Saturday, February 21, 2015

Rapture, Blister, Burn is the Most Fun I've Had With Feminism



To those who have seen the Roundhouse Theater in Bethesda's current production of Rapture, Blister, Burn, it should be no surprise that writer Gina Gionfriddo has written TV episodes of House of Cards, Cold Case, and Law & Order.

This is one of the snappiest plays around, featuring exceptional comic timing from all five actors, who deliver the most fun I've ever had with feminism.

The play, which ends this weekend, offers a compellingly told crash course in feminism, mainly featuring Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly. Michelle Six's Catherine has returned from her feminist-studies book-speaking circuit to visit college pals Gwen (Beth Hylton) and Don (Tim Getman), whose marriage has grown unexciting.

At first, it seems Don, played by Getman with a mix of Homer Simpson and Bill Murray, will surely have an affair with babysitter Avery (Maggie Erwin), but that is not who he has an affair with at all. He gets tossed between his wife and Catherine like a rag doll. This is a nice touch, putting the lone man in the downtrodden and abused position previously and traditionally held by women.

Sticking around, Catherine offers a class that is only attended by Gwen and Avery. Because of the low turn-out, she decides to hold it at the home of her mother (Helen Hedman), who provides the martinis to juice up the hilarious inter-generational conversations relating horror movies, porn, internet dating, and much more to feminism.

By the end, the older generation is "hooking up" and the younger generation is longing for a balanced career and family life.

This is a brilliant play, and playwrights would be wise to follow Gionfriddo's style of mixing well-told historical background with deeply explored and empathic fictional characters.

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


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Warriors: Book Versus Movie


Because The Warriors was released in theaters in 1979, it has always been considered part of a relatively cheesy era (like yacht rock, which was at its peak at the time).

But not only was it famous for knocking Star Wars out of the number-one box-office spot, it was really influential to me when when I first saw it as a freshman at Southern Illinois University. I watched it again and again, both scared of the gang life it depicted and transfixed by the thought of getting to New York City someday.

I think it sparked my love affair with subway systems, as much of the action takes place on late-night platforms and in trains filled with the dregs of society and people with long and unfortunate backstories that we'll never know.

The movie, ranked as my 22nd overall, does a great job of personalizing and humanizing each of the members of The Warriors, a gang framed for the killing of the city's top gangster and has to make it back to their home turf of Coney Island without being picked off in all the enemy territories they have to make it through on the way.

There are many differences between the film and the book that is the basis for the film, which was written by Sol Yurick (pictured) in 1965 and which I just finished reading. Based on the book and film, it appears New York City didn't change much between 1965 and 1979. It was a fascinating, dangerous, and dark place, filled with Times Square prostitutes, unruly and barely-parented street children, and suspicious and violent policemen.

In the book, the title "The Warriors" refers to all the gangs of the city, which are attempting to band together to overthrow all the non-gangsters before the plan quickly turns into chaos. The Coney Island gang is actually named The Dominators in the novel. And they are much less lovable than in the movie, going so far as to brutally rape a girl and viciously murder a mostly innocent passerby.

Other key differences: All the names of the gang are changed, six of the Warriors make it home from that fateful night whereas only four of the Dominators do, and there is really no framing of the Dominators for the top gangster's murder as are the Warriors in the movie.

The book is a great and quick read. The negatives are that I kept waiting for one of the gang members to fall into the subway or meet some of the other endings that the movie gangsters so deliciously met. Some of the scenes are overly long considering that much less often happens in them compared to the unrelenting action of the film. The good news is that if you love the movie, then there are enough differences to make the book well worth reading.

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

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Indie Movie Binge: Which Recent DVD Releases Are Worth It

With our recent re-upping of Netflix after a time away, I've been able to hit a spate of indie flicks in the way I used to in my 20s in the mid-90s when I presumably had nothing better to do.

None of these reach Richard Linklater Boyhood levels (my movie of 2014), which, much like his past releases Slacker, School of Rock, and Dazed and Confused, holds the grand torch of best-of-the-best. But I still enjoyed this binge. From best to worst ...

Wish I Was Here

The strong soundtrack including The Shins is where Zack Braff's latest ends at being like Garden State and Scrubs, his very-high career highlights thus far. There are some funny moments, but it's mostly a serious look at midlife.

Braff plays an out-of-work actor who spends more time smoking weed than auditioning. When his father (Mandy Patinkin) announces he has cancer and can no longer pay for Braff and Kate Hudson's children's Jewish private school education, Braff decides to home school them.

This leads to much soul searching and rediscovering. Not necessarily as good as I thought it could be, this little movie is indeed worth watching.

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

Obvious Child

This flick is a mix of Louie and Ed Burns' rom-coms. With major social commentary on abortion mixed in (with conservative groups the Heritage Foundation and Family Research Council chiming in against it).

I love star Jenny Slate for her roles in TV's The Kroll Show. She is far less wacky here, playing a comedian who loses her boyfriend before setting out on some binge drinking that results in a drunken encounter that gets her pregnant. Bouts of sweetness ensue with her stranger paramour, even if the bounds of believability are stretched with their continuous random sightings of each other.

Consider it devoting the time of just more than two episodes of Girls, which seems to be getting painfully annoying in its third season (should I even attempt to keep going into season four?).

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

Inside Llewyn Davis

This is the one that really surprised me of this bunch. Nominated for best picture last year, I'm finding it harder and harder as time goes by to remember anything about it. I usually love the Coen Brothers, but Inside Llewyn Davis is particularly uninteresting.

It starts promisingly. Oscar Davis plays the title character. He is a folk singer who has lost the duo partner that brought him minor fame. But nobody likes his new solo stuff. The movie is fairly captivating during the first half in Greenwich Village, but it collapses into veery-slow meaningless by the point Llewyn road trips to Chicago with John Goodman, in a sadly pointless performance.

I really wanted to like this, but really didn't. It might have something to do with my stunning lack of interest in Bob Dylan (I know you're not supposed to say that out-loud) and this post-Dylan take on artistry.

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

The Skeleton Twins

This is another big disappointment of two actors I really like. Perhaps the world in not ready for Saturday Night Live stars playing depressed suicidal twins.

The lack of humor is the most painful point. And why any scriptwriters would think audiences would care about these two losers is almost as amazing as it actually being green-lighted. I guess they thought Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig's double likability would save it, but they can't.

Like a really bad version of Robert Downey Jr.'s exploits in Less Than Zero.

** out of ***** stars

Sunday, February 8, 2015

10 Interesting Things About Pete Townshend Before The Who Hit It Big

(from pages 1-78 of Who I Am by Pete Townshend)

1. Townshend's father was a clarinetist and saxophonist with a "prototypical British swing band" called the Squadronaires, which I think is pretty cool because one of the best bands I was ever in (full of "brooding and swirling psychedelia," according to this link I just found in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) was called Birmingham Squadron.

2. Pete at seven referred to his mom as an unreliable vamp. His dad was drunk one night and told him the facts of life and that a man does a kind of pee into the woman. Pete later told this to a friend who was horrified that everybody originated from urine.

3. Pete's dad wrote "Unchained Melody," which was not a hit but was covered multiple times by other successful bands. When he saw young women flocking to his dad and fellow musicians, he too became set on becoming a performing musician when he grew up. Soon thereafter he saw "Rock Around the Clock with Bill Haley" at the movies and fell in love with rock 'n roll.

4. He thought Elvis was a corny chump. But he had somehow missed earlier releases like "That's Alright Mama" and "Heartbreak Hotel," only being introduced to The King's music through later releases such as "Hound Dog" and "Love Me Tender," both of which he hated.

5. Pete started his first band when he was 12, a skiffle group called the Confederates. John Entwistle was in the band on trumpet and Pete enjoyed his sense of humor.

6. Pete knew of a classmate named Roger Daltry, who had once been expelled for smoking. He first saw Roger after he had won a playground fight with a Chinese boy. Pete called out that Roger was a dirty fighter and Roger confronted him and forced him to take it back. He also saw Roger walking around school with an exotic white electric guitar he made himself. His band was called the detours and they played country-western songs at parties.

7. Early in 1963, Pete smoked his first pot and had sex for the first time on the same night. By later that year, in December 1963, his band the Detours found themselves opening for none other then the Rolling Stones. Pete saw Keith Richards stretching before the show by spinning his arms like a windmill. Keith didn't do it again the next time Pete saw him, so Pete adopted that move for his patented windmill. The band also opened for the Kinks. On Valentine's Day 1964, after Entwistle discovered that another band was already called the Detours, they decided to become the Who, even though Pete initially suggested they become the Hair.

8. When Entwistle became one of Marshall's first customers, Pete became irritated that his speakers were being drowned out by the bass. So he bought a couple of amps, one being a Fender Bassman, which I have a particular fondness for. That was the same amp I used to power my bass playing in 1990s bands like Birmingham Squadron and my guitar playing in Monotremes. That thing seriously put out some volume (Pete must have really been loud since it was only one of two he used on stage beginning in 1964), but I was also always impatiently waiting for the tubes to warm up when I turned it on.

9. After auditioning several drummers, including Mitch Mitchell of later fame with Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon materialized. He was instantly perfect. He had been playing with a band called the Beachcombers and was a big fan of California beach music (check out his solo cover of "Don't Worry Baby"). Moon had taken lessons from the drummer of Screaming Lord Sutch, which was a novelty band and is likely the main origin of Moon's hilarious stage antics, such as pointing his sticks skyward.

10. The Who, renamed The High Numbers for a short time, were mostly playing R&B covers. Their handlers began urging them that they needed original material. So Pete sat and listened to albums he loved and tried to determine what all this music was making him feel inside. He just kept coming back to the thought that "I can't explain" any of it. That became the basis for the second song he ever wrote (and arguably my favorite of all Who songs). He would often write about music in his songs, but over the coming weeks, he rewrote "I Can't Explain" to be more about love and to sound tight like the Kinks.

Friday, February 6, 2015

My Narration of Video About Washington D.C.'s Metro



In case you missed it, here's a video (that is getting pretty good traffic on YouTube) I narrated last summer for Mobility Lab about how Washington D.C.'s new Silver Line on the Metro is going to bring even more vibrancy to the Virginia neighborhood of Ballston and other places throughout the city.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Going to Space With Dogs and Robber Barons

Robert A. Heinlein is one of my favorite authors, based pretty much solely on Stranger in a Strange Land (#10 on my top novels of all time list) and to a lesser extent Starship Troopers.

So it was finally time to delve into his shorter works, published in book form for the first time in 1992 in a collection of short stories, novellas, speeches, and tributes entitled Requiem and Tributes to the Grand Master.

The short story Requiem leads off the book and is the sequel to Heinlein's novel The Man Who Sold the Moon. It is the story of businessman Delos David Harriman, who, is obsessed with being the first man on the moon. And further, he wants to own it. Published in 1951, Heinlein wasn't too far off from what panned out in real history in that Harriman's company succeeds in getting the first rocket to the moon in 1978. But he himself is not part of the first colonizing effort.

That is where Requiem takes over the story. The "tycoon and latter-day robber baron" is now very old and nearing death, and has still not personally reached the moon because his business partners always insisted they needed him on Earth. Once his business contract expires, he is no longer fit enough to pass the health tests required to travel to the Moon, so he enlists some junk spacemen at a carnival in Kansas City to illegally rocket him there. Harriman reaches the Moon and quickly dies on it.

Requiem is surely a satisfying end of the story for those who have read The Man Who Sold the Moon, but it is a fairly minor piece otherwise.

Where this collection picks up is with the novella Tenderfoot in Space. Charlie is a Boy Scout who loves his dog Nixie more than anything in the world. He even works hard to get the pooch some status in his troop.

The story opens as the boy is being questioned by a policeman who knows he is running away because he is unhappy that his family is preparing to leave on a colonization ship to Venus. And the family doesn't have enough money to pay Nixie's passenger fee.

Charlie returns home and, after much family drama, it's agreed that Nixie will be flash frozen, which greatly reduces his chances of surviving the nearly year-long rocket ride to Venus, but it's enough of a plan to satisfy Charlie. Nixie ends up surviving after they resuscitate him on Venus. He thrives there and even gets accepted as an honorary Scout in Charlie's new Earth-like troop.

Heinlein's setting description is exceptionally fictional, as the real Venus is filled with clouds, deserts, and volcanoes. The Venus described in the story contains a blanket of forests that often threaten to swallow up the colony of Earthlings.

Charlie becomes friends with a fellow Scout who was born on Venus and knows his way around. Towards the end of the story, the two boys and Nixie get disoriented in the vast forest. Nixie helps them find their way out, and the heroism he is awarded for at the end of the tale goes to show that Charlie's dad had been wrong in being so difficult about agreeing to bring the dog into space in the first place.

Requiem: ***1/2 out of ***** stars

Tenderfoot in Space: ****1/2 out of ***** stars

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Advice: Check In to The Grand Budapest Hotel

In 2012, I ranked my favorite 6 Wes Anderson-directed movies, and it presented an argument for the quirkmeister being one of the world's very finest.

Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom, The Royal Tennenbaums, Bottle Rocket, and The Darjeeling Limited, in that order.

Now, along comes The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is deserving of its Academy nomination for best movie, but that may only be because the out-of-touch Academy voters have been so woefully behind on recognizing him. Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom, his last two, were nominated for best animated film and best screenplay respectively. But there was nothing before that.

The Grand Budapest Hotel falls in at #6 for me, not quite as good as Darjeeling, but quite a bit better than his arguable misstep The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

The cinematography alone makes it worth watching. Shot on locating entirely in Germany, there are also model-scale shots of the hotel, which add to many frames looking like great art pieces.

Jude Law plays a young author who stumbles into an interview of the elderly owner of the hotel, played by F. Murray Abraham. The movie is mostly a flashback to when the owner, named Zero, was just beginning a job as the "lobby boy" at the hotel. He is taken under the wing of Monsieur Gustave, who is played with brilliant nastiness, pompousness, and a desire for very old women by Ralph Fiennes (certainly among his finest moments, which is saying a lot).

When a royal old woman, played by Tilda Swinton, leaves Gustave a valuable painting named "Boy with Apple" in her will, her son (Adrien Brody) is enraged, setting off a Keystone Cops-like chase. Gustave and Zero get arrested and are sent to prison, where they plan an escape with Harvey Keitel, but then must avoid Adrien Brody's hitman, played by Willem Dafoe, which they do with a little help from a mafia of hotel owners seemingly led by Bill Murray.

Gustave and Zero make it through these adventures, and the movie then reveals how they came to their eventual demises, with the benefit that Jude Law's story of the wild history of this hotel's employees does indeed live on.

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