Friday, April 23, 2010

Please read

I've never been a gigantic fan of Sarah Silverman. To me, she's coasted on being sardonic instead of being funny, a trait that has permeated her entire persona.

With that said, Will Leitch's profile on Silverman in "New York" was tremendous because he went behind Silverman's smart-ass facade and showed us the real person. That's the highest praise I can offer for any celebrity profile; he also got nifty secondary sources, which fewer and fewer writers do these days.

And, no, I'm not saying these nice things because Will, when he was the editor of Deadspin, once used my services.

You can read Will's article here.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

An Important Realization

I watched the last 10 minutes or so of "Can't Hardly Wait" the other day, one of those movies that teeters between cult classic and feat of endurance depending on whom you ask.

Now, I'm not a giant fan of the movie, but I could never quite put my finger on why that was the case...Until now.

Watch Ethan Embry. He's jittery and bug-eyed and resembles a well-fed junkie. There's on way that any girl--especially an untouchable like Jennifer Love Hewitt-- would ever give this guy the time of a day. In that one scene, the desperation is rolling off him in waves.

It took me a while to learn this, but eagerness does not win girls over. Confidence does, and that trait is sorely missing in Embry's performance. Love Hewitt shouldn't be giving Embry her heart, but a roll of the eyes and, possibly, a restraining order.

Case closed.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Hey, Directors! Please stop...

Having kids serve as precocious, surprisingly adult voices of reason. This is one reason why "(500) Days of Summer" didn't completely connect with me: Its creative, edgy slant was partially fueled by this repetitive, lame-ass screenwriter gimmick. (And the fact that Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel dressed like they were in a 1940s musical. Doesn't love young ever have a dress down day?)

You know what other film used this gimmick. The 2001 Joey Fatone/Lance Bass atrocity "On the Line." And "The Man with Two Brains," which is nearly 30 years old. And a collection of lame sitcoms. It's a dead horse. Stop it, please.

By the way, I talked to my brother about "Summer" yesterday. He and his girlfriend were so annoyed with it that they gave up after about 40 minutes. Yet they sat through "Paul Blart: Mall Cop."


Book of the Month for April

I love books. They're fun, educational, and they allow you the chance to pig out at the library/bookstore cafe. It's a little known fact that all literary titans loudly eat cinammon buns while chugging a 245-oz. frappacinos. Willa Cather guzzled, like, eight of those bad boys a day while paging through "People" magazines.

They may or may not be true.

Given his non-stop presence on the big screen, it's getting harder to remember that Steve Martin was once a stand-up comic. Not only that, but he was one of the most successful stand-ups of all time, booking stadiums and hitting number one on the album charts long before the likes of Seinfeld and Rock became big deals.

Anyway, I just finished "Born Standing Up," Martin's account of how he became a comedian. It's a fascinating read because Martin, who's not exactly the talkative type, is truthful and humorous about his performing travails. He talks about humiliating gigs, struggling to write for the Smothers Brothers, and the work that it took to build his act from scratch. We're talking 15 years of failure before a glimmer of success. Even more interesting, he breaks down his strained relationship with his father and how becoming a success at stand-up was both the best and worst thing that could have happened.

You know who needs to write a book like this? Woody Allen. Do you know that he's one of the 15 best comedians of all time? Listen to his comedy albums some time. They're amazing.

Read in peace, friends.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Film Round-Up for April

In this edition of the Film Round-Up, two excellent foreign movies and two mediocre American movies. Hooray for Hollywood? Um, not this time around.

These reviews originally appeared in the April issue of "ICON," and are reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

Terribly Happy(Dir: Henrik Ruben Genz). Starring: Jakob Cedergren, Lene Maria Christensen, Kim Bodnia, Lars Brygmann, Anders Hove. A lonely and troubled policeman (Cedergren) is transferred from Copenhagen to serve as the marshal in a small town in the middle of nowhere, a seemingly low-impact arrangement. Things are nice and boring until he meets the sultry wife (Christensen) of the town bully (Bodnia), who is feared by everyone. In trying to help the distressed woman and her child, the officer pulls himself deeper into a murderous and corrupt series of events that reveals more about the town than he cares to know. The film starts off slowly, as director/writer Genz builds atmosphere and lays down background. But around the halfway point, the movie takes off like a rocket and doesn't look back, becoming a darkly comic and moody noir in the vein of Fargo and Mulholland Drive that equals those films' intelligence and verve. Bodnia is terrific as the loutish husband who is more devious than he appears. [R] ****

Who Do You Love (Dir: Jerry Zaks). Starring: Alessandro Nivola, Chi McBride, Jon Abrahams, David Oyelowo, Marika Dominczyk, Megalyn Ann Echikunwoke. Biopic covers the early years of Chess Records—the legendary label that introduced the world to Muddy Waters, Etta James, and Bo Diddley—and the man behind the success: plucky, tough-talking Leonard Chess (Nivola), who went from running a Chicago junkyard with his kid brother (Abrahams) to presiding over a hit machine. The transition didn’t come without struggles for Leonard, whose philandering ways and obsession with getting ahead in the music industry nearly destroyed his family. Nice tribute to an overlooked cultural moment—Chess introduced a load of black music to white America in the 1950s and 1960s—gets sidetracked by Nivola's flimsy performance and a sloppy, inattentive script whose insistence on being sunny diminishes any dramatic impact. Only the bouncy soundtrack and terrific performances by McBride (as Willie Dixon, Leonard's mentor) and Oyelowo (as Waters) save the film. [NR] **

Repo Men (Dir: Miguel Sapochnik). Starring: Jude Law, Forest Whitaker, Liev Schreiber, Alice Braga, Carice van Houten. In the not-too-distant future, artificial organs can be purchased like a home or a car thanks to the good folks at The Union. However, if you're late with a payment, your liver or pancreas will be repossessed. Remy (Law, again downplaying his looks) is one of the best "repo men" in the business, until he's forced to get a replacement heart that keeps him alive but gives him a conscience. With his work suffering, Remy can't pay the bills, forcing him to flee from his thuggish partner and best friend (Whitaker). Sapochnik's decision to make Repo Men into a ridiculously violent affair (e.g., organ removal as foreplay, Law fending off bad guys with a hammer and hacksaw) is at odds with the film's satirical bent, which is basically used as filler before the next mauling. Too much time is spent establishing a tone, ensuring that you never feel involved in what's happening onscreen. The sultry Braga is wasted as Law's useless love interest/partner in unearthing the truth. [R] **

Delta (Dir: Kornél Mundruczó). Starring: Felix Lajko, Orsolya Toth, Lili Monori, Sándor Gáspár. A young man (Lajko), long-estranged from his working class family, returns to his Romania home to find two new additions—his mother's jerky lover (Gáspár) and a joyless sister (Toth) that he's never met. With no place to stay, the man buys a load of timber and constructs a massive house in a delta along the Danube River, which becomes a haven for the girl. However, the siblings' increasingly close relationship and the massive structure create bitter feelings in their family and the town. Minimalist in just about ever way: Writer Yvette Buro's dialogue is skimpy, and director Mundruczó withholds information; even the camerawork seems content not to intrude. The approach actually produces an uneasy, compelling character study that forces you to pay attention and piece together the harsh reality—and the dangerous sanctuary—hovering over the two protagonists. Delta shows that good things happen when a filmmaker has faith in the intelligence of his audience. [NR] ****

Review of Greenberg

An excellent movie that's a comeback of sorts for Baumbach and Stiller. This review appeared in the April issue of ICON, and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

Writer/director Noah Baumbach has spent a generous portion of his career thoughtfully examining the lives of deeply flawed people without resorting to morals or hugs. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. His last two movies (2005's The Squid and the Whale and 2007's Margot at the Wedding) featured narcissistic writers at odds with their families. The first movie was a beautifully acidic and layered character study. The second movie, a shrieking, aggravating affair, is best enjoyed wearing earmuffs and with a bottle of aspirin nearby.

With his latest effort, Greenberg, Baumbach rediscovers that regardless of how annoying your main character is he or she has to have a shred of likeability. And oddly enough, his muse is Ben Stiller, who has spent the last decade becoming a comedic cliché. Stiller's timing is impeccable. He helps Baumbach turn his latest ode to dysfunction into a powerful and poignant account on how life rarely adheres to our expectations or our principles.

For Roger Greenberg (Stiller), 40 and floating, adulthood is a vague concept. His choice in life is to not do anything, so there's time to work on and stay at his vacationing brother's beautiful Los Angeles home. There's a feeling that this is another in a long line of restarts for Greenberg, who just had a nervous breakdown. He has no obligations—after all, he can afford to spend six weeks and 3,000 miles away from home—and nothing that defines him. He's happy to criticize friends and businesses (the man is a furious letter writer), but participation is not his strong suit. The trip to Los Angeles, his hometown, is a constant reminder of that. He catches up with an old flame (Jennifer Jason Leigh), now a divorcee with kids; his best friend (Rhys Ifans), a rebel turned responsible adult; and a bandmate (Mark Duplass) who still can't forgive Greenberg for choosing his principles over the band's record deal. In his defense, Greenberg insists that the A&R people would have screwed them over anyway.

As Greenberg hangs on his cross, he gets close to Florence (Greta Gerwig), the young personal assistant for his brother's family. Florence is the kind of bohemian beauty who finds Greenberg intriguing; he's aimless, a little stylish, and fiercely smart, but old enough where those qualities have become cool life philosophies. They begin a frustrating romance, which is given depth and perspective by Baumbach. The movie actually begins with Florence confidently running errands to the driving guitars of the Steve Miller Band's "Jet Airliner." She's blonde and young and pretty and has the world's admiration. But as soon as she closes the car's trunk and visits her employers, the music stops cold.

She's given the opportunity to get her payment in cash, but refuses—she knows she can't hold onto the money. At a gallery that night, Florence muses that she's been out of college as long as she was in, and when she starts making out with a random dude, we know Florence has no idea what to do with her rapidly escaping youth. Very soon, being young and full of potential will no longer cut it. She and Greenberg are doomed for each other: Her enthusiasm and smiley nature can soften him; his hardened outlook can toughen her up. But her neediness and Greenberg's inability to live in the present prevent them from moving ahead. They can't drop their roles and enjoy each other, especially the indecisive, dependent Greenberg, who now decides to pursue the passions and people he callously discarded in the mid-1990s.

Baumbach's script—surprise—doesn't provide any easy answers. He lets us watch these two souls stumble toward each other. Building a relationship is hard, forever perplexing work made much more difficult when two people aren't ready for one. Greenberg consistently shatters every coming-of-age, romantic comedy cliché. The sex scenes are remarkably unsexy; Greenberg and Florence constantly say the wrong things; an abortion and a sick dog are bonding moments for these two. The lack of a clearly defined genre may alienate some, but it allows for fully formed characters to take the movie into a rewarding, soul-baring territory.

Stiller has long used faux rage and obliviousness to diminishing comic effect. Here, he channels those qualities into something infinitely more substantial. This is a scared man whose only footing in the world comes from constant criticism and self-denial. Stiller's hesitant demeanor and skeptical stare give his performance a heft that we haven't enjoyed since his days of working with Neil LaBute and Wes Anderson. Gerwig, a relative newcomer, has smart eyes and a sweet eagerness. She reminds you of every youthful beauty who haunts big city bars and sidewalks, but she floors you with her inability to become an adult. It's a performance that's both alluring and vulnerable.

That Baumbach makes you care so much about all this bitching and moaning and misery is a major testament to his abilities. Can he do it consistently? If so, Baumbach could become a master at taking the small details in life and turning them into smart, resonant films. He's back on track with Greenberg; let's hope he drags Stiller along with him. [R]