Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Muppets Transports Me to My 10-Year-Old Self

I was thrilled that my first movie with Jackson was one that he stayed awake and behaved for and that I absolutely loved. I might not have laughed so much since The Hangover.

The Muppets tapped both my funny bone and my sense of nostalgia. I actually choked up during some of the classic Muppets tunes reprised here. And lead actor Jason Segal is the secret weapon as one of the creators of the story, which is textbook Muppets but also really, really funny.

Amy Adams and Chris Cooper are also cast really well respectively as Segal's girlfriend and the oil-tycoon bad guy. The price of admission is worth it based on the cameos alone. What's interesting is that the cameos complement, rather than overtake, the performances of the stars and the muppets. Some of the biggest cameos, like George Clooney and Mila Kunis, are tellingly left on the cutting-room floor.

This is a classic, at the level of the original Muppet Movie and the best of The Muppet Shows.

***** out of ***** stars

Friday, November 18, 2011

What Would Happen If a Bunch of People Disappeared? "The Leftovers" Has Your Answers

With clearly great titles in his cannon (Election, The Abstinence Teacher, and Little Children), I had been meaning to read some of Harvard creative-writing professor Tom Perrotta's fiction for a while. And with the apocalyptic subject matter of his new book, The Leftovers, the time was finally right.

The story centers on various groups of loosely intertwined people in the nowhere town of Mapleton, which serves as a setting and microcosm of a world that has suddenly lost about half of its inhabitants. They all disappeared at the same moment in time - October 14 - and the book's title refers to the people who remain. Nearly all the characters have been devastatingly crushed and bewildered by the loss of loved ones.

Kevin Garvey is the town's mayor and his wife remains, but she has left him to join the Guilty Remnant, a secretive and creepy, all-white-wearing cult. His daughter remains but has become wayward and hangs around with a best friend who has a complicated relationship with Kevin. Meanwhile, Kevin has a new girlfriend whose entire family disappeared moments after an argument at the dinning-room table and his son has dropped out of college to follow a questionable guru named Holy Wayne around the country.

As weird as it sounds, the book is much, much less about science fiction or fantasy than it is about love, loss, family connections and lack thereof, and it is really a psychological study masked as a page-turner. Pretty phenomenal and impressive.

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Joseph Gordon-Levitt Fills Up My Time With a Mixed Bag of Movie Moments

Somehow the last two movies I've seen have been vehicles for former 3rd Rock From the Sun child star Joseph Gordon-Levitt -- 2010's Hesher and 2011's 50/50.

Everything about 50/50 should make it no better than a Lifetime movie about living with cancer. Gordon-Levitt plays a young worker at NPR who pals around with Seth Rogen and has a jerky girlfriend. When he discovers he has the disease, he is befriended by some fellow patients at the hospital. The performances  rise far above a TV melodrama, and make the movie at least worth watching.

Hesher is just weird. And slow. And pretty offensive. I guess the filmmakers were trying to show that loss can be a devastating thing. The ending (along with the middle and end) are just really ridiculous, meandering, heavy, and none of the sad-sack characters are too worthy of sympathy. Gordon-Levitt plays some sort of troubled but prophet-like Metallica-type longhair. We never really find out much about why he is the way he is. I can't think of a good reason that Natalie Portman (who co-produced it) and Rainn Wilson got involved.

It seems, at least with 50/50, that Gordon-Levitt has gotten back on track after the Hesher misstep. He was putting together a halfway decent little run before that, with Inception and (500) Days of Summer.

*** out of ***** stars

* out of ***** stars

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Classic Reads: Anna Karenina Feels Global Growing Pains

Find the other parts of this ongoing series of "Classic Reads" in the Books section.

Unlike the other great 19th-century Russian author, Dostoievsky and his peasants and scallywags, Leo Tolstoy examined the elite. Anna Karenina is the tale of a Russian aristocratic class being turned upside-down by the import of Western morals.

Anna and her brother, Stepan, are both having affairs outside their marriages. Soon enough, Anna becomes pregnant with her suitor Count Vronsky's child. She tells her husband, Alexey, who coldly worries more about his social and business reputation, determining that a divorce would only disgrace him.

Vronsky, meanwhile, is desperate to be with Anna. He attempts to kill himself. Finally, Anna decides to run away from St. Petersburg to Italy with him. They birth a healthy little boy. Soon, they return to Russia, but find themselves ostracized. This causes them to fight, she accuses him of being unfaithful, and she begins to take morphine as a way to cope with her increasingly troubled life.

The sad story ends with more fighting between the two lovers, and Anna kills herself by jumping in front of a train.

Anna Karenina is almost farcically tragic, with new problems appearing for most of the characters around just about every turn. It is an early tale of the growing pains of globalization.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Sea and Cake Plays the Perfect Show

I've been a long-time, die-hard fan of Chicago jazz-pop masters The Sea and Cake since their earliest records in 1994-1995. But, somehow, I had never caught them live. And last night at D.C.'s Black Cat, the band didn't disappoint.

McEntire, Claridge, Prekop, and Prewitt
The four musicians look like average middle-aged guys, but when they started playing, they were the coolest and one of the most mesmerizing bands I've seen in a long time. The short video above of one of their classic tunes does a pretty good job of capturing some of their magic.

Sam Prekop leads the band with unusual guitar picking and strumming styles, and vocals that are gorgeous yet at the same time don't really matter much in relation to the rest of the powerful music being played. Archer Prewitt masterfully blends his wildly inventive lead guitar playing with Prekop's stylings.

Meanwhile, Eric Claridge muscles his bass into sounds that reach the most pleasurable expanses of the listener's brain and drummer John McEntire freaks out with his precise smashes and joyously weird facial expressions.

I love this band. And although I really couldn't tell you what the set list was, it just didn't matter. All the songs were so good that when they finally got around to playing "Parasol" from 1995's perfect album Nassau as the set-closer, it was simply icing on the cake to a perfect show.

***** out of ***** stars

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Late-Summer Travels in Memphis, Delaware, and (October!) Ocean Swimming

The family in Rehoboth
My wife Rachel impressively dashed through a 10K race around the Dogfish Head brewery in Delaware several weeks ago, and the family got to enjoy a rainy weekend at Bethany and Rehoboth beaches.

Luckily, the weather was much better (surprisingly, for late October) when we returned for another beach trip at Assateague Island in Maryland, where we biked, body surfed, camped out in the sand with our neighbors, and stood safely away from the wild horses.

Jackson at Assateague
Finally, the late summer/early fall traveling concluded with a week of work in Olive Branch, Mississippi at The Nature Conservancy's science conference, where I helped with a media training, presented on how to communicate with various audiences, sat on a panel about communicating science, and, most importantly, went out for a night on the town at B.B. King's club on Beale Street in nearby Memphis, Tennessee.

Mural in the gift shop at B.B. King's Beale Street nightclub
Me (on the left) with colleagues from Ohio