Tuesday, May 31, 2011

There's Something About Wilder

Gene Wilder is the funniest deaf man I've had the pleasure of watching on screen. Of course, Wilder himself is not a deaf person, but he played one in See No Evil, Hear No Evil, a 1989 film that may be a forgettable comedy to most people, but is pretty special to me. As a kid with a serious hearing loss, I thought there was nothing funnier than Wilder inaccurately reading lips.

Cop: Yes or no, was or wasn't there a woman?
Dave (Wilder): My god, are you serious?
Cop: Yes, I'm goddamned serious!
Dave: Fuzzy Wuzzy was a woman?!

Wilder's delivery was pitch perfect. His character, Dave Lyons, is a quiet, timid, deaf man thrown into a chaotic life of crime with his new buddy, Wally, played Richard Pryor. Of course, Wally is blind ("What do you mean I'm not white? Does Dad know?!"). The chemistry between Wilder and Pryor was unmistakable comic gold, as previously evidenced in Silver Streak and Stir Crazy several years earlier. Most people consider those films to be the crowning achievements for this pair of comedians, but for me, See No Evil, Hear No Evil hits much closer to home.

Doctor: Who are you, sir?
Dave: I'm fine, thank you!

Credit Gene Wilder for doing his homework. He knew how to play a deaf man because he was trained at the same place where I was taught how to function as hearing-impaired individual in a world filled with noise. Not long after I was born, it was discovered that I had a severe-to-profound hearing loss. A childhood with intense speech and hearing therapy would follow at the New York League for the Hard of Hearing (now called the Center for Hearing and Communication). I was 11 years old when I found out Wilder was coming to the League to study for his role in the new movie, and I was so desperate to meet him. Every time I walked into the waiting area, I would look for him. Instead of finding the curly-haired, raspy-voiced actor, I would see his framed mug on the wall, a photo he shared with an adorable deaf tyke. But I wanted to be that adorable deaf tyke, dammit.  I knew him as Willy Wonka at the time, which was huge for a kid my age. Later in life, I would discover him in Young Frankenstein, The Producers, Blazing Saddles et. al., and further appreciate this man's comic genius.

When the movie was finally released, I begged my mom to take me to see it. At the precocious age of 12, she was hesitant to take me to an R-rated movie. Filled with too many curse words, apparently.

Dave: You swear an awful lot.
Wally: You're fuckin'-A right!

What difference would it make anyway? It's not like I could hear much of the dialogue, right? What I just wanted to see was Wilder on screen, playing a man who had the same problem that I did. It's not easy to communicate with someone who doesn't know you have a hearing problem.

Wally: He reads lips. You're talking too fast.
Cop: [to Dave, talking slowly] Was there... a wom-an... pres-ent?
Dave: [to cop, talking slowly] Yes. There was... a wom-an... pres-ent.
Cop: Why is he talking like that?
Wally: [to cop, talking slowly] Because ....he's ....deaf... not stup-id.

Granted, I had never met Wilder when I was kid but still I felt an intense, personal connection with him, something I never felt towards a movie star. I knew I was a lover of films at that age, having seen (and fallen for) Temple of Doom, The Goonies, and Back to the Future around that time, but there was something about Wilder that made me feel closer to him. When I finally did see the movie, I just loved it. I ate up Gene Wilder's presence and the movie as a whole just slayed me. One guy can't see, the other guy can't hear, and together they witness a murder. Soon they are caught up in a mess involving Kevin Spacey (!) as an evil henchman, a sexy vixen ("I threatened to shoot her with my erection!"), a blind criminal and a noisy, dirty, smelly city.

Dave: I'll tell you how I feel in a minute or two. But right now.... I'm a little overwhelmed by the STINK of the seven tons of garbage you just drove us into!
Wally: Is THAT what that is? I thought you let one go! I didn't want to say anything!
Dave: Thank you, Wally. That's very kind of you!

I consider myself to be a fantastic lip reader but of course there will be times when I am way off base ("Did she say ship, or shit?"). Wilder's scenes in this movie made it OK for me to laugh at my disability. It is what it is. I have to laugh about it. So what if I can't hear everything? So what if I don't pick up the entire sentence? It can certainly make for some very amusing conversations when I'm misinterpreting some wordplay. I've had my own fuzzy-wuzzy-was-a-woman moments, thank you very much.

Wilder stayed connected to the League long after he did his research there for See No Evil, Hear No Evil, contributing regularly and making appearances for deaf awareness. Of course, he had another reason for sticking around. The therapist at the League who taught him how to play a deaf man for the movie soon became his wife.

I finally did get to meet Gene Wilder several years later. I was at a League function and Wilder was given a special award for his contributions to the organization. A nice, warm man. I shook his hand, showered him with admiration and respect (which he had undoubtedly heard from countless fans over the years) and he gracefully acknowledged my affection. I couldn't believe it. I finally met the actor who made it OK for me to be hard of hearing. When I was a kid, I was a movie lover looking for acceptance, and Gene Wilder, a bona fide movie icon, was the one who gave it to me.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

In Defense Of: City of Angels

"I can't see you... but I know you're there."

This movie surprised the hell out of me.

Imagine knowing only these nuggets of information prior to viewing: Meg Ryan falls in love with an angel, played by Nicolas Cage. It's a "Hollywoodized" remake of a German classic (Wings of Desire). And its director, Brad Silberling, had only one film under his belt: Casper.

There's no way this film can be any good, right?

Well, let's just say that I love being wrong.

City of Angels (1998) is a pure joy and a wonderful surprise. Silberling had created something very special here: he took a cerebral, whimsical drama from Wim Wenders and gave it a glossy Hollywood makeover without losing the original's appeal. Audiences did not know how to embrace it. Critics were torn. But me... I fell deeply in love with it. It's spiritual candy for the mainstream. It's a beautiful melding of art and commerce.

City of Angels is more than just a romantic drama about an angel falling in love with a human. It's about an angel falling in love with life. It's so rare to see a major Hollywood production in this genre as joyously life-affirming as this one. The screenplay, by Dana Stevens, is essentially a love letter to life, a series of poems that lovingly reflect the beauty of feeling, tasting, touching. The actors speak in hushed tones, almost like whispers. It's like they are questioning themselves as they speak of their feelings. Could this be happening? Could it be possible to feel this way?

Seth: Let's go somewhere.
Maggie: Where?
Seth: I don't care.
Maggie: What do you wanna do?
Seth: Anything.

Seth is an angel. He does not know what it's like to be human. He's never experienced the pleasures of food or the human touch or the feeling of wind flowing through his hair. As he escorts a deceased man into his new plane of existence, Seth sees Maggie, a doctor trying so desperately to save the deceased man's life. There's something in Maggie that intrigues Seth. A fire, a spark, a strong desire to give this poor man his life back. When she fails, she's resigned, hopeless, beaten. Seth hears her thoughts and wonders what it must feel like to go through all of these emotions. He's compelled to find out so he does something only few angels do: he asks her.

Seth: What's that like? What's it taste like? Describe it like Hemingway.
Maggie: Well, it tastes like a pear. You don't know what a pear tastes like?
Seth: I don't know what a pear tastes like to you.
Maggie: Sweet... juicy... soft on your tongue, grainy like... a sugary sand that dissolves in your mouth. How's that?
Seth: It's perfect.

In the narrative sense, City of Angels is a romantic film where two beings fall in love. But at its core, the film is about loving life. It's about appreciating the finer details that we all take for granted. I'm hard-pressed to find a film of a grand scale as this one that simply takes its time to show us what makes life so special. No one knows why we are here or what purpose we serve, but if we look at what we have and what we can achieve as humans, the possibilities are endless.

Dennis Franz plays Nathan, a human who knows one or two things about Seth and where he comes from. That's because Nathan used to be just like him. When Nathan was an angel, he used to be curious and intrigued by the life humans live. He had a strong desire to feel, to eat, to love as if tomorrow were the last day on earth. So he jumped... and became flesh. Franz is extraordinary here, a beautiful performance that's unlike anything he's ever done. Silberling cast him completely against type and it worked like gangbusters. When Nathan is running in the ocean naked without a care in the world, you can't help but smile at his spirited attitude.

Silberling -- who used to direct procedurals like NYPD Blue and LA Law -- not only plucked Franz from the tube but also Andre Braugher of Homicide fame. Braugher plays Cassiel, a fellow angel who regularly converses with Seth about the intricacies of the human spirit while sitting on skyscrapers and street signs. I love how City of Angels doesn't move quickly to advance the narrative. The film pauses every now and then to listen to these two guys share some thoughtful dialogue.

Seth: The little girl asked me if she could be an angel.
Cassiel: They all want wings.
Seth: I never know what to say.
Cassiel: Tell them the truth. Angels aren't human. We were never human.
Seth: What if I just make her a little pair of wings out of paper?

Most people were really let down by the ending and I can see why. Read no further if you wish to be unspoiled! Like I said earlier, you can view the film as narrative or as a poetic journey about humanity. In the narrative sense, Maggie's surprising death in the end is heartbreaking because Seth made an extremely difficult journey to be with her for as long as fate will let them. He got a taste of beauty and then beauty was snatched away from him.

But the message is clear. There is no life without death. Seth wanted to experience everything, and he did.

"I would rather have had one breath of her hair, one kiss of her mouth, one touch of her hand, than eternity without it. One."

Take another look at City of Angels, and this time listen to the words. Look into their eyes. Don't worry too much about plotting and storytelling. This movie is about feeling. Now, isn't that refreshing?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Musings Through Filtered Ears #3

A series of random thoughts from a long-time admirer of domestic goddesses...

Prepare for excess... summer is here!
The summer movie kickoff continues this weekend with the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. I will not be seeing this one; not now, not ever. I barely made it through the first one without chewing my fingernails off out of boredom. I thought it was a bloated, lumbering exercise of product placement and brand marketing. I skipped the sequels since I knew they weren't for me. Even with this weekend's somewhat underwhelming $90 million opening (underwhelming compared to the triple-digit openings of the other sequels, that is), Pirates 4 surely will go on to please many hardcore Depp fans and those who like their popcorn movies loud and soulless.

Of course, not all of us like our summer blockbusters devoid of originality. I'll be the first to admit I love things that blow up real good (I'll be queueing Transformers: Dark of the Moon when it comes to DVD, spank you very much), and I can certainly appreciate a good sequel or three. But, dammit, it seems that every week this summer has a sequel or a franchise. I'm excited for some of them (welcome back, Mr. McQueen), but what I'm really getting enthusiastic about are the originals.

So below, with as little fanfare as possible, the five films I'm eager to see this summer.

5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 - Dir. David Yates
I haven't seen part 1 yet (the DVD is resting comfortably at home, awaiting my availability), but I'm a big admirer of this movie series, which had more ups than downs during its impressively storied run. In hindsight, the previous episodes tend to blur together (I get the events in Goblet of Fire, Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince mixed up all the time) and I'm hoping this extended finale allows it the chance to stand out from the other entries. That said, each Potter film is a magical experience in their own way. These movies are very special.

4. Cars 2 - Dir. John Lasseter and Brad Lewis
It's Pixar. Of course I'm dying to see it. On more of a personal note, I get to see it with my 3-year-old boy during a rare outing to the multiplex. Thanks to him, I've only seen the original about, oh, 58 times. Is it the best of Pixar? Not quite -- I'd rank Cars below the Toy Story series and Finding Nemo. Still, I'm thrilled to be spending some more time with McQueen and his buddies.

3. Crazy Stupid Love - Dir. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
John Requa and Glenn Ficarra are two for two. They wrote Bad Santa and wrote/directed I Love You Philip Morris, and both films landed on my Best Of lists in their respected years. They are comic geniuses, specializing in dark, offbeat humor that is not quite for everyone. Their latest film stars Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling (in a rare appearance in comedy and looking damned good), Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon, Julianne Moore and the delightful Emma Stone. This could be the comedy of the year.

2. Cowboys and Aliens - Dir. Jon Favreau
Even though it's based on a comic book, it still looks new to me. I had never heard of the original source. The premise sounds exactly what a summer blockbuster should be: aliens land in the old west in their attempt to take over the world and a bunch of cowboys try to stop them. That's all I need to know! The pedigree behind the camera and in front of it makes me excited about this one. Director Jon Favreau can handle action and comedy, and writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof are well-established writers of the genre (Star Trek, Lost, Alias). And the cast is filled with heavyweights: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Sam Rockwell, Keith Carradine, Walton Goggins and Clancy Brown. Count me in.

1. Super 8 - Dir. J.J. Abrams 

If there's only film I see in the theater this summer, it's this one.

It's the meeting of two extraordinary minds -- J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg. I don't know what the plot is, and I don't care. In a season of sequels and remakes, this one feels fresh but yet so familiar. When I saw the teaser for it a few months back, I instantly thought of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Stand By Me. Let's hope Super 8 is a fraction as good as those classic titles. Oh, it doesn't hurt having Coach Taylor as the adult lead, does it? 


Fright Night, Our Idiot Brother, Captain America and Bad Teacher could very well be successful pictures. They are intriguing at face value but I need to see/read/hear more before they are upgraded to "must see" status.

And because it's not really a "summer" movie, I intentionally left out Tree of Life. Of course I want to see it. The mixed buzz will not deter me from sampling this polarizing film. I'm simply entranced by the beauty of it -- the poster, the clips, everything. I look forward to gauging the American response on this one next week.

It's like looking in a mirror
Ever rent a movie you are just dreading to see? I got Rabbit Hole from Netflix two weeks ago and I still haven't watched it. I keep putting it off because I have a feeling I'm going to be a wreck. It's the story of a couple (Kidman, Eckhart) who are grieving for the loss of their four-year-old son who was tragically killed after chasing their dog into the street.

I have a 3.5-year-old son.
I have a dog who likes being chased.
I'm married to Nicole Kidman.

This one just hits too close to home.

All hail the queen
And finally, I leave you with a phenomenal piece in this month's New York magazine. It sheds some light on the tumultuous first season of Roseanne, a show that faithful readers know is my all-time favorite sitcom.

If you're thinking the whole Charlie Sheen mess sounds a little bit familiar, then read on and you'll see why. It's a blistering, funny, scathing read for all fans of Roseanne, Roseanne and domestic goddesses of the world.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The 5 Best: Michael Keaton

"Let's turn on the juice and see what shakes loose."
-Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice

The fine folks over at Man, I Love Films wrote a piece on the five best works of Michael Keaton. I can't say I entirely agree with their choices, though I did admire his performances in every title on that list. Keaton really is marvelous in everything he does, even when he's doing crappy movies (The Merry Gentleman, Speechless come to mind). I absolutely loved him as Ken in Toy Story 3, he's the best of all Batmans, and he has certainly proved his dramatic chops with Clean and Sober. He's effortlessly charming in Multiplicity, anchors a great cast in The Paper and more recently, he stole his every scene as the Captain in The Other Guys.

All fine work, but those aren't his best. I know my choices will rattle some readers but, in my eyes, listed below in chronological order are the five roles that truly define the career of Michael Keaton.

Hunt Stevenson in Gung Ho (1986)
This is my favorite early Keaton movie. He appeared in some goofy classics (Mr. Mom, Night Shift, Johnny Dangerously) but this one saw a lot of replay action in my youth. Gedde Watanabe (whatever happened to him, eh?) co-stars in this hilarious Ron Howard comedy of manners in which a Japanese car company buys out an American plant. Keaton's Hunt Stevenson attempts to mediate the culture clash between his hard-working blue collar colleagues and the strict, labor-intensive, numbers-crunching Japanese owners. George Wendt, Mimi Rogers and John Turturro round out the likable supporting cast. It's moving, it's funny, and a highly underrated comedy of the 80's.

Beetlejuice in Beetlejuice (1988)
Despite playing the title character, Beetlejuice is not really a Michael Keaton movie. With only 17 minutes of screen time, what he does with this small role is remarkable. The heart of this movie belongs to Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis (a well-matched pairing) as deceased newlyweds who just want to be left alone in their new house. They enlist the aid of a wise-cracking con artist who is more than willing to cut a deal with our exasperated couple. Keaton is clearly having a ball, and you can't possibly imagine another actor in the role. It's an irreverent, inspired performance in one of Tim Burton's most memorable films.

Carter Hayes in Pacific Heights (1990)
I don't know, but I really liked seeing Keaton play a bad guy here. It's a straight role, nothing too showy. But what he does with it makes him a pleasure to watch. Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith are a young couple who rent out their dream house in order to help pay for it. Keaton is a tenant who is hellbent on making their lives miserable. It's not a great film by any means, but I remember seeing it after Batman came out and being rather impressed with Keaton's dark, maniacal performance. It was a nice stretch for him. Pacific Heights was also very pleasing to the eyes; John Schlesinger directed this beautifully shot thriller on location in glorious San Francisco.

Bob Jones in My Life (1993)
Yes, it's saccharine. It's weepy. It's pure melodrama. But dammit, I fell for it, hook line and sinker. I was a sobbing mess by the end of this drama about a dying man (Keaton) trying to make the most of his last days on earth. Nicole Kidman, in a remarkable early-career performance, is in fine form, but take another look at Keaton here. He doesn't push it. He plays a well-read, intelligent man who simply does not know how to comprehend his feelings. It's an understated performance in an underrated film.

Ray Nicolette in Jackie Brown (2007)
Like Beetlejuice, this isn't a full blown Keaton film. He doesn't steal the film, but he does stand out nicely in a smallish, delicious role (which he reprised oh-so-briefly in Out of Sight) as a Fed named Ray Nicolette. He wants his hands on a notorious arms dealer (of which he knows nothing about), so he focuses his energy on a flight attendant who may or may not be playing him. This is Tarantino's most underrated film which features career-best work by Pam Grier and Robert Forster, and one of Robert DeNiro's strongest performances in the last 20 years. It's a busy, bustling masterpiece, and Keaton, amid all of the greatness that is Jackie Brown, fits right in.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Quick Takes: The King's Speech, Black Swan, Little Fockers, Blue Valentine

Three heavy-hitters and a throwaway sequel highlight my cinematic viewings this month so far.

The first is Hollywood's Best Picture, The King's Speech (2010), an exquisite drama about a man of enormous power overcoming his greatest adversity. Colin Firth is well-deserving of his Oscar win as a man who hid behind his speech impediment, preventing him from becoming the great, historical figure he was destined to become. Geoffrey Rush (robbed of his own win from an actor who will go on to win many more, I'm sure) is a revelation as the King's trusted therapist. Lionel Logue has his unique and unorthodox practices but he connects with his high-profile client on a most human level. The friendship of these two wildly different men is the heart of the film and is what makes it so special. The King's Speech is a beautiful film, well-loved by a wide audience, and expertly crafted by Tom Hooper (who directed John Adams, the best historical miniseries I've ever seen). You're in good company here.  4/5

One of this year's runners-up for the Oscar is Black Swan (2010), an oddly fascinating psychosexual thriller about a woman's driven need to nab the coveted role in one of ballet's greatest pieces. While I admired the film's performances all around and was thoroughly engrossed by Nina's ordeal, I'm mystified by this film's mainstream embrace. The film already grossed $300 million worldwide and that blows my mind. Not that it's not deserving (we can certainly use more challenging films like this one) but this is in no way, shape or form a run-of-the-mill cookie-cutter thriller. It's actually rather nice to see the public willing to wrap their minds around such heady experiences as this one and walk away from it debating its central mysteries. It's an intelligent adult drama, furiously directed by Darren Aronofsky (now forgiven for The Fountain) and superbly acted by Natalie Portman. There's an urgency in Black Swan, a compulsively watchable film that has no easy answers.  4/5

I stumbled across Little Fockers (2010), the second sequel of the enormously popular franchise that features Robert DeNiro and Ben Stiller reaching new lows in their attempts for cheap laughs. Full disclosure: I thought Meet the Parents was cute and harmless while Meet the Fockers entertained me more than I ever thought it would. The addition of Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand were strokes of genius; they owned that sequel and made it a pleasure to watch. Little Fockers does not reach that level of hilarity, unfortunately, and I blame the writers for not giving us more Hoffman and Streisand. The back-and-forth "I'm watching you" shtick between Stiller and DeNiro got old after the first movie. Did we really need another round of misunderstandings and dick jokes? I won't lie to you. I did laugh a few times (not necessarily at the jokes but at watching DeNiro make a complete fool of himself) and, yes, I'm hating myself for it. 2.5/5

Blue Valentine (2010) is the best film I have ever seen about the dissolution of a marriage. There are a lot in this genre - Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Kramer Vs Kramer, Revolutionary Road, to name a few - but this one is easily the most deeply felt. It takes 6 years for Cindy and Dean's relationship to nosedive, and writer-director Derek Cianfrance somehow managed to give us the full scope of their marriage in just under two hours. Cianfrance and his two actors breathe delicate life into this film, from the hope and promise of a beautiful family to the devastating realization that the family is fatally broken.

It's not exactly a pick-me-up, but Blue Valentine is littered with those small moments of warmth and familiarity of looking back at a time when everything was just effortlessly magical. It's no easy feat to capture true love on film. The flashback sequences that detail the beginnings of their courtship are seamlessly intercut with the darker, isolating moments of their marriage.

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are perfect. Their chemistry is palpable, heartfelt and honest. These two are our generation's greatest young actors, and their performances here are among the rawest work of their fascinating careers. If there's one flaw in this film, it's that the supporting characters are a bit too on the nose. Her father and ex-boyfriend, for example, do exactly what the script calls for, and nothing more. They exist solely to serve the needs of our two characters, to flesh out their backgrounds and drive their emotions.

It's a small quibble because Gosling and Williams are larger than life here. They are so grounded and connected (and disconnected) with one another that everything else around them just falls by the wayside. They own this movie.

Simply put, Blue Valentine made my heart swell, soar and race before it effectively and quietly broke it. 5/5

Monday, May 16, 2011

Musings Through Filtered Ears #2

A series of random thoughts from a self-help guru...

Blogger meltdown
Boy, Blogger is a mess. Some folks have it bad - losing entire blogs, format or design changes, etc. I feel their pain. The only thing I lost was a draft for a new column we're debuting this week, so it was nothing major. I really doubt I'll be getting that back. No biggie; I'll give it a few more days before I try another rewrite. I did learn my lesson, though. Back up everything!

One thing that is understandably frustrating about the whole shutdown is Blogger's miserable attempt at keeping everyone in the loop. They posted generic updates on Blogger Buzz or Twitter with something along the lines of, "Most blogs should be restored by now, but we're working on getting the comments back." This pissed off a lot of people who were not only still missing posts, but wanted to be able to log on or edit older posts or add new ones (just visit Blogger's Help Forum for a glimpse of the nightmares some folks are going through). The system has been very buggy for quite a large group of people and there is no one to talk to, no customer service, no timeline or updates regarding any specific issues. For three days straight, all we got were "we are working on it" responses. I don't think Blogger has a clue.

When the smoke clears, I'm going to bet a lot of Blogger folks are heading to Wordpress.

Saying hello to an old friend...
One day last week, I was home with the kids. They were taking their usually scheduled naps during lunchtime when I accidentally came across The Last Starfighter on HDNet Movies. This killed my chance of getting anything productive done during their naps. I loved this movie. I hadn't seen it since maybe high school or college and, to my delight, it holds up surprisingly well. Despite the cheesy effects, the HD transfer is crisp and sharp. It came out in 1984, that amazingly influential, groundbreaking year of blockbusters and franchise hits. It belongs on the same list as the popular titles of that year: Temple of Doom, Karate Kid, Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters.

This movie got a lot of replay action at my house when I was growing up. The experience of watching it again at age 33 brought a whiff of nostalgia. The jaded, critical side of me laughs at the low quality of the screenplay and the shallow mythology of Kur and the Kodan armada. The cringe-worthy dialogue was hilarious! It's amazing how perspectives change as you get older. But dammit, it's still an engaging, even rousing science-fiction adventure with a really cool setup - a young man plays a video game, beats it, and gets recruited by Centauri, the game's alien inventor whose car doubles as a spaceship. What gaming-obsessed kid wouldn't want that to happen to them?

The Last Starfighter belongs on a new list: movies to show my 3-year-old son when he gets older.

So that's what Natalie has been up to!
I love, love, love this blog. Red Dirt Lattes. It's written by a woman who leaves a cushy life in the states to travel abroad with her husband and toddler. Her words are as lyrical as her photographs. She provides glimpses of life in the smallest corners of the world. Her posts are observant, insightful and deeply poetic.

And what makes it even cooler? The author of the blog is none other than Sabrina Lloyd.

It's Natalie from Sports Night!
Building Buzz
Martha Marcy May Marlene. It's one of my most anticipated movies of 2011 based on three things only: the title (it rolls off the tongue nicely, doesn't it?), Sundance buzz (there is nothing sexier than a small film embraced by a large movie-loving crowd) and the fresh young face of Elizabeth Olsen. I have no idea what it's about. I haven't even seen a trailer. I have seen and heard enough to know that Martha, Marcy, May and Marlene are all calling my name.

Close behind on my ever-growing must see list is also an indie sensation, this one buzzing about loudly at this week's Cannes Film Festival. We Need to Talk About Kevin, with Tilda Swinton, is already garnering Oscar talk for the uber-talented actress. Could this be her year? She plays the mother of a kid who killed several of his classmates at a school shooting. Think Elephant, from a fresh perspective. John C. Reilly is her husband, and Lynne Ramsey directs. Queued!

Out with the old, in with the, uh, old...
Upfront season is here! This is the time of year where the networks clean house. They were brutal with some surprise cancellations - I counted about 15 shows that got the axe, some prematurely. As for pilot pickups, I'm glad Wonder Woman was not selected. Adrianne Palicki (Friday Night Lights) is an extraordinarily gifted actress. She deserves a leading role on a prime time show but not this one. She is probably better suited in something smaller and, preferably, without shiny pants.

I am a bit bummed about NBC's shutting down of the J.J. Abrams-produced pilot Odd Jobs, which would have reunited Lost's Terry O'Quinn and Michael Emerson. In a cruel twist of fate, I believe CBS did pick up Persons of Interest, a J.J. Abrams-produced pilot starring... Michael Emerson. Better luck next time, John Locke!

Also picked up: Pan Am (a 60's soap set in the world of stewardesses and pilots), Charlie's Angels, a Tim Allen sitcom, a Prime Suspect reboot, The Firm. Why is next season feeling so... familiar?

Nothing really intrigues me. I'm ok with that. I still need to catch up with Justified, Breaking Bad, Damages, etc. Thanks to Netflix, there is plenty of quality fare to keep me entertained.

A stand up guy
I saw Steven Wright walking on 8th Ave the other day. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, and the evening commute was among us. One strange thing about seeing him: he looked like he just woke up. Scruffy, unkept, yet oddly observant of those around him. Was he in writing mode? I was afraid he was going walk into city traffic to end his misery or something.

I wonder if a conversation with him is like his stand up. Can you imagine him delivering lines with his monotone voice, as he converses with you?

Some of my favorite lines from the master of deadpan delivery:

My watch is three hours fast and I couldn't fix it. So I moved to New York.
There's a pizza place near where I live that sells only slices. In the back, you can see a guy tossing a triangle in the air.
What happens when you put a slinky on an escalator?
If a mute kid swears, should his mother wash his hands with soap?
Do the people in Australia call the rest of the world "Up Over?"
I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman,
"Where's the self-help section?"

She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Spotlight: The Kids on Parenthood

There is no doubt in my mind: Parenthood is one of the best dramas currently on TV today. Impeccably crafted by the master behind the *other* best drama, Friday Night Lights (Jason Katims), Parenthood is a criminally underseen series about parents, children, and everyone in between.

Katims and his writing crew manage to juggle a bevy of characters with such grace and finesse. The first season had a problem of balancing everyone out -- those initial episodes were uneven and unfocused. Once season two began, the crew had figured it out. They found that magical solution that makes the show flow effortlessly.

In addition to the writers creating realistic and true-to-life story lines, the actors bring their own weight and class to the characters we have come to know as the Bravermans. Heading the clan are the perfectly matched veterans Craig T. Nelson and Bonnie Bedelia as Zeek and Camille. Their four children, Adam, Sarah, Crosby and Julia, are embodied by a terrific quartet of actors: Peter Krause, Lauren Graham, Dax Shepard and Erika Christensen, respectively. This season, which concluded last month, gave us the sense that these six characters are a real family. They are very well-complemented by their respective spouses: Kristina (Monica Potter), Jasmine (Joy Bryant), Joel (Sam Jaeger).

Now, I can fill this whole post with words about how wonderful these actors are. But I'll hold back because I must single out the kids.

When the kids aren't onscreen, Parenthood is a very good show. But when they are on, it reaches a whole new level of greatness. Tears are shed. Hearts are breaking. The writers are very adept at utilizing these kid actors. These youngsters can handle some weighty, difficult material just as well as their adult counterparts.

Haddie Braverman (Sarah Ramos) is the daughter of Adam and Kristina. She is going through changes that all 16-year-old girls go through. Haddie had a fantastic arc this season involving a new boyfriend that her parents aren't too sure about. Alex (Michael B. Jordan, a welcome transfer from Friday Night Lights) is 21, in A.A., has his own apartment. Oh, and he's black. Of course, her parents refuse her to see him, despite Alex being honest and forthcoming to Adam and Kristina about his past and his intentions with Haddie. You think you know where this story is going, but it takes some surprising and heartbreaking turns. Ramos is fantastic as Haddie, the most compelling teenage girl on television since Angela Chase from My So-Called Life.

Haddie's younger brother is Max (Max Burkholder), who has Asperger's. Adam and Kristina have their hands full with Max. As any parent with an Asperger's kid knows, you are on edge during every waking moment, unsure when your child will be going off the rails. This season, Adam and Kristina learned more about Asperger's and how to cope living with a child who has it. They hid the disorder from young Max, but towards the end of this season, Max finally learned the truth about himself. Burkholder finds the perfect balance of being a 8-year-old boy with a wide-eyed sense of wonder and a kid with a behavioral disorder. It's a delicate performance by a charming young actor.

Amber (Mae Whitman) is Sarah's daughter, the same age as Haddie. Amber is edgy and rebellious and has some unresolved issues with her father (played by John Corbett in a terrific arc this season). When she doesn't get into the college of her choice, she dips into a spiral of anger and self-pity. Whitman is achingly good in this role and the writers fill her words with eloquence and stunning clarity. With her cropped hair, dark-framed glasses and short stature, she's at once beautiful and poignant. In a word: she's adorable.

Amber's younger brother is Drew (Miles Heizer), a young teen in dire need of a father figure. He tries to lean on his Uncle Adam, but Adam's got a chaotic family of his own. Uncle Crosby, as hard as he may try, is not quite fit to be a father just yet. So Drew leans on Grandpa Zeek. The two form a sweet bond that I wish had more screen time. The chemistry between these two is palpable and I hope the writers have a chance to explore this relationship next season.

Joel and Julia have a 5 year old daughter named Sydney (Savannah Paige Rae), while Jasmine and Crosby have a young son named Jabbar (Tyree Brown). Needless to say, these youngsters do not have nearly as much screen time as the rest of the clan, but they are distinctive enough to make a presence.

As of this writing, Parenthood has not yet been renewed for a third season, but the chances are pretty good. It's not a runaway hit in the ratings, but NBC needs a critical darling that could possibly lead the charge during awards season.

So seek out Parenthood. You may be drawn to the big names of the show, but you'll be pleasantly surprised when the younger stars are the ones who steal your heart.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Musings Through Filtered Ears #1

A series of random thoughts from a screen junkie

1. As much as I love movies and dispensing titles from my queue week after week, sometimes it feels good to stop and recharge my batteries. My Netflix queue has been stagnant for over two weeks now (oh the horror!) and for good reason. I won't get into details but sometimes life just happens. I spend so many countless hours watching lives unfold through cinematic lenses and when my own life gets so busy and chaotic, it allows me a chance to re-connect with reality. I will never tire of watching films, but it's kind of nice to step back and feast my eyes on something else other than a flickering screen. So this is what it's like to have a life.

2. I may forever be backlogged in the queue (I always seem to have 300+ titles in there; it never goes down despite my renting 2-3 titles a week, on average), and this doesn't bother me. I like always having potential gems waiting to be discovered. But what I do hate are backlogged Entertainment Weekly magazines. They don't take long to read, sure, but they just pile up on my nightstand waiting to be read. It's the only magazine I subscribe to these days. I used to have US Weekly (before they became tabloid-crazy), Premiere (god rest its soul, the best of all cinematic mags) and Movieline (the online version just isn't the same), and I would devour all of those within days upon their arrival in the mail. Now, my month-old EW sits next to me, losing relevance each day as it passes by. Has print entertainment journalism gone by the wayside? This seems sad to me.

3. I'm currently 100 pages into Stephen King's Under the Dome. This marks a milestone for me; it's the first book I'm reading digitally. I was hesitant about the whole e-reader phenomenon. Nothing beats holding a book in your hands as you are lost inside of it. Same with the magazines - hearing those pages crinkle as you turn them adds to the pleasure of reading them. But reading Under the Dome on my wife's Nook Color as well as my iPhone's Nook app surprised me. If it's a good novel, it'll suck you right in, no matter what format you are using. And I have to say I'm terribly pleased not to be carrying that behemoth of a hardcover with me everywhere I go. Stephen King's magical wordplay exists in the very same hand-held device where I type this blog post. Amazing.

4. The EW that stares at me, eager for my attention, is the Summer Movie Preview edition. With the exception of some big sequels, I have no idea what's coming out. I hardly travel to the theater these days (two little tykes at home will do that for ya), so is it even relevant? Well, yes, I believe it is. They may be summer movies for the general movie-going public, but for me, they are potential fall rentals. I seem to be about three months behind from everyone else.

5. One more episode of Friday Night Lights. The disc sits in the DVD player, waiting to be watched. It's killing me. This show breaks my heart. I haven't shed tears for a TV show this much since Everwood. Oh, those damned Browns always got me misty-eyed.

6. Speaking of shedding tears, I cannot believe it has been a year since Lost ended its historic run. Arguably my favorite show of all time, Lost was all-consuming when it aired. Around this time last year, I was fraught with nerves. Will the ending let me down? How will it all come together? And what am I going to do when this is over?! I am happy to report that, one year later, I have indeed moved on. But on the eve of the Friday Night Lights series finale, that wistful heart-tugging has returned. That bittersweet, anxious feeling of It is time for it to end but I really don't want it to rests in the back of my head.


Must good things always come to an end?


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