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.

Review of Trumbo

This review originally appeared in Primetime A&E and is reprinted with the magazine's permission (thanks, Trina).

In case you haven't listened to the news for the last decade or so, not a lot of people like our president and his policies, a hatred that has spread to film. Honestly, can you remember a decade when there were more politically critical movies of all genres (satires, dramas, documentaries) being released?

They've almost become as prevalent as summer sequels, and about as predictable. I'm all for movies inspiring people to constructive action, but that tactic only goes so far…Especially if no one is watching them. Aside from 2004's Fahrenheit 9/11, I’m hard pressed to remember any movie that effectively urged the general public to rage against the machine. And with George W. Bush's re-election in 2004, director Michael Moore has to consider that movie a failure.

Peter Askin, director of the outstanding new documentary Trumbo, has gotten into the act. In a "director's statement," he trumpets the letter-writing of his subject, blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (1905-76), as "prophetic." Askin elaborates: "His fight against the perversion of American ideals that held sway at the height of the Cold War has new immediacy, and the cost to personal freedoms feels as threatening as anything George Orwell could have predicted."

OK, so what else is new? You can draw your own government-based parallels between that bygone era and today. To me, Trumbo is more about a brilliant man cut off from his homeland, with only his words to survive. That's what makes it so good: This time the politics are personal.

A very successful writer (Johnny Got His Gun) and screenwriter (Kitty Foyle) throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Trumbo was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947. The committee was investigating subversive influences in the film industry, or trying to get witnesses to admit their association with the Communist party. Trumbo said nothing. Along with nine other men, he was blacklisted by the Hollywood studios in 1950 and spent 11 months in prison for contempt of Congress.

"This is the beginning of an American concentration camp for writers," Trumbo raged to the committee at one point, an extreme comparison, but not inaccurate. He spent a couple of years in Mexico with friends, where most of the time was spent drinking. Then, the money ran out, forcing Trumbo and his family's return to the states, where he anonymously cranked out scripts at a frantic pace for reduced rates. One of his pen names, Robert Rich, won an Oscar in 1956 for The Brave One. (Claiming it was "covered with blood," Trumbo never picked up the award; it was given to him some 20 years later.) The Oscar paved the way for Trumbo to get his real name back on screen. That finally happened in 1960, thanks to Spartacus star Kirk Douglas and Exodus director Otto Preminger, who helped Trumbo get official writing credits for both films. Other blacklisted contemporaries weren't so lucky, committing suicide before their names were cleared.

The film uses archival footage of Trumbo and interviews with family, friends, and colleagues to explain the man, but the letters (read by a group of talented actors, including Liam Neeson and Paul Giamatti) allow us to see a man living in the aftermath of a great Constitutional tragedy. He thanks a friend for a loan, refuses to clear his name by apologizing for his beliefs, and worries about his future. He writes to his daughter's school, demanding that she not be tortured by her peers because of his principles. The letters also show his determination to be a good father. His son, Christopher (the movie is based on his play), receives an elaborate birthday poem from his imprisoned father that rivals anything Dr. Seuss wrote. A few years later, Christopher gets a book on masturbation from his father, along with a letter of his vivid, hilarious recollections. "The first thing I did was start laughing," Christopher remembers. "The second thing I did was get a dictionary." Even the phone company gets an earful. "Dear Burglars," one letter begins.

As the letters are read, it becomes clear that writing was more than a way for Trumbo to earn a living and to fight back. The letters, whether they were raging against the government or Ma Bell, were written with a mixture of sophisticated wordplay and staggering, unerring conviction. I got a sense watching Trumbo that the letters kept the man alive. His presence may have been unwelcome, but his words weren't going anywhere.

That's the kind of resilient nature America needs today, the movie suggests. But what's cruelly ironic is that Trumbo's words may not make it to the intended audience. We are flooded with pundits and experts on TV, radio, Internet, and print, so it's hard to get someone to rise above the din and unite people with a new perspective, let along get them to follow it. Dalton Trumbo was born way too early, if only because we need heroes for more optimistic movies in the future. Films today can only do so much.

Review of Street Kings

This review as originally published in Home Media Magazine and is reprinted with the magazine's permission (thanks, John).

Street KingsPrebook 7/23; Street 8/19Fox, Thriller, B.O. $26.4 million, $29.98 DVD, $34.98 two-DVD set, $39.98 Blu-ray, ‘R’ for strong violence and pervasive language. Stars Keanu Reeves, Forest Whitaker, Hugh Laurie, Chris Evans, Common, The Game, Cedric the Entertainer, Terry Crews.

From the man who wrote Training Day and S.W.A.T., Street Kings is not a surprising choice for David Ayer’s second directorial effort — a macho, violent cop drama with a hint of substance.

Reeves (“The Matrix” trilogy) stars as Tom Ludlow, a troubled, skilled detective whose investigation into the execution-style murder of his former partner (Crews of Get Smart) reveals scary truths about Ludlow’s fatherly boss (Whitaker of The Last King of Scotland) and the LAPD. Also on hand is alleged funnyman Cedric the Entertainer as a streetwise hustler who helps Ludlow’s renegade investigation, and Laurie (TV’s “House”) as a dogged internal affairs captain.

Street Kings has aspects that will appeal to fans of plot-driven detective stories such as L.A. Confidential (by James Ellroy, who also helped write this screenplay) and action-oriented, guy-pleasing favorites such as the “Lethal Weapon” or “Die Hard” series. However, those two aspects never properly meld. Street Kings moves too quickly and has too many subplots to work as a police-procedural drama, while Ludlow never emerges as a gung-ho everyman a la Martin Riggs or John McClane.

It doesn’t help that Reeves comes across as drowsy more than troubled, while Whitaker inhales the scenery, the dolly tracks, and everything else within range. Street Kings’ main appeal is its bevy of features — everything from alternate takes to short behind-the-scenes goodies.

Aspiring filmmakers should relish Ayer’s willingness to share. In the director’s commentary, he details how countless scenes were shot and describes the challenges of a 43-day shoot. Ayer even explains why featured deleted scenes found the cutting room floor. – Pete Croatto