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]