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It’s a rare thing to find that a film director’s sophomore effort is as good as his or her first. So much of what an artist wants to say to an audience has been piling up in their head for many years before they finally get a green-light to make one. It follows that, after giving us the proverbial “everything they’ve got,” they might, honestly enough, dry out, inspiration-wise, for quite a while.

This is definitely not the case with Zoya Akhtar’s second movie that opened this weekend, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, which for those of us Hindically challenged, means something along the lines of “you won’t get a second chance at life.” Ms. Akhtar has taken her own title to heart and thrown everything she’s got, again, into this lovely film and come up with another winner.

Just the choice for the hot summer weather, Zoya takes us on a holiday ride through sunny Spain with her “Three Musketeers” Arjun, (Hrithik Roshan), Imraan (Farhan Akhtar) and Kabir (Abhay Deol) who have promised each other this trip for years. Kabir has just gotten engaged, and this is a way to celebrate their friendship now that their bachelor circle is about to be broken.

Using as assured and fresh a touch as in her first film Luck By Chance, the director has, once again, given us a feeling of really knowing these people and sympathizing with them as they muddle through life’s complexities. LBC showed us a fresh twist with a more realistic insider’s look at the workings of the Mumbai film industry, (written by a real insider), and even got us die-hard romantics to smile at her non-traditional bittersweet ending. In ZNMD, Ms. Akhtar again flips things on their head by giving us what looks like a rollicking fun bit of fluff and then makes us cry when we’re not expecting any deep emotions at all.

Resisting a western ninety minute format, in ZNMD the director takes the time to let us get to know each of these young men and the problems that they are dealing with, time to care about them all, when she could just as easily let us coast by on the sheer beauty of the film.
The scenery, wonderfully captured by cinematographer Carlos Catalán dazzles us as they visit Barcelona, Seville and other acres of glistening Spanish countryside. To add to this, our three amigos are a truly seductive trio, and I’m not referring (only) to their already famous faces and physiques. Now it’s obvious that these characters are a privileged lot, affluent enough to travel first class and stay in more fabulous abodes than most of us can afford, but the richness that they flaunt most flagrantly, and to greatest effect, is their obvious affection for each other.

Their chemistry is everywhere, evident in the banter, the practical jokes, always leavened with the humor of their past history. This rapport builds slowly at first, as “the bwoys” reacquaint themselves with each other after a few years apart, and gradually beats down their barriers, gaining rhythm and warmth until they hit a level of almost electric shorthand communication between each other that sings as well as any vocal in the engaging Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy soundtrack. It engulfs everyone they meet on the road, as well. It’s a tribute to the direction and the acting talent (and the personal charm) of the cast that we feel like one of the gang by the end of the film. By the way, where was my invitation to the wedding, if I may ask?

The only negative I might add, if one can quibble when I was obviously so entertained, was the need for more dancing. It’s become my standard request these days, because it’s what drew me in to Hindi film in the first place. And yes, I realize that full choreographed “item numbers” might be considered going backward in a filmmaker’s quest for complete international integration, but Zoya, Dah-ling, when you have dance talent like that at your disposal, one and a half dance numbers is just a tad…ungenerous. Share with those of us who will never be as close as you are to those Terrible Twins of Terpsichorean Talent (I swear that I heard Farhan use that very phrase on Koffee With Karan on one occasion. With Abhay getting to be so good, too, he’ll be promoted to a TTTT ranking, soon)…Please, Zoya, take pity on us! For those who don’t know what I refer to, check out the Making of the Senorita Video clip on YouTube, here.

Oddly, online buzz has been quick to stick ZNMD in a slot marked “Sorta-like-The-Hangover-Crossed-With-DCH”. All I can say is that the slot must have evolved before these category-happy people had even watched the film. In The Hangover, the only similarity is the basic bachelors in a warm climate premise. The Hollywood superhit boasted a trio of argumentative, obnoxious bozos, whose so-called humorous hi-jinks are centered on solving the mystery of locating their lost hours and what is left of their dignity (not possible).

The only mystery in ZNMD is what the three friends find when they look into themselves and discover what parts of their youth they should discard or fully embrace. Growing up in this movie is about finding freedom rather than tying one down, and certainly not about “tying one on” in search of a lost weekend. As you can tell, The Hangover is a film experience that you’d have to pay me to repeat. Zoya Akhtar has given me a trip to the cinema that I felt the need to see twice in its opening weekend, dragging my friends along for the second ride.

The second comparison, where Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara is just Dil Chahta Hai reworked, is almost as easy to dismiss. Granted, superficially there are some similarities, both are stories about three close male friends, and both have wonderful male bonding scenes and maturation of the characters. Nay-sayers cite the roadtrips in both, but can’t they see that the trips are used in completely different ways? In DCH, the trip to Goa was an enjoyable hiccup in the plotline; I can’t say that I wouldn’t miss the colors it lent to the film, but if you lifted the whole scene from the screenplay, it wouldn’t have hurt the character development much. It is a fun embellishment to an already well-nigh perfect romantic-dramedy script.

The roadtrip that the friends take in ZNMD is, in itself, the key to unlocking their future happiness and the cementing of their friendship. Other similarities between the two films are inevitable. Both have catchy scores by the same composers. Both films had the same dialogue writer, and Farhan has a unique way of finding just the right words to make a conversation ring true. It was almost inevitable that both Zoya and Farhan know their way around a script, a side effect of being raised by parents, Javed Akhtar and Honey Irani, who surrounded them with excellence in writing for film.

Even given these similarities and the fact that they work together, frequently and to great effect, I don’t find that after viewing and thinking about Farhan and Zoya’s films, that I would end up ever confusing them with one another. Farhan has obvious fun flexing his cinematic muscles, trying on different genres and very diverse styles with DCH, Lakshya, and Don. Even his smaller films like Positive, all have solid, clear plots at their core, and he always sets a distinct mood and tone in each. He won’t be pigeonholed. If there is a common trait, it’s that his characters think and talk a good deal, and often they enjoy what they say, and how they say it. It’s all about the words, which is wonderful. Now, Zoya’s films seem to be developed more with visuals and silences than those of her brother. She has her characters say things more by a touch, a look, a single tear, than other directors say in whole speeches. What she has them say is eloquent, but often, as in the results of Kabir’s psychological “tests,” Zoya gives us her answers in what these boys don’t say or how they don’t say it. It is very effective directorial technique, plain and simple. You don’t have to compare Zoya and Farhan at all, just look forward to what they do next.

I guess it just goes to prove that not even my six month blog drought is deep enough to withstand the charm of Naseeruddin Shah. For half of the summer and all of the fall, nothing on screen moved me enough to wade back into e-critiquing. So much for my plan of being a household name. But then, one weekday, my intrepid film-buddy Jessica and I went to see David Kaplan’s delightful film, Today’s Special and Voila! I am catapulted out of my literary lethargy by a knowing smile and a certain twinkle in the eye. Mr. Shah comes on the screen as a charming NYC cabbie with a heart of saffron, and within a few well-modulated words, has me punching Jessica in the arm (Sorry, Jess) and whispering “Isn’t he great!” as if the high school quarterback just smiled at me in the hallway.

This started out as a review of Today’s Special, but as it is now, unfortunately, out of most of our theaters and awaiting a much deserved appearance on DVD, I won’t be making much more than a token recap here. In what seems to be director David Kaplan’s first full-length feature, and writer/star Aasif Mandvi’s first filmed screenplay, the two spin a much more mature attempt at romantic dramedy than I would have anticipated. It’s a warm, sweet, leisurely-paced love fest of food, family and finding your gifts. Check out the trailer.

Aasif, who has a very familiar face from years of work in television, seems, at first to be an unlikely romantic hero, quiet and unassuming, and his character begins in a very tense emotional place, but you really grow to care about him throughout the film. As Samir, he’s a dedicated sous chef in a tony eatery in Manhattan who runs a tight ship, yet seems in a personal straight jacket, unable to find the key to break him out of his boss’ shadow. When he’s passed over, yet again, for a promotion, determined to make Fate find him, he up and quits, ostensibly to go off to Paris to polish his French cuisine. But Fate, in the form of his father’s tandoori restaurant back in Jackson Heights, has other ideas. Instead, it turns him reluctantly back towards home. To get there, he steps into the cab of my man Naseeruddin, eh, I mean, Akbar, who offers to help Samir find the perfect blend of masala spices to make a young chef’s dreams of success (and romance!) come true.

But unfortunately for Aasif, as he’s done in many films before, Naseeruddin Shah pulls all eyes to him with his understated suavity and Akbar’s sexy experienced attitude. It then becomes a bit “Samir, who?” after the door of that chili-bedecked taxi opens to us. But in Aasif’s defense, it’s nothing that he’s doing or not doing. Naseerji has been slowly gathering speed as he rolls along, role after role (some 160 now, according to IMDb), achieving some sort of gravitational pull of his own on our emotions…You just can’t look away. Example, a scene from Shekhar Kapur’s Masoom (1983).

Even in early films, in smaller roles, like Gohar Mirza of Umrao Jaan (1981), he added a jovial appreciation of Rekha’s obvious charms that said, “Of course she’ll notice me”. And we did. His wonderful portrayal of Gulfam Hassan, the Ghazal singer in Sarfarosh (1999) had so many layers and complexities that I felt like I was seeing more than one person. Amazing. As with many of our cinema heroes, the eighties and nineties threw many an odd film in Mr. Shah’s path, yet even in a goofy production like Tridev (1989), he could emerge relatively unscathed, with tongue firmly in cheek, even sporting a Crocodile Dundee hat with a red fluffy plume…no mean feat.

If I were theorizing, I’d say the secret must be that he takes each role not as a step in a body of work, but as a unique piece unto itself, and he tunes his performance to that center, true to the director’s ideas. The result being as varied as the films he chooses. How else could he do equal justice to the loving father of the bride in Monsoon Wedding (2001), the free spirited prisoner in Teen Deewarein (2003), the pot-addled sculptor in Being Cyrus (2005) and then galvanize a courtroom in Khuda Kay Liye (2007) as a Muslim seer with a truly holy outlook. It’s a gift.

Yes, I’ll admit as a reviewer, I’m biased. I can’t help responding to an always adroit line reading added to a large dollop of adorable. Like Akbar, Naseeruddin Shah always has all the right ingredients. Yes, I know my cinema fixation is over sixty…I say, “Who cares?” And also, I riposte, “Why don’t you tell Big B that he’s over the hill, while you’re at it!” Some men wear mileage like a very jaunty classic fedora which will never go out of style…here’s hoping someone similar tilts his brim my way. Keep them coming, Naseerji!

Reviewer’s Note:
Oh, I almost forgot…how could I??? As this blog is supposed to coordinate things I like with things you can enjoy in Washington, I am happy to announce Naseeruddin Shah’s theater company, Motley is coming to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts this March. The festival, Maximum India, is chock-full of wonderful artists, actors, dancers and musicians celebrating the vast and complex culture which is India. It runs from March 1st to March 20th. Motley Theatre Group is performing Ismat Apa Ke Naam celebrating the works of writer Ismat Khanum Chughtai on March 5th and 6th, for three performances. I’ve got my tickets; act quickly before they are gone. And Mirch Masala (1985) starring Smita Patil, Naseeruddin and Om Puri is showing on closing night! Here’s the schedule: Maximum India

Premises, Premises…

If someone would have told me a year or two ago that I’d be almost rabidly fond of a musical with the premise of how a normal family deals with their mother battling a bi-polar disorder, I would have said that they were the one with the mental problem… but here I am, without a moment’s hesitation, sending everyone I know to see Next to Normal.
This musical was abruptly shoved in my face during the 2009 Tony Awards. It was up for eleven nominations, and ended up winning three, for best score, best orchestration and best actress in a musical for Alice Ripley. The showcase numbers “You Don’t Know” and “I Am the One” performed by Alice Ripley, J. Robert Spencer and Aaron Tveit just galvanized me. I had never heard anything like it, rock musical… psychoanalysis… whatever it was, it sure wasn’t my garden variety musical comedy in any case. Take a listen.

After the Tonys were over, I went right onto Next to Normal’s website to hear more. Sixteen dollars or so and about two days later, I had the CD in my possession (yes, I know if I entered the twenty-first century and downloaded it, I would have had instant gratification…but that would have required me to buy an ipod or some other new-fangled gad-jet that I can’t wrap my brain or my bankbook around, yet) and was blasting the heck out of it in my car. Loved it. Now I had to go see it.

Drove me CRAZY that it had had it’s pre-Broadway run at Arena Stage in the 2008-2009 season, same cast, same numbers, same book, and only a half hour away, rather than the four and a half hour trip to New York it was now going to take me to satisfy my itch. Darn, Drat… Note to Self: Stop paying so much attention to the show you are working on and occasionally see what the other theaters are doing! It would certainly have been a lot cheaper.

By the time I had time off and a bit of spare cash, it was the late spring of 2010 and I was sadly aware that two of those three cast members you just listened to had left the show. Losing the chance to hear Aaron Tveit live just killed me, and I may be the first person in the line for the previews of Catch Me If You Can, reportedly his next venture, when it hits the boards early next year. Aaron, the object of my theatrical obsession, plays the son, Gabe, and is pictured to the right at the Tonys with Stockard Channing from Pal Joey. He may have to be the subject of his own A.W. post in the future. But even without him, I knew it would be worth the trip just to see Alice and Jennifer Damiano, playing her daughter.

Of course, the next problem is getting tickets on short notice, especially when my main free day is a Monday, but luckily for me, the tight economic times have pushed more of the Broadway shows to offer Monday performances (Monday is traditional Actor’s Equity day off). So, there I was in Times Square on a late spring Monday trying to get half price tickets to see a show at the TKTS booth there, and my luck seems to be changing, because Next to Normal is one of the shows playing that day. After standing in line for only a half hour conversing with lesser known actors who work the lines flacking specific shows, quite entertaining, I think, I have my ticket in hand. Half price, but with fees, still over $60…I’m old…I still think that is very expensive. Yet it was more than worth it.

I was off to the Booth Theatre on West 45th Street. I milled around on the sidewalk outside the theater, brimming with excitement until… I found out that not only wasn’t I going to see Aaron Tveit and J. Robert Spencer (I was prepared for that. Kyle Dean Massey and Brian D’Arcy James had ably stepped in to those roles) but now I find two of those ominous slips of paper in my program that stated that now Brian and Alice, sob, have their understudies in! Mondays still have their drawbacks, it seems. As I moved toward my seat, I considered asking an usher about it, but was deterred by said usher almost snarling at me when I tried to read my ticket and seat myself. Perhaps he wanted an understudy for Mondays, as well. Tough it out, buddy, it’s a job.

And so, I sat in my very good seat, mid orchestra, hoping that even with all the substitutions [Michael Berry in for Bryan as the father, Dan, and Jessica Phillips in for Alice as Diana] that the production alone would still transport me. And so it did. Everyone did a wonderful job; even what would be considered the supporting roles of the doctor and the boyfriend (played by Louis Hobson and Adam Chanler-Berat, respectively) are critical lynchpins of the structure of this piece and both give gifted and focused performances.

And it is a real commitment doing this show each night, let me tell you. From the minute the show opens on Mark Wendland’s two-dimensional playhouse of a set, sketched in plexiglas and light, the cast flings itself, almost literally, into it’s opening number and doesn’t stop for breath until the intermission. The music by Tom Kitt, is alternately driven with passion and angst, then tender with love and sadness. He has paced it just right so you never feel it is too much or lose interest in the quiet moments. It’s a masterpiece of modern popular music.

There is very little dialogue, almost everything is sung, as in opera, but each word of the book and lyrics, penned by Brian Yorkey, each sung phrase is really honed to get right to the heart of the emotion they want to display. And Next to Normal really runs the gamut. Diana, the mother, is bi-polar, but has been under medication for several years and her family thinks she has reached a happy level, but we find she is far from happy. She misses the variations in life that disappear when the medication renders all of the emotional geography in her life calm and flat…so she decides to stop the doses. And hilarity ensues.

Well, I’m kidding and not kidding. This play has some outright hysterically funny moments. Jessica, particularly is very witty in her delivery and her sense of the ridiculous, yet, at the same time, we are never less than aware of the pain that all members of this family are feeling. They all give affecting performances, and the show deserves it’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama and all it’s good press. And I want to go on record as saying that I don’t think that anyone could do a better job standing in for a Tony winner than Jessica Phillips. She even adds an element of tightly restrained sexuality that I haven’t seen in the clips of Alice’s performances, that made me feel that I was seeing what must have attracted Dan to Diana in the first place, and wonder if he could have held her so long in that sweet normal home without the medication.

Next to Normal is a rollercoaster of a musical that has you gasping for breath, elated and tearful, almost in the same breath. I loved every moment of my experience of it. I’d pay to go see it again, and urge all of you who have the chance to go seek it out. Actually, it may come to you. The show website has the full schedule of a national tour that is going out next year, and Alice Ripley is leaving the Broadway cast to take it out on the road. It’s coming to Washington, to the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre for two weeks or so this time next year. So go, enjoy, with whatever permutation of the cast you’re lucky enough to catch!

I’d be hard pressed to find a scenario worse than being stuck inside on a beautiful, if humid, summer weekend with a Horrible Headcold. Well, maybe the only thing worse would be if I were gainfully employed (which I’m not, full-time) during This Plague and be forced to be on my feet dealing with questionable elements of the populace at large in a discount retail environment…Yes, that is some sort of comfort.

Short of that, for instant relief I turned my concurrently stuffy and drippy head (Should that condition be possible? I ask you, is it fair??) to search for video solace. A comedy, I think, will help, preferably a romantic comedy. Why is it that no matter how many films I buy (used…mostly), that I can never find enough good RomComs when I really need one? Finally, I pulled one out that always gives me that good warm comedy glow. Moonstruck.

What can be better? Vintage Cher and Nicholas Cage, in 1987 before all the tabloid furor and sci/fi adventure films have all but buried them in noisy hoopla. Director Norman Jewison has surrounded them with one of the most perfect casts in history, to fill out this delightfully chaotic and romantic extended family of Italian-Americans in the Brooklyn.
Vincent Gardenia and Olympia Dukakis as her parents, Danny Aiello as his brother and her fiancée…see, the problem is obvious already…and the solving of it, comedy gold! The deftness of the writing and performances were recognized with three Oscars: Best Actress for Cher, Supporting Actress for Olympia Dukakis and Best Screenplay for John Patrick Shanley’s wonderful words. Shanley, the Eternal Scribe of the New York Boroughs, has written so many classic lines here, that all I can say is you probably already know them. I love him…I can’t help myself, so I’ll…”Snap out of it” and go on.

Well, after wallowing in my old favorite a while and watching all the behind the scenes bits on the Anniversary Edition DVD (except the Italian recipes…too much torture!) I decided that it was high time I found more John Patrick Shanley works to wade through. My faithful companion IMDb.com showed me that he hadn’t written as many things for film, as his primary love and work had been on the stage. Now, you’d think I’d already have known that, having been in theater for over twenty years, but when you immure yourself in the Bard, you don’t “Go Modern” as often as you should. No education is too late, however.

I bundled my sniveling self up, as much as the heat would allow and snuck briefly out to Video Americain the local repository of any film over ten years old. Good resource; I found myself four more of his films, two he had even directed himself, none of which I’d ever seen. I hurried myself home to settle in for a very diverse weekend with John Patrick Shanley. First up, was a small drama set on the streets of the Bronx, called Five Corners. This came out at the same time as Moonstruck but has a completely different tone. It stars relative newcomers at the time, Tim Robbins, Jodie Foster and John Turturro. This is the tale of how a quiet neighborhood is threatened by the return of a local thug, Heinz (Turturro in the only macho role I’ve ever seen him in) from a stint in prison after being sent up for trying to rape Linda (Foster). The only thing that saved her then was Harry (Robbins) stepping in to defend her, but these days Harry has had a change of heart since the death of his father, a policeman, and wants to embrace the teachings of Martin Luther King, and has taken a stand against violence.


Director Tony Bill finds some very nice performances from his actors that make it worth a watch. Foster is convincing, if a bit underwritten, trying to keep her panic at bay, and Robbins has a quiet strength about him, and a very eloquent face throughout that shows you his internal debate with himself. Psychosis, while not exactly a new trait for Turturro to play, is one he handles adeptly, utilizing a very powerful physical presence for Heinz. Shanley weaves the suspense well, but then tries to lighten it up with humor, as he often does, with surreal moments (penguins in fountains as an example) and side characters that for my generation, at least, bring up images straight out of Laverne and Shirley sit coms, which deflect the focus a bit too radically.

Next from two years later, in 1989, we find Shanley entering the detective/police genre to somewhat weaker effect. The January Man, a vehicle for Kevin Kline, can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a comedy or a thriller, but where in Five Corners it was a bit off-putting, in The January Man the comedic bits allow it to hamstring itself and fall flat on its face.

Again, a fine cast is assembled under the direction of Pat O’Connor (Circle of Friends, Inventing the Abbotts), with strong, gritty New Yawk performances by all the veterans involved: Harvey Keitel, Rod Steiger, Danny Aiello, and even Susan Sarandon (not quite as salty, but very strong, as always). The leads, Kline and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio with sidekick Alan Rickman as an eccentric artist (quelle surprise!) seem to be in a completely different movie, perhaps written for Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn. When it comes right down to it, leavening Kline’s heroic detective character with “wild and crazy guy” humor to that level, in what is essentially a straight serial killer flick, squashes any chance to take him seriously. And as cute as they all are, I can’t recommend this one…at all.

Perhaps, I think, now three movies in, the inconsistencies in these films have to do with the difference in the viewpoint of the screenwriter and the director. If Shanley and Jewison saw eye to eye, then Moonstruck flowed smoothly. In The January Man, perhaps things strayed too far afield with O’Connor. There’s no way to know, except to look at movies Shanley has both written and directed, himself. The first film, Joe Versus the Volcano, I had heard of since it premiered in 1990 and had been so filled with trepidation at the name alone, that I’d successfully avoided it for over fifteen years. I looked around on the internet a bit and found that others had felt my fear and defeated it, and actually found it a “quirky cult favorite”. The last time I had run from a movie’s advance press this hard, it was Tropic Thunder, which I avoided, despite my complete addiction to RDJr. But after finding TT in a discount bin, I finally watched it, and slapped myself on the head immediately for waiting two years. It was wonderful! So I crossed my fingers and finally jumped into the Volcano, too.

To my surprise, I quite enjoyed it, after getting used to the overtly fairy tale, theatrical feel of the production. It reminded me of whimsical tales with strong visuals like Brazil and the first Willy Wonka with a dash of The Little Prince movie thrown in. It is innocent and sweet with a side order of sly sarcasm around the edges. With it’s vividly drawn images by Production Designer Bo Welch and shot by DP Stephen Goldblatt, Shanley’s given us another adult fairy tale like Moonstruck…drawn freehand with Crayolas. The soundtrack Shanley chose added layers of shared memory by including nostalgic tunes sung by unexpected artists: “Blue Moon”, sung by Elvis, “16 Tons” sung by Eric Burdon, “Ol’ Man River” sung by Ray Charles, and “On The Street Where You Live” sung in Spanish by a wandering mariachi band….Gotta love it!
The early scenes are poignant and sad, while you see who Tom Hanks’ Joe Banks character is and where he’s (not) going. You meet Meg Ryan in the first of three roles as Joe’s muse, and she’s different enough in each that you see multiple sides of her comic talents and like her more in each incarnation. Lloyd Bridges is a quirky hoot as Mr. Graynamore, who convinces Joe to sell his soul to the lava, and Ossie Davis is charming and delightful in his short cameo as Marshall, Joe’s Limo Driver/Retail Guru. Everyone looks like they are having a wonderful time. I had to watch it twice before returning it.

The final movie in my John Patrick Shanley Film Fest was the more recent film Doubt, adapted from his own stage play. Shanley is tackling a more somber, serious theme here, with few if any moments of the humor that have lightened the earlier films that I have viewed. He has matured well as a director, handling images and actors in an assured way, posing his theme of the nature of both doubt and belief, and viewing it from all angles, and the strength of this has launched him back into the limelight with five Oscar nominations for this fine film, Meryl Streep and Viola Davis’ being particularly nuanced.
Though, on the surface, the only similarity of Mr. Shanley’s films is the New York locale, this one is also set in the 1960′s in he Bronx. However, I find if one looks closer other parallels come to mind. In all of these films, the characters seem to be dealing with a kind of fantasy world, either it is one that they are searching for, trying to run away from or, in this case, trying to preserve. Sister Aloysius, played by Meryl Streep, wants to hang on to her view of the purity of her school, even if it’s an illusion. The modern views that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is trying to bring into her world can only be viewed as unhealthy familiarity with the students in his care. He will not or cannot preserve his distance from his flock and therefore, as she sees it, he must be stopped, whether there has been an actual transgretion or not. Sister James, played with touching confusion and innocence by Amy Adams, views this contest without being able to choose sides, she is an emotional shuttlecock, a bit like Jodie Foster’s character in Five Corners, who throughout the first half of that film is very tentative about which way to run, and it almost kills her.

Doubt is a remarkable film in that it doesn’t take sides, it doesn’t choose a hero and a villain, and yet it still it holds you interested throughout and makes you think, long after you leave the theater. This is a lasting piece of art, and though it is a completely different tone from his comedies, I hope that Mr. Shanley continues to bring us into all sides of his multi-faceted view of life. Even if he couldn’t cure my cold, he certainly made me forget it for a while, and I thank him.

Indiana Jones would have felt right at home, i.e. rather uncomfortable, with much of the set dressing for the new film Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time….Snakes…to echo the classic, Why’d it have to be snakes? Lots of them, slithering around, emerging from the sleeves of the mysterious dark dervish ninjas, called Hassansins (now who came up with that gem of a name?) who lurk with the moodily obscure menace of multiple Voldemorts around the periphery of our hero, Prince Dastan’s quest. Eeeshhh, I shudder, along with Indy. It still works as an effective creep-out device.

The latest film from the unlikely collaboration of Jerry Bruckheimer and Walt Disney Pictures, Prince of Persia, takes a video game and makes it come to life with much of the spirit, if not quite the level of finesse of George Lucas’ classic summer movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Actually, director Mike Newell seems to sample from many of the archetypes of the genre with, I must say, some success. Snakes and a fiercely feisty female partner from Indy, sandstorm menace from The Mummy, beautiful lighting effects and 360 degree pans of the gorgeous city on the hill, reminiscent of the wonderful miniature effects in the Lord of the Rings films, even back to the original Thief of Baghdad films with the intrepid urchin street hero. Well, Newell is never one to stay in one cinematic mood, himself, for very long.

Director of some of my favorite films Enchanted April, Pushing Tin, Into the West, all intimate character studies, and a few of my least favorite, the cringe-inducing An Awfully Big Adventure, and the ultimate “Yeesh, They Deserve Each Other” romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mike Newell has tried and incorporated almost every kind of genre in his long career. He also has a specific experience he brings to this adventure film, having directed a number of the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. He’s a fine choice at the helm. He brings a brisk pace to a fairly neat and simple plot that he revs up like a supercharged amusement park ride, caroming on toward its goal but never swerving too far off the tracks. It may take us a while to get there, at almost two hours, but the ending didn’t make me go “Yeah, right…” with a sense of narrative betrayal, as I often do these days. He and his writers (and those of the original game, I’m assuming) set up their rules and stick to them, which brings you a satisfying conclusion. I applaud them.
Note: If you’re interested in seeing a visual of the original game, here’s a link: youtube.com/watch?v=y7tA-6mlbNY

The following clip is more informative than the trailer, and may be considered a tad spoilerish. It is also disabled here by Disney, just click the “Watch at YouTube” button and it should take you there.


The casting is well rounded and always charming. Actually, I’d say that in some, if not all of the cases, they have more in their acting arsenal than they are called on to use. Jake Gyllenhaal is known for his offbeat choices in roles, like Brokeback Mountain, Proof, Zodiac and most recently Brothers. He obviously isn’t afraid of a challenge, and perhaps becoming an action hero and holding back his thespian impulses is this movie’s challenge for him. As the aforementioned Prince Dastan, he certainly looks fetching in his new beefed-up physique and lengthened tresses, and one wonders how much of the athletic style of parkour training he did himself, or if it was more of the parkour supervisor, David Belle? Jake certainly jumps, flips and bounces with all the aplomb and acrobatic skills of his video game counterpart. If you haven’t heard of parkour, here’s Mr. Belle himself.
Kingley, as Nizam, is underused a bit, and doesn’t have quite the flair for deadpan, tongue-in-cheekness, that say, Patrick Stewart brings to the X-Men franchise. To round it out Alfred Molina is wonderful as always, as Sheik Amar, who has a normal abhorrence for taxes and an abnormal love for his ostriches. He does always get in on the best film series, doesn’t he? (as Satipo, the guide, in Raiders, and Doc Ock in Spiderman 2)
Gemma Arterton (Clash of the Titans, Quantum of Solace), our lovely Princess Tamina, handles her role well, having both the decorative quality required in our heroine, but more importantly, she has courage. Tamina is one who gives our hero back his own, shot for shot. They make a most combative but satisfying romantic pair.

So, the scorecard on Prince of Persia is a pretty good one, if you’re in for a brisk ride of summer movie fun. Visually: very pretty. Effects: you can see the money spent. Plot: some holes, of course, but as it’s designed for speed not nuance, like most Bruckheimer films, you don’t really need to look closely. Acting: what there is of it, quite adequate. Fun and Thrills: definitely worth a watch. If I were starring it, I’d give it a 3 ½ or 4. Kick back in the AC with popcorn and a soda and beat the summer heat.

Avast, Eat Hearty!

Thar She Blows! The white whale of eating places…something as rare as a black pearl or a vacant metro seat right after a Caps game. What, you may ask, am I talking about? The Grail that I speak of is…a clean, friendly cafe in downtown DC with a nice ambience, interesting food, prompt, courteous service, and all at an average to low DC price. One where you can “eat in”, at a table, no less, and get out in under an hour!

You scoff, I hear you…such a mythical establishment doesn’t exist. But it does…Spy City Cafe, at 800 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004. Now, you may be surprised that I’d single out a restaurant in a rather commercial venture like the International Spy Museum. Well, I was surprised, too. I had walked by it for the better part of a year on the way to work and I hadn’t even tried to go inside because I’d assumed that it would be crowded with tourists, torturously slow, and serving gimmicky expensive fast food. I was wrong on almost all counts.

I’ve visited Spy City Cafe three times now. The first time was by accident. Cutting things alarmingly close to being late for work, again; I was forced to contemplate no breakfast at all before the early matinee at Ford’s Theatre. A fate too dire to be contemplated, so I hoped I could duck quickly into Dunkin D for my standby egg white flat bread sandwich (350 calories!!!), but, alas…the line was seemingly half way around the Verizon Center. Thwarted!

Frustrated, I glanced into Spy City as I waited for the light to change on 9th, and lo-and-behold, there seemed to be no line at all. I chanced it. I walked right in, a lovely cashier took my order of a bacon egg and cheese croissant sandwich, and asked me to please sit down while the chef made it up for me, which he did immediately while I watched. What? No microwave reheat? No pre-made sandwiches to keep warm for the tourists under warming lights? It seems not. It was fresh made, delicious and well under ten dollars. And better still, I was on my way, happily munching in about ten minutes.

A fluke, I said. Let me try a lunch crowd and see if the help stays so pleasant and efficient. So I went back on a lunch break, a few days later. I will qualify it by saying that theater schedules never have me eating at regular mealtimes, and so I wasn’t eating at peak lunch. But at two pm, again it was quiet, and restful. I decided to eat in this time. The booths are vintage diner style adorned with DC Spy Facts to read and appealing 60′s spy-ish music piped in to keep me amused while I waited for my lunch to be prepared.

I ordered from their lunch menu, whimsically called ZOLA BITES LUNCH, which I assume means that its speciality is small-sized American style classics, and is not, in fact a negative plug for it’s parent restaurant, Zola’s, located on the other side of the Spy Museum. I decided to bite the economic bullet and choose an offering from the top end of their Bites menu ($10), the Shrimp Sausage Corn Dogs, dipped in cornbread batter and lightly fried. Rumor had it (okay, my waitress told me) that the delicate flavor was due to lobster meat in the sausage along with the shrimp. Whatever was in them, the three small sized (3″) skewered indulgences were wonderful, served with a remoulade.

I hate to add a slight negative note, when I did enjoy my meal, but presentation was, shall we say, a bit lacking…say, a garnish or something…not a leaf of lettuce or a wedge of tomato to be seen. The entree was a bit naked. What you see on the menu is what you get. All extras cost…well, extra.

For my last visit to Spy City, I dragged along my faithful food posse, Connie and Jessica, to have them confirm what I had observed, and confirm it they did. Jess tried the daily special, which was a trio of Cheese Steak Sliders, which had grilled beef with a slight kick of spice, on very fresh small buns ($7.50). Connie tried the Corn Dogs but added the Mixed Greens Salad ($6.50) which she thought was both tasty and a bargain with crisp greens, hard-boiled egg, dried tomatoes, olives, green beans and feta cheese. I decided to explore the menu further, choosing the Fried Roast Chicken and Parmesan Risotto Balls with Asparagus Sauce ($6). Delicious.

Everyone had a good experience as Spy City Cafe and seemed as happy as I was, absence of garnishes, aside. We are all eager to come back again, perhaps at breakfast, to try what may be their best bargain: Eggs All Day, fixed any style, with potatoes, sausage and a biscuit for $5.50. Drinks, I found were the only thing I found uniformly overpriced, with fountain drinks going for $3.09 and even tap water going for fifty cents.

I ended up choosing a rather witty bottle of LeninAde, a Soviet Spy Soda for $3.25. Yes, there are a few spy theme gimmicks, but if they are funny, I overlook them. And if you want to know how a cola bottle is “witty”…you just have read the fine print. I kept mine, as it reminds me of a lovely lunch with the girls at a very nice restaurant that was, unbelievably, almost exactly what one looks for…and we found it. Check it out. http://www.spymuseum.org/shop/spycity.php

Blatant Nepotism

I figure that it’s best to just put it right out there…this food recommendation is definitely, absolutely, positively…about my sister’s new restaurant, ANNIE’S BANANNIES. Therefore, I can and should be accused of favoritism and bias. And you’d be right. I couldn’t be more proud of her, starting out in a new business in this rotten economic climate. She’s incredibly brave, more brave than I am in that way, that’s for sure, but she’s got a product that she believes in, a unique dessert, and she’s putting it out there, come heck or high water. And there’s a lot of high water, too, as it’s in Rehoboth, DE, just a block off the beach.

But, my personal bias toward my sister, and her fantabulous frozen banana dessert concoction, doesn’t prevent it from being one of my favorite desserts, so, I feel I am able to justify promoting it, shamelessly, on my blog. Why have a blog if you can’t use it to write about what you want? Right?

Her store is not, however, in DC, which is supposed to be a perimeter demarcation for the blog, but as Rehoboth is a very popular summer destination, locally, and a mere two and a half hour commute… well, for a dessert this good, and good for you, too, it may be well worth a day trip!
Annie’s place is a sure-fire place for anyone down in Rehoboth, to find a delicious frozen fruit treat at a reasonable price. It’s made from a 100% natural source: bananas. No sugar added. I mean it. The banana is frozen solid and put through a professional juicer so that when it comes out it is the consistency of frozen yogurt. It can be eaten just that way. It has a very delicate, sweet flavor that almost everyone likes, even those who are not banana fans.

Before trying this, my banana pie/tart post aside, I wouldn’t have called myself a banana groupie. But I like this. It is the perfect vehicle for any number of delicious toppings from Annie’s fully stocked fixin’s bar. She offers many wittily named combos: Grannie’s Banannies – Banana with graham crackers and whipped cream, Straw Nannie – Banana with Fresh Strawberries and Strawberry Puree, Mocha Nannie – Banana with Chocolate Covered Expresso Beans and Chocolate Syrup (for the adult palate), and so on. Or you can fix your own. All her purees are made from fresh or frozen fruit, only sweetened with agave, and all the rest of the sugared products are labeled clearly, so parents searching for a sugar free treat for the kids can be fully aware of exactly what they are getting. It’s great for lactose free and gluten free diets, too, (barring the graham crackers, of course).

So, everyone can find what they are looking for, and I really hope that you go and try it out. The address is #9, 1st Street (between Wilmington and Rehoboth Avenues) Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971. One block off the beach, one block off the main drag. She can’t be in a better place, and you can’t find a better tasting healthy dessert…even if I do say so myself, she is my little sister after all!

Hours: Starting Memorial Day weekend 11AM-11PM on the weekends, 3PM-11PM during the week.
After Labor Day, reducing hours.
Address: 9 First Street,
Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971
Phone: 302-260-9875
Annie's Banannies on Urbanspoon

EDITOR’S NOTE
Good news on the banana front…Annie is adding her second store, and it’s much closer to home! Look for a brand spanking new Annie’s Banannies opening for the summer in the Light Street Pavillion in downtown Baltimore, Maryland!

Reviewing The Joneses

Credit: Free images from acobox.com
[NOTE: Pictures down until I find a new provider.]

Ever get the feeling, say when you see a blouse with a $350 price tag, that either a) the world is completely crazy, or b) that there’s some sort of marketing conspiracy going on to urge all of us lemmings into “good living” bankruptcy? There’s probably a good argument for both, but the second is the foundation of the plot for the new film The Joneses, out in wider release last week.

I’d be hard pressed to categorize this film, smoothly directed by first time helmer Derrick Borte. it certainly isn’t a full-out comedy, but it’s very funny. It’s not suspense film, while it is a bit scary in its judgment on the inability of the public at large to tell the difference between what they want and what they actually need to be happy. I hesitate to call it a social commentary, though, because it may scare viewers off, and just because it has you leaving the theater thinking, after laughing quite a bit, that isn’t really a bad thing, is it?

I went into the theater, thinking that it was about actors making a reality show designed by marketers using a “perfect family” to showcase their products. It’s a natural assumption, product placement in film and television has made worldwide celebrities of people like Paris, Nicole and the Kardashian clan, who have few noticeable talents other than wearing clothes well. But in this film, the ever-so-perfect Jones family moves into a wealthy neighborhood specifically to spread the Gospel of New Toys to a relatively unsuspecting public. They are sent by what seems to be a global marketing conglomerate which has hand picked this “family” from a pool of physically beautiful salespeople to be of maximum impact on this neighborhood.

Husband Steve (David Duchovny) has endless spare time for golf and showing off his new drivers, new watches, new cars. Impossibly toned 40-something trophy wife (Demi Moore, of course) goes to the salon, the spa, the gym, attracting a parade of followers, soon aping her every fashion look. Delightfully charming and pleasant teens, Mick and Jenn (this description alone, should have branded them “fake”, don’t you think?) (Ben Hollingsworth and Amber Heard) attract all the popular kids around them immediately, and everyone wants what they have. That’s the plan, right? To quote Steve in the film, “The one who dies with the most toys, wins?”

But this family is fake. Their display of perfection is monitored and controlled from their home’s carefully designed décor to the cars they drive and even the clothes they wear each day. Loss of personal spontaneity is a small price to pay for a fun, lucrative job, isn’t it? And no one can look that suave and groomed all the time without help, right? You scratch the couturier’s back, they scratch yours…would the Duke of Windsor have been so famous after abdication without Saville Row? I wonder

But back to this “family”. The most interesting part of the film for me was watching the illusion of perfection fall apart as the real-life consequences of their actions become clear to them. Borte shows us the truth that, ironically, the more a family fights, screws up and repairs itself, the more of a real family they become.

And it’s amazing that a first time director gets so much out of his cast; these are more sensitive performances than I’ve seen from Moore and Duchovny in a long time. Moore is icily perfect as the business woman when her “audience” isn’t around requiring her to be warm, yet subtly showing us her character’s insecurities as the plot unfolds. Duchovny shines as Steve, who is our eyes into this world, taking us along with him from happy-go-lucky ex-golf pro, to focused sales-magician and then gradually showing us his disillusionment as the team’s scheme peaks and falls apart.

Hollingsworth and Heard are strong in their roles as the “kids”, especially in showing their weaknesses. Both characters seem trapped in roles that they feel they have to play even though it’s almost inevitable that they won’t be able to do it for long. Though her part as the corporation rep is a relatively small one, it’s nice to see Lauren Hutton back on the screen, wearing a tough as steel quality with as much style as Bacall, a few decades back.

And I’m always thrilled to see Gary Cole used so effectively. Often used in television, more recently as the reliable go-to guy for strong second leads, he’s never gone as far in films as he should have. I don’t know why. The camera loves him, and he has always given unsuspecting layers of intensity and complexity to any role he’s taken, plus a wickedly dry sense of humor. Who else would have done the swimming pool scene in this film half as bravely, and heck, who could have worn the infamous Mike Brady curly perm with such a straight face? The only problem I have with his casting, personally is believing him to be an under-appreciated husband. Is his wife blind, or what? When is Midnight Caller coming out on DVD???

Wrapping it up, I would hope that The Joneses finds a wider scope than the niche audience it’s art house scheduling suggests they expect. Showing at the Landmark Theatres (E Street and Bethesda Row) and the AMC art venues (Shirlington, Georgetown and Hoffman Center) and Cinema Arts in Fairfax, I want you to track it down and let me know what you think…is there actually an official plot out there manipulating us as the final credits shots suggest (cute bit, Derrick)? If not, should we start one? Sounds profitable…

I can’t belive my bad luck! The first time, at least in my awareness of his work, that Sukhwinder Singh is in town with his own musical tour, and I’m scheduled to work! You may not know it, but this is an actual verifiable tragedy. Sukhwinder Singh is one of the most popular playback singers in current Hindi music, but more importantly, his voice hits me in a very elemental place which can often, though I have no idea what he is actually singing about (love, I’m assuming…given my involuntary heart palpitations) reduce me to an emotional state of romantic sticky-sweetness roughly the consistency of gulab jamun. Every time. Darn him.

You’d never know to look at him. Nice face, pleasant, even, but they don’t pay him to look good…they pay him to SING! And boy, does he deliver. In films, his voice often dubs in the singing voices for the most popular film heroes, sending all of their female fans over the edge of the Prem Kahani Abyss (Love Story Canyon, so to speak). How can a man who seems so wardrobe-challenged (no, I mean it, google his pictures… he’s gone through so many different looks on his search to look current and trendy that he may have lost his way completely…), how can he hold me (a costumer, no less) in complete thrall, just hearing a half dozen notes from his golden voice. Similar in effect to the rough-hewn tones of Nicholas Reyes, of Gipsy Kings fame, but perhaps more modulated, Sukhwinder sings as if he’s channeling the voice of Nature itself. Listen… Don’t ask me what’s going on the video, I have no idea who most of them are.

Sukhwinder has many wonderful songs out there to sample, the two most familiar to US audiences are the final song from Slumdog Millionaire, “Jai Ho”

and earlier, the very famous “Chaiyya Chaiyya” video from Mani Ratnam’s amazing film, Dil Se. Spike Lee liked the song so much he used it to bookend his film Inside Man. The vision dancing on top of the train is Shah Rukh Khan (and Mallaika Arora Khan, too, of course–no relation)

Though Sukhwinder can write and produce his own wonderful works, like Ghar Aja, above, some of my favorites are his collaborations, most notably with A.R. Rahman in Slumdog, Taal, Meenaxi and Lagaan but also with Vishal Bhardwaj whose film Omkara really showcases Sukhwinder’s voice. Here’s the most popular hit from it, the Beedi song. Actors: Bipasha Basu, Saif Ali Khan and Vivek Oberoi.

I’d list more links, but we’ll get Youtubed out. If you’d like more, check out the following links, just add the http://www. thing in front.

Nasha Hi Nasha Hai:
youtube.com/watch?v=I1M8ko3jOMc

Pyar Hota Hai:
youtube.com/watch?v=CeFbCTb5y1Q

Ramta Jogi:
youtube.com/watch?v=hBl7Ito6W7Q

And if you’re interested, go see his show at DAR Constution Hall on Saturday, May 8th…if I can’t be there maybe some of you can go for me. I’ll probably be the gulab jamun hanging out at the stage door with her ear stuck to it (Eh…actually, gulab jamun’s shouldn’t even have ears…What a visual…), if I can swing by after my show gets out. Darn that paycheck…don’t suppose I could call in sick?..No, Susie, I won’t. Tickets at, of course, http://www.JaiHoTickets.com.

UPDATE: I’m devastated…I bit the bullet, I bought a ticket to the event, even though I knew that I could only attend half the event. I went to work, alarmingly overdressed for theater work, yet still primarily in black. I looked great…or as great as they will ever see me at work (it takes a lot out of me, at this age, let me tell you!). I rush over to DAR, find a parking place alongside…now, that begins to worry me. No noise, no parking problems…all is not as it should be. I walk to the front entrance, dark as a tomb. I wandered around to the stage door and ring the buzzer. “That show was canceled this morning, ma’am.” What? When did that happen? I only bought my ticket three days before!

Sigh…so close, and yet, so far from my musical idol… I am needless to say, a bit perturbed. Online it looks as if the concert has been rescheduled, but no news is posted except the date, June 5th. Same venue. We’ll see if it all rings true. Gulab jamun, signing off for now.

ScreenWrithing 101

[NOTE: My photo source fell apart and removed or randomly posted new and not always apropos photos. Looking for a new source. Sorry if it's confusing.]

No, it’s not a typo. I’m making a point, or rather a stab at trying to define why today’s film comedies in the US constantly leave me disgruntled and dissatisfied when I leave the theater. I want to analyze it, and look back over films that I have enjoyed and find out when and why I stopped enjoying them overall. There have been exceptions, of course, but let me tell you, they are few and far between.

The box office itself is in the midst of an upswing of sorts, so perhaps I am in the minority, or perhaps just too old. The financial pundits keep insisting on telling me that I, of the over thirty set, don’t count where prime box office numbers are concerned. I’d like to think that we just haven’t found enough comedies out there to draw us in. Comedies these days tend to be in an ever-burgeoning genre that I am forced to call Cinema of Bodily Fluids.

If it doesn’t squirt, squish or scream and writhe in either ecstasy or embarrassment, it won’t hit number one, we’re told. The only non-cringe inducing comedies, or what used to be called sweet comedies, that are still allowed to leave Hollywood’s hallowed gates are the animated ones, like Pixar’s UP! We are allowed to respond to them, as they are aimed, ostensibly at our children. Needless to say, they are breaking all previously known records for adult attendance of these “kid-flicks” and even, like UP, get nominated for Oscars.

Don’t get me wrong, I know sex can be humorous as well as exciting. I get the premise that negative behavior can be giggle-producing, but what I’m asking is why it has to be the only type of film comedy that we produce? Subtlety and wit can have their place, too, even though it is increasingly hard to find writers and directors who seem to be able to manipulate it with just the right comedic touch.

Basically, the most satisfying comedies for me, follow a traditional pattern, call it Formula One. The plots introduce you to a character or characters that you hopefully like, or at least understand and relate to, to the extent that you can see their potential. Then they are given a quest or obstacles to overcome. How they do it or fail to do it will show us who they are and who they are going to become. All the humor happens by mistake or misunderstanding, and not through intentional perpetration by the characters on each other. When the plot’s twists unravel neatly and our heroes come through their travails successfully, so do we; and so we leave our seats with that final sigh of satisfaction that lasts.

In Formula Two, the more prevalent these days, the pattern is similar, but is coming from a different place altogether. You still recognize the characters, but all the humor is based on a sense of shared inadequacy, the lowest common denominator. You know they’ll steal it/step on it/swear at it because you would, yourself. How can they/we resist the lure of bad behavior? How can we not laugh at the inevitability of that banana peel? But even though we laugh, we know the joke’s on us, too. Then the humor fades as fast as a smile.

Okay, to test it, let’s take one of the best of Old Hollywood’s comedy pairs, say, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, and try to put them in a contemporary Formula Two-style film like The Hangover or Something About Mary. Can you see it? Neither can I. Could you instead, twist their classic films to make them follow the rules of Formula Two? What do you come up with? Bringing Up Boogers? His Ho Friday? No, even Cary Grant couldn’t make that one play, and I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t want him to try.

Kate: “Dexter, this is definitely NOT yar.”
Cary: “Red, I think we need another script.”

Giving it a trial, I went to a few films recently to see how they used these two formulas. I tried to squash my natural aversion to physical comedy, and see what everyone was finding so fascinating. But I thought it was okay to go easy on myself and start with a low-physical level, calmer film, first. Right before the Oscars, I went to see Up in the Air with George Clooney. Now, George is never hard to look at, and he’s adept with comedies. The film was well made, it was subtle, it was, indeed funny…but it’s really a Formula Two, wrapped up in an attractive package. George is a corporate hatchet man who flies almost 365 days a year going from corporation to corporation whittling down the human deadwood in the cleanest way possible. He prides himself by being able to do this professionally and without emotional involvement, with the corresponding low level of angst all around. He is rudely awakened when his boss tells him his chosen way of life is about to be downsized, too, and he will be slotted into a little cubicle with a computer for his “hatchet” and no more free-winging lifestyle for him. I found Clooney’s character’s choices and lifestyle alienating in the extreme. I couldn’t identify with him, and then bad behavior became the basis of all the humor. He tried to change his pattern halfway through, but when he met another like himself he went back to hide in the skies again, safe in his untouchability.

Two weeks back I went to see Hot Tub Time Machine because of favorable reviews and from my fondness for John Cusack. Cusack has always delivered portraits of sweet, interesting oddballs from the days of Say Anything, to Bullets Over Broadway, Grosse Point Blank, and Pushing Tin through to the extreme oddness of Being John Malkovich. He makes you identify with him in his “everyman-ness”. Natural Formula One potential, right? I’m not so sure. The premise of three down on their luck buddies (plus one practically under age nephew, to the left in the picture above) going back to the ‘80s to fix their sorry lives was funny the first time I saw it, back in the ‘80s…Back to the Future did it better and without underage drinking and full frontal nudity. Imagine that.

To give them their due, John and the boys give some sweet performances here and there amidst that alluvial plain of alcohol, excrement and hot tub water they are wading through in HTTM, but as they changed their lives without changing the behavior that caused their problems, there was no character progression, and I didn’t really like them in the end. Formula Two elements killing the Formula One bits. And Thomas Lennon’s uncredited cameo appearance near the beginning of HTTM in the dog grooming shop didn’t help, as it just made me compare this film unfavorably to last year’s much funnier 17 Again, a Formula One disguised by Lennon and Zac Efron’s inspired slapstick camouflage to masquerade as a Two.

Steve Carell and Tina Fey’s first joint venture, Date Night, managed to deliver another very creditable stab at a Formula One. I hadn’t expected it from Mr. 40 Yr. Old Virgin, but I shouldn’t be so pessimistic, it seems. Steve and Tina work brilliantly together combining their shared background in improv comedy to great effect, playing an ordinary middle-class suburban couple just trying to get a fun night away from the kids in the big city. But their quest goes comically awry when just a few random spontaneous choices send them careening into imminent danger and instant hilarity. Yep, Formula One again, excluding one scene of goofy pole dancing, et al that even I laughed at because it was…so wrong. Funny…not Some Like it Hot classic, but definitely a sure fire Date Night, if you’ll pardon my making the obvious pun.

Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge? Starring Ajay Devgan, Paresh Rawal and Konkona Sen Sharma

The last movie I’d recommend is an Indian offering which is probably out of the local Indian cinemas by now, but as it is a good example of what I’m talking about, it stays in. Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge? is a broad comedy starring Ajay Devgan and Konkona Sen Sharma as a happily married couple with an impossibly angelic little boy, who make the mistake of inviting Paresh Rawal, an unexpected guest, to make their home in Mumbai, his own, for an undetermined period. This one-joke premise holds on desperately throughout the first half, and as is typical of a piece this frenetic, I was beginning to lose interest. But in the always romantic style of the true Bollywood screenwriter, the second half softens into a gentle, but hilarious lesson on what the Eternal Guest can teach this middle class couple who have unintentionally lost their roots and sense of family through living in the impersonal big city. That this film succeeds is mostly due to the skill of veteran actor Rawal, who brings us home with smiles and tears as all good Hindi melodramas should. Formula One with subtitles.

So, wrapping up, I do have hope for the future of comedy, but I think we should vote with our feet and hold out for a bit more of a balance between One and Two. We can and should ask for more from our screenwriters. Happy viewing.

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