Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Turn it Off! Turn it Off!

To get the full effect of the headline, you have to imagine George C. Scott bellowing the line in Paul Schrader's "Hardcore." Damn the Internet and its limitations.

I'd like to think that I'm not terribly squeamish when it comes to watching racy movies with older people. Growing up, my brother and I would watch R-rated movies with my parents, so watching explicit content with non-contemporaries is not a big deal.

At least I thought it was. Then came last Saturday.

The girlfriend and I were at her parents' house, where they were watching (and enjoying) "Rob Roy." It's not a terribly graphic movie, though there is one scene involving Tim Roth (who's awesome here) and Jessica Lange that starts with Roth saying, "You don't ask a whore; you make her."

You can guess what happened next. And you can guess what scene we joined them for.

Her parents were watching the scene unfold, while my girlfriend covered her eyes. I'm sitting next to her father, while her mother is unpleasantly watching the scene unfold. It was almost comically uncomfortable.

The good news is that everyone knew this. "Nope, this isn't awkward at all," I said. "Just watching squirm-inducing cinema with my girlfriend and her parents. Yup, it's all good."

That got me to thinking. What's the most uncomfortable movie scene you've watched with your parents or respected elders? And what's the one scene you wouldn't want to watch?

Leave your nominees in the comments box. Please, I'd love to see what's floating around.

P.S.--Yes, this is an actual scene from the movie from "Hardcore," which is pretty solid. Also overlooked by Schrader: "Auto Focus" (2002) starring Greg Kinnear.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Only Venn Diagram You'll Ever Need

A long time ago, my friend Barry Ferguson and I had one in a series of extremely meaningful conversations about movies. Maybe meaningful isn't the right word. Perhaps frightening or juvenile would be more appropriate.

Anyway, we were about to see Naomi Watts in "21 Grams," when Barry said that her hotness played a bigger role than her talent. I disagreed thoroughly, saying that her work in "Mulholland Drive" proved otherwise. For the next 25 minutes, we threw out names to see if anyone was an in-between: Halle Berry, Julianne Moore, etc. On and on it went.

It always drove me nuts that there was no way to measure this, but then (about a month ago) it hit me like a thunderbolt: The Venn Diagram.

Think about it: You have one circle featuring actresses whose attribute is their looks (basically anyone featured regularly in "Maxim") and actresses whose attribute is acting chops. Where those cirlces intercept is that rare breed.

So, who's on my intersect...Well, here are five (off the cuff) who make the cut.

1.) Kate Winslet
2.) Naomi Watts
3.) Laura Linney
4.) Anne Hathaway
5.) Amy Adams

What's cool about this is that it also prevents you from being chewed out by a spouse/girlfriend. Tell your girlfriend that you think Megan Fox is hot, and the best case scenario is that you're deemed unoriginal. But pull out Anne Hathaway, citing examples of her layered work in "Brokeback Mountain" and "Rachel Getting Married," and you sound like a staff writer at "Film Comment."

I could be onto something, methinks.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My Interest in Lindsay Lohan, 2003-10

Pete Croatto's interest in Lindsay Lohan died this afternoon soon after the critic discovered that she was suing E-trade for libel over a completely innocuous commercial featuring talking friggin' babies. It was six years old.

The interest was at its peak from 2003 to around 2005, when Lohan gave a moving, hilarious performance in "Freaky Friday" and proceeded to blossom into a younger, hotter, and much funnier version of Ann-Margret. Lohan even earned the approval of Lorne Michaels, who had her host SNL several times, and produced Lohan's 2004 hit "Mean Girls."

However, Lohan's momentum could not be sustained, thanks to a series of terrible movie roles, family scandal, and a lifestyle that made her look like a lollipop. Croatto's interest was on life support after her humorless starring roles in two dreadful movies: "Just My Luck" (2006) and "Georgia Rule" (2007).

Croatto is survived by a passing interest in Malin Akerman and a severe indifference to Megan Fox.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Top 25...Starring Naomi Watts!

A friend of mine recently asked for my top 25 movies of the 00s. At first, I was intrigued with the idea. This was my first decade as a real, live movie reviewer so I was thrilled at the prospect at whipping out the fancy titles.

I quickly ran into some problems, namely perspective and time. The aughts are barely over and it's hard for me to gauge the movies of the decade that were truly important. I went through some old reviews and top 10 lists, and I it was like going through old yearbook photos. Did I really have "Shrek 2" in my top 10 for 2004? How could I have put "American Pie 2" in the top 10 for 2001?

The other problem is that from year to year there's stuff that I miss that I want to see. If I miss an average of three movies a year, that's 30 movies. Suddenly, I don't feel like such an expert, but just a moron who never got around to seeing "Syriana" because he felt like watching "Shattered Glass" or "The Blues Brothers" again.

What I decided to do was list the 25 movies of the decade that moved me in some way, that shook my foundation. I'm sure that I've forgotten a few titles, and I'm sure there are others that will stay with me when I finally catch up to them on DVD.

So, without further ado, here's the list. Please note that is not a ranking of good to best--just stuff that I loved.

1.) Up
2.) City of God
3.) The Kid Stays in the Picture
4.) Capturing the Friedmans
5.) The Lookout
6.) Sideways
7.) Love, Actually
8.) The Dark Knight
9.) Secretary
10.) Little Children
11.) Shattered Glass
12.) The 40-Year-Old Virgin
13.) United 93
14.) Almost Famous
15.) The Squid & the Whale
16.) Before Sunset
17.) Vicky Cristina Barcelona
18.) Mulholland Drive
19.) You and Me and Everyone We Know
20.) Murderball
21.) Brick
22.) 21 Grams
23.) American Splendor
24.) Monsoon Wedding
25.) Pan's Labyrinth

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Why Roger Ebert Matters to Me

After his recent appearance on "Oprah" and Chris Jones's amazing profile on him for "Esquire," you're going to see lots of tributes painting Roger Ebert as an icon of American literature. Will Leitch did just as much, writing a wonderful essay on knowing Ebert, which can be found on Deadspin.com.

Let's get one thing clear: The man totally deserves every shred of praise he's getting. This is not mortality-influenced kudos. Ebert has always been a great writer, but his TV presence obscured that fact. He's not a great film critic. He's a great writer who happens to write about film, and I think his blog work proves that.

Anybody can say a movie is good or bad, but it takes a true talent to go beyond that and be funny, and poetic, and moving...Read anything from Ebert's "Movie Yearbooks" and the prose still sings. Who else can make a review about an atrocity like "North" still sting 16 years later? The wordplay is dazzling. The observations are fresh, a mixture of life lessons and keen cinematic observations and humor. He never sounds defeated or deflated or cynical to be at the movies. To me, he's always sounded like a guy who loves what he does and doesn't take his position for granted.

If I sound like a disciple, it's because I am. Roger Ebert made me want to review movies, but he also made me want to become a writer.

After my grandfather died in 1989, he left behind a basement library full books. Before my grandmother moved from that house in 1992, my brother and I would grab books that tickled our fancy. During one visit in 1990, I grabbed a copy of Ebert's 1985 "Movie Home Companion." I was just starting to love movies, and I figured Ebert's book would at least be interesting.

Man, was that an understatement.

The book hit me like a 2 x 4 to the head. I devoured it, amazed that someone could write with such intelligence and verve without making me feel like I was being talked at. (Remember, I was 12 at the time and my greatest non-sports reading achievement was almost finishing an "Encylopedia Brown" box set.) From that point on, I was hooked and read as much as I could from him. Ebert turned me on to writing and films and books and everything else. I never had a chance.

Now, 20 years later, I am writing for a living. I can't imagine doing anything else, and I owe Roger Ebert so much. He's one of my literary heroes, and I hope he has enough time to pick up some more followers.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Book of the month for February/March

I love books. They're fun, educational, and they ensure that libraries remain relevant.

Well, there was no book of the month for March. Really sorry about that, folks. Between the wife and the kids and the job at Brandt-Leland, it really got out of hand.

While you figure out what the hell I'm talking about, let's take care of that whole book thing. Recently, R. Kurt Osenlund and I have been showing a lot of love for Shattered Glass, Billy Ray's terrific 2003 film about how Stephen Glass's false reporting nearly dismantled The New Republic.

There's no book about that whole debacle that I know of, but there is a great book about another journalistic hoax: Jayson Blair's reign of lying and incompetence at The New York Times. This was profiled exquisitely by Seth Mnookin in Hard News. Mnookin first covered the story for Newsweek and then expanded into a brilliantly reported, uncomfortably revealing look at how the venerable newspaper nearly killed itself in the name of being politically correct.

Mnookin also wrote the terrific Feeding the Monster, which is about how the Boston Red Sox became a championship organization. You don't have to like baseball to enjoy it; you just have to love good reporting.

See you at the library!

Update: You can now read Chris Jones' wonderful piece on Ebert online. Read it here...And if you want to read the excellent article by Buzz Bissinger that inspired "Shattered Glass," you can read it here.

The Film Round-Up for March

In this edition of The Film Round-Up: Um, let's just say this wasn't the best month to be a movie-watcher. I'll let my reviews do the talking.

As for a photo, here's one of Natalie Wood. Did you know she was always frightened of water, even before her fatal drowning? Did you also know she dated Henry Jaglom? Weird...

As always, these reviews previously appeared in ICON and are reprinted with permission.

Harlem Aria (Dir: William Jennings). Starring: Gabriel Casseus, Damon Wayans, Christian Camargo, Malik Yoba, Paul Sorvino. Anton (Casseus) is a simple-minded 28-year-old who dreams of singing arias instead of living in Harlem with his smothering aunt. Desperate to fulfill his dream, Anton leaves home and hits the streets, where he meets a black homeless hustler (Wayans) and a white, self-loathing street pianist (Camargo, The Hurt Locker). The three form an uneasy alliance as Anton's beautiful voice inspires camaraderie and duplicity. Preposterous plot never gets a chance for redemption because of Jennings' rudderless script. One minute it's a sunny inspirational tale. The next it's a gritty street drama with (absurd) racial complications. Go to the bathroom, and suddenly it's a con-man comedy. Whether the shifts are an attempt to rouse emotions or to distract us from the thin, pandering storyline, nothing works. You still have to endure an excruciating comedic performance from Wayans (who executive produced), a soundtrack that's an unholy mixture of bland hip-hop and opera, and an ending that will leave you begging for social services to intercede on Anton's behalf. Harlem Aria desperately tries to be heartfelt and hip and street tough, but the harder Jennings tries, the deeper he sinks. The movie is an anchor searching endlessly for a bottom. (Note: According to IMDB.com, the movie was originally released in 1999.) [R] *

Barefoot to Timbuktu: Ernst Aebi—Come Hell or High Water. (Dir: Martina Egi). In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Swiss-American Aebi spent years initiating dramatic improvements in Araouane, a destitute and barren settlement in the middle of the Sahara. Egi's documentary focuses on Aebi's extraordinary work there—which included founding a school, planting a garden, and establishing a water system—and his return to Araouane after a 20-year hiatus. The movie also touches on other aspects of Aebi's never-boring life, such as his work as an acclaimed artist and his success in New York real estate. Therein lies the problem. By making Araouane a significant part of the film, and not an accent to Aebi's vivid, slowly concluding life, Egi's misplaced focus is almost comical. Why does a biographical detail get this much attention when there's so much more about Aebi remains unexamined? Barefoot to Timbuktu should have been a long look at the busy and quiet moments in the life of a fertile creative mind. Instead, we just get a glance. [NR] **

The Wolfman (Dir: Joe Johnston). Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, Art Malik, Geraldine Chaplin. After years in America, Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro) returns home to 1890s England under unfortunate circumstances—his brother has gone missing, and is later found mauled to death. In searching for clues, Talbot is bitten by a mysterious beast. Some swift stitching from the gypsies can't help Lawrence, who soon morphs into a vicious lycanthrope at every full moon. But he does learn some hard truths about his family, so that's good. Remake of the 1941classic is very slick and very gory, but Johnston's straight-ahead directorial style and lack of visual flair makes for an overall blah experience. The only things that keep the movie popping are Hopkins, who as Talbot's dad is delightfully unhinged, and Weaving (The Matrix) as the no-nonsense Scotland Yard detective investigating the grisly murders. Blunt is wasted as the (emotionally) tortured love interest. Del Toro, when he's not covered in Rick Baker's awesome make-up, acts with a surprising lack of urgency. [R] **

The Shock Doctrine (Dirs: Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom). According to journalist Naomi Klein, the shock doctrine refers to laws and economic principles put into place when there's a significant tear in the social fabric (i.e., wars, natural disasters). At the forefront of her theory is late, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, who favored privatization over government regulation. Friedman and his protégés employed their theories in Chile, Argentina, Britain, and Russia during times of turmoil with disastrous results. The doctrine ran rampant, says Klein, most recently when the U.S. set up shop in Iraq and Afghanistan and proceeded to have outside contractors handle everything from security to currency. Klein's theory and her proof are intriguing, but the facts and theories from her 720 page-long book are delivered at a breakneck pace, making it a challenge to absorb the information and make connections. Whitecross and Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart) include interviews in an attempt to generate a human touch. Only it doesn't work because there are only a handful of subjects and their scant contributions don’t complement what we're told. The Shock Doctrine is an ambitious, fearless undertaking that the directors never quite nail. Call it an interesting failure. [NR] **

Review of The Hurt Locker

Just in time for the Oscars. Enjoy!

This review was previously published in ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina!)

The Hurt Locker is an historic film, and not because it landed nine Oscar nominations, including one for Kathryn Bigelow, who is poised to become the first female director ever to win an Oscar. That's nice and all, but the bigger theme is that it's the first memorable film about the current Iraq conflict that attempts to entertain us.

This is not meant as an insult. It's just that movies about Iraq and Afghanistan are supposed to have a message. Entertainment is secondary. When this conflict fades—or rather, if it fades—you will see the accompanying movies get glossier. It's evolution. The Vietnam War used to yield somber dramas and principled shoot 'em ups. Now, Vietnam is a sentimental footnote in movies like Forrest Gump and, apparently, ripe for parody. Did anyone think of the Tet Offensive when chuckling at Tropic Thunder?

The master stroke of The Hurt Locker, and why it's not being looked at as just a tense popcorn flick, is that Bigelow and writer Mark Boal present a military man archetype that has become antiquated in recent years. In the process, they show us that being in a war doesn't automatically make you courageous.

William James (Jeremy Renner), the movie's hero, dismantles bombs throughout Baghdad, an absolutely terrifying task that requires wearing a padded suit, having two pairs of eyes watch your every move, and proceeding with extreme caution. James, however, has a different approach. He'll skip the robot assistant, thanks. It's too damned hot for the suit, so he'll go without it. After all, if he's going to die, he might as well be comfortable. And James doesn't need to correspond via the radio—it'll just get in his way.

This seemingly reckless approach has helped James disconnect over 840 bombs. It doesn't build much rapport with his new escorts, Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). A lapse in coverage caused the last guy (Guy Pearce) in James's spot to return home draped in an American flag. That blown assignment haunts both men. Eldridge keeps talking to the base psychologist (Christian Camargo), and Sanborn doesn't have the patience to deal with James's cowboy antics. He'd rather kill him than have to deal with the carelessness.

James doesn't carry much personal baggage. There's a girl back home that he knocked up, but he's not pining for her. The only mementos he has are from his bomb work. Eldridge is a slip-up away from cracking like an egg and Sanborn wants to leave, but it's all another day at the office for James. During a break in an endless desert shoot out, he calmly asks Eldridge to fetch him a juice. This isn't macho posturing on James's part; he's truly comfortable out there. In 2004, when the movie's action unfolds, such an uncluttered mindset makes him an outcast. The question is, can James maintain that blank slate?

Bigelow and Boal don't make the movie about these different mental approaches. What makes The Hurt Locker so compelling is that it's an action movie with a brain, which is a rarity these days. James, Sanborn, and Eldridge have a job to do, and Bigelow forces you to watch. The camerawork and editing are kinetic and flashy and tense, but never overindulgent. The movie never feels like a music video about war. You get caught up in the whirl of craziness, and understand how James's mindset makes him important. Eventually, someone has to do something.

The Hurt Locker is good, and forever will be, but it's deemed great for 2009. The reason is timing. It would have flopped if it had been released in 2005 or 2007. The public's vitriol over Iraq and Afghanistan was still too high, and the related movies reflected that. Now, we don't need another movie where America is branded as a bully with an inferiority complex, or one that recites our foreign policy flaws. It's abundantly clear that war is hell. For a lot of people, The Hurt Locker must seem like a glorious reprieve, even innovative. I won't go that far, but it shows that movies about chaotic current events can be made into insightful, even exciting, movies that can be relevant without being overtly political. The Hurt Locker is an impressive achievement under this new approach, but so was the overlooked character study Brothers; The Messenger had its moments. Old heroes can come back in new ways—and new movies—to affect us. A new evolution has begun. [R]