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I chose to buy Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind almost instantaneously after reading the sample chapter about the filming of My Own Private Idaho that was published on grantland.com earlier this week.  I’ve always thought River Phoenix had some great performances and was a likeable actor, and it was his lack of a bad boy persona that made his famous death from drugs twenty years ago surprising. He also happened to be in some of my favorite movies as a kid, including Explorers and Stand By Me. Later on I would really appreciate movies like Running on Empty and The Thing Called Love where he played younger adults.

last-night-at-the-viper-roomSo here’s what made me desire to get this book so quickly based on the sample and subsequently reading the book in a couple days time: it’s got what qualifies as some really terrific Hollywood gossip that’s all wrapped around the fascinating and tragic story of the Phoenix Family. And– that’s a really interesting distinction here which I will come back to in a moment. But first, who are some of the famous folks you will you read about in this book who crossed into the life of River Phoenix? Keanu Reeves, Ethan Hawke, Sidney Poitier, Johnny Depp, Dan Akyroyd, Gus Van Sant, Harrison Ford, Joaquin Phoenix (of course!), Christina Applegate, Samantha Mathis, Martha Plimpton, Mick Jagger, Michael Stipe, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and many others. The author for some reason I couldn’t quite understand also frequently references the band known as The Butthole Surfers (perhaps that is one of his favorite bands). But anyway, if you are into stories behind movies and the relationships between a lot of late 1980s and early 90s young actors, this book is for you. Or if like the show Entourage, imagine it starring River Phoenix and that’s the kind of book you get here.

What the book is largely about thematically and biographically is how so many of River’s actions were rooted in his family’s bizarre circumstances that also then defined his own. As one other reviewer wrote about this book on Amazon, it’s “dark. dark. dark.” I would not have used that word given the author’s upbeat and jovial tone throughout the book, but it’s easy to see why so many people would be charmed by Phoenix but simultaneously not understand him. His family belonged to a cult for a long and formative period, which also included as a consequence just about every traumatic experience you could imagine possible as well as a very bizarre incident that turned him into a staunch animal activist and vegan. I won’t spoil the interesting details here, but River did not choose to talk about all of these experiences with people he made friends with, passing from one movie to the next (or one gig to the next when he was trying to get his band off the ground). This is also why you will learn his off-on relationship with drugs was a challenge for people to understand and was actually more serious than it appeared. He rarely stayed in one place for very long, constantly shifting from project to project.

Sometimes the quotes and conservations referenced in the book from River and others are so detailed and well-remembered it’s hard to believe they could all be accurate. The author notes that River himself liked playing games with reporters and the media, but largely backs up his own interviews and research with a short chapter that references the secondary sources where major details, quotes, and information came from.

But if reading this review and others is getting you excited, then by all means dive in. It’s a fun read even though it obviously leads toward a tragic conclusion. But it’s not entirely a downer though. I got the sense that River was a very passionate, optimistic, and fun person to be around — and this inspired other people. So through his recounted experiences and devotion to improving his craft as an actor, we can find some inspiration ourselves in how to live life.

As a final note, I discovered that many of River’s films can be watched on Youtube, including Running on Empty and My Own Private Idaho, considered to be among his best even though they are more obscure. Some key scenes that are referenced in the book can be viewed this way as well.

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Sleeping Gypsy

Over the past few days, I’ve had a couple random experiences that have made me recall some places I lived in the past. The funny thing about it is that while my travels have always been a pretty big part of my identity, this was the first time the memory of living elsewhere almost felt foreign to me.

It was the “wait a moment  I lived in Idaho for four years?”  kind of mind-blow. It was then “I miss that person. He was really a better friend to me than I realized” kind of shit that can really torment your soul if you aren’t too self-forgiving about it. While this internal dialogue was going on in my mind, in one instance I was actually telling someone a little more about how “Idaho is a really beautiful state” and… “when I grew up in Georgia, the only thing I learned about Idaho was potatoes.” Later on that same person pegged me as introvert in a discussion about personality types, so maybe that was correct on that day (I said I thought it depended on the circumstances for many people like myself of whether or not they came across as an extrovert or introvert. I know, nuance and gray areas, right?).

Anyhow, I guess after three years in Washington, D.C., perhaps our family goal of putting some roots into the ground has been somewhat accomplished, at least from my mind’s standpoint. I can’t say this is probably where I would like to stay for the rest of my life, but it will do for now.

As an exercise, I thought it would be interesting to list everywhere I’ve lived in the order it happened. Seems kind of self-indulgent, but I also think it’s an interesting point of discussion as to how many times we move as human beings.

1. Athens, Georgia
2. Boston, Massachusetts
3. Theodore Roosevelt NP, North Dakota
4. Athens, Georgia
5. Boston, Massachusetts
6. Everglades NP, Florida
7. Mesa Verde NP, Colorado
8. Moscow, Idaho
9. Olympic NP, Washington
10. Moscow, Idaho
11. Olympic NP, Washington
12. Moscow, Idaho
13. Athens, GA
14. Lima, Peru
15. Huaraz, Peru
16. Oxapampa, Peru
17. Lima, Peru
18. Athens, Georgia
19. Arlington, Virginia

Well it looks like I am about to hit the number 20 with one more move. That seems like a lot to me, even though many of the 19 places are the same ones that I came back to after several months or years away.

I’ve really been blessed, lucky, or have put myself in a good position to do a lot of traveling. I think almost all of these places have made me wiser, and yet I think sometimes the biggest lesson I received is that you can’t know it all. Of course, treating other people with dignity and respect is almost always the way to go, regardless of your initial perceptions about them. Learning how to take the bad with a sense of humor seems universal too, as well as the realization that happiness can almost always come in the form of food and / or companionship.

So where are some of the interesting places you have lived, and what are some of the things that you learned that contributed to who you are?

elysium

After seeing the movie District 9 several years ago, like many people, I had high hopes for Neill Blomkamp’s second outing as the director of Elysium. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. If I could sum it up, the movie was one big wasted opportunity.

For Elysium, Blomkamp had come up with another great idea that was timeless and yet also made hay of our current awareness of income inequality, a lackluster health care system, and climate change. Yet after coming up with a terrific premise and framework for the story, he somehow decided to make a movie that was thin on character development, nuance, sophisticated dialogue, a sense of pace, and all of those things that basically make a good movie. Instead there was a focus on the weaponry of the future, and a rather lame plot that a fifth grader could have come up with.

But the part that nearly made me want to walk out of the theater was near the end, when Matt Damon engages in hand-to-hand combat with the main bad guy. I felt angry. Why would a person who is clearly creative, choose what has to be one of the most worn cinematic scene types? It certainly must be part of the screenwriting zeitgest described in Save the Cat: The Last Book of Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Time and time again we see this shit, and I really don’t know if there’s any way to make hand-to-hand combat emotionally resonate with me or even seem realistic. Why do characters’ highly sophisticated guns always fail when it comes to the main bad guys? I know that we are (in theory!) investing time in these characters, and thus can’t off them so easily for want of a more interesting plot– but come on! Entertain me! DON’T GIVE ME THIS BORING SHIT ANYMORE. That’s what I felt like saying as I walked out and made an oath to so in every other faux-climatic hand-hand combat scene I see in the future.

If you enjoy these scenes and there’s something I’m missing, please let me know!

This ain't yo mama o yo papa's Oz.

This ain’t yo mama o yo papa’s Oz.

Prior to seeing Oz the Great and Powerful today, I was aware that my favorite reviewer, Dana Stevens of Slate, had given it a terrible review. Her devastating headline: “No brain, no heart, no courage.”  After seeing such a scathing (and effective!) headline, I decided not to read the rest of her review. Consequently, and probably for the better, I went into Oz with low expectations. I found that there were a lot of admirable pieces to movie, as well as some flaws that for the most part I was willing to overlook. On the whole I would say that the movie was on the low-mid range of entertaining.

Getting more specific, what I liked the least was director Sam Raimi’s choice to have a rather dull witch-on-witch battle scene during the film’s climax where they shoot magic streams at each other, essentially canceling each other out. Please, please, please directors and writers, choose some new novel way to show a battle between magic users instead! How many damn times did I have to see Harry Potter and his enemies shoot reciprocal magic streams at others? Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings? I’m sure you readers know the kind of scene I am talking about.

Can’t magic be more exciting in some way? Please filmmakers, don’t make another fantasy movie with this lame type of climax.

The other serious flaw in Oz the Great and Powerful was the lack of character development for all of the witches. This is a great example of what I describe as a “five minute movie.” If they had chosen to have five more minutes of character development for these characters, the movie would have been much much stronger. Great actresses were put to waste here as one-dimensional characters. But I will say Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Michelle Williams all looked really hot (but not hotter than my wife of course!). But thinking of my dear wife, where was the human eye candy for women? Certainly James Franco can’t fall into that category. Here in Oz he appears quite dishoveled, yet does have a pretty humorous set of sleazeball lines.

As a final criticism, the Emerald City CGI looked like sh*t. That was the best you could do? Really? The one in the original film looked better.

So here are some things I liked without giving too much away:

1. It’s well done how the film pays tribute to the original Wizard of Oz film and its structure, and yet finds the ability to add some new elements that expand the universe.

2. I like how the Wizard was a pretty unlikable guy. I know it would have been marketing poison, but a more serious film wherein he stayed selfish the whole time would have been more interesting. But still, they made a choice to make him kind of the anti-Dorothy which in some ways worked well for our more jaded modern society.

3. There were many strong visuals, and I actually thought the black and white introduction to the film was its strongest part. I kept wondering how the reviews could be so middling in the first 15 minutes as it got off to a fantastic start. This part had excellent character development, pacing, and storytelling.

4. Other than the witch-on-witch battle part, I thought that the writing for the climax was a clever aspect to the “origin story” of how the wizard came to occupy the Emerald City.

Ultimately I think that this movie will make a lot of money and that there will be people who like it, but that it will also be shortly forgotten. A sequel would seem foolhardy for obvious reasons, but that’s never stopped anybody.

With the Oscars coming up tomorrow, I finally decided I needed to finish up this article that I have been slowly working on for a while. Rather than talk about who’s likely to win the Oscars, it seems more worthwhile to stick to my guns and just provide a list of my favorite films from last year. I should note that in 2011 I think I saw fewer movies than I have in any other year of my life. The basic reasons that contributed to this record-low were

  1. the age of our daughter (4) preventing us from going to the movie theater often (babysitters cost mucho dinero these days)
  2. higher quality television choices, and
  3. a generally uninteresting slate of films released across the entire year.

So with these caveats, I’ve decided to write a little bit about what were my favorite and least favorite films of the year. Granted, these aren’t “the best” or “the worst” but the ones I personally would recommend or chastise. Continue Reading »

As a crowd-pleasing family film, Dolphin Tale takes few risks but will still most likely be enjoyed by its target audience.

It tells the “based on true events” story of Winter, a dolphin that lost its tail after getting caught in a crab trap off of the Florida Gulf Coast. After rescue and recovery, Winter learns to swim anew, in part thanks to a first-of-its-kind prosthetic dolphin tail. Continue Reading »

A couple days ago we hopped into our car and pulled out of the driveway. Moments later, I saw an interesting looking insect clinging to our windshield. I thought it looked like a praying mantis, and sure enough Alicia thought it was too. Continue Reading »

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