Monday, December 31, 2012

Not quite another Auld Lang Syne...

If you're like me, you grew up watching Dick Clark lead the countdown in Times Square as one year faded into the next. While the past few years watching Clark lead the countdown following his stroke were a little depressing, I'll definitely feel a sense of loss watching Dick Clark's New Year's Rocking Eve this year without the man himself. (If we can stay awake!)

So in tribute, here's a compilation I found on YouTube of the ball drops in Times Square and the countdowns Clark led, from 1976-2012. Here's hoping that wherever he is, he's having one hell of a New Year's Eve celebration with many of the music legends we've lost, and playing practical jokes on people with Ed McMahon's help.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Not sticks or stones, but words...

Last night I had the awesome pleasure of watching the Washington Redskins clinch the NFC East division for the first time since 1999, beating their arch rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, in front of a roaring crowd. For a team that was 3-6 just seven weeks ago, to finish with a 10-6 regular season record and be headed to the playoffs just demonstrates the amazing talent and persistence the players have, especially rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III and rookie running back Alfred Morris.

The game was do-or-die—if the Redskins won, they clinched the division title; if they lost, they were out of the playoffs. The fact that it all came down to this, against the Cowboys of all teams, created an electrifying atmosphere I've never experienced before in my lifetime.

As with any sporting event, there were fans of the opposing team, talking their usual smack. When you take a game that means this much to both teams, throw in a decades-long rivalry, and add alcohol, tempers are sure to run a little higher than normal. But the taunting that occurred last night hit a little closer to home and was a little more hurtful than I would have expected.

Seated in our section last night was a Cowboys fan in his early to mid-20s. He had clearly been drinking. And when the Cowboys ultimately scored first, he was quick to taunt those of us around him, many of whom teased him for being a Cowboys fan in the first place. At that point, the sarcastically friendly ribbing turned ugly, as folks around us starting referring to Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo as "Tony Homo" and then proceeded to call the players and the fan in our section "fag," "homo," and use lots of other homophobic comments to describe everyone.

The action started again fairly quickly, so they were distracted, although they started up again once or twice. Having sat with a number of these people many times before over a few years, I've always believed them to be reasonably decent, so this was shocking. And I felt powerless to stop this.

Why is it that we still resort to homophobic taunts when poking fun at people? Is it necessary to adopt a mocking, higher voice, even a lisp, to get some sort of point across? To these people, is being a "faggot" or "homo" the worst thing they can imagine?

Sure, I know there was alcohol involved, but that doesn't excuse the behavior. I couldn't help but be brought back to far too many high school and middle school gym classes and other incidents in my childhood where those words were used. And although I have a much stronger self-belief system than I did then, I don't imagine I'm the only one who was affected by those words in a similar way.

My—perhaps naïve—hope for 2013 is that people don't find it necessary to resort to taunts of "fag" and "homo" when they want to insult people. I hope that professional athletes and comedians don't think the easy way to recover from a taunt, or the quickest way to a laugh, is to use those words.

Don't we owe it to ourselves to be a little more evolved? The world didn't end last week; why revert to outdated prejudice when behaving in the present?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Movie Review: "The Impossible"

Sometimes when I complain about things not going right, people tell me to keep it in perspective, to realize that what is happening to me isn't nearly as bad as the misfortunes of others. I'll admit that I don't always see that advice as helpful, because what feels unfair or insurmountable to one person may be nothing to another. (They say that admittance of the problem is the first step to recovery, don't they?)

After watching The Impossible, the harrowing, hopeful true story of a family affected by the late December 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, which killed more than 230,000 people in 14 countries, I don't know if I'll ever complain about seemingly petty things again. This incredible disaster struck without warning and was the third largest earthquake ever recorded.

In the movie, Henry and Maria Bennett (Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts) travel to a resort in Khao Lak, Thailand with their three sons to enjoy some relaxation over the Christmas holiday. Their worries and frustrations are typical of most families—concerns about money, worry about whether anyone armed the alarm system before leaving, the oldest son being irritated by the fears and demands of his younger siblings. And then on December 26, while enjoying some family fun in the swimming pool at the resort, the winds suddenly pick up, and disaster strikes.

The effects the filmmakers used in depicting the tsunami, the power of the water and the destruction it left in its wake, how seemingly harmless debris held such danger when propelled by the surging ocean, and the staggering aftermath, is tremendously affecting. It almost looked like actual footage shot in 2004. Maria and her oldest son, Lucas (played by then-14-year-old Tom Holland), find themselves brought together as the water rolls over them and then subsides, carrying them far from Henry and the two younger boys.

Maria sustains significant injuries and Lucas bravely tries to help her to safety as they waited to see if any further disaster would strike, and eventually, to find help. A good portion of the film follows Maria's stay in a tremendously busy Thai hospital, stretched far too thinly to handle all of the injuries and deaths brought there, and Lucas' efforts to help other survivors try and find members of their families. Another portion of the film follows Henry, trying to find Maria and Lucas, and being forced to make some tremendously difficult and emotional choices along the way.

The anguish, frustration, and exhaustion portrayed by Watts, McGregor, Holland, and countless actors with tiny speaking roles (sometimes in other languages) really tugged at my heart and my tear ducts. It reminded me of the post-9/11 frenzy in New York and Washington, as survivors tried desperately to find any news of their missing loved ones.

Watts is simultaneously brave and fearful, wearied and strong, although her part isn't as large as McGregor or Holland's. Although I can't believe Ewan McGregor is playing father roles now (this is the guy from Trainspotting and Velvet Goldmine, for pity's sake), I was wowed by the raw emotion and courage of his performance, and Tom Holland, in his first real movie role, is truly fantastic.

This is a movie that has more going for it than sheer emotional manipulation. It is a well-told story that brings home the unbelievable impact this disaster had on the lives of some affected by it, and the frustrations, fears, and challenges they faced. It's a difficult movie to watch but one so worth watching.

Book Review: "Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See" by Juliann Garey

Juliann Garey's first novel really packs a wallop.

Greyson Todd is a studio executive in Los Angeles. As an agent, his clients have won multiple Oscars, made millions of dollars, and have been the toast of the entertainment industry. Greyson and his wife, Ellen, who met as teenagers, have a young daughter, Willa, and when he is able to break away from the demands of work, Greyson enjoys spending time with his daughter.

The thing is, Greyson also suffers from bipolar disorder, which has made him almost manically dedicated and driven on behalf of his clients, but leaves him to unpredictably deal with the highest highs and the lowest lows, and keep them hidden from those he represents and others in the industry. It is incredibly debilitating and although Ellen supports him through these periods, the strain is becoming increasingly more difficult.

And one night, Greyson has had it. He leaves Ellen and Willa and allows his illness to take control, and travels the world—visiting Rome, Israel, Chile, Uganda, and Thailand—assuming different identities and living different lives until his illness catches up with him again. Each time, he experiences some terrific joys and connecting with people, mostly women, and then the lows begin crushing him again, in many different ways.

Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See is a gripping, poignant, and tremendously compelling book about one man's struggle with mental illness and how it affects those around him. The book shifts between Greyson's current condition, getting ECT treatments in a New York hospital, to his travels all over the world, his relationships with Ellen and Willa, and his childhood, when he watched his father deal with the same illness that is affecting him and how his long-suffering mother handled it.

Juliann Garey is a tremendously talented writer and she hooks you into Greyson's story almost immediately. Her storytelling ability is powerful, as she makes you care for Greyson even as he is doing things you may find horrifying or disturbing. While a book about mental illness would allow an author to create one-dimensional characters and rely on stereotypes, Garey brings a fresh perspective to a somewhat familiar story.

Mental illness is a serious problem that is often misunderstood. Juliann Garey helps you see the man behind the illness, and how it affects his daily life as well as the lives of those with whom he comes into contact. This is really a terrific book.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Cool cover song of the week...

Here's a little trip down memory lane, breaking away from my fondness for cover versions of 80s and 90s songs.

I've always been a huge Michael McDonald fan, both when he was with The Doobie Brothers and in his solo career (although if I never again hear On My Own, his duet with Patti LaBelle, it will be too soon). But there's probably no more quintessential McDonald/Doobie Brothers song than What a Fool Believes, which appeared on their 1978 album Minute by Minute, hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in April 1979, and won both Song of the Year and Record of the Year Grammy Awards in 1980.

While the original version of this song is timeless, I thought the cover version recorded in 2008 by Italian a cappella group Neri Per Caso, featuring vocals by Mario Biondi, was really interesting, particularly for the contrast of Biondi's gravelly voice versus McDonald's more soulful one.

Here is Neri Per Caso and Mario Biondi's take on the song:

And for nostalgia's sake, here's the original:

Check out my previous Cool Cover Songs of the Week:

Borderline by The Counting Crows

How Deep Is Your Love by The Bird and The Bee

Life in a Northern Town by Sugarland, Little Big Town, and Jake Owen

I Don't Want to Talk About It by The Indigo Girls

Only You by Joshua Radin

Pure Imagination by Maroon 5

I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) by Blake Stratton

Book Review: "The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets" by Kathleen Alcott

Some books wow you with unexpected plot twists, breathless action sequences, and/or memorable characters. Other books simply dazzle you with the power and beauty of their narrative, of the authors' ability to weave a story. While the ideal book combines all of these characteristics, sometimes a book is so strong in one category that it doesn't matter that it might fall a little short in others.

Such a book is Kathleen Alcott's debut novel, The Danger of Proximal Alphabets. I was absolutely blown away by Alcott's writing ability and her use of language; I can't tell you how many times I found myself re-reading paragraphs and marveling at, even envying her talent. Although I didn't feel the overall plot was as cohesive and strong as I would have liked, Alcott's characters and the way she described the situations they found themselves in made this a truly memorable read.

Ida, and brothers Jackson and James (or "I" and "J," as they referred to themselves), grew up together. There rarely were moments they didn't spend in each other's company, spending nights in the brothers' room, sneaking out in the middle of the night to explore the city around them, even drinking on the deserted train tracks or on rooftops. As they grew older, and Ida and Jackson's relationship transformed into a physical one, James was still always there. While to the outside world, even to their parents, the three were just good friends and neighbors, they saw themselves as a family unit, even keeping secrets the way siblings do, even into adulthood.

"It's ridiculous the way all three of us retained that childhood bond of keeping secrets from the adults no matter the cost, insisted on naming it us versus them when it had become so clearly us versus us..."

As Jackson's nightly habit of talking with his brother in his sleep transforms into both sleepwalking (far beyond simply walking to the refrigerator) and more violent behavior in adulthood, it threatens his relationship with Ida. But helping him see the positives that come from this behavior doesn't seem to help either. James experiments with drugs and starts struggling with mental illness, and suddenly Ida can't seem to penetrate the relationship of the two brothers.

This is a book that explores the different components that make a family, that those to whom we're closest aren't necessarily those with whom we share blood or genes. It is also a story about how we seek to fill the voids left in our lives, by the parents, lovers, and friends who leave us behind. I didn't always understand Ida's actions or motivations, but found the relationships between her and the boys, as well as her relationship with her father, poignant and rich.

Ida says, "there's no guarantee that someone standing at precisely the same longitude and latitude as you will remember the view the same way, no promise that one person's memory of a moment or a month will parallel yours, retain the same value, shape the years of living that follow." The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets doesn't always unfold the way you expect it will, but it is compelling and surprising at times. And if at times the plot wears a little thin, Alcott's use of language more than fills those gaps.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Movie Review: "Django Unchained"

While there are a number of things you'll nearly always find in a Quentin Tarantino movie—characters who epitomize both evil and cool (sometimes simultaneously), lots of can't-watch-but-can't-look-away violence, an homage to different film genres, a cameo from the director, and Samuel L. Jackson in one form or another—his films are never dull, nor are they retreads of previous films. Although it drags on a little bit too long, Django Unchained is a tremendously worthy entry in the Tarantino pantheon.

It's 1858, somewhere in Texas. A group of slaves is being marched over rough terrain, through difficult weather conditions, when they are met by dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, in full Waltz-ian mode). He is looking for a dastardly trio known as the Brittle Brothers. The only person who knows who they are is one of the slaves, Django (Jamie Foxx), so Dr. Schultz decides he'll help himself to Django, whether his owners like it or not. (They don't.) After Dr. Schultz and Django make their escape, he enlists Django to help him track down the Brittle Brothers; if he does, he'll pay him and give him his freedom.

The exploits of this unlikely yet bad-ass duo take them to the plantation of Big Daddy (Don Johnson, looking a little like Colonel Sanders), after which they have an encounter with an early, much less menacing version of the Klan. And as they travel through the winter hunting down criminals, the pair unites to rescue Django's wife, Broomhilda (Scandal's Kerry Washington, luminous as ever) from the plantation she was sold to.

They track Broomhilda to the plantation of Francophile Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who doesn't speak French but likes to be referred to as Monsieur Candie. Django and Dr. Schultz hatch an elaborate plan, but run afoul of longtime family slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson, looking like a cross between Uncle Remus and Uncle Ben), who is a lot more perceptive than he pretends to be. And of course, plans go rather awry.

Combining an homage to the old spaghetti westerns with the blaxploitation theme Tarantino loves to revisit, Django Unchained is amazingly violent (more so than Inglourious Basterds but less so than Kill Bill), hysterically funny, surprisingly astute, and unbelievably foul-mouthed. (I don't know if I've ever heard the "N" word used so many times in one movie.) While the movie runs a little more than two and a half hours, trimming at least 20-25 minutes from the end would have made it even more effective, although the conclusion was worthwhile.

I've never been a huge Jamie Foxx fan, more for his off-screen posturing than his acting, but he does a terrific job as Django, bringing cool and heart to his character. Waltz is once again absolutely fantastic; his character gets some amazing dialogue and his delivery is spot-on. Leonardo DiCaprio is at his most odious yet his most playful; he apparently was so appalled by his character he had to play him, and he is fantastic. Samuel L. Jackson does his best Samuel L. Jackson, and once again, Tarantino brings back some 1970s and 1980s favorites throughout the film—Johnson, Tom Wopat, Lee Horsley (Matt Houston), even Dennis Christopher (Breaking Away), who plays Candie's lawyer, Mr. Moguy. And of course, Tarantino has a small part toward the end.

I am constantly amazed by Tarantino's creativity, his ear for dialogue, and his thirst for bloody violence. Clearly some have been offended by this movie, and if you don't take it in the spirit with which it was intended, it's certainly understandable. But for me, Django Unchained is another great movie to stand as a part of a growing list of Tarantino's great movies.

Better R-E-S-P-E-C-T the holidays...

Courtesy of kenneth in the (212):

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Movie Review: "Rust and Bone"

While the old adage that opposites attract is true, so too is the philosophy that people who are alike are drawn together, whether the characteristics they share are positive or negative. That idea is at the heart of Rust and Bone, a compelling French movie from director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet).

Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), an aimless wanderer with a bit of a violent streak, moves from Belgium to France with his young son, Sam, in tow. He isn't a particularly responsible father, and is more than happy to leave Sam in the care of his sister, Anna, and her husband, while he looks for a job, works out, and chases after women.

One night, while working as a bouncer at a nightclub, he breaks up a fight involving Stephanie (Marion Cotillard of The Dark Knight Rises, Inception and La Vie en Rose), a defiant trainer of killer whales. Ali escorts her home and leaves her his cell phone number in case she ever needs help. Meanwhile, Ali switches jobs to working for a security company, where he helps a friend install secret cameras in many stores so that management can spy on its employees.

A few months later, Stephanie calls on Ali after she is involved in a horrible accident that leaves her a double amputee. His brand of tough love (more tough, less love) helps rescue her out of her depression and isolation, and makes her start to want to engage in life again. Ali, who has boxed previously, has been enlisted by a friend to start fighting for money, no holds barred. The fights are brutal but the money keeps coming in, and Stephanie feels herself drawn to the violence of his fights.

The two are drawn together physically, but Stephanie's stated desire to keep their relationship a physical one belies her feelings. And when a series of incidents cause Ali to leave town one night, leaving Sam behind with his sister, he abandons Stephanie as well. But when Ali hits rock bottom following an unexpected incident, Stephanie returns the favor he paid her months before.

I wasn't quite sure what to make of the movie when it started, but the plot and the performances really drew me in. Neither character is wholly sympathetic but you definitely find yourself invested in their stories, which are told in a very unflinching manner. While it's always interesting to watch a movie with subtitles because you find yourself reading as much as watching the actors express themselves, both Cotillard and Schoenaerts' performances are moving, emotional, and powerful.

This is a story of two people with self-destructive tendencies brought together in times of crisis. It's a well-done movie worth watching, so if you're not put off by subtitles, I definitely recommend it.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Book Review: "The Big Exit" by David Carnoy

I read a lot of mysteries/thrillers, and while I don't always figure everything out every time, I love books that have enough plot twists to keep me guessing without throwing out red herrings all over the place. David Carnoy's The Big Exit didn't let up the entire time, and although I saw a few things coming, I still thought this was a pretty great read.

It seemed like Richie Forman had it all—a successful career in marketing, a beautiful fiancée, and a terrific singing voice. Driving home with his best friend, Mark, following an impromptu bachelor party, they were involved in a terrible car crash that killed a young woman. Richie swore he wasn't driving; in fact, he remembered falling asleep in the passenger's seat, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, including his friend's testimony. His engagement ended when he was sent to prison, where he encountered some unspeakable incidents, and his former fiancé married his old best friend.

When Richie got out of prison, he started looking for a job to supplement the income he earned as a Frank Sinatra impersonator. Then Mark is murdered, and Richie is the prime suspect, although the police also suspect Mark's wife, Beth. As Richie tries to clear his name, the evidence mounts, as does his suspicion that Beth was trying to set him up. The more digging he and the police do into the case, the more the twists keep coming, until no one is quite sure just what happened the day Mark was murdered.

David Carnoy is a terrific storyteller, juxtaposing creative plot development with some really fascinating twists, as well as complex characters. Thanks to some serious insomnia, I read the entire book in a day, and it definitely is a fast and satisfying read.

Richie is a fascinating character, and as the action unfolded, I was surprised quite a bit when something different than what I expected happened. I did keep forgetting how old the characters were; they all seemed much older than they truly were, so I had to keep adjusting the pictures in my head. Richie is a fascinating character, and as the action unfolded, I was surprised quite a bit when something different than what I expected happened. I did keep forgetting how old the characters were; they all seemed much older than they truly were, so I had to keep adjusting the pictures in my head.

I'm not sure if this was the case with the print version of the book, but the e-book version of this book was one of the most poorly edited things I've ever read. Spelling and grammatical errors were plentiful, as were mistakes in characters' names and other facts, so I found it a bit distracting. But other than that, I really enjoyed this book, and would highly recommend it to fans of suspense novels.

Movie Review: "Les Misérables"

I have seen Les Misérables the musical more times than any other show—three times on Broadway, countless times performed by national theater companies, even once performed by a high school-age performing arts group. It's one of the musicals I know completely by heart—I can sing every part of every song, and actually have on a few long car rides. And if I could have the chance to be in any musical, Les Misérables would be at the top of the list.

From the moment I heard they'd be adapting the musical into a movie, I've been anticipating this. (I need something to completely eradicate the memory of the non-singing, Liam Neeson/Uma Thurman version from the late 1990s.) And once the casting was complete, and clips starting being released, I have been counting down to this day.

So after all that hype, did the movie live up to my expectations? Yes, and then some. While not a 100 percent line-for-line adaptation of the musical, I felt its translation into a movie gave it more depth, strengthening the power and emotion of the film. And nearly all of the performances were as good as I hoped they'd be.

Most people have either seen the musical or are familiar with the plot, so I'm going to skip the rundown of the story. But suffice it to say the plot has a little bit of everything—an ex-con trying to live the straight and narrow life but realizing the stigma is too much to bear; the dogged police inspector always on his trail; evil factory workers; women struggling to survive in a cruel world; whores, crooked thieves, and abandoned children; love at first sight; unrequited love; and standing up for what you believe in, all with the backdrop of the 1832 June Rebellion.

As Jean Valjean, the hero always trying to do right even when he doesn't, Hugh Jackman is magnetic, vulnerable, and in terrific voice. All of those performances on the Tony Awards were no fluke—he's a true performer. Sadly, Russell Crowe, as Valjean's foe, Inspector Javert, doesn't fare quite as well, at least vocally. He has the glower and sense of duty down quite well, but his musical delivery often seems somewhat rushed and it almost sounds as if he's trying to sing an octave lower than he speaks. (But perhaps I'm being a little unfair to Crowe; he does fine with Javert's song Stars, which is probably one of my most favorite in the entire show.)

Anne Hathaway, as the doomed Fantine, is as good as everyone says she is. She not only sings quite well, but the emotion she brings to her small but pivotal role is terrific and poignant. Amanda Seyfried, as Cosette, Valjean's adopted daughter, shows her voice off even stronger than she did in Mamma Mia, while Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn), really surprised me with the strength of his performance as Marius, Cosette's love interest. (Quite often in productions of the musical, Marius is played by an exceptionally good looking actor with a weaker voice, but Redmayne sounds terrific.) And making her film debut as the defiant and lovelorn Eponine, English actress Samantha Barks (who played the role in the theater), is absolutely fantastic, and I think it's the fact that she's unknown that has stopped her from garnering praise equal to Hathaway's.

The supporting characters are equally fantastic. Broadway actor Aaron Tveit, as Enjolras, the leader of the rebellion, is vocally and emotionally powerful, while Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, as the deviously cunning Thénardiers, provide the campy, comic relief you'd expect them to, without overacting or distracting.

As you might imagine, I was prepared to mouth the words from start to finish, so I noticed when lyrics were changed a bit or portions of songs were cut. But none of the alterations diminished the movie's power at all, although I felt the one new song added to the movie, Suddenly, seemed a bit out of place, even if it was written by the creators of the musical.

Be warned: adapting the musical into a movie makes the emotionally heavy parts even more so (I was a sobbing mess by the end), and some scenes are graphic and disturbing, particularly those around the barricade. And steer clear of the super-sized soda or bottle of water, as with previews, the movie runs just about three hours long.

It's rare when a movie you've waited so long and so hopefully for lives up to your expectations perfectly. But this movie did just that. And much like the musical, I'm ready to see it again. And again.

So this is Christmas...

I think I first realized my family didn't celebrate Christmas when we moved into our house in Marlboro, NJ, when I was about 4-1/2 years old. I remember our house didn't have a fireplace, so I asked my parents how Santa would be able to get down the chimney and give us our gifts. They explained that because we were Jewish, Santa wouldn't visit us anyway, and I'm guessing they must have explained Hanukkah. I figure that the prospect of getting a present every night for eight nights must have been more-than-suitable balm for a nearly five-year-old.

The story of Hanukkah, of the miracle following the destruction of the Holy Temple, when although there was only enough oil to keep the menorah lit for one day, it stayed lit for eight days, was an amazing one. I always enjoyed the ritual of lighting the menorah, spinning the dreidel, and singing Hanukkah songs. But how can a child not wonder what Christmas was like when Santa Claus, Christmas songs, and holiday decorations are such a ubiquitous part of our culture?

In high school chamber choir, I loved when it was time to roll out the Christmas songs, particularly the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah. (I'd like to still believe, with a little warming up, my old tenor voice could hit those high notes.) And as I grew older, I had the opportunity to experience many Christmas rituals, such as attending Christmas services at Washington's National Cathedral one year, decorating a tree, even going caroling. (All while maintaining the Jewish tradition of going to the movies and eating Chinese food on Christmas.)

I'm fascinated by the constant struggle in our society between celebrating Christmas and being politically correct. While I certainly don't think there's a "war on Christmas," I do think there's room to see both sides of the discussion.

When someone wishes me a Merry Christmas, I'm not offended. To me, it doesn't mean that they think their religion is somehow superior, that everyone should celebrate Christmas. I've always taken it that they want to share the joy of the holidays, and even if I don't celebrate Christmas, I take their wishes into the celebration of Hanukkah. But I respect those for whom hearing "Merry Christmas" when they celebrate Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or another holiday undermines their own religious identity.

Regardless of how you spent today—celebrating Christmas with family and friends, watching movies and eating Chinese, spending time in spiritual reflection, or acting as if it was just another day—I wish you happy holidays, today and every day.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Movie Review: "Flight"

I'm not afraid of flying per se, but I do have a little bit of what I'll call flight-related anxiety. No matter how many times I get on a plane, there's always a tiny part of me that gets nervous about the plane making it safely to my final destination, which is why I always stop what I'm doing and listen to the flight attendant sharing important safety information, even if I know how to fasten and unfasten my seatbelt. Better safe than sorry, you know?

Well, after watching the first 30 minutes of Flight, I don't know how soon I'll be ready to get back on an airplane. Seriously, that was one of the most harrowing, pulse-pounding sequences I've ever seen.

Denzel Washington plays SouthJet airline pilot Whip Whitaker, a man born to fly but one whose demons should probably ground him. On what seems like a routine flight from Orlando to Atlanta one stormy morning, everything that could possibly go wrong with one plane does. But Whip takes control of his airplane as we've seen noted pilot heroes do in the past, and his actions ensure the plane crashes into an open field rather than a heavily populated area.

The thing is, though, the fact that the plane suffers malfunction after malfunction, and that Whip's steady control saved many lives, takes a back seat the more NTSB investigators start digging. They uncover that all is not what it seems with our hero pilot. This doesn't sit well with Whip's old friend, Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), now with the pilot's union, or the union's dogged lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), who want to protect Whip and make sure the blame is placed squarely where it belongs.

Along the way, Whip comes into contact with Nicole (Kelly Reilly, clearly filling in for Jessica Chastain), a recovering junkie who tries to help him fight his own battles. But Whip doesn't think he needs help, and becomes increasingly more defiant and angry, even in the face of possible career-ending scrutiny and continuing to damage his relationships with those he cares about.

Washington is at his best when he plays the stalwart tough guy with a whole lot of vulnerability, and both the fire and the weakness are on fine display in this role, which is likely to net him another Oscar nomination. John Goodman, who plays one of Whip's friends, looks like he came straight from a cast reunion of The Big Lebowski, while Reilly's performance was quite good, once I kept telling myself she wasn't Jessica Chastain. Brian Geraghty (The Hurt Locker) and Tamara Tunie (Law and Order: SVU), as the co-pilot and flight attendant who witness Whip's heroics firsthand, do quite well with their brief roles. But the movie really belongs to Washington.

Washington isn't the most sympathetic character, but you still find yourself completely drawn into his story. I even found myself hoping his character wouldn't do certain things, which means I had gotten fairly invested. The movie is a little heavy handed at times in its messaging and its exploration of matters of faith and God's plans, but in the end, Flight is a movie which takes you where you think you're going, and the journey along the way is worth it.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Book Review: "Seating Arrangements" by Maggie Shipstead

What is it about weddings that cause so much drama? For many years, wedding-related chaos has provided inspiration for countless books, stories, movies, plays, even songs, and when a seemingly functional family gets caught up in the melee, it's even more fun to watch, even if you've seen it all before. And such is the stuff behind Maggie Shipstead's Seating Arrangements, a humorous, even somewhat poignant look at the dust a wedding kicks up, and the madness and introspection that follows.

Having raised two daughters with his wife, Biddy, Winn Van Meter knew there would come a day where he would have to give his daughters' hands in matrimony. But as family and friends prepare to gather at the Van Meters' summer home on the New England island of Waskeke, he realizes things aren't exactly as he thought they might be. His soon-to-be-betrothed daughter Daphne is seven months pregnant, and his younger daughter, Livia, has just come through a bitter breakup with her boyfriend, Teddy Fenn, the son of one of Winn's biggest rivals, and she is still not quite on stable ground. And one of Daphne's bridesmaids, her childhood friend Agatha, seems to have taken an interest in Winn, which is both flummoxing and flattering.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Winn, a Harvard graduate raised to prize tradition and appearances and loyalty above all, can't quite understand why he hasn't been admitted to a prestigious country club on the island. He also doesn't understand why Livia can't pull herself together instead of throwing herself at one of the groomsmen, or why he seems to be losing control of his family and his life.

You may be thinking, you've seen this all before. Shipstead definitely travels on familiar ground in this book, but her storytelling ability and knack for dialogue (both spoken and inner dialogue) makes even the familiar seem captivating and compelling. While you might not ever experience some of the first-world-type problems some of the characters deal with, and you may never know a person with the first name of Sterling or Dryden or Agatha or Greyson, Shipstead skillfully blends the stereotypes of the rich with the emotional challenges everyone confronts regardless of their net worth.

True, this book isn't as uproariously funny as some of the reviews I've read promised it was. (I definitely had more than a few chuckles, even laughs, though.) And some of the characters aren't quite as sympathetic as you hope they'd be, so you may not care as much about their problems. But in the end, Seating Arrangements is a tremendously enjoyable and insightful look at human foibles, and how a family wedding highlights them and in some cases, causes them to multiply. Definitely well-done.

Movie Review: "Hyde Park on Hudson"

In so many movies and plays (Annie comes to mind most frequently), FDR is portrayed as almost a benevolent, godlike figure, probably the way many in the country saw him while he was president. Hyde Park on Hudson, the latest film from Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Venus), gives Roosevelt more than his share of flaws while telling the story of his relationship with his distant cousin, Margaret "Daisy" Stuckley.

It's 1939. FDR (Bill Murray, surprisingly effective) and his staff are summering at Hyde Park, his mother's home in upstate New York. Concerned about all that is happening in the world around him, he is in a state, and Mrs. Roosevelt sends for Daisy (Laura Linney) to help distract him. At first, Daisy is somewhat intimidated by her cousin and all the pomp and circumstance surrounding him, but as they spend more time together, driving around the beautiful New York countryside, she finds herself beginning to worship him, and their relationship deepens.

With England just on the brink of entering World War II, the newly crowned King George VI (Samuel West) and his wife, Queen Elizabeth (a terrific Olivia Colman), come to America to visit the president and ask him to come to England's aid. The royal couple is somewhat shocked by their experience in the more rustic Hyde Park than the grandeur of the White House, the familiarity of Eleanor Roosevelt (a marvelously droll Olivia Williams), and the lack of social graces of their hosts. Yet the King and Queen know the future of his country—and his monarchy—depends upon asking the president for help.

When the film depicts the dynamics of the royal couple interacting with each other and the Roosevelts, the film is wonderful. But when the film shifts gears to explore FDR's relationship with Daisy—and others—the film completely loses its focus and charm. It's interesting that a film essentially about a relationship between two people is at its least effective when portraying that relationship, and I'm not so sure if that is because the relationship made me somewhat uncomfortable or if Linney is woefully miscast and doesn't have much to do but vacillate between acting flighty and taciturn.

Murray, in a Golden Globe-nominated performance, does a terrific job as FDR. The sly humor Murray brings to nearly all of his performances works well here, and he isn't afraid to make his character seem unsympathetic at times. But for me, the movie belonged to Colman and West as the royal couple; Colman has some of the funniest lines and her delivery is priceless, and West brings an impressive combination of bravado and vulnerability to a man seen in film just a few years ago. Olivia Williams (Rushmore, The Sixth Sense) brings an interesting physicality to her portrayal of Eleanor Roosevelt, along with an amusingly jaded cynicism.

This is a somewhat enjoyable movie made more so by several terrific performances. I'm sad to see Linney underused (if not misused) but was surprised by Murray, Colman, West, and Williams. I wouldn't run out and see this one, but it's definitely worth catching on DVD or cable, if for the performances alone.

Movie Review: "Hitchcock"

It's amazing when you think of today's movies, dominated by the undead, monsters, Satan's spawn, and weapon-wielding maniacs, in Alfred Hitchcock's heyday, he could terrify moviegoers with psychological horror or the fright of discovering the normal-seeming person you encounter is, well, psycho.

The master of suspense himself (played by Anthony Hopkins), and his battle to make Psycho in 1960, is at the crux of Sacha Gervasi's first film, Hitchcock. Desperate for an inspiration for his next movie, he stumbles upon Anthony Bloch's novel, Psycho, and decides that instead of the psychological terror of his films like Vertigo and North by Northwest, he'll use actual violence and horror this time, much to the dismay of his steadfast wife and collaborator, Alma Reville (the always amazing Helen Mirren). Alma would rather Hitch consider filming the screenplay of Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who pays Alma the attention she is lacking.

Everyone is dead set against Hitchcock making this film, including the censors, but he puts up his own money and doggedly pushes forward, casting the ethereal Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) as woman-with-a-secret Marion, and the timid, fey Tony Perkins (James D'Arcy) as the infamous Norman Bates. As he usually does, Hitch becomes obsessed with his leading lady as the embodiment of his fantasies, to the chagrin of his wife, and the seen-it-before cynicism of Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), who was once his chosen one until she passed on movie stardom to raise a family.

As the battle to create the movie he wants presses on him financially and emotionally, and Alma becomes more distant, Hitch pushes harder and harder and starts finding himself envisioning serial killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), whose exploits inspired Bloch to write his novel.

Will Alma come to Hitch's rescue and help him finish the movie the way he wants? Will the studio be satisfied with the final product? And how will moviegoers react? If you're familiar with film history, and/or if you've seen any movies, you know the answers to all of those questions. But that fact doesn't quite detract from the slight, sly charm of the film.

Playing the corpulent, obsessive film genius, Hopkins seems to be channeling a little more Hannibal Lecter than Alfred Hitchcock. Although he does a good job balancing his quest for perfection with the emotional trauma he is dealing with, I felt like Hopkins was a little too campy, almost comical at times. Mirren, in a role that will probably net her an Oscar nomination, does a fantastic job with her role, as the woman who may have been more of an influence on the filmmaker Hitchcock became than anyone else, yet few recognize her genius. Johansson is perfectly sunny as Janet Leigh, while Biel has little more to do than glower through most of the film.

I think this movie had the potential to be much more than it turned out to be. The strength of Mirren's performance, and Hopkins' overacting, isn't quite enough to sustain the film, although there are some amusing bits. It might be a good DVD to watch at some point, but if it's still playing in theaters by you, I'd suggest you pick something else.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Cool cover song of the week...

If you've been following these cover song posts, you'll notice that I'm particularly enamored when a cover takes a more upbeat song and strips it down. And that's what I'm focusing on in this week's post.

The Proclaimers' hit song, I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) became a hit in the U.S. in 1993 when it was featured in the Johnny Depp-Mary Stuart Masterson movie Benny and Joon. It's one of those songs that never fails to make me smile and feel a little more energetic, even if I don't actually understand all of the lyrics.

Interestingly enough, the song was first released by the band in 1988. It reached number 11 on the UK charts and number 1 on the Australian ARIA Charts in 1989, and hit number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US in 1993.

Singer Blake Stratton released a cover of the song in September 2011, on his debut album The Bellevue EP. I love Stratton's voice, and I particularly love what he did to this song, as his spare, melodic arrangement calls more attention to the beauty of the lyrics and their meaning.

Two completely different versions of the song, and I like them both for different reasons. What do you think?

Here's Stratton's version:

And here's the original, just for fun:

Check out my previous Cool Cover Songs of the Week:

Borderline by The Counting Crows

How Deep Is Your Love by The Bird and The Bee

Life in a Northern Town by Sugarland, Little Big Town, and Jake Owen

I Don't Want to Talk About It by The Indigo Girls

Only You by Joshua Radin

Pure Imagination by Maroon 5

Thursday, December 20, 2012

What brought us together...

While it's not quite the end of the year (and it appears the end of the world isn't upon us either), this video, "The Web in Review," is a great compilation of moments (many thanks to YouTube and other video services) that captivated public attention during these last 12 months.

To what should be the surprise of no one, I got choked up a few times.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Book Review: "Birds of a Lesser Paradise" by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Megan Mayhew Bergman's short story collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, is a definite find. Sometimes moving, sometimes funny, sometimes insightful, these stories depict women's interactions with nature in its many forms—biological, zoological, and psychological—and how sometimes you just don't understand its influence.

There are a number of terrific stories in this collection, but among my favorites were "Housewifely Arts," which told of a woman and her son driving to a zoo nine hours away from her home so she can find a parrot that used to belong to her mother and imitated her voice perfectly; "Yesterday's Whales," the story of an advocate for population control who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant; "The Two-Thousand-Dollar Sock," which followed a woman's struggles with motherhood, honey-seeking bears, and a sick dog; and the title story, about a naturalist and her father who are led into the swamp by a mysterious stranger, searching for an elusive woodpecker.

Some of the stories resonated more for me than others, and only one or two didn't quite hit the mark. I was really taken by Bergman's voice and her ability to occupy and embody so many different narrators and imbue them with great depth. Some of the characters are similar, and at first glance I wondered if some of the stories were interconnected, but the more the stories unwound, I realized their differences. While some of the situations her characters find themselves in may be hard to identify with, nothing was ever unrealistic, and that added to the stories' appeal.

As I've commented many times before, when short stories are done right, they captivate you and leave you wanting to know more about the characters when the stories are finished. With this collection, I felt that way nearly all the time, and I would have loved to know what happened to some of these women after the last sentence of their stories.

This is a tremendously enjoyable, refreshingly candid, and well-written collection I'd definitely recommend to short story fans. And Bergman is an author to watch!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Things that boggle the mind...

I've refrained from posting anything about the horrible tragedy in Connecticut, both because I haven't been able to separate my emotions from words, and partially because so many people more articulate than I have weighed in. And while it's undeniable that this country needs to engage in serious conversations about gun control and mental health reform, it's also undeniable that giving people a little time to let the sheer magnitude of this massacre sink in will only give traction to action a little later.

But this morning someone shared an article from Fortune magazine that absolutely boggled my mind. The article begins:
"Do you know who owns more than a 6% stake in the maker of .223 Bushmaster rifles, like the one used last Friday to murder 20 first graders and seven adults in Newtown, Connecticut? California public schoolteachers."
It turns out that the California State Teachers' Retirement System (CalSTRS) committed to invest $500 million into a $7.5 billion Cerberus Capital Management fund that has helped bankroll Freedom Group, a privately-held firearms conglomerate formed by private equity and hedge fund group Cerberus. Cerberus created the platform in April 2006 via the acquisition of Bushmaster, after which it added another 10 makers of firearms, ammunition and accessories (including Remington, Marlin Arms and Barnes Bullets).

This means that the California State Teachers' Retirement System effectively could own a 6.67 percent stake in the gun maker. This despite the fact that the CalSTRS says it considers non-economic factors in making investment decisions, "for the purpose of ensuring that the Retirement System, either through its action or inaction, does not promote, condone or facilitate social injury."

Additionally, CalSTRS has identified 21 risk factors "that should be included within the financial analysis of any investment decision," including one titled Human Health, which says:
"The risk to an investment's long-term profitability from business exposure to an industry or company that makes a product which is highly detrimental to human health so that it draws significant product liability lawsuits, government regulation, United Nations sanctions and focus, and avoidance by other institutional investors."
"Clearly you can make a case that this company's products fall within the 21 risk factors, particularly the one regarding human health," says CalSTRS spokesman Ricardo Duran. "But there are a lot of products that can be used responsibly or irresponsibly, and in this case it was used irresponsibly... Now that a tragic event like this has occurred, I'm sure that it is something that we will be discussing going forward."

But according to the article, the system didn't have a similar conversation when a Bushmaster rifle was used in the Aurora theater massacre this summer.

Know where your money is invested. Ask questions. And let's push companies to put their money where they say their mission is. We've seen far too many companies secretly funding anti-equality and other causes, and they need to be held accountable.

Read the full article here.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Book Review: "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" by Rachel Joyce

This sweet, heartfelt book reminded me of movies like Waking Ned Devine or The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain. It even had some Forrest Gump-ian characteristics (without the Southern accent or the meteoric run through historical events). But despite some similarities, this was a unique book with a story all its own.

Harold Fry recently retired from his job, and now doesn't feel motivated to do much of anything. His very presence seems to irritate his wife, Maureen. But then again, their relationship has been strained for some time, full of hurt and anger both spoken and unspoken, especially since their son, David, left home.

One day, Harold receives a letter from an unlikely source—Queenie Hennessy, a former coworker he hasn't seen or heard from in 20 years. Queenie wrote to tell Harold that she is in hospice suffering from terminal cancer, and wanted to say goodbye. Harold is shocked by this news and touched by the memories Queenie's letter stirred up, so he quickly dashes off a note of support, and heads to the corner mailbox. Yet as he arrives at the mailbox, he realizes it is a nice day outside, and decides to keep walking to the next one.

On his journey to the post office, from where he figures sending the letter will allow it to arrive quicker, Harold has a chance encounter that changes everything. And then he decides he must keep walking, all the way to visit Queenie in person to help save her—despite the fact it is a 600-mile journey from his home in Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick-on-Tweed. Not to mention he hasn't had much physical exercise in many years, and isn't all dressed for that type of journey.

But walk he does, much to his surprise, and Maureen's shock, anger, and chagrin. Harold's walk opens his mind to memories both good and painful, as he relives his friendship with Queenie and tries to figure out exactly where his and Maureen's relationship went wrong. "Life was very different when you walked through it," he said, and along his walk he comes into contact with many different people and realizes that each has an interesting story to tell.

"The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing so for a long time." Harold's journey takes many interesting twists and turns, and people's reactions to it become almost indicative of the world we live in today. And during Harold's absence, Maureen tries to figure out the root of her anger with Harold, and whether her life is worth living without him.

This is a compelling, enjoyable, and warm story about the unlikely journeys we take, sometimes simply to prove we still have life inside of us. It's also a story about the things we say and don't say to those we care about, and the ramifications of both. I liked this book quite a bit, although I could have done without the events around the public's embracing of Harold's pilgrimage, as I felt it took the book into more satirical territory than the story needed. Beyond that, however, this book had charm, the special charm you feel after a whimsical movie like the ones I mentioned above.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Book Review: "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" by Maria Semple

I may be in the minority, but I'd rate this about 3.5 stars if I could.

In her younger days, Bernadette Fox was a revolutionary architect. When issues arise with her famed creation, she and her computer whiz husband, Elgin, flee to Seattle, where he begins a career at Microsoft (and he gave the fourth most watched TED Talk of all time). Yet Bernadette quickly becomes disillusioned with Seattle life, and after several miscarriages, focuses all of her attention on their daughter, Bee, while Elgin rises through Microsoft's ranks, spearheading a major project.

By the time Bee turns 15 and is ready to head to high school, Bernadette has become nearly agoraphobic, loathing every encounter with her neighbors (whom she refers to as "gnats"), and avoiding leaving the house as much as possible. She's even hired a virtual assistant from India, Manjula, to whom she entrusts every purchase and responsibility. But when Bee aces her report card and wishes to claim her promised reward—a family trip to Anarctica—Bernadette starts spiraling out of control. And as the extent of her problems—not all of which are her fault—is discovered, she disappears.

Where'd You Go Bernadette is Bee's attempt to track her mother's whereabouts. She compiles emails, official documents, confidential communications, and other memos, which helps shed light on Bernadette's tumultuous history and the challenges she encountered, and how fiercely she loved her daughter. And some interesting and surprising discoveries are made along the way.

Maria Semple is a former television writer for programs such as Arrested Development and Mad About You, and I think she tried to give this book the same madcap, farcical tone. I didn't think the book was all that funny most of the time; in fact, I found so many of the characters so unsympathetic (although not all of those early assumptions proved true) that I didn't understand why I had to keep seeing their points of view. But as the book uncovered more of Bernadette's life, I started enjoying it more, because it lessened its efforts to be precociously funny.

This is definitely an amusing and ultimately heartfelt read, and the way Semple laid out the story was very unique. If you like stories that don't necessarily follow a linear (or completely narrative) form, this may be a hit for you.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Using their power for such good...

I haven't watched The Amazing Race in a number of seasons, although when I heard that the team of Josh Kilmer-Purcell (who wrote one of my favorite books, I Am Not Myself These Days) and his partner, Brent Ridge, also known as The Beekman Boys (for their upstate New York farm, Beekman 1802), would be competing, I considered tuning in. Although the desire to read and decompress on Sunday evenings won out over watching television, I was so excited to learn that the duo won the race this past Sunday.

According to their blog, Beekman 1802, the team received over 8000 wishes of congratulations after their win was broadcast. But none touched them as much as a letter they received from the mother of a 12-year-old son named Colin:
"I’m sure you guys are way too busy to read this, but I want you to know how inspirational you two are to my 12 year old son. He is gay and is dealing with bullying and harassment in middle school. It’s so hard to see him going through this, and sometimes the 'It Gets Better" message is lost on a 12 year old who feels that middle school will never end...We cheered you on every Sunday night and agonized every time you had difficulties. My son was so incredibly thrilled when you two won last night (as was I!). Thank you for helping him see that not only DOES it get better, it gets AMAZING."

To help encourage Colin to understand it does get better, and he is an amazing person, the boys shared Colin's mother's note with the rest of the teams from this season of the show. Each team, or at least a representative of each, took a photo of themselves holding an encouraging message for Colin. (Below are Josh and Brent's pictures.)

Reality shows are notorious for people just looking to launch their careers or simply get famous for doing nothing, like many of those our culture seems to prize as celebrities. To me, it's so awesome to see people use whatever notoriety they've gained to make a difference, even a small one, in the life of a boy struggling with loving the person he is when others tell him not to.

You can see pictures of the rest of this season's teams here.

Thank you, Josh and Brent, for being awesome role models and remembering what it's like to struggle with who you are.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Cool cover song of the week...

Many of you may know that my favorite movie of all time is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. (The original, not the Johnny Depp travesty of a remake.)

While I remembered enjoying Willy Wonka quite a bit as a young child, once I saw the movie about 50 times during the 10-day period I had the chicken pox while at summer camp, I was utterly hooked. I still know the movie by heart, and it's been awesome finding so many other people for whom the movie holds such a soft spot. (And I know of one friend for whom the movie is a nightmare, so sorry for mentioning it again...)

For this week's Cool Cover Song, I thought I'd shake myself out of my 80s music rut and pick a cover of a song from my favorite movie.

Maroon 5 recorded a version of Pure Imagination in 2004 as part of a CD called Mary Had a Little Amp, which featured singers and groups performing versions of songs from Disney and other children's-oriented movies. Their version of the song was used again in 2009 as part of a compilation CD called Change is Now: Renewing America's Promise, which celebrated President Obama's first inauguration.

Gene Wilder's version of the song in the movie is lyrical and magical; Maroon 5's version is a little darker and languid. But it's still a song from Willy Wonka, so I can't complain!

Take a listen and let me know what you think.

Check out my previous Cool Cover Songs of the Week:

Borderline by The Counting Crows

How Deep Is Your Love by The Bird and The Bee

Life in a Northern Town by Sugarland, Little Big Town, and Jake Owen

I Don't Want to Talk About It by The Indigo Girls

Only You by Joshua Radin

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A blogger looks at 43...

(All apologies to Jimmy Buffett for corrupting the title of his song.)

Today has been a remarkable day. The world has been utterly fixated on the fact that for the last time this century, the month, day, and year are all the same—12/12/12—. Thousands of couples chose today to get married for the luck they expect this special date to bring.

Of course, today is even more remarkable as far as I'm concerned, because it's my birthday. As my family and friends know all too well, I'm fairly obsessed with my birthday because it's my one true chance to be the center of attention, something I love probably more than I should.

I turned 43 today, and although my father joked that it didn't seem possible that he could be old enough to have a child my age, I don't have a problem hitting what I'll call my "late early 40s." All of the facets of my life might not be exactly where I want them, but I still marvel every day at just how lucky I am. I'm surrounded by people I care about who care about me, and I have the freedom to pursue the things I enjoy, to follow my dreams wherever they lead.

This morning I quoted a line from a Ben Folds song that simply says, "I am the luckiest." Thanks to the magic of social media, I received birthday greetings today from friends old and new, from people who celebrated with me at childhood birthday parties and with cupcakes in our elementary school classrooms. I heard from people I met while attending summer camp for 10 years, from people who were part of my bar mitzvah, including one of my two "bar mitzvah brothers" I shared my day with.

Beyond that, I've heard from people with whom I shared amazing memories, victories, and heartbreaks in high school and college; former colleagues who helped make the daily drone of work more enjoyable; friends with whom I share passions for many different things; and of course, my family and those I love more than anyone.

From this vantage point, 43 looks pretty good! Thanks to all of you who touch my life, in occasional or constant ways. I am a better, happier, and most of all, luckier person because of you, and I'm grateful you shared this incredibly special day—for me and for the world—with me.

Book Review: "Bruce" by Peter Ames Carlin

When you grow up in central New Jersey, particularly one town away from Freehold as I did, Bruce Springsteen is almost a religion. I had the same Spanish teacher he had in high school, knew all of his songs by heart, danced to Jersey Girl at more sweet 16 parties than I could count, saw concerts on countless tours, and at least once made the "Bruce pilgrimage," stopping by many of the places along his historic rise to legend status.

More than 25 years after moving away from New Jersey, "The Boss" is still a cultural touchstone for me, even though my accent changed a long time ago. Yet my perceptions of Bruce have always been the ones culture presented us—the outspoken political crusader, the fierce protector of his home state, the self-appointed spokesperson for those down on their luck or without luck at all, the muscle-bound troubadour, the brooding and sensitive poet of his generation. Which is why, although I don't traditionally read biographies, I chose to read Peter Ames Carlin's meticulously researched Bruce.

As you'd imagine, a book written with Springsteen's authorization—and complete access to everyone involved with his life, music, and career from the start—paints a fairly well-rounded picture of both the artist and the man. There's much I already knew about the starts and stops along the way of his musical journey, and anyone as obsessed with pop culture as I am certainly followed the stories of his personal life—his marriage to Julianne Phillips, their divorce and his subsequent relationship, marriage, and life with Patti Scialfa.

But while Carlin definitely spotlights the Springsteen you think you know, and certainly includes recollections and endorsements from many in his career that have been acolytes and advocates from the start, he is careful not to paint Springsteen as a saint, but rather a flawed, mercurial, sometimes-cocky-sometimes-insecure man torn between just wanting to make music for his fans and feeling compelled to serve a different purpose. I wasn't aware of his tumultuous relationships with the members of the E Street Band through the years, or the legal troubles he dealt with as his star began to rise, and the personal and psychological demons he's fought throughout his life. And the more I learned and read, the more I understood the passion and inspirations behind his music, which, of course, has led me to listen to it more and more.

This is a long book, and sometimes it moved a little slowly for me. While some insight into Springsteen's ancestry provided depth and insight, I could have done with a little bit less on the generations that preceded him. And given all of the footnotes and all of the names that come through Springsteen's life, sometimes it was difficult to remember who was whom, where they fit in, and why they mattered. But undoubtedly, while Carlin is an admirer of Springsteen the artist and Springsteen the man, he was able to write a more objective account of both than anything I've seen, and write it well.

If you've ever wondered about the man behind the legend, or how he got to where he is, Bruce is the book for you. And even if you're not a huge fan, it's still tremendously interesting and insightful.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Talkin' bout...pop music...

Gosh, whatever happened to M anyway? (For those of you young'uns, and those without a savant-like musical memory, I'm referring to Pop Musik, a one-hit wonder recorded in the late 1970s by an artist called M.)

If you're looking to get, say, 55 of this year's pop hits stuck in your head, check out Daniel Kim's mashup of some of 2012's biggest hits. He calls it his "Pop Danthology."

Should I be ashamed to admit I have nearly every one of these songs on my iPod?

Whatev. I just met you, and this is crazy, but here's my number, so...

Cool cover song of the week...

My passion for music hit its first zenith in the 1980s (apart from my late 1970s obsessions with Andy Gibb's Shadow Dancing, Olivia Newton-John's Totally Hot, and the soundtracks from Grease and Saturday Night Fever).

I couldn't get my hands on enough music fast enough, and I used to visit record stores (remember those?) as much as possible to purchase the latest 45s, records, and cassettes. And of course, don't forget taping songs off the radio. (I remember trying so hard to only get the song on tape, not any of the DJs talking, and that was so difficult. I think I taped the same song 50 times before I got the whole song.)

I remember hearing the song Only You by the English group Yaz (known as Yazoo in the UK) in the mid-1980s. I loved the beat and especially loved the voice of the lead singer, Alison Moyet. I was a big fan of Yaz through the 1980s even though they broke up, and of course, the other member of Yaz, Vince Clarke, went on to form one of my most favorite groups, Erasure.

When I first heard Joshua Radin's cover of Only You, I was struck by the simplicity of his vocals and the background music. I tend to really enjoy stripped down cover versions of faster, poppier songs, and I think Radin's version really works.

Here's Radin's version:

And for a nice reminiscence, here is Yaz's version:

Check out my previous Cool Cover Songs of the Week:

Borderline by The Counting Crows

How Deep Is Your Love by The Bird and The Bee

Life in a Northern Town by Sugarland, Little Big Town, and Jake Owen

I Don't Want to Talk About It by The Indigo Girls

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Movie Review: "Life of Pi"

It took me a few times to get into Yann Martel's Man Booker Prize-winning novel, but once I did, I marveled at its lyricism and evocative imagery. The story with a spiritual center, about a young man adrift at sea with only a tiger from his family's zoo as both nemesis and companion, took nearly 10 years and the touch of Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) to get to the screen.

Was it worth the wait? Yes, and no.

Piscine Molitor Patel (named for a French swimming pool), who is finally able to convince his classmates to call him Pi (instead of the more obscene version of his full first name), is raised in the French section of Pondicherry, India, by his zoo-owner father and botanist mother. He is a tremendously curious and passionate boy, interested in learning and embracing many different religions and ideas, and believes that all animals have souls, a lesson his father quickly (and somewhat traumatically) disabuses him of.

When Pi (Suraj Sharma) is a teenager, his parents decide to sell the animals and move to Canada, so the Patels and their animals embark on an Asian sailing vessel. A disaster at sea leaves Pi alone, with only the zoo's ornery Bengal Tiger, named Richard Parker, for company. Pi's ingenuity and desire to survive helps him navigate some potentially dangerous situations while he and the tiger are lost at sea, and he has plenty of time to ponder spirituality and how to keep Richard Parker alive without him feeding on Pi.

The story is recounted, with humor and sensitivity, by the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan), as he shares his adventures with a writer (Rafe Spall) sent to Pi by his uncle. These reminiscences serve as punctuation that actually helps goose the movie a little bit, because at times it feels as adrift as Pi and Richard Parker.

This is one of the most scenically beautiful movies I've seen in some time. Pi's encounters with nature bring him closer to God, and the imagery Ang Lee uses to tell the story is truly eye-opening. It is a bit slow at times, as the tiger isn't much on dialogue, but the story—and the way it resolves—is a heartfelt, emotional one.

I've been vacillating between whether or not this movie is worth seeing in the theater or watching at home. I'd say if you have a fairly good DVD system and a large television, you can wait, because you'll be able to see the imagery as Lee intended. If not, see it in the theater. It's not action-packed by any means, but it's beautifully sensitive, with spirit and heart at its core.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Movie Review: "Killing Them Softly"

Brad Pitt has played many different types of roles in his career, but I tend to think of him either as the clean-cut everyman (think Se7en, Moneyball, even The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), the swoon-worthy, misunderstood heartthrob (think Legends of the Fall or Thelma and Louise), or the quirky one (think Burn After Reading). Even his "villains" tend to have more depth than they do in the hands of other actors.

That is probably why I found his character in Killing Them Softly really fascinating. We've seen the world-weary hitman many times before, but Pitt's Jackie Cogan menaces without ever raising his voice. He looks like he's had more than a handful of miles on him, and many times during the film you almost feel like his character wants to roll his eyes at what he's hearing and seeing, but he also seems like the type of guy you want to like you even as you know he's going to kill you.

Two recent ex-convicts, desperate Frankie (Argo's Scoot McNairy) and slimy Russell (The Dark Knight Rises' Ben Mendelsohn) are enlisted to hold up a successful card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). If you've seen the trailer for this movie once or twice, you know that Frankie and Russell aren't the smoothest criminals, but they're able to walk out unscathed. The robbery catches the attention of the mob, whose paper-pushing attorney (Richard Jenkins) enlists Jackie to figure out who is behind the robbery, and enact retribution on the perpetrators.

It's fairly easy for Jackie to figure out what transpired and who was behind it, but he convinces the mob to send "New York Mickey" (James Gandolfini), once a force to be reckoned with, to help him out. But Mickey is a mess—a blow-hard ready to eviscerate slow waiters, but one who falls to pieces at the thought of his wife serving him with divorce papers. So Jackie realizes there's only one person who can handle his problems—himself.

There's not a tremendous amount of suspense in this movie. I clearly have seen too many movies like this, as I kept expecting double crosses to occur, but the plot was fairly straightforward. The movie is slow at times because there is a lot more dialogue than action. The film does have a few cinematographic tricks up its sleeve—a murder/car crash boasts some pretty cool styling—but other filmmaking twists, like trying to portray the fog experienced by someone on heroin, don't work as well.

Pitt does a good job with his character, as his outward demeanor never belies the violence he clearly feels comfortable with. Gandolfini brings his familiar shtick but layers it with a portrayal of a man who has been able to control everything in his life except his own life. McNairy, as one of the two robbers, almost makes you feel sorry for the mess he's gotten himself into, although you certainly don't feel the same sympathy for Mendelsohn's character. And Jenkins, whose character sends the message that even organized crime is mired in bureaucracy and financial management challenges, is appropriately both comfortable and appalled with what he's asking for.

I feel like this movie had a lot of great potential but just didn't quite reach it. It's an interesting character study more than the crime caper I thought it would be, and it might be better suited for an evening of Netflix rather than time in a movie theater.

T-minus 24 days and counting...

I've made it no secret that the movie version of Les Miserables may be the one movie I'm anticipating most this year. Since it is being released on Christmas, I know there probably will not be any midnight showings, but if there are, rest assured that this will be the first movie I wait on line to see at midnight. (And this coming from the person who bought tickets to see Independence Day on Independence Day, and stood in line before 6:00 a.m. that day to see the 10:00 a.m. show.)

Five new clips have been released and I am—seriously—squealing. Some, in my mind, are stronger than others—I'm not as much a fan of speaking lyrics as others may be—but I cannot help but get more and more excited when someone opens their mouths and sings the songs I've known by heart since the show first opened on Broadway in 1986. (Much like when I saw the movie version of Rent, I know I'll be singing silently along with every single song when I see this movie.)

Here's film newcomer Samantha Barks as Eponine, with a clip from On My Own:

In this clip, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) releases prisoner 24601, aka Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman):

The working women enact their revenge on poor Fantine (Anne Hathaway) in this excerpt from At the End of the Day:

Here's an excerpt from Jean Valjean's Who Am I?

And I'm already in love with this tiny excerpt of Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) singing A Heart Full of Love: