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, 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]