Friday, May 30, 2008

New York City

It's been a slow week on the movie-watching front. No new reviews to post, no kick-ass recommendations. I'm also in the middle of a few book reviews, an article, and a possible author interview.

(I'm not going to reveal the idenity of the author; let's just say that her last book will featured next month. No One Belongs Here More than You by Miranda July was the first, in case you forgot. I want to recommend a book a month. It'll be just like Oprah, only without the free cars or mass adulation.)

Part of the reason for the slowness has been that I started a cool long-term editing job in New York City. Why am I stoked? Here are several reasons:

1.) First, the company that I work for is very casual, and the group of people I work for is very friendly, very easygoing. I can wear jeans for work! No one is asking me to sort their mail or take down lunch orders! People aren't randomly snapping at me!

2.) I work right by Union Square, which is a pretty happening place. Quite a big Whole Foods you have there, Big Apple!

3.) I am near a ton of bookstores (the Strand, two Barnes & Nobles, a used bookstore), plus the company I work for has access to free books. This is not going to end well, like giving Pacman Jones a free pass to Crazy Horse.

4.) Believe it or not, I've never worked in New York City, and there's something strangely empowering about navigating my way around and not becoming a ball of tears. My Dad said it would give me a new perspective; younger brother said my social life would improve immeasurably; my Mom offered survival tips. She's the best.

5.) Jim Gaffigan once commented that every time he was on the NYC subway he met his future wife. Good Lord, that's an understatement. It's like I'm in the middle of a Sinatra love song every time I get off the bus.

6.) Getting paid a living wage is awesome.

More movie-related stuff to come. I promise...


Before I forget, I must provide a link that I promised my backroom cohorts at Barnes & Noble in North Brunswick.

Elvis, here's full proof as to why The Punisher was awful:

Frank, not all musicals are awful:

Monday, May 26, 2008

Review of High Noon

I sometimes review movies for, a terrific movie review Web site edited by Chris Null. I've written for the site since 2000, and I owe Chris a huge debt of gratitude. He gave me my first paid assignments as a movie critic, which was a big deal for me. Plus, he's always been encouraging.

(A side note: For years at FC, desperate to write and eager to get better, I watched some of the shittiest movies ever produced. In one weekend, I watched Anacondas AND SuperBabies: Baby Geniuses 2. That isn't good for anyone, never mind a movie geek like myself. I survived. Barely.)

I don't write at the volume for Mr. Null that I used to--there's just not enough time and too many assignments--but my focus in recent years for the site has been on classics. A couple of months ago, I reviewed All About Eve. This month, it's High Noon.

The link is below and feel free to browse around for a bit. Also, keep an eye out for an interview with Chris that should be on this blog very soon.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Children of Huang Shi

It opens this week. Something tells me this won't be beating Indiana Jones at the box office...

The rest of the reviews appeared in the May issue of Primetime A&E and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

The Children of Huang Shi (Dir: Roger Spottiswoode). Starring: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Radha Mitchell, Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh. In 1937, British journalist George Hogg (Rhys Meyers) traveled to Nanking, China to report on that city's atrocities. A series of incidents, including a near-beheading, and the help of a charismatic resistance fighter (Yun Fat), landed Hogg at a remote, dilapidated schoolhouse in remote Huang Shi. What was supposed to be a safe haven before pursuing his next assignment became the young man's life. Hogg rebuilt the school and kept the 60 boys who lived there safe from wartime horrors and military recruitment. Hogg's story is amazing. Too bad that Spottiswoode's overwrought delivery turns it into a much longer movie of the week with better production values, while Rhys Meyers acts with all the restraint of a brick through a windshield. Plus, we have to see Mitchell, the poor man's Naomi Watts, suffer as Hogg's lover and inspiration. Anyone interested in a stirring portrait of foreigners making a difference in war-torn 1930's China should skip this and rent the stirring documentary Nanking, now out on DVD. R

Married Life (Dir: Ira Sachs). Starring: Chris Cooper, Pierce Brosnan, Patricia Clarkson, Rachel McAdams. Cooper (Breach, Adaptation) shines in this dark comedy, set in 1940s suburbia, as a buttoned-down married man whose love for a much younger woman (McAdams) causes a major problem. Desperate to be with his paramour and afraid of upsetting his longtime wife (Clarkson), he convinces himself that murder is the only option. However, his smooth-talking best friend (a perfectly cast Brosnan) has his own agenda and knows too many secrets. The plot is shifty and propulsive--no one gets away clean and the movie always surprises you--but Married Life's greatest asset is that underneath the activity is a clever satirical streak on marriage: The ties that bind can also strangle. The great cast also keeps the proceedings sexy and serious, with honey-voiced Clarkson bringing the heat at age 48. By the way, it's nice to see you again, Ms. McAdams. Please stay a while this time. PG-13

Smart People (Dir: Noam Murro). Starring: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ellen Page, Thomas Hayden Church. When Professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Quaid) suffers a seizure, it becomes a life catalyst. Banned from driving, his perpetually broke and irresponsible adopted brother (Haden Church) becomes his live-in chauffer, an arrangement that stirs strange feelings in Wetherhold's overachieving android-like daughter (Page, basically doing a gloomier version of her prized Juno). The widowed professor also starts dating his ER doctor (Parker), a former student who could be a possible savior. Wetherhold is a terrific character: sarcastic, pompous, and stubborn. Quaid has a field day, so much so that it's impossible to buy Murro and writer Mark Jude Poirier's sales pitch that this guy is possible of change. The movie also wallows so much in dysfunction--each character has a substantial subplot or three--and veiled verbal barbs that getting to know these people outside of their quirky or literate facades is next to impossible. Smart People feels like the first draft of a screenplay that has a few great characters and too many good ideas but no idea of where it wants to go. R

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Dir: Nicholas Stoller). Starring: Jason Segel, Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, Russell Brand, Bill Hader. When TV star Sarah Marshall (Bell) dumps musician boyfriend Peter Bretter after five years, the guy (Segel, Knocked Up) goes into a sobbing tailspin. A trip to recharge at a Hawaiian resort turns into a catastrophic setback as Sarah and her new ridiculous rock star boyfriend (Brand) are staying at the same place. Peter, in need of a self-help book and a hug, refuses to leave, opening the door for an encounter with a lovely hotel clerk (Kunis, surprisingly good) and a chance to get his life in order. Segel played the sad sack to perfection in two late, great Judd Apatow TV shows, Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, and settles into this new absurdly lovelorn protagonist role like a pair of slippers. While Segel's script isn't as smooth--it relies too heavily on crass asides and pointless show-off roles for Paul Rudd and Jonah Hill--it is screamingly funny with a tender side. In short, this is the movie the Farrelly Brothers used to make. R

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Review of Musician

This review originally appeared in Home Media Magazine. (Thanks, John)

In the latest entry in his “Work Series,” director Daniel Kraus profiles the daily life of avant-garde jazz musician Ken Vandermark and comes away with a fascinating piece of documentary filmmaking.

There seems to be a misconception that creative types lead a charmed life and can coast on attitude and massive talent. Vandermark, a recipient of a 1999 MacArthur fellowship, still has to hustle. The Chicago resident tours various clubs and small venues eight months out of the year with different bands and on his own, leaving behind his wife and two frantic dogs. Spare days are spent composing, scheduling tasks on his jam-packed wall calendar, and recording. No one records 100 albums with nearly 40 ensembles by being a couch potato.

Kraus’ biggest attribute as a filmmaker is his refusal to offer opinions. He doesn’t ask viewers to enjoy Vandermark’s musical efforts, something many viewers may find impossible. Thankfully, the affable, goateed Vandermark doesn’t spout poetic jibber-jabber like the jazz equivalent of Robbie Robertson in The Last Waltz.In showing Vandermark doing basic stuff like silently composing in his basement or paying a band member an extra dollar for driving, Kraus highlights the effort behind what many presume is an intuitive process. Rarely has the mundane been so enlightening.

What makes Musician so compelling is how closely Vandermark’s on-the-go lifestyle may resemble our own. Musician is a sound recommendation for viewers interested in documentaries that examine the real story behind a storied lifestyle such as Comedian, the upcoming Big Rig, or the first film in the “Work Series,” Sheriff.

DVD extras include deleted scenes, which feature a brief, but revealing interview with Vandermark, and a written essay by German jazz musician Peter Brötzmann. РPete Croatto

The Annoying Child Actor Hall of Fame Welcomes Paulie Britt

Your obnoxious, Andrew Guiliani-like antics made Speed Racer even more unbearable. I didn't think it was possible for an actor to be upstaged by a monkey or John Goodman's moustache, but you, young sir, made that happen.

So, here's to you, Mr. Britt, and congratulations on being the first member of the ACAHOF...And not the last.

Monday, May 12, 2008

You Make the Call (Ladies' Edition)

I'm working on a summer blockbuster kick-off column for Primetime A&E, which meant a trip to see Patrick Dempsey's Made of Honor. This made me one of 15 heterosexual males in the world who paid to see it without being dragged by his girlfriend/wife or losing a bet.

I'll be accepting an award for this honor at the Piscataway Hilton on June 15. I couldn't be happier. I'm hoping you'll all attend.

The movie has a load of problems, the first of which is that it's a rock-stupid compromise of a romantic comedy. Girls get another movie about a wedding, loads of beefcake Dempsey (shirtless), and romantic misunderstandings. But hey, guys, there's stuff for you if you can endure this awful rip off of My Best Friend's Wedding. You get Dempsey as a tomcat who lives in an awesome NYC apartment and who plays basketball with his buddies. Plus, he gets to see Michelle Monaghan and Busy Phillips in lingerie, which brings me to an issue that has been bothering me for days.

In the movie, Dempsey and Monaghan play best friends, Tom and Hannah. She's getting married, but he loves her. (The reason for his feelings: Screenwriters' convenience.) Hannah appoints Tom as her maid of honor, which he accepts so he can ruin the wedding from within. So, Tom does all the typical maid of honor stuff, which includes watching her try on lingerie.

Uh-huh. "Who's a better judge than you," Hannah explains to Tom.

I don't buy this for a second. I have many female friends, and I doubt any of them would consult me on lingerie matters. I, for one, prefer that they wouldn't. That's what girlfriends and husbands are for. Also, would any girl feel comfortable doing this in front of a guy? Wouldn't 'a move like that possibly jeopardize the friendship?

So, any female readers out there, please enlighten me. Is this scene based in any kind of reality?

No One Belongs Here More than You

I love books. They're fun, educational, and sometimes contain pictures. Plus, they're a good way to impress the ladies.

Anyway, from time to time, I want to highlight books about movies or written by movie types that are worth your hard-earned money or a trip to the library.

In 2005, Miranda July (pictured, right) directed, wrote, and starred in Me and You and Everyone We Know, which was my favorite movie of the year. (My brother still wants to pummel me for recommending it, but whatever...) The cool thing about July is her versatility. She's also a performance artist and a hell of a good writer, as she proves in her collection of emotionally resonant stories, No One Belongs Here More than You.

The book is now out in paperback and is barely over 200 pages. If you're a fan of insightful, subtle short fiction, look no further. What made July's movie so great applies to her writing: she dabbles in idiosyncrasies, but her characters' quest to to belong in the world (and sometimes failing) is riveting. The book is now out on paper back and comes in a variety of neat-o, bright colors, including yellow.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Son of Rambow

It opened in limited release last week. This review is reprinted with permission from Primetime A&E (thanks, Trina).


We're not halfway into 2008 and we've already had two major releases about the life-affirming effects of home movies. Be Kind Rewind came out in February, and this month brings Son of Rambow, from creative team Hammer & Tongs (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)—producer Garth Jennings and writer/director Nick Goldsmith,

The first movie, from acclaimed director Michel Gondry, felt like an extensive bout of rudderless creative activity, a good excuse to stretch gimmicks and art house tomfoolery into a feature-length film. Plus, it supported the theory that anyone can make movies, which is certainly true. Whether a fraction of these movies are even any good, well, that's one investigation I'm not pursuing.

Son of Rambow uses home movies in a less pretentious way; it doesn't congratulate itself for being clever or for trying to better the masses. Here, making a movie serves as a salvation in the 1980s for two friendless English schoolboys, and as the basis for a thoughtful and compassionate look at childhood.

Lee Carter (Will Poulter) and Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) are both misfits, though for very different reasons. Carter is a bored rich kid with virtually no parental supervision. His days consist of stealing, bootlegging movies, and generally causing holy hell. The catch is that no one seems to care. Will is a quiet, meek boy whose fierce creativity is in danger of being suffocated by his family's stern religion, which features a wardrobe whose sole aim seems to be providing perpetual discomfort. These two are a perfect match: Will needs someone to show him a good time and Carter needs someone to validate his recklessness and himself.

What becomes a friendship starts as business. Carter and Will get into trouble at school, but Lee takes the rap and forces a scared Will to be the stuntman for his movie. Though initially reluctant, Will becomes a full-fledged participant after a series of events leads him to watch a bootlegged copy of First Blood. He and Carter soon agree to make a sequel to the Sylvester Stallone action flick that involves (of course) an evil scarecrow and a flying dog, setting up the start of an eventful friendship.

Forces—a wildly popular French exchange student (Jules Sitruk), Will's family values—conspire to tear the friends apart while turning their little movie into an epic, but Son of Rambow isn't a peewee version of The Kid Stays in the Picture. It's really about the thrills and agonies of growing up. It's about having a friend who makes you feel that whenever you're together anything is possible; the pangs of jealousy when other people enter that dynamic; that popularity is an elusive and almost mysterious property. Jennings cleverly uses the boys' moviemaking adventure to highlight these themes, instead of devoting a load of separate scenes on each message.

What Son of Rambow succeeds at best is showing the thrill of being young and having a passion, an intoxicating mix. After Will watches First Blood, he runs home, shooting at airplanes from his own drawings. The whole world becomes his creative outlet, not a bathroom stall or his flipbooks. He finally realizes what being a kid is all about—letting the world wash over you and not giving a damn about the consequences. The movie has that same energy. You never feel like Will and Carter are delinquents, but two kids who don't want their time to run out. It's almost impossible not to like this movie. A big reason why are Milner and Poulter, two talented newcomers, who most likely devoid of pushy stage mothers and years of auditions, act like kids. Their refreshing lack of adult presence and abundance of charisma further solidifies the movie's theme of childhood abandon. Oh, and they capture the rocky patches just fine.

Son of Rambow's energy lags toward the end, as the brisk nostalgic energy turns into gooey sentiment. Still, it's a wonderful little movie that could be a surprise hit, as it doesn't just wallow in 1980s pop culture icons but recreates the potent mix of feelings that is childhood. Unlike Be Kind Rewind, substance triumphs over style. Let's just hope audiences are inspired to go through old yearbooks instead of starting the video camera.

The Movie Buddy Returns...

Sorry for the somewhat lengthy hiatus. Part of it has been an increasingly busy freelance schedule, which is great because, you know, I get paid. But the other part of it is I've been watching a ton of movies, most of them with one man.

Barry Ferguson has probably been my #1 movie buddy since high school, and he's great at it. He always has thoughtful opinions, he shares his wheelbarrow full of popcorn, and he's on time. Don't underestimate how important this last thing is. A friend of a friend expressed interest in going to the movies with me on a regular basis, but it didn't work. She showed up monstrously late for There Will Be Blood (and visited the concession stand). The result: I spent 2 hours and 40 minutes getting an extreme close-up of Daniel Day Lewis's moustache.

Anyway, Barry is back from a five-year stay in Korea, and he's antsy. One of the first things he wanted to do was revive an old favorite: the movie marathon--three straight movies in one day. So, on Monday I saw Iron Man (very solid; love the casting of Robert Downey Jr. and the movie's lack of gravitas), The Lives of Others (a haunting German movie; I think that's all they make these days), and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (parts funnier than the whole).

This mini-marathon kicked off a Forrest Gump-like trek for me. Since Tuesday, here's what I've watched; forgive me for the Earl Dittman-like analysis here:

1.) Musician--Daniel Kraus' excellent documentary on avant-garde jazz musician Ken Vandermark; a review is forthcoming.

2.) Easy Money--A co-worker of mine swears by this movie and lent me his tape. I love Dangerfield, but this movie had all the organization of a rugby scrum. Best line: "You were the reason why twin beds were invented." There, I just saved you $4.00 at Blockbuster.

3.) High Noon--Who says movies made after 1960 aren't relelvant? Yowza! Will provide link to review when up.

4.) Annie Hall--I keep learning something from it. Two things this time: First, how Alvy Singer pretty much molds Annie into who he wants her to be, and then treats her like dirt. Second, Diane Keaton was pretty sexy back in the day. Either I'm very late arriving at this realization or I'm really, really tired.

Full reviews are a'coming. Stay tuned.