Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Gift That Keeps On Giving the Whole Year...

A Christmas gift from my brother and sister-in-law--who got the idea from my wife--which celebrates my love of "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" and sports shirts. I'll let you decided whether I'm a lovable goofball or need counseling.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Annoying Child Actor Hall of Fame Welcomes...Thomas Horn

Horn, the amazingly grating star of "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" needs to share the honor with screenwriter Eric Roth and director Stephen Daldry. Their simple, unimaginative approach to handling a difficult, quirky character creates the most unsympathetic, obnoxious protagonist in recent memory.

As I say in my review for "The Weekender," the only way we'd get behind Horn's character is if we could push him off a cliff.

Take a bow, young man.

You can read the review of this Best Picture nominee--man, it pains me to type that--here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Book of the Month, Jan. 2012

I love books. They're fun, educational, and they're totally old school--at least the paperbound contingent.

January is the time of resolutions, a concept that aggravates me to no end. Self-improvement should not be seasonal, only to be quickly discarded like a barren Christmas tree. It's a constant, never-ending battle filled with little wins and bigger losses. You can't just utter a goal and think you're salvaged.

And even if that resolution is accomplished, there's no guarantee that it will last.

Last year Caitlin Shetterly (pictured) wrote a terrific memoir, "Made for You and Me," that detailed such a scenario. Shetterly and her husband, Dan Davis, were doing well in their artistic endeavors (she's a writer and performer; he's a photographer) but felt limited by their existence in New England. So they headed out to Los Angeles, confident that their talents and romantic notions of the city would keep them afloat.

Things started off well, then the Great Recession ravaged their careers. Money became scarce, their family and friends were 3,000 miles away. And in the middle of this Shetterly found out she was pregnant.

I raved about the book for BookPage, but what has resonated with me a year later is the realization that there's no such thing as a happy ending. Things go well and collapse. You rebuild. Shetterly shows us that life is about continually striving toward something, even when the roof is caving in.

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

Friday, January 6, 2012

Review of "War Horse"

In my best Gene Shalit voice: "It's horseshit!" You can read my review for "The Weekender" right here.

And, thanks to my brother Dave, for spotting this Shalit mash-up, which originally appeared on FilmDrunk.com. It's delightful--or depressing.

You decide.

Reserved for Croatto(s): The Ballad of Snappy and Happy

Last year, my wife, Laura Amoriello, talked about the high-wire act that was watching a movie she loved with me. Here, she reveals what it's like to accompany me to work, so to speak.

Ladies, see what you missed out on!


Growing up I nursed a series of celebrity crushes, each involving a glamorous locale. First I watched Joey McIntyre from the sidelines of NKOTB concerts. Then I cheered for Pete Sampras at Wimbledon. For a brief period I accompanied Leonardo DiCaprio to the Oscars. Roger Ebert was never part of those fantasies. But I can tell you that his lovely wife Chaz is a lucky lady.
I’ve had the pleasure of accompanying Pete to many a film screening since we’ve met.

I am his “Plus One,” and this is my story.

We begin with timing. Pete likes to be early. The screening people suggest 20 minutes, and they will threaten to turn you away if you arrive later. They never do, but we don’t take any chances. Because 95 South traffic makes Pete nervous, I created a jingle to the tune of Olivia Newton-John’s big hit to make him laugh: “Let’s stop pan-ick-ing! Pan-ick-ing!” Hey, it works!

If we’re lucky, we’ll bypass the line and proceed right into the theater. Here my greatest struggle of the evening begins: surviving the walk past the snack bar. Pete is strong and can resist confections, but I am easily manipulated by the smell of butter and giant pictures of pretzel bites smothered in imitation cheese. I still can’t get over the fact that these fancy-pants theaters don’t offer the occasional handout or five at their screenings.

Now I must stop salivating long enough for us to find a seat. Two-thirds up, two seats in. That’s the rule. (While Googling Pete after we met, I found “2/3 up, 2 seats in” listed as “Location” on his MySpace page. Cute, right?) This makes me feel slightly off-center, but I’m the guest here, so I roll with it. Plus, there might be a bonus waiting: Our name is on the seat sometimes! I shamefully pretend I’m famous and revel in it a little while.

While waiting for the film to begin, I people-watch. In particular I am fascinated by other reviewers’ children. One mother admonished her son: “You do not have permission to touch that.” “I give myself permission!” he retorted. Using the kid’s logic, I would have permitted myself to whack his douchey ass, but that would break the rules of theater etiquette. These are all some variation of “be quiet.” Do not ask questions during the film; the good ones will answer them for you. Turn your cell phone off. Not on silent. Off. Or a guard will actually come out during the film and point a little red dot thingy at you and bark, “Sir” or “Ma’am.” (Scary! And embarrassing!) Do not kick the seat in front of you. And do not throw popcorn at the reviewer’s girlfriend. Though that sounds unfortunate, Pete won my heart early on when he (verbally) kicked some popcorn-throwing teenage ass at a viewing of “The Dark Knight.”

Because I love Pete, I want to make him feel better when he doesn’t like something--which is kind of often. This means I spend much of the film sneaking sideways glances to gauge his reaction. If he’s wearing his pleasant grin of satisfaction,
I’m relieved. But if the movie is bad, no glance is required; his wrath is tangible.

I practically had to shower the hatred off of me after “War Horse.” I don’t know what else to do in these situations, so I imagine myself absorbing his pain through some kind of osmosis. It doesn’t work, not even for previews such as “Liam Neeson Kicks Ass (Again)” and “Famous People Really Do Get the Recession.” All I can do is wait it out, cringing as his pen becomes ever more scratchy.

The movie ends, and the “Cast” part of the credits rolls by. I wait for it: “What did you think?” He asks the same question every time. It’s adorable in its predictability, but almost as challenging for me as getting past the snack bar. What should I say? I’m intimidated by these foreign surroundings. What if I fell for an “idiot plot?” Or what if I failed to see the artistry in “quirk?” What if I liked it, and it was just dumb? (I still have nightmares wondering what would have happened had I liked “Larry Crowne.”)

I decide to grow a pair and announce my opinion: “It was pretty good?”

After wandering through a Philadelphia parking garage a while, the analysis begins. Contrary to what some may think, Pete does not hate every movie he sees. He thoughtfully considers what’s good and what went wrong. I’m always impressed by his laser-like ability to zero right in on each, and I learn a lot about films from listening to his reaction. If the movie was bad and extra time is required, this may necessitate stopping for burgers at Sonic off Exit 37. Because I am a very supportive spouse, I am always happy to oblige.

Thankfully, my juvenile fantasies never came true. NKOTB broke up, Pete Sampras went bald, and DiCaprio hasn’t won an Oscar. I suppose I should conclude my story by telling you that finding everlasting love with our blogger was better than any of those silly dreams anyway. But I’ve learned you shouldn’t fall for the quick-and-easy deus ex machina ending. Pete’s criticism will get tougher as his standards grow higher, but I’ll still be sitting in the seat beside him. Perhaps even munching from a trough of free pretzel bites.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Big Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin

Aside from Tilda Swinton's performance, meh...

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


Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin places its main character (Tilda Swinton) in a shattered suburban world, where she mopes in an indifferent daze, unsure how she got there and if she can ever leave. The movie is a showcase for Swinton, who in delivering an assured, intense performance provides the movie's lone reason for being.

When we first meet Swinton's character, Eva, she emerges from a rough night to find her house covered in red paint. The car has also been hit, though she can see enough through the crimson windshield to go for a ride. Through it all, Eva reacts like the paperboy threw the newspaper in the rose bushes again.

We learn the story of Eva's numbness, which starts with the birth of her son, Kevin. Eva, who has little enthusiasm for motherhood, holds the baby like a sack of flour. Kevin cries incessantly. Eva's solution is to stand next to a construction site, where even the jack hammering can't drown out the yelps. As Kevin exits his toddler years, he's a loathsome, manipulative terror. He portrays himself as an enthusiastic, happy tyke to Franklin (John C. Reilly), Kevin's dad and Eva's husband, while driving Eva nuts. Kevin ruins her map-lined room, the only enclave in a gigantic, soulless suburban fortress that's her own. When confronted by Franklin, the boy says he only wanted to make the room special for mom. Though clearly beyond potty training, Kevin favors diapers, controlling his bowel movements solely to spite Eva. Since Kevin faces no consequences and belongs to disagreeing parents—one who is never around; the other who resents his presence—the stage is set for an act of teenage rage that will devastate a community and destroy Eva.

Ramsay and co-writer Rory Stewart Kinnear, working from Lionel Shriver's novel, fashion a strong dramatic base by capturing the despair involved in raising a young child. (Women worldwide will feel compelled to double-check their birth control pills.) But in establishing Kevin's malignant behavior and Eva's current misery, Ramsay and Kinnear take shortcuts. Reilly's sole purpose here is to provide the "Kevin isn't a bad kid" counterweight. It's a lazy tactic that allows the writers to glance over Franklin and Eva's marital woes and how Kevin becomes a nihilist with great hair. Kevin's evilness gets reduced to shallow logic: Since he plays one parent against the other, he's destined to do horrible things. Really? Did Ramsay and Kinnear ever see The Parent Trap?

Franklin's presence in the storyline, aside from wasting Reilly's considerable talents as America's favorite sad sack, leads to a thematically jumbled film. Throughout the toggling between the present and the past, we get glimpses of Kevin's terrible act. Because Ramsay can't move firmly in one direction, the film exists in this unsatisfying realm where you kind of get a somber character study and you sort of get an updated version of Gaslight.

That's not the only way Ramsay mishandles the material. Eva is the town enemy, prone to being slapped or verbally maligned for Kevin's actions. Considering the losses Eva has suffered, and if the wronged still honor Hamurabi's Code, why does that happen? And if every time I went to Subway I risked getting kicked in the balls, I'd at least consider moving to the next county. A scene where trick-or-treaters terrify a candy-less Eva plays like something from a Roger Corman cheapie. Franklin and Eva's home comes from a long line of suburban palaces whose sole purpose in movies is to shout, "Love can't exist here!" Eva's current job is so flagrantly drab—badly dressed, barely washed employees, travel posters not sticking to the wall—that you're not sure if Ramsay is being sardonic or obvious. Either way, it's an ill fit.

We Need to Talk About Kevin does have Swinton, who helps illuminate the one positive aspect of Eva's tragedy: she's become a mom for the first time. Ezra Miller is gripping as the 15-year-old Kevin, turning charisma and intelligence into absolutely chilling characteristics. Those strong performances, and a potentially absorbing story, get lost in Ramsay's rush to elicit effect with little regard for cause. [R]

The Film Round-Up, January 2012

In 2012's first film round-up, we give you a mixture of the multiplex and the art house: Spielberg! Damon! Fassbender! Oldman! It's a holiday movie season explosion!

Two notes before we hit the reviews. Of course, I saw a movie Saturday night that I missed putting on my top 10 list: Mike Mills' "Beginners." What a lovely film. If Christopher Plummer (pictured) doesn't get an Oscar nod, the Academy should dissolve and just choose nominees from a hat.

Second, I'm pretty sure Michael Fassbender is responsible for the 17 of "Shame's" NC-17 rating. Let me put it this way: Getting the jumbo hot dog before that screening was a terrible idea.

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


War Horse (Dir: Steven Spielberg). Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Thewlis, Niels Arestrup. Like drinking maple syrup straight from the bottle. A plucky English farmboy (Irvine, in a grating performance) connects with a beautiful, wild stallion, but the relationship abruptly ends when the boy's cash-strapped father (Mullan) sells the gorgeous beast to the British cavalry. And so begins the horse's glorious travels through World War I Europe, where he provides an escape for two ill-fated German brothers, enchants a sickly French girl, and helps warring sides work together. Spielberg has always had a saccharine side—remember his endings to Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan?—but at least those movies had memorable content that somewhat justified the weepy finales. War Horse is a feature-length greeting card from Spielberg on the wonders of a beautiful animal with vaguely human qualities, which should delight the apartment-bound, cat-hoarding spinster demographic. Thanks to characters with the emotional depth of Precious Moments figurines, we're left with no relatable protagonist, only a damned horse running purposelessly toward a conclusion we can't wait to arrive. Previously a novel and a Broadway play. * [PG]

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Dir: Tomas Alfredson). Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones. Adaptation of John le Carré's 1974 novel stars Oldman (in heavy make-up) as George Smiley, a veteran British secret intelligence officer who returns from a forced retirement to catch a double agent working for the Soviets. The twists, turns, and details quickly accumulate in this Cold War-era espionage drama. It's entertaining for about an hour until you reach a damning realization: the pot is on the stove, but the water ain't boiling. The film presents each revelation so somberly that you can't get jazzed about the web of lies uncovered by Smiley, who escorts us through the events like a beaten down tour guide, not the ideal personality to carry a film heavy on details. Films like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy only succeed if the constant misdirection grabs our attention or if there's a grand payoff that makes the waiting worthwhile. Alfredson's film has neither. It's in permanent anticlimax. ** [R]

We Bought a Zoo (Dir: Cameron Crowe). Starring: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Elle Fanning, Patrick Fugit, John Michael Higgins. Recently widowed and "sick of sympathy," journalist Benjamin Mee (Damon) decides that he and his kids need a fresh start. And they get one, moving onto 18 acres of rolling California real estate that features a broken down zoo that he's required to maintain. This development thrills Mee's seven-year-old daughter (Jones), annoys his moody teenage son (Ford), and shocks his older brother (Church), who advises Mee to stop making life changes "just before you get to zebras." Damon and Johansson, as Mee's no-nonsense zookeeper and inevitable romantic interest, are the reason to watch. Their stripped-down, stirring performances rise above the cutesy material, and maintain our interest amidst the self-help maxims disguised as dialogue, Jones' insistent mugging, and Higgins's tired self-serious nimrod routine. Crowe, who apparently has forgotten everything since making Almost Famous 12 years ago, does everything but include shots of puppies and babies in a non-stop attempt to make us ooh and aaah and remember to call mom. Damon and Johansson help him dodge a bullet. Based on a true story. *** [PG]

Shame (Dir: Steve McQueen). Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, Nicole Beharie, James Badge Dale. Stoic, successful New Yorker Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) lives in an upscale, minimalist bubble. Driven by an insatiable appetite for sex, the only people that enter his realm are the women who give him momentary pleasure, a pursuit that keeps him occupied and isolated. When Brandon's younger sister, a needy, wayward singer (Mulligan, excellent as always), whirls into town, a major dilemma arises: How does Brandon respond to a woman who wants him for an emotional connection, not just sex? Critics have properly raved over Fassbender's anguished, gutsy performance, but McQueen's deliberate (the man loves long takes), deliberately unsexy direction provides the ideal stage for Brandon's moral torture. The director doesn't frame New York as some twinkly cosmopolitan wonderland, but as an anonymous, impersonal landscape that can amplify loneliness, the kind of place that warrants Mulligan's haunting, forlorn rendition of "New York, New York." ***1/2 [NC-17]