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