Monday, May 30, 2011

Old Song Review: Grapefruit - Dear Delilah

The UK rock outfit Grapefruit are one of the countless groups that arose and quickly disappeared in the shadow of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but unlike most bands that existed simply to capitalize on Beatlemania, Grapefruit had the audacity to push rock into new and exciting places. Combining the innovative sound of the Stones, the harmonies of the Beach Boys and the melodic chops of the Beatles, Grapefruit released only two albums (around in '68 and Deep Water in '69) before going their separate ways, but their influence can be heard on many of the psych-rock records that followed.

Their highest-charting single, Dear Delilah reached #21 on the UK charts in 1968, and is the best distillation of their psychedelic sound. An organ intro and swelling strings sound a bit out of place at first, before cymbal clatter distorts the harmony, warping everything around it and dragging the organ underwater to induce a sort of auditory vertigo. Despite the swirling and churning orchestration, Alexander Young's voice provides a steady mast for the song to sail forward. The Beatles influences are hard to ignore, from the vocal cadence to the Ringo-esque yelp at 2:07, but I can't help but think that The Beatles would attempt to 'clean-up' this mess of a song and unraveled it all in the process. Perhaps their record sales suffered for it, but someone has to push the margins.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Frugal Gourmet - Moody's Falafel Palace

I have been called lots of things, most of which I don't take to heart. The term "cheap", however, particularly chaps my hide. I prefer frugal, because I am frugal, and I'll tell you why. Cheap means not paying your share of a bill or tipping pathetically. Frugal means you buy a cheaper item, but pay appropriately. Cheap means staying home on Friday nights. Frugal means going out but drinking PBRs all night. Cheap means shopping exclusively at Goodwill and yard sales. Frugal means spending your money wisely, and refusing to pay MSRP. I am frugal. And proud of it. For those of you who would like to bask in the shade of my frugal wing, I have introduced a new "Frugal" series of blog posts. Today I will be discussing the gem of Central Square: Moody's Falafel Palace.

 In the husk of an old White Castle, Moody's Falafel Palace has amazing hours (11AM-3AM!), criminally delicious food, friendly staff, all for less than $10. A steal in any location, but in the heart of Cambridge, virtually unheard of. I will spare you history and move on to what I consumed yesterday evening, if I can come up with some more forceful adjectives.

I ordered the Chicken Shawarma plate. The Shawarma rested upon a heart scoop of rice pilaf and adjacent to a Middle Eastern salad. I was also given a side of Tahini and pieces of bread wrapped in wax paper. It sounds humble, but it blew my little mind.

In most restaurants, side salad is akin to coleslaw, ie high-volume plate filler. But at Moody's the house salad is really fantastic. It had fresh, delicious chopped cucumber and tomato, some shaved lettuce, diced onions, some herbs and a delicious marinade that had a lemon-vinegar flavor. Really caught me off guard.

With the rice pilaf and the Shawarma intertwined, it's best to probably just pour on some tahini and dive in. If you aren't aware, Shawarma comes from the Turkish word for "turn" which is exactly what the meat does all day, on a spit. It is then shaved off into flaky, crispy bits that can be put into a wrap or spread upon a plate. With a fork full of rice pilaf, it has no substitute. What looked to be simple rice pilaf and chicken "bits" actually exploded with so much flavor that I thought my Diet Coke had been laced with Ecstasy. There was an amazing richness and a creaminess and the slightest tang of feta cheese that I could not find anywhere on the plate. The chicken was soft yet crispy, without the slightest hint of gristle or crunch. The pilaf was fluffy and warm and held the chicken in place when I decided to stack some onto my bread. It was a lot of food for $7.49, and I consider myself a tough customer. I have heard it's hit or miss, but as far as I'm concerned this was out-of-the-park. GO.

Monday, May 16, 2011

On Repeat: Jamie Woon - Spirits

Jamie Woon doesn't exactly have an R&B pedigree. His mother was a Scottish folk singer, his father of Malaysian descent. So how does he sound like Jamiroquai by way of dubstep icon Burial? I can't answer that for you, except to tell you that if there are any other half-Scottish half-Malaysian children out there, give them a record contract post-haste. His new album, Mirrorwriting, is chock full of his saintly vocal curlicues and the telltale splashes and muddy production of dubstep. While dubstep frequently eschews vocals in favor of atmospherics, Woon's voice turns out to be the perfect compliment for it. Many of the highs on Mirrorwriting bring to mind the most arresting moments on Burial's Untrue, namely the masterful Archangel.

Spirits meanders innocuously for nearly a minute, Woon's voice softly reverberating amidst a chorus of "oohs and ahhs" and something that sounds like a busy bartender. Once the snare drums kick in, conditions improve substantially, with the drums retreating underwater to give Woon some space, before rushing back in for the chorus. The song feels simple and even forgettable upon first listen, until you find yourself humming 'Ladies and Gentlemen' 5 minutes later and can't seem to remember where it came from. Then you will play it again in hopes of rattling it out of your head like shaking a dime out of a plugged piggy bank. Good luck. It's been stuck in my brain for weeks, maybe this blog post will finally exorcise it.    

Note: The video below is the official music video for Spirits, but is a bit different than the album version. Still great, though.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Yes Virginia, Women ARE Funny

Approximately 5 years ago, give or take a few, I made an offhand comment that has lived in infamy ever since. Genuinely intended to placate a friend's mother after her failed joke, I casually remarked, "It's ok [Offendee's Name], I just don't find women funny." Needless to say, this statement did not comfort, and instead became an enduring story of misogyny and my general incompetence with the English language. Little did I know, the topic of women and humor is well-worn territory. Had I been more articulate, maybe I would have explained myself like Christopher Hitchens does here, but I was 20, so I mostly apologized profusely and desperately tried to change the subject.

Now that I'm 26, you would think I would have rethought my stance on this matter, but to tell you the truth, with very few exceptions (Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman (less so), sometimes Ellen), I can't say that I have. This isn't to say there aren't women with terrific senses of humor or wit (I know plenty personally), it simply means that how it manifests itself comedically, has never rung true in the way it does with male comedians. Is there a scientific basis to this? Maybe some humor node in the brain that translates almost identical jokes completely differently on a genetic basis completely out of our control? Is it all in the delivery and I am unconsciously some chauvinist pig? I like to think that we are all operating on the same playing field and equally receptive to humor, be it from Jerry Seinfeld or a 3-year-old. So imagine my satisfaction (validation? relief?) when Bridesmaids, a film written by two women (Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo) and starring 5 women, was absolutely hilarious.

People have been falling over themselves to congratulate producer Judd Apatow for another comedy home-run, but it is Wiig and her costars that deserve the credit here. While it's true that without Apatow's help the film would not exist, if this film had flopped, it would have been Wiig's career in the dumps, not Apatow's. As such, Wiig deserves to catapult to the top of every romantic comedy casting call, ahead of the humorless Jennifer Aniston and the vapid Katherine Heigl. The crown is hers for the taking, but here's to hoping that she shuns it for bigger and better things.

Bridesmaids' success is the ultimate validation of the term 'addition by subtraction'. Usually reserved for sports teams who unload a difficult player to improve team chemistry, Wiig refuses to use the rom-com paint-by-numbers blueprint that most films with female leads are beholden to if they want to break even. If there is an emotional scene or a hunky dude, you best believe that they are there to serve the story and not to satisfy a studio focus group. Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson need not apply. Additionally, because she doesn't rely on these reliable crutches, she entrusts the heavy comedic lifting to her capable costars, and they do not let her down. Not only is there Dumb and Dumber level physical comedy (Wiig makes Jim Carrey's shtick look tired) and Jackass-level gross out comedy, there is wit and heart that neither of these two films possess, and compare most favorably with Apatow's other male-centric offerings The Forty Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. The very fact that I am mentioning Bridesmaids in this pantheon be endorsement enough for you to buy a ticket, but if that's not enough for you, at the very least buy one so I'll stop talking about it and put my foot in my mouth already.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Tough Mudder

I ran the Tough Mudder on Sunday. Well, RAN is a stretch. I limped and walked and slid the Tough Mudder on Sunday. I signed up for it after JK turned his harassment amplifier up to 11 and somehow managed to hook EG in. Shortly after, I learned SP had joined the mix, and team Weoooweooooweooooweeechhhhh was born (don't ask). In the months leading up to the event, my feelings about it fluctuated from sheer terror to foolish pomposity on a daily basis. I gave up any large scale training and tried to improve core strength (whatever that means) with push-ups and sit-ups, while maintaining a strict running schedule. Then I rolled my ankle like Rondo 'rolled' his elbow last night, and I didn't run for the past two weeks for fear of re-injuring it. So it was safe to say that my feelings on the morning of the TM were much closer to 'sheer terror' than I would care to admit. Weathering some serious cramps, severe mud inhalation, and mild-to-moderate cases of hypothermia, Team Weoooooweooooooweooooweeechhhh skipped across the finish line (literally) 4 hours after their 10:40 start. In those 4 hours, we endured a 10 mile course sprinkled with 28 humbling obstacles straight up the mountainside. Needless to say, it was tough and muddy. In light of any more TM philosophy, I want to run down the 28 obstacles and rank them on a 1-10 scale of 'Tough' and 'Muddy', because there were some doozies on both fronts. A link to the map of the course and pictures/descriptions of the obstacles can be found here.

1. Braveheart Run
Tough: 3
Muddy: 2

The Braveheart run was an excuse for most of the shirtless dudes to off-gas some of their testosterone in front of spectators. I used it to test my taped left ankle (Thanks Dad!). It was steep though, and turned out to a be cruel waste of energy, since the Death March was right behind.

2. Death March
Tough: 8
Muddy: 4

The Muddy scale may be relative at this early stage of the race, but this really was one of the Toughest obstacles, especially since it was one of the earliest and everyone was still running on adrenaline surges and trying to run up the ski slope. It wasn't long until even the biggest dudes realized that TM is not a race and started to walk. And walk. 1.5 miles later, calves doing that unconscious jiggle, we reached the first 'man-made' obstacle.

3. The Killa Gorilla
Tough: 6
Muddy: 6

This was our introduction into the enormous avalanche of mud we would become well-acquainted with. Arranged like those obnoxious queues at DisneyWorld that zigzag back and forth, the Killa Gorilla made you run up and down a steep and mud-caked hill ten times. Having not gotten our mud-legs, this was an adventure of trying to balance speed and functioning limbs.  

4. Devil's Beard
Tough: 2
Muddy: 4

A huge cargo net laying in a pit of mud. This is where one gets the first taste of teamwork, and what could have been a muddy crawl-a-thon, became closer to the middle person in the famous evolution progression. Thanks to everyone who held up the net and spared my knees some wear and tear.

5. Boa Constrictor
Tough: 6
Muddy: 4

I am going to lump muddy and wet together for the purposes of these evaluations, because each obstacle had a heavy dose of one or the other (except you Underwater Tunnels). Boa constrictor was the first obstacle that involved water, and willingly putting yourself into it. It was also the first (of many) obstacles that you probably wouldn't have done if you weren't exhausted and had lost critical blood flow to your brain. To put it simply, Boa Constrictor required you to crawl through a narrow tube INTO a pond of water and then through another submerged tube on the other side to get out. The tubes were narrow enough that you had to crawl through them, and had lots of nice rocks to get your first lacerations out of the way. And then there was the little issue of having to swim/crawl OUT of the tube if you wanted to breathe again, since the other end of the pipe was almost completely submerged. If I had thought this through, I probably would have psyched myself out of it, but I just followed JK and didn't realize how scared I should have been until after.

6. Tired Yet?
Tough: 2
Muddy: 2

Just your standard tire run, with some mud thrown in for good measure. Not too difficult, but still annoying to be high stepping when your legs are still burning something fierce.

7. Tree Hugger
Tough: 7
Muddy: 3

More ridiculously steep terrain. This one was probably moguls or a black diamond or something else that looks pretty and serene in the winter but will give you an aneurysm from May to November. With nothing to grab onto, I considered both the zig-zag approach and the bear technique on all fours, before deciding to conserve energy and just trek up normally. That and JK wouldn't let me get on his back.

8. Ball Shrinker
Tough: 8
Muddy: 8

Not muddy, but fucking freezing. And made worse by the fact that you are stuck on two rickety ropes trying to shuffle across a pond in chest deep water. The top rope kept whipping back and forth like it was trying to buck you off, and the bottom rope was just asking you to lose your footing so it could disappear forever. Shimmying across this obstacle would be a tall-order under any conditions, but in 35 degree water, it borders on absurd. Usually the obstacle names are a little intense for my taste, but 'Ball Shrinker' should probably ratcheted up and be renamed to 'The Sex Change' after how I was feeling afterwards.

9. Mud Mile
Tough: 4
Muddy: 10

Not 'Tough', per se, but so much mud that you wonder why you thought you could ever wear these shoes again. It was also around this point where I patted myself on the back for wearing boxer briefs (crucial) and shorts with tie-strings. Around this point you start to be able to detect 'good' mud and 'bad' mud, the bad mud being the kind that is just solid enough to resist your weight squish, making you fall flat on your keister. The wet, splashy mud is much more reliable.

10. Kiss of Mud
Tough: 4
Muddy: 7

Far less scary than the pictures would have you believe. Barbed wires are reasonably high off the ground (although plenty of number tags got hooked), and the mud was pleasantly devoid of rocks and other debris. You still had to crawl on your hands and knees, but it certainly could have been worse.

11. Hold Your Wood

Tough: 8
Muddy: 5

From here on out, no obstacle will fall below 4 on the mud-o-meter. Every inch of person was caked with mud, and it's hard to pinpoint where it came from. Hold Your Wood did not explicitly feature mud as a part of the obstacle, but when you're carrying logs up a mountain and then back down, you're going to drop it/fall a couple times. The logs were hearty and awkward to carry, and I tried the "shoulder perch" and the "hip holster" before settling on the "bear hug" the rest of the way. Several other Mudders were less thoughtful in their grips and many a log was seen barreling down the slope at unsuspecting spectators. Or perhaps this was a brilliant strategy. I'll never know, but I was sufficiently wiped at this point and was INCREDULOUS to find out we had only gone four miles.

12. Hey Bales
Tough: 2
Muddy: 2

A nice respite from the mud and cardio. A simple stack of hay bales to climb. A new smell to complement the mud/B.O. perfume. Cake.

13. Evil Knevil
Tough: 5
Muddy: 1
This was not as it is on the website. It was a half-pipe ramp you were expected to run up and then belay down the other side. My shoes weighed 4lbs at this point and were worn and muddy enough to have the word 'CONCUSSION' flash in my mind. I also envisioned Jackass out-takes that were probably tamer than this. Miraculously, the slope was such that you could run full-bore and be virtually 'launched' up the pipe into the loving arms of your teammates. Climbing down on the other side resulted in some wicked rope burn, but I'll take that over brain damage any day.

14. Spider's Web
Tough: 4
Muddy: 5

As JK likes to say: Teamwork makes the dream work. In this case, it was closer to: hold the goddamn net still for me and I'll help you in a minute. Not as catchy, but same sentiment. I scaled both sides of this muddy net this faster than I thought I would. Maybe the Powerbar bites were kicking in (finally).

15. Mystery Obstacle!
Tough: 4
Muddy: 7

While not muddy, and only moderately wet, this obstacle did a number on my gloves for the rest of the race. Why, may you ask? Because this obstacle involved wading through a trough of maple syrup and vinegar and then crawling through sawdust under a net to claim your freedom. Neither of these were terribly troubling, but my gloves developed a slippery film after this that I couldn't shake. Not a stellar feature for the upcoming greased monkey bars.

16. Walk the Plank
Tough: 6
Muddy: 8

Much like the Boa Constrictor, Walk the Plank was an obstacle I would have almost certainly talked myself out of if there weren't 10 people waiting behind me and I could barely remember my name. So instead, I took the 15-foot leap into 35 degree water and swam back in like I was Michael Phelps. It was the 'holy-shit' cold that makes you evacuate all the air out of your lungs and see fond memories from your childhood. Swimming in shoes is a royal pain also, and even though people kept advising me to "Grab the rope", it was nowhere to be found, so I just doggy-paddled like I had never doggy-paddled before. We were all borderline hypothermic at this point, and enjoyed a nice round of group hugs and tin-foil blankets like arctic explorers.

17. Underwater Tunnels
Tough: 8
Muddy : 10

Even if I divided my "Muddy" category into "Dirty" and "Cold", Underwater Tunnels would still get solid 10's for both. Three giant pipes were laid across a huge pool of water and you had to plunge into the silty, freezing water under them to continue. There's nothing quite like being completely frozen and then opening your eyes on the other side to see complete and total brown. The water was so saturated with silt that we had silt beards for the next three obstacles and I found a disturbing amount of mud in my ears/eyes/nose. The shivers were now here to stay.

18. Glacier
Tough: 5
Muddy: 7

A steep wall of snow/ice, following by narrow, icy catacombs did not do much for our warmth problem. Shuffling down the ice tracks was cold and slow, but going faster involved putting your freezing hands in direct  contact with the ice walls to keep your balance. Tough choice. I chose the latter and regretted it.

19. The Gauntlet
Tough: 5
Muddy: 4

Another sadistically steep hill, this one complete with a murderous TM employee with a fire hose. I tried to use SP as a human shield, but instead I let JK take most of the damage. There are times for teamwork and there are times to save yourself. This was one of those times.

20. Cliffhanger
Tough: N/A
Muddy: N/A

I must have blacked-out for this obstacle. The website description does little to jog my memory. I'm sure it was cold and muddy though.

21. Blood Bath
Tough: 6
Muddy: 8

How many permutations of "Hop into this freezing water" can TM possibly come up with? While superficially similar to the Underwater Tunnels (going under a giant board), this was both easier (the water was dyed vivid shades of red, green, yellow, respectively) and harder (there was a significant amount of ice cubes floating on the surface). I have never had a brain freeze without eating anything. This gave me one.

22. Funky Monkey
Tough: 10
Muddy: 7

Funky Monkey can go either way. If you can make it across the inclined greased monkey bars, you will be dry and warm. If your gloves are still soaked in syrup and/or you can scarcely conjure up the coordination to peel and eat a banana, you will make it two rungs and fall into the ice water and swim your way out. I think you know which category I fell under. JK of course made it all the way across like the half-gorilla mutant that he is.

23. Berlin Walls
Tough: 9
Muddy: 4

12-foot walls impossible to scale on your own (unless you're JK of course). Camaraderie is palatable in this obstacle as groups of strangers push any part of you they can reach to boost you over the wall. I got handfuls of butt cheeks and mouthfuls of mud, but we made it over all four of these. So much harder than I expected.

24. Tower Hurdle
Tough: 5
Muddy: 5

File this obstacle under O for obnoxious. Something tells me Mt. Snow said "Hey guys, we have 20 chairlift poles we're about to get rid of, why don't you make an obstacle out of them?" and TM did. Anywhere from 1-3 feet off the ground, and tantalizingly close together, SP was more daring than I, but I wasn't sure if chest impalement was covered on my health insurance, so I played this one conservatively.

25. Fire Walker
Tough: 3
Muddy: 2

Hoping this would be a nice change of pace from icy water and snow obstacles, The Gauntlet had us running "through fire" but was closer to "limping through smoke". SP took this time to tell us about the dangers of smoke inhalation and EG was massaging his cramping quad like nobodies business.

26. Turd's Nest
Tough: 6
Muddy: 2

At this point, otherwise innocuous obstacles of rope were becoming serious tests of will. I would have scampered up Turd's Nest netting like nobody's business 3 hours ago, but now it took all of my energy to calibrate my feet to not fall through the holes and castrate myself.

27. Greased Lightning
Tough: 3
Muddy: 4

A gigantic slip and slide. But not without danger, as you had to get a running start on the top of the slide to guarantee enough momentum to the end. I took this a bit too far and gave myself a healthy dose of whiplash. At least I got into the Tough Mudder Facebook album because of it. Even though all the comments are people thinking that I pooped my pants (I didn't).

28. Electroshock Therapy
Tough: 6
Muddy: 3

Not Muddy or Tough exactly, but surprisingly potent for something I dismissed as a gimmick after seeing on the website. Running through 10000V wires sounds like something they throw in just to round out the whole experience but water-down, but as Team Weoooweooooweeoooooweccchhh joined hands and skipped across the finish line, I got some serious jolts. I found out shortly thereafter that holding hands AMPLIFIES each person's voltage exposure, and some annoying dude was trying to trick people into doing it all day. Little did they know that we suckers would do it on our own accord.

All in all, a great day with some great Tough Mudder Brudders. If you ever even consider it, you should do it. It has very little to do with strength, and everything to do with endurance and fortitude. Maybe you'll even surprise yourself. I know I did.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

IFF Boston 2011: Final Installment

I had grand aspirations for the final days of the festival. There were several interesting movies scheduled, and I intended to see every one. Sadly, 5 successive nights up well beyond my curfew started to do me in. When the dust (and crowds) cleared Thursday morning, I had seen 11 movies, but skipped the final two on my radar, for reasons that can best be described as exhaustion. Sleep deprivation being the primary cause, but emotional exhaustion a close second. This years festival was especially documentary heavy, and after watching film after engrossing film, you approach the natural limits of your attention. Additionally, film festivals are not the place to search for levity, and 'The Trip' notwithstanding, true humor was hard to come by (though many films were certainly uplifting). My final three films were a microcosm of what one expects from a film festival. A documentary, a stylish, low-budget action flick and an offbeat, quirky coming-of-age story. After failing to find any duds in my first 8 films, my luck ran out with a couple here. Here's a quick rundown:

El Bulli - Cooking in Progress - Gereon Wetzel
El Bulli is a world-renowned Spanish restaurant regarded as the hardest reservation on Earth. Head chef Ferran Adria has been hailed as the most innovative and insane chef in the world. Under his watchful eye, El Bulli shuts down for six months every year to prepare their menu for the upcoming year. This documentary tells the story of a year at El Bulli. The preceding synopsis is more supplementary information than you will receive in the entire film. Wetzel throws you instantly into El Bulli's laboratory, where chef-scientist hybrids scratch results into lab notebooks and play with instrumentation seemingly on loan from Merck. Extracting flavors and juices from things that have no business being juiced, the chefs taste their results and distract Adria from his cellphone long enough to offer him a spoonful. Many chefs and Adria himself talk about magic of food, with an enthusiasm you would expect but strain to appreciate. I went into this film truly excited and hoping for something that would validate it, but what I got instead, was a virtually silent thirty-minute opening scene of these chefs vacuuming mushrooms. I understand this is the unsexy R&D side, but this was beyond unsexy, it was boring. Perhaps Wetzel would have been better served if he had spliced in interviews with these characters or food critics to tell us how original and amazing what we were seeing was, but I couldn't see it. As the film progressed and the dishes gained momentum and shape, the documentary picked up steam, but it is never able to dig itself out of the hole the opening scene puts it in. Opening with a brief background of the restaurant and its accolades would give the audience a better appreciation for the research phase and its necessity and maybe make the whole thing go down a little easier. Instead, Wetzel gives us moldy bread and expects us to hang around for dessert.  

Bellflower - Evan Glodell
'The end of a relationship can be apocalyptic"

This was the synopsis for Bellflower in our IFFBoston program. Vague? Yes. Pretentious? Maybe. Intriguing? Very.

Today, five days removed from seeing it, I don't think I could sum it up any better. Ostensibly, its about two 30-ish guys in California, drinking and fornicating their way through life. Not in a depressing way, but in a 'you-should-really-grow-up-and-stop-building-flamethrowers' way. The two men meet a group of women at their local watering hole, and a relationship blossoms between Woodrow (director Glodell himself) and Milly. Woodrow is the quiet, brooding type, and Milly is the 'spit-and-vinegar' type, but they work for a while. And then things turn sour, and the film defies explanation. The story is interesting and engrossing, but it is the spectacular style and assured direction that really keeps the film going and completely ensnares the audience. Filmed using a camera Glodell cobbled together from vintage parts, the shots have a yellow, grimy sheen that adds to the apocalyptic mood. Snatched up by Oscilloscope records and primed for a larger release, Glodell has been taking this film and 'Mother Medusa' (his fire-breathing muscle car) from festival to festival anyway to generate buzz. While Medusa probably won't be in attendance next time Bellflower comes to Boston, the film is loud and bold enough that you won't miss it.

Terri - Azazel Jacobs
Of all these films, Terri is probably the one most primed for a wide(ish) release. It stars John C Reilly as a no-nonsense assistant principal and newcomer Jacob Wysocki as the titular Terri, an aimless high-school student. Terri lives with his sick uncle and has taken to wearing pajamas to school for reasons that are unclear. He gets in trouble in class and meets with Reilly after school for sentencing. The two bond (sort-of), Terri loosens up and makes 'friends' with other misfit students. Azazel aims for charmingly quirky, but decides to ramp up the quirk in the absence of charm and falls short. There are probably stories about misfit teenagers painted on cave walls, so if you really want to add something new to the genre, you can't subscribe to the Napoleon Dynamite school of "Random=Funny" and hope that the rest will take care of itself. John C Reilly is terrific and the only thing here to salvage it from being a total loss, but he can't save scenes he's not in, which is far too many. I haven't seen any of Jacobs' other films (Momma's Man, The Good Times Kid), but I hope Terri was simply a failed experiment and not indicative of his overall canon.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

IFF Boston 2011 Round-Up Pt. 2

I saw four movies on Sunday.This is where I get a little sleepy and complete sentences are challenging. It's pretty tough to gauge the quality of the movie you're about to walk into, so preemptive stimulants are are necessity. Starbucks or Diet Coke are commonplace, but having copped a Five-Hour energy (compliments of the MayFair), I was about to enter uncharted territory. I hoped it could carry me through the last two movies that evening, and it did; mostly because I thought I might die at any moment or maybe melt through my chair.  How did Four-Loko get the axe but menopause in a nip is at every gas station? I will spare you further details, but anyone who takes Five-Hour energy to study probably cuts their fingernails with garden shears or makes toast with a blowtorch. The good news was that the films were solid, and I am excited to tell you about them.

Make Believe - J. Clay Tweel
Kids are cute. Magicians are weird. At what point do magicians go from precocious to insufferable? In Make Believe, there are kids on both sides of this fence, and how you will feel about the film depends on whether you consider Penn and Teller creative geniuses or ponytailed creeps. Each of kids here got into magic for some semblance of control and attention, which is refreshing when the kid is 13 and would otherwise be a bully magnet, but tends to get grating when a kid nears twenty and has the hyperactive intensity of an used car salesman, and a bravado to boot. Confidence is a crucial element to magic, but more integral is the humility that gets them hooked from the beginning and inspires them record a grainy magic special on VHS and replay it until the tape breaks. For some of the kids, the swagger they are forced to adopt for their act, becomes fused with their person and is tough to swallow. The young and international talents are naive enough to have no idea how hard magic is, yet confident enough to believe they can figure it out with perseverance. Tweel does well to focus on their enthusiasm and keep the intensity building until the final scene, but I wish he had a few more tricks up his sleeve in the editing room.

Buck - Cindy Meehl
Buck is a profile of Buck Brannaman, a man who could not look more cowboy if he had a team of costume designers. He has the thick, slow voice of a country sheriff, but is a more empathetic man than you are ever likely to meet. At a young age, Buck and his brother traveled the country performing rope tricks under the stern tutelage of their father. Never a "horse" person, he stumbled into his calling nearly 30 years ago, and now performs small miracles 9 months out of the year through his horse training workshops. Buck's philosophy is based on sensitivity and respect, treating the horse like an equal, and anticipating their movements and allowing them to anticipate yours. For centuries, horses had to be 'broken' before they could be of any use, but Buck intends to change that, one timid creature at a time. He can do things on a wild horse in 5 minutes that take Hollywood trainers months to mimic. It isn't hypnosis or ESP, he is simply sensitive to the horses fears, and gains their trust. It is miraculous to watch, and leagues beyond a trite Animal Planet special. As we learn more about Buck's troubled past, his character gains depth and as his training philosophy broadens into life lessons, the horses aren't the only ones captivated.

Project Nim - James Marsh
Nim was the center of a landmark 1973 science experiment by Columbia behavioral psychologist Herbert Terrace that investigated whether chimpanzees could understand and use American Sign Language to communicate with humans. Plucked from his mother at 2-weeks old, Nim was raised as a human in every capacity by the research team, but not in the sterile scientific confines you might expect. Terrace employs a revolving door of students who raise Nim affectionately and spend hours teaching him signs and tracking his progress. Many of these female students engage in romantic relationships with Terrace before being shown the door or excusing themselves after Nim's increasingly vicious attacks. After the experiment is abandoned that Project Nim takes on a dramatic new direction, and science becomes secondary. Director James Marsh (MAN ON WIRE) does a fantastic job of reconstructing an engaging story from very little archival video footage, instead relying on gorgeous photographs, interviews, and innovative art direction. As Nim's story gains complexity and the cast of characters thickens, Marsh charges ahead, and risks losing control of his central premise. By allowing his subjects to speak candidly, even about one another, he navigates these dangerous waters nimbly, trusting us to make up our own minds and wait to hear the whole story.

Another Earth - Mike Cahill
Another Earth takes a well-trodden redemption story and filters it through a unique science fiction premise to makes a film that is more than the sum of these two parts. Part Contact, part Donnie Darko, it's hard to believe that Another Earth is Mike Cahill's first narrative feature, but that's what it says in my program, so I will take him at his word. In any case, his film impressively strikes a delicate balance between dramatic tension and eerie sci-fi chills. Leaning on story and strong performances over CGI, Cahill uses the science as a means rather than an end, keeping the story insular and avoiding sci-fi tropes one might expect. It is surprisingly how well the whole thing works, and if you can suspend disbelief until the end you'll find yourself rewarded for your patience.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

IFF Boston 2011 Round-Up Pt. 1

Four days in and IFF Boston has fully enveloped Davis Square. Muscle cars named Medusa breathe fire behind the Somerville Theatre, a gigantic queue of people snakes around the building and several blocks down Dover St. The theatre foyer is finely-tuned chaos, not unlike a Mumbai intersection. But oh, the films! 47 screenings thus far, and another 20 scheduled for today makes the ominous weather a little less troubling. Not that my complexion can carry a tan on normal days, but during the film-fest, I considerably more nocturnal. I've enjoyed 4 movies so far, and have another 4 scheduled today, but before I forget, I want to jot down a few thoughts on each, should any of you have the chance to see them in a larger release.

The Trip - Dir. Michael Winterbottom
I'm not sure if knowing that The Trip was already a successful BBC miniseries helped or hurt its charms. On one hand, it feels a little cheap to know that a TV series has been trimmed and stitched together to support a 2-hour running time, but on the other, Michael Winterbottom is an accomplished director and if anything, this film should be a potent distillation of the originals hilarity. As it turns out, I was right on both accounts. The film is quite funny and doesn't necessarily feel cobbled together, but at the same time, doesn't possess any semblance of an 'arc'. It is, by my accounts, a series of fancy meals and car-rides in which Coogan and Brydon riff off one another for 110 minutes. There are pitch-perfect Woody Allen impressions, an amazing spoof of 'costumed dramas' ("WE RISE AT DAYBREAK") and Brydons terrible yet endearing Al Pacino impression he cannot help himself from lapsing into. As a series of scenes, it is a riot, but as a film, its could use a bit more focus.

Green - Dir. Sophia Takal
Green opens with a scene that is does not ingratiate itself with the audience. It features Sebastian extolling the virtues of Philip Roth and flippantly dismissing his girlfriend's claims to the contrary. They are from Brooklyn, and I believe them. The couple then move to a sublet in West Virginia, where Sebastian intends to write an article on sustainable living for a blog. It plays about how you would expect, but is sufficiently frustrating due to the intentionally loose plotting, which lets Sebastian to ramble uninterestingly simply to fill a scene. Things improve when Robin (director Takal) enters the picture and a bizarre will-they/did-they? love triangle begins to take shape. Robin is more naive then dumb, but nevertheless, it takes a long time to warm up to her drawl and personality. I understand what Takal was trying to do by dropping a woman into the story who is at first the butt of inside jokes for the couple, and then a palpable threat, but it could have been better handled with a little more direction. The strong score and eerie shots of the woods add a fantastic sense of foreboding, but the story never meets it there, and eventually gets in over its head. I think Takal has talent and am interested in what she does next, but she could stand to put more trust in herself.

How To Die In Oregon - Dir. Peter Richardson
In 1994, Oregon became the first state to pass the Die with Dignity act, a law that makes it legal for terminally ill individuals to take their own lives (under supervision of their doctor) when their quality of life has diminished. In the 16 years since, 600 people have gone through with it. God did not smite them from on high, and no one was killed by their family in an inheritance grab as Republicans feared. Richardson makes it quite clear that this is not suicide, as suicide involves people with functioning bodies but whom are clinically depressed, whereas dying with dignity patients have complete mental faculties, but irreparably failing bodies. The first hour of the movie hops between several affecting stories, but these eventually coalesce into the story of 54 year-old Cody Curtis, a wife and mother of two with inoperable liver cancer. Her story arc starts with simple meditation on the principles of Death with Dignity, and shows her making preparations with her family, but takes a new shape as she exceeds her prognosis and 'Death with Dignity' becomes more of a dark cloud hanging over her family than a calm and logical way out. In less capable hands, the story could have unraveled, but Richardson strikes a wonderful balance between the celebration of life and the acceptance of death, never reveling in either too long to feel exploitative or uncomfortable. I wish the pacing of the film had allowed for the other subplots stretch to the end as well, if only for some small relief from Cody's story, but I can understand if he wanted to give the Curtis family the attention and concern they deserve. In any case, it's a powerful film.

Puppet - Dir. David Soll
When a documentary sheds light on a topic that you knew nothing of or had deeply seated misconceptions  about, it is an amazing thing. What King of Kong did for videogames and Wordplay did for crossword puzzles, David Soll's Puppet does for puppetry. As it turns out, puppets haven't always been a gimmick to shut up a whiny child. Every culture on earth has revered puppetry and it wasn't until the days of television and film that they began their descent into the margins. While Jim Henson and Sesame Street have performed small miracles in reviving puppetry, they also reinforced the notion that they are not to be considered a serious art. The puppetry that Dan Hurlin and his team perform in Puppet can best be described as an amazingly intricate dance, and seeing what goes into it makes it even more astonishing. I will resist delving into the plot of Hurlin's show, if only to say that it surrounds a photographer/hermit who finds himself literally shrinking as portrait photography as an art form metaphorically does. I will confess to being someone who never gave puppetry any serious consideration alongside other forms, but now feel like a complete boob. The level of craft necessary to breathe life into an inanimate object (and not just life, but personality and humor as well), cannot be overstated. And in many ways it is even beyond acting. Many times, an actors mannerisms and body language may simply be coincidental and unconscious, but with puppets, every shrug and sigh is the complex product of three puppeteers working together as one. Puppet does exactly what a great documentary should do: introduces you to something new, and makes you fall in love.