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Some Thoughts Along the Timeline

It’s my birthday today. What follows originally began as the body of some correspondence to a select few individuals…

Thank you for your good wishes; they are much appreciated!

I am reminded of a joke Billy Crystal used in the script for his film “City Slickers”.

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Describing how his mother continues to regard him as a baby, he states, (and I’m re-working this slightly) “How’s Jay doing? Oh he’s just great! He’s 744 months today!” (If your math skills are any good, you can calculate just how long it’s been since I was born).

I share a birthday with Nigel Bruce, Charles Lindbergh, Dan Quayle and Alice Cooper.

We’re just like five peas in a pod.

Mind you, I don’t know exactly what you expect when YOU sow a garden with peas, but assuming you’ve never shelled them, this metaphor may strike you as appropriate…

Meanwhile, in lieu of a formal online celebration (which would be unseemly), herewith please enjoy the latest work from Tom Tomorrow and “This Modern World”:

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Once again, many thanks and, trust me, spring is on its way!

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Movie Review: St. Vincent

Bill Murray, Naomi Watts and Melissa McCarthy turn in performances that resonate convincingly in a film that never did the kind of popular business it deserved to do merely because it includes no super-hero characters or thundering explosions.

The quiet ones, with a few exceptions, rarely do.
Murray is charming, authentic and funny as the dysfunctional older man in New Jersey who meets almost-as-dysfunctional McCarthy, a single mom in the middle of a divorce, accompanied by her 8-year-old son.
She’s got too many balls in the air, her son desperately lacks any kind of father figure for guidance (he’s the new Jewish kid in the local Catholic parochial school) and Murray sees a slightly golden opportunity to make a little pocket money for booze and cigs by watching the boy after school.

Oliver and Vincent with Cat

Cue the mutually transformational episodes.
Murray basically drags the boy along through various defining scenes in his dissolute lifestyle.

Oliver and Vincent in Bar

His charge accompanies him to the racetrack, to the local bar and eventually befriends his erstwhile lady friend: a Russian-born stripper and prostitute (another winning portrayal by Naomi Watts, by the way).

Niomi Watts as Daka in St Vincent

There’s a school bully who gets his comeuppance and becomes the boy’s friend.  The sequence in which the boy helps Murray score big by successfully intuiting a Trifecta at the track is enough to make you cheer even as you may be shaking your head in bewilderment.

Oliver and Vincent in Car with Shades and Bandanas

The boy gradually gets Murray to see the world from beyond his own self-centered view and then makes him the focus of a school essay that – predictably enough – becomes a contest winner in a school competition.

Melissa McCarthy in St. Vincent

The screenplay certainly plays to Murray’s best strengths (not to mention McCarthy’s) and the bittersweet nature of the episodes ensures that the story never veers too sharply in one direction or another.
Has Bill Murray been down this route before?  Absolutely he has. But has he ever been quite this nuanced?  Maybe once or twice (think “Lost in Translation”), but never so enjoyably, since this character feels so wonderfully real without going over the top.
St. Vincent is right up there among his best work, including “Translation”, “Rushmore” and “Ground Hog Day”.
(Five out of five stars.)

St Vincent Poster

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2015 in Review: Up

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys have taken it upon themselves to prepare a 2015 annual report for this blog.

I’m very grateful to them inasmuch as this takes time away that they might otherwise spend grooming each other or batting out the occasionally random Shakespearean play.

What it boils down to is: there are more eyeballs coming here than ever before.

For that I thank you all.

 

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,900 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 32 trips to carry that many people.

It is a dog-eared cliche to say that nobody achieves this kind of result in a vacuum…

Thank you very much to EVERYONE who has taken the time to look at this site, to read my rambling words, to “like” any of the posts that appear here, and – most of all – to those select and discriminating visitors who elect to “follow” this material.

A special thanks to my wife and daughter, who put up with my habit of spending WAAAAAAY too much time glued to my computer, but who never fail to come up with cogent observations concerning when I’m on target, when I miss the mark and what I may want to do next.

I love them more than even I can say.

Please Click here to see the complete report.

And, again, thank you.

book-review

Book Review: “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese

A sweeping story of family, politics, culture and personality that borrows heavily from such diverse sources as Shakespeare, Joyce, the films of Merchant-Ivory and a romantic tradition that extends far back into the roots of Abrahamic and Hindu Scripture.

The plot concerns the childhood and coming of age of twin boys born conjoined at the head. They are the apparent fruit of the union of an English doctor practicing in an Ethiopian clinic and his attending nurse, a Catholic nun.

Verghese writes as only a medical doctor can, but he also writes as only a very talented writer can, which means the story goes from operating theater to drawing room to boudoir and the author’s gifted style never varies throughout.

Cutting for Stone Book Cover

Yes, the man can write, and he has no small talent for it. One reviewer makes reference to the “luminescence” of his writing, and the metaphor is apt. While there are moments of forced emotive cloying, this is no pulp romance, though there are elements of so-called “chick-lit” to be found. There are elements of daring, both in plot and theme, that will hold readers tight as they follow the story, regardless of gender or preference for recreational reading style.

If Dr. Varghese is not an author for the ages (and only time will tell,) he is most assuredly an author for this particular age.

Author Abraham Verghese

One important cautionary note: the author is a medical doctor and much of the novel’s action is set in an operating theater during a period of civil war. Readers need to be prepared for a type of graphic writing that describes surgical procedures in unflinching detail. In other words, the squeamish reader will wish to skip over some of the more sanguinary passages.

That caveat aside, “Cutting for Stone” is an enjoyable and engrossing read; a story not readily forgotten. (Five out of five stars.)

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“Gracie, A Love Story” by George Burns

Gracie A Love Story Cover

Let’s call this a selective biographical memoir; but the title is certainly every bit as accurate: this is a love story.

George Burns died more than 16 years ago, and a younger generation doesn’t remember him, but most people aged 35 and over can at least call a portrait of the man into their mind’s eye: an arched eyebrow and an ever-present cigar.

Most people aged 65 and over will remember another figure alongside him: very petite, a brunette-haired woman with a high-pitched voice and a distinctive “illogical logic” that made her the absolute reigning queen of comediennes for almost 2 generations, spanning vaudeville, radio, film and television.

That woman was Gracie Allen.

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Say Hello, Gracie: A relatively youthful Burns and Allen in the 1930s, having already conquered Vaudeville, Movies and Radio, but before their post-WWII invasion of the American living room via Television…

She was iconic.

George Burns was the lucky man who stumbled upon her, loved her, wooed her, married her, wrote for her, managed her career, and ultimately lost her to heart disease more than half a century ago.

This book is her story, told in his voice. If you’ve seen George Burns’ work, you can easily imagine him narrating this volume.

If you ever saw or heard Burns and Allen, you’re in for a deliciously refreshing treat: the excerpts from their comedy acts play just as hilariously today as they did when they were fresh and new.

There is, for example, Gracie’s patient explanation of her cousin’s death from diving into an empty swimming pool: “Well, you see, George, he knew how to dive, but he didn’t know how to swim…”

 

Gracie Allen Campaign Poster
A Souvenir from a day and age when at least ONE candidate for President courted the nation’s laughter, instead of playing to their deepest fears…

 

 

To make the book further enchanting than it already is, Burns includes all manner of anecdotes that include such stars of this bygone era as Jack Benny, Mary Livingstone, Cary Grant, Fred Allen, Goodman Ace, Harpo Marx, Myrna Loy, Marilyn Monroe and more.

Easy to read and hard to put down, this is both a history of several entertainment media and the American culture that shaped each other.

And it is a love story without parallel.

Absolutely recommended! (Five out of five stars)

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Book Review: “Girl Walks into a Bar” by Rachel Dratch

Part biography, part comic observation, this collection of essays enjoys an effortless cohesion and wit that may very well surprise many who only know Ms. Dratch from her years as a member of the Saturday Night Live troupe on NBC.

Dratch’s observations on her upbringing, her college years, dating/not dating, her efforts to penetrate Chicago’s Second City and ultimately Saturday Night Live carry the reader effortlessly through the book’s first half.

Girl Walks into a Bar cover

Then, equally effortlessly, Ms. Dratch shifts gears and writes candidly and eloquently of her life-changing experience when she found herself pregnant.

At an age when most single women are expecting to experience menopause, she writes of her fears, joys, frustrations and relief as she deals with friends, family, herself and the baby’s father as she lives out her first pregnancy, when she least expected it.

Warm, funny, touching and hard to put down, this is a lovingly written book that actually made me laugh out loud.

HIGHLY recommended! (Five out of five stars.)

Rachel Dratch BW Headshot

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Movie Review: “Grand Budapest Hotel”

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A true gem with an ensemble cast to die for, many of whom are costumed and made up with such consummate skill that only the most eagle-eyed viewers may spot them ahead of the closing credits.

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Just when you thought Ralph Fiennes had thrown his career away on Voldemort, Edward Norton on the Incredible Hulk or Jeff Goldblum on Jurassic Park and Independence Day, we have a quietly produced yet lavishly conceived smorgasbord of talented actors, doing what they do best: portray characters so convincingly written and acted that you forget they aren’t real.

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And the ensemble includes many who are not celestial names in the entertainment skies.  Relative newcomers share the frame with more experienced hands and everybody carries their own weight with deftness and veracity.

Jeff Goldbloom Grand Budapest Hotel

A story about a formerly glorious Eurasian boutique resort hotel now on hard times, the narrative gives each cast member his or her chance to shine in a seamless story that sweeps the audience along with seemingly no effort at all.

Edward Norton Grand Budapest Hotel

At turns intriguing, exciting, amusing and surprising; the film is a particularly perfect vehicle for Fiennes, quite possibly the role he was most aptly born to play.  Anchored at the center of the action, his character’s quiet experience, his jaded worldview and his take on the aristocratic classes and their foibles is right on target: never broad beyond belief or comical to the point of distracting from the business at hand.

Another long one (almost 2.3 hours) but in this case you’d be just as happy if the writers and director Wes Anderson had been able to pack in even an extra 30 minutes.  (A most enthusiastic 5 out of 5 stars.)

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Movie Review: “The Skeleton Twins”

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader are irreplaceably perfectly cast as fraternal twins brought back together after a decade’s separation to confront their larger life choices, not to mention each other, in the sparse beauty of winter in upstate New York.

Wiig’s marriage to loving but semi clueless husband Luke Wilson is failing and Hader is a tragic gay man with suicidal tendencies, sent home for his own safety after ten years with little to show for them in New York City.

Skeleton Twins Nine Image Panel

It would be all too easy for the two leads to allow themselves to simply mutate into some of the character roles they each crafted so entertainingly as co-cast members on “Saturday Night Live”, but Wiig and Hader neatly sidestep that trap and instead give us a couple of siblings we root for in the face of all that confronts them.

Wilson’s own supporting performance is not without its little gems of characterization and special kudos should not be overlooked for costume and makeup here.

Skeleton Twins Luke Wilson

 

But what makes this movie special is the remarkable restraint that perfectly permits these characters to convince the audience to care.

Not without some dark moments of its own, this film still manages to alternate the light and the dark and several of the best moments allow us to laugh deeply even as our heartstrings are being twisted by the feather light touch of both the direction and screenplay.

Skeleton Twins Lip Sync Scene

Hader and Wiig’s lip-synched performance of Jefferson Starship’s “Heart to Heart” is one of the must-see moments of the film as is the Halloween night sequence where Wiig dresses up as a cowgirl and Hader comes out in drag (sorry) complete with earrings, full-length gown, lipstick, eye shadow and beehive wig.

Bill Hader in Drag

Steel yourself for the sadder stuff and celebrate the comedy.

Just like life.  (Four-and-a-half out of five stars)

Skeleton Twins Movie Ad

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Movie Review: Birdman

or “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”

I must confess I was prepared to like this merely because Pittsburgh native Michael Keaton was cast in the lead role as a former superhero film actor inextricably bound to his onscreen role as Birdman in three comic book franchise films.

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What I was less prepared for was the surrealistic tone that the script imparts to the story or the success of the director’s “single-take” style of filming.

The supporting cast, Ed Norton and Naomi Watts, not to overlook Zachary Galifianakis in a fine non-comedic performance, does more than yeoman’s duty and the writing and direction distill the very sense of New York City’s Manhattan theatre district into a powerful potion that is practically a character in its own right.

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The film is presented as an almost unbroken single shot that stretches more than 2 hours, encapsulating several days in the backstage and onstage and offstage life of Riggan Thomson, the actor who, seeking to break out of his typecast mold, gambles everything on adapting, directing and playing the lead role in a serious dramatic Broadway play that could just as easily decimate his career as resurrect it.

Keaton does more than just make his character riveting, he does so without resort to his broader and long established bag of tricks.

As a man on the brink of emotional and physical collapse, his point of view, his perceptions and hallucinations play as great a role in his film performance as anything else.

Not only Keaton’s character but Keaton himself throws the dice and comes up a winner as does virtually every other member of the cast.  The parallels between Thomson and Keaton, between Birdman and Batman, between the play in the movie and this film in Keaton’s own career add a particular deliciousness to the proceedings that would be altogether lacking if anyone else had been cast in this role.

The musical soundtrack, a never-ending drum solo, further distinguishes the experience of seeing and hearing this most-remarkable of recent films.  It adds a subtext of manic urgency that filters across the screen and into the viewer’s subconscious.

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And finally, even if the more entrancing hallucinatory scenes weren’t already enough reason to see it, Keaton’s scene featuring his character’s much-ballyhooed nighttime run across Times Square clad only in his “tighty-whities” is destined to become a latter-day iconic scene of popular filmmaking and all by itself is reason enough to see this film.

Seriously.

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