Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys throw sparks

June 8, 2017 § Leave a comment

One thing that makes FX’s lauded Cold War drama “The Americans” so compelling is the chemistry between Keri Russell, who starred in four seasons of “Felicity” in her early 20s, and Welsh actor Matthew Rhys. As Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, Russian spies living as Americans in 1980s suburbia, they make their kids’ lunches and then slip away to don disguises, seduce sources and break necks for the Motherland.

Russell and RhysBut Russell and Rhys’ electricity on the show, created by former CIA officer Joe Weisberg and just having finished its fifth season before a 10-episode sprint to a series finale, is nothing compared to the sparks they throw off in real life.

Settling into the series’ writers room in gritty Gowanus in New York’s Brooklyn, surrounded by whiteboards with scribbled plot points and grainy show stills, the couple, who have an infant son (Russell also has two children from a previous relationship), are clearly simpatico — finishing each other’s thoughts and cracking each other up …

‘The Americans’ and its stars forge on — who knew Russian spies could be so relevant? (Los Angeles Times)

Jonah Hill is not a bro

November 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

Efraim Diveroli, the character Jonah Hill plays in the summer film “War Dogs,” Todd Phillips’ based-on-a-true-story film about two Yeshiva-educated Miami twentysomethings (Miles Teller plays the other) who rake in millions with a shady business supplying arms to the U.S. military during the war in Afghanistan, is probably not a guy you’d want to meet for lunch. Loud, duplicitous and greedy in the extreme, Efraim is a character who, if initially charming, would almost certainly leave you feeling compromised: You could imagine him ordering heaps of the priciest thing on the menu and then — laughing —  leaving you holding the check.

Jonah HillHill, apart from the charm, is nothing like that. Over lunch on a rainy Thursday in New York City, at his usual table at the rustic-Italian restaurant Il Buco, the 32-year-old actor, who has memorably appeared in such films as “Superbad,” “21 Jump Street,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Moneyball,” earning Oscar nods with those last two, is polite, thoughtful and engaging. He’s the kind of guy who will hold your chair and offer you the first bite of his risotto. (“Want some?” he asks, with apparent sincerity.)

Burned by the press for not being as bro-ish as some of his roles might indicate (“People want me to be a loud comedian and it’s just, unfortunately, not who I am,” he says, ruefully — though he claims partial responsibility for a notoriously bad 2013 Rolling Stone interview he says therapy has helped him push past), Hill, who hails from Los Angeles and lives in New York, comes off as careful, perhaps a bit chastened, yet candid and generous as he entertained questions about, among other topics, a performance critics have hailed as a standout in an otherwise dismissable film …

Taking risks and not playing it safe are what draw Jonah Hill to those non-‘bro’ roles (Los Angeles Times)

An unlikely chat with Judy Blume

July 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

BlumeEventMost of us know Judy Blume as the woman who wrote those books we devoured as we grew up — novels that shaped our development, perhaps more than we even realized. We may have started with Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and the rest of the Fudge series, then moved on to books like Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. Blubber, Are You There God? It’s Me, MargaretDeenie and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t and eventually graduated to that dog-eared copy of Forever we giggled over with our friends and hid from our parents.

We’ve passed these much-loved paperbacks along to our children. Perhaps some of us have remained Blume readers even in adulthood — digging into her books for grown-ups, like WifeySmart Women and the 1998 bestseller Summer Sisters. When Blume wrote the latter, she said it would be her last book for an adult audience, and she remained true to her word for years. But then, in 2009, the idea for her new book, In the Unlikely Event, hit her — like “a ton of bricks,” she says — and she knew she had to write it …

Judy Blume: Flight Paths and Trigger Warnings (Barnes & Noble Review)

Omar Sharif: Pure charm

July 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

the_rakes_progressTo meet Omar Sharif was to fall instantly under his spell. At least that’s what happened to me when I interviewed him for Salon in 2003.

Sharif was promoting his role in François Dupeyron’s cinematic confection “Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran,” in which he played an old Muslim shopkeeper in 1960s Paris who dispenses sweet nuggets of wisdom to a young Jewish boy slightly lonelier and much, much sadder than he.

“Smiling is what makes you happy,” Sharif’s M. Ibrahim tells young Momo, tenderly played by Pierre Boulanger, who drinks in his advice like nectar. “Try it, you’ll see.”

Sharif himself took a similar don’t-worry-be-happy view of life. He told me that he had much in common with M. Ibrahim. “We ended up being exactly the same,” he said, which makes it especially poignant, perhaps, to recall his description of the character’s death.

“It is the last lesson that I’m giving to the boy: How to die, that dying is not something terrible. ‘I am not dying,’ he says to Momo, because Momo is crying,” Sharif said. “‘I’m just going to the immensity.’ It’s something to smile about, not to be sad.”

The rake’s progress (Salon)

The best biographies for kids embrace nuance

January 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

Not Just For Kids: Biographies aimed at children include Abraham Lincoln, Malcolm X, Josephine Baker and Thomas JeffersonAs school book fairs and children’s library browsers can attest, there is no shortage of biographies aiming to educate young readers about the lives of historical figures, from George Washington to Jackie Robinson, Annie Oakley to Anne Frank, Helen Keller to Harry Houdini, Eleanor Roosevelt to Elvis Presley.

This month, several new picture books about famous thinkers and doers — bold breakers of boundaries and blazers of trails — will further crowd the shelves. The best of these deal forthrightly with their subjects’ complexities and contradictions, acknowledging that even heroes make mistakes and suffer setbacks and that one can be inspired by someone’s successes while acknowledging their failings …

Biographies of historical figures for children, flaws and all (Los Angeles Times)

Remembering Lou Reed

October 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

lou_reed_takes_his_best_shots-460x307Deeply sad to hear about Lou Reed’s death. I have thought a lot about him since I was lucky enough to interview him for Salon, back in 2006. Days before the opening of the rock icon’s first major photography exhibit in New York, we spoke about his photographs, which were surprisingly sentimental and pretty. “I was following this beauty, this overwhelming beauty that you see in New York,” Reed told me as we sat in the Steven Kasher Gallery, in Chelsea, surrounded by pictures of sunsets, darkly glowing clouds, moving light and the view of the Hudson River from his West Side apartment.

Reed, a notoriously difficult interview, immediately put me on notice. He made fun of my low-tech tape recorder — and my name, which he found absurdly punny, given my profession. He was in complete control of our conversation, leaving me and my list of questions hopelessly scrambling to keep up as he discussed his technique and inspiration and associations. But when he decided I was not out to get him, as he obviously felt many journalists were, he warmed up, speaking to me longer than scheduled, even reaching out, at one point, to give my hand a little approving pat. He appeared to want nothing more than to be heard and understood, to connect.

“I think these things are fascinating and beautiful and available to anybody,” he said of his photographs, or perhaps the moments he sought to capture in them. “And I think beautiful things make us feel good.”

As I finally moved to leave, taking my apparently ridiculous tape recorder with me, Reed enveloped me in a hug. It may have been after I told him I had been seated in front of him years before, in 2001, at soul singer Howard Tate’s first back-from-nowhere NYC gig at the Village Underground, a night no one in attendance would ever forget. Or it may not. I can’t specifically remember what prompted his sudden warm embrace. But I do remember that, after I revealed I had only months before had my second child, he pulled me back into the gallery to look at an image he thought would mean something special to a new parent.

It was a generous gesture, and I was touched, if perhaps a bit confused, by it, as I was by the call I got afterward from his rep, asking if I would be interested in interviewing Reed for a British magazine that wanted a word with him. “Lou wants you to do it,” the rep said, sounding frankly mystified. “He liked you.”

The feeling was mutual.

Lou Reed takes his best shots (Salon)

Who will win ‘The Voice’?

September 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

the voiceDanielle Bradbery took top honors on “The Voice” last season, becoming, at age 16, the youngest singer in the show’s four-season-long history to do so. The Texas teen’s first single, “The Heart of Dixie,” released in July, a week before her 17th birthday, showed off her pipes and her country-music-star potential, hitting No. 16 on the Billboard country songs chart. Her debut album, due out in November, is already generating buzz among fans of her silky vocals and sweet stage presence.

Will this season of “The Voice” — in which the show’s original four coach/mentors will reunite, as Christina Aguilera and CeeLo Green return to their stately, spinning red chairs – find as worthy a winner? I’ll again be in my (alas, stationary and far less majestic) TV chair, tracking the competition for the Los Angeles Times. The show has just snagged an Emmy, proving its high ratings are not for nothing. Why not watch with me?

‘The Voice’ recap: Night 4 of blinds shows value of second chances (Los Angeles Times)

‘The Voice’ recap: Coaches play nice as blind auditions continue (Los Angeles Times)

‘The Voice’ recap: Talents impress in second night of blinds (Los Angeles Times)

‘The Voice’ recap: The old gang’s back for Season 5 (Los Angeles Times)

The secret of shareability

September 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

elephantWhat do an elephant rejected by its mother, a 105-year-old woman who swears bacon is the secret to a long and happy life, and a guy who does to a bank what banks usually do to other people have in common? Major crowd appeal. They are the subjects of three of the most popular blurbs I have written for msnNOW, racking up more than 315,000, 57,500 and 310,000 Facebook shares respectively. (Far more even than, say, this blurb about a rescued pup and the value of second chances, this one about a tear-inducing dog food commercial, and this one about a cat incessantly picking on a pooch.)

In fact, these posts were among the most-shared across social media in the history of msnNOW, a trending news site launched by Microsoft in February 2012, proving that what makes a story tops in traffic is not only carefully crafted SEO copy and following a trend – it’s sniffing out a good story before it trends and writing compelling copy people universally relate to. A story they feel a deep urge to share. And share again.

msnNOW (MSN)

Ryan Seacrest doesn’t really eat puppies, right?

January 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

"Elimination Night"If the anonymous author of “Elimination Night,” a fictional confection set behind the scenes of a singing-competition TV show very much — perhaps exactly — like “American Idol,” is difficult to identify, the same cannot be said of most of the satirical novel’s characters.

There’s “erect-nippled” British judge Nigel Crowther, avuncular session musician JD Coolz, workaholic “HostBot” Wayne Shoreline, glamorous Bibi Vasquez (her big hit: “Bibi From the Hood”), aging recovering-addict rock star Joey Lovecraft.

If these characters don’t sound familiar, you’re clearly not an “American Idol” watcher, and “Elimination Night” probably isn’t a book for you. If, however, you’re ticking off the names Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, Ryan Seacrest, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler in your head, you may find yourself tempted to troll this send-up for “Idol” secrets spilled by the author, purportedly a show insider …

‘Elimination Night’ — What would the ‘Idol’ judges say? (Los Angeles Times)

Back on “American Idol” duty

February 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

American IdolI’m blogging about “American Idol” for the Los Angeles Times again this season. It’s my third time around on Showtracker “Idol” duty, and I’m looking forward to a great Season 11. If the auditions, which just wrapped up in St. Louis, are any indication, we’ll see a lot of talent crowding the stage in Hollywood. (Hooray for that!) “Idol” judges Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler will have their work cut out for them when it comes to winnowing down the masses to a handful of finalists. Of course, there are always a few contestants who start out strong, only to take a heartbreaking tumble when the going gets tough in Tinseltown. Who will it be? Stay tuned …

Showtracker: “American Idol” recaps (Los Angeles Times)