Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Review of True Grit (2010)


There was a mix-up at "The Weekender," so this didn't run. Consider this a WPW exclusive!

One rule regarding remakes is that it's always wise to renovate a rusty original. Case in point, legendary filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen have transformed 1969's True Grit into one of this year's masterpieces.

The original western is entertaining but flawed. The plot is bulky. The screenplay announces every intention. Considering that it was released right when mainstream movies were embracing cynicism and antiheroes—The Graduate, The Wild Bunch, Easy RiderTrue Grit sports the sunny strut of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. John Wayne, winning his lone Oscar as thorny U.S. marshal Rooster Cogburn, has a grandfatherly rapport with his teenage employer, Mattie Ross (Kim Darby), calling her "baby sister." Darby's perky pluck recalls every obnoxious grade school brownnoser; Glen Campbell, as a grinning Texas Ranger assisting the two, has the oily presence of a Lawrence Welk performer.

In the 2010 upgrade, the story remains the same: When her father is fatally shot by his employee on a business trip, young Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) is determined to capture the on-the-lam murderer (Josh Brolin). Using a thorough, no-nonsense approach, she learns that Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is the meanest tracker, though not necessarily the best. In his four years of service, he's killed two-dozen men. Cogburn is either drunk, mean-spirited, or both. He should ride alone, but Mattie will do no such thing. They embark on a lengthy search, with Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, infinitely better than Campbell) intermittently joining them.

The Coen brothers have trimmed the original film's fat, ditched any obviousness, and erased any trace of sentimentality. And it's awesome. Like Fargo and No Country for Old Men, True Grit is an entertaining story that dazzles you with technical craftsmanship (namely Roger Deakins's cinematography), first-rate acting, and the filmmakers' uncanny ability to sway you with the littlest gestures. Its power and poignancy surprise you. So do the performances. Steinfeld nearly steals the movie by revealing Mattie's sad truth: her adult behavior isn't an adorable affectation; it's a survival mechanism. Bridges—not locked into a persona like Wayne—creates his own indelible, bad-ass (and non-grandfatherly) version of Cogburn.

The newer True Grit is not some gaudy gift for the Facebook generation. Unburdened by a legendary good guy and the need to provide warm and fuzzies, the Coens turn stoic, flawed heroism into cliché-free, cinematic poetry. There's no need for renovation. It's damn near perfect.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Living in Film Fear: The Laura Amoriello Story


One of the hardest things is sharing a beloved movie with friends and loved ones. It's almost always a losing situation. Author/blogger Drew Magary summed it up perfectly: There's no way the person you're trying to convert will feel the same way, and then you feel like a complete moron.

Sometimes the damage is irreparable: My parents still haven't forgiven me for recommending "Bring it On." (Note to mom and dad: It's time for you to get over this. I was 22 and Eliza Dushku was sizzling hot. I got snookered. Sue me.)

It has to be twice as aggravating to lobby for a movie when you're living with a movie critic, and that's the situation my fiancee, Laura Amoriello, found herself in recently. One of her favorite movies is "White Christmas," which I had never seen.

Before Laura goes on her spiel, I will say this. I didn't hate "White Chrismtas." It just wasn't my cup of tea. I'd say more, but it's time for Laura to take over.


***********************************

I just love the holidays, and this year’s Thanksgiving was a perfect start. We settled in to watch the parade after breakfast, cozy-ing up on the couch as the snow fell. Pete might (bitterly) describe it as scene from a Nancy Meyers film, but I was in heaven. Upon returning from dinner with the family, Pete suggested we watch “White Christmas,” a favorite movie of my childhood. A red letter day! I couldn’t wait to watch this movie with Pete, and I was confident it would be added to his my-movie-collection-is-better-because-we-moved-in-together list.

I was wrong.

Being together has taught me many things about watching movies with a film critic: Do not talk. Do not ask questions, either about the film itself or his impression of it. The syrupy “Do you like it, honey?” and the mom-like “Are all those f-words really necessary?” are forbidden, along, of course, with “What is happening?/What is she doing?/Who is that?,” etc. Arriving late, purchasing expensive concessions, sitting too close, and watching holiday movies prior to the season are no-no’s. Of all these battles, I’ve chosen to fight only the latter, which meant I had to keep quiet during this viewing.

On the other hand, the critic may offer as generous an array of sarcastic comments during the film as he deems necessary. “Sack of garbage” and “Unbel-IEV-able!” are common, along with a variety of colorful expletives. Exasperated sighs must be executed at the end of each scene for survival purposes. Copious note-taking is fair warning that this review will be low on stars. And no matter how bad it gets, he will never, EVER hit the power button or exit the theater early.

So, I knew something was up when the polite smiles began.

During a particular dance sequence involving Danny Kaye frolicking against a very fake-looking tropical backdrop (oh, why didn’t I see the storm coming?!), I snuck a sideways glance at Pete. His face was frozen in his don’t-want-to-hurt-your-feelings look: stiff, polite smile, eyebrows slightly raised. He is too kind for criticism when he knows I love something, but his reaction was clear: He hated it.

I knew it was stupid, but I was disappointed Pete didn’t like the movie. Of course he was entitled to his own reaction, but, irrationally, I wanted so badly for Pete to like it as much as I did. I thought if he did, he’d share my childhood joy. I had to remember that my memories were not his, and that his reaction was not an insult to them. I had to simply remember that we would not always love the same things.

Combining movie collections reminded me that our tastes will occasionally clash, and that this is what makes our adventures—moving in together, getting married, deciding what to watch on Saturday night—well, ours. I’ll watch “Love Actually” in July, he won’t. He adores “Pulp Fiction,” I can’t stomach it. What’s good or bad is for the viewer to decide. We won’t always agree, but thankfully, we’ll give each other space to react. Unconditional acceptance is this year’s present, and it’s one we’ll re-gift. I just hope I can sneak one more “White Christmas” viewing before Pete deems the season closed.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Annoying Tales of Freelance Writing: The Christmas Miracle

Aside from reading books and watching movies, sometimes our intrepid blogsmith moves away from his comfort zone and attempts to drum up work as a freelance writer. The following is the latest in a series of posts detailing the perils of his job.

The e-mail came on Friday, December 17, about 10 a.m. Gelf Magazine asked me to do an interview with Chad Millman, the author of "The Ones Who Hit the Hardest." I agreed to do the piece. My editor promised that the book's publicist would send a copy to my abode.

On Monday, there was no book. Nothing came on Tuesday and Wednesday. I began to get concerned. By Thursday, December 23, the book still hadn't arrived, and I was apoplectic. Why? Let's review.

--The Q&A was due December 31.

--The interview had to be done regardless of whether I had read the book or not. The latter option made me physically ill, because it meant going the morning DJ route: "So, those Steelers were a wacky bunch?! Awoogah! (Cue farting noises and work whistle.)"

I should note that I feel a little nervous when I interview people after proper preparation. Going blind was not an option. Especailly with the friggin' Senior Deputy Editor at ESPN The Magazine.

--The book wasn't available at any library branch in my county. (All four copies were gone, which is weird because this is Eagles territory.)

--My parents' library (smack dab in Giants territory) didn't have it.

--Neither did my in-laws' library system.

--The book's publicist was on vacation through New Year's, so another copy couldn't be mailed.

--Friday was December 24, Christmas Eve. If the book didn't arrive by Friday, before my fiancee and I left for a three-day holiday merriment tour, I wouldn't be able to read it until Monday, December 27.

--Millman's only two days of availability: Friday (an impossibility, since we were leaving in the late morning) and Monday, December 27. After that, he was on vacation.

So, yeah, I was a bit stressed.

On Thursday afternoon, I called my post office to inquire about picking up any package that came in on Friday. The nice man who answered said I should call by 11:20a.m the next day to check.

I called at 11:15 a.m. the next day, Christmas Eve. My postman had already left. He'd be in our neighborhood in about 15 minutes. So, I waited. The postman arrived early, a good sign. The postman dropped off letters in the slot, another good sign. I rummaged through the mail to find a package from...BookPage.

The day before a package had been dropped off at the front door from...Publishers Weekly. I was beginning to feel like I was in the lamest story O'Henry never published. "The pudgy freelancer got books, but never the one he wanted the most. And then he died of polio."

We had to go sans book. I spent Christmas Eve and most of Christmas Day at my parents', then drove down the New Jersey Turnpike to my in-laws. The fiancee and I arrived at about 4:30 p.m. Saturday and opened gifts.

About fifteen minutes into the tearing and thank-yous, I opened a box with a book inside. I felt like bursting into tears.

A couple of weeks ago, my fiancee had fired off gift suggestions to her mom. I had looked at Amazon.com for ideas, and came across "The Ones Who Hit the Hardest." It had garnered good reviews (Yahoo!'s peerless Dan Wetzel loved it), and I liked Millman's work on "The Odds." I really thought nothing of it. I just figured that it would be a fine selection to my library.

Indeed it was. I devoured the book on Christmas Night and the evening afterwards. I came up with questions this morning, and I wrapped up a very pleasant 25-minute interview with Millman at about 5:30 p.m. today.

And that's how one assignment almost took three months off my life.

NOTES: The only other option was to buy the book. Snowmageddon or Snow Job or whatever the local news stations were calling the weekend blizzard made purchasing the book an impossibility...By Monday, it had still not arrived...My fiancee had also given her mom several choices, including Howard Bryant's acclaimed biography of Hank Aaron.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Bjorn Lomborg Interview, Part 2

The conclusion of my interview with the controversial and charismatic Bjorn Lomborg ("Cool It," "The Skeptical Environmentalist"). Part 1 ran yesterday. Enjoy!

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PC: In Cool It you mention how a lot of An Inconvenient Truth is fear mongering. It seems to me that since that movie has come out, every time I'm online or reading a newspaper I see some sort of environmental catastrophe story, like a chunk of an iceberg the size of Texas breaking off. There's so much information coming in, how do we know what to recognize as being legitimate and what do we recognize as being skewed figures and facts?

BL: That is an incredibly hard question both to answer but also really to find a good solution for. I think what the segment in the film does is point out that we need to take the fear factor out, both because it's incorrect but also because it makes us make bad decisions. You feel scared, you're likely to make bad decisions. That was why we put it in there, not to sort of gloat over parts of Al Gore's film. In reality, I think the point is we recognize that in a vast number of different areas—certainly not just global warming—we hear a lot of scary stories and there's a very systematic reason why: Because bad news sells. We know from studies that if you give people a pile of good news and a pile of bad news and say, "Read whatever you want," people overwhelmingly read the bad news pile. So, it's not like it's the newspaper's fault, it's simply because we're genetically more interested in bad news.

…Take these stories with a grain of salt, and look for the weasel words of may and could and that kind of thing. Start asking, what's the reasonable prediction here? and get a sense of proportion. When you read these stories about an iceberg just broke off, well icebergs break off all the time. The real question is, have more icebergs broken off? And that's a much more complicated issue, but in reality all of these are just used as story segments to influence us to take action, and then we're back to the rest of the film, which is really to say: You should be concerned about global warming, but the current way that we are then acting on it just doesn't make sense. In a sense, all of this is just white noise compared to the fact that if we agreed that we need to fix it, then let's start talking about how do we fix it smartly. So, it's not about, is that particular iceberg [breaking apart] caused by global warming or not? That's not the issue.

PC: The film's message is that the situation regarding global warming is bad, but not critical. Do you think that may feed indifference?

BL: I'll first answer this strategically, and then I'll try to answer intellectually afterwards. There is a risk that if you say it's not as scary as you thought that people are going to relax. But I honestly think we've seen the consequence of the other approach, which is basically that people need to be scared more and more, and eventually you just can't scare them anymore. If global warming is a 100-year problem, you can scare people for five or 10 years, but you can't scare them for 100. What we've seen is essentially people turn off. You keep upping the ante, and then eventually you'll be found out, or you don't and people get sick and tired. That's why I think strategically you need to scale back. Now, that doesn't mean that you should do nothing, but it means you can start talking about what you should do sensibly, and that also means we can come down to this place where we don't act on panic, that we act rationally. Now, that's the strategic answer.

The intellectual answer is I believe telling the truth is the best long-term strategy. There's something dangerous about making this argument of, maybe we should ramp it up a little bit because that would make people make more of the right decision. Remember, that's exactly what got us into trouble with Iraq. I like the example because it was the right wing who was sexing up the weapons of mass destruction because they wanted people to make the right conclusion from this uncertain data. I think we can safely say now that we were not well served with that sexing up. So, in the same way I think we should be careful about sexing up the message to get people's attention on the other issue.

PC: If we keep "sexing up" global warming and other environmental ills what's the worst-case scenario?

BL: It's pretty bad already, isn't it? It strikes me that there are several different impacts. First, there's the impact that it's not sustainable, which is one of the reasons why we're seeing an increasing number of people saying global warming is made up. Simply because it's a natural consequence of, I'm fed up with this. And Gore said Florida would disappear, but I was just down there. Then you say, which is also wrong, "Well, maybe it's all made up." That's certainly one risk. Then we make bad policy decisions, which I think is a terrible risk. But also, remember, it actually feeds a lot of things that never show up in the policy area, but just simply make people feel bad. Those kids in the film [Lomborg talks to young English students at a private school about the planet's status] are scared witless.

One of my friends, she was worried about getting a kid because how could she allow a kid to grow up in this sort of terrible world. Now, if it really was a terrible world maybe that was a good decision, but if she's overworried—that's a terrible loss…If she'd actually turned 40 and hadn't gotten a kid that would have been a terrible loss for the rest of her life just simply caused by this fear factor.

PC: You've always said that there are problems with the environment. It seems to me that you and your detractors are reading from the same book, but are on different pages. Do you ever think there will be a time when you and your detractors can come to terms or will that never happen?

BL: My sense is if this film is successful and this sort of discussion is successful, we'll start doing smart things and in 10 years' time we'll be like, what was all the fuss about. Of course we wanted to do this…I would, though, doubt that it will be because it's the same people. There's a famous science philosopher, [Imre] Lakatos, who wrote that when we get a new paradigm in science it's not because the old god gives up. It's simply because they die and get replaced by others. I think that would be a little more realistic in that sense; it'll just be new people talking about the new environment in a different setting.

PC: So, basically, you have to wait for the old guard to change over.

BL: Or it simply becomes unpopular to talk about that—we talk about it in a different and smarter language. And I think that could happen very quickly. Then you'll just simply have people talking about different things.

PC: Your travel schedule and work schedule are absolutely brutal. It seems like you're in a thousand places at once.

BL: No, no. I'm in a thousand places right after each other.

PC: Is it tiring to do what you do, to get people to listen? Or does it energize you to keep going out?

BL: I'm an academic at heart. I think what I like is making good arguments. That's what really gets me going, but I've always been making the argument way before, when I was just an academic…My point has always been if we don't communicate what we find, what's the point? Most academics have this tendency of saying, "Hey, I wrote my book, and it has to speak for me. People will have to pick it up, and if they don't they're just too stupid to see the brilliance of my mind." Unfortunately, that's just not how most of the world works because there are lots of books out there and lots of ideas. So, in a sense, you have to spend a significant amount of time to actually tell other people why this is important, why this is interesting. And if you don’t, it wasn't really worthwhile for you to find these good ideas in the first place. I see this as an integrated part of finding the good ideas. Sometimes you can get a little tired, but on the other hand there's nothing so much fun as being right.

We essentially have a situation where we've been making a policy for the last 20 years that's failed. And everybody kind of knows this, but it's the dirty secret nobody wants to say. So when you're the little guy saying it's not working, people sort of [makes a doubting noise], but it needs to be said. It's energizing in the sense that it actually makes it more possible for us to move toward a place where it will be more right and we'll do more smart things. I'm happy to do it, I'm glad I'm not going to be doing this for my whole life, but I think it is part of getting your message out. If I hadn't cared about getting my message out, I should have never made the film in the first place.

PC: Are you hopeful for the world's future?

BL: Oh, absolutely. Listen, if you look at the past 400, 500 years, it's very clear on virtually all accounts that matter we have managed to do better, not worse. Every time we solve a problem we typically make another problem, so solutions and problems tend to come together. Typically, we solve more problems than we create new ones. That's why we live longer, we are better fed, we're better schooled, we have higher incomes, we have more free time, all that amazing stuff. And we've fixed many of the environmental problems in the first world, and there's good reason to believe that when the Chinese and the Indians get rich they will do the same thing. So, fundamentally, yes, we're living in a world where it's reasonable to assume that people in 50, 100 years if given the option to live when they live or [in 2010], they'd say, "Oh, my God, of course I'm going to live [now]."…It's a very empowering issue of realizing we're moving in the right direction, and your contribution to the world is going to be: are we going to move there faster?

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Bjorn Lomborg Interview, Part I

This was a really fun interview because Lomborg, the academic, author, and "Skeptical Environmentalist", had unflagging energy. His enthusiasm for the future and in influencing the methodology of solving the world's environmental ills is almost tangible.

The best part was that Lomborg loved to talk--he gave me 40 eloquent, passionate minutes--which makes my job a hell of a lot easier. It also means a very lengthy (trust me, I transcribed the tape), albeit rewarding Q&A, kind of like the old "Playboy" interviews. So that's why I'm dividing this into two parts. The second part will be posted by tomorrow morning.

Oh, and go see "Cool It" if you can. Excellent movie.

This interview originally appeared in "ICON" and is reprinted with permission.


******************

In the recently released documentary Cool It, Bjørn Lomborg, an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School and president of The Copenhagen Consensus Center, a think tank, offers a series of common sense applications for environmental ailments. The total worldwide price tag: $250 billion.

The film features no dire predictions, no crying to the heavens, just a lot of clear reasoning. A big reason why the movie is so good—aside from the solutions and data presented—is Lomborg's enthusiasm and passion. It's unusually high for someone who doesn't enjoy a glowing reputation among his peers. That will happen when you're best known for a book called The Skeptical Environmentalist and when you raise concerns about the value of the Prius, energy-saving light bulbs, and Al Gore.

Lomborg's message of environmental pragmatism has not been ignored. In 2008, Esquire named him one of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century; four years before, Time tabbed Lomborg as one of the world's 100 most influential people. This month, Foreign Policy magazine named Lomborg one of its "100 Top Global Thinkers of 2010."

A big part of delivering that message (and promoting Cool It) includes non-stop travel, which is what brought Lomborg to Philadelphia in early October. He had the energy of a college freshman at his favorite class, and the wardrobe to match: black t-shirt, jeans, and red on white sneakers. The blonde hair and trim figure only cemented the image.

Lomborg, who turns 46 in January, was eloquent and self-effacing, delivering his answers in energetic bursts during our 40-minute interview. Among the topics: why the "pragmatic middle" is the film's desired audience, the dangers of "sexing up" environmental issues, and the reason Lomborg doesn't tire of being a messenger.

Pete Croatto: How did the idea for a documentary come about, specifically your participation in it?

Bjørn Lomborg: Fundamentally, the idea for the film came from me. It was literally just an idea of, I'm an academic, I like to read books, but I recognize that's not what most people do. You write a book and if you're lucky a few hundred thousand people are going to read it. But if you could make a film, Al Gore clearly showed you can get tens and maybe even hundreds of millions of people to watch it. So my sense was simply to say, "If Gore can do it, why not me?" And then I realized there's a reason: It's actually incredibly hard to get from that idea to then doing it…I was raising the idea to people who might know. And then I was in Los Angeles, I met Terry Botwick, who's one of the producers, and he got interested in this. He got into also trying to raise some of the money, then we got his company involved, and then it just sort of spun from there. But it was very clearly in a very different area than what I do.

PC: How long did it to get from the idea to the finished product?

BL: It's been going on actually before I wrote Cool It. This took about one and a half years, but I've been trying to do this idea [make a film] for five, six years.

PC: It must be great to finally see something onscreen.

BL: It's both an amazing and a really scary thing. At the end of the day, my ideal movie would probably have been that I sat down in front of the camera and read the book or read a long table of numbers, and I recognize that probably wouldn't have made for a very good film. It is a challenge to do something in a medium that you don't know very well, and that's essentially why I was so happy Ondi [Timoner, the director] was on board, because she has managed to take my message and transform it into a very different language, where I can only vaguely see whether it's working or not. So I've constantly sort of compared this experience to…Do you know when you have these workers' outings where you have to all get to know each other? You stand in a circle and then you let yourself go and hope somebody catches you? That's how I felt about this process.

PC: Was it hard to let go and let other people take over your ideas?

BL: Yes, that is hard. I apologized to Terry at one point about being uptight about this, and he goes, "Oh come on, it's only your life." Obviously, you're concerned about it, but I also recognized that it was just not going to work unless I would let go. I've been very, very aware and I've probably driven a lot of people—not so much Ondi and Terry and the other guys—but much more my friends whom I've relied on, I've probably driven them close to…What do you call it?

PC: Insanity?

BL: …insanity by asking, "What do you think about this? Could we do this?" Then I'd come up with all these solutions. Every once in a while, apparently, I'd come up with something that worked for the film. Mostly they'd just say, "No, Bjørn, you can't do that."

PC: In the movie, there is a slue of alternatives presented for energy, flood prevention, but the prevailing sense I get is that in the U.S. these ideas haven't gained a lot of traction. They're sort of just great ideas that don’t have the funding or the right people aren't looking at them. What's it going to take for those ideas to become accepted and implemented, especially in the U.S.?

BL: Fundamentally it takes something like this film, and that's why I'm hoping that's really what the film will do. It's about making this cool. Right now cool and climate change are terms that [mean] either putting in energy-saving light bulbs or buying a Prius or proposing large-scale carbon cuts in the federal government. Those are sort of the accepted things; if you say some of that, you're a good guy. Where if you say, "Maybe we should paint our rooftops white" or if you say, "Maybe we should invest a lot more in research and development into geo-engineering or into solar panels," it's not like you're crazy. But it's just sort of like, nah, not really. This is about making it cool. That's what the film hopefully will do, and once that happens of course the funding will come.

PC: Am I safe to say that the film is presenting your ideas in a packaging that's more palatable to the masses? Is that part of why it got made, to show that here are some ideas and here they are presented in a way that we hope will impact you?

BL: Yes, but if I could at least elaborate a little bit on "palatable," because in some ways it could sound a little bit like, Bjørn has really uncharming views but will make them up into a commercial and make it look nice. That's not what they did, but my views tend to be much more along the lines of saying, "The current approach for every dollar we spend, we avoid about two cents of climate damage. However, here is a proposal that for every dollar spent, we'll avoid 11 dollars of climate damage or [do] about 600 times more good." And people's eyes glaze over. Now, I just said something that I thought was an incredibly coherent and cogent and interesting argument. But to most people it just sounds like, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. I think the film makes the 600 times more effective [proposal] palatable. So it makes the correct argument understandable to a public who is not overly swayed by long tables of mathematical and economic arguments.

PC: Is there a certain portion of the population that you want to watch this film and take something away from it?

BL: …I think it's much more likely that we're going to see [as our audience] the vast middle of America who wants to feel responsible, who cares about global warming, and when you put them in the right mood actually feel a little bit disturbed about this sort of looming catastrophe that they've heard about, many of whom have mostly gotten their information from just Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. And have the sense of, we shouldn’t have taken that holiday last year and probably shouldn’t have gotten this big house. And have all this guilt but haven't really acted very much on it, and bought some energy-saving light bulbs so they feel a little bit more OK, that want to do good, feel there's a problem, but don't really know. That's the vast majority of people who actually get it, realizing this is a smart, coherent, and fundamentally effective way of tackling this issue. Of course, it's great in the sense that those people are, by far, the biggest majority of the discussion. I think we also have to recognize the five percent on either side [those who dismiss global warming or fear the absolute worst] who have made their status by almost defining themselves as the polar opposite of their opposition, are probably not going to say, "Ooh, let's move into the pragmatic middle."

PC: Do you have any hope that policy makers will see this film, government officials, anyone who may need to be awakened? Do you think they'll be watching this?

BL: Oh, I think a lot of them will. Certainly when I talk to policy makers from around the world they have the sense that they've painted themselves into a corner. On the one hand, they found it incredibly easy to be the defenders of green and say, "We need to commit to strong cuts and in our future." But they also realized we're not coming up with solutions, eventually we're going to go to one failed meeting after another, the public is going to be very concerned but they're also going to say, "Why are you not doing anything?" and they're not going to accept huge new taxes to try to implement some of the inefficient technologies that we have today. So they really feel like they've painted themselves into a corner. Now coming out and saying, "Instead of cutting carbon emissions, I'm going to paint some rooftops white," just simply doesn't work today. Because it's going to seem like you just don't care, you're callous, you're out of touch…But if this film actually got a lot of people's attention, then it'll suddenly be possible for a lot of politicians to say, "Listen, I'm going to go with the cheaper, smarter, and more effective way to tackle global warming." In some sense, you could say the politicians will definitely watch the film but they will only change their mind once sufficiently many people have seen this film and have the reaction, which I think a lot people have: That's smart, why aren't we doing that?

PC: The movie makes it very clear that your reputation in the environmental awareness circles is mixed. Some people are fully behind you, some people want nothing to do with you. Are you afraid that your controversial profile might hinder this film's success?

BL: In an ideal case, it would probably have been more useful had we had someone who's an entirely blank space. The previous reporter just told me about the infield hitter here in Philly who just threw something yesterday.

PC: Roy Halladay. (Note: The day before the Phillies ace pitcher had thrown a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds in his postseason debut.)

BL: Yeah, it probably would have been great to have him do the film or somebody who had universal acclaim, but that’s just not how the cards were dealt. And in some way, the upside of that [controversy] also means that there are a lot of potential newsworthy stories about this. But at the end of day I honestly don't think this is about me. And the only reason why I'm interesting or my mom [who appears briefly in Cool It] is interesting is simply to get people to realize that I'm not the devil, and maybe [moviegoers] actually want to hear what this guy is saying. The message is the important part. So, if you know…Sorry, what was his name again?

PC: Oh, the pitcher? Roy Halladay.

BL: Please let him know there's a film vehicle waiting.

PC: Was it always the intention for you to be the face of this movie, or did you try to get a celebrity like Leonardo DiCaprio (who narrated The 11th Hour)? Was that discussed at any point?

BL: We had that discussion for a long time, and I think there were two things that worked against it, partly that if you want a celebrity they will typically take on cases that are universally good. If you want something that's motherhood and apple pie, this would never have that character. It would be an uphill battle and then we may end up with a sort of C celebrity that would have some sort of dodgy connection to the national radical association, that we may end up losing the whole thing. It's also about the integrity of the message because at the end of the day you also want to show that this is really a journey of understanding how we do these solutions; you don't want to have somebody who's essentially reading off a teleprompter. Hopefully the film is much more now my journey to find the smart solutions. At the end of the day, there's no obvious Leonardo DiCaprio offering him or herself up.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Reviewer's Pictorial

In the course of my travels, there are things that I notice...Here are a few of 'em.

1.)The Ritz 5 in Philadelphia--Last month I attended a screening here, and was mightily impressed...It's an art house theater, which I usually find to have some kind of flaw. But the Ritz was glorious: an attractive lobby (with tables), a spacious theater, and classic marquee. It's a classic city theater with its own personality. I'd love to see more movies there.

By the way, one of the things I love about Philadelphia--at least the parts I've seen--is that the town isn't as frantic as New York. I was able to get into the street and take the photo. It was around 12 p.m. If I were in New York, I would have collided into about three bicycle messengers.

2.) The Newtown Theatre. I live in Newtown Township, PA, but in nearby Newtown Borough lies the nation's oldest movie theater. The first movie was shown there in 1906, and it still puts on plays and movies. It's so cool to have a working theater like this right in the downtown. That gives the town a personality, a historical glow that you don't find if a Dunkin' Donuts or Wawa were there. I had no idea about the theater until we moved here.

Ironically, I do miss having a Dunkin' Donuts--home of the coffee cake muffin and vanilla chai--within waddling distance. My fiancee misses Wawa, which was a staple of her TastyKake and Coke Classic childhood.

3.) This billboard, which was taken on 7th Avenue in New York. Does it make any sense to you? It doesn't to me. There appears to be one too many commas. Shouldn't it be, "From the New York Times bestselling author"?


4.) I don't have a photo for this, because taking one would have been too weird. Before a job interview, I went to the men's room in Philadelphia's Suburban Station. When I entered I saw the following: A wet floor sign with a pair of pants draped over it. A couple of hours later I returned, and the pants were gone.

The number of questions raised are troubling: Whose pants are they? Did the person have a spare pair? Did the same person who put the pants there take them? If not, was there someone wandering around Philadelphia without pants? Does anyone else think this is similar to Kramer's pants story that he offered Peterman?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Review of I Love You Phillip Morris

I really liked this film, and hope it doesn't get lost in the holiday shuffle. An interview with the filmn's directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, should be up in January.

Until then, the movie is released in theaters today.

This review orginally appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina)


An annoying, recurring theme of most con movies (e.g., "Criminal," "Confidence") is the overuse of empty twists and turns to generate heat, while any loose ends are swept under the rug. It's enough to make audience members feel like chumps for investing any effort. "I Love You Phillip Morris" is from that genre, but first-time directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa offer a more fulfilling, more exciting variation: Can a con man drop the act and become himself?

Based on Steven McVicker's non-fiction book, "I Love You Phillip Morris" centers on Steven Russell (Jim Carrey), who when we meet him is as square and bland as unbuttered toast. He's a churchgoing cop in Virginia Beach, who is happily married to Debbie (Leslie Mann), a kind woman whose lengthy bedtime prayers threaten to become sermons. At work, Steven receives a box of documents that leads to his birth mother, who wants nothing to do with him. An angry Steven takes her welcome mat, quits the police force, and heads with the family to Texas. It's a troubling tipping point.

Steven loosens up considerably in Texas. He's friskier around Debbie and very frisky with gay men. A vicious car accident compels Steven to live life his way. He announces his homosexuality, leaves Debbie and their daughter, and moves to Miami, where he storms out of the closet with a vengeance, reveling in the nightlife with his hunky boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro) and enjoying his status as a man about town. There's just a problem. "Being gay," Steven tells us, "is really expensive." With career options limited, he starts committing insurance and credit card fraud. When the cops come for him at work, a petrified Steven's escape plan concludes with a botched jump from a hospital roof. (He misses the Dumpster.) It won't be the last time Steven goes to prison. And it won't be the last time he puts up a fight.

Despite his fears, Steven becomes a man of influence in the big house. He spends lots of time reading law books in the library, which is where he meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a blonde, blue-eyed Southern dandy. It's love at first sight. Steven is enchanted by Phillip's adorable innocence, and Phillip loves Steven's selflessness. Anything Phillip wants or needs, Steven manages to procure, whether it's a noisy neighbor being sent to the infirmary or steak at the commissary. Their love blooms until Steven is transferred and released. Using his newfound legal knowledge, Steven frees Phillip, and the two begin their life as free men. But it's built on an ever-growing pile of lies and deceit—Steven introduces himself to Phillip as an attorney, which he isn't—making it impossible for a normal relationship to bloom.

The great pleasure of watching "I Love You Phillip Morris" is that Ficarra and Requa (perhaps best known as the writing team behind "Bad Santa") don't celebrate Steven's abilities. He's portrayed as a pathetic soul so immersed in lies that he can't understand how he could hurt Phillip. By working on a bigger, more profitable lie, Steven believes he's being a good provider. For all of Steven's craftiness, he would have been a success if he had just followed the right avenues. He knows the legal system. As the CFO of a mega-company—a job he gets from a resume that's pure fiction—he makes his bosses millions. But because he's bored and can't stand his co-workers, Steven has no problem skimming from the top. It's another role for Steven to play, like family man or lawyer or prison ace. As long as he gets the gestures down, outthinks the others, and has a good poker face, he'll be OK. If he gets caught, he'll become someone else. Why stay in college? Why go to night school? Just be different this time.

So much of Carrey's filmography features outlandish characters (e.g., Ace Ventura, the Riddler), so playing a delusional, determined con man is right up his alley. The beauty of Carrey's work here is that he doesn't regurgitate his usual rubber-faced antics. He dials it back so that you see Steven Russell's struggle, not Steven Russell's struggle as interpreted by Jim Carrey, Movie Star. As Phillip, McGregor delivers a heartbreaking performance. He's delicate, too trusting, and forever loving. Those traits place him directly in Steven's path of destruction and make it impossible for him to thrive in the mainstream. Phillip needs protection. He lacks Steven's malleability, street smarts, and willingness to do whatever it takes.

Ficarra and Requa's biggest attribute as filmmakers is staying out of the story's way. As writers, their biggest asset, aside from their bitter humor, is to make Steven, the narrator, unreliable. The story stops and starts and contains at least once crucial scene that is probably flat-out false. It's an unabashedly deceptive movie, which makes it constantly entertaining and a little sad. Steven Russell doesn't even know what the truth is anymore. He's managed to con himself. A satisfied audience finally has its revenge. [R]

Film Round-Up for December 2010

In this edition of The Film Round-Up: a historical drama, a very unsual (but good) Xmas movie, a "Daily Show" correspondent breaks out, and a candidate for the worst film of the year.

How bad was "Hemingway's Garden of Eden"? At least two folks walked out of my screening, one of whom was sitting next to me. As she excused herself by saying, "I'm sorry but I can't take any more of this."

As always these reviews were previously published in "ICON" and are reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)


"Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" (Dir: Jalmari Helander). Starring: Onni Tommila, Jorma Tommila, Ilmari Jarvenpaa, Peeter Jakobi. In the snowy wilds of northern Finland, a mysterious archeological dig has unearthed the real Santa Claus. But it's far from a happy occasion. Santa is literally a gigantic monster and his "helpers"—naked, bearded, and psychotic—are far from friendly. With the dig's organizers clueless (and doomed), only a young boy and his adult, rifle-bearing neighbors can prevent this white Christmas from turning blood red. Bizarre, smart, and totally original holiday fare gets a huge boost from the winsome heroism of Onni Tommila as the scared boy who quickly becomes a leader of men. Writer/director Helander shows a deft touch in shifting from dark comedy to adventure to goofiness. He never revels in the idea's cleverness—based on his award-winning shorts—and keeps the proceedings punchy and tidy. Note: Though it's technically a Christmas movie, parents should probably take the little ones to see something more benign. [NR] ***

"Hemingway's Garden of Eden" (Dir: John Irvin). Starring: Mena Suvari, Jack Huston, Caterina Murino, Richard E. Grant, Matthew Modine. Dreadful adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's final unfinished novel features Suvari and Huston as young, attractive newlyweds touring Europe in 1927. David is a talented, working-class writer. Catherine is a rich beauty who hungers for control and can't stop getting haircuts. Their volatile relationship threatens to explode when they meet an exotic, alluring heiress (Murino), who Catherine develops an unhealthy affection for. If your idea of compelling drama is watching attractive, affluent people with fake problems have circular conversations for 100 minutes then you're in for a treat. None of the characters are relatable or remotely resemble human beings (making it impossible to identify with anyone), the plot drags on and on as if the filmmakers are looking for answers, and Suvari's wooden performance proves why her days as a leading lady ended in 2001. Irvin and screenwriter James Scott Linville add so many class issues and power plays and intrigue to sex that the film becomes a well-mannered snoozefest of Merchant-Ivory proportions. In "Garden of Eden", the characters drink to the point that it becomes an affectation. For moviegoers unlucky enough to endure this mess, they may want to adapt that behavior as a survival tactic. [NR] *

"Today's Special" (Dir: David Kaplan). Starring: Aasif Mandvi, Naseeruddin Shah, Jess Weixler, Harish Patel, Madhur Jaffrey. Samir (Mandvi, a correspondent for "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart") quits his job at a posh NYC restaurant after being passed over for a promotion. Told that his cooking is cold, the chef hopes studying in Paris will be his culinary salvation. Those plans are delayed when his cantankerous, forever-disappointed father (Patel) suffers a heart attack, forcing Samir to take over the family's struggling, shabby Indian restaurant. With the skills of a vagabond spirit/cooking whiz (Shah) and the charms of his fetching former co-worker (Weixler), an inconvenience turns into a salvation. Pleasant, comfortable comedy reminiscent of "Like Water for Chocolate" and "Big Night" has no edge and lots of heart, making it a nice rarity in today's sarcasm-drenched, nice-is-dumb age. Mandvi and the undervalued Weixler make a cute couple, but Shah (an Indian film legend) steals the show as Samir's happy-go-lucky mentor in life and food. Mandvi co-wrote the screenplay, which was inspired by his one-person play, "Sakina's Restaurant". [NR] ***

"Outside the Law" (Dir: Rachid Bouchareb). Starring: Jamel Debbouze, Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila. Drama, which spans from 1925 to 1960, centers on three Algerian brothers who follow different paths (idealistic prisoner, criminal/hustler, solider) before reuniting as adults in France. Two (Zem, Bouajila) become significant players in the underground Algerian independence movement only to get so immersed in principles or bloodshed that they lose themselves. Meanwhile, the final brother (Debbouze), a flashy nightclub owner and boxing manager, is continually at odds with his siblings but can't help protecting them. Solid in just about every department, but considering the patriotism, bitter feelings, and family dynamics involved, it's distracting how muted and restrained the movie is. "Outside the Law" has all the traits of a rollicking, riveting historical epic, but writer/director Bouchareb ("Little Senegal", "Days of Glory") waits too long to take action. French title is "Hors-la-loi." [NR] **

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

My Pet Peeve

Sometimes the advertising for movies resembles a giant con. I was watching an advertisement for "Love & Other Drugs," which has gotten pounded by critics. During the ad, positive blurbs about the movie appear.

The blurbs are in giant font, while critics' names are the size that appears on the conditions' section of a credit card application.

This bugs me to no end, because it's so underhanded. OK, so the blurb isn't from anyone special or from one of those yes-men critics who like everything. That's what I used to think, but then I realized: I know a lot of very good film critics who work for small or below-the-radar publications. What if one of them liked "Love & Other Drugs"? Now it's like they're being diminished.

That's not the worst tactic, which would be the "here's what ordinary people thought" gimmick, when people are interviewed in the multiplex. There's no possible reason that movie will be good. You're telling me no one in the marketing department could get a morning show moron to give 'em some empty praise?

Anyway, here's how I would promote "Love & Other Drugs."

See two of today's hottest young stars...Naked. Gyllenhaal! Hathaway! Love & Other Drugs!

That works pretty well, right?

Book of the Month, Dec. 2010


I love books. They're fun, educational, and they are very rarely the site of a Black Friday stampede.

After a two-week stretch where I read five books for work, I decided to read for fun. I'm currently in the middle of Rob Sheffield's "Talking to Girls About Duran Duran," which examines his teenage and young adult years through songs from the 80s. Like Sheffield's previous, heartbreaking memoir and December's BOM, "Love is a Mix Tape," it warmly demonstrates the soundtrack of one man's life.

This got me to thinking. There are a ton of books where music provides a catalyst for revelations and personal stories. There's "High Fidelity," "Fargo Rock City," "But Enough About Me," etc. But, to my knowledge, there are no books where movies provide the same kick. David Gilmour's "The Film Club"--when critic Gilmour educates his young, rudderless son by watching movies together--is the only one I can think of that comes close.

A big reason for this discrepency, I think, is exposure. Music is a communal experience. There's karaoke, dances, drives with the radio blaring, the soft hum of the AM/FM radio at work or by the pool. Movies are individual acts that don't have the same presence in our lives that music does. I guess that's why so many people who enjoy music can write about life with such gusto.

I will say this. Anybody who writes about film must have a personal connection to films; they must feed his or her soul. (That's a big reason why I write this blog.) If you don't, you're just wasting everybody's time.

P.S.--My brother and soon-to-be sister-in-law got me an autographed copy of "Talking to Girls about Duran Duran." They explained to Sheffield that I was a writer and what I did. His baffling inscripton: "Hi, Peter!"

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Christmas Comes Early


There are a lot of things I like about Christmas. One is that it gives television stations the chance to run 5,000 third-rate movies in the span of a month. It amazes how they make it to the air. They all have the same agenda: to peddle cheap sentiment and sappy lessons under the umbrella of the holiday spirit.

I'm fascinated by these movies because it's almost as if the public's forgiving holiday spirit extends to what's on the tube. At any other time of the year would Kathy Ireland, Tori Spelling, and Brooke Burke find work? I don't think so.

Occasionally, I summon the courage to watch more than five seconds. Recently, I couldn't stop watching 1998's "The Christmas Wish." It was solely because I was transifixed that Naomi Watts was in it. Watts, who I think is a certifiable babe, was dressed like your mom's office mates--a terrible, orange haircut that made her look like Pete Rose, and an outfit that was probably plucked from the seniors' clearance rack at Kohl's.

And if you know Watts' work ("Mulholland Drive," "21 Grams," "Funny Games") she's the last person you'd expect to be in a holiday film co-starring Debbie Reynolds and Neil Patrick Harris (before he found his snark). I felt like I had discovered forbidden footage, and that if I watched anymore reps from the Sundance Institute would barge through my front door, destroy my TV, and put a bullet in my head.

I escaped unscathed. And it served as a reminder that I must watch "Love Actually" and "White Christmas" (at the fiancee's behest) before it's too late.

P.S.--I'm not quite sure about this photo. It looks llike Watts is in the middle of her Charlie Chaplin striptease routine. Whatever...

Friday, November 12, 2010

Book of the Month Special (UPDATED)

I love books. They're fun, educational, and free!!!

That's right folks, it's time for WPW's first giveaway. I have two copies of Adam Bertocci's "Two Gentlemen of Lebowski," courtesy of the fine people at Simon & Schuster.

The book is "The Big Lebowski" written in the style of a five-act Shakespeare play. How can you not love a play with dialouge like this, "It was of consequence, I should think; verily, it tied the room together"?

Anyway, I'm not going to just hand these books to you. The first two people who send one of the answers to petecroatto@yahoo.com gets the prize.

So, without further ado, here are the questions.

1.) What band can the Dude not tolerate his cab driver playing?

2.) The scene where Donnie's ashes are discarded is reminiscent of a scene in what Woody Allen comedy?

Good luck. Read in peace.

UPDATE: The contest is now closed. Congratulations to Heather Smith and Javier Rodriguez for providing the correct answer to question one--The Eagles. As for the second question, I was looking for "Bannanas" but I also would have accepted "Annie Hall."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Film Round-Up, November 2010

In this edition of The Film-Round Up, we go completely and utterly fact-based. There's some good stuff here. In order to give this post some fictional flair, here's a photo of Janet Cooke, the shamed "Washington Post" journalist who won a Pultizer Prize for her fradulent "Jimmy's World" series.

Back to the facts, my interview with Bjorn Lomborg ("Cool It") should be posted next month. In the meantime, check out "Cool It," which opens nationwide next Friday.

(These reviews previously appeared in "ICON" and are reprinted with permission. Thanks, Trina.)


Cool It (Dir: Ondi Timoner). Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, has garnered equal shares of acclaim and criticism for his take on global warming. It is real, he says, but the effects aren't nearly as catastrophic as we think. In fact, simple and high-tech solutions abound for the gloom and doom future that apparently awaits us. Lomborg travels the world to examine these options (wave power, for example), reveals environmental myths (the polar bear's reduced numbers can be attributed to hunters), and gains clearheaded insight from various experts. Though his detractors may label the film propaganda, the affable and eloquent Lomborg makes a convincing argument: Environmental panic has prevented us from thinking logically and solving the problem at hand. The movie's most telling scene: How the fate of the environment ranks in importance to schoolchildren in Nairobi, Kenya compared to schoolchildren at an English private school. A fascinating, eye-opening, and entertaining film that should stir debate. [PG] ****

Freakonomics. Six directors (including Morgan Spurlock and Alex Gibney) tackle the best-selling book of the same name, which examines the hidden costs and benefits of regular life, such as whether baby names determine future success and the ripple effect of cheating in the world of Japanese sumo wrestling. Each director's approach is different and all provide eye-raising revelations: Giving a kid a unique name does not guarantee success; the crime rate drop of 1990s could be due to Roe v. Wade. But that variety is also the movie's biggest flaw. Style trumps substance, burying the message of authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. Sometimes the result is unintentionally harmful. Two segments, Gibney's self-serious sumo wrestling piece and Eugene Jarecki's gloomy crime rate examination, actually clash with Dubner and Levitt's cheeky onscreen observations. Freakonomics offers visual stimulation over intellectual curiosity, as if the theories need to be made palatable at any cost. The movie seems determined to make itself irrelevant. [PG-13] **

My Dog Tulip (Dir: Paul and Sandra Fierlinger). Featuring the voices of: Christopher Plummer, Isabella Rossellini, Lynn Redgrave. Based on the cherished memoir by J.R. Ackerley (1896-1967), this lovingly hand-drawn, animated feature chronicles Ackerley's life with his rambunctious Alsatian bitch, Tulip. Ackerley details the mundane (and dirty) aspects of dog ownership and the rich companionship that results. The movie's strength is its simplicity—from the animation to the story to the gorgeously lean writing style (voiced to perfection by Plummer). Ackerley and Tulip's evolving relationship rightfully takes center stage. The first movie I've seen in a while that doesn't use a dog as a shameless emotional device or to demand adoration, My Dog Tulip shows how a person learns to value and love an animal unconditionally. This is a touching, non-patronizing tribute to man's best friend. The Wynnewood-based Fierlingers also handled animation duties; Paul Fierlinger is credited with the screenplay. Redgrave's last film role. [NR] ***

Last Train Home (Dir: Lixin Fan). In China millions of migrant workers leave their rural homes (where employment options are few) to find jobs in distant cities, sending money back home. The Zhangs are no different. For years, mom and dad have worked non-stop, returning home only on the Chinese New Year to see their two children. Now well into her teens, daughter Qin has dropped out of school to find work and to escape the monotony of farm life. Her parents, who forever promote the values of education, are against the idea. Qin, who resents her parents' long absences, is tired of listening. Something has to give. In her debut, documentarian Fan jumps right into the family's story, observing the subjects at work, home, and during brief reunions. The low-key approach yields a story about how sacrifice can go unnoticed, and how sadness spreads in a family despite the older generation's best defense. Difficult to watch but harder to forget, Last Train Home's honesty and lack of pretense gives it undeniable impact. [NR] ***

Review of The Social Network

Who's up for another review of "The Social Network"? Huh? Eh? Alright, then. How 'bout if I sweeten the pot with a little Rooney Mara? And Kate Mara?

(This review previously appeared in "ICON" and is reprinted with permission. Thanks, Trina.)


The Social Network, the story behind the creation of Facebook, has been a topic of discussion since its release last month. Speculation swirls about its accuracy and the less than flattering portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg, the site's 26-year-old co-founder and CEO. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the film's writer, Aaron Sorkin, described The Social Network as a painting. Everyone, he says, will have a different interpretation. He's right. Even Facebook's slighted co-founder Eduardo Saverin sees the movie an ode to entrepreneurship.

Here's my take: The Social Network tells the story behind a cultural force, and does it well—just like how Saturday Night Fever examined the denizens of the disco or how Wall Street glamorized the movers and shakers behind the mid-1980s' money boom. Sorkin and director David Fincher also detail (with relish) unbridled ambition and its consequences, a beloved story arc. Yes, The Social Network is massively entertaining. But it unveils truths about how we live now. Those looking for accuracy are missing a movie that introduces a new version of the American dream.

It is 2003 and Harvard sophomore Zuckerberg knows that hard work and graduating from a good college just won't cut it. In the opening scene, he complains about how money and status get you places—in his case, one of Harvard's exclusive clubs. He must differentiate himself from the pack of academic all-stars. His girlfriend (Rooney Mara), tired of hearing the ramblings of an obnoxious, self-absorbed jerk, dumps him at the bar.

After writing a scathing blog post on his ex and downing some beers, Zuckerberg begins his quest for greatness. He hacks into the dorms' Web sites, pulls a slue of female student photos, and constructs a Web site where visitors can vote on which of the two students presented is more attractive. Facemash attracts thousands of hits, nearly causing Harvard's network to crash. The administration puts Zuckerberg on academic probation for six months. Never lacking in self-confidence, Zuckerberg demands his accusers recognize his ability to spot flaws in Harvard's computer system.

Twin brothers Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer), the epitome of the refined, steel-jawed Ivy League caricature—they're on the crew team for crissakes—spot Mark's potential. The brothers want him to design a Harvard-related social networking site. Zuckerberg agrees, but soon turns his attention to what will become Facebook. He ignores the Winklevosses' e-mails and partners with best friend Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who puts up the seed money. As Facebook gains popularity on campuses in the United States and Europe, the gentlemanly Winklevosses finally turn litigious. Napster wunderkind Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, in a steady performance) enters the picture. Then things get interesting.

Sorkin (A Few Good Men) and Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) keep the story humming, a miracle considering their tendency toward theatrics. They make it easy and rewarding to read between the lines. We know immediately that Zuckerberg's relationship with Saverin, an economics major, is doomed. Saverin is being considered for one of Harvard's exclusive clubs, which angers Zuckerberg. "It probably was for diversity" is Mark's response to the news. Opposing forces define their friendship. Saverin is handsome, destined for success, and flush with cash, the very qualities Zuckerberg craves. But Saverin's polished wardrobe and traditional business sense make him the enemy. Everything about Mark, from his shabby wardrobe to his refusal to advertise on Facebook, radiates a stubborn integrity. When Parker enters the picture, talking about venture capitalists and holding out beyond the first round of offers ("You know what's cool? A billion dollars."), Zuckerberg has found a kindred spirit. Saverin, pounding the pavement like a young Willy Loman, is a well-educated relic.

For all of Zuckerberg's blathering, he's right: Attending Harvard doesn't guarantee anything. Old money values have depreciated, which the Winklevosses discover after complaining about Zuckerberg's "theft" of their idea to the bored Harvard president. Create a new product, they're told. That's what everyone is doing in lieu of real work. In any other movie, the Winklevosses would have been the heroes. Here they're a step behind, while the petulant, socially inept computer whiz triumphs. This extends to the social arena. I don’t recall one scene featuring the Winklevosses with a woman. Meanwhile the Facebook guys are partying and getting it on with hotties in bathroom stalls.

Given his reputation for portraying sensitive, confused young men (Roger Dodger, The Squid and the Whale) Eisenberg's performance is a marvel. The actor never isolates us from Zuckerberg; we want to understand him. He's a jerk not out of malice, but out of impatience. The fact that he has no sense of diplomacy or decorum doesn't help. He's right, and it's not his fault if you can't keep up. (Just ask the Winklevosses, whose idea was elitist and lame.) Eisenberg delivers his lines in a strident, authoritative cadence that never crosses into bad guy territory. We sense that he's tried so hard to be right, to be ahead of the game, that he's now stuck in this aggressive and gloomy persona. Eisenberg anchors the movie, and Garfield is terrific as a young man whose friendship with Zuckerberg leads to his downfall.

Even though it has united millions, the story behind Facebook's creation is acrimonious. (At least the cinematic version is. Zuckerberg has said the movie gets "a lot of stuff wrong and random details right.") Fincher and Sorkin go too far in conveying the frayed emotions involved, especially an ending that plays like Citizen Kane for the modern friendless. But it doesn't take away from the movie's power. We already know that how we communicate has changed forever. The Social Network reveals that the model for success in America—and how associations are forged—has also changed. Mark Zuckerberg has rebelled his way into the new conformity. [PG-13]

Monday, November 1, 2010

How I Remember Grandma


My grandmother passed away Saturday afternoon.

I feel more relief than anything else. She had become more and more withdrawn in recent years. The beginning of the end was two years ago, when she went to an extended care facility. Once admitted, she raised the white flag. She was in pain, her health was awful, and she was surrounded by strangers. There was no use in trying.

Those last years were hard to watch. I'm not going to speak for my family, but I will say that they nearly obliterated the memories I had. On Saturday, they came flooding back: the Christmas Eves that were as decorative as a Macy's window display; the countless games of War and dominoes that she played with my brother and I; the goofy faces she'd make; the trips to Carvel for Flying Saucers. She was a lovely, fun grandmother. I had almost forgotten that.

And movies were involved. Every time I see "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and "The Wizard of Oz," I think of Grandma. My brother and I would watch them giddily every time we slept over, the clock happily spilling over into the wee hours. There was Ritz crackers and cream cheese. And fun. Lots of fun. I didn't want to be anywhere else.

I remembered all those things over the weekend, and it made me smile. I knows she's up there watching old movies (I don't think her video collection featured anything past 1955), eating chocolate, and doing her word searches. It may sound naive, but that makes me happy. Why? Because that would make her happy, I think, and she deserves it.

RIP, Grandma.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Minka Kelly is (Place Adjective Here)


I forgot why I don't watch shows like "Access Hollywood," "Inside Edition," or other shows that cover the entertainment industry until a few days ago.

The fiancee and I were flipping through the channels, and we landed on "Inside Editon's" piece on Minka Kelly being named Esquire's Sexiest Woman Alive.

(For those who don't know, Minka Kelly was in the last scene of "(500) Days of Summer." Before that, she starred on TV's "Friday Night Lights." She's dating Derek Jeter. She's very attractive, so this annoucement was not shocking or newsworthy except that she's not a household name. Then again, it's not like the head cashier at the local Safeway won.)

As you might have guessed, it wasn't an exhaustively researched segment, but what was so obnoxious was that it consisted only of photos and a narrator describing the photos. For example:

"In this shot, Kelly writhes on a satin sheets wearing black lingerie..."

Really? That's what you're offering me. Granted, I don't think anyone watches these shows for ferocious reporting, but can't the writers do more than describe what everyone can see? The photos spell everything out: Yes, she's in black lingerie. She's on a bed.

This leads me to three conclusions:

1.) "Inside Editon's" producers are real sticklers for accuracy and confirmation. I can imagine some hardened Lou Grant type bellowing to a frightened staff: "ET and Extra may beat us on the ratings, but damn it, I'm not losing the facts race. I want IE to be the entertainment show of record, that gets things right the first time!"

2.) Much research was conducted and one of "Inside Edition's" key demographics are blind masturbators and trapped coal miners who can pick up audio.

3.) The writers didn't know who the hell Minka Kelly was and just wrote about the pretty photos.

So, yeah, I won't be watching entertainment news shows anytime soon.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Benefits of Moving In? Paul Giamatti Joins You


As you know, I recently moved in with my fiancee. It's been terrific so far, but one of the benefits is that we merged DVD collections. Because our tastes align more than depart, I've acquired some nifty titles. Here's what I like.

1.) "American Splendor": A gem of a character study; one of those movies that gets better 3 percent after every viewing.

2.) "Cinderella Man": The most underrated sports movie of the last 15 years. The story is amazing and so is Russell Crowe. Is there anyone who directs movies for the masses better than Ron Howard?

(The fiancee is a big Paul Giamatti fan. Believe it or not, I once dated a girl who was a big Dane Cook fan and owned his movies on DVD. Hard to believe that didn't last, huh?)

3.) "Legally Blonde": If you ever want to see an example of a performance elevating a film, it's Reese Witherspoon's here. And the story is smarter and funnier than you think.

4.) "Waiting for Guffman" and "This is Spinal Tap": How does she own these and I don't?

But there is some bad news. She brought the following with her:

1.)"Something's Gotta Give": With the exception of "The Holiday," I detest Nancy Meyers as a filmmaker.

2.) "As Good as It Gets": A gooball from the James L. Brooks "don't forget your handkerchief" manipulation factory. I'm pretty sure Meyers interned there.

3.) "School of Rock": Never did much for me, even though I like everyone involved.

As long as those movies don't interrupt my nightly viewings of "Shattered Glass," we should make it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

For the Drunk in All of Us...



So, I'm confused. Is this the bubbly comedy with Kristen Bell and Jamie Lee Curtis or some young auteur's attempt to direct his generation's "The Lost Weekend"?

Out of all the photos in this series, this is the first one I can recall where the butchering leads to a title that sounds like a vast improvement over what is playing. I would bolt to the theater to see "You, A Gin," (which would probably resemble the last 20 minutes of "Pollack" or be a bitterly funny romantic comedy penned by Richard Curtis). As for watching Betty White playing her variation of the hip Grandma, I'm not on board.

Three other observations:

1.) How did Betty White become America's most beloved senior citizen? Was there one performance that did it? Did a group of college students--high on hearty laughs from "Golden Girls" reruns--draw up a petition? I like her--and she seems super nice--but her sudden mass appeal is a little disorienting.

Outside of my parents, Philip Roth is my favorite senior citizen. He should be trading barbs in benign female-friendly comedies, damnit!

2.) Over the last month, I've seen Kristen Bell on more magazine covers than a bar code. I'm pretty sure she was on the cover of "The Economist."

3.) OK, so are all the movies PG-13? That's not me being snarky It's a legitimate question.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A True Story


I was at JC Penney with the fiancee yesterday afternoon, where she spent the better part of an hour trying on outfits and I stood awkwardly in the junior Miss department. Just to clarify: I'm not marrying a 15-year-old; it's just that the fiancee feels that younger clothes are more flattering and more fashionable.

She's right. The way most department stores are organized, women either dress like Miley Cyrus or Betty White. There's no in-between.

As I milled around the store on my own, passing 16-year-old girls and feeling out of place, I had a movie-related flashback. When I wrote primarily for Filmcritic.com, I had a full-time job that made traveling for screenings impossible, I usually reviewed garbage like "An American Haunting" and "Anacondas" on the day they were released. One movie I reviewed was "Just My Luck," a Lindsay Lohan vehicle that came out when she was still kind of a big deal. That meant the audience was brimming with teenage girls.

Teenage girls and me--a companionless 28-year-old with a notepad and scruffy beard.

As I settled in, I noticed a funny thing. Not a single person was sitting anywhere near me. My whole row was practically empty. No one was in front of me. Or behind me. I soon noticed that there was no one within five seats of me.

So that means that these girls took one look at the bearded weirdo with the notepad, assumed that my pockets were stuffed with cholorform-soaked rags and that my windowless van was running in the parking lot, and thought I was destined to appear on "To Catch a Preadator."

Can't say I blame them for feeling that way, especially since they had no idea why I was there. The good news is that I got to enjoy the movie in peace, which rarely happens with a movie theatre packed with teenagers. The bad news is that "Just My Luck" was awful.

The trip to JCP was better. "Jerry McGuire" was on in the dressing room area. No one gave me dirty looks for watching that.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Book of the Month for October




I love books. They're fun, educational, and, if you collect lots and lots of them, you get a vigorous workout any time you move.

The other nice part about the move is that I got the chance to reexamine what was in my personal library. A lot of stuff got tossed, but there were some books that caught my attention upon second glance.

One of those was Rick Lyman's "Watching Movies," his collection of columns from The New York Times. The concept was very simple. Lyman would visit his subject at work or home to watch his or her favorite movie. For example, Woody Allen watched "Shane" (a puzzling selection), Ron Howard chose "The Graduate." The subject then talked about the movie--how it influenced them, why scenes are meaningful--as the movie runs.

It's a terrific book for two reasons. Lyman leaves himself out of the narrative and lets his subjects speak. Quotes dominate, but all are useful. The sources bring up nugget after nugget.

The book also puts a face on the glossy business. Directors, actors, screenwriters came to their careers somehow, and chances are a movie or two inspired them to follow that path. Steven Soderbergh, Julianne Moore, and everyone else weren't plucked from the cosmos and put into some kind of movie academy. They were blown away, just like everyone else, and wanted to recapture that pleasure. In that way, critics and movie people aren't that different.

I doubt Soderbergh would want to split a meat lover's pie with me at Pennington Pizza, but you get the idea.

Read in peace.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Todd Solondz Interview



This was a tough interview for a couple of reasons, which are outlined in the introduction. However, to prepare for the Q&A, I watched "Palindromes" and "Storytelling" over the course of a weekend. Though Solondz is a creative, adventurous filmmaker, you shouldn't cram his movies in like you're watching a "Three Stooges" marathon.

But I digress. It turned out to be a lot of fun. Sorry for the lack of formatting right now. This thing clocks in at around 3,000 words. I'm going to save the italicizing and bolding for another time. Just enjoy.

This interview originally appeared in "ICON" and is reprinted with permission.


I was a bit apprehensive to meet Todd Solondz, despite the publicist's assurances that he was a talkative delight. I've spent the last 31 years happily living in the New Jersey suburbs. Solondz, a Jersey native turned devout New Yorker, has made his reputation as a writer and director (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness) by holding up a fun house mirror to those same suburbs, showcasing its hypocrisy and bitterness. His movies are alternately hilarious and shocking and heartbreaking and insightful, but always poker-faced. You remember a Todd Solondz movie, even if you're not quire sure what you've seen.

Solondz's latest, Life During Wartime, is a haunting, moral gut check. His first movie in five years, it's a sequel of sorts to Happiness—it's set 10 years after the bizarre events that befell the Jordan family—but the characters are now played by different actors.

Joy (Shirley Henderson), still meek and clueless, sabotages herself by embracing the misery of others, including her long-dead boyfriend (Paul Reubens); sister Trish (Allison Janney), still reeling from her ex-husband's pedophilia, has relocated to Florida and has fallen for a relentlessly average man (Michael Lerner), which makes her younger son (Dylan Riley Snyder) wary; Trish's tortured ex, Bill Maplewood (Ciarán Hinds), leaves prison hoping to settle the past with his oldest child (Chris Marquette). The third Jordan sister, Helen (Ally Sheedy), is adrift in Hollywood. The movie isn't as in-your-face as Happiness—no money shots, no adults masturbating to teen magazines—but it's a sobering examination of how the past manages to poison the future.

You can see why I was a bit nervous to talk to Solondz. Intense filmmaker. Holds disdain for the place I live. And the publicist says he's been doing interviews all day. Awesome.

Five minutes after meeting Solondz, who's dressed in an aquamarine button-down shirt, turquoise Chuck Taylor sneakers, and his trademark thick glasses, and it's clear my fears were unfounded. Solondz, who was in Philadelphia in late July to promote Life During Wartime, was chatty and dryly funny during our 25-minute interview.

Pete Croatto: It's been about five years since we last saw you. What have you been doing since Palindromes?

Todd Solondz: I would have finished this movie a few years ago had the financing not come together and fallen apart several times. That's why it took so long. But I'm a full-time teacher now at NYU and their graduate school, and I have a lot of fun doing that. I'd rather do that than, I suppose, directing episodes of television. Not that there's not good stuff on TV, I'm just not interested, any more than I'm in a lot of the scripts that are out there. I look at the script, and it's not such a terrible script; it could make $100 million. I'm just not interested…It [filming a script that isn't my own] hasn't happened yet, but I confess I don't spend too much time looking for it. I prioritize my own material. I'm shooting something this fall, so maybe it'll even out. I've been shooting every three years: you write, you shoot, you recover…It's a three-year plan. This one I'm shooting, maybe it'll even out because it took so long to get the last one completed.

PC: That brings me to Life During Wartime. What made you decide to revisit the characters from Happiness, especially 12 years after that movie was first released?

TS: When I finished Happiness I never imagined I would ever revisit the characters or the stories from that movie, but it just shows that my imagination wasn't so fertile because about 10 years later, I guess, I wrote the script, believe me not as a career move. I don't know. I just wrote the first scene, and I liked what I wrote and I think the idea of recasting the movie made it all very interesting for me.

PC: With the new cast was there ever a time when you were directing a scene, let's say with Allison Janney, and said, "That's not how Cynthia Stevenson would have done it"? Was it hard to avoid comparing the actors in this movie to the previous actors?

TS: No, because I wasn't comparing. I didn't tell any of the actors to reference or mimic. The aim was not to replicate, but creating a new work with its own life. And it's different; it's got a different life. I loved Dylan Baker [who portrayed Bill Maplewood in Happiness], but I wanted an actor with gravitas and weight, a kind of dead man walking, ghost-like, spent, shell, a husk of a soul that Ciarán seemed to embody. I couldn't achieve that with Dylan in the same way—he's a different kind of actor. Paul Reubens is very funny like Jon Lovitz, but has a whole history that the audience is aware of that lends an extra layer of pathos and poignancy as part of his performance. And I think it's always nice to show people a side of an actor like Paul Reubens that no one I think imagined he had within him to perform, and there's probably also a playful part of me that wishes to imagine a character who probably has a Pee Wee Herman doll at home.

But I didn't want to evoke Phil Hoffman. I wanted to have something completely different, and when Michael Kenneth Williams came in to read for me…I hadn't known The Wire at the time. I mean he's an astonishing actor, very powerful. So I just retooled it to suit his qualities. He said to me, "I'm not funny." And I said, "Don't worry, I'll take care of it."

PC: You mentioned with Ciarán Hinds's role about he looks worn out and hollow, and that's one thing I noticed about his character and everyone else in that movie. I mean this as complimentary, but everyone looks tired, worn out, that they've been through a lifetime of miseries. They have in a certain way…

TS: [interrupting] Post-traumatic stress disorder genre.

PC: You're not going to find that at Blockbuster, I guess.

TS: I don't know if this will be in the same group as Casualties of War.

PC: That tone in Life During Wartime, is that a reflection of these characters going through these horrific events from 10 years ago, or is it also maybe you getting a little bit older, a little bit mellower? Because compared to let's say, Happiness and Palindromes, this isn't as intense material.

TS: If we had a sought a rating I don't think we would have had trouble getting the R this time. But I don't know, it's possible you're right. I don't know. It's hard for me to say how I've changed as an older person, but of course however I've evolved is reflected in what I do…The movie takes on its own life and I just discover that in the process. It's not a calculated thing. It evolves that way.

PC: In an interview with The Believer from several years ago, you said that whenever you have a new movie coming out, you feel a certain amount of trepidation—I believe the word "shaming" was used—that your baby is out there for the world to see. Do you feel that way with this movie? Are you nervous about the reaction?

TS: Well, certainly at this point I'm not nervous. It's out there. But you're very protective of what you do. These days because of the Internet I never do a test screening, so I didn't test it out on anybody. It's like any filmmaker I suppose feels what he does is very precious to him, and you feel in some way exposed and vulnerable. But I'm happy with the movie; I'm happy with all these movies I've been fortunate to make. I think I only semi-flippantly said that my two aims when I make a movie are 1.) To survive it; and 2.) Not to be embarrassed.

(Note: Though many are familiar with Solondz's work starting with 1995's Welcome to the Dollhouse, he actually directed his first feature in 1989. On www.toddsolondz.com, he calls the making of Fear, Anxiety and Depression "not a happy experience" and the final product "a disappointment." Solondz told Sigrid Nunez, who interviewed him for The Believer, “I’m asking you, as my friend, don’t rent it, don’t try to see it.”)

PC: Forgiveness is a big part of Life During Wartime, but one thing about the movie that I noticed is that it's about people who can't change their lot in life. Am I off target?

TS: Probably not. That's something of a thread in my work—the intractability of our identities, I suppose. I think that people, Americans in particular, are used to the concept of redemption. That you see a celebrity or a politician do drugs or prostitutes, then he finds God, then he does alcohol, then he finds God, then he apologizes on Leno. It's a cycle, it's very familiar to all of us and it's something that's very embedded in this world, this country. But I'm not interested in redeeming Bill Maplewood. I don't know if there is redemption for him. I don't sympathize with him. Of course, I cannot sympathize with someone who has committed such crimes. He is a tragic figure, tragic in so far as he's a great father who loves his son. Look, the subject of pedophilia is of no inherent interest to me, but as a metaphor for that which is most demonized it's hard to beat, I think. Most Americans would prefer having Osama bin Laden to a pedophile at their dinner table. As a kind of crucible, a kind of test, when we say we love mankind, we embrace humanity, of course those are empty, hollow statements because they're platitudes of abstraction. The question is, what are the limits to embracing, to forgive and to accepting? Because that's the way in which we're defined as humans.

PC: Another common element in your films is the New Jersey suburbs. What made you decide to spare the Garden State this time around, and are you going back there in future films?

TS: In this movie, the myth of Florida is a place where one can recreate, reinvent oneself and erase one's past. It's where O.J. went after the trial. And, of course, it's where Trish goes. It's got a distinctive look of clean lines, the big sky, and the color palette is very fresh…In the next movie, I'm going to be in the tri-state area again. But for me, New Jersey is not so much New Jersey, but again a kind of metaphor for the way the suburbs in which most middle-class Americans live.

PC: Why are the suburbs so ripe for satire and parody?

TS: Well, in a certain sense I might say they're not because they've been done to death at this point. But what's interesting is examining, exploring their seduction. I grew up in the suburbs so it seems natural that it informs the way in which I look at the world and experience it, and then I have certainly a deeper, more immediate understanding of the suburbs than I would if I'd grown up in the city. If I'd grown up in the city, it's probably more likely my movies would be urban.

PC: But you've lived in the city for quite a while now, and you've said publicly that you love New York City, and you love the streets and the scene…

TS: I do, I do.

PC: What I'm curious about is why haven't you focused on New York more?

TS: I don't know. These things aren't so calculated. Why do you put pen to paper, and why do you tell this story and not that story?…You listen to whatever it is within you that impels you to write this story and nothing else.

PC: Is it as hard for you to write and direct your films as it is for some people to watch them?

TS: The physical act of directing is very stressful and difficult, but the content isn't what makes it more difficult, it's just the ordeal of the stress of the budget constraints that makes it stressful. The content, no. When you say it's difficult for people to sit through, I don't know how to respond to that. I mean, it takes a certain sensibility to respond to what I do. Certainly this film is fairly tactful, I think. There's nothing terribly unseemly, I think.

PC: To me, it's a character study about a group of very dysfunctional people trying to come to terms with their lives. But I watched Palindromes [whose young heroine, played by seven different actors, embarks on a misguided journey to get pregnant] with my fiancée, who hasn't seen any of your movies, and she didn't quite know how to respond to what was onscreen.

TS: Right, right. I don't know what to say. Some people have such an immediate visceral response, plus or minus. Others seem to be a bit at sea and others are more dispassionate. I don't know how to account for it. I think it's really sensibility. My movies, I think traditionally in the United States, almost half the box office revenue comes from one theater in New York. So it must be rooted somewhere in that sensibility.

PC: Going back to Life During Wartime, how come you keep using different actors in your films?

TS: It's not a rule, but I do like working with different people, discovering different actors. I mean, there are so many people I want to work with, I'll never get to work with all the actors I want to work with. And there are a lot of actors I've worked with that I'd love to work with again. It's just worked out that way.

PC: Who would you like to work with next?

TS: Oh, we'll see. I can't talk about that. We're casting it right now, as I speak.

PC: That's Dark Horse, correct?

TS: Yes.

PC: I know that you're very mum about your upcoming projects, but is there anything about the movie that you can tell our readers?

TS: We had actually considered shooting in Pennsylvania, but then the tax money dried up or something so it became less favorable to filmmakers. Otherwise, we might have been shooting here.

PC: Are you looking at New York, New Jersey, Connecticut?

TS: Actually, New York State has a tax incentive, so I think that's where we'll be.

PC: Some may find it surprising that it's still hard for you to get funding for your movies after all these years, even after the critical success you've enjoyed.

TS: It is—what can I say? Somehow I've gotten the financing and, knock wood, it won't fall apart this time so quickly. I'm very lucky that I like teaching.

PC: What do you do at New York University?

TS: It's a graduate program. I teach the spring in New York, and for six weeks I teach in Singapore, where they have a kind of satellite campus. I look at young people's work and I give them my thoughts, I share what I can with them. It's such a hard thing to be an aspiring filmmaker, so I'm very sympathetic.

PC: Has working with these young directors inspired you in any way?

TS: Um, no. [both laugh]

PC: Why not?

TS: I don't know. Why not? Why yes? What inspires me is the work itself. When you put pen to paper, that's when you discover. It doesn't mean that my teaching won't in some way inform what I do. I'm not aware or conscious of it.

PC: Speaking of the writing process, you mentioned before that the script for Life During Wartime took shape on its own. Is that your typical writing process, to just let things roll?

TS: It's a mixture of, I suppose, calculation and at the same time instinct. It's a creative process, it's very instinctive, but then as you revise it, you use more of the intellectual part of your head and you try to reshape it.

PC: One thing I've always been curious about is how critics define your works as funny or hilarious. Do you consider yourself to be a funny screenwriter, a funny director?

TS: [Playful] I don't know that I've made you laugh. I leave it to others. It's always a red flag if someone tells you, "I'm really funny."

Review of It's Kind of a Funny Story



Highly recommended. Please see it.

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


Several weeks ago, I saw The Other Guys, the latest Will Ferrell comedy where the star dabbled in oblivious, self-serious irony for two hours. It was an amusing enough diversion, but I found myself laughing out of habit. OK, Ferrell is giving a serious explanation behind a "Female Body Inspector" mug; I should probably chortle right about now.

I knew then that Ferrell's days as a go-to comedy star were done. There's no shame in that. Comedians, for whatever reason (a lack of versatility, complacency), usually age in dog years. Eddie Murphy's mid-1980s explosiveness seems like it happened a billion years ago. Like Murphy, Adam Sandler has morphed into a family-approved goofball, though he occasionally deviates from his act (Funny People). Despite being brilliant and hilarious as a stand-up comic, Chris Rock will probably never find his niche as a movie star. Dane Cook, the poor bastard, was nearly upstaged by Jessica Simpson in Employee of the Month.

Zach Galifianakis, he of the sea captain beard and boxy frame, became the latest breath of fresh air on the comedy front after The Hangover was released last year. Over the next year or two, it'll be interesting to see what he does. He's on board for a sequel to The Hangover and he's reuniting with that film's director, Todd Phillips, for November's Due Date.

What's promising about Galifianakis is that he appears uninterested in lording his dry, absurd comedic brand over the masses at every opportunity. In his latest effort, It's Kind of a Funny Story, Galifianakis plays Bobby, a longtime mental patient who befriends and mentors Craig (Keir Gilchrist, United States of Tara), a super-stressed 16-year-old, after the teen convinces a psychiatrist to admit him. Bobby is a role that begs for a performer to hijack the script and turn it into a misguided comedic display. Galifianakis refuses to go big, and his sympathetic, subdued performance is a big part of the movie's heart.

Like any teenager, Craig has problems. Only these weigh him down like an anchor. Despite being in one of New York City's top-flight high schools, Craig has no skills that set him apart from his talented classmates. That makes his father's desire for him to apply to some kind of exclusive summer program all the more toxic. Craig's best friend, Aaron (Thomas Mann), is an athletic and academic giant with a sultry girlfriend (Zoë Kravitz) named Nia whom Craig constantly imagines in a bathtub. With so much to worry about and college barreling toward him, there's no time for Craig to enjoy being a kid, to embrace the possibilities that come with it. The present and the future, which must seem like a giant dead end, provide nothing but stress.

After getting admitted to Argenon Hospital in Brooklyn, it doesn't take Craig long to realize that he doesn't belong there. Hospital rules won't acknowledge his moment of clarity. He must spend a minimum of five days on the ward, which contains a mix of adults and teens. It's not so bad. Bobby immediately becomes Craig's guide and inadvertent life coach. And Craig finally gets attention from a pretty girl, Noelle (Emma Roberts), a 16-year-old cutter who has the musical tastes of an alt-weekly magazine editor. While he makes friends at his temporary home, Craig becomes a cult hero at his school. Nia, who digs how experienced he's become, suddenly finds Craig quite appealing.

There are times when It's Kind of a Funny Story veers dangerously toward Park Slope cool. Noelle seems more equipped to be the hot girl at the independent record store than a psych ward resident, and Jeremy Davies' hat-wearing staff worker looks like the kind of guy who spends his weekends shopping at upscale SoHo thrift stores. Working from Ned Vizzini's semi-autobiographical book, writers/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar) never portray Argenon as a trendy destination. It's where a scared, confused kid finds himself, and the directors' portrayal of that is triumphant without being hokey When Craig is required to sing Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure," it's presented as a glammed-out rock opera. Craig's considerable drawing abilities unfurl gigantic and dream-like, as if they can't be contained. Craig's narration is accompanied by flashy images (e.g., Aaron's list of accomplishments), and colorful still shots. It's all dramatic and over-the-top, but that's how a teenager's mind operates. There are few shades of gray.

Still, Boden and Fleck never overplay their hand. This is undoubtedly a feel-good story, but there's a refreshing pragmatic streak, which makes Galifianakis' stellar performance so important. He's funny, but we can tell Bobby has suffered through one too many setbacks—he's tried to commit suicide six times, his wife has no use for him. There's little time left for comebacks. In Craig, Bobby sees someone who has too much potential to share his path. Galifianakis' gentle, weary approach expresses a cold truth: He has just enough energy left to steer Craig in the right direction. "You're cool, you're smart, you're talented," Bobby tells Craig. "Do you know what I'd do to be you for a day?" If given that chance, Bobby adds, he'd live life like it meant something.

Galifianakis isn't the only cast member who delivers the goods. Gilchrist manages to be brittle without being whiny (a major accomplishment), and Viola Davis (Doubt) is properly warm and reassuring as the psychiatrist with whom Craig reaches a breakthrough. Roberts is fresh-faced and delightful, just like aunt Julia was back in the day. Now that he's a comedy heavyweight, someone who could impose his will on a movie, Galifianakis' fine work matters the most. He doesn't aim for laughs; he doesn't resort to a routine. He just acts. That bodes well for It's Kind of a Funny Story and for Galifianakis' future. [PG-13]