Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Reason for the Delay...

Sorry about the extended absence, folks. A big reason is because I'm just coming down from a gigantic whirlwind of activity, which culminated in my fiancee and I moving in together.

I'm thrilled with everything, but man was the last month a whirlwind: Finding a place, packing, finding someone to rent out my place (did it), unloading the packed boxes (lots of books) from two separate locations, and then unpacking. We--and our families, who were huge--moved on Friday and Saturday. We began unpacking Sunday. On Monday, she went to work and I ventured off to New York for three screenings.

And then by the end of my second screening ("It's Kind of a Funny Story"), my throat felt like I was swallowing battery acid. My right ear hurt like someone kept inserting a pocket knife and twisting it.

Tuesday through Thursday (September 14 through September 16) I was sidelined with an infected throat that basically shut down the right side of my mouth and made me sound like Kirk Douglas. Nothing got done until Friday, when I had to clean out my apartment, and meet my new tenant. Though I was sweating like a malaria victim and my head felt like it was stuffed with exotic meats, I did what needed to be done.

Last week was spent catching up on writing assignments and last-minute house stuff. So, that leads us to present day. Here's what you can expect now that I'm not back on solid food:

--An interview with Todd Solondz
--The movie-related benefits of moving in
--A stellar collection of movie reviews

I'm eager to get back into the swing of things in a new location in a terrific office with the woman of my dreams.

So, let's get to it.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Sure, and The Naked Gun is an allegory

The Keds Are Alright? Madeleine Albright?

This shot was taken about a week ago at my hometown movie theater. The titles were sent in via text message, right? There's no other explanation.

Also, nice job getting the biggest movie of the year and the summer's independent darling in the third week of August. Thank God, NYC is a train ride away, and Red Bank shows fairly current indy stuff.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Book of the Month for September

I love books. They're fun, educational, and they can provide an invaluable upper body workout.

As you may or may not know, I'm a gigantic fan of Woody Allen. And not just the movies, but pretty much everything. His stand-up albums are ingenious as is his humor writing, which has been published frequently in "The New Yorker" for decades.

So, you can imagine how excited I was when I had a few spare moments available to read for pleasure. I grabbed a copy of Eric Lax's "Woody Allen: A Biography" and gobbled it up in several sittings. Lax had unprecedented access to Allen, talking to him during the filmmaking process and afterwards. (Lax took four years to finish the book, but had also covered Woody as a journalist since the 1970s. It's important to note that the version I read doesn't include the Son-Yi/Woody/Mia debacle.)

Lax also talked to family members, business associates, actors, and crew members, so he paints a rich portrait of Woody as an artist. It's fascinating to read about how he learned joke writing from Danny Simon (Neil's brother) and how he honed his stand-up routine to a high polish. I knew nothing about that background.

Some other things I learned...

1.) The man loves reshoots and rewriting. He tinkers incessantly.
2.) Sean Young was originally in "Crimes and Misdemeanors"? Sean friggin' Young!?
3.) Woody and Mia Farrow lived in separate townhouses, and it's fairly obivous reading the book that work is higher on the importance scale than kids.
4.) Annie Hall orginally featured a basketball scene with the Knicks.
5.) The original script for "Crimes and Misdemeanors" contained this now-unfortunate line: "The future of the world is in little girls."

Regardless of whether you like or dislike Woody, it's a wonderful look into his creative life and his methods.

Read in peace.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

This was a bit of a disappointment, though seeing this with a collection of fanboys made me feel like Clooney at the Palms.

This review previously appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission.

Some actors have become legends by establishing a persona. With a few exceptions, Jack Nicholson has played the same rogue since the 1970s. Sean Connery's subdued senior cool was so convincing that regardless of whether he was a Russian submarine captain or a Chicago cop, he never altered his Scottish brogue. The same applies to Michael Cera, who has developed a nice little career by being earnest, self-depreciating, and a little awkward. He's the walking embodiment of what every girl claims she wants—smart, cute, and funny—if only the guy had the balls to make a move. Think John Cusack without the confidence or the muscle tone.

Can those qualities make you a movie star, though? Based on Cera's latest effort, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the new action comedy from writer/director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), I'd say no. What makes Cera so appealing is also what makes him a gamble as a matinee idol.

Cera plays the title character, a young sad sack with a struggling rock band and an underage girlfriend (Ellen Wong). The days pass along in a slacker haze, until Scott dreams of a girl riding around in roller skates. It's an unshakeable image, but one that's tangible: The girl exists and she's just moved to Toronto, Scott's hometown. Her name is Ramona Flowers, who's played with aloof sexiness Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Scott presses acquaintances for details, eventually learning that she works for He orders a super-cool item, waits for it (and, illogically, Ramona) to arrive, and then makes his move. Granted, he gets her to go on a date by refusing to sign for the package, but a yes is a yes.

Their courtship is awkward. Ramona has moved to Toronto to get away from the drama of New York City, so she's not exactly chatty; Scott's so overwhelmed that it's a miracle he doesn't keep fainting. Clearly something is brewing, because Scott soon faces the challenge of a lifetime. In order to keep dating Ramona, he must defeat her seven evil exes, who range from a vegan punk rock bassist (Brandon Routh) to an eye black-wearing lesbian (Mae Whitman) to a sleazy music mogul (Jason Schwartzman). They all have superhero powers and super-sized grudges, forcing Scott to face his flaws and summon his inner and physical strength.

The battles, modeled after video games and comic book rumbles, are presented by Wright with his tongue very firmly planted in cheek. It's a clever idea, but Scott Pilgrim vs. the World never gets beyond that concept. Wright excels at taking tired genres (e.g., zombie films, buddy action films) and extracting fresh humor, but here he's shackled by a plot requiring six similar fight sequences and a star stuck on Bob Newhart mode. I know that Cera's presence is supposed to be funny, but it's a little much to ask an audience to play along for 112 minutes.

Especially when the supporting cast is so blah. Aubrey Plaza, as Scott's non-combative neighborhood nemesis, rehashes her lazy-voiced attitude from Funny People; Anna Kendrick employs the same efficient perkiness that bafflingly earned her an Oscar nomination for Up in the Air; Schwartzman plays another blowhard; Alison Pill (Milk, Pieces of April) plays another grump. Uniformity soon settles over the movie like a dense fog. Despite its winking style and subversive source material (a series of graphic novels), Wright is reluctant to commit to belly laughs or to expand the characters beyond buffoonish hipster caricatures. The movie is too busy being cool and ironic to care.

Cera isn't left to fend for himself. He gets help from Winstead and Kieran Culkin (as Scott's "cool gay roommate"), but they can't compensate for Cera's lack of range. Every line he utters sounds like an apology, and the more we see of his sensitive, funny-guy antics, the more we're reminded why Timothy Hutton never survived as a leading man. Michael Cera is a hell of a supporting comedian with his own distinct style, which Scott Pilgrim vs. the World turns into a soulless trademark like Megan Fox's lips or Hugh Jackman's chest. Hollywood has always offered too much of a good thing, and Cera could be the next casualty if he's not careful. [PG-13]

Film Round-up for September

In this edition of the Film Round-up...Um, er. Can the fall movie season start right now? Not a strong crop here, but next month will be jam-packed with goodies, I promise...And the Todd Solondz interview will finally run! Hooray!

For the time being, here's a photo of Patricia Clarkson, just because.

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

Highwater (Dir: Dana Brown). Surfing documentarian Brown (Step Into the Liquid) turns his attention to Oahu's North Shore, which plays host every fall to professional surfing's Triple Crown—the last three contests of the year. Brown talks to surfers, local legends, and other characters during the beach's busy season. Among the highlights: Surfer/single mom Alex Florence, whose 13-year-old son Jon-Jon is a surfing prodigy, and the almost mythical Eric Haas, who once surfed in a football uniform. What starts off as colorful soon becomes soul-crushing. In lieu of a central character or theme to frame the crazy scene, Brown inundates us with thin profiles of everybody short of the dolly grip—female surfers, event organizers, aspiring professionals, even his own family and subjects from past films. It leads to a rudderless, tolerance-draining experience, like having a conversation with a surf-crazed, super-talkative three-year-old. Brown's overwritten, painfully serious narration and the lack of reporting—by my calculation, it's easier to figure out advanced quantum physics than who wins the Triple Crown—finally drag viewers into the undertow. [NR] *

Centurion (Dir: Neil Marshall). Starring: Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko, Noel Clarke, Liam Cunningham, David Morrissey, Riz Ahmed, JJ Felid, Dimitri Leonidas, Imogen Poots, Ulrich Thomsen. During a second-century battle with Pict tribesmen in Britain, only a handful of Roman soldiers survive a brutal ambush. Their subsequent attempt to rescue their imprisoned general (West) fails resoundingly. Not only can they not save him, the Pict leader's son is killed. The remaining Romans, led by newly appointed, tightly muscled leader Quinton Dais (Fassbender), must literally run for their lives from the Picts, who employ a vicious tracker (Kurylenko, a former Bond girl) to make bloody amends. More vaguely historical testosterone in the vein of 300 has writer/director Marshall keeping the pace brisk, the dialogue sharp, and the action invigorating. This is not for everyone—Marshall's artistic flair for violence might make Quentin Tarantino simultaneously cringe and applaud—but it's an exciting and entertaining distraction for adults hungering for an adrenalin rush. Also available on demand. [NR] ***

Patrik, Age 1.5 (Dir: Ella Lemhagen). Starring: Gustaf Skarsgård, Torkel Petersson, Thomas Ljungman. Sven (Petersson) and Goran (Skarsgård) have reached the pinnacle of gay mainstream life. Happily married with good jobs and owners of a new suburban home, the couple eagerly anticipates the arrival of a baby to call their own. Thanks to a clerical error and the overall reluctance of biological parents, instead of receiving an eighteen-month-old named Patrik, the couple receives a homophobic 15-year-old punk named Patrik (Ljungman). The mix-up revitalizes the teenager, who's never had a stable family life, sharpens Goran's parenting instincts, and angers Sven. Upbeat, amusing Swedish import (based on a play by Michael Druker) works best when chronicling the three main characters' response to the evolving familial crisis, but loses steam when commenting on the suburbs' social skittishness and mores. Skarsgård is excellent as the sympathetic father figure, and Ljungman gives a touching performance as a kid who's always been cast aside. Originally released in 2008. [R] ***

Cairo Time (Dir: Ruba Nadda). Starring: Patricia Clarkson, Alexander Siddig, Elena Anaya, Tom McCamus, Amina Annabi. American magazine editor Juliette Grant (Clarkson) visits her husband in Cairo, but he's too consumed with his work for the United Nations to eat meals with her, let alone see the pyramids. Lonely and bored, Juliette soon finds a full-time companion in Tareq (Siddig), her husband's former colleague and self-appointed guardian. As the dashing Tareq and the luminous Juliette spend more time together, their rapport blooms into something far more substantial. The always-fine Clarkson and veteran actor Siddig (Syriana) display lovely chemistry as the two middle-age professionals swept up in an intoxicating mix of circumstance, loneliness, and exotic locale. Their interplay is hobbled by the film's ponderous pace, especially the first 40 minutes, which belabor how Juliette is a stranger in a strange land. Writer/director Nadda's attempt to deliver an understated portrayal on adult love and rediscovery too often veers into sleepy inertia, a proposition that no acting duo, no matter how talented, can overcome. [PG] **