Friday, August 27, 2010

It's Time for...


My theory--and I think it's pretty sound--is that the theater employs adult illiterates and teaches them words and spelling via the billboard. Either that or extra letters cost $1,000 each.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Book of the Month Rebuttal

In June, I highlighted Rebecca Mead's "One Perfect Day," her investigation of the wedding industry, as a Book of the Month. I then recommended the book to my fiancee, Laura Amoriello, who couldn't get halfway through it without steam coming out of her ears.

So, I asked Laura (she's on the right, obviously) to share her thoughts on the book. And, boy oh boy, did she. Her insights are listed below.

I am not a professional writer. No one pays me to review anything. I’m just a girl puzzled by a book, who loves a writer, who has a blog, so he asked her to share these thoughts because he thinks it’s funny when she gets miffed. So please do not take any of the following seriously.

Some time ago, Pete recommended "One Perfect Day," Rebecca Mead’s critical take on the American wedding industry. My fiancé is one hell of a bibliotherapist (it’s a real thing), and the book seemed perfect for smart-aleck non-brides like me. Yes, I thought I was above wedding hype. Then Mead’s Oxford-educated-"New Yorker"-writing-liberal-minded kung fu brought me down faster than Elizabeth Taylor can say “I do.”

Through impeccable research, Mead exposes bridezilla culture with wit and insight. She examines bridal media and its seduction of the newly engaged woman. She questions the sincerity of couples adopting varied religious traditions in their ceremonies. She uncovers harsh conditions in Chinese wedding-dress factories. She slam-dunks the travel industry, the wedding registry, photographers, videographers, wedding planners, wedding gowns, Disneyworld, Las Vegas. Mead wipes the floor with the wedding industry. And as "USA Today" promised, I was tempted to elope.

Well-played, Mead. But I counter you on several points.

For some perspective on keeping the meaning alive during wedding-planning, Mead interviewed “smart New Yorkers” (p. 219). What about the rest of us? I get convenience sampling, but with wedding observations from Vegas to Disneyworld, could Mead have interviewed those brides too? I mean, just because Mickey Mouse is officiating your wedding doesn’t mean you lack insight, right?

By the time the epilogue hit, Mead was driving the already-made point home harder than any pink, shoulder-padded, ass-bowed bridesmaid dress. She interviewed the smart girls. She got married at the courthouse. The dress was orange. Bush won’t let gay couples get married, and boy does he stink! I was exhausted.

I needed some heart.

Pete often says that any film can be appealing if its heart is in the right place. I eventually uncovered the gooey center of this book…in Chapter 8. (I still think it was wishful thinking.) No, Mead’s intent was not to pull on my newly-engaged heartstrings. But though my favorite authors have a cynical worldview, they admit with warmth and self-deprecation that they’re just like the rest of us. I never felt that here.

Mead states of her own wedding, “Without the dictates of religious authority to follow, or the rituals of unwavering cultural practice to enact, we had no choice but to invent a wedding for ourselves” (p. 226). Nothing special. Check any wedding blog (shout out to, and you’ll see that countless couples do the same every day. Mead criticizes the wedding as self-expression, but I don’t buy it. How is her day at the courthouse in the orange dress not an expression, in this case of her anti-wedding sentiments?

Willing yourself to be different is an ironic method of conforming. You want to stand out, but that makes you just like everybody else who wants the same. Yes, the wedding industry is a manipulative, money-grubbing bully of brides-to-be like me. But we have the right (and the smarts!) to get married as we please. So did Mead. So did her subjects. None of us is entirely free of our cultures. But in the end I think most of us, even those from New Jersey, are smart enough to find the true meaning amidst the pageantry.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to shop for a wedding dress. A white one.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Book(s) of the Month

I love books. They're fun, educational, and they sometimes contain bad language...Oooh, scandalous!

Recent articles claim that Sandra Bullock may play the lead in the adaptation of "The Abstinence Teacher," with Steve Carrell providing back-up. It's not that I'm super-excited for the movie or that I'm a fan of Bullock (personally, I think Laura Linney would be a better choice), but it puts Tom Perrotta back in the spotlight.

Perrotta (pictured) is one of my favorite novelists, someone who writes books that are simultaneously breezy and rife with social and moral complicatons. He offers no easy conclusions or cookie-cutter characters, but they're enjoyable, truthful and wickedly funny. He's a proof that you don't have to write dense, plodding fiction to reveal hard truths. You can have a little fun along the way. Curtis Sittenfeld did the same thing in "Prep," by the way.

Any of his books are fine choices, though I'm a fan of "Joe College," a rollicking come of age tale, and "Little Children," which is the rare suburban character study that doesn't feel rehashed or ironic.

Read in peace.

This Movie is Rated Three

By the way, "Despicbleme" is the lost Luis Bunuel film. "R Mona Beezus" is an experimental adapation of Beverly Cleary's cherished books with every part played by heroin-addicted prostitutes.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Review of Inception

I'm not quite sure if I nailed this review. This was excruciating to write.

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

When Avatar was in full money-grabbing mode, I saw a news report about how some fans were becoming depressed because the real world couldn't compete with the 3-D magic they had absorbed. That problem is simultaneously absurd and understandable. As our lives become increasingly governed by technology, the real world is going to be a poor substitute. For some, going through the motions of work, relationships, and other aggravations will be sheer torture.

Christopher Nolan's Inception is such a visually arresting behemoth that seeing it in the theater is a requirement. It's a fun, twisty time at the multiplex, but one that forces you to consider more serious issues. While Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight) dazzles you with cities built from the subconscious and mid-air acrobatics, he knows there's a price if you overindulge in the dream world.

Just ask thief Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio). He makes his living going into people's minds and taking whatever precious information is available in the dream state, then passing that along to an interested, well-funded third party. Though Cobb is excellent at his job, he's starting to slip. A personal tragedy not only prevents him from returning stateside, it seeps into his work, causing unforeseen problems. A flubbed assignment forces Cobb to perform a dangerous job for the man whose subconscious he just tried to fleece.

Saito (Ken Watanabe) wants Cobb to enter the mind of Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), whose dying father is Saito's chief business rival. Cobb then has to convince the younger Fischer to break up his profitable inheritance, which would make Saito even more powerful. Stealing information is one thing, but planting an idea is near impossible. What compels Cobb to keep the job is that if he succeeds, the authorities vanish and he can return home. A team of heroic nerds is assembled. Aside from his right hand man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Cobb recruits an architect (Ellen Page) to create the scenery, a con man (Tom Hardy) to get more information on Fischer, and a skilled chemist (Dileep Rao) to sedate the crew long enough to plant the thought in Fischer.

Nothing goes according to plan. Cobb can't shake his angry, beautiful wife (Marion Cotillard), who reminds our hero of his hubris and a fatal mistake. To influence Fischer, Cobb's team must dive into several layers of a dream state, which makes convincing Fischer—and getting back to real life—all the more difficult. A lot has to happen for everyone to escape unscathed.

Nolan's movie is a visual marvel—a city folds on top of itself, Gordon-Levitt battles henchmen mid-air as the dream world shifts around him, Page and DiCaprio sit in a café as the surrounding buildings explode—but his big accomplishment is convincing you in the validity of a blatantly sci-fi concept. Nolan's script incorporates background and details about Cobb's livelihood, so that you endorse the plot and submit yourself to every twist and turn. It's not just a collection of explosions and CGI wizardry peppered with philosophical queries. Nolan focuses on the story and uses the special effects as an attribute, not the other way around.

The cast is excellent, especially since Page puts away her dour, moping routine. I was a little skittish seeing DiCaprio in the lead role, but the actor's pretty-boy glow has worn off. He can now look haggard and unsettled. Inception always rises above a gee-whiz adventure story because Cobb's reality and his dream world are both damaged. Where's his safe haven? And DiCaprio actually looks the part, instead of a movie star fighting against his genetic fate.

Inception is the most satisfying adventure story I've seen this year, but is it a classic, as countless others have suggested? I don't think so. Much like Cobb's mission, the storyline hits a few snags that I couldn't quite forgive. (I'd reveal them, but I'd give away several twists.) Nolan's film is still an impressive accomplishment, proof that the new wave of cinematic creativity can awaken the mind and stimulate the senses without completely isolating us from reality. [PG-13]

Film Round-up for August

In this edition of the Film Round-Up: We go to the art house and the multiplex. What were the highlights? Read and see and comment if you'd like.

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

Father of My Children (Dir: Mia Hansen-Løve). Starring: Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Chiara Caselli, Alice de Lencquesaing, Alice Gautier, Manelle Driss, Eric Elmosnino. Workaholic producer Grégoire Canvel (de Lencquesaing) struggles to save his film production company, Moon Films, from financial ruin. Weekend getaways with his wife and three daughters provide a brief respite, but it may not be enough to save his beloved company or himself. Inevitably, a tragic event forces everyone in the Canvel family to readjust. What makes writer/director Hansen-Løve's effort so refreshing is that she painfully and accurately portrays a family enduring the early stages of a personal crisis, refusing to offer us a revitalizing catharsis or a satisfying conclusion. She gives us a heaping dose of life with no chaser, so we constantly pay attention to where these characters are heading and how little events and actions will influence them. The lack of cinematic contrivances makes Father of My Children lapse into the occasional stretch of boredom, but it keeps the movie authentic. [NR] ***

To Age or Not to Age (Dir: Robert Kane Pappas). Documentary filmmaker Pappas explores anti-aging research that's emerged since the early 1990s. The topic of eternal life, or even extending the average lifespan by 50 years, is rife with moral and philosophical issues. Too many issues, actually, which cripples the film: Pappas never chooses a focal point. We're flooded with information and opinions, but we're left wondering what's truly important in this debate. This isn't helped by the movie's narrative structure, which is wobbly and presented with no visual flair. Sometimes we hear from regular folks. Sometimes we hear from doctors and researchers in sit-down interviews. Sometimes Pappas offers his own out-of-nowhere observations. If Pappas had gone with a first-person exploration of this giant topic and its side discussions—similar to what Roger Nygard did in The Nature of Existence—or resorted to a straightforward, information-driven report, perhaps To Age or Not to Age wouldn’t have the sizzle and impact of an educational filmstrip. [NR] **

Now, here's a look at two movies that have recently raked in at the box office.

Grown Ups (Dir: Dennis Dugan). Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, David Spade, Salma Hayek, Maria Bello, Maya Rudolph. Five friends and their families reunite for a long weekend in the New England woods after the death of the guys' youth basketball coach, setting the scene for closure and life lessons. All the trimmings associated with the Sandler comedy (e.g., Anger Management, The Longest Yard)—the broad humor, the testosterone-laden riffing—are severely compromised by a story that includes the pathos of every reunion drama since The Return of the Secaucus Seven. Two problems with that approach: This is the last group you want exploring that territory, especially when your best actors (Bello, Rudolph) are benched; second, the dramatic elements are so superficial and resolved so speedily that they come across as a desperate attempt to legitimize the buffoonery. Sandler made his mark by employing renegade stupidity in movies like Happy Gilmore. His gradual domestication may have translated into big bucks, but it's produced mildly entertaining movies that are comfortable, predictable, and devoid of originality. Grown Ups is just the latest franchise in Sandler's corporate comedy empire. [PG-13] **

Toy Story 3 (Dir: Lee Unkrich). Featuring the voices of: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Beatty, Michael Keaton, Don Rickles, John Ratzenberger, Wallace Shawn Estelle Harris, Bonnie Hunt, Timothy Dalton, Blake Clark. Latest effort from animation giant Pixar (Up, The Incredibles) tells another spellbinding adventure about the come-to-life toys, who are again led by affable cowboy hero Woody (Hanks) and stoic space warrior Buzz (Allen). This time, the toys react to their longtime owner heading to college and possibly forgetting about them forever, setting in motion a journey that involves a stint at a draconian day care center headed by a duplicitous, honey-voiced purple bear named Lotso. It's getting harder and harder to write about Pixar's efforts without sounding like a publicist or a raving lunatic fan. The song remains the same: Toy Story 3 blends inventive storytelling, first-rate voice work (especially Beatty as Lotso), and a staggering emotional depth to produce an experience that rivals the imagination and wonder found in a children's storybook. And, yes, there's an excellent chance you will cry. Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) wrote the screenplay. [G] ****