielle is both wildly immature and wise beyond her years at the same time; she's more than capable handling herself in the big bad world, but Temple gives the teen such a wounded quality that you can't help but want to put your arm around her shoulders and take her in, even if she will probably bite your hand off in retaliation.  Danielle may be the driving force of action, but it's Clarke who's the real heart of the movie.  A sweet boy who's hit with the teenage double whammy of being both fat and gay, Clarke wants nothing more than to feel he warm embrace of love and acceptance, whether it be from his parents, a lover or a true blue friend.  He and Danielle make a fantastic odd couple; Clarke echoes the gooey emotional center that she hides beneath her chain smoking, in-your-face attitude and Danielle coaxes him out from underneath his ubiquitous orange hoodie and instills a sense of confidence and style in the initially sullen introvert.  Dozier is marvelous in the role, creating a nuanced, complete character instead of the broad gay caricature that I've grown so weary of in these kinds of movies.  Clarke feels like a real guy who actually would have existed back then, who's all gruff and silent in public but when he closes the door to his room he can sing and dance along to Melissa Manchester in his own spectacular dream world.  I'm astounded that Dozier hasn't found more work in the years since.

It was an easy drive down to Connecticut, where we met up with about a dozen or so members of Noteworthy at a large house in the middle of the woods without a neighbor anywhere in sight, a.k.a the ideal Reunion environment.  It was actually a relatively small group compared to some years past, but there were folks there that I hadn't seen in a few years so there was plenty of reminiscing and catching up to do.  I took up my customary post at the grill that afternoon and before helping to spearhead a campfire brigade as the sun went down.  Warren and I went on an epic Beirut winning streak before the night gave way to Flip Cup and s'mores, a late night garlic bread bake-off and lots and lots of alcohol.  I curled up on a couch around 2:30 in the morning and drifted off to sleep with whiskey and garlic on my breath and a big shit eating grin on my face.

Reunion is the best.

*This is all my recollection of how the events were explained to me.  It may not have gone down in exactly that manner, but either way it's the story that was in my mind when I decided to watch the film, for whatever that's worth.

Title: Dirty Girl
Director: Abe Sylvia
Starring: Juno Temple, Jeremy Dozier, Mila Jovovich, Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, William H. Macy, Tim McGraw
Year Of Release: 2010
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (Laptop)