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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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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.

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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. (more…)

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One of the oddest things about the new science fiction film Monsters is its name. The film takes place in a world that is entirely familiar, except that we learn in the opening sequence of the film that aliens came to Earth in a NASA probe six years earlier, started breeding, and reaking havoc. Since that time, Mexico and the U.S. have attempted to contain the aliens in a large fenced area referred to as the “Infected Zone.” It is by no means a spoiler to tell you that the “monsters” look like giant walking squid because we learn that early in the movie. (more…)

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Few people know as much about movies as Roger Ebert.  Last night I was reading through one of Ebert’s recent blog posts. It is about negative criticism directed toward the movie Inception. The post was titled “The Myth of a Perfect Film(link). While the primary subject matter of the article was interesting,  I found this interchange in the comments of the article and thought it was funny and quite observant. It starts with a question from one of Ebert’s readers: (more…)

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It’s hard to know exactly what to think after seeing the Argentine crime film El Secreto de Sus Ojos (The Secret of Their Eyes), but it is clear that this is an outstanding film with profound ideas about how we should pursue our passions despite the inevitable tragedies of life.  It is storytelling at its most compelling and the pacing is just right. With two charismatic leads, it’s no wonder that this film won the 2010 Academy Award for best foreign picture. (more…)

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How a New Documentary Depicts Great White Sharks as More than Just Killers

When Sean Aronson began telling people that he was filming a short documentary about great white sharks, he received two typical responses.

“There were always those people who were excited– the shark fanatics. They live and breathe sharks. But there were also a lot of people who sighed and asked, ‘what can be said that hasn’t already been said?’ It’s kind of like celebrity news. You have people who can’t get enough of Brad and Angelina and then you have people that are just completely turned off from it. White sharks have gained that kind of notoriety.”

Now that his film has been released, Aronson thinks he has added something valuable and new to “what has been said” about great whites.

Continue reading on The Huffington Post

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