Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Jancee Dunn Responds to Her Miniscule Literary Honor

On Saturday, I interviewed writer and New Jersey native Jancee Dunn for Primetime A&E. Jancee was a dream interview--candid, funny, and without an ounce of pretension. In case you're curious, the interview, which ties into the release of her new novel, should run in August and will also appear on this blog.

Before I fired away on my questions, we chatted for about 10 minutes. (I had interviewed her for last year, and we've kept in touch.) I mentioned, almost as a joke, that I featured her memoir But Enough About Me as the blog's book of the month for June.

I thought I'd get a pleasant, "Gee, thanks, an honor on a blog no one reads" or "Very cool, now can we get this started?" I don't use the phrase "over the moon" very often, but Jancee's reaction was just that. You would have thought I told her she had won a Pultizer Prize covered in milk chocolate. And the cool part was, the reaction was completely genuine. She was touched.

As for her new book, the debut novel Don't You Forget About Me? It's first-rate, plow through the fatigue readable fiction. You can buy it in stores July 29, the same day her husband Tom Newmark's book (Traffic Signals) is released.

"I'm Picking Up on Your Sarcasm..."

As a veteran of the service industry, I know how much these jobs suck. Trust me. I've worked at four bookstores and one movie theater. The pay is awful, the hours are as inconsistent as the weather (oh, the joy of working a closing shift and then opening the next day), and you never know what situation you'll encounter.

Examples: As a cashier at a multiplex, I had the honor of giving my 10th grade crush a ticket while dressed in my nerd uniform of sweater vest and clip-on tie. When I worked at Borders--a job I loved, by the way--a customer once threatened to "take it outside" after I allegedly bumped into him. The latter scenario didn't become a scene from Road House.

However, the key to surviving a job like this is to have a good attitude. I know it sounds cliche, but it's the truth. When customers are given the impression that the person helping them is competent and can speak in complete sentences, interactions go smoothly 90 percent of the time. The other 10 percent leads to some terrific stories.

This brings me to last Sunday. I went to a 10 a.m. screening of The Happening. It wasn't because I needed to see the movie right away, but because the AMC in my area offers $6.00 tickets for late morning shows.

The theater had two guys working the ticket desks, both very professional and polished, a shock considering the early hour. However, the ticket taker was another story entirely. I went up to him, gave my ticket. He asked how I was, and I asked him. The reply: "Just fantastic," in a voice so rich in sarcasm, you could hear the drops falling on the floor.

I was stunned into silence. Look, I'm not asking for a handshake and a cold drink, but c'mon, man. Don't talk to me like an asshole. First, I'm making an effort to be nice, so I shouldn't be shot down for it. Second, how do you know that I won't beat the absolute snot out of you, or the next guy you decide to take that attitude with? (God forbid he tried that with my Dad. Remember Alec Baldwin verbally intimidating the real estate agents in Glengarry Glen Ross? Multiply that by five.)

Honestly, the next time this happens, I'll probably say something like, "Well, that's great, young man. If you don't mind, I'm going to see this movie, get paid for it, and pursue my dream. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy standing for hours on end in your little costume while girls laugh at you and your resentment for your life and the people in it builds. Good luck on Monday's calc test, by the way."

Eh, maybe not. It would take too long and I'd probably miss the previews.

Review of Charlie Bartlett

At the end of the month, I plan to do a mid-year report of what I've seen so far. There's an excellent chance this makes my "low five."

This review was originally published in Home Media Magazine. Many thanks to my editor John Latchem for making it the lead review of the week. Very cool, indeed.

By the way, happy birthday, Dave.

Charlie Bartlett grossed only about $4 million when it was released in January, but sometimes quirky high-school movies take a while to find their audience. Witness Dazed and Confused and Donnie Darko.

Those movies, however, brimmed with originality.

The same cannot be said of Charlie Bartlett. After he’s thrown out of another prep school, scheming teen Charlie (Yelchin of Alpha Dog and the upcoming Star Trek revival film) heads to public high school. Starved for popularity, he achieves it by giving advice and drugs as a makeshift psychiatrist, using the boys bathroom as his office and the school bully (Hilton of Walk the Line) as his pharmacist. Charlie makes a difference while making the moves on his principal’s daughter (Dennings of The 40-Year-Old Virgin).

Despite the presence of pros Davis (Charlie’s loopy mom) and Downey Jr. (Charlie’s boozy principal nemesis), Charlie Bartlett is a lazy compilation of teen movie greatest hits, from the clique smashing of The Breakfast Club to the scheming entrepreneurship of Risky Business. The movie features an annoying lead character who solves problems by doling out pop psychology and treats adults as short-sighted buffoons. It is crammed with contrived problems and easy solutions.

Teens should relate to the movie’s positive attitude and adult hijinks, if they haven’t seen any teen comedies released in the past 25 years.

The DVD extras add little to the experience. The commentary with first-time director Jon Poll and writer Gustin Nash contains some interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits: Nash’s script was originally darker; Poll got to select Dennings’ nail polish from 35 colors. The other pointless commentary featuring Poll, Yelchin, and Dennings consists primarily of the young actors swooning over their co-stars and giggling. The DVD also has a music video from Spiral Beach and lame “Bathroom Confessionals” from the cast and crew.

Ahh... Anne Hathaway

Get Smart opens this Friday, and I'm excited to see it if only because it gives Anne Hathaway ample screen time. Why do I like her so much? First, look at her. Second, and more importantly, she can act. My column from The Ellenville Journal, written after seeing Hathaway in Becoming Jane, explains it all.

Last time, I expressed my objection over recent GQ cover stories on Jessica Alba and Jessica Biel, two actresses with more physical talent than acting chops. In the process, I offered a redefinition of the sex symbol. Looks counted, of course, but the person had to have acting ability.

I even included a list of candidates. For reasons that escape me, Anne Hathaway was not on that list. That’s my mistake, because after seeing her in Becoming Jane (opening nationwide this Friday), she fits the new definition perfectly.

The movie stars Hathaway as a young Jane Austen (circa 1795) before she became a literary titan. Independent, feisty, and steadfast in her belief to marry out of love, not financial comfort, Austen begins a lengthy, fruitful flirtation with rogue Irish lawyer Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland). Even if you’d rather read a car manual in Hebrew than plow through Austen’s novels, Becoming Jane isn’t stuffy and doesn’t require a major effort to follow. Its light, lyrical tone, complete with a welcome cynical bite, makes it a perfect remedy for those groggy from summer blockbuster excess. And there are worse choices for a date movie.

For the movie’s romantic charm to work, the acting has to be first-rate, which it is. Hathaway has the most glamorous, but toughest role. Austen is alternately luminous, principled, and cheeky. She’s a whip-smart 20-year-old who hasn’t been molded by the forces that turn young men and women into adults; she’s still brimming with idealism. And when Austen meets Lefroy, she’s forced to test those ideals in the real world.

Hathaway nails the role, transitioning between each emotion with ease and without announcing these shifts, something a lesser actress couldn’t do. Her English accent, perfect by the way, isn’t thrown in the audience’s face. She gives a terrific performance, understated and satisfying, and one that keeps you involved in the story without focusing on the actress playing the role.

Jane Austen is the latest in a recent line of adult roles for Hathaway, including solid work in Brokeback Mountain and The Devil Wears Prada. Becoming Jane is the first of these performances where she has to carry the load, where there are no distractions. Brokeback Mountain had a controversial concept, a topless Hathaway (kind of jarring considering her Princess Diaries past), and a terrific cast. In Prada, she took a back seat to the boss-from-hell concept and the presence of Meryl Streep. Now, it’s official: Hathaway is on her own and she’s the real thing.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Just Call Me "Scoop"

Thought you all might be curious about some recent non-movie related articles I've written. Below are links to two recent works that are dear to my heart.

The first link is an article I wrote for TCNJ Magazine on alums involved in the television industry. It was a lot of fun to write, and the people couldn't have been nicer. Plus, guess who got a snazzy bio and photo?

The second link is to an article I wrote for, the great sports blog edited by Will Leitch. Will, who's leaving soon to take an editor's job at New York, let me write a piece on whether there can be a vegetarian home run hitter. I loved writing and researching it, and I'm thrilled it's on a site with 10 millions hits a month.
Some of the comments are pretty funny, and I get razzed! It's like having dinner with the family all over again.

Yeah, I'm Kind of a Big Deal

My brother Dave loves observing douchebags, and I have to say, it's also a favorite hobby of mine. Now that I work regularly in New York, I'm in central casting. It's fantastic.

Possibly the best example of douchery I've witnessed in recent years, took place at a screening for Trumbo, the fantastic new documentary about screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. As is my wont, I got to the theater early and settled in. Usually, screenings are pretty mundane. A bunch of critics sit quietly in the theater beforehand, discuss upcoming movies, or read.

It's a very mellow, enjoyable scene. Several minutes after I settled in, a young couple sat behind me. Then the guy opened his mouth and wouldn't close it.

He was the archtype of the insufferable mover-and-shaker type, the kind of guy who peddles his hustle, drive, and tenuous showbiz connections like they're unique, star-making qualities. He first talked about planning a star-studded bar mitzvah for a kid, including trying to get Chris Brown. He then made a call to someone related at the party, who returned his call. The shaker then said, "Let's talk about it later," in a real self-important way that made me want to hit him repeatedly in the head and face with a copy of American Psycho.

Then the guy talked about his "studio" in the city, this star-studded bar mitzvah he was planning, and the people he had met, including some of the stars of the movie about to be screened. (I believe he showed photos on his iPhone.) He never asked the girl one question, or even paused from his own self-indulgent ramblings. And the worst part was, the girl was completely hooked, interrupting his monologue with honey-dripped bon mots like, "That's awesome." or "That's so cool."

It was truly an amazing scene. I've never seen two completely vacuous, rock-stupid people fall in love.

Now, that would make a good documentary. Not better than Trumbo, but still pretty excellent.

Monday, June 9, 2008

June's Book of the Month

I love books. They're fun, sturdy, and good for reaching objects on tall shelves. Supposedly, you can also learn things.

A few posts ago, I mentioned that I was working on an author interview. The author who has graciously agreed to my awkward interviewing techniques?

Why, that'd be Jancee Dunn, author of the forthcoming "Don't You Forget About Me."

(Cue Kermit the Frog-like screaming.)

Anyway, before she became a novelist and full-time freelancer for places like Vanity Fair and The New York Times, Jancee was a first-rate reporter at Rolling Stone, where she interviewed A-list celebrities like Mel Gibson, Cameron Diaz, and Ben Affleck.

That leads us to the book of the month.

In 2006, Dunn wrote a terrific memoir, But Enough About Me, where she recounted her days growing up in New Jersey and becoming a nervous, but crafty reporter for Rolling Stone. The book also talks about her relationship with her family and about her becoming, well, a grown up. Dunn is a superb writer--humane, self-effacing, and very, very funny. It's a perfect summer read.

For anyone who wants to interview celebrities, the book should be required reading on how to write profiles that don't resemble press releases. (I'm serious, folks.) She offers lots and lots of tips and some great stories to boot. My favorite is the one involves Scott Weiland and Jancee's frantic bathroom phone call to her sister.

So, for those keep tracking track, the books of the month are:

May: No One Belongs Here More than You by Miranda July
June: But Enough About Me by Jancee Dunn

Get reading, slackers! Another book is coming in July...

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Funny story: I had just finished this review, when I met up with some friends who had seen the movie. They were both die-hard Indiana Jones fans, and you would have thought that this movie had caused them bodily harm. I really thought one of them was going to burst into tears or file a class action suit.

I don't quite see the movie as a personal affront, but it's not the series' shining moment. It is good to see Karen Allen again. Ding-dong!

This review is reprinted with permission from Primetime A&E (thanks, Trina).

As in the previous Indiana Jones movies, the fourth installment, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, features a rousing introduction. Our favorite rogue archeologist battles Russian soldiers, swings from the rafters of a giant Army warehouse, and ends up surviving a nuclear blast by utilizing a common household appliance.

Jones emerges to see a gigantic mushroom cloud. The year is 1957, and the message is clear: A man who makes his living through the past is staring right at the future.

It's a fitting opening because the storied franchise is also in unfamiliar territory. The previous chapter, The Last Crusade, was released all the way back in 1989. Harrison Ford, the most underappreciated movie star of his time, is now 65 years old and actually looks, well, old. Today's action movies are less concerned with characters and cleverness and more concerned with gee-whiz special effects. How else to explain the demise of regular guy action movies like the Indiana Jones series (or Die Hard and The Untouchables), where heroes have to think their way out of problems?

Indy is a (welcome) anachronism, like newspapers or young women who wear full-length dresses. Director Steven Spielberg and his creative cohort George Lucas were wise to bring Indy back for round four, but they've compromised, catering to a younger audience in establishing the franchise's future path.

In other words: uh-oh.

After Indiana survives the nuclear pummeling, his professional life takes a beating. Thanks to heat from the FBI, he loses his professorship. He's on the verge of traveling for a possible teaching job, when he's confronted by Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf), a young, motorcycle-riding rebel in need of help. The two most important people in Mutt's life, his mother and Indy's former classmate Professor Oxley (John Hurt), are in trouble over the Crystal Skull, an ancient Amazonian artifact with superpowers.

Oxley has left a "riddle" of clues leading to the artifact, which brings Mutt and Indiana to Peru, where adventure and the resilient Russian army greet them. Along the way, Indiana reunites with his old flame Marion (a still luminous Karen Allen) and employs a delirious Oxley to find the lost city of gold that is home to the skull.

The plot, or rather plots, isn't that important. We just need a series of events that keep Indy and his cohorts on their toes, which writer David Koepp and Spielberg provide in abundance. There's more: Spielberg is still the best action director working today; it's fun to see Allen and Ford swap barbs again; and the movie's pace never slackens. But it's not the same. It's apparent that LeBeouf will inherit the franchise in whatever form it takes, so a lot of time is spent establishing his character and his traits, even though Ford's casual, everyman intelligence was crucial to the previous movies' success. So many characters tagging along with Indy (Mutt, Oxley, Ray Winstone's double agent) prevent Ford from settling into the role, while keeping him and Allen from duplicating their sexy chemistry from Raiders of the Lost Ark. This isn't the victory lap I envisioned for Ford.

Crystal Skull does retain some of the chestnuts from the previous installments, such as the map with the moving red line and the amplified punching sounds, but Spielberg embraces the present, relying heavily on CGI technology. A lack of apparent special effects wizardry defined the three previous films, and it's the reason I was so looking forward to this movie. So many movies use these over-the-top special effects as replacements for creative storytelling, vivid characters, and great direction, which defined the Indiana Jones adventures. Do we really need to see LeBeouf swinging on vines like Tarzan? Isn't that what Michael Bay is around for?

The hard truth is that our beloved Indy isn't made for these times, and Lucas and Spielberg's attempt to cater to everyone is the proof. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn't a bad movie, far from it, but it's a sad commentary on the changing nature of the Hollywood blockbuster. Audiences apparently can't be satisfied with one great character, God forbid older ones. Special effects will gain more prominence, so much so that heroes and villains won't define them. If Indiana Jones isn't immune to this, then it's time to brace ourselves.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Everything Old is New Again...

Last summer I wrote a column for The Ellenville (NY) Journal on the sad state of the American comedy, enlisting the help of two comedy pros--my younger brother, Dave; and Megan Ganz, now associate editor at The Onion.

With You Don't Mess with the Zohan coming out this week and The Love Guru scheduled to annoy millions on June 20, this column (as well as Dave and Megan's astute observations) is still relevant. Enjoy.

There are times when I watch comedies when I say to myself, “Am I the only who’s not laughing?” So, why do so many American comedies stink? I put my journalism degree—or more accurately my e-mail address book—to good use and consulted two experts: my brother Dave, associate editor at Mad, and Megan Ganz, a staff writer at The Onion.

Here’s what they had to say.

Dave: The biggest problem is that comedies, for the most part, are lazy. My favorite comedies all have strong plots and characters - and the jokes come from that. MASH, Groundhog's Day—even American Pie. The plot is the Christmas tree, and the jokes are the ornaments you hang on it.

With so many comedies, though, it's all ornaments, no tree. A movie like Old School - funny as it is - has the flimsiest of plots, just enough to get them from crazy scenario to crazy scenario.

Likewise, characters are developed just enough to give the smallest amount of context to their slogan-ready one-liner. And even then, most of those lines could be spoken by multiple characters.

The end result is a movie you may have laughed a lot at, but doesn't stay with you at all. It's a girl that wants to [have sex with] you and doesn't care if you know her name. And it doesn't have to be this way. The more you know the characters and the situations they're in, the more you can identify with them and find new ways to laugh. The plot and characters bring out the comedy of the jokes. Just because it's a comedy movie, that doesn't mean it shouldn't still be a movie.

Megan: Comedies in the past 10 years have not only gotten lamer—read: completely inspired and directed entirely toward the fart-joke and “Dude, those two guys are acting gay but they’re straight!” crowd—but they’ve actually gotten repetitive. We’re basically seeing the same five tropes trotted out again and again because the studios have correctly assumed that the American people will see them anyway. For every $50 million that’s being thrown at I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry 2, there is a Paramount intern passing on the next Annie Hall. And, unfortunately, it makes sense. If a tenth Scary Movie is going to draw people into the theaters, why risk money on a box office flop like Wet Hot American Summer so that a few kids in New York can quote it endlessly?

Dave: The worst offenders are those with "Movie" in the title: Date, Scary, Epic, etc. In these cases, there's no attempt to even construct a plot. No context is given, just familiar pop-culture scenes and catch phrases regurgitated in near-random order. And the "gotta spoof it this minute" mentality makes the movie so instantly dated and forgettable, it's hard not to think of them as disposable.

Megan: The problem isn’t the short attention span on our end—it’s the short attention span up top. Nothing is given a chance unless it’s a sure thing, because people don’t have time to wait for the word-of-mouth cult following that generally makes any great comedy. Even Judd Apatow had to make Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Knocked Up before people finally started flocking to his movies. No one is willing to spend that kind of time when they could throw Dane Cook and a chimp butler together and end up with “this summer’s breakout smash!”

There is good stuff out there. Aside from Apatow and his protégé Seth Rogen, they both love directors Wes Anderson (Rushmore) and the talent that came out of Comedy Central’s cult classic Stella and MTV’s The State, notably director David Wain.

Dave also hopes Pixar makes more animated features with an adult bent and hopes that imports Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen continue to make an impact in the states. Talent only goes so far, Dave believes. “It’s an acquired taste,” he said. “The more comedy you watch, the more you look for something different and look for different ways to laugh.”

“For some reason, we’ve gotten it into our national consciousness that comedies are for wacky, meaningless fun and dramas are serious, adult business, which I think is a large part of why comedies are permitted to be so vapid,” Megan said. “But the greats (Apatow, Anderson, hell—Woody Allen’s still kicking) have all made their success on bringing the real truth about our absurd little lives to the big screen in a way that is both funny and tragic, which—when you think about it—probably more accurately describes life than any Million Dollar Baby melodramatic tear-jerker.”