Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Year in Movies Explosion, 2008! Part One!

When I was a senior critic at, I got the chance to do top 10 lists and year-end stuff. But now that I'm older (and have the responsibility of managing a blog), I figured that we could expand our horizons.

To that end, this isn't going to be a year-end rehash of the best movies of 2008 because my reviews pretty much tell you what I thought was great and what sucked rocks. Second, there's still stuff I need to see. What if The House Bunny was the trascendent movie experience of '08, and I don't include it on my list? Then, I look like a schmuck forever because I decided to read a book or go for a walk.

So, here's a list of the things that caught my attention in 2008. Enjoy the first of several installments...

Three Movies to See Right Now: Frost/Nixon, The Wrestler, Slumdog Millionaire.
Three Movies That Didn't Live up to the Hype: Rachel Getting Married, Doubt, Milk.
Three Movies to Rent Right Now: In Bruges, The Dark Knight, The Visitor
Best Recurring Theme: Marisa Tomei going topless. This is the second consecutive year that Tomei has been nude in a movie that's absolutely great (Before the Devil Knows Your Dead and, this year, The Wrestler). Think of it two ways: Marisa Tomei being nude is saving American cinema! Also, isn't it refreshing to say a healthy, natural 43-year-old prance around instead of some Cinemax, surgically-enhanced tart? It's OK to grow old naturally, folks. Put the saline implants down!
Second-Best Recurring Theme: Action movies that don't suck my will to leave. Thanks to Christopher Nolan, Jon Favreau, and the folks at The Hulk. Sam Raimi, pay attention. This how you direct an action movie.
Best Performance in a Crappy Movie: Elizabeth Banks, Zach & Miri Make a Porno. Director/writer Kevin Smith and I grew up in the same area (Monmouth County), so maybe I keep seeing his stuff out of some local obligaton. But he hasn't made a great movie in years, and his latest attempt is a lazy, predictable romantic comedy with lots of T&A to replace the edge. The only human aspect of the movie is Banks' sweet performance as a woman who slowly and convincingly falls in love with her roommate/best friend (Rogen). It's a genuine, winning performance in a movie that doesn't deserve it.
The Please Stop Award: Please stop, Sean Penn. Stop acting like you're lifting a safe over your head...Also, please stop, Robert De Niro. It's OK to say no to a script every once in a while. Twenty years ago you would have thrown the script for What Just Happened in the trash. Now, you're starring in it? Ugh...
A DVD for the Pantheon: Sideways. It gets better with each and every viewing, as do the performances. How good an actor is Paul Giamatti? Every time I watch the movie, and I see another aspect of his Miles come to life. How did he not get nominated for an Academy Award that year? Plus, I never get tired of seeing M.C. Gainey and his flaccid penis. Good times.

Monday, December 22, 2008

It's About Damn Time: The Jancee Dunn Interview

Here it is, in all of its unformatted glory...Enjoy!

Of course, the interview appeared in the December issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission.

The cool thing about the interview is that Trina, the editor, actually used my initials in the interview, instead of ICON. I thought that was a nice touch, like I'm David Frost or something.

Also, I'm amazed that what I sent Trina was used, all of it. If you get the issue on the stands, it looks something from The New Yorker. Lots of text and barely a picture or a dog cartoon to break up the sweet, sweet text.

By the way, another author interview is planned for ICON with an author who has written one of the best books of 2009. That's right, it hasn't even been published yet, but Brad Pitt has optioned it.

That's me...A real mover and shaker.

After Jancee Dunn's memoir, But Enough About Me, was released in 2006, fans wanted more.

Not about her days as an intrepid, frequently jittery staff writer at Rolling Stone (1989-2003), where she interviewed celebrities galore, but about her days growing up during the 1980s in Chatham, NJ.

Dunn, who was a veejay for MTV and a sex columnist for GQ, has responded to that demand with a terrific and critically acclaimed first novel, Don't You Forget About Me (Random House, $24.00).

In the book, recently divorced NYC thirtysomething Lillian Curtis moves back to her childhood New Jersey home (and with her parents) to regroup, and drifts back into her Rick Springfield-loving past. An imminent high school reunion and the return of her first love don't help matters.

Affable and disarming, even while preparing for a trip to London, Dunn, 42, chatted with ICON in June about the suburbs, the danger of delving into the past, and strip club buffets.

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.

ICON: Really?

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 following appeared in the December issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission (thanks, Trina).

Can someone tell me why Sean Penn is getting Oscar talk? Frank Langella and Mickey Rourke should be pissed right now.

To my knowledge, the release of Gus Van Sant's Milk brings us the first gay historical epic. For those who have forgotten, Harvey Milk (1930-78) was the first openly gay man to hold a major political office in America.
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.
Despite Milk's significance, there's really no need to fork over $10 to see Sean Penn striving hard for another Academy Award, or to watch the movie try on storylines the way a love-crazy high school senior tries on prom dresses. The movie should be used as a springboard to learn more about Milk, and luckily there are two great resources--Randy Shilts' book, The Mayor of Castro Street, and Rob Epstein's documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk. Milk may be seen by more people, but it doesn't have half the impact of those earlier works.

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.
Certainly, it's a memorable, important life, only Van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black refuse to narrow their focus on Milk's life as a politician. We get a glossy overview that plays like a high-budget adaptation of an eighth grader's book report. Milk's relationship with White had life-altering consequences, but White's crumbling rapport (along with his crumbling sanity) is handled almost as an afterthought. We're introduced to Harvey's squadron of aides and volunteers, but their stories get lost in the race to chronicle every detail.
Milk's relationships with Scott and Jack bog down the film's political momentum, coming across as redundant attempts to humanize the man. After all, wasn't Milk's work based on establishing human rights? It's not like he was soullessly lobbying for sales tax reform or streets free of potholes. If Van Sant and Black had focused on one aspect of Milk's political career--the passionate fight against Proposition 6, his corrosive relationship with homophobe White and its tragic aftermath--the movie would have been a throbbing testament to civil rights. Instead, the movie goes big and broad, simultaneously caricaturing and minimizing Milk's political zeal.
Penn's performance doesn't shake the feeling that Milk is more about size and flash than substance. Penn used to vanish into a role. He became a jazz guitarist or a California pothead or a sleazy 1970s lawyer. In recent years, Penn has concentrated on delivering performances that have the subtlety of a shotgun blast. Consequently, you can't watch Milk without Penn's effort coming across as a threat: "You want me to play gay? By God, you'll get a ton of gay, pal."
Someone has to tell Penn that it's OK to underplay, so audiences know that he's playing a character and not further establishing a brand. But those are the consequences of the big, sweeping historical epic. You get big performances, big storylines; everything gets super-sized. In the case of Milk, bigger definitely isn't better.

December's Movie Round-Up

The following appeared in the December issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission (thanks, Trina).

In the latest edition of the Film Round-Up: Come watch three stalwarts of independent cinema fall short.

Che (Dir: Steven Soderbergh). Starring: Benicio Del Toro. Academy Award winners Soderbergh (sex, lies, and videotape; Traffic) and Del Toro reunite for an ambitious project--a four-hour plus biography of famed Argentine guerilla fighter Ernest "Che" Guevara. The movie is divided into two parts. Part one (The Argentine) deals with the exiled Guevara meeting Fidel Castro in Mexico and becoming a major contributor in capturing Cuba from Batista. Interspersed with Che's early days as a fighter are scenes of him visiting New York in the early 1960s, when he is now widely known for his inflammatory, revolutionary-minded speech. In part two (The Guerilla), Che vanishes from the mainstream, stealthily retreating to Bolivia to train and lead guerillas in a futile, and ultimately fatal, overthrow of the government there. The first part of the movie is the far more interesting of the two, defining Che as more than just an image printed on T-shirts worn by hipsters and graduate students. Midway through part two, as Che and his estranged soldiers wander aimlessly through the Bolivian jungle, it becomes apparent that the movie(s) don't have enough juice. There's not enough pageantry or real-life twists to justify the absurd length. Soderbergh has shown a deft, restrained touch in directing a wide variety of films (also on his Hall of Fame resume: King of the Hill, Out of Sight, and Ocean's 11) that were smart and entertaining. His subdued approach--even the action scenes are tame--doesn't work here, because an audience devoting so much time needs to be goosed, regardless of how prestigious the film's pedigree. Think The Godfather saga, Apocalypse Now, or even (though it pains me to say it) Titanic. It doesn't help that Peter Buchman's script feels like he's stretched four or five interesting facts beyond boredom, which in turn suffocates Del Toro's performance and prohibits any real chance for historical or personal insight. Considering the subject matter and talent involved, this is a major disappointment. Note: The full-length version will play for one week in New York and Los Angeles starting December 12, before re-opening in two parts January 9th, with roll outs nationwide to follow a week later. Eventually, the movie will be shown on-demand. R *

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

Where's the Love (Actually)?

Sorry for the terrible headline. You would think that five-plus years of copyediting experience would yield a better one, but the coffee hasn't kicked in yet. What can you do?

The Daily News had an interesting column in its TV section a couple of weeks ago that tried to drum up support to make Love Actually a holiday movie staple, like It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story. USA Network, which owns the rights to the movie, will show it exactly once before Xmas. However, Oxygen will show it twice on December 20.

I can't say that I disagree. I am a huge fan of Love Actually, Richard Curtis's 2003 romantic comedy that looks like at the romantic lives of a dozen Londoners around Christmas time. It's fun and funny and doesn't take itself too seriously or heap on the whimsy like whipped cream on a sundae. It's big and sprawling, but also very heartfelt and touching. In short, it's perfect for the holidays.

Some network needs to make it the centerpiece of its holiday season, the way TBS does with A Christmas Story or NBC does with It's a Wonderful Life. It's that good.

By the way, can Denis Leary's underrated early-90's gem, The Ref, also get some holiday love?

I'm Officially a Member of the Usual Gang of Idiots

Allow me to take time off from my usual babbling about Anne Hathaway or whatever. As you may or may not know, aside from babbling about movies, I'm also in the business of freelance writing. It's a frequently rewarding and frustrating business, not unlike dating or watching Charlie Kaufman movies.

However, one of the biggest professional thrills of my life occurred very recently when I was published in MAD. My parody of Guitar Hero is in the pages of the December issue.

Getting published there means a lot to me, only because I read the magazine as a kid and developed more of an appreciation when my brother writing there regularly in 1998. It's a terrific magazine with a rich history of contributors, and to have work published there is truly humbling. I kinda feel like the geek who just made out with the homecoming queen.

So, that's it. For the eight people who read this blog, I promise there will be more movie-related goodness to come--maybe even as soon as today.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Feel free to say ass here...

I'm typically not a huge fan of watching movies on network TV, what with the commercials and the editing. Once in a while, I'll find myself drawn to a movie on WPIX or FOX5. Last week, I watched American Beauty, and was amazed at how well it played on TV. You got to hear the best resignation letter of all time ("My job consists of masking my contempt for the ass**** in charge...), see Mena Suvari prance in her undies, and get a heaping dose of Alan Ball's poetic misery. I couldn't have been happier.

Back at home today, I was doing job stuff while half-watching Legally Blonde. Keep in mind, that movie, along with American Beauty, played on the same station (WPIX-11) at roughly the same time (Saturday afternoon). Yet, an innocuous Reese Witherspoon comedy was edited to within an inch of its life. I was mystified. Kevin Spacey can talk about "masturbating about a life that doesn't so closely resemble hell," but Jennifer Coolidge can't talk about stretch marks on her ass or her ex-husband scratching his balls.

What's even more unusual is that American Beauty was playing during what's prime time for elementary school loafers. Who made the decision to put that movie on that time slot? Also, does each station edit feature films, or do they come dubbed from the studio? How could two films playing on the same station get such different treatments.

If anyone knows the answer to either of those questions, please drop a line. I'm intrigued.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Books of the Month--Ebert and Queenan

Word from the nice lady up in New Hope is that our ICON interview with Jancee Dunn will run in December. This is good for two reasons: a.) Jancee is a talented writer and good egg who deserves whatever publicity comes her way; and b.) I can go another month without selling my silky hair for cash.

Now I just have to convince my girflriend not to sell her pocket watch...

Ms. Dunn is a past honoree of the Book of the Month club for her outstanding debut, But Enough About Me. That got me to thinking that it's been a long-ass time since I recommended movie-centric books. So, to make up, here are two of them.

Keep in mind that I love books--they're fun, educational, and they keep this booming Internet thing humble.

Roger Ebert is the reason I'm making some semblance of a living writing about movies. While my family was helping clear out my late grandfather's library, I uncovered Ebert's 1985 Home Video Companion and my life changed forever. He wrote with such insight and grace, but not like an academic or a film snob. He had fun and it showed on every page. I was 12 years old when I first read him, and I knew my career path: I wanted to write, and, if possible, I wanted to write about movies.

I know that Ebert sealed his reputation as a talking head of sorts--his battle with cancer has, sadly, made that an impossibility--but he's a beautiful writer graced with wit and crystal clear logic. He was the first film critic every to win a Pulitzer Prize, which he did before he was 40. Go to the library, and page through his Movie Yearbooks. You won't be sorry.

Joe Queenan (above) writes for a wide variety of publications and he's written many books, but his film writing is a tart, sarcastic delight, whether he's describing the streak of loserdom in Martin Scorsese's movies or pretending to be Mickey Rourke for a day. My favorite of his books is Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler and Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon (where he ingests nothing but the dregs of pop culture for a year).

Granted, he's not for everyone, but for a preview of what you're in for, Google his review of AJ Jacobs's The Know-It-All for the New York Times Book Review a few years back. I thought it was an outstanding review, but Jacobs's didn't think so...He fired off an angry letter to the Book Review in response to Queenan tearing him a new one.

November's Film Round-Up

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

This review previously appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

Folks, this really is a must-see movie.

The Holocaust has generated a rich legacy of books and movies chronicling the historic awfulness. The downside is that any new, similarly themed release has to compete with powerful works such as Night and Schindler's List that also double as a source of information for millions of people. When cultural and historical forces like that align, the standards for a Holocaust-themed movie become exceedingly high. And with at least one or two such movies coming out ever year, familiarity creeps in. After all, how many stories from that era can be told?

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.

Aside from Herman's screenwriting savvy, he gets terrific performances from young leads Butterfield and Scanlon. (Don't worry. The grown-up performances, especially from Farmiga and Thewlis, are solid.) As the boys' friendship grows, so does their awareness and their ambition to become real friends. The process is uncomfortably genuine--Shmuel and Bruno don't know any better, while Butterfield and Scanlon come across in their scenes together like regular kids.
Nothing here feels staged. The subdued style and the gradual build-up of the characters' limitations (whether put up by themselves or by others) make for compelling viewing. The dream world the Nazis created slowly becomes a personal nightmare, with only two boys willing to wake up and face the reality. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas shows that a small act of bravery can come at a steep price. It's a haunting piece of work

Monday, November 24, 2008

You Know, We Do Other Things?

Sorry for the delay, folks. As you might have heard, the economy isn't in the best of shape. The time that I would usually spend updating this critically-acclaimed blog has been spent trying to look for a job, pitch stories, and looking for stuff that burns. (You trying paying a heating bill every month, pal.)

I've also been spent a good deal of time freelancing. What have I been working on? Well, now that you asked...

1.) An article for TCNJ Magazine, which you can find at...

2.) An interview for Publishers Weekly, which you can find at...

3.) Copyediting/fact checking at Black Enterprise Magazine...

4.) Book reviews for The Star-Ledger, including Bill O'Reilly's so-awful-it's outstanding memoir....

5.) The regular slate of movie reviews, which will appear on this here blog shortly.

I'm also working on the possibility of penning a monthly column for a national publication (keep your fingers crossed) and am giddily anticipating my first piece appearing in one of the nation's most beloved publications.

And with that, let's get rolling...

Friday, October 24, 2008

Joe Pa Says Not to Forget...

...That I review DVDs at Home Media Magazine, a fine trade publication. I don't know why I haven't posted a review from there in such a long time, but here's one that appeared in September. I've seen some good stuff for them recently, including Raise the Song.

The review is notable because Penn State happens to be where my girlfriend went to graduate school. It should be noted that she also played tight end for the Nittany Lions from 2003-05. She does it all: play classical piano with ease and catch passes in the middle.

As always, the review previously appeared in HMM. Again, my thanks to John Latchem, who's an ace editor.

Produced by Penn State University's television station, Raise the Song: The History of Penn State offers a quick but thorough history of the university.

When Penn State was chartered as an agricultural school in 1855, higher education was usually pursued by rich Christian men. However, with America becoming more agricultural and industrial, there was a need for a more educated workforce.

Thanks to the work of several individuals (Penn State'ss first president, Evan Pugh; Vermont congressman Justin Smith Morrill), the college found its footing as a "people's college," eventually becoming a top-flight engineering school and offering correspondence courses to farmers. Through the years, Penn State also developed a liberal arts program, officially became a university, and adapted to social and educational changes.

Oh, and it developed a really good football team.

Raise the Song's most interesting aspect is in profiling Penn State's early days, which in turn mirrors the social and economic history of a young America. That should appeal to casual history buffs, as will the neat trivia revealed through the numerous interviews with alumni, professors, and university officials. As Penn State grows older, the film examines the school's relatively recent accomplishments such as its medical center and its library.

If viewers can forgive the film's recruitment-tool undertones, Raise the Song is an insightful look at an educational institution's humble beginnings and its rise to prominence.

October's Film Round-Up

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

Review of Burn After Reading

This review orginally appeared in the October issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

I suspect some moviegoers might be disappointed in Joel and Ethan Coen's Burn After Reading, seeing how it doesn't replicate the philosophical, twisted grandeur of their Oscar-winning epic No Country for Old Men. However, Burn After Reading is a typical effort for the brothers, who never try to hit home runs every time out, the way that Martin Scorsese has in recent years. They're content to take genres--in this case, spy movies--out for a spin, never adhering to a template. It may not be a profitable tack, but it is a great way to build a legacy.

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.

How We Did

I like to space out my screenings over the course of a month, but due to a string of reasons--thanks for naming me a groomsman, Eric--I wound up seeing five movies (four of them screenings) in two days.

At first, the prospect of seeing that many movies in 48 hours was daunting, but I wound up with my head above water. The movies were spaced far part enough that I could grab a slice of pizza, call a friend or two, and pace aimlessly around New York. That's not too bad; it sure beats checking my email repeatedly. Or having the sideburns of the gent in this photo.

My only complaint is that I wish more of the movies were sunny. I sat through a documentary, two intense character dramas, a stale Hollywood satire (What Just Happened, which was endless) and an intense Holocaust drama (the outstanding The Boy in the Striped Pajamas). A cutesy Meg Ryan comedy would have done me a world of good.

Man, there's a line I thought I'd never write.

As for observations and remarks during my two-day screening binge. Here are few thoughts, without giving away too much. Reviews will be posted soon.

1.) Rachel Getting Married just might be the most overrated movie of the year
2.) I'm finding it hard to remember the last movie where Robert DeNiro gave a great performance. Do you remember when DeNiro was synonymous with excellence?
3.) With Entourage, is there really any need to come out with a Hollywood satire?
4.) Anne Hathaway will get nominated for an Oscar by the time she's 30. Her performance in Rachel is the only reason to watch it.
5.) Vera Farmiga is growing on me. I can almost forgive her for ruining The Departed.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Dennis Quaid and Bonnie Raitt

No new reviews yet--next week kicks off an ass-kicking week of screenings galore--and my review of Animal House for has not posted yet. But that'll be in due time.

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:

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The (almost) September Book of the Month

I love books. They're fun, educational, and they're another option besides pawing through magazines and drinking 150-oz. frappucinos at the bookstore.

The deaths of celebrities---regardless of what form of medium--doesn't really affect me that much. I may have happy memories of Harrison Ford, but he didn't play catch with me or counsel me through high school. That would be Ford's Witness co-star Josef Summer, who was an invaluable presence during my awkward wonder years.

With that said, 2008 has been awful. First, Sydney Pollack (director of the awesome Tootsie) died, with my most recent memory of him playing second bannana to Patrick Dempsey in Made of Honor. Last weekend, Paul Newman passed away after a life well lived and a collection of movies to match.

About a week or so before Newman died, David Foster Wallace hung himself at him home. For those who don't know, Wallace was a novelist and essayist who was known for his liberal use of footnotes and his ferocious intellgience. Whether anyone ever fully understood his brilliance, well, that's another story for another blog. If you've actually read his thousand-page opus, Infinite Jest, let me know.

John Krasinski, the hunky star of TV's The Office, is actually directing an adaptation of Wallace's Brief Inteviews with Hideous Men. I haven't read that book, but I can recommend Wallace's awesome essay collection, Consider the Lobster.

Yes, it's dense reading, but Wallace's insight and critical clarity are phenomenal. I mean, this is a guy who turned a review of tennis prodigy's Tracy Austin's autobiography into one of the best pieces of criticism I've ever read, as he examined the intelligence of the athlete compared to everyday life. And his discussion of language enthusiasts is mind-blowing and informative, as is his journey through the Adult Video Awards.

America has lost a truly great writer. Thank goodness, there's some record of his work. Now, get reading.

In case you forgot, here's a recap of past books of the month. More to come later in the month

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

September's Film Round-Up

Golly, I know these are late, but think of it this way: Compared to the DVD releases dates, these reviews are breaking news! The reviews are reprinted with permission of ICON (thanks, Trina).

Pineapple Express (Dir. David Gordon Green). Starring: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, Gary Cole, Rosie Perez. After an aimless, pot-loving process server (Rogen) witnesses a murder, he and his amiable, space-cadet drug dealer (Franco) are forced to go on the run. After starring and co-writing 2007's biggest comedies, Knocked Up and Superbad, respectively, Rogen lighting his farts on screen would make money, and this is pretty close. The movie is light and loose, an attitude that grows old pretty quickly. Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg's comedic riffing goes on way too long with no real payoff, and there's very little reason to care about Franco and Rogen's characters, two one-dimensional slackers who we're supposed to like because they have to take action. The movie desperately wants to be the Generation Y version of The Big Lebowski, but the writers and director Green (All the Real Girls, perhaps the last person you want to direct a movie like this) seem loath to make an effort. In that respect, they've recreated the stoner experience a little too well. R

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

Tropic Thunder (Dir: Ben Stiller). Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan, Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson. Desperately behind on a big-budget Vietnam War epic and hoping for a creative jump start, a frazzled director (Coogan), sends his cast (featuring clueless stars Stiller, Black, and Downey Jr.) into hostile jungle territory for filming. The exercise becomes all too real when a band of real-life bad guys mistakes the pampered stars for actual soldiers. This satire of Hollywood culture is as broad as a multiplex screen, with director Stiller pounding his points home. But when the movie hits the mark, such as Downey Jr. character's ridiculous method acting or describing the perils of an actor going "full retard" for Oscar votes--the movie is a scream. Plus, Stiller, Black, and especially Downey Jr. (playing an Australian actor playing an African American solider), are plenty funny. Those who have procaimed Tropic Thunder to the be the year's funniest movie are somewhat off, but it is a contender. Believe it or not, Judd Apatow is not involved in the movie. 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

Review of Vicky Cristina Barcelona

So, Scarlett Johansson got married over the weekend to Ryan Reynolds. No!!!! Hey, do you know she's also an actress, and a pretty good one. The following review appeared in the September issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina)

Throbbing with energy, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is the movie that should launch Woody Allen back into relevance after 10 years of making inferior movies from his legendary ones. Example: Crimes and Misdemeanors - laughs + attractive cast + turgid pace = Match Point. Vicky Cristina Barcelona feels like the legendary writer/director has been revived, that he's finally become tired of remixing his greatest hits. Thank God.

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.

Paul Newman

Well, it's been a while hasn't it-over a month since the last post. Part of it has been adjusting to a new schedule. Basically, I'm freelancing full-time while looking for a suitable job, and it's taken me some time to get used to budgeting my time properly. (I've also had several assignments.) The blog, unfortunately, got lost in the shuffle. Until now.

You've probably heard by now, but Paul Newman died last weekend. I am as sad as any movie fan, as he was the matinee idol who displayed staggering depth along with consistency. There was no Al Pacino "Foghorn Leghorn" phase or Robert De Niro "where's my paycheck" era. He delivered great performances--without compromise--for some 60 years.

I think the one reason why I loved Paul Newman so much is that he had a sense of humor about himself. Witness his voice cameo on "The Simpsons," where Homer, angry at Marge's crush on a paper towel pitchman, roams the groceries for a fellow crush. Homer's eyes eye a bottle of Newman's Own salad dressing, and Newman springs to life.

"Homer, I'll tell you what I told Redford: It's not going to happen."

Genius. Also, memorable was his appearance on Letterman's first show on CBS. After a big introduction, Newman stands up in the crowd, and greets Dave with, "Where the hell are the singing cats?' a reference to then-popular Broadway show. Newman, looking like the cool uncle I never had, then heads for the exit.

We'll miss you, Hud. Rest in peace.

Monday, August 25, 2008

August's Book of the Month

I love books. They're fun, educational, and keep trees from getting too cocky.

Why is this man grinning? If you had written two of the best books ever about the movie industry, you'd be smiling too. I don't know if I'd be sporting the 'stache, but hey, who am I to comment on facial hair?

The man is Peter Biskind, and I own his two most popular books, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Down and Dirty Pictures. The first book chronicles the rise and fall of American movies in the late 1960s and 1970s, when mavericks like Coppola and Altman made legendary movies, took over Hollywood, and got drunk on power and stupidity. The second book looks at the rise of Miramax and independent movies in the 1980s and 1990s.

Both books are mythically reported and have enough revelations and gossip to keep you battling the fatigue. But what's great about Biskind is that he's not a gossip monger; both books comment on the changing environment of film. He gives you great stories about wack-a-doos like Paul Schrader (carried a gun everywhere) and Robert Redford (not the nicest guy, supposedly), but he also gives you an enlightening account of why two heydays of contemporary American film had to end.

Seriously, if you're a film buff you need to check these books out from the library immediately. Or ask me to lend them to you...Just return them promptly and don't fold the pages. I hate that.

Books of the Month so far...

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

Get reading, chumps.

Review of The Visitor

This review appeared in the August issue of ICON (formerly Primetime A&E) and is reprinted with permission (thanks, Trina).

Why am I reviewing a movie that's been in theaters for months, giving a chunk of space to this relic when newer movies (American Teen, Brideshead Revisited) are featured elsewhere in this publication?

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.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Scenes from a Mall (Forgive the reference)

In my previous post, I had mentioned how I had won four free movie passes, prompting a trip to see The Dark Knight. The bad news about that was the passes were for Mega Movies at the Brunswick Square Mall.

I used to go to Mega Movies quite a bit when I first moved to my glorious suburban town because it was close to the house and I could hit on the 18-year-old salesgirls at Spencers' Gifts. (OK, only the first part is true. My usual playa haunt is the Olive Garden on Rte. 18.) As time went on, I started to hate going there.

Since the theater is in a mall, it is teeming with kids. Now, I don't have a problem with the youth of America, except when they're at malls. Unsupervised, hyped up on unsupervised freedom and cell phones, they are beyond obnoxious. As I went to the theater more and more, I'd have groups of teens talking during the movies, making comments, and just acting like apes with backwards baseball caps and ruffled skirts. And not just at movies geared toward them, but indy stuff like Trust the Man.

So, I had mixed feelings when I got the free passes. On one hand, it was, "Hey, free movie passes!" On the other hand, it was, "Ah, Christ, I have to go to here." When I went to see The Dark Knight on Friday afternoon, it seemed harmless. The movie had been out for a while, so it wouldn't be packed, and it was a 2:45 p.m. show on a beautiful day.

What could go wrong, right?

It started about an hour into the movie. My girlfriend turned to me and complained about a drop falling on her head. OK, I thought, probably nothing major; we'll move if need be. Five minutes, later she says, "There's that drop again...Wait, it's popcorn. It's coming from behind me."

I stormed from my seat and walked two rows up, where I confronted two 10-year-old girls, both slumped in their seats. "Are you throwing popcorn?" No answer, life flashing before their eyes, as they wondered what this 6'1" bearded guy was going to do. "Knock it off."

Problem solved.

I'm honestly thinking of mailing the two passes back and treating GF to a movie at a theater that doesn't resemble the Double Deuce in Road House. No one deserves this, plus what if the girls wanted to "throw down"? I'd be so screwed.

The Best Sequel Ever?

With a short break in my schedule, I finally got a chance to go to the movies casually--no pen in hand and no deadlines to worry about. I had won four movie passes at a minor league game and my girlfriend expressed a desire to see The Dark Knight, so off we went.

I had my reservations about going to the movie, primarily because I was not a huge fan of Batman Begins, which I felt was overburdened by background and atmosphere. (My friend actually stormed out of the theater with 20 minutes to go.) It almost felt like watching a particularly weighty, ass-kicking version of Masterpiece Theater.

I'm not going to offer a 1,500 word review here, but I will say that The Dark Knight is an early candidate for my favorite movie of the year, because director Christopher Nolan matches unrelenting action with unsettling psychological components (the fallibility of a hero, the personal cost of security). It's the best "serious" action movie I've seen in years. The script by Nolan and his brother Jonathan blends both paradigms beautifully; you never see the seams, you never feel like you're being hit over the head with essay points. This, folks, is how you make a blockbuster movie that doesn't make you feel like a moron or that you're being talked down to.

As for Heath Ledger (pictured above), good God. He's going to get an Oscar nomination, not as some kind of "let's honor the young, talented, and deceased" but because it's a fantastic performance. I'm not one to pine over the personal life of actors and actresses--to me they're entertainers the same way that LeBron James or Tom Brady are---so you can trust my assessment.

More coming soon, including an incident at the movie theater. Stay tuned.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Scenes from a Screening Room, Act II

Several weeks ago, I mentioned an amusing encounter at the Magno screening room in NYC. A story from the Sony Screening Room nearly tops it.

The Sony Screening Room is in the Sony Building, which is well-staffed with security. Before you can mosey throughout the building, you are greeted by two guards sitting at a desk. If you're there for a screening, you take a seat until the film's publicist arrives with tickets. However, if you need to see anyone else it's not that easy.

I found this out while attending a screening of Frozen River. I was in the elevator to the front lobby with two other people--a courier dressed in a Vince Young jersey and a disheveled woman who looked wobbly at best.

The elevator stopped. The courier went to the mail room, and the woman was ahead of me. Here's the conversation to the best of my recollection:

Security Guard: May I help you?
Woman: I'm here to collect a payment from someone at Sony?
Security Guard: OK, who?
Woman: Sony, you know, Janet Jackson? The music company.
Security Guard (remaining remarkably composed): Well, you can't go in unless you have an appointment?
Woman: Well, er, er...
Security Guard: To get into the building, you need to go to the phone and call 311.
Woman: What's that number?
Security Guard: 311.
Woman: Where can I dial it?
Security Guard (Smile forming): Downstairs...

This converation went on for about a minute and a half while I waited to check in. After the lady left, the security guard and his female cohort burst into laughter.
"Is that a normal interaction for you guys?"
"No," they gasped.

Hey, at least they didn't have to deal with a douchebag yammering in their ear.