Monday, April 25, 2011

Other Presidential Cameos

As I'm sure everyone knows, Bill Clinton will have a cameo appearance in the sequel to "The Hangover." When I read about it in "GQ," I thought it was a joke, but it turns out that other former presidents have made cameos in movies.

Two notes:

1.) None of these are true, of course.

2.) I love the photo of Clinton and Sheryl Crow. Man, he really is the country-fried version of Frank Sinatra. How can you not love the guy?

Lyndon B. Johnson: The redneck who drives toward Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper at the tragic end of "Easy Rider." No lines. Told crew members that "he wanted to do something normal."

Richard Nixon: A bigoted desk sergeant in the original "Shaft." Wore moustache and mutton chops to hide famous visage.

Jimmy Carter: One of the barber shop denizens in "Forrest Gump." Has one line: "That boy sure is a running fool."

Ronald Reagan: No film work, surprisingly, but he played the robotic grandfather on those creepy Duracel commericals in the mid-1990s.

George H.W. Bush: Played uptight, bristly plane passenger in Tyler Perry's "Why Did I Get Married?"

Thursday, April 21, 2011

In Celebration of Earth Day

After unwinding from a long day of whatever it is I do, I stumbled upon "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." Even though I own the DVD and am quickly committing the movie to memory, whenever it's on I have to watch it--a gem of a scene is always right around the corner.

(Hold on, I have to do it..."God, there was a week where you wore sweatpants--every day!")

I first saw "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" right around Earth Day (aka Environmental Valentine's Day) 2008. I will always remember that date. Here's why.

I was going to watch the movie as part of my weekend plans with a girl I was seeing at the time. The weekend also consisted of driving 45 minutes to Jersey City to plant trees, an endeavor that seemed to counteract the effects of the agricultural act.

The Thursday before, my mom calls. My grandmother took a vicious fall, and she's now in the hospital. Her heart stopped for a bit, a pacemaker needs to be installed. In other words, she may not make it.

As soon I got off the phone, I knew that all social engagements were off. No movie, no urban tree planting, nothing. I would work Friday--I was fully prepared to bolt if the worst occurred--and spend as much time either at the hospital or close to it.

I called the girl next. The conversation went as follows:

Me: Hey, I'm going to have to cancel for tomorrow. My grandmother took a fall, and her heart stopped. I need to be there.

Her: That happpens.

Me: (Confused, but continuing. Did she not hear anything?) As for Saturday...

Her: Are you not coming for Earth Day?

Me: Sweetie, I can't. I don't want to be far away from the hospital, checking every ten minutes for news. I'm sorry about that.

Her: Whatever.

Me: (Looking at the phone as if it just grew lips and started singing "Patches" in flawless French.)

And scene...

Thankfully, everything worked out just fine. My grandmother survived, and lived for another two-plus years. It was heartwarming to see my family pull together--my Aunt Joanne, a nurse, was amazing. My parents were paragons of quiet assurance. As a reward to myself I met up with my friend Barry and his older sister, Christine, and watched "Sarah Marshall" later that night.

And that Monday, I politely told "Earth Day Girl"--as my fiancee calls her--that we should stop seeing each other.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Morning Glory vs. Eat Pray Love--Round 2

In my previous post, I discussed the mishap that was "Morning Glory" in the battle of 2010's big-deal chick flicks. Today, we focus on "Eat Pray Love" starring Julia Roberts and lush international scenery. Who wins the battle? Let's find out.

The memoir "Eat Pray Love" first came to my attention when I worked at Borders. The book was a giantic hit based solely on a clientele of thirtysomething women who had fond memories of spending a semester abroad. Seriously, though, author Elizabeth Gilbert tapped into the neuroses of the modern woman. Was it worth really having it all? And what was "all"?

Why am I writing like Carrie Bradshaw? Wow, I really am becoming domesticated.

The movie adaptation stars Julia Roberts--still with the fiery mane, still with the poolroom laugh--as Gilbert, a travel writer who reaches a personal crisis. She's married to an aimless hunk and lives in a lovely home, but her life feels false. So, she leaves everything behind and heads off for a year of solitary, overseas travel. She eats her way through Italy, finds her spirituality in India, and falls in love in Bali.

Directed by Ryan Murphy of "Glee" fame, "Eat Pray Love" is like drinking a cup of chamomile tea for two-plus hours. Those who have read Gilbert's book--um, my fiancee--say it's very introspective. That gets lost here, with the scenery (lovingly captured by noted cinematographer Robert Richardson)and speeches serving as Gilbert's catharsis. It's an understandable tactic--hell, even I don't want to see Julia Roberts existentially mope for 120 minutes--but the whole experience is a little hollow.

Roberts, though charming and smiley and serviceable, doesn't help matters. She's a brand name, and with that comes a certain set of expectations--namely, nothing bad can happen to Julia Roberts nor can she demonstrate a touch of evil. Your grandparents like her, for crissakes. (This is why Maggie Gyllenhaal or Michelle Williams would have been perfect, but they don't have Roberts's box-office glow.) So Elizabeth can't leave her husband because she's bored; the screenwriters have to paint him as a petulant, immature flake. The cherry on top is the husband is played by Billy Crudup, who is still loathed for dumping a pregnant Mary-Louise Parker for Claire Danes.

But, hey, Roberts finds romance with James Franco--in a subplot that should have been cut to ribbons--and an impressive Javier Bardem, who eases off the intensity and ups the charm as Gilbert's romantic salvation.

The best performance comes from Richard Jenkins, who plays a Texan Gilbert meets in India, because he comes attached with no preconceived ideas. He just acts his ass off, and it's a glorious example of why the man will work forever: Jenkins gives you something different every single time.

Too bad the movie couldn't have been about him. At least it wouldn't have been so bloody predictable. But at least it's watchable, which I can't say for "Morning Glory."

Final decision: "Eat Pray Love" by KO.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Morning Glory vs. Eat Pray Love--Round 1

The fiancee had wanted to see "Eat Pray Love" and "Morning Glory" for a while. Due to clever excuses (me) and busy schedules (both), we did not see either during their initial runs in the multiplex.

Then the gig was up: The DVDs came out.

Seriously, I wanted to see both. "Eat Pray Love" features a really solid cast--this sunny, woman-triumphs-life material is in Julia Roberts's wheelhouse--and "Morning Glory" received generally positive reviews from respectable folks (including Ebert).

Besides, after sitting through stuff for work, the Professor deserved to see something that she wanted. Hell, she voluntarily sat through "Kaboom," which should have earned her some kind of humanitarian medal.

How did I fare? Just fine. My testosterone plummeted to dangerously low levels, but after a day of bed rest and nothing but dry toast and hot tea, I am back to normal. Well, normal for me.

Here's what I remember. (Note: My take on "Eat Pray Love" will run in a day or two.)

"Morning Glory," allegedly a romantic comedy, stars Rachel McAdams as a young, scrappy producer who is hired to resurrect the sagging morning news show "Daybreak." In order to get things back on track, Becky hires venerable sourpuss newsman Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford) to give ratings a boost. But can he coexist with his diva co-anchor (Diane Keaton). Can the prickly Mike respect his much younger superior? Can Becky find personal success amidst the professional tumult?

These questions are easily answered, and worse, we never care about the answers. "Morning Glory" is basically female empowerment porn with McAdams vacillating between confident and frazzled--looking fabulous the whole way--before she finds her working gal rhythm. Aline Brosh McKenna who wrote "The Devil Wears Prada," basically just sets up a series of obvious obstacles and empty characters (the disapproving mom, the unforgiving boss)so Becky's triumphs never connect. It's like watching a really long but passable sitcom.

Other things that bugged me:

1.) Diane Keaton is absolutely wasted here. She's initially slated as a foil for Ford, but then the script veers toward his relationship with McAdams. Keaton gets shuffled off into no-(wo)man's land, making you wonder why she's even in this effort in the first place.

2.) Patrick Wilson has no charisma. He's a good-looking guy who looks like he can do a lot of pull-ups, but if you replaced him with Cole Hauser or Bradley Cooper or Jason Marsden would anyone care?

3.) Speaking of Wilson, could there have been a little more mystery and heat behind his courtship with McAdams? I've sat through zoning board meetings that were more spontaneous.

4.) Oh, and speaking of McAdams, she's given a positively thankless role, a hybrid of every spunky single gal role since "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" wrapped up in the overbearing enthusiasm of a college freshman who emerges from a semester of English Lit 101 and two bong hits knowing all the answers. Basically she's Anne Hathaway's character in "The Devil Wears Prada" with a worse wardrobe and a lower IQ.

3.) A charmless work environment: I really enjoyed "The Devil Wears Prada" because Brosh McKenna went out of her way to create a chaotic workplace featuring vivid, memorable characters--e.g., Stanley Tucci's art director, Emily Blunt's bitchy receptionist--that actually made the offices of "Runway" feel like a dysfunctional home. We understood why Anne Hathaway couldn't leave.

That vibe doesn't exist in "Morning Glory," which features an array of humdrum goofballs and oblivious prima donnas. We don't feel that Becky considers the crew her family, which the movie has the gumption to suddenly demand with its obnoxious, isn't-life-funny? ending.

For "Morning Glory" to work we need to buy that Becky needs the show as much as it needs her. It's too submerged in gimmick and gloss to present us with such a bracing concept, so a nation of 16-year-old girls will think that with a little elbow grease and pluck the working life explodes into colors. "Morning Glory" desperately needs more shades of grey--for everyone's sake.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Book(s) of the Month, April 2011

I love books. They're fun, educational, and you if you read enough of them you might get a free sandwich. I know places do that for kids, but what about adults? Wouldn't we read more if a personal pan pizza was on the line?

A few months ago my brother, the comedy writer, had the distinct pleasure of meeting some of the guys from "Mystery Science Theater 3000," one of the most beloved shows of our TV-watching, Dipsy Doodle-scarfing childhood. This led to one of the few times in my life that I was jealous of someone else's job.

I love my job, but the only time anyone visits my office is, well, no one. I feel like I'm in a remake of "The Shining" sometimes.

Anyway, my brother's historic meeting made me realize that MST3K crew has come out with at least two good movie books: Kevin Murphy's "A Year at the Movies" and Michael J. Nelson's "Movie Megacheese," his collection of scathing movie reviews. (Nelson replaced Joel Hodgson, the show's first host, in 1993.)

Murphy, who was Tom Servo on the show, writes about his quest to see a movie every day, which involves heading to the Cannes Film Festival and sneaking Thanksgiving dinner into a screening of "Monsters Inc." His writing is insightful without being snobbish; and he comes across as likable and endearing. Plus, it's very funny: One highlight is watching "Corky Romano" with Nelson at mall multiplex, where they barely survive.

As for Nelson, who reviews everything from "Wild Things" to "Last Days of Disco", is one of my favorite books of all time. Every time I write a scathing review I use Nelson for inspiration: Be funny, be eloquently vicious, but always explain why you hate something so much. There's nothing worse than just blindly hating something. That's prejudice, not criticism.

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

Friday, April 1, 2011

Review of Win Win

A different effort from director/writer Tom McCarthy, but just as rewarding as initial efforts. Worth watching for sure.

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

Tom McCarthy's first two films, The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2008), were intimately crafted, keenly observed slices of life featuring regular people whose lives were interrupted. In an indie marketplace where slickness and gimmick sell—ladies and gentlemen, Quentin Tarantino—McCarthy's films were devoid of ironic, look-at-me gloss. They felt authentic because their power snuck up on you. Emotional assault was not on the agenda.

The writer/director's latest effort, Win Win, is a departure. It's a feel-good movie starring Paul Giamatti, who is Johnny Depp compared to the almost anonymous leading men (Peter Dinklage, Richard Jenkins) in McCarthy's previous films. The problems here are more easily defined, less grounded in pregnant pauses and subtle emotional shifts. It sounds like a sell-out, but McCarthy uses his restraint to make Win Win into a heartwarming drama that never churns the stomach.

Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a classic nice guy and neighborhood fixture who can't leave church without talking to five people. Mike's high profile and ease with his neighbors in New Providence, NJ (McCarthy's hometown) only takes him so far. His law practice is floundering, making it difficult to support his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), and their two small kids. Even his after-work activity, coaching the perennially awful high school wrestling team, provides little solace.

Mike does have one client, the wealthy Leo Poplar (Burt Young), whose early-stage dementia requires a guardian. Mike is all set to put Leo in assisted living—in fact, he's in the courtroom making the arrangements—when inspiration hits. He'll become the old man's guardian, put Leo in new digs, and pocket the $1,500 monthly salary. Leo's only family is his estranged daughter, so Mike can finally get something for nothing. Not so fast. Leo's thuggish grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), has come to New Providence, hoping to stay with the grandfather he's never met. Since no one can take Kyle—his mother is stuck in rehab—Jackie volunteers, showing a generosity that Mike cannot muster.

While Mike worries about now supporting three kids, Kyle tags along to wrestling practice, where he participates and displays otherworldly talent. A little Internet research reveals that Kyle was a high school champion back in Ohio, which really piques Mike's interest. He enrolls Kyle in school and the two start to bond. But Kyle's newfound happiness is threatened by the domestic drama he left behind, specifically his fresh-from-rehab mom (Melanie Lynskey).

McCarthy's earlier films featured first-rate acting, and Win Win is no different. No one plays hard-luck characters better than Giamatti, and his work here is expectedly excellent. Better yet, he looks defeated, a characteristic that gives his performance depth. Ditto the casting of the ever-reliable Ryan (Gone Baby Gone), who actually resembles and behaves like a mom. Despite using actors we know and featuring Bon Jovi on the soundtrack, McCarthy still disdains glamour, opting to cover people with problems. The actors still look like your friends and neighbors, including newcomer Shaffer, whose sad croak of a voice tells us volumes about what he left behind. The most attractive person here (Bobby Cannavale, playing Giamatti's friend) has the most apparent problems: Divorced and living alone in a sterile, upscale bachelor pad, he practically begs Mike to help coach the wrestling team.

Win Win features the hallmarks of a conventional dramatic storyline—a sports team coming together, the beleaguered family man—but McCarthy doesn't revel in its banalities. Kyle's arrival doesn't turn the team into a championship contender, probably because his winning ways are hard to emulate. He escapes capture by pretending that his opponent is "holding my head underwater and I do whatever the f**k it takes" to break free. The attempt from assistant coach Vig (Jeffrey Tambor, yet another ace character actor) to turn that mindset into a rallying cry is a great jab at the inanity of locker room speeches. Even the "coming together" montage, a staple of every sports movie ever made, feels fresh; one highlight features Kyle and Mike triumphantly removing an old tree from the Flahertys' front yard. Clearly, team spirit is not the only thing being created.

It's a family drama with shades of gray. For a protagonist, Mike is not an altogether likeable guy. He thrives on appearances: At his most frayed, he smokes a single cigarette behind a convenience store, out of view from the public. He initially views Kyle as a hindrance—Jackie has to remind him that taking in Kyle is necessary—but Mike warms up after marveling at the boy's wrestling footage. McCarthy trusts dialogue and his performers to deliver the impact, which gives Win Win a meditative weight. No one tells us that Mike can't comprehend how he's failed despite doing the right things. It's conveyed in Giamatti's sad features, how Mike tells Jackie over the phone that she can finally pay the health insurance as he deposits an ill-gained $1,500.

You want a subdued approach for this kind of movie. When characters raise their voices, you pay attention. Win Win isn't just another fine dramatic effort from McCarthy, but an encouraging, even bold, step. His gift for peering into the lives of others has not diminished. Win Win, though, shows how versatile that approach is. I can't wait to see what McCarthy does next. [R]

Film Round-Up for April 2011

In this edition of the Film Round-Up...One of the best movies (so far) of 2011; a promising indie feature produced by a local boy; and two movies that miss golden opportunities to be great.

And, yes, I'm on the Ellen Page bandwagon. She's jaw-droppingly good in "Super."

The reviews were previously published in "ICON" and are reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

Note: Finally, after five years of writing for "Primetime A&E"/"ICON", I finally met Trina. As anticipated, just a lovely, lovely woman.

Ceremony (Dir: Max Winkler). Starring: Michael Angarano, Uma Thurman, Reece Thompson, Lee Pace, Jake M. Johnson. Most wedding-themed films are played for love-inspired laughs or showy drama. Here's a wonderful exception. "When Max came to me with the idea for the movie, the way he pitched it to me—and the version that I was interested in helping him make—was the not-easy version," producer Matt Spicer, who grew up in Montgomery County, tells me. "We've all seen the movie where the guy goes to the wedding or whatever and tries to win back the girl." Intellectually precocious Sam Davis (Angarano), an aspiring children's book author, reunites with his sheltered best friend, Marshall (Thompson). But Sam, who's 23 and borderline obnoxious, has an ulterior motive: Their beach weekend occurs next door to where Sam's longtime lover (Thurman, never better) is getting married. Instead of the aforementioned usual proceedings, Winkler offers a moving and honest look at the awkwardness of young adulthood that's reminiscent of classics like Five Easy Pieces and The Graduate. Terrific performances from everyone involved, especially Pace as Thurman's pretentious, smarter-than-he-appears groom, and Johnson as her coarse, but sage, brother. This understated gem is also available on demand. [R] ****

The Conspirator (Dir: Robert Redford). Starring: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, Colm Meaney, Danny Huston, Justin Long, Alexis Bledel, Johnny Simmons. After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, authorities quickly rounded up the Southern loyalists behind the murderous plot, except for one—John Surratt (Simmons). Desperate for a scapegoat and fueled by vengeance, fear-mongering Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kline) put Surratt's mother, Mary (Wright), on trial. She faced a clearly biased military tribunal and was assigned a reluctant lawyer (McAvoy) who fought for the North. But the young Frederick Aiken soon discovered that his client's guilt was irrelevant; it was about whether she could get the fair trial she was entitled to by law. The movie's historical revelations—which have contemporary relevance—fascinate, but they can't compensate for Redford's lack of urgency or the curiously muted performances by everyone. Another crucial flaw: We never fully understand why Aiken accepts such a difficult case. In this courtroom drama, there isn’t enough of the latter to keep us interested. [PG-13] **

Super (Dir: James Gunn). Starring: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon, Nathan Fillion, Gregg Henry, Michael Rooker. Lifelong loser Frank (Wilson) has only had two triumphant moments in his life—pointing a cop in the right direction of his fleeing target and marrying the beautiful Sarah (Tyler), a recovering drug addict. When Sarah leaves him for the town crimelord (played to oily perfection by Bacon), Frank is divinely inspired to save her while stopping other evildoers ranging from drug dealers to line cutters at the movies. So he dons a red costume, grabs a pipe wrench (which he uses to brutal effect), and becomes the Crimson Bolt. Writer/director Gunn (Slither) has created something amazing: The feel-good version of Taxi Driver, a hyper-violent, touching, and hilarious story of a troubled loner's quest for redemption in a world that has forever mocked him. And it works. There's barely a misstep in this comic masterpiece. With his droopy features and sad eyes, TV star Wilson (The Office) is perfectly cast in the lead, while Page steals the movie as his petite, horny, and surprisingly bloodthirsty sidekick. [R] *****

I Am (Dir: Tom Shadyac). A few years ago, Shadyac, the director of comedy blockbusters such as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Nutty Professor, was in a terrible bike accident. Shadyac emerged from his physical and emotional injuries as an enlightened soul sickened by his lifestyle of material excess. The shaggy-haired director's latest effort features him asking various academics, authors, and spiritual leaders about what's wrong with the world and how we can change it. Puzzling effort from Shadyac, who doesn't concentrate on his own momentous life change—which is the real story; he now rides a bike to work and lives in a mobile home—but devotes time to an endless procession of talking heads. The constant stream of chatter turns I Am into a well-intentioned but droning infomercial for positive living. If Shadyac had fully chronicled his own spiritual rebirth, not only would he have made a more interesting film, people may have been moved to change their ways. Unfortunately, I Am inspires nothing but indifference. [NR] **