Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Monday, December 22, 2008
ICON: Your bio in Don't You Forget About Me says that you were "a chronically nervous" reporter while at Rolling Stone. Can we add chronically nervous novelist?
Jancee Dunn: Oh, yes, indeed. I'm nervous 24 hours a day; all the time. Now I'm nervous about failure and readings, 'cause last time I had a weirdo rush the stage when I did a reading in New York. He was scratching his back against the wall, never a good sign. And it's not like they have security at these things. I ain't Stephen King, right, so who's going to save me, my Dad? And he jumps up on the stage, but he was running past me to get to, I'm not kidding, the personal growth section. So, it's good that he kept going, but now I have a whole new set of paranoias pretty much.
But 'wah, wah' as they say in Jersey, right?
ICON: Why do you still feel nervous? After doing writing for some 20 years, I would think your fears would be in check at this point.
JD: My mom asks me the same question. I think it comes from a deep-seeded unease that started in college, when I went to a state school [The University of Delaware], performed in a spectacularly mediocre way and never graduated. I don't know. It may be that suburban Jersey chip that I have on my shoulder of never thinking that I've quite arrived. I had no connections, my Dad worked at JCPenney. I just never felt quite like I'm the inside. Maybe that's a good thing; maybe it fuels creativity, right?
ICON: Could be. Maybe it makes you work harder
JD: Never once, have I thought, "Ah, I've done it [laughs]." I guess it's this combo in me, I guess, of ambition, insecurity, an inability to fully relax. I don't know. I'm getting dark on ya. I have to go fun and upbeat [laughs].
ICON: How did your background as a journalist help you in writing a novel? Did it hinder you in any way?
JD: Being a magazine writer was a tremendous help in that I'm so used to not having much space, so I really have to pick telling details to set a scene rather than these long, florid descriptions and I'm also used to writing for readers with a short attention span. So, I really was cognizant of those [aspects]. In even the best novels, there are sort of those boring stretches, at least there are for me, and I'm used to saying, "Whoops, eyes on the page. Hey, back here," that I really tried to make my writing vibrant, which I'm trained to do for my magazine writing.
It hindered me in that it was a really odd thing to completely be my own boss. I'm so used to having 50 editors all over everything that I do, particularly with women's magazines, that it was really odd to think, "I guess this is OK." The odd thing about writing a novel also is that your editors are generally very hands off, and I had envisioned lots of check-ins and stuff, but they really just sort of trust you to go forward. And it was such an odd feeling, but liberating, too.
ICON: Were there any novels that you took for inspiration?
JD: I tried to follow the conventional advice to write a novel that you wish you could read. The older lady in there [Lillian's boss and friend, Vi] I wish that I knew her, so I dreamed her up. And it was the sort of book that I wished I could read in the summertime. I happen to love 80s details, and it was very fun to excavate them all. As for influences, I also follow other conventional advice, which is to read really good books and so I tend to read a lot of Dickens and novels like that which you can't even detect the tiniest hint of in my writing, but I hope in some kooky way that it filters in there somewhere. I don't know. I surround myself with writers that are way, way better than I am in the hopes that osmosis will do some work.
Prep [by Curtis Sittenfeld] is a perfect example…I don't think I moved when I read it. I think I took a whole weekend and just read it one big gulp, so something like that was definitely a big influence. I definitely liked how in Prep her protagonist wasn't someone that you embraced wholeheartedly and loved. It was really hard for me to have somebody who was really flawed because I'm used to trying to get people to like me, so I thought why not be brave like Curtis was and have someone that isn't necessarily 100% likeable.
ICON: I like that there are unanswered resolutions in your book; not everyone comes away clean.
JD: That's exactly what I wanted, and I fought against all the romantic comedies that I've ever seen in my life to tie up everything with a bow…I don't know anyone who didn't have a messy high school time, and it extends to adulthood.
ICON: In the book, Lillian goes deep into her high school past, sometimes with disastrous results. How much digging around of your high school past did you for this book, or just on your own?
JD: I did a fair amount. It was right there in front of me because not only did I have my own reunion, I keep in touch with a bunch of my friends from high school. And I also had a diary, or as I called it a journal, because when you're 16 that's what you call it. There was a scene from the book that did happen in my life, where I looked at my journal for the first time in 15 years or something. I was one of those freaks that had a great time in high school. Everyone makes fun of me because everyone I know was bullied or couldn't wait to leave. (Peppy voice) I had a great time. I looked at this diary [and] I thought maybe there's some good stuff in here.
My rose-colored memories of that time: what a shock. My diary was filled with hatred and pain. And seeing some of the things I went through as a kid with adult eyes and reading between the lines of, like, thuggish boys that I went out with and just seeing it all with adult eyes and how dark it really was, was a huge shock to me. So, that was a good research tool.
ICON: One of the book's themes is that some events and people in the past should remain there. Is there any part of the high school experience that you want locked away?
JD: There have been times when I've really gotten nostalgic and my sister Heather has said to me, "Let it go; keep it where it is. Don't go back there." Or I'll want to get in touch with a long-lost high school friend and my sister will say, "I can see the bio on this person and maybe you shouldn’t. It's going to disappoint you. Just leave her alone."
Recently, our house we grew up in Chatham in high school was up for sale, and my sister Heather and I called the realtor and we were going to pretend we had different names, just on the off chance that she might know my name, which is ridiculous and she wouldn’t. But we were going to take a tour and pretend that we were going to buy it. And we stopped ourselves at the last minute because it's like, "Quit trying to go back there, you can't." We cancelled on the poor realtor, which would have wasted her time. That's a good example of, "Just let it go, for Chrissakes."
ICON: As a reporter you're naturally curious, and with the Internet in general there must be a temptation to go deeper in exploring your high school days.
JD: The past is more tangible now than it ever has been before. It's radically different even than 10 years ago. You can track 90 percent of the people that have been in your life so easily. Especially as a reporter you can go even a little deeper, and you know a few tricks. It's just not healthy because at this point I have tracked so many different people that now I'm even at the people I didn't care about in the first place. And that's when you know you should just quit. Like some distant person in your science class that you worked with in 1991, who cares? It's bad, yeah.
ICON: Don't You Forget About Me has a lot of references to the 1980s, even the title. How aware were you to not blindly cash in on the endless wave of nostalgia for that decade and actually write a book with resonance?
JD: I was extremely conscious of that because I definitely loaded up on a lot of 80s details and I would think sometimes, "Am I going overboard? Am I pandering?" …I was definitely aware and I'm not sure if I succeeded. I think I may have gone a tiny bit overboard because I got so caught up. I used my friends and my family as helpers a lot, and we just threw it all in there. But I wonder if I go back and read it, if I’m ever that much of a loser that I sit and read my own books, if it might tweak me a little. It's a good point. I'm not really sure.
ICON: Do you feel like you had enough perspective to write a book like this?
JD: Seeing my diary and what the reality was, and how much my mind had softened over the years was a real jolt, so that gave me personal perspective. Cultural perspective, I can’t help but be nostalgic for the collective experience that we all had then…There was something really goofy about that time period that I’m attracted to, and it’s just funny how you get stuck in one era. I think there’s a danger in romanticizing any decade. It always drives me crazy when I hear when something was a more innocent time. I don’t think in human history there’s been an actual innocent time. That happens a lot with the 80s and I think, "Really, with everything that was going on politically." I want to be careful of that and want to be current. The one thing that appeals to me is the playfulness and the goofiness that I don’t see now. I think now it’s a little harder and a little more knowing.
ICON: I think the big difference is in the music.
JD: In that way, there really was some pure, silly, fun pop. It was so perfect for summer and driving around. I just don’t see it now. It all sounds like stripper music to me. I'm just old.
ICON: Then again, you had Motley Crüe.
JD: It’s still playing at a strip bar somewhere right now.
ICON: Sure, at 11:30 in the morning on a Saturday. I guess it’s like 5 o’clock somewhere, so someone must be drinking. Someone must be getting a lapdance.
JD: (Laughs) Checking out the steam table, with the chicken wings.
ICON: In your two books the theme of personal growth is pretty strong. How important is that for you? And do you think some people think that they can’t learn and grow in certain ways?
JD: I have a personal horror of being stuck, and because of my job I always have to take in a lot of information and I just have a natural curiosity and a kind of horror of being stuck in any way. I have very forward thinking parents that are always in motion, mentally and physically, the sort of parents that you just want to sit and read a book and they just can’t stand that you’re not doing something, so I’ve always been sort of in motion. I travel a lot, and Lord knows I work at Oprah magazine, so there’s a lot of self-examination and growth is their ethos. But I always have it in my head, how can I do better…That’s a huge theme of my life. I love that you said that. It makes it seem that I have more coherent plan than I actually do.
ICON: It’s sort of like sharks, when they stop moving, they die. Is that how you feel?
JD: Yes, completely. I just never understand people who aren’t excited about something or curious about something. This is the Pollyannish side of me coming out, but there are so many things to be excited about and there are so many different worlds to explore and books to read and places to go, I just can’t imagine being a different way. I think I’m never going to get do everything that I want to do. I’m packing to go to London; I just got back from Mexico and Japan. I just love having this kind of life, so my horror is getting stuck.
ICON: Throughout the novel, Lillian’s high school friends are settling down and having kids, like it’s a suburban requirement. You just turned 42, you’re married, and you have no kids. You mentioned in But Enough About Me that you never had maternal instincts. Is the pressure to have kids still a big presence in your life?
JD: It is. It sure does come up a lot. And I get a lot of pressure, funnily enough, from men who tell me how great parenthood is. I’m not against having kids, I guess, I’ve just always been doing other things and suddenly I turn around, and I’m 42. I can hardly believe it. I guess realistically time is running out for me, and my folks have stopped asking, which is a key signifier that maybe they’ve accepted that I might not. I’m not against it, but I guess I'm in a certain amount of denial about my age because I still am debating the idea with my husband [writer Tom Vanderbilt]. It’s like, "Look, babe, you’re 42. That ship may have sailed." I still can’t figure out why I was not really into having kids. I had a great childhood, I really did. My two sisters have kids, and they’re the nicest little kids…You know what it’s been like. It’s been like, "OK, I’m going to go on this trip to Japan and then I’m going to think about kids," or, "I’m going to write this book and then that’s it, I’m thinking about kids." So, something is clearly up where maybe I don’t necessarily want them so much.
ICON: The other prevalent theme in Don't You Forget About Me is the disconnect between people who live in the suburbs and people who live in city, especially people you've known a while. Why do you think that is?
JD: I see an understandable defensiveness from my friends in the suburbs that they think city people look down on them. And then I completely see the perspective from the suburbs of, “Why would you wear with yourself down with all that concrete and noise and hostility.” And so I really can absolutely see both sides. And, you know, the lure of the suburbs is so strong for me. I know I’m going to return there.
JD: I’m here [in Brooklyn] because of my job. I’m here because my editors need me at a moment’s notice sometimes to come into the office, and all the interviews I do take place in the city, and I’m constantly having to do something here in Manhattan. So, that’s why I live here, but oh do I love the suburbs. And I go back to see my folks every chance I get, and go to those nice big box stores. It drives me crazy when city people think there’s no character in the suburbs. There are all kinds of pockets of weirdness; I mean, read Weird NJ magazine. Everywhere you go there are pockets of character and weirdness that would sustain me just as much as the city does.
ICON: But creative types in the Jersey suburbs flee to the city. Do you think there’s some creative juice in the city that you can’t find in Chatham or Princeton?
JD: If you’re fueled by tension, as I am, then the city really does work as a good writing tool and I can only compare it to when I go on vacation. I went up to Vermont last year and stayed in the middle of the woods by a lake for two weeks, and my husband and I said, “Oh, we’re going to get a lot of writing done.” And our minds went blank and we didn’t write a word. So, I’m wondering if maybe the dose of hostility I get from one subway ride can kind of fuel me all day. There might be something in that.
You mentioned Princeton. I went there a few weeks ago and looked around thinking, “Ooh, I could live here.” So, I’m taking the steps. I think maybe you could replace the people bumping up against you all the time here and your irritation, which could then fuel a mean sense of humor, and instead channel it more positively. I hope you can get that creative tension anywhere, but I don’t know. What do you think?
ICON: I’ve never understood why people think of cities as being these creative factories, because it’s the person.
JD: It's true. The onus is on you to take it all in…If I couldn’t get going in a place other than New York City, then it is I who has failed.
ICON: How confident that you feel you can write from anywhere? If you moved back to Chatham today, could you write another book and your pieces for The New York Times and Oprah?
JD: Oh, sure. Especially now, it’s such a writer-friendly atmosphere. You can listen to your kooky radio stations that you like from anywhere and you can do Internet radio and there are tons of weird magazines coming in. We can completely be mobile anywhere. All the little things that you like are still here. And that’s the thing also: It’s not like I’m going to Broadway plays every night, I’m really not. I’m here in my apartment, so why shouldn’t I live anywhere else?
ICON: You’ve written a variety of things. What do you want to do next, and please don’t say another version of Marley & Me?
JD: (Laughs) I like the sales of Marley & Me. My dream is to keep writing books because it’s been the most gratifying experience of my whole life. I never thought it could be this fun, and the happiest moments of my entire life were when I was writing those two books when I could sit down in the morning and begin. It was just heaven, and if I could keep doing that, that’s all I’ve ever wanted. When I was a weird child of eight years old, I would dream about living in some cottage somewhere and just writing books all day and then taking country walks at night. This is when I was, like, eight. What was wrong with me, right?
If I could realize that dream, that would be it. Really, the magazine stuff isn’t as important. I mean, it’s really fulfilling and writing for the Times is lots of fun…But aside from that, it’s all about books. I swear to you, and this isn’t me just pandering to Random House. If they keep renewing my contract, I’d be the happiest person who ever lived.
The movie's release also shows that, more and more, gays are finding their way into the mainstream. So much so that a gay icon now gets an idealistic retrospective with an all-star cast. It's better than the alternatives: hot-button flicks like Philadelphia or stereotype-based comedies like In & Out and The Birdcage.
In the newest effort, Milk (Penn), 40 years old and desperate for a change, moves from New York to San Francisco with boyfriend Scott Smith (James Franco). Milk opens a camera store, but his reputation as an activist thrives more than his business. Soon, Castro Camera becomes a meeting place for politically-minded homosexuals looking for acceptance, with Milk leading the cause against the likes of Anita Bryant and unforgiving city policemen.
He campaigns tirelessly throughout the 1970s before being elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. His rise comes at a cost. First, Scott, tired of Milk's desire to help everyone, leaves. Milk's next boyfriend, the needy Jack Lira (Diego Luna), doesn't go so quietly. On the professional front, Milk soon draws the ire of colleague Dan White (Josh Brolin).
Milk's accomplishments during his brief time as an elected official were staggering. He spearheaded the passing of a San Francisco ordinance that prevented citizens from being fired due to sexual orientation. He also rallied support against the passing of California's Proposition 6, which would have allowed schoolteachers to be fired for being gay.
Synecdoche, New York (Dir: Charlie Kaufman). Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest. For his directorial debut, Kaufman, the acclaimed writer of Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, offers a nearly incomprehensible and pretentious feat of endurance. As the life of a small-town theater director (Hoffman) unravels through the years--bouts with illness, two divorces, and the deaths of loved ones--he uses everything as a basis to put on an epic, life-mirroring play that destroys the line between fiction and fact. Kaufman's vivid, out there storytelling is often cited as an asset in his scripts when it's really used to dress up simple life lessons. In Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman runs the show, and he goes hog wild, offering a string of increasingly bizarre and pseudo-philosophical scenes that are supposed to wow the audience with their audacity. Instead, they obliterate whatever truths Kaufman wants to espouse on life, death, art, and (brace yourself) Hoffman's character's bloody stool. A great cast is wasted in this extended bout of creative masturbation. R *
Zach and Miri Make a Porno (Dir: Kevin Smith). Starring: Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks, Craig Robinson, Jeff Anderson, Jason Mewes, Katie Morgan, Traci Lords, Justin Long, Brandon Routh. With a mountain of unpaid bills and eviction imminent, two destitute best friends and roommates (Rogen, Banks) swallow their pride, push down their shame, and make a low-budget smut movie in the hopes of making some big cash. In the process, the duo makes some new friends with special talents (including former porn star Lords and current starlet Morgan) while their own friendship enters unfamiliar territory. Writer/director/New Jersey cinematic god Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy) once again reveals the soul of the working class, but the sarcastic, straightforward edge that cemented his reputation is absent. His latest movie is really a generic, poorly constructed love story (with an ending you can see coming from a mile away) garnished with liberal doses of nudity and salty language. Only Banks' charismatic, winning performance prevents the movie from being a complete waste of time. Not Smith's finest moment, but at least it's better than Jersey Girl. R *
Monday, December 15, 2008
Saturday, November 29, 2008
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
The following appeared in the November issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)
It's been a couple of months since we've posted an Anne Hathaway photo, so why don't we post another one. Man, the things I do to drive Internet traffic. I'm shameless.
By the way, have you seen the coming attractions for Hathaway's latest, Bride Wars? Good lord. From what I can gather, it consists of Hathaway and Kate Hudson acting like combatative shrews for 90 minutes. And, guess what, guys? It's packaged as a date movie!
Pity the poor bastards who are dragged to see this, and shame on Ms. Hathaway for forgetting that Hudson's resume since Almost Famous has been execrable.
Rachel Getting Married (Dir: Jonathan Demme). Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mather Zickel, Debra Winger, Bill Irwin, Tunde Adebimpe. Kym (Hathaway) is a recovering drug addict and perpetual screw-up who leaves her latest treatment center to attend her sister's wedding. While Kym adjusts to a series of life-shifting events involving sister Rachel (DeWitt), the family has to deal with Kym's attention-grabbing, 12-stepping antics and the destructive memories she represents. Movie starts out like a house on fire, but Jenny Lumet's script presents her characters' motivations too soon; the upper-class dysfunction soon becomes repetitive, and eventually stifling. And though I realize Demme wanted to go for a ragged, cinéma vérité look, the extensive footage of Rachel's rehearsal dinner and wedding reception is self-indulgent and deadening. Too often, Rachel Getting Married captures the most annoying aspects of what gullible audiences think is award-winning filmmaking--showy dialogue coupled with suburban, real person struggles--and hopes we won't notice that it's not really about anything substantial. This movie isn't about the story or the characters; it's really about forcing technique down our throats. Hathaway, as usual, is terrific. R *
What Just Happened (Dir: Barry Levinson). Starring: Robert De Niro, Catherine Keener, John Turturro, Bruce Willis, Stanley Tucci, Michael Wincott, Robin Wright Penn, Kristen Stewart, Sean Penn. Things aren't going well for big shot Hollywood producer Ben (De Niro, actually looking like he cares for once). The director (Wincott) of his Cannes-bound movie refuses to cut a controversial, audience-hating ending; Bruce Willis' commitment to his shaggy beard over an upcoming movie is a big problem for the studio; and Ben's beloved second ex-wife (Wright Penn) may be sleeping with a married screenwriter (Tucci). Satirical look at the movie industry has its moments, with Turturro funny as a petrified agent who drives De Niro nuts, and Wincott a scene stealer as the recalcitrant director. What dooms What Just Happened, aside from its innumerable, incomplete storylines and interminable length, is that it offers no new insights into the Hollywood lifestyle. Skip the movie (based on veteran producer Art Linson's book) and either rent the HBO series Entourage or read The Devil's Candy, Julie Salamon's account on the making of The Bonfire of the Vanities. R *
The Elephant King (Dir: Seth Grossman). Starring: Tate Ellington, Jonno Roberts, Ellen Burstyn, Josef Sommer, Florence Faivre. A young anthropologist (Roberts) was supposed to go to Thailand for research. Instead, Jake is blowing his grant money on booze, women, and drugs, much to the anger of his mother, who recruits her younger son, the shy Oliver (Ellington), to bring the hedonistic scholar back to the states. The rescue mission looks doomed when Jake refuses to leave and Oliver falls in love with a gorgeous, money-loving bartender (Faivre). Writer-director (and Princeton grad) Grossman captures the whirl of debauchery that is Thailand nightlife and how it holds the two brothers captive. Stretching out that idea for 90 minutes makes for boring, repetitive viewing. The Elephant King would have been far more compelling if Grossman had given ace veterans Burstyn and Sommer (Witness), playing Oliver and Jake's concerned parents, substantial screen time. More scenes involving the distressed couple would have provided a complete portrait of a family flirting with disaster. Instead, we only get a glance. R *
Who Does She Think She Is? (Dir: Pamela Tanner Boll). Enlightening documentary profiles mothers who are artists and the difficult time these women have in fulfilling both roles. Among the more interesting subjects: Maye Torres, who raises two kids on her own in New Mexico on just her income as an artist; Janis Wunderlich, a sunny Ohio mother of five who works frantically on her dark, highly personal sculptures so her younger kids don't damage them; and, perhaps the most fascinating subject, Angela Williams. She's a Rhode Island mother of two (with a booming voice) whose pursuit of an acting career puts her family life at risk. Tanner Boll does examine philosophy and theory surrounding the motherhood/artist paradigm, but her movie never feels like a lecture. In showing how these women live, the director demonstrates the struggles of balancing two misunderstood, underappreciated professions, while showing that women shouldn't be defined in any one way. Regardless of your politics, this is a film with a giant heart and inspirational, sympathetic subjects. Unrated ****
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas takes place during the Holocaust, but the setting ignites a young boy's comprehension of the world around him, instead of serving as a history lesson or a plea for remembrance. Director/writer Mark Herman (Little Voice), working from John Boyne's novel, tells a story about people living under different states of siege, and he does it simply and with understated power.
Eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is an adventurous kid living in 1940s Berlin whose world crumbles when his father's responsibilities as a Nazi officer forces a move to the German countryside. The family's new house is gorgeous and comes with a staff of servants, but Bruno is bored to tears. He's pretty much confined to his room or his tiny backyard, and his parents (David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga) don't offer a concrete reason why he can't explore. It's all perfectly harmless. After all, there's a "farm" right outside his bedroom window, or at least there is until the view is boarded shut.
There are other small clues that something isn't right in his new home. When asked about his job, Bruno's father reverts to PR speak: "All you need to know is that it's very important work for my country." When Bruno falls off a tire swing, he's immaculately patched up by an emaciated servant, who explains to the lad that he was a doctor before coming here. Why would a doctor peel potatoes? Bruno wonders.
One day, Bruno takes off beyond his back yard, runs through the forest, and finds the forbidden farm interrupted by a tall fence. At least, there's a kid on the other side. Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) wears pajamas with a number and looks a lot younger than his eight years, but, hey, it's a playmate. Bruno strikes up a conversation, and proceeds to visit his new friend repeatedly, bringing food and games but each time leaving with a sharpened perspective.
The developing rapport between Bruno and Shmuel is captivating, but Herman doesn't rely on it exclusively. If that's not the case, the movie becomes a cutesy parable on friendship without prejudice. Herman smartly focuses on the struggles faced by Bruno's family, so his visits with Shmuel become a salvation for both boys. Bruno's sister (Amber Beattie) becomes a full-fledged supporter of the Nazi regime, ditching her dolls for propaganda posters. Mother, long insulated by the urban splendor of Berlin, is distraught to learn what comes out of the farm's chimneys, and that it's right outside her door. As for Father, his charm and composure cuts both ways. A chilling dinner scene with his family and a young lieutenant (Rupert Friend) shows the true depths of his viciousness.
Monday, November 24, 2008
Friday, October 24, 2008
I was going to lnclude a picture of Ben Kingsley and Dennis Hopper locking lips in Elegy, but I figured this shot of the luscious and talented Ms. Cruz might generate some sweet, sweet Internet traffic.
Plus, do you know GQ named her one of the 25 sexiest women in film history? I agree, sure, but where was Linda Fiorentino from The Last Seduction. That was a missed lay-up, if you ask me. Or Ellen Barkin from Sea of Love? Lou Croatto is not pleased right now.
As always, these reviews orginally appeared in ICON and are reprinted with permission. Much thanks to the very generous Trina Robba. You can now pick up the magazine in Philadelphia. Be sure to say hi to Greenman.
Mister Foe (Dir: David Mackenzie). Starring: Jamie Bell, Sophia Myles, Ciarán Hinds, Claire Forlani, Ewen Bremner, Maurice Roëves. Reeling from his mother's death and his sister's departure, troubled 17-year-old Hallam Foe (Bell) leaves his palatial Scottish country home and heads to the hustle of Edinburgh. Homeless, he spots a young woman (Myles of Art School Confidential) who resembles his mother, and proceeds to follow the unaware doppelgänger everywhere, even setting up his nighttime stakeout in a nearby clock tower. Eventually, Hallam ingratiates himself into the woman's working (and social) life, but that doesn't solve the problems he left behind. Bell, the young star of Billy Elliot, is stellar as the unstable, lovelorn Foe, but the story's co-mingling of brooding voyeurism and coming-of-age woe, though a refreshing concept, never gels like it did in other social misfit romances like Secretary or Chasing Amy. Forlani is excellent (and nearly unrecognizable) in a nice change-of-pace role as Bell's manipulative, sexy stepmom. R
Elegy (Dir: Isabel Coixet). Starring: Ben Kingsley, Penélope Cruz, Dennis Hopper, Patricia Clarkson, Peter Sarsgaard, Deborah Harry. Professor and cultural critic David Kapesh (an outstanding Kingsley) starts a relationship with sultry student Consuela Castillo (Cruz), who is some 30 years his junior and way out of his league. Instead of enjoying the moment, Kapesh lets his self-doubt and his ingrained independence sabotage the relationship, much to the dismay of Consuela, who loves him. Based on Philip Roth's The Dying Animal, Kingsley perfectly captures the virile insecurity of Roth's best characters, and writer/director Coixet examines the dark side of male insecurity with complete confidence and insight. But after about an hour, the movie runs out of ideas, and efforts to jog the proceedings (introducing Sarsgaard as Kapesh's bitter, abandoned son; the death of a major character) don't quite cut it. If nothing else, the movie is worth watching for the excellent performances and its fierce intelligence. And you get to see Kingsley and Hopper kiss. R
America Betrayed (Dir: Leslie Cardé). Narrated by Richard Dreyfuss. With Hurricanes Gustav and Ike still fresh in the public's mind, this documentary is painfully relevant. Cardé proposes that the devastation New Orleans suffered from Hurricane Katrina wasn’t due to the Category 1 storm, but the shoddy construction and inspection of surrounding levees by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The film is a gut-punch. Thanks to diligent research and loads of interviews with experts and residents, Cardé paints the corps as complacent, corrupt slackers, exactly the group of people you don't want overseeing engineering and environmental matters countrywide. The movie is also a plea to help distraught New Orleans residents, who three years after Katrina's devastation are nowhere close to resuming regular lives. Of all the politically-minded documentaries to come down the pike in recent years, this one, a humane and absolutely devastating piece of cinematic journalism, is a stand-out. NR
Blindness (Dir: Fernando Meirelles). Starring: Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael García Bernal, Danny Glover, Alice Braga, Don McKellar. Without warning or provocation, residents of a major city become blind. The government's response is to hoard the afflicted in concentration camps, where filth, neglect, and hopelessness lead to anarchy. Moore plays a woman with sight who dutifully sticks by her optometrist husband (Ruffalo), while García Bernal is the angry young man who declares a monarchy in the camp--with horrifying results. Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) is a relentless director, one who is unafraid to show the depths of human desperation, and he has an ideal partner in writer/actor McKellar. Working from José Saramago's novel, McKellar complements Meirelles' stark images with an understated script showing the characters' tenderness as they adjust to a world that can't handle the unknown anymore. Moore is terrific as the woman whose devotion as a wife mutates into survival skills. Certainly not a cheery movie, Blindness joins Schindler's List, 21 Grams, and House of Sand and Fog as first-rate movies you only want to see once. R
Burn After Reading is a nice addition. It begs for broad satirical swipes at our wacky government, but it's smarter, more heartfelt, and more biting than anticipated. The comedy features several characters embroiled in turmoil because of one man, Archibald Cox (John Malkovich), a mid-level CIA employee who quits his job. This angers his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), who burns what she thinks is his financial information on a CD as ammunition for a divorce. The disc ends up in the hands of gym employees Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormand) who see it as a payday from Cox. Bedlam ensues.
The disc isn't the movie, the same way that the Dude's rug wasn't the point to The Big Lebowski. And, really, who is in the mood for another cloak and dagger affair? For the Coens, it's all about highlighting their characters' foibles and the genre they're spoofing. Lives are changed over a disc that actually contains Cox's memoirs, which judging from his feeble dictating sessions, is bound to be rejected by publishing houses nationwide. Meanwhile, the characters' level of stupidity, whether it's natural or bred in upper-class status--is mystifying.
Cox is deluded enough to think that anyone would consider his memoir (or "memwoh," as he pronounces it) readable, while the philandering Katie decides to milk her husband for money when he's not making any. Linda looks great, but is consumed with improving herself through cosmetic surgery and not exercise, an odd stance for someone who works at a gym. Her beau Harry (George Clooney) has a loving wife who makes a fortune writing children's books, a deficit he makes up for by sleeping around and inventing a cool alter ego. As for Chad, this guy shouldn't be running a pretzel cart, never mind dealing with CIA matters.
Each actor is a stand-out, especially Pitt, whose blissfully moronic performance could be his best ever, and the indispensable McDormand, who nails the fragility and impatience of a perfectly nice woman who has nothing going for her. Like McDormand's human touch and Clooney's philandering as desperation, the Coens throw in a lot of little touches to keep us amused and engaged, like Chad riding a bike (and donning a helmet) to his rendezvous with Cox or the 20-second scene that shows Katie as possibly the worst pediatrician on the planet. I loved the brothers' swipe at lame romantic comedies (Pushing Up Daisy, anyone?) and the cult of celebrity. One morning news show thinks Dermot Mulroney, the star of The Wedding Date, warrants a two-part interview, which is about two too many.
According to the Coens, the world we live in is full of impatience, selfishness, delusion, and stupidity. It's so awful that sometimes the only thing you can do is sit back and laugh at the surroundings. Near the end of the film, a CIA employee (J.K. Simmons) asks another (David Rasche), "What did we learn?" The reply of "I don't know" is followed by, "F**k if I know what we did." Joel and Ethan have delivered a frothy, smart comedy while also warning us to keep our eyes open. At some point what we see here will cease being satire, if it hasn't already.
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
So, have you heard about this YouTube? It's pretty damn addictive. I'm working a lot from home these days, so about two times a week I'm surfing for nuggets on YouTube while the economy crumbles and my competition on the job market becomes more and more like Lord of the Flies. I like to look for stand up routines and music videos mostly, and to see what neat kitten videos are up! Hang in there, baby, indeed.
Anyway, I've been looking for the video to Bonnie Raitt's "Thing Called Love" for a while, and I found it. Two encouraging things: First, the song holds up remarkably well. Second, I have another reason to love Dennis Quaid, who's in the video. He's got a goofy smile on his face, is wearing a hideous pair of cowboy boots, yet he's so charismatic. It's impossible not to love this guy.
Oddly enough, this video captures his movie star qualities better than most of his early movies. He's had an odd, yet rewarding career. Quaid was this matinee idol who never took off in the 80s and 90s. Then around 2000 or so, he reinvented himself as a first-rate supporting actor and starring actor in smaller stuff.
I'll be curious to see where he is in 10 years. Maybe he'll be in another music video. Rhianna would be a good choice, or maybe Fall Out Boy. Here's hoping.
And here's the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTjaPYkZNjo
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
May--No One Belongs Here More than You, by Miranda July
June--But Enough About Me, by Jancee Dunn
July--The Chris Farley Show, by Tom Farley Jr. and Tanner Colby
August--Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Down and Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Sukiyaki Western Django (Dir: Takashi Miike). Starring: Hideaki Ito, Koichi Sato, Yusuke Iseya, Yoshino Kimura, Teruyuki Kagawa, Kaori Momoi, Quentin Tarantino. A favorite of directors such as Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) and Tarantino, Miike's take on the spaghetti Western has a lone unnamed gunfighter (Ito) arriving at a small Nevada town and coming between two warring factions, the Genji and the Heike, with calamitous results. The story is a little choppy and the actors' command of English isn't the best (they had a month of intensive language training), but that takes a backseat to Miike's visual mastery. For those tired of quick cuts and massive FX-laden explosives, Miike is a savior. The man knows how to use violence to evoke humor and pathos, and that ability, along with the fun he has showing it off, is infectious but not for the squeamish. Pray that Jerry Bruckheimer doesn’t give him a billion dollars to do something stupid. Tarantino, appearing early on and later in heavy make-up, plays an old gunfighter with a surprising connection to one of the townsfolk. R
Traitor (Dir: Jeffrey Nachmanoff). Starring: Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels, Neal McDonough, Aly Khan, Said Taghmaoui, Archie Panjabi. Cheadle, who produced, stars as Samir Horn, a demolition expert who joins a group of well-connected Muslim extremists in planning bombings worldwide. Meanwhile, two dogged FBI agents (Pearce and McDonough) are hot on Horn's trail, although he's really working deep cover for the CIA as he gets closer to orchestrating an unthinkable terrorist act. Got all that? Don't bother. Endless and needlessly complex, Traitor is so bogged down by Horn's international traveling and whispered details, that it never actually decides on what it wants to be--a political thriller, a well-traveled version of The Fugitive, or a commentary on religious identity in America. All it is, is boring and offensive, as the movie simply uses post 9/11/01 issues and paranoia as a set-up for a flashy, empty spy movie with a ridiculous ending. The actors involved here, and there are some good ones, deserve better than this. So do audiences. PG-13
Arriving in Barcelona for a two-month summer stay, twentysomething friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) have different agendas. Vicky is working on a graduate degree in some nonsense Spanish-influenced subject. Practical and organized, she's biding her time studying until she marries the bland and successful Doug (Chris Messina). Sexy and free-spirited, Cristina has no real plan except to enjoy the free accommodations from Vicky's friends (Patricia Clarkson and Kevin Dunn).
The girls' plans change when they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a sexy and tortured painter, who invites the two for a weekend of sightseeing and lovemaking in Oviedo. "This is the chance for something special," is his sales pitch. Cristina is hooked while Vicky is repulsed. But concerned for her friend's safety, Vicky makes the trip as well. Cristina is on the verge of passionate lovemaking with Juan Antonio ("I'll go to your room," she says, "but you have to seduce me.") when she becomes ill, allowing Vicky and the amorous painter to spend the next day together.
As day turns into night, Vicky's pragmatism fades, and she sleeps with Juan Antonio, the first of many chaotic events. Cristina moves in with Juan Antonio, while Vicky still pines for him, her feelings becoming stronger as marriage-minded Doug arrives in Barcelona in all his khaki and tucked shirt boredom. Cristina, meanwhile, flourishes with Juan Antonio and his bohemian lifestyle, until the arrival of his creative, sultry, and suicidal ex-wife, Maria Elena (a hilariously unhinged Penélope Cruz), changes everything.
The big difference with Vicky Cristina Barcelona compared to Allen's other films, aside from the international cast, is its sensuality. The four main characters are guided, for better or for worse, by sex. Vicky's tryst with Juan Antonio shakes her worldview, while Cristina uses lovemaking as a way of maturity and self-discovery. For Juan Antonio, he oozes sexual confidence out of his pores, while Maria Elena uses it as a weapon over her ex-husband and his current paramour. The acting here is so ripe and vibrant, especially from Cruz and Bardem, that it never feels like Allen is commenting on the limits of sexual desire. The characters come to those realizations themselves. The philosophy-rich ways of Annie Hall and Manhattan never surface. And with Johansson--after two prior films, finally being used to her full smoky, charismatic potential by Allen--and Cruz around, who needs philosophy?
Allen can no longer effectively portray the everyday neuroses of relationships, or offer his interpretation of how those crazy kids do it. (His head might explode if he toured the dating web sites or talked to a single, sexually active 25-year-old.) Vicky Cristina Barcelona shows that he can have fun while imparting bigger lessons than how to date someone from the Lower East Side. Being young and impetuous in a sexy, foreign city can be fun, but it can also expose you to a lot of hard truths. When Vicky and Cristina return to New York, they have life experience, but not the kind they envisioned. It's a poetic finale in a terrific movie that introduces Allen in a new role to a younger generation of moviegoers: the sage grandfather of American cinema. Let's hope he doesn't feel the need to rehash the good old days.
Monday, August 25, 2008
It feels necessary to write at length about The Visitor, and not because it covers a hot topic (illegal immigration). It's in writer/director and New Jersey native Tom McCarthy's warm and compassionate delivery, which offers a bracing perspective on what's been talked about so much that it's become background noise. McCarthy frames his argument so delicately and has so much love for his characters, that the movie's political agenda clears its throat, shakes your hand, and whispers in your ear. That careful approach, and its resulting revelations, is why the movie deserves (belated) attention.
The Visitor starts with a lonely man and a misunderstanding. Walter Vale (ace character actor Richard Jenkins) is a middle-aged economics professor who seems to purposefully avoid pleasure. His life consists of a series of isolated events, from eating lunch to driving in stern silence. When he speaks, the words come out in the humorless cadence of an overworked bank teller. There isn't even anyone for him to be lonely with. His only son is abroad; his wife his dead, but still a palpable memory: Walter still practices on her old piano while searching for the right teacher.
A man like Walter doesn't adjust well to change, so when he is asked to present a paper at a conference in New York, Walter makes the trip unwillingly. He returns to his old apartment, sets down his bags, and finds a young woman (Danai Gurira) using his bathtub.
Through a lying friend, the young couple--she's from Senegal, he's from Syria--have taken residence in his long-ignored apartment. From this awkward encounter, something blooms. Walter, sensing the couple is having a difficult time, lets them stay. He also accepts the husband's friendly advances. The young man, a charismatic musician named Tarik (Haaz Sleiman), exposes Walter to drumming and a new way of expression. Then Tarik is arrested going to the subway and sent to a detention center for illegal immigrants. His future in this country becomes uncertain.
Walter finds himself in a new world, and his adjustment galvanizes The Visitor. Really, Walter could be one of us. He's isolated and consumed by his daily routine until he realizes that the life he knows isn't available to everyone. McCarthy doesn't make his movie a vehicle to promote immigration reform, but about Walter learning to care again. Walter is not a metaphorical figurehead; he's coping with societal issues on a personal scale. Jenkins nails the performance because of his mannerisms and countenance. He doesn't shed his gloomy life in some kind of internal extreme makeover, but he inches toward Tarik and his alluring, dutiful mother (Hiam Abbass). His gradual melting eases us into the movie and into the points McCarthy makes about a country that can be so accommodating to immigrants, but also so cold.
Not surprisingly, McCarthy makes these points with a velvet touch. Like his first film, The Station Agent, the most rewarding part of The Visitor is in what McCarthy doesn't do--offer gooey life lessons or lecture. McCarthy trusts his audience to pay attention, to notice characters' gestures and slight camera movements, so that when the characters unburden their souls, it means so much more: We're observing life in tumult, not just a writer looking to grandstand or to express a viewpoint. The genius of The Visitor is that with his gentleness and compassion, McCarthy makes the movie more about people than politics.
At the same time, by showing the smaller story behind a national problem without grabbing the audience by its collar, McCarthy has made his point abundantly clear: The American dream is not available to every immigrant, and that affects countless others in ways that columnists and posturing pundits can't elaborate. That undeniably human touch makes The Visitor a special movie, one that will have life beyond the current news cycle.