Saturday, March 28, 2009

Film Round-Up for March

In this edition of The Film Round-Up: A look at two independent documentaries and the ultimate showdown, Paul Blart: Mall Cop vs. The Pink Panther 2.

To make life easier, here's a photo of one of my favorite actresses (and, sadly, Pink Panther co-star) Emily Mortimer. I'm kind of mystified why she hasn't become a big star, or landed an Oscar nomination.

Speaking of which, have you seen what my colleague Sean O'Connell and I have been up to on We've been having spirited discussions on Benjamin Button, the best performer not to get an Oscar nom (alas, Mortimer missed the cut), and other film-related hijinks. Stop on by.

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

Sometimes it's smart to be stupid. Look at Paul Blart: Mall Cop (PG, directed by Steve Carr), about the bumbling adventures of an overweight, overachieving single dad (Kevin James) who's forced to protect his New Jersey mall when it's overrun by terrorists. The movie made over $30 million during its opening weekend, and will almost certainly top $100 million. Some may believe the popularity of a movie about the buffoonish antics of a fat guy with a bad moustache as a sign of the apocalypse. Yes, it's silly, but James (Hitch) saves the movie, refusing to turn his character into an oafish stereotype. In that regard, James is more like John Candy than Chris Farley, so he allows you to see the character's nice-guy soul, even when he's getting plastered at a karaoke bar or fighting an obese woman at Victoria's Secret. And, regardless of your movie tastes, there are some funny moments that take advantage of James's physicality and goofy charisma. One significant complaint: James' love interest (Jayma Mays) looks like she's about to graduate from high school. Are there any nice-looking actresses between the ages of 30 to 35 working in movies these days? **

The towering success of Paul Blart made me think that Steve Martin's reprisal as Inspector Jacques Clouseau in The Pink Panther 2 (Dir: Harald Zwart, PG) was going to gross somewhere between $150 million and the GDP of Spain. As of press time, the movie was a box-office disappointment. It should remain that way. Martin seems to believe his status as a comic genius and New Yorker-bylined wit will automatically imbue his rumbling, bumbling, stumbling Clouseau with ironic cleverness. It doesn't, especially when the script, which Martin co-wrote, has no build-up or thought behind any of the physical comedy. Or when most of the actors sport broad accents usually found at bad improv shows. Or when there are several scenes devoted to Clouseau getting sensitivity training, a topic that was last funny (or relevant) during the days right after Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill locked horns. Basically, Martin and company destroy the set--and a part of your soul--for an afternoon. It's aggressively unfunny and a waste of a gifted cast. After watching, I felt like recommending a good grief counselor to Alfred Molina, Emily Mortimer, and John Cleese. Anyone have a number handy? *

For those who don’t want to venture into the multiplex quite yet, consider these two titles, which should be opening soon at a nearby art house.

Guest of Cindy Sherman (Dir: Paul H-O and Paul Donahue). In 1993, artist Paul H-O got his first video camera, which became the springboard for his NYC public access show, Gallery Beat, as well as a diary. While chronicling artists and shows, Paul meets acclaimed, reclusive artist Cindy Sherman. Sherman, clearly smitten, agrees to be profiled by the persistent, forceful Paul, and the two begin dating soon after. This is a huge shock considering the super-cute, super-revered Sherman counted Steve Martin among her boyfriends. For Paul, the relationship becomes a double-edged sword: He clearly loves Cindy, but her massive success leaves him feeling inadequate. Aside from being a first-person account of a relationship going south, the film offers revealing insights into the increasing corporate nature of art, the perilous merging of fame and love, and a look at the denizens of the NYC gallery scene in and out of their element. The lack of focus is sometimes confounding, but the presence of Paul, who lived through all this, provides a redeeming personal perspective. If the movie is messy, it's with good reason. So is life. *** NR

Must Read After My Death (Dir: Morgan Dews). Dews' grandmother, Allis, left behind a massive archive of audio footage from the 1960s. It made sense. Allis' husband Charley spent four months a year in Australia, so the family bought Dictaphone recorders so everyone (including the couple's four children) could keep in touch. Years later, Dews uncovered these tapes--along with home movies and journals --and has used this material to construct a haunting reality. Allis chafed in her role as a housewife, while it's clear that Allis and Charley had their physical needs met by others. But what's really bone-chilling is how Allis uses the Dictaphone as her confessional, detailing her family falling apart at the seams--oldest son Chuck struggles mightily as a student, middle son Bruce gets committed--and the desperation in her voice as she figures out how to save everyone. Dews has done a remarkable job assembling a haunting piece of suburban strife, but the story deserves a resolution, or at least the perspective of surviving family members, that never comes. How did everyone move on? Or did they? Dews has shone the light on one aspect of his family's turbulent history but obscured another. *** NR

Review of The International

Watching this movie was truly a feat of endurance. First, it lumbers around like the washed-up jocks in The Wrestler. Second, the girlfriend and I saw this the day after we helped her youngest brother and now-wife move into their apartment. Put the two together and you're in for a long afternoon.

By the way, guys, unless you're a professional or between the ages of 21 and 22, try not to help out on a move on back-to-back days.

This review was previously published in the March issue of ICON, and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

The International features a tough guy with critical credibility (Clive Owen) and a serious actress (Naomi Watts) in the leading roles. It is directed by a foreign darling, and deals with the crushing influence of big banks. In case all those serious trappings don't get smart people away from their literary magazines and public television shows, the movie shuffles us around the world. Sure, it's an international thriller, but it's got a better pedigree than the others, including the ones starring that Jason Bourne person.

At least the Bourne series is exciting. The International feels like watching the world news for two hours, and there's no sports beat, sultry weather girl, or human interest piece to break the monotony. It spends so much time proving its substance that director Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) forgets about entertaining us, even when its main characters walk the fine line of danger.

Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Owen) and Manhattan Assistant D.A. Eleanor Whitman (Watts) are convinced that the powerful International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC) is funding organized crime worldwide. Their dogged investigation reaches a breakthrough when Lou's partner meets with an IBBC informant, but the taste of victory can be measured with a minute hand. The partner drops dead after his meeting, and the informant dies in a mysterious car crash soon after.

Ella and Lou redouble their efforts to find the truth on the IBBC, which leads the good-looking investigators to Italy, where their source is promptly assassinated. Undeterred, the duo's keen detection skills lead to the bank's contract killer (BrĂ­an F. O'Byrne), who is as stealthy and sneaky as his employer. As Ella and Lou get one step closer to exposing the IBBC, the banking giant gets annoyed. That means no one is safe.

The foundation is in place for a thrilling good time, but Tykwer and writer Eric Warren Singer violate a big rule of suspenseful moviemaking--show, don't tell. Ella and Lou's investigation is destroyed by explanations of the IBBC and world affairs, which make the movie move like it has a safe tied to its back. And I know financial institutions are perfectly villainous right now, but moviegoers need a human target for their hate. The IBBC execs are all bland and well-groomed and stuffy, but we never get the sense that they're capable of evil, nor do they seem to relish their roles as puppet-masters. Your boss is probably nicer.

In the movie's second half, Tykwer colors outside the lines. There's an amazing shootout in the Guggenheim, and we learn more about the IBBC's "cleaner" (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a former Stasi colonel who has lost his way. Those moves come with too much baggage. If the IBBC is so covert in its evil, would it really send a dozen men with automatic weapons to storm a city landmark? As for Lou's interaction with the aged colonel, the dialogue between them takes a jarring philosophical turn, a feeble attempt to show the parallels between two men of substance.

Once it lays down its premise, The International constantly feels uncertain of how it wants to proceed, an attitude that spreads to Watts, an actress of enormous power, the kind of talent that can jumpstart a stalled movie. But she's handcuffed with a blank role that gives her nothing to do. (Owen will be playing rugged anti-heroes until he dies, so he's fine.) She kind of flirts with Owen's character, keeping in line with Tykwer's "should I or shouldn't I?" approach--and we never find out why she's devoted to the IBBC case. Having Watts on hand does not give a movie instant credibility; you have to, you know, use her.

The movie is similarly ineffective. It just sits there, gathering dust, as the audience waits for something, anything to happen. The International doesn't need a director or a retooled screenplay. It needs jumper cables. R

Film Round-Up for February

Again, sorry for how late these reviews are, but think of it this way: If I were reviewing DVDs, all of this would be breaking news. It's all about spin, people.

In this edition of the Round-Up: The answer to why I loathe Benjamin Button (though Cate Blanchett is delightful!), how Clint saves Gran Torino, the shrieking theatrics of Revolutionary Road, and why The Reader shouldn't be judged so harshly. Hear me, O'Connell and Miarmi!

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

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Dir: David Fincher). Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Jared Harris, Tilda Swinton, Jason Flemyng, Julia Ormond. Decades-spanning tale examines the life of a man, born at the end of World War I, who ages in reverse and his remarkable experiences--ranging from serving on a tugboat in World War II and traveling the world to the harsh reality of falling in love and becoming a father. Pitt is solid in the title role and Blanchett, as the love of Button's life, is enchanting, but their performances can't support a sluggishly paced film that has no idea where its lead character stands. Sometimes Button is a god-like figure handing out syrupy observations; other times he's a world traveler burdened with an existential crisis. Mostly, he encounters memorable folks on his Forrest Gump-like adventures. All this award-baiting decoration gives the film no identity, while needlessly delaying the story between doomed lovers Pitt and Blanchett, the only time the movie hits a true note. It's hard to remember a movie that tried so hard to be important that has gotten away unscathed by the public. PG-13 *

The Reader (Dir: Stephen Daldry). Starring: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Bruno Ganz, Lena Olin. Growing up in 1950s Berlin, a now successful lawyer (Fiennes) had a passionate, secret affair with an older woman (Winslet), who consequently broke his heart and disappeared. Years later, the young man (Kross) enters law school and discovers that the woman to whom he read Lawrence and Ibsen in bed was a Nazi guard who contributed to the deaths of countless Jews. The jilted lover then spends the next 20 years coming to grips with his past and his affection for a woman with a moral code all her own. Winslet, no big surprise, is fantastic playing the character from sexual tutor to elderly inmate. However, David Hare's script (based on Bernhard Schlink's novel) goes a long way, smartly examining how doing the right thing and making good with the past can directly oppose each other. Intelligent, understated, and sexy, The Reader is a treat for even the most discriminating movie fans. R ****

Revolutionary Road (Dir: Sam Mendes). Starring: Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, Kathryn Hahn, David Harbour. Mendes, who helmed 1999's classic American Beauty, returns to the suburbs in his adaptation of Richard Yates' novel. In 1955, NYC transplants April and Frank Wheeler (Winslet, DiCaprio) are coming undone--their dreams and youth squashed by responsibility, children, and wasted time. The fact that they're the admired couple on their suburban block gives them no solace. The couple decides to change their fate, but a series of events threaten to knock their plans, and their sanity, off track. Winslet and DiCaprio, 11 years removed from Titanic, are excellent. It's too bad the movie goes around in circles of passionate arguing, while Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe offer no insights into suburbia that haven't been offered before, except they're muttered by the Wheelers' psychotic acquaintance (Shannon). For Revolutionary Road to work there needs to be a shred of insight into this couple's misery, something that cannot be accomplished in scene after scene of bickering. Regardless of how good the acting or how juicy the dialogue is, after a while, bickering ceases to be a valid method of filmmaking. It just becomes exasperating. R *

Gran Torino (Dir: Clint Eastwood). Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vahng, Ahney Her, Christopher Carley, Brian Haley, John Carroll Lynch. Doua Moua. Retired auto worker Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) greets the changing world with a scowl on his face and audible racial epithets. He drives Ford, drinks American beer, and is perfectly happy living in his beautiful house in a crumbling Detroit suburb. When a skirmish involving his Hmong neighbors and a gang spills over to his lawn, Walt grabs a rifle and takes action. This makes Walt a hero to the neighbors, forcing the old coot to expand his horizons, as he becomes a much needed role model to his two young neighbors, Thao and Sue (Vahng and Her, respectively). But Walt's heroism and expanding heart put everyone in harm's way. The movie is far from perfect. As Walt gets friendly, his rapport with the teens borders on parody, especially when he teaches Tao how to talk like a guy or admonishes him to talk to girls. And Eastwood the director still abhors subtlety, which this movie desperately needs. Still, Eastwood the actor's nuanced intensity lifts Gran Torino to a level it doesn't deserve. R **

Review of Coraline

At the screening in late January, Jeffrey Lyons was one of the guests. What's weird is that I expected him to be with someone, like Michael Medved or that woman he's with now. I didn't have the chance to say hello, but he seemed like a nice guy.

With insider stories like this, it's only a matter of time before a corporation snatches this blog.

By the way, my hardiest congratulations to Chris Null. is now the property of AMC--American Movie Classics--which is awesome for everyone.

Anyway, the review was originally published in the Februrary issue of ICON, which is run by the hardest working woman in publishing, Trina Robba.

February is a pretty fallow period in the movie world, highlighted by the media attention devoted to the Academy Awards and the various nominees, their reactions, what they're wearing, and what they do to stay trim.

New movies are still being released, of course, though it's doubtful many will be remembered by the time the summer starts. The fact that Coraline, adapted from Neil Gaiman's novel, opens February 6 is both a blessing and a curse. It's great that a wonderful movie exists during a time that's dominated by titles riding Oscar buzz and the utterly unwatchable. That same environment, however, makes it easy for the public to ignore great movies (e.g. In Bruges).

Eleven-year-old Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning, nixing the adult presence) has just moved with her parents to Oregon from Michigan and is not in good shape. Her neighbors--a top-heavy Russian acrobat and two elderly British showgirls--are just plain weird, as is the boy who keeps hanging around her. Mother and Father (Teri Hatcher and Mac anti-pitchman John Hodgman, both well-cast) are too busy writing about plants to entertain Coraline, who goes about counting windows and doors in the house to keep the boredom at bay.

While on her mundane search, Coraline finds a small, painted door on a wall. She begs her mom to open it, only to find her anticipation answered by a bricked-over entrance. Nighttime is an entirely different story. Coraline is guided to the door and finds that it's a portal to another, far more entertaining version of her home. The dinner table looks like something out of FAO Schwartz, and the meals are better than the presentation. The previously weird neighbors put on wonderful performances that would put P.T. Barnum to shame. The outside garden is a merging of Las Vegas and Better Homes and Gardens.

So what if the super-cool "Other Mother" and "Other Father" have buttons for eyes? For the blue-haired, previously repressed Coraline, this is living. As she keeps visiting the other side, things turn from fun to weird to horrifying. Eventually, she has to team up with a talking cat (voiced with urbane perfection by Keith David) to save her real parents and herself from extinction. Coraline captures the young heroine's struggle with dazzling stop-motion animation--be sure to grab your 3-D glasses--but writer/director Henry Selick doesn't solely rely on the visual stimulation of a fantasy world. Coraline is a great influence for young girls--smart, resourceful, and built in their image. The story is taut and full of consequences, so children and adults will be hooked. Selick (The Nightmare before Christmas) has been here before, and his confidence shows. Coraline never stalls and never panders. It just entertains the hell out of us--visually, verbally, and emotionally.

For those who cast an unforgiving eye on the animated genre, that's fine. I hope you enjoy enduring another three hours of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or the shrieking theatrics of Bride Wars, which apparently endorses shrewish, catty behavior among marriage-minded women. In light of such alternatives, Coraline is a warm house in the moviegoer's winter of discontent. Let's hope enough people take advantage of that.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Finally, A Good Trailer

The last trailer that got me super-excited was Revolutionary Road, which didn't turn out so well. My ears are still ringing from all the yelling.

(Before I continue, a note to aspiring screenwriters: Stop churning out screenplays where the leafy splendor of the suburbs belies a domestic hell. Novelists do a better job exploring the terrain, plus not everybody who lives in a Cape and has a nice lawn is losing their soul or longing to recapture their bohemian past. Irony received. Thanks.)

Anyway, the best trailer I've seen since then is another upcoming film from Sam Mendes, Away We Go. I caught a glimpse of it Saturday afternoon before Duplicity, and I'm psyched. The story looks amazing, and everyone who's in it I like: Jeff Daniels (a first ballot member of the Movie Beard Hall of Fame), Maya Rudolph, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Jim "Hot Pockets" Gaffigan.

And, hey ladies, Jon Krasinski is in it! With John Cusack getting older, someone needs to fill the sensitive cute guy void.

For those you already knew about this movie months ago, my apologies. I purposely avoid reading casting and movie news as it keeps the element of surprise fresh. Two other reasons: That would push me into the deep, deep chasm of fanboyhood, which I don't want, and it makes what I do feel less like work.

Of course, that surprise cuts both ways. For example, I just found out a week ago that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was cast in G.I. Joe, which could explain why I've been so moody of late.
The soothing snarkiness of those newshounds from Entertainment Weekly was sorely missed.

There's a reason Babs is here. Honest.

My review of Richard Donner's 1980 suckfest Inside Moves just got posted on Please feel free to drop by and read the review, as it will justify the two hours I spent watching the film into the wee hours.

For those who haven't seen the movie, one of the plot points revolves around a former basketball star (David Morse) who has a bad leg. Through the magic of movies, his friend (John Savage) gets an NBA star (Harold Sylvester) to fund hoopster's surgery. The surgery is not only successful, but Morse's character gets the chance to play semipro ball. After like a week of torching also-rans, he gets an NBA contract.

Read that paragraph again.
Inside Moves didn't work for a number of reasons, but Morse's ascendency to the pros blew my mind to pieces. Bernard King--the best Knick before Ewing took over--spent years rehabbing from a horrific knee injury before getting back to his All-Star form, but Morse's character goes under the knife, hits a few long jumpers, and he's the Great White Hope...I like a feel-good story as much as the next guy, but come on.

With that in mind, I've come up with a list of other movie moments that completely destroyed the boundaries of credibility.

--Raul Julia and Sonia Braga playing Germans in The Rookie.
--Anthony Hopkins playing a black man in The Human Stain. (If I ruined the movie for you, sorry. You're not missing much. Read the book, I beg you.)
--Mimi Rogers playing Barbra Streisand's older sister in The Mirror Has Two Faces.
--Elisha Cuthbert playing a porn star in The Girl Next Door.
--Gene Hackman hooking up with Barbara Hershey, who treats him like dirt, in Hoosiers.
--Matt Damon turning down Famke Janssen in Rounders.

I'd love to hear your examples. Did I overlook something? Let me hear your comments!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Where the Hell Have You Been?

To quote Todd Rundgren, "Hello, it's me."

Sorry for the prolonged absence, but the past two months have been absolutely brutal. Yes, I've watched movies, but there hasn't been enough time to devote to the blog. The primary reason? I've actually had freelance jobs that paid, and those come first.

So, what have I been up to? Join me on a magical journey through space and time...

--Writing promotional copy for a corporate Website. This took up a good two weeks in February. I enjoyed the work, and the pay was fantastic.

--Reviewing books for Publishers Weekly. For some reason, PW ignores me for a month and then sends me one book after another. I also had the chance to interview author Robert Sabbag on his new book, Down Around Midnight. It's a very good book written by a helluva nice guy.

--Working on an article for TCNJ Magazine. That's due at the end of the week. Not too worried about it.

--After a long correspondence, getting rejected to write movie reviews for Hooters Magazine. I'm still not quite sure what happened here.

--Three job interviews...Including one last week that I'm feeling very pumped up about. We'll see how that goes.

--Home renovation work with my Dad. It's been educational, fun, but draining. Here's the scheme: I get up at 4:40 in the morning, travel with my Dad to Poughkeepsie, and then paint, compound, and lug heavy objects. We're usually home by 3 p.m., but I'm useless. I was working with him two days a week.

--PR work for my brother and his terrific T-shirt (Viva Shea!), which you can buy at It's been profiled in The Daily News, and we're hoping for more sweet publicity. Buy a shirt, goofballs!

--Helping two friends move, plus my girlfriend's brother got married last week...She looked great, by the way.

...So, I'm hoping to have a bunch of reviews and observations posted in the next week, so please, please join us, or rather me.