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 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!


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!"