Monday, January 26, 2009

How Much is Too Much?

One thing I love to do when visiting other people's places for the first time is to look through their book and DVD collection. To me, that gives you a look into someone's personality better than rifling through their closet or medicine cabinet.

I was on a double date the other night, and after dinner we went back to the other couple's place. The boyfriend had a large collection of DVDs, a good mixture of serious stuff and good-time flicks. The collection wasn't overwhelming, but big enough so he had entertainment options aplenty without needing an online catalogue to keep track of everything.

This was a guy, I thought, who gets it. I'm continually perplexed by people who think the key to a DVD collection is volume. Raging Bull is a great movie, but is it a re-watchable movie? What about 21 Grams, Mulholland Drive, or the other movies in the Naomi Watts Uncomfort Collection? For me, the answer is no. The DVDs may look good on the shelf, but the point is to watch them at some point, not to score cool points in case J. Hoberman comes over to your apartment.

I think part of the problem is that most DVDs get pretty affordable as time passes, so it seems like a good investment. "Hey, The Limey is $5.99, that's a fantastic deal." Well, it is and it isn't. You're getting a good buy, but you have to store it somewhere, and how many times are you going to watch it? Is it essential that you own it, especially if a new technology might make the existing medium extinct in five to 10 years? For the movie buff, the price can affect priorities very quickly.

I used to have the same logic, but it quickly changed when I moved from a duplex (described by a friend as "the place that hope dies") to a smaller condo where hope survives. When I packed up my VHS tapes and DVDs, I was amazed at how much I had accumulated. I could have opened up the video section of Shawshank's library. (Don't get me started on the books.)

So, after that experience, I vowed to follow the advice of Gary Phillips, the owner of the late, great American Video in Aberdeen. I'd collect movies that would be essential viewing if the cable were out or I had nothing better else to do. And every few months or so, I take a good, hard look at my collection and make some cuts. An unopened Super Troopers had to go, so did some videos I got from my days at Home Media Magazine.

But if I ever get consistent work, I'm so buying The Naomi Watts Uncomfort Collection. It's now $29.99 on Amazon.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

This is the American movie theater; know the rules!

At some point, I'm going to write a handbook on going to the movies. And it won't be just for the younger crowd, but for everyone. They'll all be sent like jury notices.

Case in point. I went to see a screening of Revoutionary Road with the girlfriend last week at Nassau Theater in Princeton, a small art house theater. Typically, the crowds there are well-behaved and mid-sized, usually. Last Saturday afternoon was a huge crowd, so seating was tight. For these folks, the latest Kate Winslet movie is like Iron Man opening at the mall.

Seated next to us was an older couple, probably in their seventies, who proceeded to talk loudly from the coming attractions into the movie, like they were recording a commentary track. And it was stupid stuff like, "Look at the suits they're wearing" and "Oh, they were together in Titanic."

Eventually, I told them--civilly, of course--to shut their pie holes. But the whole affair bothered me. They're older, so they should know better. And they ignored a key movie rule, which I've just now created.

Rule #1: At the movies, you can only talk audibly when there's a three-seat area surrounding you, not when you're packed flank to flank. If the area is smaller, you may whisper occasionally to the person sitting next to you. Violation of the rules will result in death.

I have a feeling this rule may be broken flagrantly in the coming years, as home entertainment systems and cable TV become more prominent, and people can't separate their public behavior from their home behavior. Not good.
The good news is that I can give senior citizens and 10-year-olds the business. I'm the friggin' man.

Oscar Nominees: The (Yearly) Aftermath

So, a few days have passed since the annoucement of the Academy Awards nominees, and I've calmed down considerably. The black outs aren't as severe and I've started to eat solid foods again. Thanks to all who sent cards and letters.

I'm kidding, of course, but the Academy Awards do frustrate me. For every credible nominee (Richard Jenkins for his layered, probing work in The Visitor; Robert Downey Jr. for his performance in Tropic Thunder, the only consistent aspect of that movie's attempt at big laughs/satire), the Academy misses the boat, the water, and the planet Earth.

Let's take a look at The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and its 13 nominations. How does a movie that's created solely to court Oscar votes not get away with getting such accolades? This is a film that pretty much was made from a prestige film starter kit. Decades-spanning storyline? Check. Ridiculous attempts to fashion a Christ-like character? Yup. Doomed love story? Sure thing. Padded running time to make the movie feel important? Double-check. Lots of fancy make-up and great costumes?

You get the idea.

Late every year, studios trot out "serious" movies like Benjamin Button, in the hopes that critics, award committees, and Oscar voters wet themselves, which will lead to Jack and Jill Consumer to shell out $20.00 in movie tickets for a night out. Some of these movies are terrific (The Reader, The Wrestler, Frost/Nixon) but a lot of these are as hollow as the summer blockbusters. Witness Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio's two-hour screaming match as suburban satire in Revolutionary Road or Clint Eastwood's borderline sitcomish stand on race relations in Gran Torino. Oh, and let's not forget about Doubt--a filmed play marked with some of the most obvious, showy camerawork short of a freshman film class.

The bottom line is that it's extremely important to not get suckered by movies that look "important." Do a little research on and see what the director and screenwriter's past is like. Did you like their previous movies? Check Rotten Tomatoes and see what the criticial consensus, or better yet, find a critic who you can relate to, who you can rely on. Or find a friend whose tastes match yours. Use the information out there as your guide.

I watch all these movies for two reasons: 1.) I get paid to do this; and 2.) I love movies much too much that I'm afraid to miss anything. But in these rough economic times, going to the movies needs to be more scientific. Don't waste your money on garbage, if you don't have to. It's like online dating. Would you go out with someone without reading their profile or seeing a picture? I wouldn't, and it's the same with paying to see a movie. Your time is valuable so do a little legwork to decrease your odds of watching crapola.

And don't trust the Academy Awards on everything. This is the same group of morons who bestowed an award to Kim Basinger in LA Confidential over Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights, who handed over statuettes to Crash, and who awarded Scorsese his Best Director award but not for Goodfellas or Raging Bull. They make mistakes, just like every other awards outfit, whether its the Pultizer committee, the sportswriters who vote for the NBA MVP, or the Grammys.

You are the ultimate authority, and the Academy Awards is a yearly reminder.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Film Round-Up for January

This previously appeared in the January issue of ICON, and is reprinted with permission.

In the latest edition of the Film Round-Up: Thompson and Hoffman charm; Rourke makes a strong case for the Oscar (while Marisa Tomei is still de lovely), Danny Boyle gets it right, and a big festival winner is worth the hype.

The Wrestler (Dir: Darren Aronofsky). Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Todd Barry, Judah Friedlander. Former star wrestler Randy "the Ram" Robinson, now reduced to reliving his glory days in school gymnasiums and American Legion halls throughout New Jersey, gets one last shot to partially recapture his 1980s heyday--but his poor health and the pull of real-world stability in the form of an estranged daughter (Wood) and a single mom/stripper crush (Tomei) contribute to a fierce internal battle. Believe the Oscar buzz for Rourke, who is absolutely fantastic. Not only does he look the part with his craggy façade and stringy hair, he fully brings to life every facet of the Ram's loser ways without resorting to depressed theatrics or hurling pity at the audience. It's an achingly human performance. Tomei and Wood are both first-rate, fleshing out their characters to show the substance and small progress of Ram's stagnant, self-destructive life. Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream), to his credit, stands back and lets the details tell the story--the duct tape on Ram's jacket, his daughter clutching his arm, and his best girl's last look before he faces his fate. One of 2008's best was written by Robert D. Siegel, the former editor-in-chief of The Onion. R ****

The Class (Dir: Laurent Cantet). Starring: François Bégaudeau, Nassim Amrabt, Laura Baquela, Cherif Bounaïdja Rachedi, Juliette Demaille. Winner of the prestigious Palme d' Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Cantet (Time Out) examines the working year of a French high school teacher and his two dozen students. We see the kids bicker with each other, work on assignments, and how the teacher (author Bégaudeau, who taught high school at one point) deals with it all. Despite the lack of apparent activity, this largely improvisational film is compelling as we see power and class struggles unfold among people confined to one place. The teacher is far from an authority figure, but a fallible human being trying to keep up with 24 restless, inquisitive souls of various ethnicities. Cantet refuses to assign blame or heap superlatives on any character, opting for a documentary-like style that gives credibility and honesty to what happens onscreen. Some may call the movie a parable for world politics, but it's terrific at face value, an example of real-life, understated filmmaking gone right. R ***

Last Chance Harvey (Dir: Joel Hopkins). Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Kathy Baker, Eileen Atkins, Liane Balaban, Richard Schiff, James Brolin. His career hanging by a thread, sad-sack American jingle writer Harvey Shine (Hoffman) travels abroad for his estranged daughter's wedding. He should have stayed home. Humiliated by his happily remarried ex-wife (Baker) and shunned by the bride-to-be (Balaban), Harvey then gets stuck at Heathrow. Oh, and he loses his job. Desperate for a friendly ear, he starts chatting with a lovelorn airport worker/aspiring writer (Thompson) who's also at the end of her rope. The two hit it off and wind up spending an impromptu and redemptive night together in London. Yes, the story is slight and is pretty much an AARP version of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, but the two leads' bottomless charm allows you to overlook the weaknesses while celebrating their characters' second chance. Schmaltzy and predictable, but Hoffman and Thompson's splendid performances make it impossible to resist. A lightning-quick running time also helps. Director Hopkins also wrote the script. PG-13 ***

Slumdog Millionaire (Dir: Danny Boyle). Starring: Dev Patel, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Tanay Hemant Chheda, Madhur Mittal, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor. While competing on India's version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, 20-year-old street kid Jamal Malik (Patel) goes on an unprecedented hot streak. The key to his success isn't that he's a genius or even an avid reader--he just answers the increasingly tough questions by recalling the arduous, sometimes horrific, events of his young, vagabond life (with Chheda and Mittal playing Jamal as a boy and teenager in flashbacks.) At the center of Jamal's remembrances, and his appearance on the hit show, is the search for his true love (Pinto). Relentlessly entertaining and full of moments both heartbreaking and triumphant, Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) never takes his foot off the gas, but the characters always remain painfully flesh and blood. That Boyle and writer Simon Beaufoy balance a breakneck, gritty story and a storybook romance, without compromising either, constitutes a minor miracle. Among a great cast, Kapoor nearly steals the film as the manipulative game show host with zero sympathy for Jamal's hard-luck past. R ****

Review of Frost/Nixon

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

Seriously, folks, here is one of the best movies of 2008. Go see it, please.

Frost/Nixon is a political movie in the way that Citizen Kane is a newspaper movie or the Indiana Jones movies are an ode to archaeology. I mean that as a complement in the best way possible. Ron Howard's dazzling adaptation of Peter Morgan's acclaimed play isn't a poorly disguised op-ed piece that will be ancient by the time Obama's first term ends. Politics is (mercifully) just a backdrop for one of 2008's best movies and a certain Oscar nominee for Best Picture.

David Frost is now a venerable figure in journalism thanks to his historic 1977 grilling of Richard Nixon, but in 1974, when the movie opens, he is essentially a superior version of Ed McMahon. He hosts talk shows in London and Australia where he interviews the likes of the Bee Gees, enjoys a playboy reputation, and is famous for, well, it's hard to say. As one taunting writer put it at the time, he and Vidal Sassoon defined the 1970s.

The one thing that Frost (Michael Sheen) understands is television, so when he sees Nixon's departure from the White House, the first thing he notices is the timing. It's 6 a.m. on the West coast. Why say goodbye when half the country is asleep? He also realizes that Nixon would be a dream interview subject, the kind of "get" that would make him a player in America, where TV rules. He goes about trying to secure Nixon and a corresponding deal with any of the American networks.

As for Nixon (Frank Langella), his post-presidential life in California is appropriately palatial and secure, but there are no challenges, no problems to solve. By 1977, his public life consists of speaking on the banquet circuit where, to his chagrin, he's paraded around like "a circus animal" in "reducing the Presidency to banal anecdotes." And, of course, Watergate hangs over his head, taunting him. So, when Frost expresses interest in an interview, it's an enticing offer. First, there's a big pay day ($600,000). Second, Nixon will get the chance to offer his side of the story, which will be even easier since Frost, according to Nixon adviser Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), is not in the President's "intellectual class."

Nixon can control the interview, but he half-jokes that he should "bug Frost's hotel," which shows you how competitive the disgraced politician is. When Frost visits Nixon's estate to discuss the four 90-minute interviews and to hand over a whopping advance payment, Nixon can't help but bait Frost. "It's a duel," Nixon says. "No holds barred." The old man wants action and Frost has no choice but to respond.

If there's a lot of back story until the actual interview, it's with good reason. The movie is about two big personalities colliding, so it's absolutely necessary to paint a rich portrait of these two strong-willed men. Screenwriter Morgan does an outstanding job with that, using Frost and Nixon's emotional highs and lows to move the plot along, whether it's Nixon exploding at Jack after a Houston orthodontists' dinner or Frost, after an awful interview with Nixon, inviting his research team (which includes the dependable Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell in fine supporting roles) to a party. After hearing his invitation greeted with objections and ridicule, Frost meekly explains to his coworkers that it's his birthday and he wanted to spend a crappy day with friends.

Howard, with his pedigree in blockbusters, might seem an odd choice to direct a stage adaptation, but he's actually the best choice. He's made movies about parenthood and physics geniuses into entertaining and thoughtful films, and he does the same with Frost/Nixon. There's not an ounce of fat in this movie, and under his capable guidance it becomes an uncompromising character study that moves like a freight train. How many other directors could try that without insulting half the audience while boring the other half to tears? Ron Howard can direct, it's just that simple.

Of course, Sheen and Langella are magnificent, with special credit going to the latter. Portraying Nixon has got to be a thankless task in some regards, as he's become an easy impression for any drunken, half-wit party guest. The public knows him as a caricature. But Langella's performance is so nuanced and bottled up, and Morgan's dialogue is so insightful, that he gives us a sobering look into the soul of a man who attained power, but never had the self-esteem to match. Frost has the confidence, but as the interviews and surrounding problems drain it (not to mention his reputation and finances) you can almost see and hear Sheen wither.

This movie doesn’t follow suit. It just keeps getting better and better, including when Frost finally sits across from Nixon and starts the interviews that affected both men's lives. What happens? Well, you can read the articles and books, but you'd be better served watching Frost/Nixon, an amazing movie that manages to make a seemingly static event insightful and entertaining.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Year in Movies Explosion, 2008! Part Two!

Sorry for the delay between parts 1 and 2. The big reason is that I was interviewing for a job, which is a suprisingly tiring process. I had the second interview today--which went well--and I had to fight the urge to collapse on the couch as soon as I got home. I forgot the mental effort involved in preparing for an interview.
Well, let's go to the second (and final) part of The Movie Explosion for '08 and recap some of the highs and the lows.

The Best Deal You've Never Heard About: God bless AMC. If you go to a screening before noon (even on weekends), the ticket price is a paltry $6.00. I'm not kidding. That is a remarkable deal, especially for folks like me, the vaguely unemployed. The $6.00 deal was also a divine sign that my girlfriend is a keeper. I suggested recently that we see a 9:55 a.m. showing of Doubt. Instead of rolling her eyes, cursing the time she wasted, and posting her profile on, she willingly agreed to go. Yes, movie nerds, there is someone for you, and it's not Molly Haskell.
The Dumbest Marketing Ploy: Romantic comedies using Sarah Bereilles' "Love Song." Who's the ad wizard who came up with that one? The singer-songwriter admitted that her song--though peppy and energetic--isn't a love song, but a tart response to the genre. Listen to the lyrics: "I'm not going to write you a love song/'Cause you asked for it/Cause you need one." It's basically the 21st century answer to "I Will Survive," and that's the introduction to Made of Honor, a romantic comedy if ever there was one? Ugh.
The Saddest Exit: Sydney Pollack in the aforementioned Made of Honor. He should have had a better finale than costarring in the worst movie of the year. I still can't believe how rock-stupid that movie was. It made Love American Style look like a think piece.
The Biggest Disappointment: Indiana Jones 4. It wasn't a bad movie, but if they pick it up with Shia LaBeouf (and the movie practically screamed this was the case), I'll be joining the legions of weepy Generation Xers. It's amazing how outraged people were. You would have thought Spielberg and Lucas killed babies for two hours.
In Case You're Wondering: Speed Racer was the second-worst movie of '08 that I saw. It was like staring at a pinball machine.
The Best Comeback: Woody Allen in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Everyone's saying Mickey Rourke, but he's actually been doing solid work for a good decade in stuff like Sin City. For the first time in years, Allen made an original, sexy movie that didn't feel like he was recycling his past movies. Plus, he used Scarlett Johansson to her full-bodied potential.
The Star Who Needs to Go to Plan B: I love Naomi Watts to pieces, but can she please make a romantic comedy or star in a stupid action movie? She was bloody fantastic in Funny Games but it's another intense movie that brought me a step closer to therapy. Look, Kate Winslet did The Holiday. She can be a great actress and excel in lighter roles...Oh, and John Cusack: Please stop playing variations of Lloyd Dobler. When will it end, man?
The Star Who Should Stick to Plan B: It should be a law that Ice Cube stars in every children's movie. Take him away from The Comebacks and it's beyond awful. Put him in it, and it's enjoyable family fun...Also, Hilary Duff as a sexpot isn't such a bad thing. She was surprisingly good in War, Inc.
The Best Celeb Sightings: Regis Philbin (who was so tan that he looked like a carrot), James Lipton (who, for some reason, smelled terrific), Joy Behar, and David Denby, the film critic for The New Yorker. For me, that's a banner year.
The Movie Theater to Avoid Like the Plague: MegaMovies in East Brunswick, NJ. Adjectives can't do justice to how much I hate that place. Just never go to a movie that's based in a mall. It's heartache all around, folks. Though I did get to scare the bejeezus out of two 10-year-olds. That was exciting.
The Best Documentary of the Year that You Didn't See: Who Does She Think She Is?
The Worst Documentary of the Year that You Probably Saw: Gonzo. It's astonishing how pedestrian that movie was, and it was about Hunter S. Thompson.
Books I Read that Need to be Turned Into a Movie Immediately: How To Talk to a Widower by Jonathan Tropper...And I know this has become the Jancee Dunn site in recent months, but Don't You Forget About Me is tailor-made for the big screen.
My Resolution for 2009: Keep watching movies and keep getting published...So far, so good.