Thursday, July 29, 2010

Goodbye, Scene It?

I'm preparing to sell my condo, which means that I've been donating or throwing away all of the crap I've accumulated for the past five-plus years. I've gotten rid of old takeout menus, unread books, and kitchen stuff that I can't identify. Seriously, I just threw outsomething that looked like conjoined oven mitts.

One item that I donated to Goodwill this afternoon was Scene It?, the DVD movie game. I had bought it after I moved in for my housewarming party. Maybe we played it, maybe we didn't. All that I know is that since March 2005 the game has not been opened.

So, why didn't Scene It? become the game of my young adulthood? There are a few reasons: First, you need at least four people to play, and I rarely have that many people over. (My condo is really meant for one or two people, tops, before people start bumping into each other and oxygen runs out.) Second, not all of my friends are movie buffs, so they may not want to endure a game that revolves around nothing but film. Third, it's no fun if one or two people dominate the game. Everyone needs to be on the same level.

That happened a few years back, when a friend hosted a soiree that included Scene It?. My brother and I were in attendance, and we proceeded to put on a film geek throwdown, answering questions at lighting speed as the other guests looked on in abject horror. I realized then that perhaps displaying my gift for movie trivia may not be the best way to get the ladies' affection--or anyone else's, for that matter.

Now some other schmuck will learn that unfortunate lesson. God's speed, Scene It?.

Streets of Philadelphia

I recently ventured into Philadelphia to interview director/writer Todd Solondz for an upcoming piece in ICON. This was a big deal for me, but not for the reasons you think. Finally, I put on my big boy pants and drove into Philly.

This is kind of a big deal for me. I drive, but I don't derive any pleasure from it, never did. When everyone was thrilled to get their driver's license during junior year of high school, I did anything I could to delay it. Even now, driving to new places fills me with a bit of apprehension. I keep envisioning my car breaking down on some foresaken, apocolyptic neighborhood, a gang of street tough judging me as easy prey, and then me running for my life like I'm in "The Warriors"

Anyway, the drive into the city worried me a bit, but it turned out OK. I got to the hotel just fine and the interview with Solondz, a nice guy with loads to say, was excellent. (I wish my introduction to the publicist didn't feature me dropping my cell phone and tape recorder like Kramer, but you can't have everything.)

The way back, however, was an adventure. I got twisted up leaving the hotel parking lot, and I made a few turns until I found the street I was looking for. I went down what was a one-way street the width of an alley, eager to get back on track...when I saw a car parked right by the intersection. I honked, waited, and cursed at the absent driver.

Not knowing when the douche who left the car was coming back, I proceeded to back out of the street--a K-turn was impossible--and into oncoming, rush hour traffic. It was a dicey situation, but there was nothing else I could do. Luckily, I nailed the maneuver, and proceeded to find Route 95--45 minutes later.

Still, I'm glad I did it. There are certain aggravations you have to handle, and driving into cities is one of them, especially if you want to be considered an adult. I'll get there someday.

P.S.--Philly, for the record, has terrible street signs. I think they're printed in the same font as the ingredients' lettering on aspirin bottles.

P.S., Part II: I thought for about five seconds of taking a train, but it would have taken literally 3 hours to go from New Brunswick to New York to Philadelphia. I could walk to New Brunswick to Philadelphia in three hours.

P.S., Part III: That's a photo of Mike Schmidt, the Hall of Fame third baseman with the Philadelphia Phillies. Don't ask me where this is from. Maybe he's doing a sequel to "Sideways."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A True Story

I got engaged a couple of weeks ago, and to say that I'm thrilled is a vast understatement. I'm even more tickled when I look back at the hell that I suffered in the dating scene.

Some of the incidents and accidents I can now revisit and smile. One took place right after I met my finacee, when my mom tried to set me up with the friend of a neighbor. She recalled the conversation to my younger brother, my dad, and me.

"Well, I told her that you're a writer and that you read books and watch movies..."

Dave interrupted the story.

"Wait. Pete reviews movies and books for national publications. You buried the best part. How many people do you know who did this for a living?"

"It sounds like you and Dad have to water me and turn me toward the sunlight every couple of days," I responded.

Despite my mom's unwitting attempt to cockblock me, everything worked out beautifully in the end. I've found my life and movie partner.

Book of the Month

I love books. They're fun, educational, and they are excellent to use as bases in a game of sandlot baseball.

Until I read Douglas Perry's "The Girls of Murder City," I had no idea that "Chicago" was based on actual events. Perry's splendid book recounts those incidents and paints a sordid, intoxicating look at 1920s Chicago.

My review of the book for "BookPage" sums up my feelings perfectly. You can read it here.

Read in peace.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Off the Beat: Grown Ups

It's very rare that I get a chance to see a movie just for the hell of it. Recently, the girlfriend and I had a free Saturday, so we went to see Adam Sandler's "Grown Ups." Part of the reason why I went was that I really didn't want to watch anything that involved a large amount of thinking on my end. Sometimes a man needs to see Kevin James ram into a giant tree.

I know a ton of critics have been stomping their feet and howling at how awful "Grown Ups" is. I thought it was harmless and fairly amusing, and it's about what you expect from Sandler, who after abandoning the renegade stupidity of "Happy Gilmore" and "Billy Madison" has settled into a kind of mildly entertaining, none-too-challenging middle ground.

What upset me about "Grown Ups" is that it tries to pretend it's not Sandler and his friends goofing off by occasionally lapsing into "Big Chill"/what's-wrong-with-these damned-kids today territory, which doesn't work for two reasons: A.) The poignant moments are shallow and resolved with sitcom-like efficiency; B.) No one in the cast can pull of those moments, except for Maria Bello and Salma Hayek, who are relegated to meh supporting roles.

That's what bothered more than anything else. I don't mind Sandler, and I think critics who continue to bemoan his presence are wasting their breath. It's like complaining about the price of gasoline or the humidity. He's not going away anytime soon. We know how high the bar is set with him, and all we can hope for is that he doesn't crawl underneath it.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Zoe Kazan Interview

This is reprinted--without my stammering and awkward pauses--with the permission of ICON, where it appeared earlier this month.

Zoe Kazan looks like she's 15, sounds like she's 18, and is one of the best actresses you've never heard of. Already an acclaimed stage actress and playwright at age 26, Kazan is now a leading actress in a film. She portrays a lovelorn, epileptic college student who returns home to New York City for spring break in the low-key and quietly moving indie character study, The Exploding Girl.

Kazan, the granddaughter of legendary film director Elia, is excellent because she loses herself in the role. That trait has defined her film career, leading to first-rate supporting performances in a wide range of films, including Revolutionary Road, It's Complicated, and the overlooked Me and Orson Welles.

In a recent phone interview, Kazan talked about preparing for her first lead role, how conversations are different in New York and Los Angeles, and why she's perfectly happy being a chameleon.

Pete Croatto: Reading the production notes for The Exploding Girl, one thing that interested me was that before there was even a script, you and director/writer Bradley Rust Gray went on a series of walks where you told him stories. How did the character of Ivy take shape from those walks?

Zoe Kazan: My mom, before she saw the movie, was like, "How much of it is autobiographical?" And none of it was. That was the kind of the surprising thing to me. Brad has mostly worked with non-actors before, and a couple of instances they [Gray and his wife/frequent collaborator, So Yong Kim] found people who were like the characters they had written…So when I started working with Brad, I assumed that his process would be applied to me in the same way that it had been applied to his own actors. I don't know why I trusted him because normally you don't trust people with your life stories if you think they're going to use them. We really hit it off; we really got along. I didn't expect him to make it autobiographical, but I did expect the character to come closer to me than she did. She's very different from me and obviously her story is not my story…I think he tried to know me so that he could figure out where I was so he could move from that point into a different territory, knowing that I could play somebody else.

It became like a shorthand for us because we knew each other so well by the time we started filming it was very easy for us to have discussions about who Ivy was and who she wasn't.

PC: So, the walking served as a meeting point. You got to see where the director was coming from, and vice versa?

ZK: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, we really didn't talk about the movie that much at all. We would talk about things that were thematically similar to the movie. We talked a lot about love. We talked a lot about childhood, about growing up. I told him stories about my parents and my sister. I think we became emotionally very familiar with each other.

PC: That collaboration really shows in the performance; it does make it all the more authentic.

ZK: I loved working that way. I think there are a lot of examples of actors having longtime collaborations with directors or friendships with their directors that I think informed the work. What was kind of different about this was that Brad was working that connection with me as he was writing the script.

PC: The movie doesn't feel scripted.

ZK: People always ask if there's a lot of improv, and it's a hard thing to answer because a lot of the script was exactly as it is onscreen. Brad, I think, is a little bit like [a documentary filmmaker] in how he works. A lot of times he'd put the camera on while we were resetting to try to get something just happening between me and Mark [Rendall, who plays Ivy's longtime friend, Al]. There are a couple of things in there. We'd have whole days where he would shoot things that weren't at all in the script…He created a lot of room for happy accidents.

PC: Speaking of the script, there are a lot of quiet moments in this movie. One that leaps to mind is you looking forlornly through a stack of CDs. Was it challenging to act in a movie that didn't have a lot of dialogue?

ZK: I haven't thought about it like that. The first week that we shot, we shot only with me and not with any of the other actors except for me on the phone with Greg [Ivy's never-seen boyfriend]. So I got very comfortable being alone with the camera…I think it was like a 50-page script and it's like an 80-minute movie, so I knew reading it that there would be a lot of time in the movie that was without dialogue, because there would have to be to make that a feature-length movie. I was expecting the quiet stuff. I don't know how to answer that because all of those scenes have dialogue in them, so there wasn't a lot of time spent just being absolutely silent. Like I said about the way that Brad helped [shape] the character with me, I felt at home being Ivy—especially after that first week of spending time alone with the camera—of who Ivy was, and just letting her sit with me.

PC: One thing I wanted to talk about was the role of New York in this movie. Do you think city living affects relationships, because I felt that Ivy being in New York forced her to solider on.

ZK: What do you mean, "solider on?"

PC: In New York you really can't stand still too long. You have to move on, keep up with the pace.

ZK: I don't think New York is making Ivy as you say, solider on…I think that she's somebody who's had to put away a lot of the darker, more exciting feelings she has because, partially as an epileptic, she's trying not to upset herself all the time. Stress and emotional distress can trigger a seizure. So, I think she's kind of trained herself not to have an emotional response to things. …She's incredibly self-reliant. I think part of it is that she's from a single parent home and she's had to do a lot of self-care.

I think New York definitely plays a part in how Ivy and Al relate to each other. I think that one thing that happens in New York is that because the apartments are so small and because people don't have a lot of outdoor space that they go into public spaces a lot for private conversations. I grew up in Los Angeles, and all of my important conversations in high school and as a kid always happened in someone's car or in their basement or someone's bedroom. We really didn't have a private experience in public space that often. In New York, it's almost the complete opposite. You take public transportation everywhere, there's very little space that's extremely private. People treat other people differently because of that, I think. Everybody is in their own little bubble outside among other people. I think that casts Ivy and Al together more than they would be necessarily in another city or on a drive somewhere [where'd they] have more autonomy….I think maybe Al would have said to Ivy, "Do you like me?" a whole lot earlier, if they had been spending a lot of time secluded.

PC: In The Exploding Girl you play a college student. You played a high school student in Me and Orson Welles. You're in your mid-twenties now, but you perform those roles with such ease. How do you do that?

ZK: I think because I was a precocious child there's a part of me that has more access to childishness than maybe I should for a 26-year-old. First, it doesn't seem that long ago to me. Second of all, I can't get a job playing my own age. People say, "She's too young for that part" because of how I look. So, I don't know when I'm going to get to play more adult roles. I'd love to. In the meantime, these stories are beautiful to me, these coming of age stories. I guess most actresses would love to play younger than they are [laughs].

PC: This is meant as a compliment. You never look the same twice; you blend into a role like Vera Farmiga does. Are you afraid that you may be a victim of your own versatility?

ZK: Yeah, sure, you have to be recognizable in some way in order to make a name for yourself. But the truth of the matter is, I'd much rather be a chameleon than be a movie star. I don't look up to people who are the same in every movie; I don't have any curiosity about that. I do truly feel that the key to this work is curiosity. I feel that every night when I go onstage. On nights when I have no curiosity about the material, when I'm tired or when I don't bother to be curious, then I can feel myself not really doing my job onstage. Similarly on film, I think you have to have a basic curiosity about human beings and the human condition and about what's happening.

There's a reason that people think actors are egomaniacs, but there has to be a certain amount of interest in the self in order, I think, to be a good actor. You have to be curious about what's happening to your body when you cry and what happens when you're ashamed or what happens to you when you're happy. You have to be curious about those things, and that can look like narcissism sometimes, even when it isn't. I just don't have the curiosity about myself as a persona. The only reason I act is to get to be other people, so if that is a damning thing, then fine because I don't really want to be otherwise.

PC: You're acting in films. You have a distinguished stage resume. You're a playwright. Where do you want your career to head?

ZK: It's naïve to be like, Oh, I want to be respected, because you don't get the parts that I want to play if you don't play the game a little bit. So, I know that I'm going to have to. One of the advantages of coming from a showbiz family is that I don't have a lot of naiveete or romance about careers. I know that careers are hard work. I know I'm going to have to figure out a way to make money that might involve making more compromises in what material I choose. I hope not. I would love to be able to keep going as I am now except on a kind of bigger scale I guess. I love to write, I'd love to keep doing that and have more of my plays produced…But the bottom line is to keep getting to play interesting parts, because that's the main thing.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Review of The Kids Are All Right

One of the best movies of 2010, and the performances (including Ruffalo, who's all laid back cool) are friggin' amazing. Of course, this review previously appeared in "ICON" and is reprinted with the loving permission of the one and only, Trina Robba.

Spot a commercial for a movie prominently featuring a gay couple, and it's most likely going to be a wacky comedy or a somber lecture with nice production values. Directors and writers have spent so much time on effeminate gestures and messages that they've overlooked something: Gay couples are just as boring as their straight counterparts. For every couple hatching a La Cage aux Folles-inspired scheme, there are thousands watching TV in their sweats or mulling about what toppings to get on their pizza.

Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right is a bracing reminder that being in a committed relationship is a relentless test, regardless of sexual orientation. Over some 20 years together, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) have created a suburban lifestyle featuring a beautiful house and two teenagers. The counterculture signs are few and far between. Despite his wacky name, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is a star athlete who looks the part; blonde, studious Joni (Mia Wasikowska) is a National Merit Scholar who spends her free time playing Scrabble. Even the moms are decidedly non-edgy, unless you count the graphic t-shirts Jules favors. But those can be found at the juniors' section in Kohl's. Nic is a doctor, for crying out loud.

Nic and Jules have reached an amiable, boring middle. Pornography, man-on-man surprisingly, now gets them going in the bedroom. The kids, especially Joni, are starting to chafe under their affection and orders to write thank-you notes. Nic's responsible, business-like approach clearly irritates Jules, whose latest, misguided adventure is landscape design. "It's proactive that you bought the truck," says Nic, exercising extreme diplomacy, about Jules's purchase. Everything is limping nicely along until a curious Laser asks Joni to chase down their biological father. The teens were conceived by artificial insemination, and 18-year-old Joni is now old enough to make first contact.

She does, and the kids connect with the donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a restaurateur, who is adult cool: stylish, successful, and with an indifference that eases into sexy confidence. Nic and Jules learn of the covert meeting, and request he visit for dinner. "Let's kill him with kindness, and put it to bed," Nic tells Jules. But a guy like Paul doesn't lie down easily. Except for Nic, who distrusts his growing presence, Paul charms everyone. Jules designs his backyard, which allows their dinnertime rapport to blossom. Laser shoots hoops with him, and Joni, who's falling under his rebellious spell, lends a hand at his organic farm.

Since Cholodenko downplays Nic and Jules's gayness, it's not surprising that she and co-writer Stuart Blumberg create characters that aren't easily categorized as good or bad. You're compelled to watch as Nic, Jules, and everyone else stumble through this brewing familial crisis. Paul has a good heart, but he can't align it with his raging libido. He provides a steadying influence for Laser and an eco-friendly buddy for a clearly smitten Joni, but mistakes that as a call to change his lifestyle. Nic's role as the family's taskmaster automatically makes her the bad guy, but it's why she's a great parent. Her last attempt to bond with Paul—singing Joni Mitchell songs, heaping excessive praise on his food—shows how much she cares about her family's happiness. So does her reaction when everything falls apart. Jules feels that Nic doesn't appreciate her anymore. She's correct. Her use of Paul as a form of vengeance, however, is wrong and she knows it.

These are juicy roles for the three talented leads, and they all have a field day. Ruffalo captures Paul's charisma and oily self-confidence in an effortless stroke; you keep asking if it's OK to like him. Moore, always a versatile talent, acts with such glee and vivacity that I was floored to learn she turns 50 in December. Seeing her perform with Bening, who doesn't act here as much as live through this suburban tumult, is a treat. How often do you get to see one of them onscreen with a great script? Considering that Bening acts in movies with about the same frequency as the Olympics, getting her and Moore together is a major accomplishment for Cholodenko.

It's not the only one. Bitingly funny and achingly real, The Kids Are All Right also serves as a challenge to filmmakers: Ditch the social-sexual politics and the buffoonery that you've associated with gay America; just make movies about people. Do that, and like Cholodenko and Blumberg, you may produce something special. [R]

Film Round-Up for July

In this month's edition of The Film Round-Up...Jonah Hill surprises; Michael Winterbottom repulses; Helen Mirren struggles; and Todd Solondz lays off the money shots...Yup, I hit the indpendent mother lode this month.

And I got to enjoy Marisa Tomei, who stars in "Cyrus." I love what Jonah Hill told "GQ" about working with Tomei: "Trust me, it sucks when you're supposed to be her 21-year-old son and you look fourteen years older than her."

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

Life During Wartime (Dir: Todd Solondz). Starring: Allison Janney, Shirley Henderson, Ciarán Hinds , Michael Lerner, Ally Sheedy, Dylan Riley Snyder, Michael Kenneth Williams, Charlotte Rampling, Paul Reubens, Chris Marquette. Solondz's latest is a sequel of sorts to Happiness—set 10 years after the bizarre events that befell the Jordan family—only the characters are played by different actors. Joy (Henderson), still meek and clueless, embraces the misery of others, including her long-dead boyfriend (Reubens); sister Trish (Janney), still reeling from her husband's pedophilia, takes up with a relentlessly average man (Lerner), which makes her younger son (Snyder) more skittish; and Trish's ex-husband (Hinds) embarks on life after prison, hoping to make amends with his oldest, college student son (Marquette). The third Jordan sister, Helen (Sheedy), is adrift in Hollywood. Not as relentlessly bitter and satirical a movie as Happiness; the characters look haggard and beaten down. Solondz has gotten mellower. Here, the writer/director shows how life is a long, hard slog that's more influenced by past tragedies than by the promise of a fresh start. At times, it's a challenging and frustrating movie to watch—Solondz never drops his poker face—but Life During Wartime ultimately emerges as an arresting look at how we live our lives. [NR] ***

Cyrus (Dirs: Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass). Starring: John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener, Matt Walsh. Divorced and middle-aged John is revitalized when he meets the sexy and free-spirited Molly (Tomei). The two get along famously, but their growing chemistry faces a giant obstacle: Molly's 21-year-old son, Cyrus (Hill), whose closeness to her borders on suffocation. Not content with sharing his mother with anyone else, Cyrus goes about edging John out of the picture. The performances here are standout (especially Hill in a change-of-pace role) and the Duplass brothers deliver a possibly buffoonish premise with heart and wit. However, the plot moves so fast that the three main characters don't fully develop, and their actions and motivations never quite match with what we've learned about them. For some reason, the outstanding Keener, who plays John's ex-wife and best friend, and her character's unique baggage remain underutilized throughout. Very rarely do movies need to be longer, but Cyrus is that rare exception when the characters and their problems require further exploration. [R] ***

Love Ranch (Dir: Taylor Hackford). Starring: Helen Mirren, Joe Pesci, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Gina Gershon, M.C. Gainey, Wendell Pierce, Bryan Cranston. It's 1976 and Reno's Love Ranch brothel is doing big business, which feeds entrepreneur Charlie Bontempo's (Pesci) massive ego and impetuous spending. Both drive wife and business partner Grace (Mirren) nuts, especially when he invests thousands of dollars in washed-up Argentine boxer Armando Bruza (Peris-Mencheta). Charlie's prison record forces Grace to become Bruza's manager, a proposition she resists until she falls for the much-younger pugilist's gentle charm. Soggy drama (inspired by a true story) is hobbled by the lackluster direction of Hackford, who spends the entire film trying on genres (e.g., love story, gangster flick, biopic) and doing his best to be bland—a remarkable accomplishment for a film primarily set in a whorehouse. Hackford, adverse to rub elbows with the seedy and desperate, coasts on his actors' good reputations and gaudy visuals. It only goes so far: Mirren (Hackford's wife) can't pull off a tough-talking tomato and Pesci rehashes the same unhinged tough-guy routine he's relied upon since Goodfellas. [R] **

The Killer Inside Me (Dir: Michael Winterbottom). Starring: Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Simon Baker, Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas, Bill Pullman. Yet another rough-and-tumble, dark Jim Thompson adaptation, this time focusing on a small-town Texas lawman (Affleck) whose dark past and desire to define himself on his own terms translate into a pattern of destructive behavior. Alba plays the loving whore who inadvertently sets Affleck on his violent path; Hudson is the not-so sweet girlfriend who somehow sticks around. Production values are the best part of this remarkably shallow effort from Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart, The Shock Doctrine), whose lone move is to drench the movie in violent irony, whether it's baby-faced Affleck indulging in unspeakable acts or having two beloved starlets get brutalized in excruciating (and unnecessary) detail. Confusing plot and a lack of explanation for the main character's motives contribute to a pointless, joyless satire on moral laxness and the dark side of 1950s America. Also available on demand, so there are two ways to pick your poison. [R] *