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