Monthly Archive for December, 2013

Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (12/29/13) Nonfiction (1995 ***1/2) Written by Anne Lamott. This book about writing and the inner workings of the writer’s brain is really a collection of stand-alone essays masquerading as chapters. The material is grouped into 4 major sections: “Writing,” “The Writing Frame of Mind,” “Help Along the Way” and “Publication — And Other Reasons to Write.” The book is richly illustrated with personal anecdotes, including one about her procrastinating brother that served as the inspiration for the book’s title. It’s important to note that the book was written in 1995, and the publishing world has changed drastically since then. While it is certainly a good book and many writers and writing students consider it a bible of sorts, I don’t know that I can go that far. Though the book offers much in the way of advice, I think its biggest impact may be that it was the source of the phrase “shitty first drafts” which I have personally heard spoken by writing teachers or at seminars approximately one million times. The copy of the book I read was given to me as a birthday present by a friend more than a decade ago. At the time I was embarking on a novel-length project that became my first unfinished book. I’d started reading Bird by Bird then, but it would appear from the location of the bookmark that I only got only as far as the second chapter before shelving it. Over the years I’d meant to pick it up again and finally managed to get around to it, reading much of it during a trip to London for the holidays.

The Internship

The Internship (12/28/13) British Airways Flt 209 London Heathrow to Miami (2013 ***) Directed by Shawn Levy, based on a story by Vince Vaughn, starring Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Rose Byrne, Aasif Mandvi and a barely-recognizable Josh Gad. Two out of work middle-age salesmen talk their way into an internship at tech giant Google. This film is a re-teaming of the duo that starred in The Wedding Crashers (2005), a film that surprised me by how entertaining it was. The Internship wasn’t quite as solid, largely because it started out with an engaging (if highly implausible) premise, but quickly morphed into a fairly formulaic comedy. The other thing that hurt it was that Vaughn and Wilson’s characters were super-likable from the very beginning, almost to the point of disbelief. The audience liked them and it was just a matter of time before all the other characters in the film liked them as well. On a different dimension, the production of The Internship represented a highly unusual filmmaking situation. I can’t think of another example of a top company that has opened its doors to a film made about the company itself. While it could be considered a P.R. stunt, it seemed that Google had more to lose than they had to gain. As an odd coincidence, I have a friend whose son was an actual Google intern (and is now a full-time employee). I must remember to ask my friend just how accurate the film was.

We’re the Millers

We’re the Millers (12/28/13) British Airways Flt 209 London Heathrow to Miami (2013 **) Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, starring Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Aniston, Ed Helms, Emma Roberts and Will Poulter. Small-time drug dealer David Clark creates a fictional “family” in order to mule an RV-sized load of pot across the Mexican border. As my transatlantic in-seat entertainment system video fest continued, I needed something a bit lighter than a movie about the zombie apocalypse (World War Z) and a dystopian future (Elysium). We’re The Millers was probably not the worst choice I could have made. It was a decidedly lightweight comedy that followed the current trend of containing more than enough adult (but realistic) language to warrant its R-rating. (My favorite line, by far: “Fuck you, real life Flanders!”) I’ve long been a fan of Jason Sudeikis, but after seeing this film, I don’t know that he quite had what it took to carry a comedy. Aniston was a bit more suited to her supporting role, and she certainly had the comedy credentials, but I was frankly embarrassed for her during a couple of scenes and wondered if she regretted taking the role. The movie was mindlessly entertaining, but never much more than that, and I think I struggled quite a lot with a film based on its main character being an unsympathetic, drug dealer who may not sell pot to kids, but is otherwise an unlikable asshole. In the end, everything was resolved and the film ended on a nice, almost too-perfect note.

Elysium

Elysium (12/28/13) British Airways Flt 209 London Heathrow to Miami (2013 ***1/2) Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley. In the decidedly dystopian 2154, a dying factory working ex-con named Max undertakes a dangerous mission that will take him to an orbiting paradise called… Elysium. This was Blomkamp’s follow up to his first feature film, District 9, a film that featured so much shaky-cam work that my wife had to leave the theater to ask the concession stand for some soda water to settle her stomach. I had wondered for awhile what would happen if you set a sci fi film in the future and let utopian and dystopian cultures duke it out. Elysium went a way toward answering that question. Matt Damon was highly effective as well as sympathetic, and the film worked both as an action film as well as social commentary science fiction in the tradition of The Twilight Zone. I loved the fight sequences that followed Max’s exoskeleton retrofit, and felt a little guilty that I was pleasantly reminded of Iron Man 3. I also loved that the film features a bad guy who basically gets his head blown off… then comes back for more.

World War Z

World War Z (12/28/13) British Airways Flt 209 London Heathrow to Miami (2013 ***) Directed by Marc Forster, based on the novel by Max Brooks, starring Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale and Matthew Fox. Former U.N. investigator Gerry Lane finds himself at the epicenter of an investigation into the origins of a zombie pandemic. As I settled into my long transatlantic flight, I perused the options available on my personal video system and chose this film as the beginning of my inflight film fest. At this point in my life I feel obligated to watch pretty much any zombie-based movie that comes out. Funny, I never thought “Zombie aficionado” would ever make my list of identifying characteristics. The conceit of this particular zombie film is that it shows what would happen if undead masses behaved like colonies of ants, which was hands down the coolest part of the trailers. The structure of the film proceeded from one set piece to the next, with Brad Pitt’s character consistently (and coincidentally) being in the wrong part of the globe at the wrong time. I had heard rumblings (in Entertainment Weekly, the only news source I trust any more except for The Daily Show) that the production had problems of the over-budget/re-shoot variety. I don’t doubt it, though I thought the end result was fairly solid and Pitt (one of the producers) brought his A-game. According to a friend, the film version is very different from the book. Based on her description, I can see why they changed it, and also why the book isn’t exactly high on my reading list.

The Little Orphaned Fannie

The Little Orphaned Fannie (12/27/13) Royal Vauxhall Tavern, London (2013 ***) Directed by Tim McArthur, written by Gareth Joyner, starring Myra DuBois, Ginger Johnson, Harry Clayton Wright, The Divine Miss Em and Andrew Truluck. The Great Depression’s favorite ginger-haired orphan aims to fulfill her destiny as the ward of a filthy rich man, in spite of the villainous Ms P’st Hagan and Randy the Fox. Having had our taste of family-friendly British Pantomime a week before with Puss in Boots at Hackney Empire, I was somewhat more prepared to enjoy its “poor cousin” with this decidedly budget-limited “Gay Panto,” put on in the somewhat cramped quarters of a gay bar only slightly larger than our back patio at home. I went in with an open mind, of course, and for the most part I enjoyed the show, despite several microphone audio problems that indicated a less-than-professional stage production. My other complaint was that the place was an absolute furnace, so hot as to be distractingly uncomfortable. I’m still glad we went, for the experience of it, but was very glad to leave the bar and step out into the cool night air. Oh, and in case you were wondering, yes, I’m well-acquainted with the British meaning of the word “fanny.”

Royal Albert Hall Christmas Spectacular

Royal Albert Hall Christmas Spectacular (12/27/13) Royal Albert Hall, London (2013 ***1/4) Music provided by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with conductor Anthony Inglis, opera singers Stephanie Corley and Marco Panuccio, and The Russian State Ballet of Siberia, featuring Natalia Bobrova and Nickolai Chevychelow. Our Christmastime visit to London continued with one of the city’s winter traditions. First off, if you ever get a chance to see a performance at the Royal Albert Hall, by all means go. The place is huge, with incredible acoustics. The show itself offered up a variety of talents, a kind of sampler platter spanning the spectrum of the kind of entertainment you might expect upper class Brits to see. To be honest, and I hate to admit this, I started to get a little bored. My mind drifted as I pondered the difference between opera and operetta, and just how they were going to pull off the the indoor fireworks they promised. Also, lasers. The show featured an impressive laser system, though I think they might have used it just a little to often. Still, lasers.

Arrested Development, Season 4

Arrested Development, Season 4 (12/26/13) Netflix (2013 ***1/2) Series created by Mitchell Hurwitz, starring Jason Bateman, Michael Cera, Jeffrey Tambor, Will Arnett and Ron Howard. 15 episodes, originally released online on May 26, 2013. The continued ups and downs of the ultra-dysfunctional Bluth family make it clear that none of them will ever truly grow up. In the seven years since the show’s cancellation, I’d seen a staggering number of press items about its possible resurrection. While I wouldn’t exactly call myself a superfan, I enjoyed the show while it ran. Most of the stories I read were about how difficult it was to get all the cast members’ schedules together, especially Michael Cera, who had gone on to a successful film career. When Netflix announced they were getting into the original TV series business, fans rejoiced. When stories started coming out about how the new season would be structured a little differently than any sit-com in recorded history, it made me curious. When the entire 15-episode series was released ( some would say dumped) en masse on May 26, 2013, it was met by die-hard fans with a mix of approximately 30% gratitude, 60% disappointment and 10% head-scratching. Learning that, I mentally filed the series away in my “someday” cabinet. Well, thanks to a strange vacation illness that left me too dizzy to attend an all-day Christmas party, I wound up watching the show alone and binge-style, nearly all in one (holy) day, and I liked a lot of what I saw. Having been prepared for it, I appreciated the time-fractured Rashomon approach, in which each episode centered on a different character’s point-of-view, with some characters getting multiple episodes. There were Easter eggs sprinkled throughout, such as activities taking place in the background of an early episode being shown in a later one, or vice versa. There were a number of jokes that were set up, then paid off much later. Toward the end of the season, however, I felt like all I was watching were scenes that dovetailed earlier scenes, which I suppose was the natural progression. It also meant that binge-watching it was really the way to go, in order to appreciate all the little connections. Had I watched it over a course of three or four months of weekly installments, I never would have been able to have that appreciation. Aside from the season’s unusual structuring, it was very much in keeping with the tone of the first three (normal) seasons. I was tickled my many of the individual story elements, particularly the reference to the 1994 unreleased (and infamous) Roger Corman-produced film version of The Fantastic Four, which was made for rights-retention purposes. I also loved seeing Ron Howard in several of the episodes playing a version of himself. It’s unclear to me what Arrested Development‘s future is. I won’t give away the closing scene, but it certainly implied a continuation of the story into another season or film.

Let It Be

Let It Be (12/22/13) Savoy Theater, London (2013 ***1/2) Musical Supervision and direction by John Maher. In the early sixties, a band of four musicians from Liverpool came on the scene, changing rock history in the process, and while they were together they produced some pretty amazing music. Hell, you might even call them “fab.” First off, it’s important to note that this show is fundamentally a well-produced Beatles tribute band, much to the disappointment of our friend who went to the show with us. During intermission, he lamented, “I expected more of a story.” As for myself, you’d be hard-pressed to put on a Beatles-related stage production that I didn’t enjoy, and I’m happy to say I’ve seen about a half dozen now, ranging from Circe du Soleil’s Love to a show on a cruise ship. As for this production, my first reaction was: “Why are there two Ringos and no George?” Which is a reasonable question to ask. Actually, there was a George, but he was a dead ringer for Harry Shearer’s Derek Smalls in This is Spinal Tap. You know what? If you’re a Beatles fan looking to rise to your feet and dance to “Twist and Shout,” this is definitely a show you should check out.

Puss In Boots

Puss In Boots (12/21/13) Hackney Empire, London (2013 ***1/4) Written and Directed by Susie McKenna, starring Kat B as Puss in Boots, Sharon D Clarke as Queen Talulah the Hoo Ha, and Josefina Gabrielle as evil witch Evilena. A talking pussycat in magic boots travels to the kingdom of Hackneyonia, where comedy and drama reign supreme. This was my first direct exposure to British theatrical Pantomime, or “Panto,” as it’s commonly called. However, I had an image in my head, thanks to an episode of Extras in which Ricky Gervais’ character got a gig playing the genie in a panto version of Aladdin. It was definitely a cultural experience, and for the most part I enjoyed it, though a few scenes had me scratching my head, particularly ones that clearly did nothing to advance the plot. Early in the production, one of the players refers to panto as (I’m paraphrasing): “Thirty seconds of enjoyment spread over three and a half hours.” At 2.5 hours (including intermission), it wasn’t quite that long, but there was still a great deal of truth in the statement. In other words, it was well done (for what it was) and I’m glad we went, but I don’t think I’ll make it a regular habit.