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...