Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best Five, Worst Five of 2011

This is an annual form of distress for me. Inevitably, I'll forget something or feel bad that I haven't seen two or three key films that were adored by the masses. But that's the way it goes. I'm never going to see everything. All I can do is write about how the films affected me, and share that love, hate, or indifference in the most expressive way possible.

These ten films, scroll down to see the full list, impacted me the most. I'll have a full blown rundown in a month or two, when we get closer to Oscar time.

For everyone who stopped by the site, left a comment, or followed along, thank you. Happy holidays and happy new year. I'll see you in 2012.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What Oprah's Watching

According to my wife, the movies shown on OWN, or the Oprah Winfrey Network, are Oprah's personal favorites. That gives me hope that one day my love of "American Pie" will lead to some grand, nationwide enlightenment.

I know we all have our criteria for what makes a movie wonderful, but what are Oprah's? Here's my best guess:

1.) A focus on female empowerment.
2.) Characters that don't reinforce societal and racial stereotypes.
3.) Three knife fights--minimum.
4.) Smart, savvy female characters with heaving breasts.
5.) Scripts with a light sense of humor and lots of insight into the human condition.
6.) Fart jokes, with at least one reference to "cheek-flappers."
7.) Banjo-driven music score.
8.) If it's about sports, that'd be, like, the best.
9.) Fun-loving truckers like Jerry Reed in "Smokey and the Bandit."
10.) Rapping grannies
11.) Meg Ryan circa 1989 to 2000.
12.) Katharine Hepburn circa 1935 to 1967.
13.) Larry the Cable Guy circa 2003 to present.
14.) Anything starring Milla Jovovich...She made "The Three Musketeers" totally high-octane!
15.) Goons blowing shit up.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Review: "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"

Last of the year for "The Weekender." You can read it here.

The wife and I saw this the Saturday morning after it opened, which meant a trip to the nearby AMC. Though I go to screenings, I love the multiplex. Not only do I get to maintain my critic street cred--so important to maintain in a competitive field--there are the following advantages.

1.) Previews: I need some surprises in my life, which is one reason why I try to avoid all Hollywood news and publications like "Entertainment Weekly." So, I get to get pie-eyed over the preview for the new "Batman" and feel the energizing hot flash of rage over "Battleship."

By the way, Liam Neeson is the new Sean Connery. Regardless of the character's nationality, Neeson's Irish brogue stays. It's part of his performance.

2.) The automatic ticket machines: Not because of the technology, but AMC's farewell image, which features a young employee waving goodbye. For reasons I can't fathom, the photographer caught him mid-farewell, so his hand resembles a claw and he sports a goofy snarl. He looks like he just absorbed a blast from a Winchester.

3.) Getting to enjoy a movie in peace: As Chris Rock said, "They show the same movie at 10 a.m. that they show at 10 p.m." There's something indulgent about having a big theater almost all to yourself.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Book of the Month, Dec. 2011

I love books. They're fun, educational, and they make wonderful Christmas gifts. (Really, they do.)

A few weeks ago, The Projector, the Yahoo! movie blog run by longtime friends Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, came to an abrupt end. It was a shame for several reasons. Yahoo! took forever to launch the project and never promoted it properly. Plus, the duo's reviews and posts were thoughtfully written and insightful, with Leitch's essay on Jessica Chastain a highlight.

Grierson and Leitch will be just fine. Grierson, who writes for "LA Weekly", has a couple of books coming out. Leitch is an established author and writes for a bunch of other places, including "New York" and "GQ".

Leitch also founded Deadspin, the popular sports blog, and several of his books focus on sports. My favorite of his is "God Save the Fan," a hilarious, keenly observed collection of essays that looks into every aspect of sports that uncovers two truths: First, players, broadcasters, and team officials have contempt for the people who worship the game they represent. Second, people should not blindly worship at the altar of sport. They should feel free to root--and hate--on their own terms. For anyone who believes that sportswriting is just pageantry and snoozy summaries, "God Save the Fan" is an eye-opener.

That's it for now. Until next month, read in peace.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Review of Knuckle

This is availale on demand and in theaters right now. I wanted it to appear in "ICON" next month, but it got bumped. Instead of waiting for February, when it'll be forgotten, I've decided to be relevant for a change.

The full crop of "ICON" reviews--both big and small--will appear on or around Jan. 1. I can't think of a better way to celebrate the new year, can you?


The Joyces and the Quinn McDonoughs, two related Irish Traveler families, have feuded for years. Instead of talking, the factions have settled their differences with bare-knuckle fighting. The pursuit is surprisingly sophisticated. The videotaped messages issued by the participants resemble the theatrical call outs of pro wrestling, while the fights themselves combine elements of a backyard brawl and an organized event. Neutral referees manage the action, breaking up holds and watching out for biting and illegal blows. Bets are placed. What's most troubling is that nearly everyone involved, even the film's star, venerable boxer James Quinn McDonough, thinks the activity solves nothing. Yet the cycle continues year after year: uneasy peace, taunt, fight. Director Ian Palmer spent more than a decade following this bitter Gypsy rancor. Though he clearly has some trouble coordinating the footage—Palmer doesn't quite untangle the web of bad feelings that has led to grown men pummeling each other and his attempts at including himself in the narrative are awkward—he's provided a stunning and sad sociological profile. ***1/2 out of 5 [R]

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Review of "Hugo"

Scorsese's first masterpiece in a long time. I think too many people associate him as making one type of hard-boiled picture. But look at "After Hours," "The Last Waltz," and "The Aviator," which held bite underneath the gloss. He's versatile, and he could rock the beard. In fact, I'm sure that's how he got so close to The Band.

Other fun facts surrounding this review, which appeared in "The Weekender" and which you can read here.

*I wrote most of the review in longhand on a Philadelphia-bound train. I then labored over it for another two and a half hours at home, missing my beloved weekly pick-up basketball game. (I'm still not sure if I nailed the review.)

*Took Philadelphia's subway system for the first time. Among the highlights: carpeted seats and an argument between an old man and a booth attendant. Being next in line after that exchange was a bit awkward. I just about curtsied to the subway worker.

*I was in Philadelphia, near UPenn, for a screening. There, I sat a few rows behind a college student who would not shut up to his female companion about his career direction and his interpretation of "Melancholia." I instantly replayed every movie-themed conversation I've ever had with my wife. Verdict: Laura should carry a muzzle with her everywhere.

*One thing I love about Philly is it's cost-effective. Going to New York every week will make you poor. Ticket from New Brunswick: $28.00. Parking: At least $10.00. Subway: At least $5.00. Total: $43. To justify the travel, I have to see two or three movies per trip.

Here's Philly's breakdown: Independence pass to Philly, which includes subway and bus travel: $11.00. Parking at train station: $1.00 for the day. When I drive to Philly, then it's $6.00 if I can get street parking. Granted, I don't have the variety of screening opportunities, but I don't have to eat dog food or absorb the questionable scenery of the Northeast Corridor.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Film Round-Up, December 2011

Do you know how perilously close y'all came to reading another review of "Happy Feet Two"? It took a last-minute screener of "Lads & Jockeys"--which arrived in the mailbox on deadline day--to maintain "ICON"'s reputation as a fine arts publication.

There is some good stuff in the Round Up, including a cool costume drama about a legendary literary figure and a terrific documentary on a Hollywood icon. And you have Michelle Williams playing Marilyn Monroe in a movie that wastes her splendid performance.

That's it for now. These reviews appeared in the December issue of "ICON," and are reprinted with permission.


Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (Dir: Alex Stapleton). Despite having the refined, gentle bearing of your favorite English professor, Corman insists that inside he's an "inferno," which explains his nearly 70-year career producing and directing hundreds of cheap, campy flicks like The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and The Raven. He's perhaps more famous for his films serving as a training ground for actors and directors such as Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, and even Jack Nicholson, who says the filmmaker was his "lifeblood" during the lean years before Easy Rider. In this heartfelt, enlightening gem, Stapleton traces Corman's unconventional success and his enduring influence. The movie benefits immensely from the warm, funny anecdotes of his numerous collaborators—Pam Grier says her willingness to perform stunts kept her employed; Martin Scorsese credits directing Corman's Boxcar Bertha in helping him film Mean Streets—which also trace Corman's rise and fall in the movie industry. Even better, Corman, now 85, is exceedingly likable, a man more concerned about producing the TV movie Dinoshark than his impact on the American movie landscape. Not just a wonderful tribute, but one of 2011's best documentaries. **** [R]

Young Goethe in Love (Philipp Stölzl). Starring: Alexander Fehling, Miriam Stein, Moritz Bleibtreu, Volker Bruch, Burghart Klaußner. It's widely acknowledged that Charlotte Buff inspired the lovelorn Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to write his landmark 1774 novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Stölzl's charming, original work provides the background behind the literary misery. In 1772, 23-year-old Goethe (Fehling) is a fledgling poet and writer whose buffoonish behavior and lack of direction enrages his father (Klaußner), who sends him to Frankfurt for a more appropriate (and thankless) legal job. There, Goethe meets and falls in love with the witty, wild-haired Buff (Stein), whose family's struggles make marrying for love nearly impossible. That condition sets the stage for a most uncomfortable and dangerous love triangle. Spirited performances and a lively pace aid an entertaining affair that earns points for showing the rough side of romance. Many costume dramas coast on prestige or submerge their conflicts in courtly passion. Young Goethe in Love doesn't steer away from meatier, relevant subjects. ***1/2 [NR]

Lads & Jockeys (Dir: Benjamin Marquet). Documentary profiles three teenage boys who attend a boarding school for jockeys in Chantilly, France, a village near Paris. When not attending classes or ogling female classmates, the students are immersed in horse racing, which includes learning everything from cleaning stalls to controlling the horse's speed and temperament. Marquet employs a hands-off approach here, capturing the kids during their daily lives and showing the hard work and drudgery required in getting these graceful animals ready. There's no narration and no formal interviews, unless you count black and white news footage. For a while the absence of canned answers is a blessing, until you realize that Lads & Jockeys is shapelessly edited. The footage presented doesn't tell a story or provide much insight into the students, their instructors, or anything else. Aside from the last 20 minutes, the movie sort of sits there, when it could portray the intoxicating fear that is being young and away from home. ** [NR]

My Week with Marilyn (Dir: Simon Curtis). Starring: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Julia Ormond, Emma Watson, Dougray Scott, Toby Jones, Dominic Cooper, Derek Jacobi. In 1956 Marilyn Monroe (Williams) flew to England to film The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier (Branagh), a union of future legends that was fraught with difficulty. Intimidated and in constant need of reassurance, Monroe maintained a sycophantic entourage and exhausted the patience of new husband Arthur Miller (Scott). Olivier, though a fan of Monroe's attributes, was exasperated by her fragility and leisurely pace. Third assistant director Colin Clark (Redmayne), a wide-eyed 23-year-old working on his first film, got thrown into the middle of this hoopla when Monroe took a shine to him…and destroyed his professional veneer. Adaptation of Clark's memoir works because of Williams, who aside from her physical resemblance, nails Monroe's neurotic vulnerability: the adulation both revives and destroys her. Unfortunately, the movie lacks the star's poise. It's too dark to be a frothy coming-of-age story. And it's too glossy—the film has the Weinstein brothers' prestige-y fingerprints all over—to pass muster as a character study, which would have made Williams' excellent performance all the more absorbing. Pleasant and polished, My Week with Marilyn's lack of bite turns it into another piece of baby boomer-friendly nostalgia. ** [R]

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Big Review: The Descendants

One of the year's best films features perhaps Clooney's finest performance. This review previously appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

Alexander Payne prefers a lasting impression to an immediate impact. At the surface, The Descendants, his first movie in seven years, is about a harried father coping with two rambunctious daughters and a comatose wife. That's like calling Payne's glorious Sideways a buddy-buddy comedy about wine. What lies beneath is glorious.

Attorney Matt King (George Clooney) calls Hawaii home, but notes that living in paradise does not make him immune to life. His adventurous wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), lies in a coma after a boating accident, a tragic development in an unraveling marriage. When she wakes up, Matt vows to talk things out with her. In the meantime, Matt is thrown into the unsavory role of primary caregiver. "I'm the back-up parent; the understudy," he tells us. It shows. His younger daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller) is a belligerent handful, and Matt's attempts to control her are half-hearted.

There's also work-related chaos. He's orchestrating a lucrative deal: selling 25,000 acres of pristine island property in the family's trust, which will make Matt and his cousins very rich. Then, everything changes. The doctor tells Matt that Elizabeth has no chance at living a normal life, a condition that legally requires taking her off life support. Ever the paragon of parental resolve, Matt picks up his older, brattier daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), from boarding school to help him inform friends and family.

Alex, sullen and resentful at the sudden attention from her neglectful father, has no desire to do anything for her mother. Matt tells Alex to grow up. That's when Alex drops the bombshell: Elizabeth was seeing another man. At this point, Payne's restraint becomes a glorious asset. Matt is determined to discover who slept with Elizabeth, a situation that any other director would portray as a race against time or some other domestic vengeance nonsense. It's clear that Matt needs closure right now. By not wasting time on the obvious, Payne provides the little details that make The Descendants such a lush film.

Payne, along with co-screenwriters Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, dares us to pay attention. Matt remarks that all the women in his life are determined to make him miserable, but what has he done to prevent that? Teachers and parents recognize Scottie's lack of respect, but not Matt, who lets her toss deck chairs into the pool. Alex's self-loathing—no one gave her credit for getting good grades or even saw her in the school play—highlights how oblivious both parents are. Also, Elizabeth and Matt clearly weren't a match. Early on, Matt comments that he hasn't ridden a surfboard in 15 years. What's prominently displayed in their backyard? Surfboards. Matt's father-in-law (Robert Forster) chastises Matt for being cheap with Elizabeth. What's most telling in those scenes is that Matt never corrects him.

Matt facilitates the pre-ordained. The King family has always been taken care of, so of course the land should be sold. Before taking the girls and Alex's dopey friend (Nick Krause) on a luxurious search for Elizabeth's paramour, Nick was content as the understudy, even though Elizabeth clearly wasn't mother-of-the-year material. When Alex observes that she's becoming her mother, it's uttered with the solemnity of a cancer diagnosis. Matt's quest isn't about resolution. It's about saving himself and his family.

Clooney's excellent performance is worthy of Matt's emotional journey. For years, the star has eschewed empty blockbusters for movies (e.g., Up in the Air, The Ides of March) that were so busy peddling important messages that they obscured his best qualities. Without a world-saving agenda to support in The Descendants, we remember that Clooney is the new Jack Nicholson, a leading man who can adjust his charisma for the situation. (Nicholson did just that, playing a pathetic, adrift retiree in Payne's About Schmidt.) Matt is flawed in many respects, but we always like him. That has everything to do with Clooney, whose performance adjusts to Payne's subtle shifts. In a supporting cast of able veterans (Judy Greer, Beau Bridges, a surprisingly good Matthew Lillard), the 20-year-old Woodley shines. As a crazy scheme develops faces and complications, she, like the movie, matures in front of our eyes.

Little things add up, both in life and in The Descendants, which by the end has accumulated the emotional resonance and complexity of a great novel. Payne has made a grand, emotional masterpiece from tiny strokes. So many dramas scream and strain to be heard. Rare is the movie that can satiate the soul by ending with couch-bound characters eating ice cream in front of the television. By mastering the art of what not to say, Payne has become one of America's most essential filmmakers. [R]

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Etc.--Why Nudity Can't Sell a Film, Christmas Songs, Debra Winger

A few years ago, Jessica Biel was in a movie called "Powder Blue," where she played an exotic dancer. My first thought was, "This film is going to make a jillion dollars. What guy wouldn't want to behold Jessica Biel's naked body on a giant screen?"

I learned recently that the film went right to DVD, which is when I realized something: The days when nudity was a film's calling card are long gone.

The Internet plays a huge role, of course, but not in the way you think. The running joke is that the Internet is only good for porn and stock quotes--"porn quotes" to quote George Costanza--but the speed in which those images are acquired is breathtaking. Suffice to say, when news of the movie's release came out, photos of Biel "in character" were everywhere. If something is committed to film these days, everybody sees it.

OK, let's say some production assistant refused to play the role of ribald Santa, or Egotastic's minions couldn't get behind enemy lines. There's still no way "Powder Blue" makes money. Everyone would wait until some kind soul posted the sweet clips online and not waste their time on plot, secondary characters, and all that filler.

In this environment, I don't think we're ever going to see a director or screenwriter like Adrian Lyne or Joe Ezterhaus succeed by going the steamy and sexy route. Movies like "Basic Instinct" and "Striptease," where the calling card is an actress willing to expose herself, won't work. Movies featuring nudity have to actually, you know, entertain us in some way. Just relying on pert body parts will no longer do the trick.

With that said, I'm fascinated by what "Shame" does. As for "Powder Blue," not so much. Over the course of 95 minutes, I'd rather see Carey Mulligan act fully clothed than watch Jessica Biel dance naked.

*OK, so the annual Christmas song bombardment has started, which actually erodes my yuletide spirit. Honestly, just play the following songs intermittently: "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer" (Leon Redbone and Dr. John), "Merry Christmas, Darling" (The Carpenters), "Christmas Wrapping" (The Waitresses), "Another Auld Lang Syne" (Dan Fogelberg), "Backdoor Santa" (Clarence Carter). Seriously, I have to hear some warmed-over, synth-happy tune from Gloria Estefan or Amy Grant, I'm swerving my car into a telephone pole.

*Is there a rule that NFL studio shows have to at least five analysts, with at least one of them unable to speak in coherent sentences?

*When I'm in New York, I always get a hop in my step when someone asks me for directions. I guess my all-Yankees wardrobe helps me blend in.

*I don't think I want to live in a world where a network executive favors "Whitney" over "Community."

*Can someone tell me why Philadelphia's CW17 played two Debra Winger movies back-to-back on a recent Sunday? Is she Pat or Geno's granddaughter? Was she in "Rocky"? Not that I'm complaining; Winger was such a natural talent. And "An Officer and a Gentleman" is a wonderful movie. Way to go, Paula!

*Recommended reading: Jacob Lambert on the death of the classic comedy. R. Kurt Osenlund on movie theater etiquette. Brian Hiatt's terrific interview with Eddie Murphy for "Rolling Stone."

Oh, and here's an essay I wrote for "The Christian Science Monitor."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Review of Happy Feet Two

The subtitle for this should have been "We're Back for More Cash!" Uninspired fare, at best.

You can read my review for "The Weekender" right here. Enjoy!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Book of the Month, November 2011

I love books. They're fun, educational, and they keep trees from getting too confident.

Over the last several weeks I've been ragging pretty hard on George Clooney's "The Ides of March," which missed a golden opportunity to comment on modern politics. Instead, it told us stuff most of us have known for years.

That got me thinking: Is there any work that would satisfy the political junkie in an original way?

Written nearly 40 years ago, Timothy Crouse's "The Boys on the Bus" profiles the pool of reporters who followed the 1972 presidential campaign. Not only is it a terrific, spirited read, but it shows that long before the presence of the Gannett template and spin artists, that there's a template in how news is reported and delivered, especially in a group environment.

Also, Crouse does a wonderful job in writing about the reporters as professionals and people. That's where the book really resonated with me. It gave me a human element behind the dog-and-pony show that is the campaign trail. That kind of insight was sorely missing from Clooney's misfire.

That's it for now. Until next month, read in peace.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Review of "Tower Heist"

Click here to read my review of Brett Ratner's "Tower Heist" for "The Weekender." Very quickie review: It should have been rated R.

"Tower Heist" is starting to get a spooky reputation. The movie's release came a few days before Ratner's meltdown on Howard Stern's show, leading him to resign from producing the upcoming Oscars. Then, yesterday, I hear that rapper/actor Heavy D, who has a small part in the film, died.

What makes Heavy D's death so sad is that he was young (44) and had gotten healthy, losing a ton of weight. A positive guy does (seemingly) everything right and still gets the short end of the stick. It's a sad reminder that life is not fair.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Film Round-Up for November 2011

In this edition of The Film Round-Up, it's a writer-director battle royale! Who emerges victorious? The French comic book god! The Danish auteur! The scrappy youngster from the Midwest!

And, because it's my site, here's a photo of the late Charles Napier, one of the finest character actors of my generation: "Silence of the Lambs," "The Blues Brothers," "UHF," "The Critic." That's a resume, Jack!

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

Melancholia (Dir: Lars von Trier). Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgård, John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgård. Surreal drama from Danish rabble-rouser von Trier consists of two parts. The first takes place at a lavish wedding that quickly becomes a disaster. The bride, Justine (Dunst), lapses into a deep depression as she discovers that no one can make her happy—not her dim-witted groom (Alexander Skarsgård), not her curt, cynical mother (Rampling), and not her sister (Gainsbourg), whose wealthy husband (Sutherland) can't stop reminding everyone of his generosity. The second part has Justine returning to her sister's estate as a mysterious planet named Melancholia moves uncomfortably close to Earth. In exploring the fallacy of a beloved custom (weddings) and the irrefutable (science) in an unforgiving modern world, von Trier has created an unsettling, sobering film. And he gets excellent performances from his cast, especially Dunst (see R. Kurt Osenlund's story on page TK). But the writer-director spends so much time establishing atmosphere that he forgets to rattle our senses. Melancholia, unfortunately, is little more than an intriguing, anticlimactic disappointment. ** [R]

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (Dir: Joann Sfar). Starring: Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Sara Forestier, Doug Jones. French-born Sfar has been infatuated with Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991) since childhood. "He made it cool to be rebellious," Sfar says of the legendary French singer-songwriter and hedonist. In Sfar's vision of Gainsbourg's life—which he insists is based on fact—an id-based creature (Jones) steers the young musician (played with grizzled cool by Elmosnino) toward commercial success and epic philandering. Certainly not a conventional biopic, writer-director Sfar's dazzling visual style (influenced by Pan's Labyrinth) and his narrative bluntness—without the reckless lifestyle, Sfar suggests that Gainsbourg wouldn't have mattered—produces a memorable homage to a cultural institution, a one-man Rat Pack who straddled musical genres and Brigitte Bardot. "I'm fed up with mainstream heroes teaching me how to behave," says Sfar, who's perhaps best known as a comic book artist. His award-winning debut, a most unusual love letter, provides a refreshing alternative. ***1/2 [NR]

Mozart's Sister (Dir: René Féret). Starring: Marie Féret, Marce Barbé, Delphine Chuillot, David Moreau, Clovis Fouin. This "re-imagined account" covers the not-so wonder years of Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart (Marie Féret, the director's daughter) who spent her childhood thanklessly backing up her legendary younger brother. Nannerl, now 15, is chafing under the arrangement, especially since her tyrannical father (Barbé) refuses to nurture her aspiration to compose music. The young lady seems locked into a subservient, unrewarding life until a trip to France, where she falls for the recently widowed Dauphin (Fouin), who appreciates her beauty and her talents. Potentially ripe coming-of-age story loses juice way too soon. René Féret, who also wrote and produced, doesn't showcase Nannerl's struggle: does she fulfill her ambitious music dreams or follow her domestic destiny? Conflicts continually get buried or brushed aside in favor of a utilitarian, just-the-facts approach that is as baffling as it is sleep inducing. If the director can barely maintain an interest in the title character, what hope do we have? ** [NR]

Take Shelter (Dir: Jeff Nichols): Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Kathy Baker, Shea Whigham. Here's the movie you should see instead of Melancholia, a leaner, far more compelling look at the uncertainty that lies beneath our measured facades. Working-class family man Curtis LaForche (Shannon) is suddenly plagued by weird, frightening visions: Birds form into angry swarms, violently stormy skies appear before his eyes. At night, his sleep is interrupted by awful dreams of life run amok. Everybody else sees nothing. Considering his options and swallowing his feelings, a slowly unraveling Curtis decides to renovate the back yard's storm shelter and fill it with supplies, an endeavor that isolates him from his family and raises questions among his neighbors. Moody, uneasy drama sticks with you, and is greatly aided by the perfect casting of Shannon (Revolutionary Road), whose squirrelly intensity summons the best memories of Christopher Walken. Chastain (The Help), who is everywhere these days, is excellent as Shannon's incredulous wife. Nichols also wrote the script. ***1/2 [R]

The Big Review: The Ides of March

When I chose to review this for the November issue of ICON (where this first appeared), I thought the month's election buzz would make this film relevant. No dice. It's a lukewarm political thriller that couldn't sustain momentum into November, even with an all-star cast.

The other question some of you may ask: You have reviews of "Melancholia" and "Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life," so why don't you write a lengthy review of one of those newer titles? Here's the truth: I didn't have a lot to say about those films. I'd rather write in depth on something a little older (e.g., "The Hurt Locker," "Up in the Air," "The Social Network") than be stupidly verbose regarding something newer.

Timing also plays a role. "ICON's" status as a monthly publication means I have to plan ahead. I try to make sure the reviews come out the month when the magazine is published. That's a bit tricky. As you might imagine some publicists balk at reviews being printed before the release date. Or I'll aim for movies released late in the preceding month. Another consideration: if the movie is being talked about high and low.

Translation, if a movie was released on November 4, there's a slim chance it's going to be reviewed in December. So you won't get to read 800 words on "Tower Heist," there are worse things in life.

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


Recently, I saw a reference to how George Clooney's political potboiler The Ides of March is a throwback to the more edgy, character-driven dramas of the 1970s, which is somewhat true. It's fine to honor elements of past cinematic styles and ideas if it leads to something new and exciting. That's how any artistic medium evolves. Otherwise, we'd still be watching silent movies featuring mustache-twirling villains.

Peddling the familiar as groundbreaking is when filmmakers get into trouble, and Clooney is up to his ears in it in The Ides of March.

The movie presents us with Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney, who also produced and co-wrote the script), a war hero and Democratic presidential hopeful who needs to win the Ohio primary to guarantee the nomination. Helping Morris is crafty veteran campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and young press secretary Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), a charming, self-assured hotshot whose star is rising.

Meyers is so coveted that the campaign manager for Morris' rival, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), courts the youngster, promising him that Morris won't win Ohio. On a roll, Meyers then beds an attractive intern whose father is the head of the Democratic National Committee. Since the intern is played by Evan Rachel Wood, who perpetually looks like she's about to star in a remake of Double Indemnity, it's a given that her presence spells doom. The intern knows Morris intimately, an arrangement that could end his political career. If that doesn't sink the candidate, his integrity will. Morris refuses to satisfy the demands of a senator (Jeffrey Wright) whose support could secure the primary. To make matters worse, a newspaper reporter (Marisa Tomei) learns of Meyers' clandestine meeting with the opposition, a juicy scoop that suddenly jeopardizes his—and the campaign's—future.

Based on Beau Willimon's play Farragut North, The Ides of March is so heavy on dialogue that we never feel the weight of these crises. Every one (and their revelations) involves tense conversations in dark, lonely places, which amounts to stock footage. As Meyers scrambles to save the campaign, and his livelihood, there's no sense of him discovering larger truths. Maybe if these didn't involve shifty motives and lying—problems most of us encounter on a daily basis—the movie wouldn't feel so gullible.

Or broad. A cast featuring three Academy Award winners is stuck playing caricatures. Tomei, Hoffman, and Giamatti play frumpy political lifers. Clooney is the good-looking, middle-aged, easily manipulated beacon of hope. Gosling, however, doesn't even have a model to follow. Clooney and his writers have Meyers crafty one minute, naïve the next. It's a classic example of screenwriters bending a character to fit the story's whims. And it's unnecessary: Gosling's forte is playing morally imperfect characters. That Clooney reduces Meyers' emotional crisis to youthful hubris and shock (Meyers, supposedly a PR pro, is stunned that a newspaper reporter isn't his friend) is an insult to Gosling's talent—and the audience's intelligence.

Artifice defines this film. Take away the all-star cast and the fortuitous release date, and you just have a lukewarm political thriller that doesn't tell us anything new. Clooney has garnered a lot of goodwill as an actor (Out of Sight) and as a director (Good Night, and Good Luck) for not just participating in a string of blockbusters that appeals to the Entertainment Tonight crowd. Still, I can't shake the feeling that he expects admiration for simply rubbing elbows with real life. As a director, Clooney needs to tap into how we're feeling now, when a youthful, energetic president hasn't delivered on his potential and Congress feels hopelessly and angrily divided. (False idols and promiscuous interns are so 1998.) There's a movie to be made from those emotions. The Ides of March isn't that movie because it can't comment on where we are now or where we are headed.

Take Shelter, now playing, and Melancholia, opening later this month in Philadelphia, speak more to the jittery mood of the populace. One is about a working-class guy tormented by apocalyptic visions. The other is a dreary, poetic drama centered around a planet on a collision course with Earth. Both are more honest than The Ides of March, which reveals that movie stars have finally learned that politics, like life, is not for the faint of heart

Monday, October 31, 2011

Review of Life Itself for BiblioBuffet

Yes, I know it's not really a sports book, but Ebert did begin his writing career as a sportswriter, so I think it's appropriate. Especially when I compare it to Robert Lipsyte's memoir, "An Accidental Sportswriter."

In short, Ebert's memoir is outstanding. You can read my thoughts here.

And a special thanks to our immensely talented film friend in Brooklyn, R. Kurt Osenlund, for the book.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Review of The Three Musketeers

Buy the candy bar instead. You'll spend less money and the experience will be ten times more memorable.

You can read the review here, and observe my continued transformation into Jay "It stinks!" Sherman.

P.S.--Someone once asked me how I can review movies if I hate everything. I do not. Movies like "The Three Musketeers" and "Captain America: The First Avenger" are occupational hazards. My faith in the power of movies, however you would like to define that phrase, is unshakeable.

And to quote Joe Queenan: "Let me confess that I am one of those people who has never lost his childlike belief that the next motion picture he sees could be the worst film ever made. That's why I go to all of them."

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Etc.--My Strip Club, Playing Hooky, Greeting Kids

The Englishtown Auction, a colossal outdoors flea market based in Manalapan, NJ, literally has everything: used books and tools, CDs, toys from the 1980s, new toiletries, Christmas ornaments, furniture, clothes. For someone like me, who likes low prices and endless browsing, it's wonderful.

But the people-watching makes the place Xanadu. Englishtown is a required visit for any writing student. Some of the vendors look like recovering hoarders who reluctantly bring whatever was in their attic with them. Most are surly. Some are condescending ("One peso," remarked one to a Spanish-seeking crowd, unaware that a dollar and peso are two different currencies). Others are downright neighborly. The shoppers consist of Yuppies, immigrants, teenagers, and white trash.

It's also my strip club. Every couple has certain places that a man adores but a woman loathes. A visit to this place requires months of planning and superb timing. You can't go every week unless you want your possessions relocated to the front lawn. For most couples, the battleground is a strip club, a golf course, or a bar. Think this is the death of manhood? No, it's a natural consequence of being in a relationship. It's not all about you.

My wife loathes Englishtown. She thinks it's dirty (when it rains, the venue resembles a mud wrestling pit), filled with a special variety of weirdo, and beyond creepy. After seeing underwear of questionable origin for sale, she threw in the towel. Her open disdain is rare because she's so patient--after all, she's married to me. My sister-in-law also hates it, so my brother is left to fantasize about searching through mounds of old Happy Meal toys.

On Sunday, circumstances aligned so that we got our freedom. And it was glorious. I bought a packet of Gilette Fusion razors for eight dollars and a hardcover of "The Miracle of St. Anthony" for one dollar. I munched on a bagel, sipped a coffee, and took it all in.

It was a ton of fun, and I look forward to the next visit. Unless I develop a drinking problem or improve my tee shot, then it's anyone's guess.

2.) I was watching the end of "Wanted" the other day, and I couldn't help wonder why James McAvoy was in this dreadful affair. Movie executives couldn't have imagined the following conversation, right?

Artsy Husband (from behind "New York Times" arts and leisure section): James McAvoy? Honey, isn't that the young man from "Becoming Jane"?

Artsy Wife (looking up from Anita Diamant paperback): Yes, he was fabulous in that! And he was riveting in "Atonement." He's such a thoughtful, sensitive actor. Oh, I like him.

Artsy Husband: Well, the review says he plays an assassin who can bend bullets, or some such nonsense. That can't be the same actor, right?

Artsy Wife: There's one way to find out. Let's invite the gang from the film society. We should go soon, before the Fassbinder marathon on IFC.

3.) My wife and I recently visited friends who have three young girls, all under the age of seven, whom we were meeting for the first time. Is there anything more awkward than introducing yourself to little kids? Hugs are too intimate. Handshakes are too formal. High-fives make me feel like a doofus youth coach.

Anybody have any advice on this? I'm legitimately puzzled.

4.) During a weekday afternoon trip to the drug store, I bought a packet of razors and some business envelopes. The clerk, a very nice, gregarious guy, said, "Playing hooky today?"

This got me thinking: What in this transaction suggests that I'm blowing off work? "Yeah, I'm just going to shave my neck hair and mail the shaving scum to business contacts. That's how I chill out."

5.) Note to the writers of "He's Just Not That Into You": Ginnifer Goodwin's character is how a 15-year-old acts, not a 28-year-old. That's one reason why I jumped ship after 10 minutes, and I'm the schmuck who sat through "Made of Honor."

6.) It's quite possible that the opening to the "Jane Austen Book Club"--look at how modern technology is failing us; we need a return to a simpler time!--is one of the most patronizing in recent memory. However, it is the perfect beginning to a shrill, predictable movie that examines unfulfilled lives with the grace of a truck stop bathroom

7.) Recommended reading: Roger Ebert's "Life Itself" (thanks, Kurt); Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean

Friday, October 14, 2011

My Hometown Movie Theater: Creating New, Pretentious Movies

Lars Von Trier has to direct "What's Urnumber?", right? It sounds moody and unpleasant and ripe with meaning that I can't comprehend. My guess is that Urnumber is just like Grendel. Stellan Skarsgard can play the mythical, tortured hunter. It's too perfect.

Also, I think the theater manager simply instructing his employees to put up the titles via text message. "Ur"? "Dolphin" for "A Dolphin's Tale"? "Stee" instead of "Steel" Nicolas Carr is right: The wired world is turning our brains to mush. Pretty soon we will all communicate with grunts and head nods.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Susan Orlean Q&A

I don't think this piece needs a giant introduction. All I'll say is that it's always nice when the writers you admire are decent human beings. It's another little thing that prevents me from filling out law school applications.

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

P.S.--I didn't ask about "Adaptation," because she's talked (and written) about it a thousand times. I wanted to explore somewhat new terrain.


Susan Orlean is busy today. She's settling into a new home. Her pets are giving her trouble. A deadline is looming. Yes, she's still up for the interview, which amidst the swirl of domestic- and work-related chaos, she nails.

This snapshot of Orlean's afternoon encapsulates her strength as a writer—she's remarkably focused. Her latest book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend (now available for sale everywhere) covers the rise of dogs as pets, dog training, the beginnings of the film and television industry, and the lives of the dog (or, more accurately, dogs) and his enamored guardians: trainer Lee Duncan and TV producer Bert Leonard.

Every diversion fits into this memorable portrait of the canine icon, and Orlean's orderliness does not lead to stodgy prose. The author of The Orchid Thief and New Yorker staff writer clearly relishes finding every angle to a story, even the ones that affect her personally. It's why I'll read anything she writes. Regardless of how arcane the subject is, she makes it sparkle via wit and investigation.

In this mid-September interview, Orlean, 55, talks about juggling all those subjects, what led her to write about Rin Tin Tin, and if an animal will ever again reach such a level of celebrity.

Pete Croatto: The last time we talked you displayed quite a passion for bookstores misplacing you and other authors' books. With that said, where is Rin Tin Tin going to end up being placed?

Susan Orlean: Well, I already see it listed under pet care, which I guess is not surprising, and biography, which is not incorrect. I think it's going to end up in a couple of different places, and I suppose better that it end up in many rather than none. It's tricky. It's a biography of a sort. It's an animal book of a sort. And it's kind of a cultural observation of a sort, so I don't blame bookstores for finding it a little hard to figure out.

PC: The book covers a lot of ground. How did you manage to tie all those subjects together without getting overwhelmed or cluttering the narrative?

SO: Well, you're assuming I didn't get overwhelmed. I did. The book took me a long time [nearly 10 years]. First of all, it was a huge undertaking that was far bigger than I expected. I felt strongly that it made sense only if I told it in a really thorough way. What I think was the only thing I could do in terms of keeping the narrative intact was to try to convey to the reader the story of my discovery of what I was learning. Essentially that I started a subject expecting it to be kind of compact—not simple, but just manageable—and it grew and grew and that I wanted them to come along on that same exploration with me.

PC: It's funny you mention wanting to take readers along with you, because in Rin Tin Tin, like your other work, you write regularly in the first person. How did you come to write in that style, and did anyone encourage you not to at any point?

SO: To answer your first question, I began writing in the first person—or at least not pretending that I wasn't in the story as the reporter—at a point where the only way to make sense of the narrative meant acknowledging my presence, basically. And it was really liberating. And I didn't feel that it meant that I was suddenly the subject of the story, but rather that it made it so much easier to move the reader around in time and space. I'm just sort of saying, "I'm here. I'm the person observing this." It's actually much more natural. It's the way you'd tell a story over dinner. We're not inhibited in telling a story at dinner to friends: "And then I asked" or "Then I went to figure out x." So, to me, it's actually far more authentic. And it's the way you tell stories, so it never felt phony to me.

I've always written for places that, fortunately, don't have strict rules about how you write. You write to achieve the best effect. I don't think the stories become narcissistic exercises, so no one ever said to me, "I don't see what the point is of having you in here. Get out." It's not been a problem in that way.

PC: The one reason I ask is that I've read a lot of books steeped in reporting where authors include themselves in the narrative, and it becomes a distraction. How do you keep yourself from being the elephant in the room? When do you know not to include yourself in the narrative?

SO: Well, it's kind of hard to answer that. It's surely intuitive. I really do think it's strictly a kind of measure in your own gut of whether you're interfering or helping. It should always feel that you're advancing the story by being in there. Huge, huge long stretches of my writing I'm not the least bit present. To be honest with you, I feel I always write in a way that my voice is very subjective. Even if I don't say "I, I, I," I think there's always a sense that this is a story being told by an actual person, and I happen to be the actual person. Occasionally, I'm going to refer to something specific. Not everyone is going to like that. There are some people who get very irritated by the writer being present at all. That's fine. It's a matter of taste, but I feel strongly that I follow my instincts and hope that they keep it authentic and readable.

The bottom line is that I feel that my goal is to be the most interesting storyteller in the world, and whatever I need to do to make that happen is what I try to do.

PC: Without giving away too much, Rin Tin Tin had a special significance to you from an early age. What made you decide to write this book now?

SO: Very specifically because I had come across Rin Tin Tin's name in the course of working on another story. I hadn't actively thought about Rin Tin Tin in decades. I came across his name and had a reaction that was so strong that I really kind of sat up straight. It's rare that you have a reaction to a memory that's so strong. It just led me almost instantly to think, "This is a book; I want to write a book." Because I so quickly learned so many things about Rin Tin Tin that were so fascinating and rocked me out of what I had thought was the case of his life. It made me think, "Oh my gosh here's something that I thought I knew, and in fact I don't know it all—and there's this amazing story to be told."

PC: You could also say that sense of discovery runs through the book.

SO: Yeah, very much. This is so much a case of falling into the rabbit hole and thinking, "Wow, this is an incredible story and it just keeps getting more and more interesting. I can't walk away."

PC: One striking aspect of the book was how much the general public loved Rin Tin Tin. Are we ever going to see an animal with such a devoted following or has the novelty of TV and films—two media he was around for in their early days—worn off?

SO: I think that the innocence that is required to look at an animal as so powerful and so symbolic, I don't know that we're that culture anymore. I don't know if we look at animals with the same kind of belief the way we used to. Animals have been heroic and moved in and out of roles many times as far as being looked at almost as more powerful than people. I'm not sure that we will have that connection. Also, at the time Rin Tin Tin became such a phenomenon, the number of channels, so to speak, of entertainment was so limited. You had three networks. It was just a very different world. We still have stars that take on enormous significance, but I think the impact is kind of different these days.

PC: I would agree with that. Also, you mention in the book dogs only become a regular part of domestic life until the 1940s or 50s. Rin Tin Tin premiering onscreen in the late 1920s was a big deal.

SO: We're a far more sophisticated culture now. It's harder to surprise people. It's harder to get a reaction of such amazement because we've seen it all.

PC: Yeah, we have. We've seen Keyboard Cat.

SO: Because of the rise of things like YouTube and reality TV, we just don't look at entertainers as having a kind of god-like quality. That's something we just don't see anymore. It used to be that you knew nothing about Hollywood stars and you simply admired them from afar, and that simply does not happen anymore.

PC: Bert Leonard, the producer of the first Rin Tin Tin television show, was devoted to the dog until his death. You learned of Leonard's loyalty via a storage locker full of old documents, the key for which you received from his daughter Gina. How do you get subjects to give you that kind of trust?

SO: The one thing a writer needs to be is genuine and I think that many people are really eager to have their stories told and in the case of Bert…I think his family loved the idea of his being remembered when he had kind of disappeared. And so, while she had no idea if there was anything in there, I think also her feeling was it's great that you're interested in him; if you want to take a look, go ahead. But I was certainly fortunate that I had her trust. I think that's the sort of result of being honest and saying, "I really want to know his story and I really care about telling his story."

PC: Your best-known books have dealt with subjects—orchids and Saturday nights—that are not on the tips of everyone's tongues. Many people don't know who Rin Tin Tin is. These aren't what publishers would consider sexy topics.

SO: I am a victim of my own curiosity. The only ideas that really get me excited are the ones that really get me excited. I have a sort of temperamental inability to focus group my ideas. I tend to get interested in a subject and really want to learn about it. My natural next reaction is, "Oh, I just learned something really interesting. I want to tell people about it." The fact that I do that via a keyboard and a published book is really almost incidental. Learning a story and telling a story is what really interests me…It's just sheer impulse and, frankly, a certain instinct of, I know this is a good story. I know people won't think that they want to know this, but boy, it's so cool they're going to be really glad that I told them.

PC: If you write a book because it's a popular topic and you don't care about it, then that lack of interest may show.

SO: I'm just not interested in that. If something is already popular, why would I want to write a book about it? I don't pick subjects just to be contrarian and purposefully offbeat. I like to write about what interests me. The kind of commitment I have to it and my enthusiasm is what usually draws people in and later they may think, "Wow, now I'm interested in that." I'm so often curious about the things that I don't know anything about and that strike me in a surprising way. It's hard to be surprised if it's something that's already really familiar.

PC: There's one quote from the book that stuck with me: "A singular passion helps you slice through the mess of the world, but I had also come to believe that cutting such a narrow path plays tricks with proportion and balance and pushes everything to the edge." That's written about people who were passionate about Rin Tin Tin. But, for you, does that apply to writing?

SO: Absolutely—I think the focus and, frankly, obsession required to write something is just as consuming as any passion, and sometimes plays the same tricks on your ability to be balanced and have perspective. Unfortunately, that's also the only way to get it done.

PC: Over the last couple of years, you've hit the social network with abandon. Your Twitter account is a blast. You're easily reachable on Facebook. Is that part of a writer's job now or was it a curiosity that blossomed?

SO: Aha! It's a bit of both. I first signed up for social media at the urging of my assistant; she insisted that it was a new job requirement for a writer. Then I discovered that I enjoyed it, much to my surprise. I think there are still many writers who don't engage in social media and still sell lots of books and do a great job. I just think it's a good opportunity to talk to your readers, to have fun, and to add another dimension to your experience as a storyteller.

PC: You're in California now. Has moving west changed your perspective as a writer?

SO: I'm sure it will—place has such a profound effect on all of us. But we've only been here two weeks. So far, I'm still jet-lagged.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Book of the Month, October 2011

I love books. They're fun, educational, and without them 85 percent of movies wouldn't be made.

Case in point, "Moneyball," an adaptation that fought an uphill battle from the start: How can you make a movie about a statistics-driven business model? Bennett Miller tried, but by making the movie more about A's GM Billy Beane than his methods, he watered down what made Michael Lewis's book so special.

So, what baseball book should be made into a movie? How about Jane Leavy's "The Lost Boy," her superlative biography of Mickey Mantle. The best aspect of her book is that Leavy paints a full, vivid portrait of Mantle as a legendeary athlete and as a flawed person.

What's tragic about Mantle--and why his story is tailor-made for the big screen--is that he succumbed to the cult of personality. Post-baseball, Mantle became an aw-shucks, hard-drinking bullshitter, which is what the fans wanted and what made him profitable. It was an arrangement that ultimately cost him his life, and what defines Leavy's effort as so much more than a "sports book."

That's it for now. Until next month, read in peace.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Film Round-Up: October 2011

In this edition of the Film Round-Up: Joseph Gordon-Levitt's attempt to woo the multiplex, solid documentaries on a legendary Yiddish author and a high school band, and an apocalyptic love story for the art house crowd.

One of the nice things about "50/50" is to see Dallas Bryce Howard expertly play another bitch. She's finally found her niche, which is great because her work before "The Help" was less than impressive. You ever see her and Chris "Cardboard" Evans in "The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond"? Oof.

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


Thunder Soul (Dir: Mark Landsman). In the 1970s, the Kashmere Stage Band was a phenomenon. Based in Houston's all-black Kashmere High School, the band annihilated its stodgy competitors with funky, pounding arrangements and nifty choreography. After dominating nationally with their groundbreaking content, the kids toured the world and even found listeners decades later, thanks to a popular retrospective album. Landsman's documentary covers band members from KSB's heyday—many of whom have not played their instruments since graduation day—reuniting to play a 2008 concert for their beloved leader and teacher, Conrad "Prof" Johnson. Undeniably upbeat and heartfelt film that shows the impact a good teacher can have on students, especially those who need a father figure. The music, of course, is fantastic. Only glaring flaw: With one or two exceptions, we don't know the members of the band and how their lives fared after their high school glory days. Jamie Foxx served as executive producer. [PG] ***1/2

50/50 (Dir: Jonathan Levine). Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston, Philip Baker Hall. Adam (Gordon-Levitt), a seemingly healthy 27-year-old, is diagnosed with a nasty form of cancer that comes with a grim outlook: he only has a fifty percent chance of surviving. As the disease begins its onslaught and Adam undergoes treatment, his coarse best friend-wingman (Rogen, who also produced) stands by his side and a cute, practically novice therapist (Kendrick) navigates Adam through the rough patch. Like Judd Apatow's emerging catalogue of bromedies (Knocked Up, Funny People), Levine's effort embraces aspects of testosterone-driven comedy and legitimate, man-friendly drama, though not consistently; 50/50 never completely satisfies as a hearty comedy or as a raw character study. Still, it's a solid, entertaining look at young adulthood interrupted that features good performances from everyone, especially Huston as Adam's overprotective mom, and Kendrick (Up in the Air) as the young professional with strong feelings for her new client. The movie's writer, Will Reiser, is a cancer survivor. [R] ***

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness (Dir: Joseph Dorman). Aleichem (1859-1916) is probably best known as the creator of Tevye, the lead character in the beloved musical, Fiddler on the Roof. In reality, Aleichem's stories about the Jewish milkman were less than cheerful. They reflected the changing status of Eastern European Jews who, at the end of the twentieth century, were struggling to find their way amidst pogroms and opportunities in the secular world. One interview subject in this illuminating, intelligent documentary puts it best: Aleichem taught Jews how to live in the modern world. Dorman effectively puts Aleichem's cultural significance into perspective. By writing his stories in Yiddish, Aleichem helped turn it into a credible language; his funeral was so massive that it introduced the Jews as an influential demographic in New York City politics. But what's more impressive—and touching—is how the director reveals Aleichem as a writer of the people. The author truly struggled (and coped) like his beloved characters. Other plusses: Terrific interviewees and Peter Riegert and Rachel Dratch offering sublime readings of Aleichem's work. [NR] ****

Bellflower (Dir: Evan Glodell). Starring: Evan Glodell, Jessie Wiseman, Tyler Dawson, Rebekah Brandes, Vincent Grashaw. Highly stylized, borderline incomprehensible drama follows Wisconsin natives and friends, Woodrow (Glodell) and Aiden (Dawson), who aspire to construct a flamethrower a la what they saw as kids in Mad Max. Everything changes when Woodrow falls hard for the wrong woman (Wiseman). That romance, of course, ends badly, causing the poor guy to succumb to a deadening pattern of alcohol and self-pity. Soon, a flamethrower isn't enough and Aiden and Woodrow's goofy intentions darken. Starts off as a quirky take on the Go West Young Man tale, with two nimrods trying to make it in the seedy, unglamorous side of Hollywood. But the plot takes a hard left into kinetic, jealousy-tinged nihilistic nonsense that abandons the characters and exhausts the audience's patience. There's a story in Bellflower. It's too bad that debut director-writer-editor-producer Glodell abandons it for sound, fury, and apocalyptic dream sequences. If Glodell relies on substance more than style, his future work will be worth watching. This one is not. [R] **

The Big Review: Contagion

Every fall, a movie comes out that throws everyone into a tizzy with its name cast and high-profile director. It seems destined for a gaggle of awards. Then it's released and...pfft!

Here's the front-runner for 2011's unique distinction.

This review--complete with 9/11 interpretation and my take on Steven Soderbergh's stoic approach--previously appeared in "ICON" and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)


Director Steven Soderbergh has always displayed a coolness that borders on emotional disconnect. You don't see teary speeches or hug-filled reunions. His box office triumphs (Erin Brockovich, the Ocean's trilogy) feature characters who can't afford to let their guard down. King of the Hill might be the most intense coming-of-age story I've ever seen. Traffic could have made a billion dollars and sold a zillion t-shirts if he chose to glamorize drug dealing with violence and big personalities.

Soderbergh didn't. All he got was an Academy Award for best director.

His refusal to talk down to his audience while skipping through genres, even if it costs him, is why I am an admirer. But it makes Soderbergh an odd choice to direct Contagion, the star-studded virus-runs-amok drama. A good poker face is not scary. The film never grabs you by the shoulders and gives you an old-fashioned fright. You can watch it with your eyes wide open—unless you find stellar ensemble work and directorial polish bone chilling.

The origins of the viral horror are benign. Executive Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), coughing and pale, prepares to board her flight home after a business trip to Hong Kong. The same conditions plague a fashion model in London, a Tokyo businessman, and, logically, a Hong Kong waiter. Everyone looks like they have the flu. Emhoff returns home to Minneapolis, where a few days later she collapses on the kitchen floor, frothing at the mouth and lapsing into seizures. The hospital's doctor can't explain her death, but the coroner's reaction during the autopsy says it all: "Call everyone."

Soon, a no-nonsense investigator (Kate Winslet) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention travels to Minnesota. A World Health Organization official (Marion Cotillard) heads to the Hong Kong casino where Emhoff gambled and dined. As the ladies follow leads, attempts to vaccinate the virus prove exceedingly difficult. It's a model of biological perfection, fitting into cells "like a key into a lock." People keep dying, so much so that body bags run out.

In the ensuing weeks, things fall apart. Homeland Security becomes interested. A popular, truth-telling blogger (Jude Law) gets his priorities mixed up. Beth's widowed husband (Matt Damon) becomes really overprotective of his only daughter. Throughout, Soderbergh handles the material with his usual quiet confidence. The proof is in the cinematography: Winslet opens her hotel window to see a caravan of military vehicles driving down an empty street on a miserable gray morning. The beleaguered CDC deputy director (Laurence Fishburne) sits in a cafeteria, surrounded by empty chairs, overwhelmed by a problem he can't solve.

Soderbergh's approach only takes him so far. His quiet confidence turns into politeness. Grave red lettering pops up to remind us of the number of days that have passed in this misery. Everyone is clearly working against the clock, but the tension never explodes. The movie proceeds as one long anticlimax. Major plot developments get treated with little fuss as Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns make their points about leadership (the military calls the shots; the president is nowhere to be found), bureaucratic red tape, and the common good of people. These messages are fine, but they're placed too high on the priority list. The movie is about an unstoppable virus killing millions of helpless people. Shouldn't we feel a little bit scared? Is it weird not to feel any connection to characters? (Burns and Soderbergh address this shortcoming by having Damon turn into a less hirsute version of Viggo Mortensen's character from The Road, a distracting move in an otherwise journalistic-style narrative.) Why does the movie feel respectful and orderly, like something The Learning Channel would produce?

An argument could be made that this kind of restraint is appropriate for a movie released two days before the 10th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. I don't buy that. The Dark Knight perfectly captured the random terror that comes when a psychopath gains power over a major city. V for Vendetta, released in the middle of George W. Bush's second term, explored the horror of an overprotective government. And there was The Road, Team America World Police, and more.

One of the great artistic triumphs post-September 11th is that filmmakers have used the fear of a world run amok in a creative, non-exploitive way. Movies have helped us explore the uncertainty of that day and ever after. By holding back his own emotions, whatever they might be, Soderbergh has offered a somewhat entertaining, well-acted cop out. [PG-13]

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Review of Moneyball

Great book, OK movie. It helps if you don't know anything about baseball. I remember the 2002 Oakland Athletics having both the MVP and the Cy Young Award winner on their roster, not to mention a great starting rotation. Bennett Miller happily ignores those memories. No one led the team to glory!

You can enjoy my review for "The Weekender," delightfully free of baseball nerd jargon, right here.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Your Road to Success Includes a Polyester Uniform!

I took this shot at a movie theater lobby in Sedona, AZ.

You know who also gets to watch free movies: studio execs, actors, movie critics. Everyone is in the same caste. Brad Pitt still has to work the nacho station at the Warner Brothers commisary. The Weinstein Brothers routinely vacuum their own screeing rooms. Roger Ebert works on holidays and weekends for minimum wage.

Give me a break. Unless you're 18, a retiree looking for a very aggravating way to kill time, or recently paroled, then work at a movie theater. As someone who spent six months ringing up ticket sales for "Men in Black" and "Titanic" trust me.

I would have preferred this slogan for the poster: "Obama's jobs plan looks pretty dicey. Pick up an application before the Japanese buy us."

Thursday, September 15, 2011

My Hometown Movie Theater: Bow Chicka Wow Wow...

This is one of my favorites. The absence of letters leads to two beautiful names.

Take the "i" away from "Midnight in Paris" and you get MD Night Paris or Dr. Night Paris, which sounds like the character in a movie that requires a locked bedroom door and hand lotion for proper viewing. The confusing replacement of the "y" for an "i" in "Crazy, Stupid, Love" creates one of the best stripper names of all time. It's right up there with Blaze Starr and Tempest Storm.

What's most confusing: How the almost-lousy "Midnight in Paris"--not the sexy, younger, and far superior "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"--is Woody Allen's highest grossing film in years. The only good thing about this is that it may expose a younger audience to his earlier, far better work.

Dr. Paris would agree with me.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

My Hollywood Ending

I can't wait to see what the sequels bring.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Etc.--The Value of Browsing, Plane Rides, Stevie Wonder

A few weeks ago, my friend introduced me to his Kindle, a nifty device that has brought him untold pleasures. It's a kick-ass device, but it left me with a weird feeling, like I was in a science-fiction story where the ending had yet to be written.

As an adult, I've always lived near terrific libraries. When I lived in Raritan Borough, the headquarters for the Somerset County Library System was in nearby Bridgewater. That cavernous, cozy library had no holes. East Brunswick's was first-rate and included a terrific DVD catalogue and an annual used book sale that was so big it had to be held at the town mall.

Libraries offer the pleasure of browsing. Everything now is about options and ease. You type in a title and get exactly what you want, or you download your entertainment. There's something to be said for not being paralyzed by limitless options, for being open to the process of discovery. So much of our lives is spent in a rush and IM, emails, and everything else ensure that. Being able to drift is quickly becoming a forgotten joy.

The other thing is this: Libraries provide an invaluable social component. Right now, a giant portion of my life is spent in my office where I sit in front of a laptop screen. A trip to the library breaks up my day, forces me to communicate with people, and reintroduces me to the outside world.

Th technological ease of entertainment, wonderful as it is, threatens to isolate us. As much as I like solitude, I don't want my books and my poetry to cocoon me.

*The only downside of my honeymoon was that I had to take a redeye flight back to Pennsylvania, which only reaffirmed my hatred for plane travel. I sat next to an obese woman whose gelatinous right thigh squirmed into my seat, and a guy who pushed his seat back before the flight took off.

During the trip, the aforementioned space-stealer pushed his seat all the way back, which made sleeping impossible since in order to be comfortable, I had to adjust my body to an angle only found in geometry books.

Maybe there's a better way to travel on airplanes, instead of feeling like being on a cattle car with wings, but I severely doubt it.

*Before boarding our cross-country bus with wings, the wife and I spotted Stevie Wonder at the airport, which easily became my number one celebrity encounter. We wanted to take a photo, but were shooed away by his escort.

It's actually better that we didn't meet him, because if I had mustered the ability to say anything it wouldn't have been something he hadn't heard before--unless I referenced some scene from his appearance on "The Cosby Show"? And the photograph would have been nice, but what would have been accomplished from the encounter?

Seeing Stevie Wonder at the airport was important, because it had been a long time since I'd seen a celebrity as a fan. It's nice to know that that my reporter's skeptical facade can be suspended every once in a while.

*Over the last two months, two friends of mine, Danny Fox and Sarah Donner, have released albums. What's even nicer is that the albums are really good. This is such a relief, because there's nothing worse than having to sugarcoat someone's misguided artistic endeavor right to their face. I probably spent half of my twenties suffering through people masquerading as artists when they should have been going to graduate school.

*If "What to Expect When You're Expecting" can be adapted into a movie, so should William Zinsser's "On Writing Well."

*Recommended reading: David Carr's "The Night of the Gun," Derf's "Punk Rock and Trailer Parks," and James S. Hirsch's biography of Willie Mays.

*Can someone tell me why the person who decided to mount televisions onto treadmills hasn't been awarded a Nobel Prize yet?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Book of the Month: Sept. 2011

I love books. They're fun, educational, and they don't have any of those pesky commercials.

One movie I want to see is Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion." It's not released until next Friday, but there's a book that can tide you over until that day.

Though it's not as dramatic as "Contagion," Jeanne Guillemin's "American Anthrax" details the country's response to the antrhax letters that emerged after the events of September 11, 2001. Guillemin, an expert in anthrax who teaches at MIT, writes about how uninformed and unprepared the government was in its initial response. Things, she attests, have not gotten much better.

It's a riveting book that is alternately eye-opening and unpleasant because we realize just how ignorant authority figures can be in times of crisis. As civilians, we're all walking on a tightrope without a net. Ignorance really is bliss.

If you want to learn more about the book. Read the review I wrote for "BookPage" here.

Until next time, read in peace.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Big Review: Our Idiot Brother

The last review that I submitted as a single man, for whatever that's worth. Kind of a lazy, half-committed affair--the movie, that is.

Also, no round-up for this month, but October will be a different story completely. On tap: The regular goodies, plus an interview with one of my favorite journalists, one who just happens to have written a new book.

Oh, the suspense!

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


Our Idiot Brother, Jesse Peretz's comedy-drama, is enjoyable and pleasant but spends too much time finding its place. The movie resembles its title character, Ned (Paul Rudd), a hippie farmer with a heart of gold and a brain of tin. Ned annoys the hell out of his family, but it's the meandering plot that will cause audiences consternation.

While manning the stand at his local outdoor market, Ned sells weed to a uniformed police officer whose sob story dissolves any common sense. After eight months in prison, Ned departs as hardened and skeptical as a Smurf. It's fitting that his longtime girlfriend Janet (the indispensable Kathryn Hahn) throws him out of his own place, keeps his beloved dog, and takes up with a younger, spacier boyfriend (T.J. Miller). But there is a ray of hope. Ned's replacement paramour says that the goat shed out back is available. If Ned can put together two months' rent—no worries, Janet will be cool with the new arrangement—the space is his.

Only family could endorse such an idiotic plan, so Ned bounces among his three infinitely more grounded sisters. Liz (Emily Mortimer) enlists Ned to lug film equipment for her pompous documentarian husband, Dylan (Steve Coogan), and watch their prep school-bound kid. Ned also serves as a chauffer during a big assignment for overly ambitious journalist Miranda (Elizabeth Banks). Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), an aspiring stand-up comic with seemingly a dozen roommates, recruits Ned as a nude model for her artist friend (Hugh Dancy).

Ned's good-natured, trustworthy attitude makes him a rarity in New York City, but it also leads to an array of problems. Ned discovers Dylan in a compromising position with his film's ballerina subject, which exposes Liz as a rapidly aging dishrag. His rapport with Miranda's interview subject leads to a shocking revelation and exposes Miranda's duplicitous nature. And when Ned reveals Natalie's malleable sexual tendencies to the aforementioned artist, it threatens her very serious relationship with a lesbian lawyer (Rashida Jones).

The problems created by Ned's organically grown logic disrupt the ladies' lives while improving them; they're forced to face their real selves. That's the main focus of Our Idiot Brother. It's not the right one. Husband and wife writers Evgenia Peretz (Jesse's sister) and David Schisgall invest way too much time constructing outlandish scenarios that lead us to that realization while more compelling elements escape their attention.

This includes how the three sisters interact with each other. It's an odd move to say the least. Mortimer, Banks, and Deschanel excel at comedies and dramas; you can make the case that Mortimer (Lars and the Real Girl, Lovely & Amazing) is the most underrated actress working today. The three have a scene where Miranda and Natalie bemoan Liz's diminished hotness that is so natural in its loving combativeness that you wish the movie had five more just like it. The family's shaky dynamic gets abandoned except in brief flashes, like when Ned unleashes his true feelings during a game of charades. How did everyone get to this point? And where's dad in all this mess?

Plot architecture is swell, but not at the expense of character development and storylines. What's so aggravating about Our Idiot Brother is that abundant comic possibilities also get underutilized. There's plenty here for a splendid goofball comedy, especially with Rudd leading the way. Hahn and Miller are great as the two nimrods who turn Ned's domestic dispute into a farce, and Adam Scott shines as a nice guy who loathes Miranda's bitchy façade but falls for her anyway. These performances don’t feel tied to the film, which is content to wander here and there like a Lollapalooza attendee. If something is funny or stirs you, that's a bonus. We're just gonna have Ned stumble into revelations and see what happens.

Director Peretz (The Ex) and his writers are enamored with options, but they never choose anything. (That notion is reinforced with a cast whose size is almost wasteful.) With the level of talent involved, Our Idiot Brother is guaranteed to be fine unless your director doesn't know the difference between "action" and "cut." But a great cast and an idea with this much potential shouldn't come attached with excuses. And it certainly should be better than a lazy afternoon distraction. [R]

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Review of "30 Minutes or Less"

Since this Jesse Eisenberg/Aziz Ansari caper wasn't a laugh riot, I'll share a scene from the movie theater that was.

The fiancee and I were leaving a matiness of "Captain America: The First Avenger" as a youngish couple entered. Suddenly, the girl stopped cold.

"Where did you put my sweater?" she snapped, as if her boyfriend had the comprehension skills of a three-year-old.

The boyfriend said nothing.

"Go get it," she snarled. Cue the guy running to the car.

Initially, this scene was pretty funny. It still is once my anger subsides. This is my last review as a single man, and if there's one piece of advice I can offer, it's this: Always keep your self-respect. You shouldn't relinquish that just because someone allows you to see them naked. That's a terrible deal that ranks right up there with the Louisiana Purchase or the Golden State Warriors giving up Kevin McHale and Robert Parish and getting Joe Barry Carroll.

Enjoy the review, which I wrote for The Weekender.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Also Not Included: Any Sense of Realism

A few weeks ago, I posted a little something on "Valentine's Day," which inspired a wrath of negative comments on Facebook to Garry Marshall's terrible ode to a holiday created by a greeting card company. My future brother-in-law, The Big Ragu, said it was a dumber version of "Love, Actually." The fiancee said there were too many characters, including many who couldn't act.

(The latter development is both joyous and terrifying. The fiancee is as sweet as strawberry pie and the venom she unleashed on Taylor Swift was merciless--and wondrous to behold. But this relationship already has too much cynicism. I'm a slice of burnt toast from becoming a grumpy old man. Her kindness makes me palatable to the world.)

Both are right, but the more I think about it, I also hated how "Valentine's Day" included every possible demographic and nationality. It's an insulting approach at giving a movie universal appeal. Hey, the script is awful, but if we can get Jamie Foxx and Queen Latifah, we can rope in 10,000 more African-Americans on the opening weekend!

But I think Marshall and his writers didn't capture everyone. It would have been nice if they had given screen time to the following:

--Zombies (unforgivable, actually)
--Infants who can communicate with each other
--Little people
--Ugly people
--Pets dressed like people
--People dressed like pets
--The unemployed
--Al Qaeda operatives (if the American military is represented...C'mon, Gar)
--My parents
--Your parents
--The overweight
--The terminally ill
--High school students that don't have access to personal trainers

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Book of the Month, August 2011

I love books. They're fun, educational, and can serve as hip coasters for sweaty beverages.

A few days ago, I watched "Picnic," the 1956 lost youth sudster starring William Holden when he was young and handsome. (Note: It's one of my mom's favorite movies.) Holden has always fascinated me. I read somewhere that he was an avid traveler, so much so that he chose movie roles simply based on shooting locations. And, of course, he was a terrible alcoholic. Both led to his steep decline as a matinee idol.

Looking to learn more, I turned to David Thomson's "New Biographical Dictionary of Film," which is a terrific resource. It contains short, information-packed bios of directors, actors, screenwriters. It's one of those books you can read for hours, primarily because Thomson is such a good writer.

Check about what he writes about Holden: "You could pick a dozen or so maturing close-ups of Holden and the series would tell the horrible story of movies as a marinade called early embalming."

It takes a certain kind of talent to encapsulate an entire career in one swift sentence. Sometimes less is more with good writing. Thomson, and his wonderful book, proves that.

Until next time, read in peace.

P.S.--Holden, amazingly, is in his mid-50s in this still from "Network." Harrison Ford, by comparison, is now 68. Holden suffered one of Hollywood's sadder finales. After a night of drinking, the actor cut his head during a household incident. The worst part? He was conscious for at least 30 minutes after the injury but never called for help. His body was discovered four days later.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Miranda July Interview

I was extremely psyched when this opportunity came up. The woman has carved out her own path as an artist, filmmaker, and writer. What's more remarkable? She's talented (and in-demand) in all of those areas. In a world of pseudo, lame-o triple threats like Jennifer Lopez, July is the real thing.

So, aside from being a fan, imagine my surprise when it turned out she was the cat's ass. Having reviewed the tape and gotten over my nerves, July may have been one of the most cooperative interview subjects ever. There wasn't one canned answer. No is-this-over-yet? gestures.

I think the interview, which apeared in "ICON" and is reprinted with permission, shows that. Enjoy.

P.S.--Having now seen both of them up close, Darcy Savit Croatto doesn't look like Miranda July.


Six years ago, Miranda July wrote, directed, and starred in Me and You and Everyone We Know, a wonderfully offbeat, bittersweet character study that earned her critics' darling status. Anyone else would have made three more movies since then. July, however, doesn't consider herself to be just a filmmaker.

This is not the philosophical yammering of the deluded. She's put out a terrific collection of short stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You, worked on art projects (known as a performance artist, her work has been featured at the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art), and finished a non-fiction book. There's also a novel that needs tending to.

The time between feature films hasn't diminished July's talents. Her latest, The Future (opening in Philadelphia on Aug. 12), is a moody, resonant meditation on modern life centering on a young couple, Sophie and Jason (July and Hamish Linklater), whose decision to adopt a very sick cat causes their lives to catastrophically unravel.

Paw-Paw, the feline waiting to be taken home, narrates; July provides the voice. The moon speaks. Time stops and starts. What differentiates July, who also wrote The Future, from the likes of Todd Solondz and Charlie Kaufman is that her weirdness embraces the world, not pushes back at it. She's not afraid to be vulnerable. Some may find her film's plot twists unbearably artsy or self-indulgent, but look again: They comment on how the rhythms and expectations of daily life affect us.

Thankfully, July, 37, does not let her work speak for herself. During a 40-minute interview last month, she was an interviewer's dream: eloquent, honest, and funny. She spoke about life as an "artistic polymath," the challenges and rewards of directing her anticipated follow-up, and what she wants audiences to take away from it.

Pete Croatto: When Me and You and Everyone We Know was released, a profile of you in the New York Times declared: "The next movie will be easier to finance with a bigger budget and a star or two. And Hollywood just might come knocking, as it has for other gifted, offbeat directors." Is any part of that statement true?

Miranda July: [Laughs.] Ah, let's see. It wasn't easier to finance in part because of the recession happened right around the same time and also because I think these scripts are never easy. If I had written the same exact script again they'd be like, "We know she can do this," but it had all these new things that people were unsure about.

PC: So, it was a combination of the recession and the script being too daring? Was it more one thing than the other, or did both play equal parts?

MJ: There were plenty of people who wanted to make it—it just couldn't be for very much money. That was very much determined by what the market can bear: You make it for this much, you have to sell it for this much. There's kind of a known range for that. Even if you do have a star, frankly, it doesn’t that get much higher.

PC: What's surprising to me is that the people who make these decisions have seen your work. It's not like they're expecting a romantic comedy about two New Yorkers.

MJ: Right after the first movie, there were different offers. I don't know [about] "Hollywood comes knocking," but there were a few knocks. But the other thing is, I worked on my other work for a while and came at this, you know, in a very organic way through this performance [Things We Don’t Understand and Are Definitely Not Going to Talk About, the inspiration for The Future]. But I didn't strike while the iron was hot. I never do that, it seems. To not have a star, ultimately, I did meet with a whole lot of people [for the male lead] but they didn't seem as right as the guy I chose [Linklater].

PC: You didn't feel any pressure to direct another movie right away?

MJ: I felt it, but I didn't heed it. I felt a greater pressure to put out my book of short stories.

PC: Did the time off between films help you in any way?

MJ: It helped me in every way because it was what I wanted to do. And, just practically, I was trying to make a career that was more like the career I really wanted to have, which isn't just a film career. I make a living from the fiction, not from movies. In the most practical sense, like, that's what I'm living off of. I then started writing a novel, enough to sell that. If I had just been going from indie movie to indie movie I think I'd be in dire straits.

PC: So, life got in the way, but in a good way. You had your own projects.

MJ: It wasn't life got in the way; it was very calculated, seriously. That sort of sounds like I was unaware and time just passed. If I try to write another script now it's going to be bad because I'm going to be doing it in order to prove I can do a second movie, so I need to work exactly in the way that I've had for the last 10 years.

PC: It's obviously worked for you because I read somewhere that you haven't had a day job since you were 23.

MJ: Right. I've also been quite poor and used to be a thief, so that's not saying that much, you know.

PC: I know you were arrested for shoplifting once years ago. I had no idea you had such a criminal background.

MJ: It was just years and years of not paying for stuff.

PC: Like the rest of America right now.

One line in The Future that struck me is how the film's couple, Jason and Sophie, is "in the middle of the beginning." What made you decide that now was the time for this movie, instead of 20 years later, when you may have more to say about life?

MJ: I was thinking a lot about the future. I met my husband [Mike Mills, the director of Beginners] and kind of had that moment where you realize you're going to try and be with someone for, like, the whole life. Which kind of makes you think about the whole thing. Even though it's a good thing, you're suddenly really thinking about death more and being an old person. Those were all kind of new thoughts to me, and then while I was having those new thoughts, through doing another project where I'm interviewing people selling things through the PennySaver classifieds, I met this actual person at the end of their life [her co-star, the late Joe Putterlik], this old man who had been with his wife forever who was making these raunchy cards for her. It was the lens I was looking at everything through, but you're right: You could almost make the same movie again.

PC: Though it's not epic in terms of budget and stars, The Future feels grand. It covers relationships, mortality, time, technology, and a cat serving as the narrator. How do you corral all those ideas without losing a connection with the audience?

MJ: That's the area that's really exciting to me: How can this still feel surprising, where you're engaged enough to be surprised, and funny or sad where you're actually feeling sad? All those things plus see these ideas that are not necessarily very grounded in the visual world. Some of that with this movie was letting myself be free in the way that I might in a short story or something with metaphor, but be very simple about it—it wasn't like he stopped time, he stopped time— really use the emotional value of [metaphors].

That word "epic," I would try and impress that upon people in pitch meetings: "I know this seems small or quirky or whatever, but to me this is like an epic drama." There's a journey through the night. If nothing else having that in mind constantly—this is almost like a fable, we know this story. Hopefully that intent comes through.

PC: You have that idea, but you have two ordinary people going through the ordinary twists and turns of a relationship. But there's also this grand swelling underneath.

MJ: I never want to be grand about the grand stuff. That's just embarrassing to me, because none of us are living that life. When you have grand feelings there's still these objects around; the present moment, always, something is wrong in it.

PC: One aspect of the film that spoke to me was how Sophie and Jason are tethered to the Internet. Sophie cuts them off, hoping to create a series of dances for YouTube, but instead she's paralyzed. Is it still hard for you to make that creative leap when working on something new?

MJ: Whether or not it is—and sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't—I'm always afraid of that. I think that was the main thing for me: Wow, even though I keep managing to make things, I only seem to be getting more and more afraid that I'm not going to be able to. It seemed worse looking at that.

PC: You still have that fear, even though you're well established?

MJ: Oh, yeah. Sure.

PC: Does that drive you?

MJ: Probably, yeah. It's not a relaxed environment inside. [Laughs.]

PC: Can you picture your life without that creative tension?

MJ: It's always been really high stakes to me, even before there was any attention. It's like everything has to be born out of the crucible of my inner whatever. It's not just my art. The person who lives with me knows each day we live and die a million, tiny deaths. He's not doing that, he's fine. [Laughs.] He's wired differently. But I take each thing so hard. I have kind of a sense of humor about it at this point.

PC: Reading the production notes, you talk about working in a world without distractions, as Sophie attempts to do, and that this would be about the worst thing possible because "no one would have time to watch me every second." In this environment, "my true self would haunt me, and this would be a nightmare. It was very painful to act all of this out."

Two questions: First, was making The Future therapeutic in any way? Second, is part of your artistic motivation – whether it's your performance art, short stories, or films – the desire to stay connected to the outside world?

MJ: There's a pretty isolated, lonely tendency in myself that doesn't seem to be improving wildly. [Laughs] So I really have to hurl myself at that wall. It's pretty good at that, as it turns out. I mean, the work does a good job of that. Is it therapeutic? Well, not really in the way those notes would imply, that I worked through that. Putting yourself through hard things and surviving them, there's something therapeutic about that. Part of what was painful about it was just it was a hard movie to make. We shot it in 21 days. It's therapeutic because it makes me braver by the end, and I sort of ruined the idea of affairs with creepy men. It's like, "Can't do that now, I just made a movie about it." Unfortunately, sometimes I'll point at the moon and I'll be like, "Ruined." And the beach [which is also featured in The Future]? Ruined, at least for a while.

PC: Is it hard to live a life normally and not have it tethered to anything artistic?

MJ: It is kind of hard, yeah. Sometimes I don't know what I'm supposed to be doing. I'll feel myself looking for some way to use whatever the moment I'm having to get through for art. Sometimes I'll be like, "Come on, just hang out here. Everyone else here seems to be doing it." Or I'll just give in. I'll be like, "Well, we all have our crutch and that's mine." It could be worse.

PC: You told Interview magazine last year, "Life is so ridiculously gorgeous, strange, heartbreaking, horrific, etc., that we are compelled to describe it to ourselves, but we can’t! We cannot do it! And so we make art." Without getting into a debate about what art is, how does making movies help you describe life?

MJ: You can't. I always have this sense of failing at it, but there's something about the trying that makes it this other thing that's very human, that's like what a person would do if they were trying to describe life. In that, you didn't describe the thing itself, but you did a really good enactment of what we do, which is a good thing to have examples of.

PC: I'm not sure I get it.

MJ: Let's say there's God. [Gestures to wall.] You couldn't describe him, but your picture that you would paint would be a really maybe important thing, because it would have devotion in it, it would have this reaching and this yearning and it'd be this trying to get at something that's impossible to get at. That, in and of itself, is a good thing to have, but it's not God.

PC: A lot of people know you for being, to borrow a journalist's phrase, "an artistic polymath."

MJ: It makes me seem like I'm good at math, which I'm not. [Laughs.] It's the one thing I'm not good at it.

PC: How hard is it to shift from one medium to another, and what made you realize that The Future would work best as a movie?

MJ: It's easy to move between the mediums. The hard thing is sticking with the one when you really have to. At a certain point, there has to be, like, a whole year of just movie in order to make the movie. I sort of feel condemned to eighth grade. There's something kind of sad about that to me.

PC: So writing a screenplay becomes like completing your civics homework?

MJ: Right. You can do other things at the same time. The performance [Things We Don’t Understand and Are Definitely Not Going to Talk About], I felt really good about it. I liked it a lot. For one thing, I didn't want to tour. I didn't want to travel the world with it, which is the next thing you do with a performance. I don't really like that life. That was one part of it, and then I was like, "Oh, and conveniently, I need to make a second movie anyway." And I think I just kind of tricked myself in through the door on that, where I don't have to have that part where I'm like, "What's it going to be about, what idea is good enough?" I also thought if I could pull it off as a movie it'd be more interesting in this less avant-garde context.

PC: In going from one medium to another, how are your days scheduled?

MJ: It's always different, but a lot of times if I'm going to write, I'm going to write in the first half of the day. And then sometimes I'll say, "If I can write until two, then I can work on these art ideas or this performance or something that seems like a break." Or they'll just be things I need to do. Like when I was invited to be in the Venice Biennale it was like, "Rad." I had to come up with sculptures, and I had these lovely days where I would write and then go make something in clay.

PC: The reason I ask is that as a freelance writer I find it hard to toggle from a book review to a movie review…

MJ: If they're all kinds of writing, that's hard.

PC: It's much easier to go from performance art to script to something else?

MJ: They have to be pretty different, because you want the feeling that you're playing hooky from the one. That's what's useful. If it's between two writing things, sometimes that works if it's a short, fun writing thing and then your book. That can work.

PC: A lot of people think that the days are open-ended for anyone who works in a creative field, that you write or do whatever you do when the muse strikes.

MJ: No, it's all endless to-do lists and there's never enough time in the day and it's a lot of discipline.

PC: Going back to The Future, since I'm not writing about Larry Crowne, I feel this is valid question to ask: What do you want people to take away from the movie?

MJ: That's funny. In the Minneapolis screening at The Walker [Art Center], there were these two friends who were like writing friends. All they did was write together. They said, "We just wanted to say hi, but we're going to go to this place where we write and we just feel so inspired we're going to do that right now." That's like the best compliment. For me, when something makes me feel that way, that's like gold, really valuable. To be that thing…It's not necessarily that you're going actually go make something, but that maybe you feel like you have some new space that’s for you to feel something in or do something in.

PC: You want people to feel like there's some wiggle room in their lives to do the things they want to do?

MJ: Or feel something new, and that thing might be a sad feeling. I'm not saying everyone's going to go out and make crafts and be happy or something.

PC: What I love about your movies is that they're gloriously open-ended.

MJ: I guess the only thing I would hope is that they do feel something, that there'd be more an increase in feeling by the end. [Laughs.]

PC: That's a great tagline for the poster.

MJ: An increase in feeling—guaranteed.

PC: Are you optimistic about your own future or, do you, like Jason, consider yourself at the "loose change" part of your life?

MJ: I don't feel that way. So many of my friends are quite a bit older than me and I always cringe, like, I hope they don't think I think that about them. But I do sometimes have this getting ahead of myself thing, where I'm already thinking of myself as if I'm 60 or something…I don't know how I do some crazy math where it's all gone, the time. And I have to kind of remind myself: You're actually still in the scheme of things in the young part of your life, God willing. And I feel hopeful. I guess there is hope in that because I'm so invested and there's so much I want to do. I like it. [Laughs.]

PC: How's your novel going?

MJ: Well, according to these interviews, it just keeps getting realer and realer. [Laughs.] I just made a movie and now I've been promoting it. I did write a book in the last six months, but it wasn't the novel, it was a non-fiction book [It Chooses You, available this fall] that has to do with all the people I interviewed through the PennySaver thing but is also very personal. [Adopts helpful tone.] People can read that while I'm writing the novel.

PC: You're big on observing life and drawing from that. Do these interviews and the press tour feed the creative side?

MJ: Kind of, at first, although I'm sort of shutting down a bit with my interest and all that, only because I'm in self-preservation mode only as of the last couple of days. I'm out for two weeks this time, so you hit that one-week-to-go wall. That stuff is interesting. I've been doing this, also, for six months on and off. There's part of me that feels really, really guilty for not working every day, not writing or making something new.

PC: Do you squeeze work in on plane trips, in your hotel room?

MJ: I don't. I'm not really writing. Sometimes I have an idea, but this is pretty hard work. I have to give myself a break. And also, to some degree, I'm going to be writing for the next few years. This is the part that you fantasize about when you're writing. So it's OK.

PC: So sitting across the table from a sweaty, bearded journalist is part of the dream?

MJ: [Laughs.] I've been waiting for this!