Thursday, January 31, 2008

When in Bruges

Caught a preview of the enjoyable new black comedy In Bruges, which had opened the Sundance Film Festival a few days earlier. In fact, the print came directly from Park City, Utah.

It stars Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell as two hit men hiding out in the medieval city of Bruges, Belgium after a botched hit in London. While waiting for further instructions from their boss (Ralph Fiennes), they try to blend in with the tourists. Wackiness ensues, but eventually they must confront the consequences of their grim past.

Adding that extra something was a post-screening interview and audience Q&A with writer-director Martin McDonagh, in town doing press for the movie. Introduced as the first playwright since William Shakespeare to have four plays running simultaneously on the London stage, McDonagh deadpanned, "And mine were better."

McDonagh said he'd always wanted to make movies, but figured he'd have to establish himself as a playwright first. And did he ever, with a lengthy string of critically praised shows on either side of the Atlantic.

A few years ago my buddy Jeff Marx and I saw his play The Pillowman on Broadway. Jeff loved it, I didn't, but we both enjoyed the sardonic Jeff Goldblum and scenery-chewing Billy Crudup. As for McDonagh's writing, I preferred The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which I caught off-off-Broadway (read: Skokie). He also wrote The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Lonesome West.

As McDonagh told the audience, "It took me ten years to have enough power not to have to listen to anyone." Eventually, though, he had the clout to make films his way. He cut his cinematic teeth a few years ago with Six Shooter, a short film that he modestly said "went pretty well" (it won an Oscar for best live action short), and now makes his feature debut with In Bruges.

McDonagh was funny, charming and charismatic; you couldn't help but like the guy. Happily, his movie delivers the goods, so I have no reservations in giving it the Ben Bass and Beyond stamp of approval. Two thumbs up (both mine). It hits theaters next week. Check it out.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Hard-hitting reportage

Confirming that someone somewhere has even more free time than I do, the massive sinkhole in Montrose Avenue now has its own MySpace page.
[source: Flavorwire]

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Calamity Ben

They say every cloud has a silver lining, but in my case the converse is often true. In a bizarre ongoing trend, a surprising number of vacation trips I've taken have coincided with tragic or calamitous news events unfolding nearby. It's mostly occurred in New York City, where disasters just seem to follow me around (not even including the Yankees' winning the World Series).

It all started in May 1994. Waiting to cross Fifth Avenue at 80th Street en route to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a college buddy and I had to navigate a dense thicket of camera crews and reporters. They were camped ghoulishly outside Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' apartment building as she lay on her deathbed upstairs. Although her quiet passing late in life was not a sudden tragedy, my inadvertently wandering through her death siege while on vacation did set the tone.

Fast-forward to August 1997. After graduating from law school and taking the bar exam, I jumped the pond to unwind, as Dave Eggers might say, in a continental style. Shortly after my path passed through Paris, Princess Diana and others perished there in a high-speed car crash. (On the day of her funeral, I was in Florence, where I couldn't hear her brother's impassioned eulogy behind the loud voiceover translation on Italian television.)

Since I'd left Paris before Diana died, that one was a near miss, as was my family trip to Washington, D.C. two weeks before President Reagan was shot there. Likewise, paying my first visit to New York City the same year the space shuttle Challenger exploded may have been mere coincidence, and the Ben Affleck-Jennifer Lopez breakup while I was in Australia, not serious enough to count.

However, my latest brushes with unfortunate headlines have been, as it were, dead on. In October 2006 I returned to the Big Apple for the New Yorker Festival, highlighted by an extremely sold-out Borat preview at the Directors Guild of America Auditorium. It was the hottest ticket in town, as the hugely anticipated movie would not be released for another month. Adding a measure of gravitas was the screening's unlikely host, Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker editor David Remnick. The convergence of Remnick and Sagdiyev was, to me, the cultural equivalent of the Yalta Conference.

I also had the good fortune to pay a backstage visit to the Conan show and close a Chelsea bar with three of my favorite comedians (initialed Z.G., M.W., and K.G. for my fellow comedy nerds). Eventually, though, it was time to come home.

As I hailed a taxi on West 48th, New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and a flight instructor embarked on their doomed 12-minute flight from nearby Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. After circling the Statue of Liberty and heading up the East River, they were instantly killed when Lidle's four-seater Cirrus SR20 slammed into a 40-story Upper East Side apartment building. The reported timing of Lidle's flight confirmed that he pretty much flew over my LaGuardia-bound cab in the final moments of his life.

And this week, more of the same. On Tuesday afternoon, after a long weekend in the city, I grabbed a taxi in the West Village and headed southeast for John F. Kennedy Airport. My cab passed through SoHo a block or two from the late Heath Ledger's apartment, where he lay dying as I drove by. His housekeeper discovered his body as my outbound flight sat on the tarmac.

As if that weren't enough, another calamity was simultaneously unfolding in Chicago. A block from my house, a 100-year-old, 36-inch cast-iron water pipe burst beneath Montrose Avenue, sending a four-foot-high wall of water cascading down the street. The pavement collapsed into an 80-foot-long, 15-foot-deep crater that swallowed trees and streetlights. Basements flooded, cars were swamped and a sewer line collapsed. I could easily see the flashing lights of repair trucks from the plane as we approached O'Hare.

See what I mean? Wherever I travel, catastrophe follows. The Ledger/flood double-whammy was a new low, though, even by my standards. Two disasters in one day, my first quinella.

I don't know what to make of apparently being a bringer of death, destruction and mayhem (ladies), but I take heart in that old chestnut from Stats 102: correlation does not imply causation.

Still, as a public service to the celebrities of the world, I will henceforth announce my travel plans in this space, so they can make plans to steer clear. For starters, I'm probably returning to New York in October. I hear the Hamptons are lovely that time of year. Cast of Sex and the City, you are on notice.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Memo to Hank Azaria

Enjoyed your performance in The Farnsworth Invention, Aaron Sorkin's new Broadway history lesson about the early days of television. Who knew that RCA president and NBC founder David Sarnoff sounded so much like bartender Moe Szyslak?

Memo to Mayor Bloomberg

Your New Parks Initiative, while laudable, is off to a modest start.

(c) 2008 Ben Bass and Beyond
All rights reserved

Story: Matt Goldberg
Screenplay: Ben Bass
Man on bench: Matt Goldberg
Photography: Ben Bass
Craft service: Chalfin's

Memo to West Village

I defy you to walk by this storefront window, filled with adorable, hyperactive puppies crawling all over each other, and not stop to enjoy it.

I defy you!

Memo to City of New York

While I would prefer to Walk, I can also live with Don't Walk. Could you please just make up your mind?

A return to normalcy

Just got back from a memorable trip to New York City, highlights of which are likely to appear in this space shortly. Meanwhile, let's clear our desk with a few memoranda.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

We report, you decide

The three finalists for the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest from the other day:

1. "I wanted you to meet our colon specialist before we miniaturized him."
2. "Actually, the preferred term is 'adventure surgery.' "
3. "Well, you are sixty per cent water."

You can vote for your favorite here.

Angry letters about the selection process should be directed to The New Yorker, 4 Times Square, New York, NY 10036.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Caption this

My entry to this recent New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest:

"You need a heart transplant, but your HMO only provides coverage for a water birth."

Think you're funny? Enter the latest contest here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Speaking of Springfield...

... I stopped by there recently:

Inevitable local news brief

January 18th Will Not Be CTA Doomsday Deadline

SPRINGFIELD—Unlike every other business day in the previous sixteen weeks, January 18, 2008 will not be a Chicago Transit Authority "Doomsday" funding deadline.

Under a landmark accord among Gov. Rod Blagojevich, House speaker Michael Madigan, Senate president Emil Jones, Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, CTA president Ron Huberman, Regional Transportation Authority chairman Jim Reilly and Metra executive director Phillip Pagano, legislators and transportation chiefs will take a one-day breather from their now-familiar funding squabble.

"We needed this," said a smiling Madigan as the embattled leaders emerged after midnight from a six-hour bargaining session in the Governor's Mansion. "The nightmare scenario of daily mass-transit Doomsdays is over. Until next week." Madigan is generally driven to work at taxpayers' expense in a late-model Lincoln Town Car.

The rare non-Doomsday will provide beleaguered lawmakers and commuters with a brief reprieve from the string of consecutive daily Doomsdays stretching back to September 2007.

"With Martin Luther King Day on Monday, we'll have a four-day weekend to rest and reflect on what's best for the people of Illinois," said Huberman. "By Tuesday, though, we'll have forgotten what's best and resume fighting amongst ourselves with renewed vigor."

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Story of my life

Google your own name some time. It's amazing the things you'll find.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Advice from Grandpa Mike

Gravel tells kids: use pot over alcohol
[Chicago Tribune]

Former Alaska senator and low-profile presidential candidate Mike Gravel would go on to dispense more campaign-trail wisdom to America's children.

Gravel tells kids: reading is for losers

Gravel tells kids: you don't need a license to drive a golf cart

Gravel tells kids: there's probably money in your mom's purse

Gravel tells kids: that 14-year-old who slept with his teacher is my hero

Gravel tells kids: I can kick your ass in Madden NFL 08

Gravel tells kids: get it out of your system before you can be tried as an adult

Gravel tells kids: no occasionally means yes

Gravel tells kids: the Toyota Camry is the easiest car to hotwire

Gravel tells kids: Bono is so gay

Gravel tells kids: when you use pot over alcohol, please invite me

Friday, January 11, 2008

On fads

I'm more into Sanjaya than ever. How about you?

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Movie pick of the week

Need a good title for your Netflix queue? Check out Charade, Stanley Donen's 1963 mystery thriller.

It's a delicious cake. The main ingredients are Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, in the only movie they made together, and a witty, suspenseful script. Throw in some plot twists, chase scenes, running gags and romantic intrigue. Season with gritty appearances by the gravelly-voiced (and surprisingly young-looking) likes of Walter Matthau, James Coburn and George Kennedy, eventual Oscar winners all. Add a pinch of continental flair by filming on location in Paris and the French Alps and hiring Hubert de Givenchy to dress the female lead. Fold in a Henry Mancini score, top it off with a satisfying ending, and you've got yourself a winner. Serves 12. Prepare to be charmed.

Of course, now that I've plugged it here, rental services will be deluged with requests and retailers will immediately sell out. You probably won't get to see it for months, but trust me, it's really good.

Actually, it's been showing commercial-free on the obscure cable network RetroPlex, which you may have without even knowing it, as I found I did (Comcast channel 522 in the Chicago area).

Editor's note: Charade was recently remade as The Truth About Charlie, but if you've made it this far, you shouldn't need help deciding between the Cary Grant classic and the Marky Mark version.

Props to my buddy Matt Pagano for the tip. He also introduced me to The Iron Giant, so his track record is immaculate.

Monday, January 7, 2008

A social experiment

In the 1995 movie To Die For, Nicole Kidman's shallow, ambitious weather girl memorably opined that you're no one in America unless you're on TV.

On today's planet Earth—owned by Google, you just live here—the same could be said of online page views. At a time when search engines are the prism through which so many people look at the world, isn't it axiomatic that if you don't show up in search results, then you don't exist?

Ignoring the obvious gaping holes in this reasoning, I'm still curious what kind of search engine-generated traffic will result if I blurt out a stream-of-consciousness rant of pure Google bait, something like this:

barack obama john edwards change iowa caucuses new hampshire primaries hillary clinton presumptive democratic nominee mike huckabee baptist preacher mitt romney mormon john mccain ron paul tom tancredo immigration rudy giuliani 9/11 scary fascist fred thompson young wife gop mayor bloomberg jewish independent candidate global warming benazir bhutto al qaeda osama bin laden iraq george w. bush dick cheney treason new york giants dallas cowboys tony romo jessica simpson new england patriots undefeated 16-0 tom brady gisele bundchen donald trump celebrity apprentice mad men best new show dow jones industrial average ben bernanke federal funds rate cut sam zell tribune company esop new yorker cartoon conde nast paris hilton britney spears kevin federline custody dr. phil pam anderson divorce rick salomon david letterman wga writers strike conan o'brien still good jay leno still unwatchable tom cruise scientology l. ron hubbard katie holmes paternity hannah montana high school musical roger clemens 60 minutes interview steroids mitchell report baseball hall of fame andre dawson mark mcgwire jim rice goose gossage replacements morcheeba u2 radiohead free download itunes ipod iphone nintendo wii guitar hero youtube avenue q apatow superbad pineapple express no country for old men juno there will be blood indiana jones 4 and of course porn porn porn.

Friday, January 4, 2008

No Starlet Left Behind

As a syntax geek with a stubborn sympathy for little girl lost (read: stage mother casualty) Lindsay Lohan, I don't know what to make of this instant classic... but it sure is entertaining.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Dear Jim Leyritz:

Thank you for making me seem, by comparison, slightly less intolerable.

Elisabeth Hasselbeck

Ex-Yankee Jim Leyritz Drives Drunk, Kills Woman [Deadspin]