Friday, November 20, 2009

The Date Movie Alternative

Occasionally date movies comes out (e.g. "Made of Honor," "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days") that no men will like. So as a public service announcement, from time to time, I'll be offering alternative that won't leave couples screaming at each other on the car ride home.

This week offers "The Blind Slide," which looks like a classic trap. Hey, guys, it's about football! You like football! But really it seems like Sandra Bullock being sassy and maternal for two hours--it's like she's auditioning for "Steel Magnolias" in the commercials. Thank you, no. I'd rather read the book. Or watch a movie about football.

Since "Varisty Blues" probably doesn't qualify for this column, here's your alternative: "Out of Sight."
This has to be on the most underrated movies of the 1990s. It has everything: impeccable chemistry between Clooney and Lopez (before she became the Latin Streisand, though without the talent); terrific dialogue from Scott Frank ("The Lookout," "Get Shorty"), and a twisty, gritty that story that both sexes should enjoy; kick-ass supporting cast.

It's sexy, scheming fun for grownuips. For that reason, it's a perfect date movie. It's also historical for several reasons. First, it showed that Clooney was a certifiable Mr. Cool-type (he hasn't approached that level since. Sorry) and it gave Steven Soderbergh his mojo. Remember the tear he went on after this? "Erin Brockovich," "Traffic," and "Ocean's 11." He was a critical and commercial darling. And Lopez, my God. She could have been the thinking person's sex symbol, but instead she decided to sing like a robot and make unwatchable vanity movies. Just a terrible turn of events.

Please watch this movie now. Sandra Bullock doesn't need your money.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Netflix Problem

For my birthday a few months back, I got a gift subscription to Netflix. It was a lovely gift--who doesn't want access to free movies?--but over the last few months I've also been reminded why the service is so frustrating.

Inevitably what will happen is I'll be running through my queue at a nice, steady pace when a movie will come in that doesn't fit the mood the I'm in. For example, I'm really in the mood to see Without a Paddle (not a real-life urge, mind you; just a theoretical) but something from Fassbinder or Bergman will arrive instead. It's like getting a salad when you want a patty melt served in a chocolate-covered bread bowl.

Now, I'm caught in a dilemma. Being a relatively smart person, I feel that I should soldier on and watch the serious movie. But I don't. I wind up reading a book for review, or scurrying to see a bunch of movies to write up. Something else comes up. So the serious movie sits on top of my TV, mocking me for my low-brow tastes and mental sluggishness. It gets to the point where the red Netflix envelope looks like a tongue sticking out, mocking me.
"How can you call yourself a movie fan, and you haven't sat through the collective works of Wim Wenders? What, is there an episode of "Seinfeld" you've only seen a dozen times?"

"Can't I return you and pick up something fun?"

"Serious thought is fun, moron! You don't rent movies for yourself! You rent them to impress people at cocktail parties."

"I don't think I've been to a cocktail party. Who am I, F. Scott Fitzgerald?"

"You could be if you watched Preston Sturgess' early work."

The other wrinkle is that my tastes and the girlfriend's tastes sometimes don't merge, which is why An American Werewolf in London sat on my TV for a good six weeks before I watched. (Verdict: I was born too late. Scream corrupted me.) She hates scary, gory movies so I have to wait for a sliver of time to watch such a movie alone. And with my schedule being nuts lately, free time to watch an endless parade of movies is dwindling...And, well, I kind of like having a girlfriend.
I guess that's one of the pratfalls of being a critic. You get to watch movies and read books to your heart's content, but often they're not the ones you want. And when you actually have a social life and work is coming in--and, honestly, I consider myself blessed for having both--being a fan takes a bit of a back seat.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

An Apology

My brother brought something to my attention recently. He was offering some suggestions about the blog, and he mentioned that he found the last lines of the book of the month posts kind of insulting.
"I've known you for 30 years and I know your humor, and even I found it insulting," he said.

The man has a point. Those last lines, or buttons, come across as condescending and rude. I want to apologize for that. It certainly wasn't my intent, but I can see how some people may have interpreted that way. So from now on, no more buttons.

No book recommendation for this month. Instead, please read my sports book column ("The Athletic Supporter") on, where I shine a light on great books that happen to be about sports. Or read whatever book you'd like.

Go in peace.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Review of A Serious Man

Nice try, guys, but, to paraphrase Richard Masur in Risky Business, it isn't quite Princeton material, is it?

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

By the way, I need to give a nice thank-you to Trina Robba, the editor/publisher of ICON, for pretty much letting me run hog-wild with the column and the round-up. It's nice to have that kind of freedom. U-S-A! U-S-A!

Oh, speaking of independent film, my interview with writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) is appearing in this month's Park Place. Will provide a link and funny story when it's up.


As filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen are living the charmed life. They can pretty much make any movie they desire while securing legitimate stars like Tom Hanks and George Clooney. The brothers have won Oscars and critical raves, but they’ve achieved box-office and cultural success--we all know one guy who adores The Big Lebowski a little too much; Fargo turned Frances McDormand and William H. Macy into names everyone knows, and not just cherished character actors.

If you’re a frequent moviegoer—especially one stuck in the multiplex-heavy suburbs—you treasure the Coen Brothers. However, there’s a price you pay for their creative expression: they don’t have to placate you. This principal allowed Woody Allen, flush from the success of Annie Hall, to make Interiors and Stardust Memories. It gave Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight, Traffic) the power to unleash a somnolent four-hour long biopic of Che Guevara upon the masses. Years ago, it caused Francis Ford Coppola to make One from the Heart, a big-budget, super-sophisticated, and unwatchable romantic comedy.

I consider A Serious Man, the Coen Brothers’ latest film, to be a necessary cost of enjoying their creativity. You may find the movie hilarious and insightful. I found it 105 minutes of rudderless, goofy philosophical/moral riffing, the kind of wild goose chase that was more entertaining and far less pretentious in The Big Lebowski or last year’s Burn After Reading.

With the exception of its introduction, the film takes place somewhere in the Midwest in 1967, where physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is coming undone. His wife (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce right now, but a stream of crises and two bratty, demanding kids mean that he can’t make a clean break. Things are no better at work where the tenure committee is receiving anonymous letters denigrating Gopnik’s character. Meanwhile, a failing South Korean student (David Kang) is threatening him with a lawsuit, and a record club keeps calling his office to demand payment for Santana albums.

That’s not all. Gopnik’s brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is a mathematical wizard who can’t stay out of trouble or out of Gopnik’s life. Between lawyer visits, a car accident, an unexpected funeral, a bar mitzvah, and his family taking his money, poor Gopnik can barely afford his crappy motel room. Oh, and he shares that with Arthur, who snores and feels that God is plotting against him.

Feeling desperate, Gopnik seeks guidance from three rabbis. One offers him self-help nonsense, another delivers an inconclusive story about a dentist who finds Hebrew written in a Gentile patient’s teeth, and the third is too busy “thinking” to even see the beleaguered Gopnik. A friend tells Gopnik that the Jews’ past has tons of stories for him to draw lessons from, but it’s doubtful that Moses ever had to lead his people through the perils of lawyers, demanding kids, or topless female sunbathers.

And Moses took action. Gopnik, who Stuhlbarg plays to nebbish perfection, is not one to take initiative. As a professor, he believes in theorems and equations; everything has an answer. It’s the same thing with his life and his faith: he has always accepted what’s given to him. Consequently, he can’t stand up for himself. When his wife and her overbearing lover (Fred Melamed) insist Gopnik move out of his own house, he accepts it like it’s a judge’s ruling. He’s gone along for the ride, and now that it’s become unbearable, he wants to be dropped off. It’s not that simple, especially when he can’t get guidance from the people he always thought could help him.

A Serious Man is a fine parable on the limits of religion and our own morality that would be more potent as an hour-long drama. The Coen Brothers offer lots of fakes and side routes in portraying Gopnik’s dilemma, which I usually wouldn’t mind, but there’s no fun, no intellectual provoking in any of the asides or the quirky characters (Kind, a gifted actor and Clooney’s close friend, is wasted here). What happens instead is we get a big setup to a punch line that not only takes forever to arrive, but is one we’ve heard before. Life sucks and adjustment is awful. What else do you have that Crimes and Misdemeanors or the novels of Philip Roth didn’t cover better? A Serious Man provides a lesson for movie fans, but not the one the Coen Brothers intended: just because two respected filmmakers tackle a weighty subject, that doesn’t mean you’re required to like it. Reputation is not a substitute for quality. [R]

Film Round-Up for November

In this edition of the Film Round-Up: Get ready for the most overrated movie of the year! Behold one of 2009's breakthrough performances (Carey Mulligan, pictured ahoy)! Gasp at overblown, super-kinetic independent filmmaking! Soak in Jude Law as a Russian drag!

As always, these reviews previously appeared in ICON and are reprinted with permission (thanks, Trina).

Apologies for the late posting. Lots of freelancing, some housesitting, and no free time until today. Still, I do like eating, so the extra money is always good.

And with that, away we go...

Precious (Dir: Lee Daniels). Starring: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Sherri Shepherd, Lenny Kravitz. In 1987 Harlem, 16-year-old Precious (newcomer Sidibe) wears a permanent scowl as she slogs through an atrocious life. She’s pregnant-- by her father-- for the second time and at the permanent beck and call of her vicious, abusive mother (Mo’Nique). Precious can only rely on herself and her imagination. All looks lost until the teen attends an alternative school, where a benevolent teacher (Patton) urges Precious to break through by writing. Or something like that. The movie is certainly packed with drama, but more isn’t necessarily better. The rising tide of tragedy encountered by Precious is desensitizing and it dwarfs the progress of the protagonist and the relationship she builds with her teacher and welfare counselor (a deglamorized Carey, who’s surprisingly good). Geoffrey Fletcher’s disjointed, poorly organized script (based on a novel by Sapphire) doesn’t do Daniels or his hard-working cast any favors by opting for flash and shock over insight and pacing. Bottom line: don’t believe the hype on this unsatisfying, depressing feel-good movie. Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey served as executive producers, ensuring that the movie will be covered by every media outlet known to man. ** [R]

An Education (Dir: Lone Scherfig). Starring: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Cara Seymour, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson. Whip-smart 16-year-old Jenny (Mulligan) hungers for a world beyond the rigid prep school routine instituted by her academics-obsessed father (Molina) in 1961 suburban London. Enter the much-older David (Sarsgaard), an eloquent, well-dressed schemer who is the worldly, adult-fun alternative Jenny desperately craves. But entering into such a world comes with a set of compromises and consequences that blindsides her. Adaptation of Lynn Barber’s memoir by author Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) is an evocative, touching ode to growing up and what happens when we rush into adulthood. Despite the whiff of pedophilia, the movie’s cheery attitude never feels out of place; it’s all part of a woman’s remembrance of her favorite mistake. The elegant, charming Mulligan is outstanding the lead, but the usually intense American Sarsgaard is a bit miscast playing the English charmer. (Jude Law, if he weren’t too busy playing dress-up, would have nailed this role.) Molina is terrific as a father whose desire for his daughter’s security leads to a load of conflicting advice that turns from humorous to destructive. *** [PG-13]

Bronson (Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn). Starring: Tom Hardy, Matt King, Hugh Ross, James Lance, Juliet Oldfield. Charlie Bronson (formerly Michael Peterson) is one of England’s most famous prisoners, a muscled goon with a mustache from a silent movie and a shaven head who has been imprisoned for 34 years—30 of them in solitary confinement. This doesn’t bother Bronson, who compares prison to staying in a hotel and who basks in his savage infamy. Refn’s highly stylized, violent biopic examines Bronson’s life behind bars in various prisons (and his brief time outside) with Hardy delivering a frenzied, sometimes hypnotic performance. Movie starts off promisingly enough, offering a glimpse into the veteran prisoner’s delusions, including Bronson visualizing himself as a stage performer. But it veers wildly off course from that reference point, becoming increasingly rudderless and flashy. Without proper background or insight, it’s hard to stay interested in the life of a psychotic (especially when he’s the movie’s focus), regardless of the actor’s fervor for the part or the director’s visual flair. Really, this should have been a lot better. ** [R]

Rage (Dir: Sally Potter). Starring: Simon Abkarian, Patrick J. Adams, Riz Ahmed, Bob Balaban, Adriana Barraza, Steve Buscemi, Jakob Cedergren, Lily Cole, Judi Dench, Eddie Izzard, Jude Law, John Leguizamo, David Oyelowo, Dianne Wiest. Bare-bones production features 14 people all involved—some directly, some peripherally—in a major NYC fashion show. Over the course of several days, they’re all interviewed by a student for a class project. When tragedy strikes and the kid’s footage winds up on the Internet, the self-important subjects become more ragged, even human, as they unburden themselves to the student reporter. Writer/director Potter (Orlando, Yes) touches on a wide variety of subjects with fierce intelligence, and the performances from the terrific cast (especially Buscemi and Leguizamo) are excellent, but her aggressively artsy bent (e.g., a Shakespeare-quoting detective; the unseen and unheard student filmmaker) and the film’s sheer philosophical weight ultimately make for exhausting viewing. You never feel like you’re getting the message, or even what one you should be following. Reason for watching, if just for a little while: Movie star Law in drag, sporting a Russian accent, playing a model named Minx. ** [NR]