Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Etc--Party Down, Oscars, and More

I love Twitter and Facebook, but there are some topics that cannot be fenced in by a 140 character count or status updates. Conversely, I don't feel that every one of my cultural experiences deserves its own blog post.

There's got to be a better way!

Well, let me present The Etc, which will serve as an end-of-the-month depository of pop culture quick hits. Think of it like Larry King's old column for USA Today though handled by somebody who actually writes in complete sentences, or the old "Jeers & Cheers" column at TV Guide.

Away we go.

1.) Party Down: I realize that the New Orleans funeral for this show has come and gone, but it's one of those rare shows that's as good as its fans proclaim. The big reason: Though it's technically a sitcom, the writers never stuck to the contrivances of that label. There's a dramatic depth that you don't see in traditional comedies--problems don't get easily solved; characters don't have a set range of behaviors--which is why I loved it so much. Plus, the cast is a wealth of riches: Ken Marino, Adam Scott, Lizzy Caplan (the newest member of the Tina Fey Funny & Sexy Society).

It's gotten to the point know that it's almost a sign of honor if a TV show has an abbreviated run ("Freaks and Geeks," "Can't Get a Date?"). Party Down is no exception, which is a mixed blessing.

2.) Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work--Loved it because Rivers comes across as being like everyone else--working her ass off not to become irrelevant. Whether that's a good thing or not is left to the audience to decide. Too bad this was such a strong year for docs, otherwise we'd be talking awards. Which, of course, leads me to...

3.) The Oscars: Meh. I have a feeling that I know who's going to win. No real surprises. I'm short on rage. I've already accepted the fact that Christian Bale is going to win for swallowing the scenery whole in "The Fighter." I know Firth will win for the it's-not-your-fault rebirth in "The King's Speech." Amy Adams will get her kudos because she's young and went beyond playing a naive waif.

Just let Annette Bening win, for crying out loud. Better yet don't let Natalie Portman. Give awards for performances, not allegories.

4.) The Town: Really wanted to like it. Two problems: First, Ben Affleck and Rebecca Hall had zero chemistry; second, the ending was awful. The late Pete Postelwaithe was great, though. The movie looked spectacular on the new TV. So, that was kind of worth two hours.

5.) Great movie article to read: Movie journalist extraordinaire Mark Harris ("Movies at a Revolution") looks at the day movies died in GQ. Can't find a link. Will post soon. And not related to movie news: Katie Baker's wonderful first-person account of using the Internet to be someone else--with haunting results--on the sports site

6.) Can someone please explain the relevancy of Giuliana Rancic? What does she do exactly?

Annoying Tales of Freelance Writing: The Q&A Delay

Aside from reading books and watching movies, sometimes our intrepid blogsmith moves away from his comfort zone and attempts to drum up work as a freelance writer. The following is the latest in a series of posts detailing the perils of his job.

About a month ago, I was offered the chance to interview a recent Golden Globe winner, among others, for a recent film. It was a dandy of an opportunity. About two weeks later, I e-mailed to see a screening of the film and for the press day, then followed up with the PR person. The screening and interviews were on Monday, but I figured no one would schedule both at the same time.

Days passed and I didn't hear anything about either possibility. The Thursday before, I get a mass e-mail from the publicist: The screening will be at 12 p.m.; the press day will start at 1:20 p.m. The movie is over two hours long and in in different parts of the city, an arrangement that makes no sense.

I write back to the publicist that I can't make it. The next day I get another mass e-mail from the publicist: The screening has been pushed up to 10 a.m. I then e-mail the head of the agency--whose e-mail is CC'd--about whether I can attend both. At this point, the original publcist has not responded directly to any of my queries.

He writes back immediately, saying that he'll forward my request to the original publicist. Awesome. Back to square one.

On Saturday afternoon--two days before the press day and screening--I finally get an e-mail from the publicity agent...about a completely different movie that we had discussed weeks ago! I respond that I will review that movie, but could I please interview said star and recent movie.

I spent the whole weekend waiting to see if I was in. I never heard back. Guess I'm not as big a wheel at the cracker factory as I thought.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I'm Kind of a Big Deal

This was at a screening of "Rabbit Hole," along with two seats taped off.

Hey, I don't get too many Henry Hill at the Copacabana moments. I'll take what I can get.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Film Round up for January 2011

In this edition of the Film Round-Up: That other Ryan Gosling movie, the movie Jeff Bridges should have won the Oscar for, the performance that will revive Nicole Kidman's career, and a reminder of why Kevin Spacey is great.

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

Casino Jack (Dir: George Hickenlooper). Starring: Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, Jon Lovitz, Rachelle LeFevre, Maury Chaykin. Spacey, summoning the self-entitled rage that made him a star in the mid-1990s, plays Jack Abramoff, the former B-movie producer who became one of the nation's most influential lobbyists in the early 2000s. But power did not breed humility. To feed his bank account and ever-growing ego—a school for Jewish children and high-end Washington, D.C. restaurants were on his agenda; his family not so much—Abramoff bilked his Native American clients (growing rich from casinos) out of millions while providing the puppet ownership for a profitable fleet of floating casinos. Needless to say, it didn't end well for Abramoff or his power-hungry associates, which included disgraced former GOP House majority leader Tom DeLay. Hickenlooper (who died in October) and screenwriter Norman Snider have fashioned a rousing and funny real-life tale on the demise of the corporate dynamo, highlighted by Spacey's spirited, balls-to-the-wall performance. Pepper, as Abramoff's slick, cocky partner, and Lovitz, as the handpicked casino "owner," give Spacey a run for his money. [R] ***

Rabbit Hole (Dir: John Cameron Mitchell). Starring: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, Miles Teller, Tammy Blanchard, Sandra Oh. Eight months after the accidental death of their four-year-old son, the parents (Kidman, Eckhart) still can't move on. Slowly, but surely, she is erasing every sign of the child's existence while maintaining a composed, almost cold demeanor. His desire to move forward while acknowledging the boy's memory is met with almost professional indifference, which baffles and enrages him. The presence of family, friends, and acquaintances brings out their humanity but threatens to pull them apart. Mitchell and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (adapting from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play) offer us an uncompromising, sobering look at what results when the initial raw pain of a tragedy subsides and those affected have to return to whatever normal is. Eckhart and Kidman are terrific, but so is the entire cast, including Wiest, as Kidman's wiser-than-she-appears mom, and Teller, who shines as the high school senior partially responsible for the couple's current misery. [PG-13] ****

True Grit (Dir: Ethan and Joel Coen). Starring: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper. One of the few times you should embrace a remake. A whip-smart, fiercely independent farm girl (Steinfeld) hires an alcoholic, shoot-first U.S. marshal (Bridges) to help her find the man (Brolin) who killed her father, while a big-talking Texas Ranger (Damon) intermittently joins them. The 1969 original, which earned John Wayne an Oscar, featured a bulky plot, a screenplay that announced every intention, and a sunny tone that was at odds with the material. Plus, you had to endure Glen Campbell, who had the greasy aw-shucks demeanor of a Lawrence Welk performer. The Coen brothers trim the fat, ditch the obviousness, and erase any trace of sentimentality. And it's awesome. Like Fargo and No Country for Old Men, they've fashioned an entertaining story that dazzles you with technical craftsmanship (namely Roger Deakins's cinematography), sterling performances, and the filmmakers' uncanny ability to make powerful points with the littlest gestures. Steinfeld nearly steals the movie as the vengeance-minded, practical Mattie Ross, while Bridges—not locked into a persona like Wayne—creates his own indelible version of Rooster Cogburn. [PG-13] ****

All Good Things (Dir: Andrew Jarecki). Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst, Frank Langella, Philip Baker Hall, Diane Verona, Lily Rabe. David Marks (Gosling) was the classic black sheep: a moody, sensitive soul who wanted nothing to do with the family business of New York real estate. Unable to resist his father's pull, David and gorgeous wife Katie (Dunst) settled into the city's lush life, where everything—their marriage, David's fragile mental health—tragically unraveled. Jarecki directed the astounding documentary Capturing the Friedmans, so helming a movie inspired by true events seems like a perfect fit. It's not. Jarecki shuffles through the story's meaty dramatic possibilities before focusing on David's increasingly squirrelly behavior. That would have been OK if Jarecki had explored what went awry instead of having Gosling (pretty much wasted here) mutter to himself and mope around. All Good Things plays like a mystery without any clues. Jarecki hints and theorizes about the atrocities David may have committed and gotten away with, resulting in a story about a troubled man who's kind of, sort of villainous. That's a shaky foundation to build a movie on. Also available on demand. [R] **

Review of The Fighter

I don't think David O. Russell knows how to direct movies about real people. I would recommend his next effort be based on the writings of David Hume or Andrea Dworkin essays or a really wordy instruction manual for a Blu Ray player.

This review previously appeared in the January issue of ICON, and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

Director David O. Russell, as you may remember, has never met a genre he didn't want to shatter, whether it was a war movie (Three Kings) or odes to family life featuring incest (Spanking the Monkey) or armpit foreplay (Flirting with Disaster). With 2004's indecipherable I Heart Huckabees, he made an existential detective story, whatever the hell that is.

But Russell's newest film, The Fighter, is easy to read, which makes for an uncomfortable experience. It covers boxer "Irish" Micky Ward's real-life quest for professional legitimacy amidst personal chaos. His older brother, Dicky (Christian Bale), was a promising boxer before becoming a crack addict and neighborhood embarrassment. Their mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), is a tough-talking dame who bullies anyone in her way—except for her beloved Dicky. Mother and brother are Micky's manager and trainer, respectively, which guarantees that Micky (Mark Wahlberg) will spend his remaining useful years as a sacrificial lamb for a paltry purse. But it's family. What can you do?

If you're Micky, you suffer in silence and watch your prime evaporate. By 1993, he's pushing 30 and irrelevancy when he meets Charlene (Amy Adams), a sexy, tart-tongued bartender who convinces Micky to see things differently, namely that his family resembles King Lear by way of Lowell, MA. When Micky gets a chance to train professionally and possibly get a title shot, he knows he must cut ties. Alice and Dicky feel betrayed and Micky has to decide if his championship quest can include his destructive but loving family.

That's a conflict ripe with dramatic possibilities. And Russell does get some memorable scenes from it: Alice and Dicky (who is in jail) endure Micky's fight over the phone; Charlene's first meeting with Alice is a tense confrontation between two strong-willed woman who want what's best for the man they love. But Russell has nothing but contempt for these people. In his attempt to capture a slice of working-class Massachusetts misery, Russell presents a burlesque. Nearly every scene in The Fighter has the feeling of second-hand news, or worse, stereotypes hijacked from a Saturday Night Live skit. Charlene has a tramp stamp. Micky's sisters all have hair inspired by Paramus Park's food court circa 1989. The accents are as thick as pancake batter. The soundtrack features songs from Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin. It's rock loved by palookas who punch timecards and foul-mouthed girls who drink beer from the bottle. By trying so hard to profile these people, Russell lampoons them. Repeatedly.

The desperate showiness, the misguided attempts at authenticity, seep into everything. Leo earned—and I do mean earned—an Oscar nomination playing a no-collar single mom in 2008's indie darling Frozen River. Here, her performance is forced and broad, like she's doing some kind of white-trash song-and-dance routine. Adams, who plays na├»ve nice girls better than anyone, is astoundingly miscast as a tough cookie. (Note: Both women would have benefited from watching Amy Ryan's magnificent, natural work as a morally indifferent Boston single mom in Gone Baby Gone). Bale and Wahlberg give the same performances they always do—full-blown intensity (complete with gaunt frame, rotting teeth, and a bald spot) for the former; eager-to-please, wide-eyed wonderment for the latter. In doing so, the actors confirm that we're watching a cookie-cutter, sweat-stained tearjerker. Besides, hasn't Wahlberg been down this road before with the football drama Invincible, right down to the same big-hearted fellas from the neighborhood, impossible odds, and cute barroom muse? And wasn't that movie much, much better?

Unlike Invincible, none of the performances—or anything else—in The Fighter possesses a soul. It turns out that for all of his cleverness and verve, Russell doesn't work well with emotions. The director has spent nearly 20 years striving to be an artist. It's quite possible he may have forgotten how to be a human being. [R]

Monday, January 3, 2011

Our Newest Addition

Weighing in at 8 pounds and 32 inches, we would like to welcome the newset member of our family.

We look forward to watching "Hoarders" and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" the way God intended.

Happy New Year, everyone!

/Thanks Mom & Dad

Book of the Month, Jan. 2011

I love books. They're fun, educational, and they're cheap...The fiancee and I were driving back New Year's Day from our friends' apartment, when she noticed that the Borders in West Windsor was having a going out of business sale.

Of course, we pulled over.

The final damage: Seven books--including David Maraniss' "Rome 1960" and Sarah Vowell's "The Wordy Shipmates"--for $8.02. Even better, a Borders near our place is closing. What did I get as a Xmas gift? A $20 Borders gift card. I'm going into the digital age kicking and screaming, folks.

Anyway, this month's Book of the Month wasn't on sale, but it's still worth picking up. Karen Abbott's "American Rose," her outstanding biography of Gypsy Rose Lee, is available this month. I reviewed it for BookPage, and it's tremendous--well-researched, exquisitely written, and full of revelations. In short, it's perfect to read over a cup of tea during a long weekend. You can find my review right here.

Ms. Abbott was nice enough to write me a letter about the review, in which she said that "I got" the book. That's nice to hear, because one of my biggest fears as a reviewer is that I completely miss the point of what I'm seeing or reading. It's only a matter of time before I reach my Marshall McLuhan moment.

For now, read in peace.