Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Christmas Comes Early

There are a lot of things I like about Christmas. One is that it gives television stations the chance to run 5,000 third-rate movies in the span of a month. It amazes how they make it to the air. They all have the same agenda: to peddle cheap sentiment and sappy lessons under the umbrella of the holiday spirit.

I'm fascinated by these movies because it's almost as if the public's forgiving holiday spirit extends to what's on the tube. At any other time of the year would Kathy Ireland, Tori Spelling, and Brooke Burke find work? I don't think so.

Occasionally, I summon the courage to watch more than five seconds. Recently, I couldn't stop watching 1998's "The Christmas Wish." It was solely because I was transifixed that Naomi Watts was in it. Watts, who I think is a certifiable babe, was dressed like your mom's office mates--a terrible, orange haircut that made her look like Pete Rose, and an outfit that was probably plucked from the seniors' clearance rack at Kohl's.

And if you know Watts' work ("Mulholland Drive," "21 Grams," "Funny Games") she's the last person you'd expect to be in a holiday film co-starring Debbie Reynolds and Neil Patrick Harris (before he found his snark). I felt like I had discovered forbidden footage, and that if I watched anymore reps from the Sundance Institute would barge through my front door, destroy my TV, and put a bullet in my head.

I escaped unscathed. And it served as a reminder that I must watch "Love Actually" and "White Christmas" (at the fiancee's behest) before it's too late.

P.S.--I'm not quite sure about this photo. It looks llike Watts is in the middle of her Charlie Chaplin striptease routine. Whatever...

Friday, November 12, 2010

Book of the Month Special (UPDATED)

I love books. They're fun, educational, and free!!!

That's right folks, it's time for WPW's first giveaway. I have two copies of Adam Bertocci's "Two Gentlemen of Lebowski," courtesy of the fine people at Simon & Schuster.

The book is "The Big Lebowski" written in the style of a five-act Shakespeare play. How can you not love a play with dialouge like this, "It was of consequence, I should think; verily, it tied the room together"?

Anyway, I'm not going to just hand these books to you. The first two people who send one of the answers to gets the prize.

So, without further ado, here are the questions.

1.) What band can the Dude not tolerate his cab driver playing?

2.) The scene where Donnie's ashes are discarded is reminiscent of a scene in what Woody Allen comedy?

Good luck. Read in peace.

UPDATE: The contest is now closed. Congratulations to Heather Smith and Javier Rodriguez for providing the correct answer to question one--The Eagles. As for the second question, I was looking for "Bannanas" but I also would have accepted "Annie Hall."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Film Round-Up, November 2010

In this edition of The Film-Round Up, we go completely and utterly fact-based. There's some good stuff here. In order to give this post some fictional flair, here's a photo of Janet Cooke, the shamed "Washington Post" journalist who won a Pultizer Prize for her fradulent "Jimmy's World" series.

Back to the facts, my interview with Bjorn Lomborg ("Cool It") should be posted next month. In the meantime, check out "Cool It," which opens nationwide next Friday.

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

Cool It (Dir: Ondi Timoner). Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, has garnered equal shares of acclaim and criticism for his take on global warming. It is real, he says, but the effects aren't nearly as catastrophic as we think. In fact, simple and high-tech solutions abound for the gloom and doom future that apparently awaits us. Lomborg travels the world to examine these options (wave power, for example), reveals environmental myths (the polar bear's reduced numbers can be attributed to hunters), and gains clearheaded insight from various experts. Though his detractors may label the film propaganda, the affable and eloquent Lomborg makes a convincing argument: Environmental panic has prevented us from thinking logically and solving the problem at hand. The movie's most telling scene: How the fate of the environment ranks in importance to schoolchildren in Nairobi, Kenya compared to schoolchildren at an English private school. A fascinating, eye-opening, and entertaining film that should stir debate. [PG] ****

Freakonomics. Six directors (including Morgan Spurlock and Alex Gibney) tackle the best-selling book of the same name, which examines the hidden costs and benefits of regular life, such as whether baby names determine future success and the ripple effect of cheating in the world of Japanese sumo wrestling. Each director's approach is different and all provide eye-raising revelations: Giving a kid a unique name does not guarantee success; the crime rate drop of 1990s could be due to Roe v. Wade. But that variety is also the movie's biggest flaw. Style trumps substance, burying the message of authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. Sometimes the result is unintentionally harmful. Two segments, Gibney's self-serious sumo wrestling piece and Eugene Jarecki's gloomy crime rate examination, actually clash with Dubner and Levitt's cheeky onscreen observations. Freakonomics offers visual stimulation over intellectual curiosity, as if the theories need to be made palatable at any cost. The movie seems determined to make itself irrelevant. [PG-13] **

My Dog Tulip (Dir: Paul and Sandra Fierlinger). Featuring the voices of: Christopher Plummer, Isabella Rossellini, Lynn Redgrave. Based on the cherished memoir by J.R. Ackerley (1896-1967), this lovingly hand-drawn, animated feature chronicles Ackerley's life with his rambunctious Alsatian bitch, Tulip. Ackerley details the mundane (and dirty) aspects of dog ownership and the rich companionship that results. The movie's strength is its simplicity—from the animation to the story to the gorgeously lean writing style (voiced to perfection by Plummer). Ackerley and Tulip's evolving relationship rightfully takes center stage. The first movie I've seen in a while that doesn't use a dog as a shameless emotional device or to demand adoration, My Dog Tulip shows how a person learns to value and love an animal unconditionally. This is a touching, non-patronizing tribute to man's best friend. The Wynnewood-based Fierlingers also handled animation duties; Paul Fierlinger is credited with the screenplay. Redgrave's last film role. [NR] ***

Last Train Home (Dir: Lixin Fan). In China millions of migrant workers leave their rural homes (where employment options are few) to find jobs in distant cities, sending money back home. The Zhangs are no different. For years, mom and dad have worked non-stop, returning home only on the Chinese New Year to see their two children. Now well into her teens, daughter Qin has dropped out of school to find work and to escape the monotony of farm life. Her parents, who forever promote the values of education, are against the idea. Qin, who resents her parents' long absences, is tired of listening. Something has to give. In her debut, documentarian Fan jumps right into the family's story, observing the subjects at work, home, and during brief reunions. The low-key approach yields a story about how sacrifice can go unnoticed, and how sadness spreads in a family despite the older generation's best defense. Difficult to watch but harder to forget, Last Train Home's honesty and lack of pretense gives it undeniable impact. [NR] ***

Review of The Social Network

Who's up for another review of "The Social Network"? Huh? Eh? Alright, then. How 'bout if I sweeten the pot with a little Rooney Mara? And Kate Mara?

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

The Social Network, the story behind the creation of Facebook, has been a topic of discussion since its release last month. Speculation swirls about its accuracy and the less than flattering portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg, the site's 26-year-old co-founder and CEO. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the film's writer, Aaron Sorkin, described The Social Network as a painting. Everyone, he says, will have a different interpretation. He's right. Even Facebook's slighted co-founder Eduardo Saverin sees the movie an ode to entrepreneurship.

Here's my take: The Social Network tells the story behind a cultural force, and does it well—just like how Saturday Night Fever examined the denizens of the disco or how Wall Street glamorized the movers and shakers behind the mid-1980s' money boom. Sorkin and director David Fincher also detail (with relish) unbridled ambition and its consequences, a beloved story arc. Yes, The Social Network is massively entertaining. But it unveils truths about how we live now. Those looking for accuracy are missing a movie that introduces a new version of the American dream.

It is 2003 and Harvard sophomore Zuckerberg knows that hard work and graduating from a good college just won't cut it. In the opening scene, he complains about how money and status get you places—in his case, one of Harvard's exclusive clubs. He must differentiate himself from the pack of academic all-stars. His girlfriend (Rooney Mara), tired of hearing the ramblings of an obnoxious, self-absorbed jerk, dumps him at the bar.

After writing a scathing blog post on his ex and downing some beers, Zuckerberg begins his quest for greatness. He hacks into the dorms' Web sites, pulls a slue of female student photos, and constructs a Web site where visitors can vote on which of the two students presented is more attractive. Facemash attracts thousands of hits, nearly causing Harvard's network to crash. The administration puts Zuckerberg on academic probation for six months. Never lacking in self-confidence, Zuckerberg demands his accusers recognize his ability to spot flaws in Harvard's computer system.

Twin brothers Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer), the epitome of the refined, steel-jawed Ivy League caricature—they're on the crew team for crissakes—spot Mark's potential. The brothers want him to design a Harvard-related social networking site. Zuckerberg agrees, but soon turns his attention to what will become Facebook. He ignores the Winklevosses' e-mails and partners with best friend Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who puts up the seed money. As Facebook gains popularity on campuses in the United States and Europe, the gentlemanly Winklevosses finally turn litigious. Napster wunderkind Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, in a steady performance) enters the picture. Then things get interesting.

Sorkin (A Few Good Men) and Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) keep the story humming, a miracle considering their tendency toward theatrics. They make it easy and rewarding to read between the lines. We know immediately that Zuckerberg's relationship with Saverin, an economics major, is doomed. Saverin is being considered for one of Harvard's exclusive clubs, which angers Zuckerberg. "It probably was for diversity" is Mark's response to the news. Opposing forces define their friendship. Saverin is handsome, destined for success, and flush with cash, the very qualities Zuckerberg craves. But Saverin's polished wardrobe and traditional business sense make him the enemy. Everything about Mark, from his shabby wardrobe to his refusal to advertise on Facebook, radiates a stubborn integrity. When Parker enters the picture, talking about venture capitalists and holding out beyond the first round of offers ("You know what's cool? A billion dollars."), Zuckerberg has found a kindred spirit. Saverin, pounding the pavement like a young Willy Loman, is a well-educated relic.

For all of Zuckerberg's blathering, he's right: Attending Harvard doesn't guarantee anything. Old money values have depreciated, which the Winklevosses discover after complaining about Zuckerberg's "theft" of their idea to the bored Harvard president. Create a new product, they're told. That's what everyone is doing in lieu of real work. In any other movie, the Winklevosses would have been the heroes. Here they're a step behind, while the petulant, socially inept computer whiz triumphs. This extends to the social arena. I don’t recall one scene featuring the Winklevosses with a woman. Meanwhile the Facebook guys are partying and getting it on with hotties in bathroom stalls.

Given his reputation for portraying sensitive, confused young men (Roger Dodger, The Squid and the Whale) Eisenberg's performance is a marvel. The actor never isolates us from Zuckerberg; we want to understand him. He's a jerk not out of malice, but out of impatience. The fact that he has no sense of diplomacy or decorum doesn't help. He's right, and it's not his fault if you can't keep up. (Just ask the Winklevosses, whose idea was elitist and lame.) Eisenberg delivers his lines in a strident, authoritative cadence that never crosses into bad guy territory. We sense that he's tried so hard to be right, to be ahead of the game, that he's now stuck in this aggressive and gloomy persona. Eisenberg anchors the movie, and Garfield is terrific as a young man whose friendship with Zuckerberg leads to his downfall.

Even though it has united millions, the story behind Facebook's creation is acrimonious. (At least the cinematic version is. Zuckerberg has said the movie gets "a lot of stuff wrong and random details right.") Fincher and Sorkin go too far in conveying the frayed emotions involved, especially an ending that plays like Citizen Kane for the modern friendless. But it doesn't take away from the movie's power. We already know that how we communicate has changed forever. The Social Network reveals that the model for success in America—and how associations are forged—has also changed. Mark Zuckerberg has rebelled his way into the new conformity. [PG-13]

Monday, November 1, 2010

How I Remember Grandma

My grandmother passed away Saturday afternoon.

I feel more relief than anything else. She had become more and more withdrawn in recent years. The beginning of the end was two years ago, when she went to an extended care facility. Once admitted, she raised the white flag. She was in pain, her health was awful, and she was surrounded by strangers. There was no use in trying.

Those last years were hard to watch. I'm not going to speak for my family, but I will say that they nearly obliterated the memories I had. On Saturday, they came flooding back: the Christmas Eves that were as decorative as a Macy's window display; the countless games of War and dominoes that she played with my brother and I; the goofy faces she'd make; the trips to Carvel for Flying Saucers. She was a lovely, fun grandmother. I had almost forgotten that.

And movies were involved. Every time I see "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and "The Wizard of Oz," I think of Grandma. My brother and I would watch them giddily every time we slept over, the clock happily spilling over into the wee hours. There was Ritz crackers and cream cheese. And fun. Lots of fun. I didn't want to be anywhere else.

I remembered all those things over the weekend, and it made me smile. I knows she's up there watching old movies (I don't think her video collection featured anything past 1955), eating chocolate, and doing her word searches. It may sound naive, but that makes me happy. Why? Because that would make her happy, I think, and she deserves it.

RIP, Grandma.