Television review: Political Animals

July 30, 2012 – Are you watching the miniseries “Political Animals” on the USA Network?

Ratings haven’t been great for three episodes that aired so far, but if a well-written political drama with hints of humor and compelling story lines interests you it is easy to catch up with On Demand technology.

The story gives an insider’s view of a first family after they leave the White House, more specifically the former first lady played by Sigourney Weaver. Once her husband’s presidency is finished, which included several sex scandals and a very high approval rating, she decides to take up her own political agenda and run for president, only to be beaten in the primary election. Once the candidate who beat her wins the presidency, he appoints her Secretary of State.

Sound familiar? You’d have to be living in solitary confinement not to see the similarities with the Clintons. There is one big difference though. When Weaver’s character, Elaine Hammond, loses the race in the primary election, she files for divorce that very night.

As the top diplomat in the country, Hammond has a lot to deal politically and inside of her own family. As one character in the White House jokes, trying to figure out what Iran will do next is akin to looking at instructions from IKEA. Plus she’s dealing with a tough journalist out for blood played by the wonderful Carla Gugino who has had a love/hate relationship with the former first lady. All in a day’s work.

But that’s minor compared to what is going on inside of her family. She has a gay son, outed in the White House as a teen during her husband’s presidency who has never come to terms with the spotlight, another son who is so rigidly perfect that his fiancé develops bulimia, and ex-husband who has taken up with a television star half his age.

The writing and acting in this ensemble are quite good. And if the story lines as I’ve described them indicate in any way that there is a soap element to the show, I stand corrected. There is drama, comic relief and snarky comments galore – the best belonging to Elaine’s mother, played by the still stunning Ellyn Burstyn – but there is no soap factor.

There have been plenty of movies and television series that have given us a peek behind the curtain of politics, and also plenty that give us a look at the media, but “Political Animals” combines both with a refreshing twist. If anything, it’s a nice break from the political nightmare that’s about to unfold on all of us during the upcoming presidential race.

With the limited selections of summer viewing, it’s also a nice change of pace from the reality show madness that controls the television dials. The USA Network offers a few other alternatives that will please your palate as well.

What’s a blogger to do?

July 27, 2011 – It is Friday, a regular posting day for me, yet I am at a loss as what to write about. I am not sure if my situation officially constitutes writer’s block; I could probably write pages and pages about nothing, but I’ll spare you.

I thought about giving you a peek inside my routine and show you that as much as I love blogging, sometimes it’s difficult to do so at least three times a week. And right now is one of those challenging times.

Or, I could write something about the Olympics, which begin tonight. But then I’d have to explain that as much as I love what the games represent, and I’m a sports fan, I rarely watch. It may seem odd that I don’t find the Olympics appealing, although I will admit the summer games are more exciting than the winter games, and the opening and closing ceremonies are usually interesting.

Maybe I could tell you that today I will reach a blogging milestone, as I am a mere 24 clicks away from 25,000 all-time views. That may not seem so impressive since I’ve been blogging since November 2010, but it’s still an achievement considering I began with a mere few hundred clicks a month back then, and have steadily grown to 3,663 views for July 2012, so far.

It’s 5:03 a.m. on Friday morning, and I’m sitting in front of my computer instead of sleeping. I’m not sure whether that indicates dedication or insanity. Have a great day, dear readers, and try not to hold today’s post against me. 🙂

10 movies I tried to like but failed miserably

July 25, 2012 – There’s a certain responsibility that comes with calling yourself a major movie fan. One of the biggest may be the obligation to appreciate those elite films considered to be the best.

Take “Casablanca”, for example. It typically appears on the favorite’s list for many critics and film experts. Likewise for “Citizen Kane”, often called the greatest movie ever made. While I love “Casablanca” and everything about it, the appeal of “Citizen Kane” is lost on me, and it bored me from start to finish.

Here are 10 other movies that critics often praise, yet for me fall into that unfortunate “Citizen Kane” category:

1. Star Wars –Sure it’s cool to be a fan, but I have never been one to sing the praises of “Star Wars” or any of its episodes. I realize that I am in the minority and that this series of films is considered a true American epic and the third highest grossing series of all time, but I never understood why. Sorry, Mr. Lucas, but I’m not a sci-fi fan. I will give you major kudos on the cleverness you displayed when it came to naming your characters, though. You don’t come across people named Chewbacca and Obi Wan Kenobi every day.

2. Blue Velvet – Perhaps I’m just picking on “Blue Velvet”, the surreal film classic and sophomore effort of the highly unusual David Lynch. It’s actually Lynch’s entire body of work that leaves me scratching my head. I enjoyed “Wild at Heart” and adored “The Straight Story” mainly because of the late and great Richard Farnsworth, but I’m still trying to figure out most of Lynch’s films, including the bizarre “Eraser Head” and “Mulholland Drive”. “Blue Velvet” stands out because it’s probably the most famous of all of Lynch’s works, and it was the first one I tried to like.

3. The Lord of the Rings – As a teenager, I read one page of “The Hobbit”, put it down and never picked it up again. The people of middle earth didn’t do it for me. I didn’t like reading the “Lord of the Flies” or “Of Mice and Men”, yet managed to get through the film versions of these classics without throwing a tomato at the screen, so I told myself it would be the same with “The Lord of the Rings”. Alas, I fell asleep during the first film, which is a sure sign to pass on the follow-up films in the series. Still, there is one saving grace. Like “Star Wars”, big props go out to J.R.R. Tolkien for his imagination when naming the characters. Bilbo and Frodo Baggins are awesome names, and I’m tempted to get a dog just to name him Gandalf.

4. The Matrix – Another popular series of movies that I’ve tried to enjoy, yet simply didn’t understand. Not one bit.

5. There Will Be Blood – As a Daniel Day-Lewis fan who has enjoyed mostly every performance he’s given us from “My Left Foot” to “The Age of Innocence” and my favorite, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, it is difficult for me to say I hated this movie. But that’s the truth. “There Will Be Blood” is the story of greed and one man’s ruthless journey to become the wealthiest oil man in the country. The performances in this movie were practically flawless and every major critic had it on their short list, if not as their number one movie pick for 2007. But there was nothing redeeming about any of the characters, which made it difficult for me to watch. It left me feeling hopeless, so much so that I will never watch this film again, and as someone who can watch movies again and again, that is a sure sign of dislike.

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey – Like the Matrix, I tried to enjoy it, but the plot was completely over my head. I still question if there really was a plot at all. Honestly, I’ve never gotten through the entire movie; the music, which is fantastic, always lulls me to sleep.

7. The Tree of Life – The movie is a visual stunner, and received overwhelmingly positive reviews for its artistic style, but some critics took issue with Terrance Malick’s directorial style and, in particular, the film’s disconnected flow. I have to agree with latter because the movie turns into a collection of scenes that never fit together and were not entertaining in the least. For me, this is a huge wasted effort on the part of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.

8. Leaving Las Vegas – I don’t require every movie to have a happy ending, or even a happy theme, but this particular movie, which starred Nicholas Cage as a depressed alcoholic planning to drink himself to death in Las Vegas, and Elizabeth Shue as the prostitute who tries to save him, is right up there with the saddest movies ever made. Perhaps sadder yet, it is based on a true story, which really makes me never want to see this film again.

9. The Piano – Critics praised the cast of Jane Campion’s drama about a mute pianist in 19th century New Zealand, and major awards were showered upon Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin (who was only 11 at the time). But there was nothing visually appealing about this movie, and Hunter’s facial expressions (she played the mute character) started to drive me crazy midway through. I was very disappointed when she ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Actress that year. What I hated most, however, was her daughter’s betrayal at the end of the movie, which leads to one of the most horrific scenes ever filmed.

10. The Way We Were – As a woman, I’m supposed to find “The Way We Were” to be the most romantic movie of all time. The classic story that starred Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand as young lovers who meet in college in the 1930s and are ripped apart by political differences struck a chord with many movie goers back in 1973, and that tradition has continued, especially with the female audience. If you polled a number of women about their favorite romantic movies, chances are “The Way We Were” would be a strong contender. For me, the film was dull and too drawn out. And while I usually enjoy performances by Redford, there is something about Streisand that rubs me the wrong way; aside from “Funny Girl” and “The Mirror Has Two Faces”, I’ve never been a fan of her films.

Movie review: Safety Not Guaranteed

July 23, 2012 – What would you do if you saw this ad in a newspaper?

“WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll be paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.”

I came across these words not in a newspaper ad, but on a movie poster and it immediately piqued my interest. It was the director (Colin Trevorrow) and writer (Derek Connolly) who stumbled upon this ad in an actual newspaper, and decided to build a screenplay around it.

I’ve never been a sci-fi fan, and pretty much stay away from movies that feature time travel because it’s been done to the extreme, and frankly, it bores me. That is, unless it involves Bill and Ted. I have a soft spot for them.

Still, “Safety Not Guaranteed” combines both sci-fi and time travel elements, but with a major dose of quirky, and that’s what won me over.

From the producers of “Little Miss Sunshine”, another eccentric movie I thoroughly enjoyed, this small budget flick debuted to limited release in June, and finally made it to Philadelphia on Friday. It could be described as indie meets geeky, but whatever you call it, it’s an attention grabber with its offbeat and highly original premise.

The set-up: Jeff (Jake Johnson) is a Seattle magazine writer who suggests to his editor that the newspaper ad would make an interesting feature. He takes two interns on the road to research the ad, sarcastic and depressed recent college grad Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and endearing computer nerd Arnau (Karan Soni). After they track down the man who placed the ad, a lonely grocery clerk named Kenneth (Mark Duplass), it’s Darius who befriends him and wins his trust.

Aside from a few cameo appearances from Jeff Garlin, of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” fame and Kristen Bell, the only other actor in the movie I am familiar with is Mark Duplass. But the movie is perfectly cast, and each unknown/indie artist lives up to the task. The story is witty and yet tugs at the heartstrings, and the characters are so fresh and flawed. While the bonds of faith and trust are tested, the end result will restore your hope in humanity.

“Safety Not Guaranteed” is a character driven piece, despite its “action-oriented” premise. Perhaps best of all, it’s completely unpredictable. And that’s always satisfying.

Unraveling the mysteries of the universe one at a time

July 20, 2012 – Why are there still so many reality shows on television? I thought it was just a passing phase, but after 12 years on the air they are still going strong and multiplying.

Sure, they’re cheap to produce; that’s why network executives love them, but why do we tune in?

Most of them highlight people being awful to each other. Why do we like that? Don’t we get enough of that in our real lives?

If you can make me understand the answers to these burning questions, I’d feel obligated to personally finance your campaign to run for Ruler of the Universe, because you’d deserve it.

Things I’m afraid to tell you

July 18, 2012 – One of the joys of blogging is discovering other bloggers and reading what they have to say.

While perusing through the Fresh Pressed blogs that Word Press features each day, I came across an entry that lead me to a blog by Jess Constable entitled “Things I’m Afraid to Tell You”. Jess wrote about some of her biggest fears and although she didn’t do it to start a movement for other bloggers to follow in her footsteps, they did so and willingly.

I’ve been inspired by the honesty and bravery of the bloggers that took part in this experiment and decided to give it a go. Each confession below is one I do my best to hide from the world, so this is a little unnerving for me to admit. Perhaps I am naïve to think that others can’t see through me, but bless the little souls of everyone I know who haven’t told me that I’m not fooling them.

I may be a little late to the party, but here goes:

I’m not sure I’ve ever been in love.
This might be the saddest confession of all, but I wonder about this each time I hear my friends talk about the sadness of ending a relationship. I simply don’t see the point in wallowing over lost love, and seem to get over relationships very fast. Even stranger, the last time I felt like I had my heart broken, I was a teenager.

I suffer from writer’s envy.
I can’t tell you how many blogs, books, movie scripts, short story ideas, etc. that make me crazy jealous I didn’t think of the idea first. Maybe this is a common fear for most writers, but sometimes it paralyzes me and makes me question if I have any talent at all.

I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied.
Every day I strive to live a grateful life, but no matter how much I search for or achieve, it still feels like something is missing. I’m not sure what to do about that.

I worry too much.
This is something I also try to keep in control; I’ve even read books on the power of now and living in the moment, but it usually doesn’t work. I’m not sure why worrying is my go to emotion. I’m lucky that most things turn out well in my life. My big fear is that I’m one of those people who aren’t happy unless they are worried about something.

I go out of my way to avoid any confrontation — probably because I’m insecure.
I remember being a freshman in high school and watching the seniors do their thing. I thought they had it all together, and I told myself that by the time I was a senior, I’d have it all together, too. That was 35 years ago and it still hasn’t happened. I’m still insecure, and it’s a terrible burden. I thought the greatest part about growing older was growing wiser and gaining confidence.

I cried when I wrote this post.
It’s the scariest post I’ve ever written. I can’t say that I feel liberated by it as others have stated, but I’m glad I did it.

Movie review: Your Sister’s Sister

July 16, 2011 – I have a bit of a girl crush on Emily Blunt.

That is one of the main reasons I went a wee bit overboard to check out the movie “Your Sister’s Sister” over the weekend.

It’s been playing in independent theaters in selected cities since May, but when I checked for starting times on Saturday morning, I discovered that last week was its final run in Philly, and the closest theater showing it was about an hour away in central New Jersey.

But I’m an adventurous soul, known to do crazier things to take in a flick, such drive two and a half hours to meet up with a fellow movie fan friend who lives in Rochester, N.Y. at our halfway point. So, an hour’s drive is merely child’s play.

I first recall seeing Blunt in “The Devil Wears Prada” as the tense and neurotic assistant to Meryl Streep’s editor/devil, and I didn’t care for her or the character she was portraying. Things began to change slowly when I saw her next in “The Jane Austen Book Club”, but I still was hesitant to make that final commitment. However, this year, when I caught her in “Salmon Fishing in Yemen” and “The Five Year Engagement” she completely won me over.

The premise for “Your Sister’s Sister” seemed appealing in the previews, but the real draw for me was Blunt. She, Mark Duplass and Rosemarie DeWitt, are fantastic together in this film and play off of each other perfectly, which is a good thing considering the three of them are alone in a cabin in the woods and carry 90% of the film. Aside from the opening scene at a party, it really is a three-character study.

It’s also the first film I’ve seen from writer/director Lynn Shelton, who gave us other Indy movies I’m not familiar with such as “Humpday” and “We Go Way Back”. Turns out I’m more familiar with Shelton’s directorial roles, since she is responsible for several episodes of “Mad Men”.

Shelton proves that you don’t need a big budget to make a compelling movie. She highlights real emotions and struggles in these three characters that everyone can relate to, yet makes it seem as far from cliché as you can get.

It’s a year after his brother’s death and Jack (Duplass) is still struggling with the loss. (I’ll also admit to a bit of a crush on Duplass; his character is so injured, yet so hilariously charming.) His best friend Iris (Blunt) suggests he go to her father’s cabin on a remote island off Seattle so he can spend some time alone and deal with his emotions. Once he arrives, he runs into Iris’ sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) who is also hiding out and reeling from emotional turmoil of her own. That leads to a night of many shots of tequila, and an unexpected and extremely awkward sexual encounter. When Iris arrives the next day, the two do everything they can to hide their hook up from her, especially once she admits to her sister that she may have feelings for him.

Since the movie isn’t playing in wide release, its reach is small, and that’s a shame because it’s funny and charming, and the masses should see it. The acting is top-notch and the dialogue is sharp and witty. It’s definitely a film that will appeal to the Indy crowd, as well as those who enjoy a good romantic comedy, though it plays out with more sophistication and less formula than your average rom-com.

If you live outside of the New York / Philadelphia / Chicago / Los Angeles area you probably won’t find “Your Sister’s Sister” playing near you. The good news is that it will be released on DVD in September, so you won’t have to wait too long to take a chance on a little Indy film that will thoroughly charm you out the wazoo.

Can the Phillies season be saved?

July 13, 2012–Thoroughly disappointing.

That is one way to describe the first half of the Phillies 2012 season. And a mild one at that.

During the first half, they achieved a dismal 37 – 50 record, they sit at the bottom of their division 14 games behind the first place Nationals, and only the Rockies, the Padres and the Cubs have worse records in the National League. If you consider that it took the Phillies until near the end of the season to reach 50 losses for all of last year, it’s more than disappointing; it’s downright disgusting.

What’s worse is that the return of Chase Utley didn’t help boost the team even a smidgen. The Phillies have gone 1 and 10 since Utley’s return, and ironically the game they won was one he did not play. Ryan Howard returned soon after, and the losses still kept coming. Here’s to hoping that the return of Roy Halladay next week brings better results.

If it doesn’t, what’s a fan to do? It’s not like we don’t know what it’s like to cheer for a bad team. We’ve had plenty of lean years watching terrible baseball before the wonderful stretch of the last five seasons when we’ve scored five division titles, two National League Championships and a World Series. After tasting such sweet success, we’re spoiled, making it all the more difficult to return to mediocre.

However, baseball waits for no one. With or without the confidence of the fans, the Phillies begin the second half of the season tonight in Colorado with several burning questions. Among the most important: Will they be sellers at the trade deadline? And will they sign Cole Hamels for 2013 and beyond?

A trade deadline looms

Although some believe it’s best to blow up the team completely, I want the Phillies to remain buyers and not sellers at the deadline on July 31. At minimum, a nice bullpen piece would be most welcome. Call me crazy, but even when facing all of the cold, hard facts, I’m not ready to give up on this season or the next few seasons if the Phillies go into “rebuild” mode. Sure, it will take a miracle to reach the Nationals and pass three other teams along the way, but it is possible.

With 75 games left, the Phillies would have to play on a 65 – 10 pace to match what they did last season, or at least a more doable 50 – 25 pace to compete. Last year, the Cardinals pulled out all stops and achieved the near impossible, and the year before that, the Giants pulled off something similar. History proves that championships, especially in baseball, go to the teams that get hot at the end.

Testing free agency?

Events this week renewed my hope in resigning Cole Hamels. I chalked him up as all but gone, but the ace pitcher gave an interview at the All-Star game that indicated he wants to stay here and that the Phillies will have the last bid to keep him here. He mentioned that the Phillies organization has been wonderful to both him and his family, and he enjoys his teammates. He also gave an interview earlier in the week to a Comcast reporter where he stated that even if he was traded at the deadline, he could see coming back to Philadelphia next season as a free agent, just like Cliff Lee. An interesting yet far-fetched scenario, but again, it’s possible. Plus, reports yesterday indicated that the Phillies plan to make one more push to sign him this week.

No excuse zone

Fans can say the team is snake bitten all they want, they can place the blame with Charlie Manual, Ruben Amaro Jr., or the players. They can say we had a good five-year run but it had to end sometime. None of these excuses are acceptable. This team has to come back with vengeance beginning tonight and look they give a damn if they expect me to care. At the very least, I’d like to see some competitive, enjoyable baseball in the second half.

Here’s to hoping they give us that and a whole lot more.

Summer in the city: a chill Philly top ten list

July 11, 2012 — It’s hot. You’re stuck in the city. What do you do? Here are ten hot spots around town that will cool you off during the dog days of summer.

10. Visit a Rita’s Water Ice stand. Folks in many parts of the country enjoy a cool Italian ice to take the heat off, but here in Philly we call it water ice and it’s easily available at any Rita’s Water Ice stand in the city. I typed my zip code on to the site and found 12 locations in Northeast Philly within 3 miles of my house.

9. Visit an ice cream palor. If water ice isn’t your thing, perhaps ice cream will do the trick. In the center city area, you’ll find Scoop DeVille at Rittenhouse Square, and in Old City, visit the Franklin Fountain, the city’s self-proclaimed “ice cream saloon”.

8. Take a dip. Unfortunately, the city’s many fountains won’t allow you to take a dip there, but there are plenty of private and public pools that will help you beat the heat.

7. Head for the shore. Many Jersey shore locations are within one hour of center city Philadelphia, so a day trip is easy to plan if you can’t get away for a longer period. You can be on the beach and swimming in the ocean on most days in as quickly as you can say “Bob’s your uncle.”

6. Visit the Constitution Center. It’s air-conditioned and well worth the price of admission. This summer, the center features an exhibit on Bruce Springsteen, which is making its east coast debut courtesy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

5. Have a drink. If you enjoy a refreshing adult beverage or virgin cocktail, head to the Rum Bar for a traditional daiquiri or other frozen concoction. Any of the clubs along the Delaware River will do nicely, too, and you can catch the water’s breeze and pretend you’re in the Bahamas.

4. Ride the ducks. Philly Duck boats board several times a day near Independence Hall, take you on a great tour of the city, and finish with a cool splash in the Delaware River.

3. Go to a movie. Sometimes the best place to cool off is in a cool, dark movie theater. I know it’s my favorite way to beat the heat!

2. Experience Comcast Spectator. Another air-conditioned wonder, this brand new Philadelphia sports and entertainment complex is adjacent to Citizens Bank Park, home of the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Wells Fargo Center, where the Sixers and Flyers play.

1. Just chill and enjoy. The oppressive temperatures won’t last forever; take a moment to sip on a glass of lemonade, paint your toe nails orange and enjoy. We’ll be shoveling snow again before you know it.

P.S. Today is 7/11! Enjoy a free Slurpee at participating 7-Eleven stores in honor of the special date. Now that’s a fantastic way to beat the heat!

Movie Review: To Rome with Love

July 9, 2012 – I’m not sure why I expected a crappy remake of the 1969 television series starring John Forsythe when I first heard the title “To Rome with Love” advertised.

Perhaps it is because Hollywood is known to rehash the same material over and over again, and I am old enough to remember watching that particular show back in the day.

But Woody Allen’s unique screenplay is nothing like the sappy television series. It also wasn’t the working title of the film, but Allen changed it at the last minute because he didn’t think people would understand “The Bop Decameron”, a reference to a collection of medieval novellas.

Nevertheless, the film is part of the writer/director’s extended European vacation of films, which also included Barcelona (Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona), London (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), and Paris (Midnight in Paris).

“To Rome with Love” tells four stories, all sprinkled with love and humor and each one focusing on a different aspect: the passionate love of a new relationship, the reflection of love lost, the seduction of love and fame, and the innocence and curiosity of inexperienced newlywed love. Kudos to Allen for allowing each imaginative story to breath on its own, and for not intertwining them neatly together at the end of the movie. That was a happy surprise.

The all-star cast includes a few Allen regulars such as Judy Davis, whom I call the female Woody Allen and Penelope Cruz, along with a list of Italian actors led by Roberto Benigni, and Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page.

The great city of Rome is also a shining star, and Allen makes it appear absolutely breathtaking. The Eternal City is one I want to visit during my lifetime, and “To Rome with Love” makes me want to go sooner rather than later. Yet it’s strange that many who have visited Italy have told me that the cities outside of Rome are much nicer. If that is the case, they must be absolutely spectacular.

Even if you don’t care for Woody Allen because of his personal choices in life – and I know several people who feel that way – there is no denying the man is an incredible talent and has been entertaining audiences with his offbeat neurotic style for nearly 50 years. And that holds true for “To Rome with Love” even though quite a few critics report that it isn’t one of Allen’s best; but that is only because there are so many great films to choose from in his body of work. The film is often silly, but I laughed, and it also seems far-fetched at times, but I bought into it. So, even though it is not “great”, it is a pleasure to see and hear, and it’s certainly worth the price of an admission ticket.

On a side note, a graphic artist friend pointed out many years ago that Woody Allen uses the same font created especially for him for all of his movies’ credits. I look for that now in each of his movies, and it still holds true.