Youth in Oregon

This third installment in my six-months-late recap of the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival is kind of a downer, but a good downer. There is such a thing, as it turns out, and it’s this movie, Youth in Oregon.

“The right to die” might not be your first choice for a scintillating movie subject, but it really worked here, and it’s a subject that should be covered in many forms, at the very least, to get people talking about it more comfortably. Frank Langella is Raymond, a spiky grandpa and former doctor with a terminal illness and a beautiful, complex face. He’s decided to end his life, but he can only do so in Oregon, where euthanasia is legal. His family, upon learning about the idea (through some heavy-handed exposition, just warning you), is of course passionately against the idea, but each member has his and her own significant ways of coping with it.

The casting is very accurate, especially considering how many recognizable faces appear in the film. Both Christina Applegate (Kate) and Josh Lucas (Danny) look like they could be the grown children of Langella and Mary Kay Place (Estelle), who is America’s mom if anyone asks, with their slightly-pursed mouths, their understated comedic timing, and their quiet melancholy.

Selfishness, and its many manifestations, creeps up as a theme. It’s an unavoidable byproduct of a family coping with one person’s big decision, since everyone inevitably reacts based on how Raymond’s death might affect them. As they process the information, though, the selfishness morphs into sacrifice, with priorities being reorganized and guards being let down. (There’s a road trip to Oregon, in case you were wondering.)

The more you see how peaceful the process could have been, and the more you realize how utterly draining it is for a family to experience death the way it “normally” happens, the easier it is to support “the right to die” as a movement. It’s humane, plain and simple. The author of the script (Andrew Eisen) and the director (Joel David Moore from Bones, whoa) clearly feel strongly about it, and they handled it delicately. They also chose gorgeous music to capture the emotions that the characters — and the audience, inevitably — are experiencing. Joel P. West provided the score, and I found Steven McMorran’s song at the end of the film particularly moving.

I hope we see more stories like this one, which confront “uncomfortable” topics with dignity and care. Fiction can be just as powerful as fact when it comes to reversing a taboo.

Strike a Pose

As I mentioned in my previous TFF2016 post, it was a (fun) challenge to navigate the festival’s schedule and find movies I could actually attend during the day. I admit I chose this one because the time and place worked for me. I honestly can’t recall knowing what it was about before I stepped into the theater.

Stepping out a couple hours later, I don’t think I’d been happier about a serendipitous experience in quite some time. Not only was the movie itself a beautiful, artistic backdrop for something already beautiful and artistic, but it also held its subjects in such high regard that, when a few came forward during the post-film Q&A, I was genuinely starstruck.

Salim Gauwloos — resembling a happy Morrissey — and Jose Xtravaganza were the squad’s representatives at the Q&A, and they exuded a grace and warmth that I still think about. They seem to lead such peaceful, confident lives, thankful for the opportunity Madonna gave them but also considerably distanced from that part of their pasts.

Strike a Pose details the current lives — and vivid memories — of Luis Camacho, Oliver Crumes, Gauwloos, Xtravaganza, Kevin Stea and Carlton Wilborn, the dancers on Madonna’s 1990 Blonde Ambition World Tour. These guys had already been a subject of a documentary, Truth or Dare, but they weren’t known for much else. Yet even though their fame has waned since, they’re still as bright and effervescent as they were in their 20s.

The chronology of the film was stilted at times, which I find to be a common issue with documentaries, since the creators often get so wrapped up in the context that they sometimes forget what the audience does and doesn’t know already, but I’m willing to forgive it because of how inspirational the story is. After watching individual interviews and archived footage, and laughing and crying through personal anecdotes, it’s hard to see their tour as just a tour, even though that’s what it was. They weren’t necessarily trying to overhaul popular culture — maybe Madonna had that intention herself — but they couldn’t help being at the forefront of it. They were beautiful, young, talented and (mostly) gay, and they had the validation of the world’s most popular artist. She wouldn’t have been able to make her statement without them, either.

The group also expressed friendship and love for one another in a way that the ’90s world needed to see. Their brotherhood transcended race, sexuality and nationality, and when they reunited towards the end of the film, that same affection and community was evident after so many years leading separate, post-Madonna lives. They experienced something singular together that no one else could fully comprehend, and they settled right back into their natural rapport as though no time had passed.

There’s too much feel-good in this flick to be contained. I hope it’s released at some point — we need this kind of love shoved in our faces.


Six months ago or so marked my second foray into the Tribeca Film Festival: Cheap Day Pass (6 tickets for $40ish) experience. Even though it took some incredibly creative schedule maneuvering — so much so that I actually emailed people asking them to take tickets off my hands in a moment of desperation, but recovered nicely and saw five movies — I think it’s a worthwhile, cost-effective way to experience something otherwise exclusive and Hollywoodlandy.

The first flick I saw was Magnus, a fascinating documentary with an odd chronology about current World Chess Champion and quasi-sex-symbol Magnus Carlsen. It’s kinda like Boygeniushood.

Now, I know very little about chess, and this movie woke precisely no latent passions for it, but it also didn’t bore me to hear so much about something I don’t understand. Really, it just built up my respect and admiration for the dudes and dudettes who spend their lives staring at checkerboards and contemplating pawn moves. It’s an odd sport, filled with nerds, and that’s why Magnus is so unique.

So many stories — about spelling bee champions and the like — focus on wunderkinder with zero social skills, probably on “the spectrum,” and they intend to invoke some sort of sympathy for their otherwise empty lives. It’s a sad but true formula. Magnus is not like that, though it does make you glad not to be the subject of media scrutiny and constant camera attention if you aren’t already. Magnus himself is highly intelligent, but he’s relatively glib and humorous, with an ego that only comes out when he’s playing. He doesn’t take himself so seriously that he becomes a caricature — he’s a young kid with a gift, a supportive family and a real personality and maturity that’ll help him get by if he chooses to live a non-grandmaster lifestyle. (The guy is only 25, after all.)

I’m the type of person who enjoys watching sports, but I’ve never taken a liking to watching poker or anything table-focused. It doesn’t interest me, mostly because I don’t know how to play. I also think feats of physical athleticism — amazing baseball catches, incredible basketball dunks, powerful tennis aces — make for way better television. As I alluded to before, Magnus piqued my interest in watching chess, and even though I don’t intend to learn, I have a newfound appreciation for watching others play. There’s a pace, an excitement, a palpable tension to watching two geniuses try to out-genius each other, no matter the venue for it.

I imagine Magnus doesn’t need more exposure; though I’d never heard of him before seeing this movie, it’s pretty clear that his star is shining brightly. But his story is one worth knowing about, and I hope this movie gets more widespread attention. Chess is a foreign world to most, and he does all the traveling so we don’t have to.

Staying Alive

Several months ago, I attended a party and chatted with this gal. As it is wont to do, the conversation turned to John Travolta, and after revealing my deep love for Saturday Night Fever, it also became known that I hadn’t yet seen its inferior-to-most sequel, Staying Alive. Though I don’t remember how she convinced me, exactly, I do remember her argument being incredibly strong in favor of the movie, so I decided to abandon my general distaste for sequels and give it a whirl. At the very least, I thought, I’d get to see another two hours of Travolta in his pompadour prime.

It’s pretty common knowledge that this movie got horrid reviews. But you know what? Screw those reviews. And thanks to her for the superior recommendation. Staying Alive is as good a sequel as Magic Mike 2, in that it retains all of the sexiness and none of the moodiness of the original, but the plot is kicky as hell anyway.

And, actually, Staying Alive covers a lot of unexpected ground. Tony Manero, finally out of Brooklyn and into Manhattan, is a dancer bumbling his way through the Broadway scene. He has to deal with gay stereotypes, his own ego and sexist tendencies, fierce competition and making rent. Those of us with office jobs have truly no idea what entertainers go through. Tony is as talented as they come, and dancing is definitely what he should be doing, yet he and an overwhelming pool of other talented guys and gals are just as unemployed. It may or may not come as a surprise that Sylvester Stallone directed, co-wrote and cameoed in the movie. Say what you want about the cheesy dialogue, but Sly knows a rags-to-riches story better than most. (He also knows how to cast his brother, Frank, in a great role.)

I mentioned sexism before, and of course it’s still rampant in this story because it’s inherent in Tony the character. But Travolta’s lovability prevents you from hating Tony, and it gives some depth to his prejudice. Over the course of the movie — and presumably, over the course of the six years since Saturday Night Fever took place — Tony learns a few things about himself, but not all edges are smoothed, even by the end of the movie. Initially, Tony treats his singer girlfriend, Jackie (Cynthia Rhodes) like utter shit, and she turns to one of her bandmates (Frank, playing Carl) for comfort. But Tony demonstrates his personal progress and his desire to get her back with a long walk to Bay Ridge and an incredibly touching conversation with his mother. The change doesn’t feel contrived, either. There’s a nice, simple purity to it. Initially, too, Tony tries to get with the lead dancer in a production, only to learn that she’s using him for a different reason. He has to reconcile with the discomfort of that double standard, and eventually learn to work with someone he hates, in order to make the show successful.

Honestly, the worst part of the movie is the show itself. The costumes are hysterical, the filming of it is slow-mo-over-the-top, and the style of it is out of left field, if left field were on another planet. I don’t know what to call it, nor do I want to try, but “visually confusing” ought to suffice. “The opposite of disco” will also work here. Just try to forget about it and focus on the movie’s strong emotional core, if you can.

As a side note, I really enjoyed this dumb exchange:

Tony: Don’t worry. She’s in good hands.
Carl: And what are you, Allstate, pal?
Tony: Yeah, you want disability?

As a second side note, I wrote this down when I watched the movie, and I have no idea if it’s a quote or something incredibly smart I thought of myself, but either way, it sums up the movie perfectly. I hesitate to take credit: “When your style is out of style, what happens?”

As a third and final side note, I’ve only had positive reactions since mentioning that I’ve watched this movie. Case in point:

Moneyball (the movie)

Considering how much of a fan of our national pastime I consider myself to be, considering I lived in the Bay Area for 10 years, and considering I now work for MLB, I really should have seen this movie in a theater when it came out. I have no logical explanation for why I didn’t. It’s stupid, see.

There’s really nothing like a great sports movie. Sports are inherently cinematic, with all of the key elements built right into the game, and baseball has the added plus (or minus, depending on how you look at it) of not relying on a clock, so the conflict/climax/resolution could come at any time within the nine or more innings. It’s beautiful. Baseball also has the bonus of infinitely, mind-bogglingly more stats to analyze than any other sport, precisely because of its timelessness and rigid structure, so the behind-the-scenes takes a wholly different shape from that of, say, football. I’m not sure there could’ve been a book or movie (or team or sport) that could have made stats so goddamn thrilling.

It really is crazy to think that, while I was off in Giants land in the early 2000s, watching Barry Bonds smash dingers and JT Snow save toddlers’ lives and Robb Nen revitalize Deep Purple and Rich Aurilia steal my heart forever, there was something completely different happening across the Bay. And I didn’t know about it because my house happened to be an orange and black house, and our TV received the feed that contained Duane (not Glen) Kuiper.

Once I started to get to know A’s fans in college and thereafter, I realized how truly shafted Oakland was in MLB. While we had our beautiful new stadium, broken in during that heartbreaking 2002 World Series (which, yes, I’m still bitter about, despite three wins since). And that’s what makes Billy Beane and Peter Brand’s feat so much more amazing — they worked so incredibly hard to cobble together a lineup that they truly believed in, with a fraction of the budget of most other teams, which pointed them in the direction of statistical success. And they did succeed.

The casting of this movie is superb. Not only were former professional ballplayers (like Royce Clayton and Stephen Bishop) tapped to play other ballplayers (Miguel Tejada and David Justice, respectively), but the Hollywooders in this movie also stripped away their Hollywoodiness and got down to Oakland business. It was awe-inspiring to see the stadium and the team — that I had just started to get to know — glorified in cinema, with the faces of Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Pratt and Jonah Hill making it so.

PSH and Pratt, in particular, blended right in. Of course, we all know that PSH could play just about any role, and morph into just about any character, but it’s delightful to know that “baseball manager” was on that list. His face, his build, the way he carried himself, it’s like he’d been in the dugout this whole time. And Chris Pratt — who could be a long-lost Giambi brother, in my opinion, or even a proto-Mark Canha — exemplified that certain glamour of an almost-but-not-quite-forgotten ballplayer, the one whose humility had overtaken his ego long ago. As Scott Hatteburg, he was terrific.

I wrote down a note to myself when watching this movie, and I’m not sure if it was a quote, or something I came up with on my own. I assume the former, because Aaron Sorkin wrote the script and I really can’t give myself this much credit: “The key is finding the happy balance. It’s a numbers game until you start waiting for walks.” Not a particularly deep thought, but a simple one in this game. It’s very comforting knowing that, behind all of the analysis, there was so much soul to the A’s. Not only did the numbers tell a story, but they boosted the franchise’s confidence in its own players, which in turn boosted the players’ own confidence and sent the A’s surging into September.

I’ve gotta read the book. Go baseball.

Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.

I didn’t write much down in anticipation of this blog post when I was reading Rob Delaney’s memoir, Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. It wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy it, or didn’t find anything relevant or memorable to note. Quite the opposite, actually. Everything Delaney shares is just that, memorable and relevant. It’s also highly contextual, so sharing it here in little tidbits would sort of detract from the value and humor and beauty of his writing.

Instead, I’ll just wax poetic about Delaney for a moment, and maybe include some of the tidbits I did write down. He’s such a special type of comedian and writer, the rare one who can do great things with pen and paper and even greater ones with a microphone and a willing audience. He’s got this Hot Dad vibe about him, which he’s completely aware of and plays up, but his comedy is so much more complex and intelligent and fucked up than you could ever imagine or expect. He’s gained perspective since being an alcoholic (p. 35: “I figured it was better for her sanity to believe that her son was a drunk klutz than an actively suicidal daredevil with the stunt proficiency of a trash bag filled with blueberry yogurt”) and nearly killing himself (p. 127: “Dementia would certainly ride well on the thought grooves established by depression”), and now since being married with a bevy of what I presume will be very hairy male children (p. 175: “The way I see it, my new primary function on this earth is simply to die before my son”). His trains of thought veer in directions you’ve never considered before. To say he is honest would be horribly insulting, because his level of honesty and confidence and vulnerability haven’t really been reached by other comedians. He’s at once eloquent and nonsensical, perverse and sensitive, brilliant and silly.

I first saw him at Cobb’s in San Francisco, and most recently at the Bell House in Brooklyn. Both times he utterly delighted and surprised me, and reading his book is like getting to experience that all over again, at your own pace. He’s a furiously hard worker, and I can’t imagine anyone consuming his comedy or writing and not being entertained or enlightened.

Delaney 2016! Just kidding, #ImWithHer. (He is too.)