Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Etc.--Borders, Sitcom Couples, Giada at Home

Borders filed for bankruptcy a couple of weeks ago. It hurt a little bit. I've spent a good portion of my adult working life in bookstores, including Borders. The year I spent at the Borders in East Brunswick was easily the most fun I've ever had at a job. My co-workers were funny and well-read and sarcastic. I got along with everyone.

That store closed three years ago, so I've seen the writing on the wall for a while. Stores like Borders, though wonderful, operate on a library's business model. People browse and borrow, but rarely buy. That's a wonderful way to lose lots and lots of money.

In East Brunswick, most customers would purchase a drink and then spend hours in the cafe taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi. Or they'd grab a stack of magazines, find an empty table, and while away the hours. (They rarely put the magazines back, meaning someone else would have to put them away.) Teens would sit in the Manga aisle and read the books like they were at their friend's house. (They rarely put the comics back, meaning someone else would have to put them away.) Folks would park their broad behinds in overstuffed chairs and sit back with a book or two. (They rarely put the books back, meaning...)

You get the idea.

Because of this corporate philosophy, bookstores are in a losing situation. What also spells doom is the sagging economy--people who have less disposable income will find other ways to get their reading fix--and overexpansion. When I lived in Jersey, at one point I could reach five big-box bookstores within 25 minutes. No book lover needs that many options. And neither does the general public. We're not talking about supermarkets or gas stations.

I'm sad to see Borders on the ropes, but it's not surprising. Forget the e-readers. Libraries are free. Book sales are abundant. Used bookstores have better prices and more character. Even my gym has awesome deals. Paperbacks cost a dollar; hardcovers are two bucks. The fiancee and I have picked up some terrific stuff.

And, yes, we put them away.

1.) Speaking of the gym, we've been going pretty frequently. I've decided my goal is not to get a six-pack or run a certain number of miles. It's to not look like the chubby husband in a sitcom. My fiancee is cute and very slim; I'm a double cheeseburger away from looking like Kevin James or James Belushi.

2.) A note to the organizers of the Super Bowl halftime show: Can you actually pick a band that sounds good live, and isn't dependent upon studio trickery? I've seen talent show bands that sounded cleaner than the Black Eyed Peas. Next year just put my iPod through the sound system. Hope everyone likes Steely Dan.

I knew the show was going to suck when Joe Buck and James Brown were touting how good the dress rehearsal was. I'll bet you a million dollars that Buck's iPod is loaded with nothing but Celine Dion and the Eagles. James Brown is a bright guy, and no sensible person can believe any band fronted by Fergie has redeemable qualities.

3.) Really missing "Hoarders." "Heavy" is OK, but I feel that the show doesn't delve into the emotional web that causes someone to consume 10,000 calories a day. Good thing "Intervention" and "True Life" are on demand.

4.) Is there a rule that the hosts of "fun time" cooking shows have to dress like douchebags at a Jersey shore bar? I feel like taking Adam Richman and Guy Fieri to the Gap so they can have at least one image-less T-shirt.

5.) Speaking of cooking shows, is there any show that's a bigger piece of fiction than "Giada at Home"? When I make pancakes, it looks like I've just compounded a living room. The woman makes an elaborate dinner without a stain or a bout of sobbing. You could perform surgery on her countertops.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The First Annual Pizzas!

Hey, do you know the Academy Awards are airing in a couple of days? Isn't that awesome? Look at the glamour, the glitz, and all the stars! Don't you want to watch?

Um, not really.

The one thing I like about the Academy Awards is the nominations. It's fun to badger and bicker and play pundit. But I can't stand the ceremony itself. Too long, too predictable, too showbiz. I always feel like I'm being issued a glimpse into how celebs celebrate, like I'm being thrown a bone. "Oh, thank you Brad Pitt for letting us see you out and about. You're an inspiration to us all! I must get my eyebrows plucked post haste."

So, with that said, here are my own awards for the 2010 movie season, which I'm calling the Pizzas. It's an adorable mangling of my name, and it just may catch on, especially now that I've put up that awful image for eternity.

OK, now onto the awards.

Best cameo: Paul Krugman in Get Him to the Greek. Hilarious in its oddness and his stoic reaction to Jonah Hill's drunken compliment. "Paul Krugman, my dad loves your shit." That's the only reason to watch the movie. It's true.

Best comeback: Michael Keaton in The Other Guys. It's not a good sign if the two stars in your buddy-buddy comedy are blown away by a guy who has a quarter of the lines. Perhaps it's because Keaton was just plain funny, and wasn't governed by shtick (Will Ferrell) or a shocking lack of range (Mark Wahlberg, whose success is getting harder and harder to explain).

And a shout-out for Barry Pepper in Casino Jack and True Grit, where he held his own against Kevin Spacey (no easy task) and made viewers forget about a role created by Robert Duvall, respectively.

Best villain: Ned Beatty in Toy Story 3. As Lotso, Beatty's honey-voiced menace defined the film's dark side, which made the movie an emotional powerhouse. But everyone seemed to ignore Beatty.

Best performance in a dreadful movie: Anthony Hopkins in The Wolfman and The City of Your Final Destination. The old master breathed life--albeit briefly--into two movies that were comatose on arrival. He deserved better than this. So did we.

Best documentary no one saw: Cool It. An environmental awareness movie that truly raised awareness. Too bad it came out during a year that was flooded with critically acclaimed docs.

Best animated feature no one saw: My Dog Tulip. If you're a dog lover, it's a must-see. If you're not a dog lover, it's a must-see because you'll finally understand how a man could truly love an animal.

Best movie every young, clueless, and in-love couple should see: Blue Valentine. When I have kids and their hormones start a'swirling, I'm showing Derek Cianfrance's masterpiece in lieu of any mumbling, stumbling speech I can give.

Best new headliner: Emma Stone in Easy A. Like Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde or Morgan Freeman in Lean on Me, she strapped the movie on her back and made it better than it deserved. Note to filmmakers: This does not mean you should make a sequel.

Best proof for women to age naturally: Julianne Moore in The Kids Are All Right, Patricia Clarkson in Cairo Time, Marisa Tomei in Cyrus. At least one of them made a pact with the devil. My bet is Tomei. I think she's impervious to gravity.

Honorary Pizza: Gary Cole. Like Harry Dean Stanton and M. Emmett Walsh, every movie Gary Cole is in is a little better. He's cinematic avocado.

Best movies of 2010 (all get a slice): The Kids Are All Right, Blue Valentine, The Social Network, Delta, Heartbreaker, True Grit, Greenberg, Cool It, Rabbit Hole, Please Give.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mortality Bites

Recently, I picked up a gig writing short biographies of people in the entertainment industry. I came to the job late, meaning that thousands upon thousands of people were already covered, meaning that I'm writing about actors and directors even I don't know.

As a result, I've learned about a whole other universe of actors. I always divided actors into two camps: stars and supporting players. Now, I'm writing about the grinders, men and women who appear in a string of shows, commercials, and movies for years (frequently decades) without ever really breaking through. Their biographies on are scant; no one is devoting a fan page to them.

Some of their stories are, let's be honest, depressing. Gail Fisher (pictured) was the first African American to win an acting-related Emmy Award, getting one for playing Peggy Fair on the detective show Mannix. After the show ended in 1975, she battled substance abuse problems and lived off residuals from the show that made her a star. Cesare Danova, who played the greasy mayor in Animal House lost the lead role in Ben-Hur, then had his part in Cleopatra cut to shreds four years later.

But they made it. There are so many aspiring actors and actresses who can't get a SAG card, who spend their whole lives waiting tables and parking cars only to get nothing. There are no callbacks, there are no premieres--just delusion and confusion. Folks like Gail Fisher made it. They got to earn a living doing what they loved, even if they never became superstars or were forgotten well after their heydays.

There's something nice about that. Then again, I'd hate to have my life defined by unfortunate events and could-have-beens. From 1998 to 2000, Pete Croatto whiffed on interviews for three high-profile magazine internships that could have changed everything...Consequently, writing these profiles has been educational, inspirational, and sobering. There's a side to Hollywood that is as mundane and mortal as yours and mine.

Sometimes it's not fun to know how the sausage gets made.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Black Swan and Me

As some of you may know, I was not a giant fan of "Black Swan." With that said, there is one aspect of the film that hit home.

In the movie, Natalie Portman (Mila Kunis is her id/rival) plays a perfection-obsessed ballerina, one who is so driven that she has no sense of perspective, no life. Her devotion to her craft drives her insane.

And here's where I can relate. I, too, get consumed by work, chase something that is not obtainable. Everytime I write something, I strive for perfection (or my version of it) and it drives me nuts to read through older articles and see my inexperience in neon lights. Even worse is seeing a typo or a mistake. To me, that reflects a lack of discipline, and is a sure sign that I'll be mopping the floors at an Applebee's if I don't straighten up and fly right.

Writing is not an occupation to me; it's a neverending, all-consuming passion. That passion cuts both ways: I love writing and stringing sentences together, but mistakes and missed opportunities kill me, humiliate me. I've tried to put those feelings in a separate box, dismiss them as an occupational hazard, but it never works. I remember everything.

I'm resigned to embracing all the ups and downs, and keep trying to reach a happy medium. But it's tough. Awareness is hell.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Book of the Month, Feb. 2011

I love books. They're fun, educational, and they provided LeVar Burton a job for many years. But don't take my word for it.

On previous entries, I have mentioned that I don't watch a lot of TV. However, one show that I inevitably make time for is A&E's Hoarders. The show is insightful and dramatic without feeling exploitative. It really shows the fragile human side behind a disorder (two subjects are profiled each episode) not many people know abou> It's more than just laziness or sloth.

Even more amazing is that no two stories on Hoarders are the same. The episodes are as unique as snowflakes.

In order to satisfy my neverending curiosity, I bought Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee. Though they're both scientists, the authors' insight into the disorder is illuminated through case studies, research, and terrific, colorful writing. This isn't dry, academic gruel but gripping, compassionate non-fiction that will expose you to the mindsets behind a puzzling way of life.

Read in peace, friends.

The Film Round-Up, February 2011

Anyone up for quick-hit reviews of recently released Oscar noms? Yes? Yes! Blue Valentine got robbed. That's all I'll say.

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

Biutiful (Dir: Alejandro González Iñárritu). Starring: Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella, Eduard Fernández, Cheikh Ndiaye, Diaryatou Daff. Set in the gritty Barcelona underworld, Bardem plays a street criminal diagnosed with terminal cancer who struggles to settle his personal and professional issues—reconciling with his manic depressive, estranged wife (Álvarez), trying to improve conditions for his immigrant employees—before time runs out. Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams) lets the story leisurely progress, examining the nooks and crannies of the crook's crumbling life as well as his associates' struggles. Bardem's riveting, lived-in performance and Iñárritu's refusal to peddle sentiment or muse on the afterlife make you care. But the film's sprawl—specifically its length (147 minutes) and open-ended format—ultimately makes it hard to warm up to. Flawed, sure, but Iñárritu remains a director who finds a compelling way to tell a story. That's worth something, especially in a world where (as of press time) Little Fockers makes over $120 million at the box office. *** [R]

Blue Valentine (Dir: Derek Cianfrance). Starring: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Faith Wladyka, John Doman, Mike Vogel. Heart-breaking, powerful, and utterly captivating story of a young working-class Pennsylvania couple (Gosling, Williams) whose marriage we see fall apart over the course of two days. In between the errands and last-gasp lovemaking, we see flashbacks as to how they became a couple and that they were pretty much doomed from the start. Cianfrance, who also co-wrote the script, gives us the pieces to complete the picture. He doesn't take sides; he doesn't pull punches or offer easy resolutions. The evocative camerawork and the terrific performances by the leads—Williams summons more empathy from her expressions than just about anyone alive; Gosling is so jittery and desperate that his fear is practically palpable—create an epic emotional tale out of regular life. There is a difference between finding the love of your life and the love of a certain time of your life. Blue Valentine examines the second unfortunate option in a way you cannot forget. **** [R]

The King's Speech (Dir: Tom Hooper). Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon. In 1925, the future King George VI (Firth) suffered perhaps his greatest embarrassment, epically butchering a nationally broadcast speech at Wembley stadium. The royal scion then stayed in the background for the better part of a decade until the death of his unforgiving father, King George V (Gambon), and the scandal-plagued abdication of his brother, King Edward VIII (Pearce), required him to step forward. By the new king's side was Australian Lionel Logue (Rush), a failed actor and makeshift speech therapist. In smoothing over his client's crippling stammer, Logue also uncovered the confidence befitting a king. Don't let the royal trappings and fancy-pants cast fool you: The King's Speech is Good Will Hunting sans complex math and Boston accents. But it hooks you, anyway. Straightforward and stirring, the feel-good movie is helped immeasurably by the sublime performances of Firth and Rush, whose characters find a lasting friendship beneath a reluctant partnership and obvious class differences. Based on a true story. Rush served as an executive producer. **** [R]

Black Swan (Dir: Darren Aronofsky). Starring: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder. Ballerina Nina Sayers (Portman) wants nothing more than to be perfect. Playing the White Swan and Black Swan in a Lincoln Center production of Swan Lake would appear to be validation, but the presence of an uninhibited, naturally gifted dancer (Kunis, perfectly cast) and the non-stop criticism of the dance company's lecherous artistic director (Cassel) cause Nina's psyche to rage in unimaginable ways. Aronofsky's much publicized drama is unrelenting in profiling the psychological unraveling of a sheltered talent, but his refusal to step back, coupled with his decision to stage Nina's breakdown as bizarro theater, leads to a film that's obscured by allegory, symbolism, and self-congratulatory cleverness. Black Swan isn't so much a film as the celebration of an idea. It's all a pretentious front, and not a surprise given Aronofsky's past work (The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream). Probably 2010's most overrated film—and one that will unfairly grab a handful of Oscar nominations. ** [R]

Review of Every Day

Gee, we're barely a month into 2011 and we already have a contender for the year's worst movie. Oh, happy day! Happy to see Carla Gugino get work, though. She's a nice lady.

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

Every Day (now playing in a few cities and On Demand) is about a family going through a rough patch, something many filmmakers, writers, and grandparents have shared with us before. In fact, the topic has been explored so many times that writer/director Richard Levine builds the story not on a body of fresh experiences but on common assumptions and memories of movies past. Every Day feels as safe and familiar as your favorite blanket, so much so that you'll have trouble staying awake.

The film, set mostly in leafy suburban New York, offers several characters with vaguely defined problems. Ned (Liev Schreiber) is a television writer floundering at his show, thanks to a boss (Eddie Izzard) who equates titillation with creativity. Ned's wife, Jeannie (Helen Hunt), feels overwhelmed balancing family, career, and now the demands of their new housemate—her cantankerous, wheelchair-bound father (Brian Dennehy). Combined with a lengthy marriage, two kids (one an openly gay teen played by Ezra Miller), and chaotic lives, husband and wife are showing strain.

And they're barely amorous, a sure sign that their marriage is dying. Dennehy's crankiness, plus a couple of big speeches, is supposed to tell us volumes about his life and relationship with his annoyed daughter. The gay son's impatience suggests that he wants to explore his own sexuality. Levine (previously a writer and executive producer on TV's Nip/Tuck) works in this kind of shorthand throughout Every Day. It's not a bad idea, but there's no support. As a director, Levine has zero visual flair; I've seen commercials for laundry detergent filmed with more artistry. His characters are either bland or caricatures. Pity Carla Gugino, as Schreiber's seductive co-worker, who spends most of the movie either in a bikini or using recreational drugs. It's a role so transparent in its bohemian, let-loose intentions that she's as sexy as a stage direction.

Gugino isn't the only cast member trapped by their role. Schreiber, Dennehy, and Oscar winner Hunt are solid actors given nothing to work with but scuffed clichés and long faces. Levine presents three or four storylines—none of which involve Jeannie and Ned's other mop-headed kid—to test our interest, almost like he's easing into a warm bath, before withdrawing. Perspectives get moved around like chess pieces. Is it a family drama about getting older or a mid-life crisis comedy? Is it a skewering of the television industry? Why do four characters need such immense problems? Can Levine stick to a style or a viewpoint before the credits roll?

The answer to the last question is no, but the ending suggests that we should appreciate these abruptly ended storylines as the snapshot of a frayed family. If that's the case, then why offer a conventional story arc with conventional problems featuring conventional characters? Why let good actors go to waste? Levine's noncommittal directorial style is a constant annoyance, but his open-ended conclusion is downright shifty, bestowing the movie with a serious restraint that it doesn't deserve. An ending should cement a movie's reputation, not serve as a last-ditch plea for legitimacy.

Moviegoers should spend the entirety of Every Day futilely searching for something worthwhile: a challenging character, a problem with teeth, an emotion they've felt outside of an episode of 7th Heaven. This movie is not about the poetry of everyday life or ordinary people adjusting to life's wave of woes. It's 93 minutes of waiting for something, anything to happen. That's life, I guess. [R]