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]