Friday, June 29, 2012

Why the Hell Did I Watch This? The Rom-Com Edition

"Love and Other Drugs"--When its two main characters are so despicable that not even Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal can do anything with them, well....I knew the movie was in trouble when Hathaway was naked in every other scene. It's like the producer said, "Jesus, this is going nowhere. Have Anne show her cans again." And nothing screams creative bankruptcy like Viagra jokes, even if they're used once. That's a deal breaker to me. Shame on you, "Love and Other Drugs" for resorting to boner jokes...and for making me become bored with a naked Anne Hathaway. 

"Life As We Know It"--I was really, really tired. Apparently, it's funny when attractive, oblivious morons raise a baby. A movie is bound to suck when the premise is "These two attractive opposites are going to fall in love eventually." Don't insult our intelligence.   

"Something Borrowed"--My wife wanted to watch this, so we endured the last 30 minutes of this rock-stupid monstrosity. The phrase "starring Kate Hudson" should be considered as dire a warning as "high voltage" or "may cause death." 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"Rock of Ages" Review

Introducing the front-runner for this year's Razzies. You can read my review, which appeared in The Weekender, right here.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Bad Movie Trailers, Summer 2012 Edition

Title says it all. Wrote this last week for The Philly Post. Enjoy!

I still have no idea why Katy Perry: Part of Me is in 3D, though perhaps this screengrab partially answers that question. Also, would Katy Perry be relevant if she had the same talent but looked like, say, Regina Spektor?

Review of "Snow White and the Huntsman"

Bitch and moan all you want about the casting of Kristen Stewart, I thought the movie was pretty damned good. Charlize Theron, in particular, was excellent. And if you haven't seen her in Young Adult, you're in for a treat.

You can read the review, which previously appeared in The Weekender, here. Apologies for the tardiness. Rock of Ages will be delivered promptly. Will that be a good thing? Who knows.

Jersey Shore Shark Attack: The Timeline

My editor at The Philly Post asked me to review SyFy's latest tongue-in-cheek epic. Writing a straightforward review was impossible, so I decided to construct a timeline. You can read the piece here.

A couple of notes:

1.) You know who was involved in this project? Former TCNJ Magazine subject, Kevin Kasha! 

2.) My in-laws were nice enough to record it on their DVR--I didn't make it home in time for the Saturday night premiere and couldn't procure a screener--so I watched and took notes during a Sunday morning visit. For some reason, the cable system initially kept bumping me to ESPN. The reason: my brother-in-law Lou, who's studying at the London School of Economics, was trying to watch a soccer game at the same time remotely. 

Lou kindly let me finish the program, though he and his soccer-loving friends were confused why someone was watching Jersey Shore Shark Attack. "Surely there must be some mistake," he wrote to me. "We stumbled upon a bratty nine-year-old's TV. I couldn't bear to even keep it on. I had to rid the contagion from my eyes."  

3.) Lou's vitriol aside, I enjoyed the movie. I just let the ridiculousness wash over me. (My in-laws also thought the movie was a hoot.)  

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Big Review: The Intouchables

TWC's latest attempt to strike a permanent alliance with the awards polish industry. This review previously appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission. 


Harvey and Bob Weinstein reenergized independent film in the late 1980s and 1990s at their old haunt, Miramax, bringing edgy, entertaining goodies like sex, lies, and videotape and Pulp Fiction to the masses. If the Miramax logo appeared before a movie, you were in for something funky.

Then, in 1998, Miramax released the terrific costume comedy-drama Shakespeare in Love. It made a ton of money, won seven Oscars, and completely changed the movie moguls' game plan. Though there are exceptions, what the brothers now distribute at the Weinstein Company could be described as prestigious schmaltz. It's geared toward Oscar votes and family outings. Sometimes the approach works (The King's Speech). Sometimes it doesn't (My Week with Marilyn, Bully). When the TWC logo appears, I usually know what to expect. It's like eating at a chain restaurant.

Remember, McDonald's is overseas, too. TWC has imported the viva life comedy-drama The Intouchables, a commercial and critical smash in France, stateside. It's life affirming and endearing in such a predictable, unoriginal way that those qualities are practically manufactured. I can't decide if writer-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano are lazy or savvy. 

Senegal native Driss (Omar Sy) returns to the rough side of Paris after six months in prison. To stay on the good side of bureaucracy, he goes on job interviews. One takes him to the nice side of town, where wealthy, white quadriplegic Philippe (Francois Cluzet) needs a new caretaker. Fed up waiting with a hoard of well-dressed, somber-faced applicants, Driss barges into the interview room. When asked for references, Driss responds with Kool and the Gang and Earth Wind & Fire. He sexually harasses Philippe's comely assistant (Audrey Fleurot) and shows no regard for his potential employer's condition. "Don't get up," Driss says as he leaves the office, assured that his government papers will be signed the next morning.

Driss returns to find he's gotten the job. The young man is skeptical—Philippe is tough to please, the work is challenging—but he needs housing, and the accommodations are palatial. And that sexy assistant is around. Driss is a terrible caretaker, but he responds to Philippe with emotions beyond pity or reverence, barriers others erect because of Philippe's financial and physical conditions. Driss comments that a piece of pricey modern art looks like a nosebleed; he denies Philippe's request for sweets by saying, "No handy, no candy." He can tell Philippe that his spoiled daughter treats the staff poorly and that six months of poetry to his longtime, flirtatious pen pal is enough. When Driss looks out for Philippe's best interests, it's not just a line in a cover letter.

Inspired by a true story, The Intouchables flourishes when Driss brings his real world bluntness to Philippe's well-funded, isolated world. There's a beautiful scene where Driss takes Philippe out after-hours. The two swap stories in a café, and you see the men letting their guards down, testing the waters of a friendship. Nakache and Toledano prefer to explore more placid bodies of water. As the movie progresses, Sy devours more screen time. Driss is clearly the actor's star-making turn, and with a good reason: Even with a language barrier, Sy is a rapid-fire charmer. But the mugging obscures how Philippe affects Driss, portraying the friendship as working in one direction. Good friendships don't work that way.

With that issue unresolved, the movie happily becomes another fish out of water tale, like Trading Places or The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. A rich man's life gets turned upside down by streetwise smart aleck who cuts through all the pomp and circumstance. This classical music is from a coffee commercial! German opera is so lame! Now let's put on "Boogie Wonderland" and get this party moving. These scenes are funny when Eddie Murphy is infiltrating Philadelphia's upper crust, but in The Intouchables they are out of place, even insulting.

The filmmakers don't know how to deal with Driss or Philippe beyond labels. Driss' family problems are handled with the urgency of a Caribbean honeymoon. Philippe doesn't do much but complain: about his dead wife, his boring family, Driss' unfortunate replacement. He has that miserable teenage daughter he barely acknowledges. Nakache and Toledano flood the screen with activities—paragliding, a sing-a-long to "September," a trim that turns Philippe's beard into a Hitler moustache—that we almost believe the film portrays an unusual, lovely friendship. It's not about these men, but using them to provide the illusion of substance. The Intouchables is really a soft-focus infomercial about living life to the fullest. No wonder the Weinstein brothers got their hands on it. [R]

The Film Round-Up June 2012: The Avengers, What to Expect.., Hysteria, and Where Do We Go Now?

A very eclectic Film Round-Up. For the first two weeks in May I was in New York for a full-time freelance job, which pretty much limited my availability to screenings. When things got back to normal--around May 10 or so--I had to scramble to find four films for ICON; I had seen Hysteria way back in March in preparation for Maggie Gyllenhaal interview.

So, I tried some PR contacts for screeners, but came up empty. That meant I had to frame the Round-Up as half "summer movie" preview and half "art house" stuff. I tell you, there's nothing sadder than watching garbage like What to Expect When You're Expecting on a bright Friday afternoon. 

Of course, this month I will have seen everything by this Wednesday, about two weeks before my deadline. C'est la vie.

As always, these reviews previously appeared in ICON and are reprinted with permission. 


The summer movie season is now in full swing, so let's review two of May's biggest releases before we get into more familiar territory.

What to Expect When You're Expecting (Dir: Kirk Jones). Starring: Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Elizabeth Banks, Anna Kendrick, Chace Crawford, Chris Rock, Dennis Quaid, Brooklyn Decker, Matthew Morrison, Rodrigo Santoro, Ben Falcone. Exists thanks to brand recognition. Instead of an action figure or a board game, that omnipresent pregnancy guide becomes a platform for unpleasant, argumentative couples reenacting every half-funny anecdote about being knocked up. Santoro and Lopez's international adoption is beset by their employment and emotional challenges. Celebrity trainer Diaz and her TV dance partner/paramour (Morrison) find their egos interfering. Two young street chefs (Kendrick, Crawford) have their chemistry disrupted by a surprise announcement. And a rough nine months have baby expert Banks and her dentist husband (Falcone) envious of his competitive father (Quaid) and much younger, glamorously pregnant wife (Decker). The male characters are either emasculated or brow beaten; the female characters are either smarty-pants or hormone-imbalanced caricatures. All that, and vomit jokes! That's not the worst part. By eagerly referencing current trends—YouTube, Twitter, food trucks, tablets—What to Expect... shows that it only cares about connecting with the audience in the shallowest way possible. Forget about creating identifiable characters, funny lines, or any kind of lasting entertainment, how about a Facebook joke? This soulless romantic comedy will be irrelevant soon but terrible forever. * [PG-13]

The Avengers (Dir: Joss Whedon). Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cobie Smulders, Clark Gregg. There's a good reason why so many people have already seen this. When the evil Loki (Hiddleston) makes his way to Earth and takes off with the powerful, glowing Tesseract, global war is imminent. The international shadow agency S.H.I.E.L.D. responds by assembling a superhero task force that includes Iron Man (Downey Jr.), Black Widow (Johansson), The Hulk (Ruffalo), and Captain America (Evans). Whedon doesn't use the story as another post-September 11th commentary or rely solely on flashy special effects, which have reached the so-what? phase. He infuses sly humor into the plot—The Hulk, who's usually just a rage machine, becomes comic relief—and creates meaty conflicts between the characters. Iron Man's technological, me-first attitude and Captain America's classical approach to heroism leads to a clash; Loki's desire for world domination partially stems from his desire to outdo brother Thor (Hemsworth). Those little accents contribute to the best pure action blockbuster since 2009's Star Trek, an agenda-less, fun-filled summer romp that never deflates your brain. **** [PG-13]   

And now back to the fare to which you've grown accustomed:

Hysteria (Dir: Tanya Wexler). Starring: Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce, Rupert Everett, Felicity Jones. Practicing medicine is far from a scientific process in 1880s London, a condition that frustrates jobless young doctor Mortimer Granville (Dancy). His fortune improves when he's hired to assist Dr. Dalrymple (Pryce) whose hands-on treatment of hysteria—more a catch-call for an array of ailments than a disorder—has women coming all over for a stimulating remedy. Mortimer's great success is threatened by his boss's feisty, independent-minded daughter (Gyllenhaal) and from severely cramped hands. The latter opens the door for a most pleasurable invention: the electric vibrator. Based on a true story, Wexler's cheeky effort benefits from spirited performances (Everett, as Mortimer's benefactor, is a hoot) and the decision to proceed as a romantic comedy, not as an overheated sex farce: Sex and Ye Old City. Slight, but smart and bouncy. Would have been better if Dancy and Gyllenhaal's rapport wasn't so tepid. (For more on the film, please read my profile of Gyllenhaal on page TK.) *** [R]

Where Do We Go Now? (Dir: Nadine Labaki) Starring: Nadine Labaki, Claude Baz Moussawbaa, Julien Farhat, Yvonne Maalouf, Layla Hakim. In a small desert village forgotten by time and visited far too frequently by death, Christians and Muslims co-exist—barely. Just the mention of an inter-faith conflict on the communal television could get tempers flaring. When the village church's cross is broken by accident, a feud brews, forcing the women to take creative measures in steering their men away from potentially fatal decisions. Labaki's award-winning effort employs musical numbers, sitcom-like goofiness (baked goods laced with hashish; Russian showgirls as distractions), and chest-pounding pathos. Its off-kilter approach and heartfelt, clear-eyed pleas for tolerance keep us involved, though it's with mixed results. Too often, the stylistic diversions feel like an attention-grabbing ploy, not part of Labaki's directorial vision. But you have to be a robot not to appreciate a film with this much heart. Believe it or not, Labaki's appealing ensemble consists mostly of amateurs. In Arabic and Russian, with English subtitles. *** [PG-13]  

Caricatureland is Not a Stop on Maggie Gyllenhaal's Journey

This was previously published, in a slightly different version, in June's ICON, and is reprinted with permission. Gyllenhaal's latest, Hysteria, opened in Philadelphia this past Friday.

Enjoy, folks. 


This profile of Maggie Gyllenhaal starts in New Haven, Connecticut. It's not part of the great actress' biography—yet. When I visited this cultured college town in mid-April, Parker Posey was performing in a play. The promotional poster for The Realistic Joneses at the Yale Repertory Theatre made no reference to Posey's mid-1990s reign as an art house darling, a critic's choice, a Film Comment subscriber's sex symbol.

Gyllenhaal, 34, has resided in these categories since she blew the doors down in 2002's Secretary, a dark comedy where Gyllenhaal's meek former mental patient blossoms under the sadomasochistic hand of her boss (James Spader). It was a jaw-dropping performance, and she soon proved her mettle in a wide variety of roles: a cosmopolitan coed in Mona Lisa Smile (stealing the movie from established names like Julia Roberts and Kirsten Dunst), a scheming chanteuse in Don Roos' Happy Endings, and Will Ferrell's reluctant, tattooed paramour in the overlooked Stranger Than Fiction.

She brought electricity to each performance, never coasting on her willowy good looks or batting her eyes toward magazine covers. Gyllenhaal just acted her ass off. And it got her places. Her casting as Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight, replacing Katie Holmes, was proof that Hollywood sometimes gets things right.

Since co-starring in that 2008 box office behemoth, Gyllenhaal's roles, while solid, haven't been as full-bodied, as explosive. She received an Academy Award nomination for safely escorting Jeff Bridges to his own Oscar in Crazy Heart, essentially an update of Tender Mercies. She starred in the sequel to Nanny McPhee, a fact I still can't wrap my head around. Yes, she was a delight as a crunchy space cadet mom in Away We Go, Sam Mendes' twee road comedy. But Maya Rudolph was the one tagging along with John Krasinski.

Should I be concerned? I don't want one of my favorite actresses to battle Posey for work on the New England theater scene.


Gyllenhaal's newest movie, Hysteria (opening June 1st in Philadelphia), centers on the 1880s invention of the electric vibrator. Gyllenhaal is appealing as Hugh Dancy's forward-thinking love interest in this cheeky, fun romantic comedy, but the role would be considered a challenge for Meg Ryan circa 1993. Not someone whom film historian Leonard Maltin called "one of her generation's finest actresses."

Tanya Wexler, Hysteria's director, describes Gyllenhaal as an actress women love, the anti-Jennifer Love Hewitt. "For me, every time I see Maggie on screen, I just go, ' I get her, I connect with her,'" she says. "I feel like she's a much prettier version of me…Maggie has this way with grace and style and brilliance and beauty that she can also embody that feeling of passion." She was Wexler's dream choice for Charlotte, whom she envisioned as a young Katharine Hepburn. "I think that's what Maggie is and what Maggie does," Wexler adds. "She's so strong as an actress," says Dancy, who was surprised that Gyllenhaal (unnecessarily) maintained an impeccable English accent off camera.

Gyllenhaal was turned on—no pun intended—to Hysteria through Crazy Heart producer Judy Cairo. "She said, 'This a great script and it happens to be about the invention of the vibrator, which happened to take place in 1880s London.' And I thought, 'Oh, it did?' I was definitely curious to see what the story was or why a movie should be made about it. And the script itself, I thought, was excellent. Really, really smart. Really well-crafted." Plus, there was room to play Charlotte her way.

"I don't think this movie is served by an historically accurate depiction of the woman at that time," she explains. "[Charlotte's] politics are very simple, basically that women should be able to go to college and hold a job. Because it wasn't a realistic period drama about suffragettes, the point is that she should be like from another planet. She should be as shocking as possible in the constraints of the time, and I thought that would be fun." 

Charlotte may not resemble Gyllenhaal's trademark incendiary work, but it's a strong, eloquent role in a quality movie. "There are so few good movies being made these days, there really are, but when there's a good one everyone wants to do it," she says. "Think about the actresses who you think are good: So many of them play strong, sexual, interesting characters and all of us are like, 'I'll do that one!'" Gyllenhaal says there are a few contemporaries whom she admires and respects. She doesn't identify those actresses nor the women "who don't seem like actors to me, who seem like something else." The work among this skilled secret society gets divided pretty evenly. "Like, OK, that one she's going to do and this one I'm going to do. And you go through different phases of being more wanted or less wanted, but I find it goes up and down based on things that are somewhat out of your control." 

OK, but how do you go from Secretary to Crazy Heart and Nanny McPhee Returns in under 10 years?

"In some ways, it has to do with being young, doing Sherrybaby in five weeks and falling asleep in my clothes every night, being 25 and just thinking that is the coolest thing I can do," Gyllenhaal says. "And I love that movie and I love that performance. I didn't have a pleasurable time making it, but it was a great experience for me. But, for example, the character in Crazy Heart I feel like could have been a friend of mine. There's a different kind of subtlety. She's definitely a gentler character than either of the characters in Secretary or Sherrybaby, maybe more grown-up, more subtle, requires a different kind of listening to hear her.
"I'm in my thirties now, it's a different world, what's appealing and what speaks to me," she says. In the case of Nanny McPhee Returns, the script was, in Gyllenhaal's words, "phenomenally good." She cried while reading it on the New York City subway. Plus, she couldn't turn down working with Emma Thompson. "It wasn't that I went, "Let me do some lighter fare.' It was more that I thought, 'This is such a great script, such a fun, wild woman, and Emma's there every day.' It depends project to project." For Away We Go, Mendes, who had directed her husband, Peter Sarsgaard, and brother Jake in Jarhead, called Gyllenhaal out of the blue with a small part. She liked what she read and filmed her scenes in three days.

Gyllenhaal says family life—she and Sarsgaard welcomed their second child, Gloria Ray, in April—doesn't affect the roles she chooses. She would do something gritty "but I do think it's not worth it to take my family to Romania to do something that's OK, whereas maybe if I had no kids I'd go, 'OK, I can do something like this.'" Even if that hypothetical Romania-based role became her signature performance, considerations linger. "I would have to put [my older daughter] in school or take a tutor. You have to send your kid to first grade."

Getting older means that theater, another passion, is tougher to do. "It's hard with one child, and I imagine will be even harder with two, to do theater because you never get to put your kid to bed," says Gyllenhaal, who has starred in productions such as Uncle Vanya and Closer. "In fact, my favorite experiences in theater have been with my husband, and that makes it even more difficult because then neither of you are there to put your child to bed so it's a huge sacrifice."

It's all about how a project "works with my life and my husband's life and my husband's career. But I think both of us want to support each other to do things that are really great." 

She's "kind of attached" to a couple of plays. She and Sarsgaard are looking at collaborations. There's a reunion with Secretary director Steven Shainberg for something that promises to be "wild." And if is to be believed, Gyllenhaal is part of a wonderful ensemble cast for HBO's adaptation of The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen's epic novel of family dysfunction. In September, she'll play "a total firecracker" who, along with Viola Davis (a terrific actress), takes on the Pittsburgh public school system in the unabashedly commercial Won't Back Down.

A couple of months ago that last role might have concerned me. What happened to the Maggie Gyllenhaal I knew? But that's silly. She couldn't spend 20 years being intense, unless she wanted to join Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Carciatureland. She hasn't traded credibility for popular appeal or developed the impenetrable shell of a bankable persona. The hardcore days of her youth are gone, but Gyllenhaal remains a performer with no pretensions and boundless curiosity. Those qualities, I'm pretty sure, don't lead to semi-obscurity in New Haven.