Monday, December 28, 2009

The Date Movie Alternative


Last week brought us Did You Hear About the Morgans?, which has been pretty much ravaged by anyone with two working eyeballs. This is the latest wacky rom-com from director/writer Marc Lawrence, who made the super-atrocious Two Weeks Notice.
For any couples who read this blog, here are two suggestions that won't cause a fist-fight in the lobby or a silent, spite-filled car ride home.

1.) Julie & Julia: I know that the phrase "wonderful film" gets thrown around too often, especially as critics put together their end-of-year lists. This is one that deserves that description. Nora Ephron's frothy, funny, and touching tale isn't a chick flick, but a stirring ode to professional and personal commitment. Yes, the female leads are good, but Stanley Tucci understated, elegant work shows just how vital he is as a supporting actor. As Paul Child, Julia's husband, he makes Streep's performance all the more human. Without him I don't think Meryl is renting jewelry for the Oscars.

2.) Lovely & Amazing: I'm starting to really, really like Nicole Holofecner's films. No character is painted in black and white. Emotions aren't manufactured. The characters are so remarkably layered and so human that there's no need to generate a big, stupid story (e.g., Unfaithful, Elizabethtown). For 100 minutes or so, you get great acting, honesty, and stories featuring women (none starring Meg Ryan or Sandra Bullock) that make you think. What I love about Lovely & Amazing is Catherine Keener (pictured). She plays an unlikable human being, but Keener and Holofecner find the character's humanity. Any other movie would fail miserably in this regard, and would portray her as a cartoonish bitch.

Who plays Keener's sister? The awesome Emily Mortimer. Their mom is Brenda Blethyn, who's terrific. Even Dermot friggin' Mulroney shines.

Rent both movies today. Please. Do you really want to see Sarah Jessica Parker wearing a Sarah Jessica Parker mask? Seriously, she's starting to look like the hero from V for Vendetta.

Maggie Gyllenhaal and "The View" and my Eroding Sanity...


As I was finalizing an array of projects last Wednesday, I zinged around the channels and noticed that Maggie Gyllenhaal, one of my favorite actresses, was on The View.

I caught maybe the last thirty seconds. The girlfriend, however, happened to catch the interview; with that said, I'm thrilled that I didn't watch.

Essentially, the coffee clatch basically failed to ask one of America's finest actresses anything substantive. According to the girlfriend, it was the blonde chick making inane, cutesy chit-chat and Whoopi Goldberg lavishing praise on the soundtrack for Crazy Heart, the movie Gyllenhaal is promoting. Sample question, according to the girlfriend: "Are you in love with a musician?"

I know that the gals at The View are not Charlie Rose or Mike Wallace, that the show is based upon the concept of four women shooting the breeze. That's OK, I guess, but does anyone know that good converation consists of asking questions? That the interviewer, unless it's Borat, shouldn't be the focus of the Q&A? That it's perfectly acceptable to ask informed questions (um, Gyllenhaal is actually married to actor Peter Sarsgaard) in a coversational style?

Everyone on that friggin' panel is now a personality, a celebrity. No one there is a regular person. My suggestion would be to have a steady moderator and three or four different women as panelists each week. They could come from all walks of life--doctors, lawyers, housewives, college students, whatever. That would be more authentic, and lead to better conversation, than what's on there now.
Plus, Whoopi could work on another Sister Act sequel. Everybody wins.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Annoying Child Actor Hall of Fame Welcomes...Austin O'Brien


From my review of Last Action Hero: Austin O'Brien acts "like the obnoxious theater kid at summer camp." Welcome aboard, young man...Enjoy those GameBoy likeness royalties. Read the full review here, and please visit Filmcritic.com, which was where I got my start oh these many years ago.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

December's Book of the Month


I love books. They're fun, educational, and they're great for smashing a wide array of bugs.

As part of my movie-watching routine, I frequently venture into New York for screenings. Part of that involves riding NYC's subway system. Subways get a bad rap. Yes, sometimes they are awful, especially during rush hour, where it feels like an egg trapped in a carton. And there's an excellent chance that you'll encounter a crazed/angry person, which has happened to me on more than one occasion.

The best part is relaying such a story to my mom, who thinks that every time I venture out of my suburban world that I'm in for a series of travel disasters straight from a Jon Krakauer piece. She never stops worrying, but that's what makes her great.

With that said (or written), this month's book is Subwayland by Randy Kennedy, which is his collection of New York Times columns on the NYC subway. It's a fascinating page-turner about the various quirks that make up the travel system: performers, passengers who read, passengers who sleep, announcements, and more. To excel at this kind of writing, you have to be equal parts fearless and curious. Do you want to wake up sleeping passengers and ask them why they sleep? Kennedy is more than happy to do that and more, which makes for a terrific book.

So, please check it out. And tell the librarian I sent you.

Film Round-Up for December


In this edition of the Film Round-Up: Emily Blunt (pictured) impresses, The Messenger depresses, Clooney regresses, and The Strip, is just kind of there (though it is nice to see Dave Foley and Checlie Ross get work.)

As always these reviews previously appeared in ICON and are reprinted with permission.

Happy holidays!

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 Strip (Dir: Jameel Khan). Starring: Rodney Scott, Billy Aaron Brown, Dave Foley, Jenny Wade, Cory Christmas, Federico Dordei, Chelcie Ross. In the vein of Clerks and Waiting comes another slice-of-life look at young people toiling in the service industry. Here we meet the employees of a third-rate Illinois electronics store located in a shabby strip mall. Kyle (Scott) is in line for a managerial position--his dad owns the store he works in--but he isn't sure that he wants it. Kyle's underachieving friend Jeff (Brown) has been lost since things with his girlfriend ended. Nice guy Avi (Dordei) gets ready for his arranged marriage, while ace salesman Rick (Christmas, channeling Jack Black) strives for an acting career that appears well out of his reach. Writer/director Khan's low-key debut film features a likable cast (Foley, as the store's overly earnest manager, stands out) and gentle humor, but we've seen these characters before and Khan never takes full advantage of the retail setting. Not a bad movie, just one that never gets into second gear. [PG-13] **

The Messenger (Dir: Oren Moverman). Starring: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Steve Buscemi, Eamonn Walker. Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Foster) is a troubled war hero, months away from ending his U.S. Army commitment and still not over his ex-lover (Malone), who gets one last long-term assignment: to personally inform relatives that their loved ones have died in combat. Paired with a hard-ass superior (Harrelson, who's everywhere these days), the young man goes about his grisly, stoic business. However, after a house call to an unflappable young mother (Morton), Montgomery becomes infatuated with her and gradually becomes a fixture in her life. Well-acted by everyone involved, but director/co-writer Moverman makes the mistake of covering the emotional turmoil of soldiers—something that's been done repeatedly—when it should be about two lost souls finding each other in a time of ungodly chaos. Because of its insistence in reciting "war is hell" cliches, Morton and Foster's painful courtship feels like a subplot, not what makes the movie special. [R] **

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] **

Review of Everybody's Fine


Sorry this is so late. Between the holidays and a full plate of freelancing (I'm editing and writing two monthly community magazines now), it's been absolutely nuts. This is the first day in a while where I'm not drowning in obligations.

The following review appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission (Thanks, Trina). Summation: The decline of Robert De Niro continues.

Everybody's Fine is marketed as warm and friendly fare—and just in time for the holidays. The movie's poster presents its stars smiling in a group photo, a Christmas tree looming in the background. It features a new song from Paul McCartney, who hasn't done anything smacking of rebellion since The White Album.

Watching a movie with an optimistic bent isn't always a bad thing, but Everybody's Fine unloads the ugly truth about families while assuring us everything will be fine. It's limp and indecisive, the kind of movie where the conclusion comes and you groan in disbelief on how screenwriters have become Little League coaches: every movie, no matter how undeserved, gets a happy ending.

Robert De Niro plays Frank Goode, a retired suburban dad with nothing but free time and lots of space. His four grown-up kids are out of the house and living busy lives throughout the country. His wife used to keep track of everyone, but with her passing, Frank feels the kids slipping away. When none of them attend the reunion he organizes, Frank hits the road and visits each child unannounced, health problems and an itinerary loaded with bus and train rides be damned.

Each child is surprised, almost taken aback, by Frank's arrival. They can only grant him quick visits, making vague excuses as to their limited availability. Something is clearly wrong, especially since Frank spends all day in New York and can't track down his artist son. The remaining kids (Kate Beckinsale, Drew Barrymore, and Sam Rockwell) are trying to do just that as Frank crisscrosses the country, unaware of his missing son's plight.

Everybody's Fine, based on the Italian film by Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso), has an interesting concept that's mired in bad decisions, starting with the casting. I'm thrilled that De Niro isn't playing another cop or ironically funny tough guy, but doddering is not the man's forte. Here, he's reluctant to let his guard down, a la Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt or Dustin Hoffman in Last Chance Harvey, so we get the De Niro version of an old man. It doesn't help that director/writer Kirk Jones loads him with old man cliches (e.g., overwhelmed by technology, overly talkative) and a wardrobe straight from The Sunshine Boys. De Niro doesn't give a bad performance per se, but he never rises above the codger caricature he's been assigned.

Given his past work (Nanny McPhee), Jones is just the wrong guy for this movie. For material like this, you need someone who can let events unfold naturally, who can let the performances and silent moments speak for themselves. A director with a velvet touch like Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) would have been perfect. Jones's sunny, cram-it-all-in approach is flawed because we never truly know Frank's relationship with his kids. Instead, we see that he views them as being forever young, which paints Frank as, well, a man with little emotional depth.

However, getting into that bitter family history would require revealing hard truths, and that's something Jones doesn't do until the very end, when they're served on a plate of dreamy confession with a heaping (and undeserved) portion of instant closure. Aside from being insulting, the last stretch teeters on stupidity: Frank can't operate his own suitcase. Now he understands why his kids are so miserable?

Jones wants to offer us a rosy look at an unhappy family, but that's not possible given the movie's dramatic framework. (It'd be different if it were a wacky comedy.) You can't pass off progeny this good-looking— seriously, Frank's wife must have been a bona fide babe—slap difficulties on them and think you have an honest character drama. You can't show De Niro wheeling his pathetic suitcase around the nation and pass that off as a look at getting older.

Everybody's Fine offers us lots of short cuts and expects us to accept them as legitimate life lessons earned by Frank and his family. It's the perfect movie to reflect the dark side of the holiday spirit: slick, commercialized, and oblivious. [PG-13]

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Date Movie Alternative


Occasionally date movies comes out (e.g. "Made of Honor," "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days") that no men will like. So as a public service announcement, from time to time, I'll be offering alternative that won't leave couples screaming at each other on the car ride home.

This week offers "The Blind Slide," which looks like a classic trap. Hey, guys, it's about football! You like football! But really it seems like Sandra Bullock being sassy and maternal for two hours--it's like she's auditioning for "Steel Magnolias" in the commercials. Thank you, no. I'd rather read the book. Or watch a movie about football.

Since "Varisty Blues" probably doesn't qualify for this column, here's your alternative: "Out of Sight."
This has to be on the most underrated movies of the 1990s. It has everything: impeccable chemistry between Clooney and Lopez (before she became the Latin Streisand, though without the talent); terrific dialogue from Scott Frank ("The Lookout," "Get Shorty"), and a twisty, gritty that story that both sexes should enjoy; kick-ass supporting cast.

It's sexy, scheming fun for grownuips. For that reason, it's a perfect date movie. It's also historical for several reasons. First, it showed that Clooney was a certifiable Mr. Cool-type (he hasn't approached that level since. Sorry) and it gave Steven Soderbergh his mojo. Remember the tear he went on after this? "Erin Brockovich," "Traffic," and "Ocean's 11." He was a critical and commercial darling. And Lopez, my God. She could have been the thinking person's sex symbol, but instead she decided to sing like a robot and make unwatchable vanity movies. Just a terrible turn of events.

Please watch this movie now. Sandra Bullock doesn't need your money.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Netflix Problem


For my birthday a few months back, I got a gift subscription to Netflix. It was a lovely gift--who doesn't want access to free movies?--but over the last few months I've also been reminded why the service is so frustrating.

Inevitably what will happen is I'll be running through my queue at a nice, steady pace when a movie will come in that doesn't fit the mood the I'm in. For example, I'm really in the mood to see Without a Paddle (not a real-life urge, mind you; just a theoretical) but something from Fassbinder or Bergman will arrive instead. It's like getting a salad when you want a patty melt served in a chocolate-covered bread bowl.

Now, I'm caught in a dilemma. Being a relatively smart person, I feel that I should soldier on and watch the serious movie. But I don't. I wind up reading a book for review, or scurrying to see a bunch of movies to write up. Something else comes up. So the serious movie sits on top of my TV, mocking me for my low-brow tastes and mental sluggishness. It gets to the point where the red Netflix envelope looks like a tongue sticking out, mocking me.
"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?"

"Can't I return you and pick up something fun?"

"Serious thought is fun, moron! You don't rent movies for yourself! You rent them to impress people at cocktail parties."

"I don't think I've been to a cocktail party. Who am I, F. Scott Fitzgerald?"

"You could be if you watched Preston Sturgess' early work."

The other wrinkle is that my tastes and the girlfriend's tastes sometimes don't merge, which is why An American Werewolf in London sat on my TV for a good six weeks before I watched. (Verdict: I was born too late. Scream corrupted me.) She hates scary, gory movies so I have to wait for a sliver of time to watch such a movie alone. And with my schedule being nuts lately, free time to watch an endless parade of movies is dwindling...And, well, I kind of like having a girlfriend.
I guess that's one of the pratfalls of being a critic. You get to watch movies and read books to your heart's content, but often they're not the ones you want. And when you actually have a social life and work is coming in--and, honestly, I consider myself blessed for having both--being a fan takes a bit of a back seat.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

An Apology


My brother brought something to my attention recently. He was offering some suggestions about the blog, and he mentioned that he found the last lines of the book of the month posts kind of insulting.
"I've known you for 30 years and I know your humor, and even I found it insulting," he said.
Yikes.

The man has a point. Those last lines, or buttons, come across as condescending and rude. I want to apologize for that. It certainly wasn't my intent, but I can see how some people may have interpreted that way. So from now on, no more buttons.

No book recommendation for this month. Instead, please read my sports book column ("The Athletic Supporter") on BiblioBuffet.com, where I shine a light on great books that happen to be about sports. Or read whatever book you'd like.

Go in peace.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Review of A Serious Man


Nice try, guys, but, to paraphrase Richard Masur in Risky Business, it isn't quite Princeton material, is it?

This review previously appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission.

By the way, I need to give a nice thank-you to Trina Robba, the editor/publisher of ICON, for pretty much letting me run hog-wild with the column and the round-up. It's nice to have that kind of freedom. U-S-A! U-S-A!

Oh, speaking of independent film, my interview with writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) is appearing in this month's Park Place. Will provide a link and funny story when it's up.

Enjoy!

As filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen are living the charmed life. They can pretty much make any movie they desire while securing legitimate stars like Tom Hanks and George Clooney. The brothers have won Oscars and critical raves, but they’ve achieved box-office and cultural success--we all know one guy who adores The Big Lebowski a little too much; Fargo turned Frances McDormand and William H. Macy into names everyone knows, and not just cherished character actors.

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]

Film Round-Up for November


In this edition of the Film Round-Up: Get ready for the most overrated movie of the year! Behold one of 2009's breakthrough performances (Carey Mulligan, pictured ahoy)! Gasp at overblown, super-kinetic independent filmmaking! Soak in Jude Law as a Russian supermodel...in drag!

As always, these reviews previously appeared in ICON and are reprinted with permission (thanks, Trina).

Apologies for the late posting. Lots of freelancing, some housesitting, and no free time until today. Still, I do like eating, so the extra money is always good.

And with that, away we go...

Precious (Dir: Lee Daniels). Starring: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Sherri Shepherd, Lenny Kravitz. In 1987 Harlem, 16-year-old Precious (newcomer Sidibe) wears a permanent scowl as she slogs through an atrocious life. She’s pregnant-- by her father-- for the second time and at the permanent beck and call of her vicious, abusive mother (Mo’Nique). Precious can only rely on herself and her imagination. All looks lost until the teen attends an alternative school, where a benevolent teacher (Patton) urges Precious to break through by writing. Or something like that. The movie is certainly packed with drama, but more isn’t necessarily better. The rising tide of tragedy encountered by Precious is desensitizing and it dwarfs the progress of the protagonist and the relationship she builds with her teacher and welfare counselor (a deglamorized Carey, who’s surprisingly good). Geoffrey Fletcher’s disjointed, poorly organized script (based on a novel by Sapphire) doesn’t do Daniels or his hard-working cast any favors by opting for flash and shock over insight and pacing. Bottom line: don’t believe the hype on this unsatisfying, depressing feel-good movie. Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey served as executive producers, ensuring that the movie will be covered by every media outlet known to man. ** [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

Tales of the City


When I go to screening in NYC, it's usually pretty routine. People file in, sit down, and quietly watch the movie. The same applies to travel on the train--folks tend to keep to themselves. I get the chance to finish some work, listen to some music.

However, the last few times I've ventured into the big city, I've encountered some strange behavior. The three events that I'm about to chronicle happened within the last month.

--At a huge screening of An Education, an older woman asked if I was a film critic, to which I said yes. Twice in the course of the movie, she made two observations that were meant to frame her as an observant film watcher. But they made her sound a bit like a lunatic. They were:

1.) "She didn't give him back the change."
2.) "That car has been parked there the entire movie."

Those would have been fine if we were watching movie centering around espionage and double crosses, not a precocious girl growing up with a broken heart in 1960s London.

--A few days later I was back in the city to catch Precious. Now for those who haven't seen the movie, it's pretty intense. For reasons I can't comprehend, there were two chuckleheads sitting behind me who kept laughing, to the point where some other audience members were getting peeved. I didn't say anything because it was hard for me to gauge if these guys were douchebags or if that's how they reacted to the movie's heaping portions of misery.

Either way, I'm sure they found their way to the short bus after the screening ended. Maybe they even stopped for ice cream.

--On the way home from Precious, I took the train home and watched with absolute joy as a 30ish drunk woman belligerently and drunkenly flirted with the petrified 21-year-old guy who foolishly sat next to her.

"I'm such a cougar," she bellowed at one point.

Then, for reasons that still baffle me, the older guy sitting behind her began talking to her. She then began criticizing the guy--who, let's be frank, was a moron for initiating a convesation with this ditz--on his dating life. It was fantastic theater--you could tell the guy regretted his decision, yet he couldn't pull away--and the one reason why public transportation cannot be beaten for sheer entertainment value.

The best part about this? The woman thought she was hot, but she was clearly five years, 25 pounds, and a bad dye job past her prime. It was more awkward than watching Sandra Bullock play someone 15 years her junior in All About Steve or Tara Reid play a brainiac in Alone in the Dark.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

October's Book of the Month


I love books. They're fun, educational, and if you collect enough of them your place will look a professor's office.

The Xmas holidays are just around the corner, which means that we'll be bombarded with the same programming, the same icons. That's fine, but the people in these projects tend to get categorized. Before he landed Community, I'm sure there are millions of kids who only knew Chevy Chase as the guy from Christmas Vacation. Are people aware that James Stewart was a legend, not just a guy who did one movie (which tanked when it first released)?

With that said, I think it's extremely important that the late Jean Shepherd (pictured) get some recognition. He's the brains behind A Christmas Story and its narrator, but did you know that he was a radio legend? And did you know that the man was a tremendous humorist, profiling his experiences growing up in Indiana, beyond pining for a Red Ryder BB gun? He wrote about dating, ice cream wars, and life in the Army.

To me, Shepherd is one of the best chroniclers of life in small-town America, right up there with Richard Russo. He's funny, keenly observant, and a great storyteller, the same qualities that make A Christmas Story so good.

With the books, start with Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Remeberances and Other Disasters. In fact, I may re-read that. It's been too long.

Get to a library, jerks.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Best Email I've Ever Received

Over at Dyalogues.com, R. Kurt Osenlund (who writes terrific, mostly film-related essays and features for ICON) and I just completed a discussion on the decade's worst movie. Kurt's choice was the last Transformers movie; I opted for 2006's Date Movie, the only time I can remember walking out of a movie theater feeling like the filmmakers had nothing but contempt for me.

However, there is one terrible movie that I failed to mention in my raving--2002's The 13th Child: The Legend of the Jersey Devil--Volume 1. It didn't really have much of a release, but it was kind of a big deal in New Jersey, since that is the legend's origin. So, I did have easy access to the movie.

How, I wish I didn't.

You can read the review here, but in brief, the movie was god-awful. I wrote the review for Filmcritic.com, went on about my daily life, and tried to forget what I had seen. (Judging from conversations I've had with other Jerseyans who saw the film, the last thought is a shared sentiment.)

What makes the movie so special to me? About two years later, I received an out-of-the-blue email from Michelle Maryk, the star of The 13th Child. The entire email is reprinted below, and it remains a career highlight.

Dear Pete

You'll be surprised as hell that I'm writing to you but I got a HUGE kick out of your dead-on review of 13TH CHILD.

This , by the by, is Michelle Maryk from the aforementioned study in filmic torture. I couldn't agree with you more on all points- of course, your comments about me smarted a litlle but were pretty right on and nothing I myself haven't said a thousand times about this "movie".
For me, it was a great experience to be on a set for that many weeks and a very excellent lesson in what people should never do if they make a movie. I have to tell you, I was lucky if I ever got more than one take and I was battling with people that clearly had no clue as to what they were doing.

I'm happy to tell you, though, that I am pretty good at what I do (the blackhole of 13TH CHILD notwithstanding) and you'd likely enjoy that more. In a couple of weeks I'll have my own website up and you can see for yourself- www.michellemaryk.com.

Keep up the great, brutally honest work.

Take care,
Michelle Maryk


P.S.--This is what I got when I did a Google image search for "happy mailman." Sure.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Send in the Clowns


For the last year or so, I've written profiles for TCNJ Magazine, the publication of my alma mater, the College of New Jersey.
One of the cool things about writing for the magazine is that Tony Marchetti, the magazine's editor, assigns me great stories. I've written about grads involved in the television industry, the man who created Odyssey of the Mind (Sam Micklus) and an alum who was an alternate delegate at last year's RNC.

This time around I wrote about graduate Matthew Weber, who with his younger brother Mark, filmed a short documentary, Clownfest: Five Days in the Alley. It was shown in festivals throughout the area, and it presented Matt with a golden opportunity--he discovered that his true passion was filmmaking, not finance.

Anyway, I interviewed Matt, who was gregarious and forthright, who talked about making the movie, which is available for sale at the film's Web site. It's an interesting, insightful look into the life and training of a clown.

If you'd like to read the story, click here.

Hello, Florida!


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
Michael Mann.
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

A Little Love for J.K. Simmons

Years ago, Roger Ebert had a rule called the "Harry Dean Stanton/M. Emmet Walsh Rule," whereby any movie featuring either character actor was better for them being in it.

I'd like to amend that rule to include J.K. Simmons.

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.

The last one is staggering: How many supporting actors are the best part of a super-huge, blockbuster franchise? I'm shocked more people don't make a big deal out of this. It's like MoneyPenny being the only reason to watch the early James Bond movies.

Anytime I see J.K. Simmons listed on the cast list, I'm a little bit happier. The man is great at what he does, and he doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves.

Here's to you, Mr. Simmons. Keep making Jason Reitman look good.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Film Round-Up for October


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]

Review of More than a Game


This review previously appeared in ICON, and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

Good, but not great. Is it just me, or has the LeBron James publicity juggernaut really ramped it into high gear of late? Not only does he have the movie, but a book (co-written by Buzz Bissinger of all folks.)

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 fa├žade. 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

14:57, 14:58...


I'm not a big fan of Megan Fox, namely because I can't like an actress solely because she's pouty and prone to parade about in tank tops. Some degree of talent has to be involved, which might be why Fox's star vehicle, Jennifer's Body, tanked this past weekend. Drew Magary of Deadspin has an excellent column on why the tattooed actress--and former parmour of Brian Austin Green--doesn't really matter. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

My DVD Player, 2005-09


EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ--Pete Croatto's DVD player died Thursday night after it failed repeatedly to read a DVD screener of Henry Jaglom's Irene in Time. It was three years old.

The machine, which did not have a name, had demonstrated repeated glitches in the last several months. Last week Mr. Croatto tried to start the sleek silver Daewoo model countless times, before the machine resorted to opening and closing at random. The decision to euthanize came hours later.

"It was an excellent machine," Croatto said, battling tears, on Sunday night. "The old girl was really there for the professional boost of my career. It ingested countless screeners for Home Media Magazine and ICON, and it provided consistent entertainment."

Croatto added, "I'm just sorry that its last movie was The Baader-Meinhof Complex. It deserved a much better send-off."

The DVD player was bought at a Shop-Rite in December 2005 for $30. The purchase was made under the advisement of his mother, Dot, who alerted her son to the "big deal sale." The machine had a steady, if unspectacular run, before the wear and tear showed.

"When it's time, it's time, but that doesn't make this any easier," said a distraught Croatto.

Croatto said his Playstation 2 will serve as a makeshift player until adjustments are made. The machine is survived by a 27-inch TV set, about 60 DVDs of varying quality, a Cambridge Soundworks radio/CD player, a turntable, and an iHome.

Burial, in a Dumpster, is slated for Monday.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

September's Book of the Month


I love books. They're fun, educational, and they keep TV humble.

As a birthday gift, my brother and his girlfriend gave me a six-month subscription to Netflix. Is it a bit much for someone with my viewing habits, like giving one of those fat babies on The Maury Povich Show a wheelbarrow full of bacon?

Hell, no.

I can always watch more movies, and I always feel like I'm behind. There are directors whose work I know nothing about, classics I've missed. I'm insatiable that way, and basic cable and free movies on demand don't scratch that itch. Access to innumerable movie titles on someone else's dime does.

The first title to arrive in the happy, fire-engine red envelope was Disc 1 of Tales of the City. I had missed it during its initial run on PBS in 1994 because, well, I was busy memorizing textbooks and thinking that pushing my GPA past 3.9 would guarantee me success forever more.

Those were lost years, my friends, lost years.

Anyway, my interest in the miniseries escalated after I read the first two books in Armistead Maupin's series about gay and straight singles living in 1970s San Francisco. And that leads us to September's "Book(s) of the Month"--Tales of the City and More Tales of the City. (I haven't read the other books in the series, but I will.) They're like fun, smart literate soap operas that you can devour in a few days. I love books like that. You get entertained without feeling stupid.
Get to a library, jerks.

September's Film Round-Up


In this edition of The Film Round-Up: Is an alien movie one of the year's best? Damn straight. Is (500) Days of Summer the best romantic comedy since Annie Hall? Uh, no. Is Judd Apatow making progress as a mature director? You betcha. Will I ever stop complaining about The Time Traveler's Wife? Soon, child, soon.
Here's another complaint: The Aubrey Plaza worship. I wasn't impressed with her in Funny People, where she was another of these sardonic, sleepy, afraid-to-be-funny comedians that the younger generation keeps unloading. Is this what Michael Cera and Juno has wrought?

Sorry if this batch of movies is on the old side, but there's a reason. First, September is a notoriously crappy month for new releases, and screening invites (and my wallet) were slim. Second, I can't remember a late July/August that had a stronger slate of movies.

Why do I care? My birthday is in late August, so when I was younger my parents used to take me and my friends to dinner and a movie. Well, by the time my birthday hit, everyone had seen the blockbusters, so we were stuck watching gems like Delirious and My Blue Heaven. It was the only rough patch of an otherwise idyllic childhood.

Anyway, I'm hoping to get back to posting more stuff soon. But it's been busy. I have a local freelance writing/editing job that's pretty time consuming and a new column for BiblioBuffet coming up. I guess when it rains, it pours, huh?

These reviews previously appeared in the September issue of ICON, and are reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

October will have some kick-ass reviews of newer stuff, including some indie gems and maybe LeBron James's new documentary. Still ironing out the details...

Funny People (Dir: Judd Apatow). Starring: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, Aubrey Plaza, RZA. For his third feature, writer/director Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up) gets serious. After being diagnosed with an almost incurable blood disease, self-absorbed comedy superstar George Simmons (Sandler) reevaluates his life and makes some changes, which include befriending an aspiring stand-up comedian (Rogen) and reconnecting with his lost love (Mann), who's now married with children. When George's health unexpectedly improves, he finds it hard to maintain his personal growth. Ambitious juggling of belly laughs and high drama works quite well, with Apatow showing how difficult it can be to shake our life roles, whether it's as a celebrity, regular joe, or mother. The cast is outstanding, especially Sandler, whose own mega-success gives the movie an undeniable vulnerability. Funny People is not perfect--it veers toward the sentimental too easily; the movie could lose two supporting characters and 15 minutes--but it's proof that Apatow's expanding creative vision hasn't diminished his talents. From here, his future still looks pretty damn good. [R] ***

(500) Days of Summer (Dir: Marc Webb). Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Geoffrey Arend, Chloe Moretz, Matthew Gray Gubler, Clark Gregg. Los Angeles greeting card writer Tom (Gordon-Levitt) falls hopelessly in love with his long-lost romantic ideal, a charming, whip-smart co-worker named Summer (Deschanel). Despite his best efforts and romantic aspirations, she doesn't feel the same way, a fact that becomes increasingly apparent and awkward over the course of 500 days. Amazingly, director Webb and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (the same duo who wrote The Pink Panther 2; really, you can look it up) keep the movie clever and bright while exposing the dark side of romance, namely the self-denial we muster in trying to make our expectations align with reality. A huge help is that Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel deliver nuanced, winning performances, never making us wonder why we're following a doomed couple. Though it's a little too cute for its own good, offering us pre-teens spouting relationship advice and a soundtrack designed to isolate anyone over age 35, the movie is a salvation from the usual rom-com stupidity. [R] ***

District 9 (Director: Neill Blomkamp). Starring: Sharlto Copley, Vanessa Haywood, Louis Minnaar. Twenty years ago, a gigantic spaceship docked over Johannesburg, not stirring for three months. Growing impatient, we humans forcibly removed the aliens, putting them in a temporary camp. Things haven't gone well since. That camp, known as District 9, has devolved into a militarized slum of one million otherworldly residents, while the flesh-and-blood citizens of the South African city want them gone. Enter mega-corporation MNU, which sends a hapless company man (Copley, who's excellent) to lead the mass eviction. But when he's accidentally sprayed with an alien substance, the tables turn on him. Shot like a documentary (the interviews and news footage are a nice touch), the movie works as a sad commentary on human relations and the growing power of big business, as a special effects showcase, and as breakneck, armrest-gripping entertainment. A rare example of style and substance meshing perfectly, and one of the year's best. Peter Jackson served as a producer. [R] ****

The Time Traveler's Wife (Dir: Robert Schwentke). Starring: Eric Bana, Rachel McAdams, Ron Livingston, Arliss Howard, Stephen Tobolowsky, Hailey McCann. A young man (Bana) spends his life uncontrollably traveling through time, but having an ability that most people dream of possessing has a heartbreaking, possibly destructive consequence: the man's wife (McAdams) can't join him. Clunky and lifeless adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger's best-selling novel has such a nebulous, confusing premise that Bana and McAdams, two talented actors, become attractive afterthoughts. The movie's sweeping love story--she's known he's a time traveler since she was little--gets obliterated as Ghost scribe Bruce Joel Rubin uses his script to futilely set-up and explain the constant cosmic back and forth. There's no grace, no heat, no passion; it's like watching a big-screen adaptation of a groovy physics textbook starring pretty people. I can't recall a movie promoted so hard as a grand romance that failed so resoundingly in reaching its objective. [PG-13] *

Review of Julie & Julia


If you haven't caught it yet, please do so. It's very good. And it paints bloggers (like the one pictured) in a flattering light.

The review appeared in the September issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

Julie & Julia is pleasant, and not in a euphemistic way, like a trip to the dentist's or a visit to see Uncle Tyrone in the extended care facility. The movie is sprightly, wise, and fun without being obnoxious. In short, it's the opposite of director/writer Nora Ephron's output over the last decade.

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

Please Read

My interview with filmmaker Adam Scorgie (The Union: The Business Behind Getting High) is up at BroBible.com. You can link to it right here. The review is also up on FilmCritic.com if you want to mosey over there.

Enjoy!

Problem Solved


It's been a few days since I filed my film reviews for ICON, and it's only just now that I realized why I hated The Time Traveler's Wife so much while Julie & Julia was such a gem.

In the latter film, director/writer Nora Ephron took great pains to establish the human side of her characters. Ephron's problem over the years is that she's been so love in with a concept that'she's completely forgotten about people...Julie & Julia is the first movie from her in nearly two decades where her main characters are people you care about, who you root for.

Also, Amy Adams is good, while Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci are terrific.

All too often the people who make romance-flavored films think that offering visual and audio cues will be enough to grab our attention. (Ephron did this for years; Made of Honor was the worst movie of 2008 for that very reason. God, that was a demeaning, demoralizing affair.) That's the reason why The Time Traveler's Wife fails from the start, because all we get our prompts--star-crossed lovers, death, miscarriages, somber speeches about commitment, cute children--without a reason to care. That makes for a good trailer but a terrible movie.

Also, Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana have the chemistry of a couple on an awkward first date at Hoolihan's. The only way it could have been worse was if McAdams kept looking at her watch, repeatedly reminding him that she has to be home by 10. Or if he flirted with their 17-year-old waitress the entire time.

Actually, that's a scene from a movie I'd watch. You think we can get them to reunite?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Who Would Play Me?

A couple of weeks ago, I saw Julie & Julia, which I quite liked. I go into more detail in my main review for ICON, but two things: Meryl Streep is amazing, and if Stanley Tucci doesn't get an Oscar nomination, I'll be royally pissed. He matches Streep scene for scene.

The one thing about the movie, and I could be wrong, but I think it's the first one I've seen that really promotes blogging. Julie Powell (Amy Adams), who's the "Julie" in the film's title, give her life a jump start when she spent a year writing a blog about making all the recipes in Julia Child's cookbook.

That got me thinking: I run a blog, so it's completely fathomable that my life could be the basis of a feature film. In casting me, I'm sure they'd go the sensitive hunky guy route--John Krasinksi, Chris Messina, John Cusack--because film critic parts don't go to Clive Owen and Gerard Butler. Looking back the best we got was George Sanders, and he was a manipulative douche.

I figure I'd save everyone the trouble. With my build and increasingly bushy beard, I've found someone who's perfect for the role...

Garth Hudson from The Band.



Or, if you want to appeal to the African-American community, the late Cornelius Bumpus.



Yup, I just created a license to print money. "This summer from Paramount Pictures, organ legend Garth Hudson and Anne Hathaway star in the romantic comedy, Critical Sass!"

And the Verdict Is...

The Time Traveler's Wife was lousy. I can't believe I wasted two hours of sunshine and $6.00 on this crap. It moved with the grace of a docked ocean liner.


Try using that blurb, publicity goons!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Trailers and Music...The Next Frontier


Have you guys seen the previews for The Time Traveler's Wife? I've been to the multiplex three times in the last week, and I saw the trailer once, and the movie's music video once. Both times Lifehouse's "Broken" was featured.

It the kind of song that's featured on a high-strung 16-year-old's mix tape. It could be listened during a break up or during a backseat make-out session, and it sounds like every other song played during the trailer for one of these tender, life-altering romantic movies. It's like the movie wants to be generic, lumped in with the likes of The Lake House.

(Full disclosure: For some reason, I'm intrigued about this movie. I know it's probably going to be terrible, but I really like Rachel McAdams, and I'm baffled about why her character would marry a time traveler. I'd like to think at some point common sense and alleviating misery trumps love, but what the hell do I know.

Still, I know there are a legion of people who'd rather dive into a pool of glass than watch this thing. I'm writing this for them.)

This got me thinking: I'd love to see the trailer people go the complete direction music-wise. Wouldn't it be awesome if TTW featured "Poker Face" by Lady GaGa? What about an avant-guarde jazz track to accompany Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams kissing? Or an extended Hammond organ solo?

The thing is, I'm completely convinced the people who like these movies will see them regardless of what's playing, so why not shake things up? Give the guys who are forced to take girlfriends to these movies something to hope for? "Time Traveler's Wife? Yeah, I'd see that. I'm curious how "Why Does It Hurt When I Pee" ties into the movie." The same theory applies to blockbuster action movies. Let's have Sarah McLachlan handle lead track duties for Michael Bay's next ode to wasteful spending.

If anything, it'd get that damn Lifehouse song out of my head. "I'm falling apart. I'm barely breathing."

Monday, August 3, 2009

Review of Big Fan


This review previously appeared in ICON, and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

Suprisingly good movie, here, folks. If you liked The Wrestler, this is right up your alley.

Two of my longtime passions are sports and film, but my fanaticism is served with a chaser of reality. I'm only concerned with the entertainment presented in front of me.
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]

Film Round-Up for August


In this edition of THE FILM ROUND-UP: One of our favorites (Jeff Daniels) is good in a bad movie; a grown-up Anna Chlumsky turns up in a funny political satire; and two docs--one religious-minded and one TV-minded. (These reviews were previously published in ICON and are reprinted with permission. Thanks, Trina.)

Lots going on, so you may not see me for a while. Lots of assignments to keep me busy (that's good, I think), but I will throw in a couple of posts as well as a few links to kick-ass interviews. (Cross your fingers...)
See, I still like you. We're still cool.

The Answer Man (Dir: John Hindman). Starring: Jeff Daniels, Lauren Graham, Lou Taylor Pucci, Kat Dennings, Olivia Thirlby, Nora Dunn, Tony Hale. Twenty years ago, Arlen Faber (Daniels) wrote Me and God, a Q&A with the Big Man himself that gave spiritual guidance to millions. The author isn't one of them. Bitter and lost, Faber has become a recluse, albeit one with a fantastic Philadelphia apartment. When his back goes out, Faber drags himself to a struggling chiropractor (Graham), who rehabs his vertebrae and wayward life. Former ICON cover boy Daniels is terrific as usual, with debut director Hindman giving him lots of juicy dialogue. It's too bad that his script's foundation is shaky, failing to fill us in on how Faber became such a misanthrope or how Graham's character civilizes him. The movie is clearly a showcase for Daniels to be lovably acerbic (a la Jack Nicholson in As Good as it Gets), but Hindman's quest to do so jeopardizes the movie's tone and even goes against logic. Subplot about a recovering alcoholic who runs the local bookstore (Pucci) is a poorly disguised ploy to generate warm and fuzzies, ditto Daniels' scenes with Graham's adorable, abandoned son. Hindman's attempt to mix breeziness with life lessons is sometimes amusing, but mostly the movie is awkward and clunky. 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 **

Monday, July 27, 2009

Annoying Tales of Freelance Writing, Part I


Aside from reading books and watching movies, sometimes our intrepid blogsmith moves away from his comfort zone and attempts to drum up work as a freelance writer. The following is the first in a series of posts detailing the perils of this job.

Earlier this week, a big thing happened. I got my second essay published, this time in Gelf Magazine. I'm very proud of the essay, "Browsing for Godot," which features interviews with Susan Orlean, David Sedaris, and Chuck Klosterman.

Seriously, I'm just relieved this thing ran somewhere. I would have been happy if it was in the circular for FoodTown. I began writing this essay in Fall 2007 for Publishers Weekly, which published my first essay earlier that year. Initially, the editor was very psyched about it, so I started making phone calls, wrote a draft, and sent it off.

Then I wrote another draft, and another. PW eventually said no thanks--the essay wasn't concrete enough. So, I worked on it some more--trimming the fat, reworking points, contacting more sources (namely Sedaris), and consulting friends. I passed it back to PW.

Again, no taker.

Then, after an encouraging word from a few friends, I began shipping it around. Salon politely said no thanks. Slate never got back to me. The New York Times Book Review passed, as did The Chicago Tribune. The Philadelphia Inquirer ignored me like I was a $15.00 screening of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. My editor at The Star-Ledger said there was no room for essays.

At this point, I was determined to get this essay published somewhere, so I turned to Gelf, a great Web magazine that covers the overlooked. (They're also one of the few places that does fantastic interviews with sports writers.) The editor there, David Goldenberg, loved it, but wanted some additions and revisions: cue more phone calls, more red pen wizardry, more starts and stalls.

Then another editor joined in, Adam Rosen (an ever-patient gentlman), who had more suggestions, which led to more revisions and tinkering. So, after all was said and done, the essay you now see went through two years, at least a dozen revisions, and at least that many query letters.

So, what did I learn?

Nothing is ever given to you as a freelance writer. I really wish they would teach this in journalism classes. If you're a freelancer, you better be prepared to scrape and bellow and pound the pavement. Sometimes you get lucky, but more times than not you better be prepared to hear the word "no" more often than "yes." (NOTE: Oddly enough, days after this piece ran, I got two freelancing jobs with suprising ease.)
Still, the satisfaction of hearing 'yes," and then seeing the final product is pretty bloody fantastic. It's an awesome feeling.