Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What about Crick?

Last night was the first of three consecutive episodes of Jeopardy! in which the two most successful contestants in the show's history, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, play against the IBM supercomputer Watson in a friendly match to show how impressively the computer can comprehend human speech patterns, and mimic human memory skills.

One of my nerdier confessions is that I have been a follower of Ken Jennings' blog since his record-setting run on Jeopardy!, where he won 74 games and 2.52 million dollars.  Brad Rutter has won the biggest dollar amount on the show, topping out at over $3.2 million.  Watson is an artificial intelligence program which can parse natural language patterns to mine its memory for the most appropriate answer.  It is not connected to the internet, it does have to physically press the buzzer with a robotic "finger," and it is fed the questions electronically, not by picking up Alex Trebek's vocal cues.

Last night's episode was surprisingly compelling, and proved that observing the skills of this computer is surely enough more than a gimmick to warrant three episodes' worth of gaining an insight into what will be in charge after the coming robot uprising.  Watson parses the question for key words, figures out how the structure of the sentence influences the type of answer to look for, and comes up with its top three options.  Then, if its "confidence algorithm" intuits that the top guess is likely enough to be right, Watson pushes the buzzer.  One major advantage Watson has over its human opponents is that it is prompted as to when the buzzer-clicking time has come, whereas humans may click too early, and not be called upon.  One disadvantage which Watson fell prey to in last night's episode is that the robot is "deaf," and cannot hear when its opponent has guessed an incorrect answer, which it may then repeat.

The second installment airs tonight at 7pm on ABC, and the three-episode run ends tomorrow.  Tune in for an interesting look at what the really interesting strides in robotics have been - AIBO, this ain't.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Mama who bored me


After desperately wanting to see Spring Awakening for the past few years, I have to say that I was rather underwhelmed by it when I finally made it to the Los Angeles leg of the tour this weekend, where it was playing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.  It wasn't the fault of the actors, whose youth and vigor were well-suited to the specifications of the play.  Certainly, my expectations were quite high, but when it came to the storytelling, I found the show to be rather uneven, which along with the distracting set design, detracted from what could have been a solid, focused morality tale.

I'll start with the aesthetic.  If you have any familiarity with the play, you know going into it that it's a modern alt-rock musical set in 1891 Germany, where adolescents struggle with the same imbalance of education and sexual urges that plagues the world today.  So it's cool to see these extremely childlike-looking actors with cartoonish hairstyles, dancing to modern music while dressed in 19th Century school uniforms.  Even as far as the band members in plainclothes seated upstage, this all contributes to an easy-to-understand juxtaposition of the old and the new.  But add to that the onstage audience members, complete with unnecessary plainclothes audience plants, and the busy flair all over the walls, and the result is a jumbled hodge-podge when the story would best be served by a black box setting - a Sisyphean transformation for the Pantages, I know.

The music, which is the play's greatest asset, starts out very strong with well-crafted hits "Mama Who Bore Me," "The Bitch of Living," and "All That's Known," but other than a second act standout with "Our Bodies Are the Guilty Ones," the songs feel forced, or sometimes completely at odds with the emotional temperature of the story beats.  Just like R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet (hear me out), the grandeur of the music didn't often match the mood of the concurrent scenes.  Courtney Markowitz, as Ilse, sang beautifully on "The Song of Purple Summer," though.

These criticisms are especially deserved when it comes to the story itself, though.  The tragic romance of Melchior and Wendla (roles originated by Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele) could be a great archetype for the dangers of withholding critical knowledge from people, and conversing with young people in an open and honest way.  Terrible things happen when ignorance is king, and the central coupling of the show could have been a new, unconventional version of star-crossed lovers suffering from the same lesson.  But the imbalanced additions of secondary characters whose storylines seemed included to confront the audience without sufficiently contributing to the message.

The standout performer, for me, was Sarah Kleeman, who took on all roles of Adult Women in the show, and perfectly transitioned from persona to persona with subtle vocal trills that gave depth to seemingly minor characters.  I know my negative opinion about the show is an unpopular one, but to me, Spring Awakening was a victim of its own hype.  I had heard it compared to the quality of recent breakout hits In the Heights and Wicked, and this praise was, as I saw it, off the mark.

In Soviet Russia, Iron Invades You!

This post originally appeared online at MediaBlvd Magazine.

This weekend, the SyFy network gave us an early Valentine’s gift of their new original movie Iron Invader, directed by Paul Ziller (Android Apocalypse, Stonehenge Apocalypse).  I have a love for made-for-TV movies, and while I’m partial to the “your baby will be kidnapped by a conspiracy” brand more common to the Lifetime network, there is a wholly different type of fun to be had with the B-horror revival on the SyFy network.
In Iron Invader, a pair of brothers living in the small farm town of Redeemer (a poignant name never to be used poetically) are startled when a mass of old car parts covered in Nickelodeon-brand Slime falls from the sky onto their land.  At first it seems that the mass itself is the titular iron invader, making me think how unlucky these guys are that a deformed Cylon from the 1970s crash-landed there instead of Superman.  Especially given that these guys are kind of good-looking, and if this movie were on deeper cable, I think the story would get a lot sexier from here on out.

The brothers, discovering that the twisted metal is a damaged Russian satellite, take it to old Earl’s scrapyard, believing they can sell it for some quick cash.  There they see a giant metal sculpture, where they come to the obvious conclusion that it is the skeleton of one of the gorillas often used to draw customers to used car lots. Shockingly, they are wrong, and the sculpture is revealed to be proud Earl’s handiwork.  He has created a golem out of scrap metal and plans to display it at the county fair.  It’s unclear to me if Earl is Jewish, but I have to wonder if his not-Wicker Man would bring up any anti-Semitic feelings in this extremely tiny rural town.

The green slime begins “activating,” causing its metal hosts to move on their own accord towards the golem, where the slime grows, infecting the metal makeup of the entire sculpture.  Now self-propelled, the golem wanders the night, looking for human victims for a reason yet to be defined.  It finds the perfect first victim in an alternate universe version of David Crosby if he were a contestant on Gay Rock of Love, and leaves his corpse distended with swollen veins and arteries.

Making its way through the town, the infected golem strikes back at the farm of the two brothers, killing the younger one, Ethan.  When his brother Jake finds his body, he reacts with a gentle “Aw, no no no no,” which is likely not how I would respond, but what do I know – I’ve never been involved in an attack by alien goop (plus robots).  Meanwhile, Jake’s high school sweetheart Amanda is back in town with her teenage daughter, and Jake, being a regular Mystery the Pick Up Artist, asks Amanda out within literally one minute of hearing about her divorce.

The robot kills some more people, so everyone decides to take refuge in the local bar, and Amanda, being a high school biology teacher, figures out that the green goo is a space age bacteria that feeds on metal, so the reason it is draining people is because of the iron in human blood.  Earl is getting blame from all sides for creating a killer robot, but his defense of, “I couldn’t build a machine; I don’t even have a high school diploma,” is pretty solid, except that it’s actually the most ridiculous thing ever.  Basically everyone is clueless except for Amanda.  Even the coroner, who’s a regular House, M.D., thinks that the dead people all died of E. Coli, even though there’s all these destroyed buildings and a giant living robot wandering the streets.  (Maybe it’s lupus?)

The bartender’s got some pretty serious mutton chops, which alone is a pretty good indicator that he’s going to die, but when he jokes to Earl’s grandson, “your grandfather’s in the monster-making business now, is he?” he seals his fate.  Eventually he is killed by an infected axe head that literally flies off the handle and stabs him in the foot.  There’s a lot of ridiculous stuff going on at this point, with bar patrons trying to kill the alien bacteria using hand soap (“It says it’s antibacterial!”), Amanda slicing her arm all to hell with a knife to lure the robot away from her daughter, the robot sparing said daughter (“Thank God you’re anemic!”  Really.), and then Jake blowing up the golem for some reason even though that doesn’t kill the bacteria.  Of course, in the end , the bacteria can be killed by alcohol, so they pour beer and whiskey all over the shrapnel to save themselves.  Of course, because the satellite was Russian, there is a comment about “Commie sonsabitches,” but surprisingly no link is drawn between this and the alcohol being what saves the day.

I admit, I would have liked a little more from Iron Invader.  I was curious why the bacteria could take over a golem and make it walk, but it wouldn’t do the same to the humans it attacked, commandeering their bodies like Vincent D’Onofrio in Men in Black, giving the movie a bit more of a zombie edge.  And the movie lacked a memorable catchphrase, such as “Release the Kraken,” or “Damn you, Sharktopus!”  As to why the falling satellite was not noticed by any astronomers, or why the bits of infected shrapnel could float of their own accord, but the golem had to walk like a biped, instead of hovering or whatever, I choose ignorance.  Join me in two weeks for a recap of the next SyFy original movie, Area 51, which premieres on Saturday, February 26 at 9/8c.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Social Networking

Full disclosure: I am an employee of Sony.  That said, there is a really great event happening this Sunday at the Arclight Sherman Oaks, a free documentary screening and filmmaker Q&A, which I think anyone living in L.A. should think about doing this weekend.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

No more than meets the eye.

I have to talk about Transformers 3 for a minute.  The first movie was completely forgettable, and I didn't bother to see the sequel.  But now I am legitimately offended by the existence of the newest installment, Dark of the Moon.

My issue right now is that the trailer starts out teasing you about a *really awesome* looking movie, and then hits you with the Transformers stick.  How great would a movie be about these young astronauts going on a secret mission on the dark side of the moon, then discovering this crashed spaceship (nevermind that a ship that massive crashing into our moon would likely have seriously affected life on Earth), and all the adventures that could lead to?!  And then "Oh, okay, Michael Bay, well...this could still be awesome, just dumb, I guess."  And hey, Steven Spielberg producing!  Cool!  And then there's a decepticon or whatever and "TRANSFORMERS" and just all the wind was taken out of my sails.  Bait and switch, trailer makers.  How dare you.

Return to form?

So Sunday night's post-Super Bowl episode of Glee was miserable, and didn't bear discussing.  Luckily it was fairly standalone, plotwise, so this week's episode could swoop in without a viewing.  Quinn, Brittany, and Santana chose New Directions over Cheerios, and Quinn kissed Finn.

Our mohawked guitar-player Puck is now harboring a not-quite requited crush on Laura Zizes, the newest member of New Directions.  It makes sense that Puck would go for a tough girl, one who's a badass, being the school's wrestling champion, and one who turned him down after their blackmail-induced kiss didn't turn her on.  Puck, being an idiot, thinks that Laura should be thrilled to receive his advances since he is a dreamboat (but looks 35), and she is heavy-set.  She continues to turn him down, and Puck earnestly pursues her, not once hiding his affection for her, which I did find to be a sweet surprise.  He serenaded her with Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls," which was an obvious choice, and clearly offended Laura.  I think a rendition of Mika's "Big Girl (You Are Beautiful)" would have swayed her *if* the show felt so desperately that he needed to pick a song about her weight.  She continues to keep him on the hook, admitting that she likes him, but wants him to prove that he's really genuinely interested in her.  In one episode, a minor character has been given a thoughtful plotline about body image when main cast member Mercedes has been weirdly subjected to starvation dieting one week and protesting the cafeteria's removal of tater tots another.  Well done, show?

Santana's jealousy plotline wasn't very interesting, though it seemed an obvious extension of her role on the show.  However, her conniving plan to infect Finn with mononucleosis in order to reveal that Quinn's cheating on Sam with him, was clever, and a perfectly devious way to stir up drama when Santana is feeling dissatisfied with her situation.  Also, the line "I've had mono so many times it turned into stereo" was good enough to forgive her awkward 'street slang' which cropped up once again.  Meanwhile, Tina and Mike are so in love that she breaks down crying during a really weird performance of "My Funny Valentine," and I guess this doesn't bother Artie at all because he's with Brittany.  I maintain that Brittany and Mike deserve each other and should just be funny sexy dance lovers, but whatever.  His slow-motion dancing to Artie's "P.Y.T." was so cute!  Team Mike Chang.

What does it say about Golden Globe winner Chris Colfer or his character Kurt that I completely forget that Kurt has transfered out of McKinley and is now singing with the Warblers at Blazer Prep?  His crush Blaine, played by Darren Criss who has more charisma than the rest of the male cast combined, wants to serenade his crush, some dude at the mall with crazy grunge hair and great bone structure.  It's awesome.  It's a weird ad for The Gap ("Shop at The Gap!  We fire our gay employees?") but the song is just great and Darren Criss is like a teddy bear that you want to make out with.  Kurt is surprisingly okay with the fact that Blaine isn't into him (given his creepy reactions when his straight brother Finn rebuffed him).  There's a great moment after Blaine says, "If [the grunge-hair dude and I] got married, I'd get a 50% discount [at the Gap]," and the camera pans to Kurt's "Really?" face, then quickly back.  Well done, show.

Kurt, Mercedes, and Rachel decide that they're better off focusing on themselves instead of desperately needing boyfriends, which - THANK YOU, THIS IS AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE! - will help them become the stars they are destined to be.  From my heart to your face, readers: If you are not happy when you're single, you will not be happy when you're in a relationship; date yourself first!  Also, plus points for identifying Patti LuPone as Kurt's diva idol.  My friend Ashley who is a gay man in a woman's body would approve.  Rachel decides to sing Katy Perry's "Firework" as a sort of love song to herself, and an awkward reference to her love parallelogram with Quinn/Finn and whoever, and she blows it away.  I like the song more than a lot of people do, but Lea Michele performs it with all the teen angst and self-empowerment that she can muster.  Let's hope this show can start using Rachel's character better...if she is more comfortable with her reality, maybe she'll be less insufferable.

All in all, one of the best Glee episodes in a while.  Keep praying for the spinoff Brittany loves Mike Chang!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


This weekend I finally caught up and saw the last of the ten Best Picture nominees that I had not yet seen: Joel & Ethan Coen's True Grit.  Some of you may know that I am often obsessive about watching things in the correct sequence, including avoiding remakes or sequels until I am well acquainted with the original, so I was initially hesistant to watch this until renting the 1969 film with John Wayne.  However, having heard that the Coens' adaptation is more faithful to the novel than the earlier film, I think it's likely that I've been exposed to a more entertaining, humorous, and (well) gritty story by watching this 2010 version.

At first I wasn't sure that Hailee Steinfeld's performance was as great as it had been raved about, but I realized that I just needed to settle into the speech patterns and conventionalities of the western style, which I am admittedly not very familiar with.  (Something that definitely needs to be remedied.)  By the time her character Mattie gets the chance to interact with the residents of the town where she has landed to collect her father's body and hire a man to find his killer, the young actress' performance has become totally enthralling.

Jeff Bridges is pitch-perfect as Rooster Cogburn, but anyone who saw Crazy Heart may think that this performance was an easy task for Bridges.  Matt Damon was surprisingly enjoyable as self-important Texas Ranger LaBouef, and both Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper played perfectly well into the Western bad guy archetype.  I've been a fan of Pepper's since The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and hope to see him in more non-Battlefield Earth roles.

With the Coen Brothers at the helm, this fairly melancholy adventure tale took on the right tone of perserverance, dark humor, and realistic toughness.  Justice is levelled in a believable and unforgiving way, the roughness of trekking through an Arkansas winter is not shied away from, and the violence is sometimes sudden, but sometimes meted out in the tense fashion of the classic Old West standoff.  It's said after every Western that finds success at the box office, that the genre is ready for a comeback, but unless the Coens or someone with their mastery can oversee each new project in development, I think we'll have to look instead to standout highlights such as this.

Guest Post from Dad

Please enjoy a list of my dad's picks for favorite movies:

My Top 10 Movies
The Young Lions (Edward Dmytryk, 1958)
Battle Cry (Raoul Walsh, 1955)
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994)
Breakfast at Tiffany's (Blake Edwards, 1961)
The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946)
Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988)
Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
The Virgin Spring (Ingmar Bergman, 1960)
Godfather I and Godfather II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972 and 1974 ...though I'd substitute Goodfellas for Godfather III)
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)

Special Mention
Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
Duck Soup (Leo McCarey, 1933)
The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
The African Queen (John Huston, 1951)
Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974)
Assassination Tango (Robert Duvall, 2002)

The Most Overrated, Boring Pieces of Crap I've Ever Spent Money to See
Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)
King Kong (Peter Jackson, 2005)
Battlefield Earth (Roger Christian, 2000)

So what do we learn from my dad's list?  Firstly, we learn that he has cooler taste in movies than I do.  Secondly, that he spent money to see Battlefield Earth, which is hilarious.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The 10 Movies I Love the Most

This post originally appeared online at MediaBlvd Magazine.

For my first post on MediaBlvd, I wanted to come up with a list of my top ten favorite movies of all time.  Now obviously lists like these are terribly flawed, and they can never adequately convey what the list maker is really like.  There are surely hundreds of wonderful movies that I just haven’t seen yet, and there are some which I have, but that I couldn’t consider favorite movies, happy to pop into the DVD player at any given time.  Then there are the guilty pleasure movies, which always delight the viewer, but would be embarrassing to include on any self-respecting film lover’s list of favorites.

So I’ve decided to try to narrow it down to a list of ten movies that I love, which I could watch any time and be happy.  These are the staples which I’ll watch if ever they’re on TV, which I get moods for and watch repeatedly on DVD, and which make me feel something every time I watch them, even if it’s not the same feeling I had after my first viewing.  I will have to include the disclaimer, which is that this list omits gems like Independence Day, Air Force One, and Junior, which certainly fit the above description, but which I chose to skip in favor of some actual high-quality storytelling.

The 10 Movies I Love the Most (in no particular order):

Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953)
A royal falls in love with a commoner.  This old trope is made magical by the earthy, beautiful backdrop of Rome, Gregory Peck’s charm, Audrey Hepburn’s vivacity, and the audaciously bittersweet ending.  Roman Holiday was one of my first introductions to the notion that fairytale romances don’t always pan out the way that Disney movies tell you they will when you’re a little girl.  And I loved that; I was so grateful for that message.  This movie has real human emotion against a wildly unrelatable backdrop, and every time I watch it I can imagine running away and falling in love with a devastatingly handsome reporter in Italy.  Roman Holiday won the Academy Awards for Writing, Best Actress, and Best Costume Design (for Edith Head, who would later dress Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina and Funny Face, bringing Audrey’s iconic Givenchy look to the silver screen).

West Side Story (Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins, 1961)
Certainly, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is my pick for most fun musical, with its low-budget backdrops and uncomfortable Stockholm Syndrome plotline, but the classic love story of Tony and Maria is my best-loved musical.  Adapted from Bernstein & Sondheim's musical, which is itself a retelling of the classic star-cross'd lovers plot, the film blends issues of immigration, juvenile delinquency, and intercultural relationships in a style perfectly indicative of 1960s musicals.  The talents of the cast and filmmakers blend into a story that immerses the audience into the world of gang-run Manhattan where young people are always searching for something to make life more meaningful.  The performances of George Chakiris, Rita Moreno, and Russ Tamblyn stand out even fifty years later.

The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946)
While there have been plenty of films examining the toll of combat on veterans, many were made in the post-Vietnam era.  Whenever World War II is portrayed in film, it is often with a reverent sense of glory.  A sense that war may be ugly and gritty, but the Greatest Generation served with a purpose we can all see writ in the sepia-toned stories of our grandfathers.  Wyler’s film, about three servicemen returning home to the same city after fighting abroad, was released only one year after the war’s end, and portrays the men struggling to adjust to daily life, at odds with their families, with traumas unhealed by distance.  The poor man became a decorated captain in the war, the wealthy man was in the infantry, and the Navy man lost both arms without ever seeing combat.  Struggling with making ends meet, alcoholism, finding love, infidelity – the three have only each other to commiserate with.  It’s a beautifully told story, made all the more impressive by the time in which it was made.  Non-professional actor and double-amputee Harold Russell won both an Honorary Academy Award for the role, as well as the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

A League of Their Own (Penny Marshall, 1992)
My decade-older sister got the athletic gene.  She was a star softball player, and loved soccer, football, and all manner of other sports.  I, on the other hand, was relegated to deep right-field during my few years on a T-Ball team, standing with my glove on my head and wiping snot on my sleeve.  We watched League together so many times when I was a little kid that it has become emblematic of quality time spent with my cool teenaged sister.  It was the mid-‘90s and I had this “riot grrl” big sis who loved baseball, and watching this movie with her taught me about feminism, and Madonna, and led to a lifetime of conversing in movie quotations.  (“What do you suggest?”  “A lot of night games.”)  I don’t think I’ve watched this movie all the way through without laughing, crying, and singing along to the All-American league song.  Plus, my dad looked just like Jon Lovitz did in the movie, which still cracks me up almost twenty years later.

Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)
It’s hard for me to choose between this and PTA’s Magnolia, both of which I will watch all the way through despite their lengthy run times, but Boogie Nights is probably an easier movie to watch.  Remember all those fun parts, with Mark Wahlberg looking forward to his future as a big, bright, shining star, and the pool parties, and the cocaine before it gets cut with meth?  That’s the peppy late ‘70s spoonful of sugar before the downward spiral of the ‘80s crashes in, carried on the awkward shoulders of William H. Macy and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s characters.  It’s also a movie about family, and how love can overcome a lot of hurdles when you’re building one.  It’s also a movie about porn.

Back to the Future trilogy (Robert Zemeckis, 1985, 1989, 1990)
My love affair with Michael J. Fox blossomed during an early childhood medley of Family Ties reruns, the BTTF trilogy, and wishing I could grow up to be Boof from Teen Wolf.  In the years since, I have wept watching his departure from Spin City, and have read two of his autobiographies. The third is on my Kindle waiting for me.  I have spent countless hours on the dearly departed Back to the Future attraction at Universal Studios.  And you’re kidding yourself if you think you can change the channel when Back to the Future parts 1 or 2 come on TV. Part 3 is best appreciated after a marathon of the first two.  Fox, Lea Thompson, and Crispin Glover are sweetly funny and loveable in their iconic roles.

Center Stage (Nicholas Hytner, 2000)
It was between this, Dirty Dancing, and 10 Things I Hate About You for the guilty pleasure pick on this list, but I decided I had to pick the one with the least amount of lasting merit. I mean, Dirty Dancing is a truly classic ‘80s movie, and 10 Things has Heath Ledger and Joseph Gordon-Levitt before they reached their sexiest.  Center Stage is terribly acted, even by the cast members who weren’t professional dancers, and the story lines are so maudlin and predictable.  But the dancing is wonderful, and the cheesiness of the performances really only adds to my love for the movie.  Plus Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows are always so…hypnotic.

Once (John Carney, 2007)
This is probably an outlier on a top 10 films list, as so much of the power of this movie is its soundtrack, created and performed by its stars, non-professional actors Glen Hansard and Mark√©ta Irglov√°, who make up the act The Swell Season.  But the movie is the perfect vehicle for their musical talents, showcasing them against a Dublin that seems tailor-made for the buskers that inhabit it.  While I’ve listened to the soundtrack endlessly, and have seen The Swell Season perform live whenever possible, there’s a different energy to the music when observed again through the movie. It has that same type of perfect ending as Roman Holiday, leaving the audience satisfied with the brief glimpse they got into the characters’ lives.

Marty (Delbert Mann, 1955)
This sort-of dreary movie about a lonely butcher who lives with his mother, who can never escape the doldrums of his tired social life in an effort to find a nice girl to settle down with, seems like a strange choice for a movie that one could watch over and over.  But it’s the incredible acting of Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair as sad but earnest ugly ducklings crossing paths in a ballroom crowded with those more confident and pretty people who never have problems getting a date, that makes this movie evergreen.  I feel like people are often trained to be dissatisfied, and both Marty and Clara are shot down whenever they try to carve out the lives that they want, which makes their defiance so resonant.  Marty won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988)
This is it for me.  I think that if I were asked at gunpoint to narrow it down to one ultimate picture, one film to take with me to the deserted island, it would have to be this one.  While the tale of a boy’s teenage love, and his relationship with his mentor Alfredo, the local projectionist, is heartbreaking in its own right, this is a film about why movies are important.  There are so many great movies about filmmaking – too many even to list here – but I have yet to see one that surpasses Cinema Paradiso in its portrayal of how movies can affect people, give structure to communities, and foster relationships among those who love them.  The final montage, a pastiche of scenes from other movies that fits so perfectly into the story told over the previous acts, moves me to tears every time.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Get it together, people.

Okay so here's a very mini post about last night's Thursday comedy block on NBC.  Community: I didn't get it.  The Office: a very sweet episode and I hope it draws Steve Carrell's time on the show to a nice conclusion that feels natural.  30 Rock: the maternity photoshoot was incredible.  Perfect Couples / Outsourced: I never made it past the first episode.

But I have to reach out to all of my friends who haven't yet heard this message.  You have to watch Parks and Recreation.  It is ...perfect.  I just love it so much.  It's smart, it's funny, the characters are incredibly lovable and you want the best for them.  Adam Scott is in it, and he's adorable.  It even has good messages!  What possible excuse could you have for not watching this?  Please do yourself a favor.  You can skip season one, it was a bore (but not as bad as The Office [US] season one), and just read a synopsis online or something.  Seasons 2 and, so far, 3 have blown it out of the park episode after episode.

If you're not yet watching, I still hope the below line from last night's show will be funny to you.  This is a show about the Parks and Recreation department of a small midwestern town, Pawnee.  The central character, Leslie Knope, is the  most earnest person of time.  Here she is, reading off a list of the town's slogans over the years:

"Pawnee, the Paris of America. Pawnee, the Akron of southwest Indiana. Pawnee: Welcome, German soldiers. (After the Nazis took France our mayor kind of panicked.) Pawnee, the factory fire capital of America. Pawnee: Welcome, Vietnamese soldiers. Pawnee, engage with Zorp. (For a brief time in the ’70s, our town was taken over by a cult.) Pawnee, Zorp is dead, Long live Zorp. Pawnee, it’s safe to be here now. Pawnee, birthplace of Julia Roberts. (That was a lie, she sued and so we had to change it.) Pawnee, home of the world famous Julia Roberts lawsuit. Pawnee: Welcome, Taliban soldiers. And finally, our current slogan: Pawnee, first in friendship, fourth in obesity."

Plus all of the actors are just amazing and perfectly at ease being hilarious and endearing, every damn week.  I just want to move to fictional Pawnee and hang out with them.

Dear Parks and Recreation,
I love you.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Watch this space!

I've recently been contacted by the staff of MediaBlvd Magazine, and asked to contribute movie reviews and other pieces to their site!  MediaBlvd is an online magazine with reviews of film, television, and books, opinion pieces on the entertainment world, and celebrity interviews.  The site also has some strong ties to the nerd community, with a lot of features on science fiction and other aspects of the geek zeitgeist.

I'll be cross-posting whatever I write for MediaBlvd on this blog, so stay tuned for my first article on the site, which will be an introductory rundown of my top 10 favorite movies (in no particular order).

I have to say that while I have occasionally taken time off from blogging in the years since I started doing this, it has remained a very enjoyable outlet, and I'm grateful to the staff of A Bright Wall in a Dark Room for expanding my readership to a broader audience.  I look forward to my continued opportunities to contribute to BWDR, and to those in my new capacity at MediaBlvd as well.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Last night I finally made it to the second run theater across the street from my office to watch Danny Boyle's 127 Hours.  I'd been excited for this movie for some time, having seen Aron Ralston when he visited my high school a few years back (he'd dated one of the teachers).  After hearing what 127 Hours star James Franco said about the differing filmmaking styles of his film and The Social Network, that TSN was conventional compared to 127 Hours' innovation, I was curious to see how watching a guy become dehydrated and desperate over five days could stay interesting...at least until he cuts his arm off.  And I have to say, the movie sped by, particularly to the credit of Boyle and editor Jon Harris.

James Franco obviously carries the movie, as the camera doesn't often give us wide shots of him, instead staying in close, forcing us to feel Aron's claustrophobic situation, watching in detail as ants crawl over his increasingly pallid skin.  Much as I like initial casting choice Cillian Murphy, Franco is so much more obvious and perfect as Ralston, playing him as detached and lonely, but with a verve that keeps him sympathetic in his almost-craziness.  Franco also has that strange ability to be classically, smoulderingly, handsome from one angle, and hobo crazy from another, so roles that allow the eccentricity to flow through are probably the best showcases for his talent.

This movie, perhaps unlike many others based closely on true events, benefits from the assumption that audience members already know how the story will pan out.  "Let's go see the movie where James Franco cuts his arm off."  So when the movie starts off with Aron unable to find his trusty Swiss Army knife, in plain view of the camera, that feeling of dread sets in that will carry you through to the stomach-turning climax.  When he starts chipping away at the boulder with his dull pocketknife, I found myself pleading with him not to make it any duller, as if I wanted to warn him that the killer was inside the house.  You know Aron will survive, so when you see him videotaping his final goodbyes and drinking his own urine to stay alive, it forces the audience to wonder how they would have acted in his situation.

It's easy to judge Aron Ralston for bringing the situation upon himself.  The movie adequately portrays this issue, and surely Ralston himself knows that he could have saved himself a lot of misery by informing anyone as to his whereabouts, or being better prepared for his excursion.  But how would you have acted if it had been you trapped under the boulder?  Would you have waited five days without food and water before trying to free yourself?  Would it ever occur to you to have done what he did?  At a certain point, would you just try to kill yourself quickly?*  Perhaps only in a state of delirium and shock can the ultimate survival instinct kick in.  The film portrays Ralston as hallucinating visions of his family, of his future son, and that being what spurs him to finally go through with it.

In the end, I didn't know whether to feel inspired (or vow never to take up rock climbing), but the final scenes of Aron, post-amputation, rappelling to the ground, marching through the midday sun, and eventually finding rescue, water, a modicum of fame, and a family, were expertly shot and cut together.  There is some magic to be found in the triumph of the human spirit, and it is both crazy and admirable how Ralston has continued mountaineering in the years since his accident.  I feel like so many of us resign ourselves to letting life speed by, with hours stuck behind a computer screen, missing out on so many opportunities for adventures of all sorts.  After 127 Hours, I do have an itching to go on a nice - safe - hike this weekend.

*I have said that I would only go scuba diving if I could carry a cyanide capsule in my mouth, should I ever be attacked by the terrifying creatures of the deep.  Quick and painless > OH HELL A GIANT SQUID