Sunday, August 26, 2007

Movies I Can Watch Over and Over

These are movies that I really like and in some cases love. I own these movies because I know that anytime I need a pick-me-up, one of these movies will do it for me. That's not to say I just watch these movies over and over; in fact, some of these I haven't seen in a while. Still, this is the first batch of movies I would recommend to anyone who needs a break from the real world. Most of you will already have seen these movies so I'm not going to give you a plot summary on each. Just go out and rent them if you haven't seen them yet!

What's strange about Groundhog Day is that watching it one time feels as if I've watched it 10 times already because of the plot mechanism. But I've always been a sucker for those parallel universe stories, and even though this movie doesn't call it that, it's essentially what it is. It's charming, funny, and has a lesson about love. Of course, [spoiler alert] I thought it a bit funny that Phil (played by Murray), who is the only one who knows that he's repeating the same day over and over, is trying to get Rita (played by McDowell) into bed, and he manages to break the repetitive spell only when he succeeds. I don't think the message was supposed to be, get a girl to go to bed with you if you want to have an epiphany, it was supposed to be about being selfless and loving. Oh, well...I still like the movie!

This romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore is a bit like Groundhog Day in reverse. Drew plays Lucy, who, because of a car accident, forgets everything that happened the previous day, in essence frozen in time the day of her accident. Adam plays Henry, who falls for Lucy. This movie is sweet and interesting and moves along nicely.

When we have guests who want to see a comedy and they haven't seen Rat Race, we'll usually pop it in. It's a crowd pleaser, very funny and very silly, an updated version of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad World (but not the same story). Most of the actors are well known as in Mad, and there are some real laugh out loud moments.

An instant classic, Airplane is very silly too and very funny. I love word plays and this movie has plenty, along with the sight gags, the absurd situations, and the fact that it's a parody of all those airliner crisis movies of the 70s. The sequel was not as good (as sequels often aren't). I haven't seen this one in a while but I will have to watch it a again soon - I remember it fondly.

Blast from the Past is not as well known but is a real charmer. It has Brendan Fraser, Alicia Silverstone, Christopher Walken and Sissy Spacek (the latter two as Brendan's parents). Christopher plays a genius who back in 1960 prepared for the worst and built a huge bomb shelter that would last 35 years (or so). After all that time, the locks finally come undone and they can venture out into the world. Brendan's character was not even born when his parents went into the shelter, and this fish out of water story is a real charmer. It's very funny and touching.

The Big Hit too is not one that's well known but it too is very funny. Only slightly violent, it just made me laugh out loud so many times that I knew I was hooked and would be able to watch this movie over and over. Mark Wahlberg leads an all-star cast and it has romantic elements but it's mostly about the intrigue of mob relations. Again, it's really funny - believe me!

Broken Arrow is not a comedy. It's drama and suspense and revenge and intrigue and ... well, you get it. Still, it's not heavy-handed and it's just a very enjoyable to watch, even after you've seen it once and know how it's going to end.

This is a real classic and almost everyone has seen it. Great acting, great adventure, great humor, great romance. it's just a great movie. We saw this originally in the theater and we've watched it several times since.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Hot Saturday Morning...Out and About

This morning we left the house, only to find that my minivan had a flat tire in the garage. Sigh.

Ivana and I borrowed Michael's car and went to Starbucks (first time in history! Yeah, right!). We then bought some banana bread to support the local girls soccer team (The Rage - watch out!) and went to hit some yard sales.

Yard sales are funny things but I've picked up some nice bargains at these makeshift roadside stores. Your junk may be my treasure and my junk may be your treasure. Of course, your junk which becomes my treasure may become my junk one day and then I'll sell it to you because it's your treasure now. Confused? Let's just call it recycling!

Bundle loves to come along. This morning outside of Starbucks he met a little black and white dog. I asked the owner what the dog's name was and she said Latte. Now THAT's a Starbucks fan! He loves meeting new people and, like me, likes to put a smile on their faces.

Ivana found a nice bench, the kind you put in the house, not the kind for outside. You can kind of see it in the pictures, covered up with stuff. She thought it would be perfect for inside our entrance. The seat folds up and you can put shoes or other stuff in there. Unfortunately, the bench is too wide to fit where we needed it to go, so now we're trying it out in the kitchen. We'll see how we feel about it in a while.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Italian Ex-Pat Meetup Tonight

(Click each photo to enlarge it.)
Tonight's Italian Ex-Pat meetup was very enjoyable! We had several newcomers. In the first photo, you can see, from left, Tom and his mother-in-law Luisa and wife Roberta, all new-comers. Next are myself and Ivana and Gina, a young lady from the Ukraine. Roberta also brought first-timers John and Armanda and then are Yvette (Italian), Norman and Luise (Brazilian). This was Luise's last Italian ex-pat meetup because she returns to Brazil Sept. 5. We will miss her sweetness and smile and wish this young lady a wonderful life (we WILL stay in touch!). Luisa, Roberta's mom, returns to Italy tomorrow after her month-long visit. We wish her safe travels and the very best as well.

The Blessing of the Ovens

Today my wife, our friend Alice, and I stopped by for a few minutes at Il Fornaio ("The Baker") Italian restaurant in Reston. It will not open until Monday, but today was the Blessing of the Ovens. By the time I picked up Alice and my wife, we got there 15 minutes late and the blessing part was over. Too bad; I was hoping that while blessing the ovens, the priest might have aimed wrong and blessed me instead (haha). This is the first Il Fornaio east of Colorado. They started as a baking school in Lombardia, Italy, and today have 23 restaurants.

There was free food and wine. The food was excellent (and the wine too!). I don't know about prices yet but I don't think it's a cheap place. I also don't think it's a real expensive place.

We talked at length with the Italian cooks you see in the photos here. I also spoke with the president and CEO of the company, Michael J. Beatrice, who lives in Boston and was a very nice guy. I didn't know who he was at first, outside a guy in a suit who offered me wine. He didn't seem stuck up at all.

We've been looking for a really good Italian restaurant in this area for a long time. Maybe we've finally found one. We'll be back and then we'll know for sure. Buon appetito!

Their website is

Two TV Shows I Like - And Never the Twain Shall Meet

Dexter is going to start its second season Sept. 30th on Showtime. This show stars Michael C. Hall (of Six Feet Under fame) and Julie Benz (of Angel fame). Hall plays Dexter Morgan, who works as a forensics analyst for the Miami Police Dept, specializing in analyzing blood patterns. He is also a serial killer, killing those he believes deserve death who escape the justice of the law. It's VERY interesting from a psychological standpoint. It's well-written, well-acted and well...I like it. This is an adult show.

The series is based on a series of books by Jeff Lindsay. I may eventually read those.

And now for something completely different! I also like Ugly Betty. It's on ABC on Thursday nights. It seems to rip off the idea of The Devil Wears Prada (an OK movie) but I find this series FUNNY. It's cute, it has really great characters, it's a soap opera for a guy who hates soap operas, and did I mention it's FUNNY? I have laughed so hard watching this show at times. Yes, I promise you, I am a MAN, but I'm not afraid to admit that this show really makes me happy.

Dexter and Ugly Betty. I bet there will never be a crossover episode, but it just goes to show what a range I have!

My In-Laws and the Movies

When my in-laws were still alive, back in 1990, they came from Italy to visit. Not speaking any English and being older, they were with us most of the time. Our kids were young then and they sure loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Of course, they wanted to see the movie when it came out and mommy and daddy (that's me) acquiesced. I turned to my in-laws and told them we were going to see this movie and asked them if they would like to come, not believing that they would.

Why not? Well, that takes a little explanation. My in-laws grew up during the depression and learned the value of a lira. They scrimped and saved all their lives and went without most of the luxuries of life that many of us consider necessities. They had not, in fact, gone to a movie theater since...1960! Why spend money on movie tickets when there were a lot of great old westerns on their black-and-white TV?

So off we went to the theater. Those of us who have gone more than once in our lives know there are certain protocols when sitting in a theater. Well, my father-in-law didn't know or didn't care. He decided to have a running commentary, in his Milanese dialect of Italian, on what was happening on the screen. He was amazed by the live action technology of costumed characters. He said one thing that had me rolling on the floor (among the discarded popcorn and gum): "Man, those turtles are big!" (In Italian, of course.) I tried to shush him a few times but not with a lot of enthusiasm because I was having so much fun hearing his comments. They were a lot more entertaining than the movie, but only if you knew Italian!

The next movie I took them to see was completely different. It was at the IMAX theater at the Smithsonian Air & Space museum in Washington, D.C. The movie was The Dream is Alive, and it was all about space travel, with actual footage taken by astronauts and others. The screen is three stories tall and the theater is wired for sound beautifully. My mother-in-law, a demure, quiet woman who hardly ever smiled, was sitting to my right. The lights dimmed, the screen was black, and the sounds of birds flying overhead could be heard. My mother-in-law had never experienced such a theater and instinctively looked up with a big smile on her face, looking for the birds and then realizing of course that there were none. Then the roar of a space shuttle blasting off started, the screen slowly brightening to show us the space shuttle on the ground, flames starting to spew out. It then blasted off, majestically. My mother-in-law's mouth dropped open in the biggest smile I had ever seen. She couldn't take her eyes away from this awesome sight, three stories high, the sounds permeating her and filling her with wonder and delight.

These are images of my in-laws and the movies: my father-in-law joking out loud through a children's movie, my mother-in-law as delighted as any small child at the sight and sound and wonder of an IMAX space shuttle blasting off into space.

Simpsons and Harry Potter

The Simpsons Movie. This was worth the wait. Funny, completely in the Simpsons spirit. I was afraid that with so many rewrites that the end result was going to be a mess, that it would not true to the TV series but go in a different direction, that it would not be able to keep things moving in 90 minutes when the typical episode is 22 minutes long. Ah, have no fear! It was laugh-out-loud funny in places, it was awww-isn't-that-sweet in places, it was local (Springfield) and global (the Earth), it was many levels and yet surprisingly shallow - but in a good way. Ah, The Simpsons - I love these characters and boy, were they big!

Harry Potter and Order of the Phoenix. Yes, I've read all the Harry Potter books, including the last one (spoiler alert: Dumbledore is a woman - kidding). I enjoyed them all, even if I don't consider them high literature. I have also enjoyed the movies, even if i don't consider any of them classics. The last movie released is I think my favorite, just as the last book is also my favorite. It's worth watching, doesn't drag too much as some of the prior movies did, and overall it's fun.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Another Funny Moment from My Youth - The First Time I Saw "Star Wars"

When Star Wars first came out in May, 1977, I was living in Italy. My friend James went to see it, Guerre Stellari, and said he didn't think it was a good movie so I didn't go see it. The next year, in May, 1978, I started college in The States and the movie was still going strong! A cute girl on campus asked me if I would like to go see it with her and I said sure (twist my arm, why don't you!).

She told me she'd meet me in front of the movie theater. When I arrived, I looked for her but didn't see her right away. There were a bunch of my fellow college kids there, dressed in Star Wars costumes. Then this person dressed as Princess Leia came up to me was my date! Ah!

She explained that by helping to promote the movie, she got in for free. Well, who was I to argue with a cheap date? When the movie was about to start, I escorted my princess inside and we sat down.

As the lights dimmed, she snuggled up next to me and put her lips next to my ear. Her breath was hot on my face and I started wondering what it might be like to make out with a princess with buns on the side of her head. She then whispered to me, ever so sexily, "I've seen this movie 57 times!"

My mouth dropped to the floor as I turned to her but she was already focused on the screen, wide-eyed with a big grin on her face. The John Williams music blasted us and I turned to see the opening shot of text moving away from me.

My date, who, as mentioned, had had multiple...viewings of the movie, proceeded to whisper in my ear at opportune times in my ear every instance in which a mistake in the movie was evident. After 57 times, she had each frame memorized and knew where the continuity and editing problems were. She told to watch the little round table during the scene in Obi Wan Kenobi's cave at the start of the movie. Obi and Luke were talking and there were three strange items on the table. Then the camera angle changed and there were two items there. Then it changed back and there were three...back and forth, back and forth.

She told me to look for when the Storm Trooper banged his head on the Death Star as they rushed into the control room where C3PO was waiting for them. She told me about all the other places in the movie that normally you wouldn't notice the first 15 or 20 times you saw the movie!

Ah, yes, the first time I saw Star Wars, it was with an all-knowing Princess Leia who had no idea how hot she looked but who was so totally into this movie that if she could have married it, she would have! Was the Force with me that night? I'm not telling!

Some Really Great Movies

I have not seen a movie I can truly say was original or that I really enjoyed in a long time. Lo and behold, recently I caught up with a few that I really loved. Here's a list. Go rent these movies!

Pan's Labyrinth - From Spain, in Spanish with English subtitles. This is a wonderful movie, disturbing in several places but also a fairy tale. It's not a comedy - it's drama at its highest, fanciful and beautiful in many ways. The actors are all believable, especially the 12-year-old protaganist Ofelia. This is rated R and is not for children.

V for Vendetta - Based on a comic book (sorry, graphic novel) but far different from schlock movies like The Fantastic Four. This one is a Wachowski Brothers movie and stars Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving. Set in a future London, it has a lot to say about would-be dictators, terrorism, resistance to injustice and much more. I enjoyed this one a lot. It's also rated R.

Requiem for a Dream - OK, this one I actually saw two years ago but I need to mention it because this is one of the best movies I've ever seen from the standpoint of emotionally draining me. It was one of the most disturbing movies I've ever seen, it had me in tears, and would not leave my head for a month. When I would try to tell others about it out loud, I would start to shake. So why do I think it's so wonderful? Because it did what it set out to do. It works. It bears repeated viewing but it isn't for the faint of heart. This one stars Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans. Rated R.

I'll tell you about more movies I like later, and some that I hated too!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

How I Ended Up in Bill Maher's Audience!

Yeah, I know it's hard to tell, but I promise you that's me in the blue shirt. This is taken from an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO back in October 2005. How I got to be in his audience was quite interesting so I'm going to tell you the story.

I was in LA visiting and was staying with my friend Laura Silverman, who is in the red blouse next to me in the box. Laura has a good friend, Elise, who at the time had retired from CBS the month before and moved to Oregon. Elise had told Laura that she was coming back to LA for a couple of days and it would be during the time I was visiting. Sure enough, Elise called Laura to tell her she had arrived and we got together. Both Laura and Elise are real smart, sweet ladies. At the end of our visit, Elise asked if we could drop her off at CBS but because her visit was so short, she could not take the time to visit all of her friends there. She was to see only one of her many friends. So as not to offend them, she asked us to drop her off after 5 pm and through the back entrance. Sure, no problem.

On the way to the CBS building, she called her friend at CBS and told her that we were coming. Her friend told her to invite us on a tour, so we didn't just drop Elise off, we went inside and met her friend, a higher-up at CBS who will go nameless here. She gave us a VIP tour - nice! It was a lot of fun and we got to see several TV sets, including that of The Price is Right. She then asked us if we'd like to be an audience member in any of the shows that were taping that evening. I asked which shows were taping and she mentioned Bil Maher's live show was going to start at 8 pm. I'm a big Bill Maher fan so I quickly agreed, with Laura's consent, for us to be in the audience. Bill Maher is on HBO but his set is at CBS. In other words, even though his show isn't on CBS, HBO uses CBS's production facilities.

When we got to the place where people were lined up to be in the audience, I was dismayed to see how long the line was. Our kind escort laughed and said, "No, you're in that line over there." What line? Actually, we were the FIRST in the VIP line!

So we got to enter the studio first and we chose to sit in the center of the audience, on a platform that was raised above the rest of the audience. The platform could hold about 20 people I think and the whole audience maybe could hold 500. That's why Laura and I appear higher up than those people next to us.

Being on the platform in the center was cool because we were at eye level with Bill so he appeared to be talking to us most of the time during his opening monologue. Being in the audience was totally unplanned and unexpected. It just sort of happened. That's how life works sometimes!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Two of the Most Beautiful Places in the World

The story goes of the man from Italy taking a tour of Colonial Williamsburg, the 400-year old town here in Virginia. The tour guide there points to one of the buildings and proudly states that it was over three hundred years old. The Italian man snorts and declares, “My house is older than that, better built, and prettier too!”

There are many ancient places in Italy, of course, and many of them are quite beautiful, especially those on the ample coastlines, where the houses and churches perched on the hillsides and cliffs reflect in the limpid waters. Two of my favorite ancient places are Le Cinque Terre (The Five Lands or Villages) in Liguria and the Amalfi Coast in Campania.

There’s a very good reason why UNESCO has named Le Cinque Terre a World Heritage Site. The five villages are Monterosso (the biggest), Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Each town is perched on the cliffs, is absolutely charming in its own way and is worth visiting to taste Heaven on Earth. Avoid arriving during the summer when tourists are swarming everywhere and you find yourself hearing every language but Italian. We went in March when the weather was perfect and it was a lot easier to chat with the locals, eat the wonderful focaccia and fish, and view the stupendous seaside sunset without interference.

While Le Cinque Terre is still a bit of a secret, Amalfi has a rich history as a major port, city state and military power. The Amalfi Coast is well-known to the rich and the famous but you don’t have to be either to enjoy this beautiful area and visit all the famous ancient towns of Sorrento, Salerno, Positano, the Isle of Capri with its Blue Grotto and more. We stayed at La Villa Lara, a reasonably priced but beautiful and friendly hotel a short walk up the hill through the shop and restaurant lined main street, well worth it for the beautiful scenery you can see from your balcony high up. The local people here, as in Le Cinque Terre, were friendly and ready to chat over a cup of coffee or liqueur.

The first photo you see above I took in Positano, one of the towns on the Amalfi Coast, maybe the most beautiful. The second and third photos I took in Vernazza, one of the five villages of Le Cinque Terre. You can see more photos I’ve taken of both areas on my photos website, Enjoy!

My Italian Presentation in an Irish Pub in Chinatown

I belong to a travel meetup in Washington, D.C. Because of my busy schedule, I have only gone once before, this past Spring. I also had agreed months ago to present on "Joe's Italy" yesterday. The meetup was in the Irish Channel Club which is in a hotel in Chinatown. Does anyone besides me think that's funny?! I took the photo you see here after I left the meeting.

There were 37 people at my presentation - a great turnout! My presentation was well-received, 5 stars out of 5 according to those who voted. I got many compliments after the presentation and a few emails. Here's an excerpt of one I got today:

Joe, I thought your presentation was outstanding. Your
presentation style was the best I've seen. I really enjoyed it. You have a remarkable knowledge and set of experiences,
Isn't that nice? It's always great to get positive feedback!

I used Adobe Captivate to set up a slide show of 587 slides, each with 3 seconds in between. I also put a lot of Italian music in the background, a real eclectic mix of modern pop, folk and classical. I spoke to the presentation the whole time but will make a narration track soon and then I'll be able to post it to the web. It'll be a Flash file so everyone should be able to see it. I also will redo it in the authoring tool we've invented at DazzleTech called Substance. I think it will prove faster to create in Substance than in Captivate, though Captivate has a nicer interface (for now!).

Thursday, August 16, 2007

No Body Means No Body

This is the error message I got on Facebook this morning when I tried to send someone a message. At first I was afraid that I had died during the night and I was writing as a spirit! What happened to my body and how was I managing to type without corporeal fingers? Ah, but then I realized that it meant I had written no message text yet. That's the problem with giving up coffee three days ago - I'm not quite awake yet at 6:15 a.m.!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Starbucks and Blowers

So there I was on my way to two destinations. First, I needed to drop my dog off at the groomer's and then I needed to see an important potential client. Stopping for my morning Starbucks coffee, I noticed the place was a little more crowded than usual and the barristas were a little more rushed than usual.

Of course, it had to happen. The cup top wasn't on very tight, probably because the barrista was rushed, and no sooner did I get in the car and go for a sip than coffee spilled on my pristine white shirt! Oh, no!!! What to do? If I showed up at the client site with a coffee-stained shirt, they surely would have me kicked out!

So I brought my dog to the groomer and asked if I could use their bathroom to wash my shirt. She said she was sorry but the bathroom was not for the public. I gave her my sob story, how I was going to meet the client and millions (OK, hundreds maybe) was riding on my wearing a clean shirt and I didn't have time to go home and change. She acquiesced and allowed me into the bathroom where I proceeded to wash my shirt with soap and water while still wearing it. I got it clean, finally, but now I was faced with a very wet shirt and not enough time before seeing my client for it to dry.

I saw one of the nice groomer ladies holding a wicked-looking hair dryer, obviously for use on large hairy wet dogs. I asked her if I could use it to dry myself and she said it was expensive and couldn't let a customer use it.

"But, " she then said, "while I can't let you blow yourself, I can blow you if you like." My right eyebrow raised à la Spock, I slowly said, "OK..." and put my arms out so she would have full access shirt. She then realized what she said, gave me a smile, and proceeded to "blow me" with the hair dryer. It was quite an experience. It felt like those big blowers in the car washes. I felt as if I was in a wind tunnel! I had to brace myself so as to not fall over!

Ah, but in the end...I was dry as a bone! Thank you, nice groomer lady!