Monday, December 28, 2009
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
The Young Victoria (Dir: Jean-Marc Vallee). Starring: Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Thomas Kretschmann. Entertaining and informative biopic covers the early years of young Queen Victoria's reign, when she emerged from familial in-fighting and a sheltered childhood to flourish as a leader and as a lady. Crucial in both developments was her cousin Prince Albert (Friend), who started off as his uncle's political pawn but ended up falling in love with her. Emerging star Blunt (Sunshine Cleaning) is terrific in the lead, growing up before our eyes, with Friend shining as a husband who refuses to be marginalized. In key supporting roles, the ever-reliable Richardson (as Victoria's smother mother, the Duchess of Kent) and Bettany (as Victoria's ambitious adviser, Lord Melbourne) are excellent. Vallee and screenwriter Julian Fellowes seamlessly blend history and romance, while getting a nice assist from Hagen Bogdanski's kinetic cinematography. The movie never feels like a well-dressed history textbook or romantic puffery, making it an ideal date movie and
the star vehicle that should take Blunt to the next level. Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, and Martin Scorsese served as producers. [PG] ***
The Men Who Stare at Goats (Dir: Grant Heslov). Starring: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang. Clooney, reuniting with Good Night, and Good Luck screenwriter Heslov, plays a semi-retired psychic solider (trained by the U.S. Army) who meets a rudderless, unsatisfied journalist (McGregor) in Iraq and proceeds to reveal his shadowy past as they stumble upon the story's next chapter. Alternately wacky, satirical, and heartfelt, Heslov has a difficult time transitioning between those elements, while no rapport develops between Clooney and McGregor because of the script's constant reliance on flashbacks. In supporting roles, Bridges and Spacey summon inspiration from their most memorable characters (Jeffrey "the Dude" Lebowski and Lester Burnham, respectively) and deliver somnolent, uninspiring performances. Goats is a classic example of a movie that mistakes activity for achievement, moving in so many directions that there's nothing substantive on which to focus. Basically, it's Oscar-intentioned artifice. The fact that this movie will probably be long gone from theaters by the time you read this is proof that the public didn't bite. [R] **
Friday, November 20, 2009
Monday, November 16, 2009
"How can you call yourself a movie fan, and you haven't sat through the collective works of Wim Wenders? What, is there an episode of "Seinfeld" you've only seen a dozen times?"
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
If you’re a frequent moviegoer—especially one stuck in the multiplex-heavy suburbs—you treasure the Coen Brothers. However, there’s a price you pay for their creative expression: they don’t have to placate you. This principal allowed Woody Allen, flush from the success of Annie Hall, to make Interiors and Stardust Memories. It gave Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight, Traffic) the power to unleash a somnolent four-hour long biopic of Che Guevara upon the masses. Years ago, it caused Francis Ford Coppola to make One from the Heart, a big-budget, super-sophisticated, and unwatchable romantic comedy.
I consider A Serious Man, the Coen Brothers’ latest film, to be a necessary cost of enjoying their creativity. You may find the movie hilarious and insightful. I found it 105 minutes of rudderless, goofy philosophical/moral riffing, the kind of wild goose chase that was more entertaining and far less pretentious in The Big Lebowski or last year’s Burn After Reading.
With the exception of its introduction, the film takes place somewhere in the Midwest in 1967, where physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is coming undone. His wife (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce right now, but a stream of crises and two bratty, demanding kids mean that he can’t make a clean break. Things are no better at work where the tenure committee is receiving anonymous letters denigrating Gopnik’s character. Meanwhile, a failing South Korean student (David Kang) is threatening him with a lawsuit, and a record club keeps calling his office to demand payment for Santana albums.
That’s not all. Gopnik’s brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is a mathematical wizard who can’t stay out of trouble or out of Gopnik’s life. Between lawyer visits, a car accident, an unexpected funeral, a bar mitzvah, and his family taking his money, poor Gopnik can barely afford his crappy motel room. Oh, and he shares that with Arthur, who snores and feels that God is plotting against him.
Feeling desperate, Gopnik seeks guidance from three rabbis. One offers him self-help nonsense, another delivers an inconclusive story about a dentist who finds Hebrew written in a Gentile patient’s teeth, and the third is too busy “thinking” to even see the beleaguered Gopnik. A friend tells Gopnik that the Jews’ past has tons of stories for him to draw lessons from, but it’s doubtful that Moses ever had to lead his people through the perils of lawyers, demanding kids, or topless female sunbathers.
And Moses took action. Gopnik, who Stuhlbarg plays to nebbish perfection, is not one to take initiative. As a professor, he believes in theorems and equations; everything has an answer. It’s the same thing with his life and his faith: he has always accepted what’s given to him. Consequently, he can’t stand up for himself. When his wife and her overbearing lover (Fred Melamed) insist Gopnik move out of his own house, he accepts it like it’s a judge’s ruling. He’s gone along for the ride, and now that it’s become unbearable, he wants to be dropped off. It’s not that simple, especially when he can’t get guidance from the people he always thought could help him.
A Serious Man is a fine parable on the limits of religion and our own morality that would be more potent as an hour-long drama. The Coen Brothers offer lots of fakes and side routes in portraying Gopnik’s dilemma, which I usually wouldn’t mind, but there’s no fun, no intellectual provoking in any of the asides or the quirky characters (Kind, a gifted actor and Clooney’s close friend, is wasted here). What happens instead is we get a big setup to a punch line that not only takes forever to arrive, but is one we’ve heard before. Life sucks and adjustment is awful. What else do you have that Crimes and Misdemeanors or the novels of Philip Roth didn’t cover better? A Serious Man provides a lesson for movie fans, but not the one the Coen Brothers intended: just because two respected filmmakers tackle a weighty subject, that doesn’t mean you’re required to like it. Reputation is not a substitute for quality. [R]
An Education (Dir: Lone Scherfig). Starring: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Cara Seymour, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson. Whip-smart 16-year-old Jenny (Mulligan) hungers for a world beyond the rigid prep school routine instituted by her academics-obsessed father (Molina) in 1961 suburban London. Enter the much-older David (Sarsgaard), an eloquent, well-dressed schemer who is the worldly, adult-fun alternative Jenny desperately craves. But entering into such a world comes with a set of compromises and consequences that blindsides her. Adaptation of Lynn Barber’s memoir by author Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) is an evocative, touching ode to growing up and what happens when we rush into adulthood. Despite the whiff of pedophilia, the movie’s cheery attitude never feels out of place; it’s all part of a woman’s remembrance of her favorite mistake. The elegant, charming Mulligan is outstanding the lead, but the usually intense American Sarsgaard is a bit miscast playing the English charmer. (Jude Law, if he weren’t too busy playing dress-up, would have nailed this role.) Molina is terrific as a father whose desire for his daughter’s security leads to a load of conflicting advice that turns from humorous to destructive. *** [PG-13]
Bronson (Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn). Starring: Tom Hardy, Matt King, Hugh Ross, James Lance, Juliet Oldfield. Charlie Bronson (formerly Michael Peterson) is one of England’s most famous prisoners, a muscled goon with a mustache from a silent movie and a shaven head who has been imprisoned for 34 years—30 of them in solitary confinement. This doesn’t bother Bronson, who compares prison to staying in a hotel and who basks in his savage infamy. Refn’s highly stylized, violent biopic examines Bronson’s life behind bars in various prisons (and his brief time outside) with Hardy delivering a frenzied, sometimes hypnotic performance. Movie starts off promisingly enough, offering a glimpse into the veteran prisoner’s delusions, including Bronson visualizing himself as a stage performer. But it veers wildly off course from that reference point, becoming increasingly rudderless and flashy. Without proper background or insight, it’s hard to stay interested in the life of a psychotic (especially when he’s the movie’s focus), regardless of the actor’s fervor for the part or the director’s visual flair. Really, this should have been a lot better. ** [R]
Rage (Dir: Sally Potter). Starring: Simon Abkarian, Patrick J. Adams, Riz Ahmed, Bob Balaban, Adriana Barraza, Steve Buscemi, Jakob Cedergren, Lily Cole, Judi Dench, Eddie Izzard, Jude Law, John Leguizamo, David Oyelowo, Dianne Wiest. Bare-bones production features 14 people all involved—some directly, some peripherally—in a major NYC fashion show. Over the course of several days, they’re all interviewed by a student for a class project. When tragedy strikes and the kid’s footage winds up on the Internet, the self-important subjects become more ragged, even human, as they unburden themselves to the student reporter. Writer/director Potter (Orlando, Yes) touches on a wide variety of subjects with fierce intelligence, and the performances from the terrific cast (especially Buscemi and Leguizamo) are excellent, but her aggressively artsy bent (e.g., a Shakespeare-quoting detective; the unseen and unheard student filmmaker) and the film’s sheer philosophical weight ultimately make for exhausting viewing. You never feel like you’re getting the message, or even what one you should be following. Reason for watching, if just for a little while: Movie star Law in drag, sporting a Russian accent, playing a model named Minx. ** [NR]
Saturday, October 31, 2009
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Monday, October 19, 2009
P.S.--This is what I got when I did a Google image search for "happy mailman." Sure.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
For those who are coming to me via the link to The Beachside Resident, thanks for dropping by. That magazine's editor Tobin Bennison has been nice enough to provide a link on the Web site to this blog. I hope you enjoy it, even though I am based in New Jersey, which is Jets territory.
Anyway, here's what you can expect on the blog...
1.) Reviews of movies.
2.) Musings on trends, actors/actresses, and the life of a pseudo-critic.
3.) A borderline unhealthy appreciation of Maggie Gyllenhaal.
4.) A borderline unhealthy hatred of
5.) Links to stuff that I like or find interesting.
6.) Book recommendations (Yes, I read and you should too.)
I update as much as I can--I am a full-time freelance writer on top of my book and movie reviewing duties so time is tight--but I promise that stuff I post will be worth your time. I value quality over quantity.With that said, thank you for stopping by and please let me know what you think.
Friday, October 2, 2009
Really, is there any better supporting actor working in the movies today? I came to that realization after watching Jennifer's Body, which he's in for for all of five minutes and walks away with it. Ditto for Juno, The Ladykillers (and that starred Tom Hanks), I Love You, Man, and all of the Spider-Man movies.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
These reviews previously appeared in ICON and are reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)
In this edition of the Film Round-Up: Two indies (one better than the other), a foreign stinker, and a box office dud. Is Diablo Cody (pictured) running out of time? Will she have to go back to stripping? Stay tuned.
Sorry the site hasn't been updated as frequently. Part of it is that I'm just getting over an awful cold that had me wheezing and coughing like a rummy after a long hike. Throw in that and more writing work, and it's hard to carve out the free time.
Say, have you stopped by BiblioBuffet? I'm writing a new column on sports books called "The Athletic Supporter." You should check it out; you'll love it.
And now on with the vitriol:
Peter and Vandy (Dir: Jay DiPietro). Starring: Jason Ritter, Jess Weixler, Jesse L. Martin, Tracie Thoms, Noah Bean. Two young New Yorkers (Ritter, Weixler) meet cute during a lunch break, paving the way for a relationship that is alternately euphoric and maddening. The movie's wrinkle: The couple's history is purposely told out of order, a device that is actually effective. DiPietro's shuffling forces you to pay attention, getting your mind involved instead of waiting for cues, while Ritter (Happy Endings) and Weixler (Teeth) convincingly play characters enduring the emotional ringer of a serious relationship without isolating us. DiPietro doesn't go overboard with his cleverness in showing the way we revisit relationships--as a series of jumbled, crucial moments that range from the mundane (preparing for a job interview) to the spectacular (the first "I love you"). A couple's past is never linear. A quirky, thoughtful gem that should not be compared to (500) Days of Summer, but probably will anyway. Best scene: Peter and Vandy arguing over the proper way to make a PB&J. ***
Irene in Time (Dir: Henry Jaglom). Starring: Tanna Frederick, Andrea Marcovicci, Victoria Tennant, Jack Maxwell, Lance Idewu, Karen Black. Singer Irene (Frederick), who still hasn't gotten over the years-ago death of her playboy father, stumbles upon a long-hidden clue that might provide some answers about the man's past. While this is going on, Irene navigates the dating scene, something she is ill-equipped to handle, and confides to her friends and her father's old racetrack cronies. Starts off as an honest and insightful look at the dynamic between fathers and daughters and how it can be a comfort or a chokehold, before lapsing into overwrought symbolic sentiment and, well, lots of whining. Frederick tries her best to play a woman without an emotional rudder, but too often she comes across as a high-maintenance, sobbing nightmare. Though writer/director Jaglom's conversational, loose-limbed storytelling style is an asset throughout, it's difficult to generate compassion for the title character as the movie proceeds. Women, understandably, may have a different reaction. ** [PG-13]
Jennifer's Body (Dir: Karyn Kusama). Starring: Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried, Johnny Simmons, Adam Brody, J.K. Simmons, Amy Sedaris. Follow-up from Juno's Academy-Award winning screenwriter Diablo Cody again covers high school life, only with a lot more back-biting--literally. When small-town high school beauty Jennifer (Fox of dubious Transformers fame) is butchered by a group of occult-following rock musicians who mistakenly believe she's a virgin, the girl reemerges as a blood-thirsty, boy-hungry demon. The only person who sees what's going on is Jennifer's mousy, longtime best friend, Needy (Seyfried, Mamma Mia!). Periodically funny and cheeky, Cody's script fails to cash in on the dynamics of frenemies--namely how Needy's quest to stop Jennifer gives her the chance to finally be her own person--and other dynamics of high school life. Scream and Carrie covered the same bloody hallways much, much better; Jennifer's Body is strictly splatter-by-numbers. Fox and Seyfried are OK, Sedaris is wasted, and J.K. Simmons is terrific (as usual) as an overly emotional science teacher. ** [R]
The Baader Meinhof Complex (Dir: Uli Edel). Starring: Moritz Bleibtreu, Martina Gedeck, Johanna Wokalek, Bruno Ganz. In 1967, Germany was under political upheaval and journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Gedeck) covered it, though she hungered for a more active role. She got it, joining forces with revolutionaries Andreas Baader (Bleibtreu) and Gudrun Ensslin (Wokalek) in a series of increasingly violent acts to promote a more human society, paving the way for German authorities to futilely fight back. What could have been a provocative, fascinating look at well-intentioned rebellion gone mad is butchered by Edel from the word go, when it becomes clear that there's no central theme or character anchoring down the film. Instead, we get a blur of characters shuffling in and out of plans, while Edel crams subplots galore and scenes of beating, bombings, and shouting matches like he's getting paid by the pound. Unpleasant part of 20th century European history to be sure, but Edel's relentless desire to provoke coupled with the leaden pace and clumsy, confusing storytelling makes The Baader Meinhof Complex both unwatchable and unenlightening. Somehow, I don't think that was the intent. Amazingly, this was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film last year. * [R]
Enjoy, and please make sure to stop by early and often.
LeBron James is more than a great basketball player--he has the kind of talent that's an international currency. The guy is 6'8", 250 lbs. of freakish athleticism who does everything well on a basketball court. He's Michael Jordan only bigger, stronger, and without the championship pedigree.
Like Jordan or Tiger Woods, James has mastered the art of being on his best behavior for the masses. We've seen him countless times on commercials, TV shows, and during his professional career. But we don't know him. We know him the same way we do our mailman or the counter guy at the deli. James plays the role of a basketball-playing, very marketable celebrity. And he does it exceedingly well.
The new documentary, More Than a Game, which profiles James' high school basketball days at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, OH, offers us a peek into the making of James's world. Basketball has given him many things and has taken away some more, namely the chance to be a normal guy. He's been in PR mode since he was 17 years old. We're never going to know him, a revelation that's the movie's biggest asset and its biggest flaw.
Three of James's teammates on that dominant squad--Willie McGee, Sian Cotton, and Dru Joyce III--he had played with since age 10. That's when Dru's dad, Dru Joyce II, organized a youth basketball team that eventually competed for a national championship. The four boys became inseparable both on and off the court, so it was only logical that they ended up at the same high school. And it was only logical that Coach Dru, the group's patriarch, joined them, first as an assistant, then as the head coach.
When Coach Dru took over the squad, it wasn't the perfect blending of family and talent. Coach Dru was hard on his son, as he made up for their relationship by increasing his expectations. A new player, Romeo Travis, joined the fold sophomore year and his me-first attitude was a difficult fit. When the boys were juniors, their annihilation of teams and James's surging profile brought national attention. That also produced a toxic mixture of complacency and swagger that threatened everything.
The hook of Kristopher Belman's film is that he makes you care about everyone involved, not just James. Romeo's lone wolf attitude came from a transient childhood where he was forced to rely on himself. While Coach Dru was battling the media hype and inflated egos in his first season at the high school, he still had to learn about the game. (He admits that he coached basketball because his son loved the sport.) Sports meant more to Sian because he couldn't go to college without an athletic scholarship, and Willie, a gifted athlete, nobly faded to the background because of a career-altering injury.
Basketball and life were hard to separate for the boys, especially James, who faced a media blitz after making the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 17-year-old junior. The school wasn't ready for this, and neither was anyone else. At an age when most of us are worrying about the SATs, James became a national celebrity. His team's games--which were moved to bigger and bigger venues--were nationally televised. If the team was the Beatles, then James was John, Paul, and George, and the crazed fans reacted accordingly.
Inadvertently, the movie reveals why James maintains such a good poker face. Wouldn't you retreat further and further into a safe place, especially if your home life was less than secure and bored reporters were looking for a new angle on you? Seeing how it's probably the only thing you can rely on, wouldn’t you immerse yourself in your passion, your salvation? LeBron James had no choice but to become blandly charming and let his game do the talking. It's fitting that during his last game at St. Vincent-St. Mary while other players walked out with their families, James walked out with his teammates. It makes sense: They're the few people to know him before he became a brand name.
While it's well-filmed, exciting, and serves as a touching example of how sports matter, More Than a Game doesn't resonate. James, who executive produced, wants us to believe that he's giving us a chance to see his roots. But by showing us what amounts to a cinematic victory lap with personal touches (a tour of his old apartment; footage from home videos) he further cements his smooth façade. Besides, James is only 24 years old. He graduated from high school six years ago. That's not enough time to acquire a clear perspective on the past. All these loose ends say more about James, and the media-savvy attitude of today's professional athlete, than anything in the movie. We should be thankful James has given us anything remotely personal, and go back to enjoying the highlights. [PG]
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
The movie weaves together the life stories of Julie Powell (Amy Adams) and Julia Child (Meryl Streep). In 2002, Powell is at the soggy point in her life, a failed novelist and current cubicle prisoner. She's about to turn 30, lives over a pizzeria in Queens, and her awful friends are busy becoming the female version of Gordon Gekko. Inspired by a friend's blog and in need of completing something, Julie decides to blog about her year-long quest to make all 524 recipes in Child's seminal book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In her words, Powell becomes a "government worker by day, renegade foodie by night."
Julia Child wasn't born Julia Child. In 1949, she's in Paris with her cherished husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) and having a grand time, but without a hint of structure. She tries hat making, French lessons. Nothing takes, so she decides to try cooking school. After all, eating is one of her favorite things, so why not pursue it. Especially in Paris.
Both women share more than a mutual love of butter. They're renegades. For Child, a woman pushing 40, it was an uphill battle at cooking school (complete with a cranky dean), and it took years for Mastering the Art of French Cooking to get published. Child and her sister Dorothy (Jane Lynch) came from a conservative California family that embraced McCarthyism and domestic order. Though blogs have become as acceptable as ankle tattoos on grandmothers, in 2003 starting one was sometimes met with puzzlement by others (i.e., Powell's mom). Powell's laser focus on maintaining the blog, which becomes a mainstream success, inflates her ego, putting a strain on her marriage to the saintly Eric (Chris Messina from Away We Go). He wants a wife in the real world, not an online personality.
To her vast credit, Ephron makes a seamless movie, keeping the storylines separate but equal in finding the women's common ground. There's nothing gimmicky or cute here, just two stories of two likeable women finding their stride. It's the best kind of feel-good movie, and a rebirth for Ephron. I had no idea she was capable of returning to quality after being responsible for the likes of Michael (1996), You've Got Mail (1998), and Bewitched (2005). Those films played like adaptations of gaudy, poorly written greeting cards.
The performances rise to the occasion. Are you shocked to read that Streep is terrific? Honestly, what's the point of writing anything complimentary when she's made the superb routine since the Carter administration? Like Frank Langella in last year's Frost/Nixon, Streep takes an oft-imitated cultural icon and makes her human. The performance is amazing in its casualness. There's no trace of effort as Streep reveals Child's free spirit and gregarious nature. It helps that Ephron stays out of the way, avoiding a lot of lengthy montages honoring Child's pluck and "I'm going to rule the school" speeches. Adams hits all the right notes as Powell. You get the feeling Powell is racing against time as she tries to live up to her potential and maintain her girlish enthusiasm. I'm hoping Adams, on quite the hot streak with this film, Sunshine Cleaning, and Doubt, will keep finding new and inventive ways to play cute and overwhelmed. After all, the line between winsome appeal and post-1995 Meg Ryan is thin.
As the ladies' husbands, Messina is rock solid, but Tucci, delivering a potent combination of compassion and warmth, is indispensable. Whenever he and Streep are together, the movie details with shattering poignancy how a person and a marriage achieve greatness: You need to love a passion or your spouse more than you love yourself. Attempting both simultaneously is beyond difficult, which makes accomplishing both all the more rewarding. Beneath its pleasant, sunny exterior, Julie & Julia is a stirring ode to commitment. [PG-13]
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Monday, August 3, 2009
I have no desire to meet Kate Winslet or LeBron James in a social setting. What would we possibly have in common? Idolatry is shaky grounds for friendship, and both are so PR-savvy that I'd be lucky to get either of them to speak beyond platitudes.
That skepticism is an unknown concept for Paul Aufiero, a die-hard New York Giants fan to the point that following the game isn't a vacation, but a permanent home complete with team jerseys, hats, and cell phone holders. That kind of fandom is usually played for laughs (see, or rather endure, 2005's Fever Pitch), but director/writer Robert Siegel examines a darker, more compelling angle in Big Fan.
Paul (Patton Oswalt) clearly needs something to distract him from his sad regular life as a garage attendant. In his mid-thirties. Who lives at home with his disappointed mom (Marcia Jean Kurtz). In Staten Island. But as a fan, it's different. He spends his nights at the garage polishing rants to a late-night sports radio show, where no one talks back and where the host always appreciates the passion of "Paul from Staten Island." And he's not alone. During some Sundays in the football season, Paul and his best friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan) trek to Giants Stadium, walking among the tailgaters before watching the game on TV in the parking lot.
The season is progressing nicely, when Paul spots his favorite player, Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm), across the street filling up his tank. Paul and Sal follow Bishop and his entourage to a posh Manhattan strip club. Clearly out of their element--Paul is amazed at the city traffic and the club's $9 Buds--they study Bishop while refusing lapdances.
Paul finally summons the confidence to approach Bishop, who is friendly at first. But when the friendly fan unveils his stalker tendencies, Bishop attacks Paul, who awakens three days later in the hospital. (One of the first questions out of Paul's mouth is about the team's past game: "How did we do?") Because of the incident, Bishop is suspended, and Paul feels the heat. The police are investigating and want him to talk, while his slimy attorney brother (Gino Cafarelli) urges Paul to sue. And without Bishop, the Giants begin losing. Even worse, Paul's call-in nemesis, Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rapaport), reveals Paul's identity on the air.
In his directorial debut, Siegel (who wrote The Wrestler) again looks at the losing side of sports, focusing on Paul and his changed life. It's an unsettling, memorable profile. Sports were a passionate respite until Paul blended them by approaching Bishop. Now, Paul's safe haven is under attack by others--the cops, the press, his litigious brother, his fed-up mother. What was his salvation has become the bane of his existence. As the movie progresses, Paul damn near loses his mind as he loses the balance in his life. All Paul wants is for Bishop to play, while once again being part of the maddening, anonymous crowd. Only a desperate act--involving a trip to the enemy territory of Philadelphia--will make things right.
Like he did in The Wrestler, Siegel offers an array of clues on his main character's shabby state, and why a life change is out of the question. Paul still sleeps with a football blanket that's clearly from childhood. His reaction to New York traffic shows that Paul has little curiosity to wander outside his front lawn. And what sports fan still relies on newspapers? Anyone who loves sports knows that the Internet has become essential for information and gossip. Paul doesn't even have Internet access, which would certainly help with his nighttime masturbatory routine.
With his short, pudgy physique and gnomish face, Oswalt looks like a guy who has forever gotten the short end of the stick. On the surface, his work as Paul resembles his benign stint on the long-running sitcom, The King of Queens. But the actor/comedian finds a different level, surprising us with his intensity and despair. You're so thoroughly convinced of Paul's zealotry, and you're hooked as it morphs into a disturbing, troubling form of self-denial. The supporting roles are impeccably cast, with an emphasis on rough-around-the-edges authenticity. Corrigan is a hoot as Paul's doltish friend, as is Rapaport, who has played yammering meatballs like Philadelphia Phil for years.
After The Wrestler, some might say that Big Fan is an easy follow-up for Siegel, another attempt to profile the forgotten and unwanted of the sports world. Yes, they're easy targets, but Siegel shows them as people without resorting to cheap laughs or parody. Everything feels painfully true in Big Fan, which is about a guy hopelessly lost in his religion. Does it really matter if it involves replica NFL jerseys and face paint? [R]
Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (Dir: Aviva Kempner). In the 1930s, Gertrude Berg was Oprah. She created, starred in, and wrote the hugely popular radio program, The Goldbergs, with her New York City matriarch Molly Goldberg providing "a new image for Jewish mothers." When the program ended, Berg hustled, turning it into a television show that became the model for the sitcom. She also won a Tony (A Majority of One), had a line of housedresses, and wrote an advice column. Berg even wrote a cookbook, even though she was an awful cook. Simply put, she was an inspiration for Jewish families across the nation. The documentary oftentimes plays like a promotional piece, with lots of glowing compliments but very little conflict or shades of grey (except for the unfortunate fate of her blacklisted TV co-star, Philip Loeb). Still, thanks to TV/audio footage and interviews with relatives, colleagues, and fans such as Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Kempner produces a rich portrait of a long-forgotten talent who had a staggering cultural relevance. NR **
In the Loop (Dir: Armando Iannucci). Starring: Tom Hollander, Chris Addison, Peter Capaldi, Mimi Kennedy, Anna Chlumsky, James Gandolfini, David Rasche, Steve Coogan. A daft British government official's (Hollander) offhand comment about U.S. war in the Middle East being "unforeseeable" kicks off a chain of events that have legitimate worldwide complications, spurred primarily by his new adviser (Addison) and a neurotic, struggling U.S. official (Kennedy) who desperately wants in with the war committee. Frenetic, wicked political satire features terrific, layered performances (especially Capaldi as the profane, bullying director of communications for the British Prime Minister) and it paints a convincing picture of how spin and ego drive political survival. If In the Loop has any problem it's that Iannucci and company are too ambitious--a foray into local politics featuring Coogan feels forced, dragging the proceedings further into farcical absurdity--and several years too late. Amidst the glut of political satires released in recent years, In the Loop is still relevant and compelling and funny. And, yes, that's a grown-up Chlumsky of My Girl fame playing Kennedy's whip-smart intern. NR ***
Unmistaken Child (Dir: Nati Baratz). After the respected Tibetan master Lama Konchog died in 2001, his disciple, Tenzin Zopa, embarked on the unenviable, arduous task of finding the great man's reincarnation. There were few concrete clues to follow, lots of walking, and innumerable dead ends. Finally, in 2005, Tenzin found his master's replacement--a chubby infant. There's plenty to like here in this documentary. Tenzin is an inspiring protagonist, a young man whose faith both carries him above his self-doubt and remorse while bonding him to lifelong subservience. Baratz's hands-off filmmaking style lets you make decisions on a form of worship not understood by many, and the accompanying cinematography is breathtaking. However, those assets are compromised by a story in desperate need of a narrator to explain the cultural and religious wrinkles, and a gnawing feeling that the events could have been profiled in 60 minutes instead of 100. Unmistaken Child is enlightening and educational; too bad its thoughtfulness often lapses into sleepiness. NR **