Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Review of "Argo"

"Yeah, that's right, I was in Forces of Nature. What's it to you?"
Good, not great. I will say this: Affleck is one or two movies away from making something worth the award-worthy, best-of chatter. 

You can read my review for The Weekender right here.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Book of the Month, October 2012

I love books. They're fun, educational, and they never talk back.

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending my first pro football game, a Sunday night tilt between the Giants and Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. 

Here are a few observations.

1.) As a Giants fan, I am relieved that I did not wear any kind of NYG hat, shirt, whatever to the game. Eagles fans are positively rabid. Their hatred for their longtime rival is tangible. They are large and capable of drinking a lot of cheap alcohol. There's a good chance I would have been killed if I had worn an Eli Manning jersey. And I'll bet my murderer would have worn a Reggie White jersey that cost more than my car.

(Kudos to Eagles fans for wearing the widest and most obscure array of jerseys. Sure, Vick and Jackson were there. But so was Harold Carmichael. And Mike Quick. And Chuck friggin' Bednarik.) 

2.) By far, this was the loudest, most frenzied sporting event I've ever attended. Going to a game reinforced why football is so popular in America. The gladiator-like violence plays a role, but so does this: the sport demands your constant attention. With only 16 games in a season, every one matters. Hell, every play, player, and decision matters. 

And no sport does a better job of turning itself into a decibel-shattering, fireworks-exploding spectacle. I was fascinated. 

3.) That I could take my wife to a football game--and she didn't blanch or get scared--is further confirmation that I married the right woman. And she had a good time. 

4.) Drunks are fun! A little bit before halftime, a pint-sized douche-in-training rumbled into our row, beer in hand. He and his trashy girlfriend bumped into everybody, causing me to plot my course of action should this happen again.

Turned out there was no need to worry.

About halfway through the third quarter, I noticed my friend had his head between his legs. OK, maybe he's sick, I thought. Five minutes later, he was in the same position and maintained it through the third quarter. His girlfriend soon left, never to return. The fourth quarter: still immobile. Through it all--30 minutes of noise that rattled my ear wax--he was quieter than Grandma at Sunday mass. The game ended. The crowd filed out. My friend was still hammered to the point of stillness. 

Sincerely, The Breakfast Club
The Giants may have lost, but I had my own victory. 

5.) On TV, you always see inevitable cheesecake shots of 21-year-old cheerleaders crammed into circulation-hindering hot pants. But what surprised me at the game was how many there are. Four groups of 12 cheerleaders worked the entire game. And I couldn't get a phone number from one of them.

Strength in numbers, my ass!

Seriously, let's get to the Book of the Month. Jeanne Marie Laskas wrote an observant, shockingly human piece on the Bengals cheerleaders for GQ. It's now published in an excellent collection of profiles called Hidden America. You can read my review for BookPage here

That's it for now. Until later, read in peace. (Go Giants!) 

Review of "Taken 2"

Am I the only who sees that in continuing this "daddy's little girl on testosterone" routine (with a hot 30-year-old actress), that this burgeoning series is becoming increasingly incestuous? But, man, people can't get enough. I saw the movie at 10:30 a.m. on a Friday: the place was packed.

As my brother pointed out, "Commando" covered this same territory years ago--and with a wink and a smile. Sigh...

You can read my review for The Weekender here

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Latest for The Philly Post: Movie cliche bingo!

My version, which I'm quite proud of. You can read it here. 

(Surprisingly, this didn't take that long to write.)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Film Round-Up: October 2012: The Oranges, The Other Dream Team, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, Francine

Strap on the feedbag, folks! It's time for another Film Round-Up. These reviews previously appeared in ICON and are reprinted with permission. 

Boy, Melissa Leo terrifies me. But she is wonderful in Francine.


The Oranges (Dir: Julian Farino). Starring: Hugh Laurie, Leighton Meester, Oliver Platt, Allison Janney, Catherine Keener, Adam Brody, Alia Shawkat. Too much rind, not enough fruit. David and Paige (Laurie, Keener) and Terry and Carol (Platt, Janney) have been neighbors and friends for years. Separately, the two couples struggle. David is spending more nights sleeping in his man cave, while Carol ignores the tech-obsessed Terry. The northern Jersey suburban fa├žade starts crumbling when Terry and Carol’s heart- broken daughter, Nina (Meester), returns home for the holidays and bonds with the vulnerable, lonely David. Writers Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss’ script abounds with good storylines: a wacky comedy of keeping up appearances, an ode to midlife renaissance, the woe of being young and in the suburbs (sporadically narrated by Shawkat). It doesn’t mean they had to use all of them. That misguided ambition shortchanges the emotional complications of David and Nina’s tricky relationship while shackling the actors—including the perennially marvelous Keener. Only Janney’s clucking crazed mother hen performance breaks free. [R] ★★

The Other Dream Team (Dir: Marius A. Markevicius). The Dream Team, that collection of American basketball leg- ends headlined by Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, eviscerated the competition at the 1992 Summer Olympics en route to a gold medal and international stardom. Among its opponents was a talented team from the newly independent Lithuania, whose presence was a political and social triumph. Interviewing former Lithuanian players and politicians, Markevicius demonstrates how basketball infused Lithuania’s citizens with dignity and pride, rarities in Russia’s oppressive rule. The Olympics showcased Lithuania’s individuality—Grateful Dead-influenced attire aside—to the rest of the world just two years after its bloody standoff with the Russian army. The Other Dream Team springs patriotism and freedom from the confines of history books and parades. They can only occur when the oppressed demand to be treated like human beings. History has rarely felt this personal. And few sports films possess such inspirational purity. One of the year’s best documentaries. [NR] ★★★★

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (Dir: Lisa Immordino Vreeland). As the fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, Vreeland (1903-1989) shaped how the world viewed fashion, and not just by discovering iconic faces such as Lauren Bacall and Twiggy or introducing the bikini to the shocked masses. Her forward thinking and story sense transformed fashion magazines from lush catalogues into artistic endeavors. (The movie’s title refers to how Vreeland thought people should ideally read a magazine.) Fashion became a living thing. Clearly made with good intentions and soft corners by Vreeland’s granddaughter-in-law, the documentary is essentially a collection of friends, family members, and colleagues swapping war sto- ries. Joel Schumacher describes Vreeland enthusiastically watching Chinatown in a Harlem movie theater; Ali MacGraw recalls the fear and respect she had working as Vree- land’s assistant, and then disciplines her pet. (We hear Vreeland’s perspective through news footage and interviews with author George Plimpton, who assisted on her memoir.) But for someone who was as brazen and bawdy—really, one of America’s last great dames—a loving approach works just fine. [PG-13] ★★★

Francine (Dirs: Brian M. Cassidy, Melanie Shatzky). Starring: Melissa Leo, Victoria Charkut, Keith Leonard. Refreshingly sparse, concise character study stars Leo as the title character, a stoic middle-aged woman who relocates to a rural small town straight from prison. The new life is a big adjustment. Strangers and new places intimidate Francine into silence. Small talk and eye contact are painful. She finds comfort in the bucolic surroundings and comes alive around animals, a passion that mutates into something bigger and perhaps poisonous. Light on dialogue or obvious conflict, Cassidy and Shatzky string together short scenes to create a portrait of a perpetually defeated woman struggling to find the sliver of light in a bleak life. The haunting, moving film is held together by Academy Award-winner Leo (Frozen River, The Fighter), who manages to convey tender- ness and toughness without swallowing the scenery whole. Really, it’s a miraculous performance, providing heart and soul to complement the credible, working-class grittiness. [NR] ★★★

The Big Review: The Paperboy

In the beach scene, you want me to do what to Zac? 
This review appeared in the October issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission.


IN THE PAPERBOY, HIS follow-up to the critically lauded Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, director Lee Daniels distills the drama and feeds us the pasty, bland remains—and it isn’t the most depressing aspect of the film.

Based on Pete Dexter’s novel, The Paperboy takes place during the summer of 1969 in south Florida, where social progress is a four-letter word. Intrepid journalist Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) returns home to write about Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a white trash lowlife facing the death penalty for murdering the beloved county sheriff. Ward and his black partner, Yardley (David Oyelowo), believe the charges against Hillary were built on deceit. So does Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), who has become the inmate’s beloved following a jailhouse correspondence.

The driver for this trio is Ward’s younger brother, Jack (Zac Efron), a moody college dropout. It’s a menial job with a large emotional burden. Jack can’t spend time with Ward, who is strangely devoted to Yardley and consumed by the story. He falls hard for Charlotte despite her constant rebuffs and warnings. But Jack can’t help himself. As the Jansen family maid puts it: Charlotte is a high-school girlfriend, mother, and Barbie doll all rolled into one.

Screenwriters Daniels and Dexter expertly set traps that add intrigue and spice to the “race against time” plot before spending an hour steering us away from them. They randomly decide what subplot interests them, but never settle on which one takes priority so the story starts and stalls and caroms—kind of like broken bumper cars. We get so disoriented that we never know where to invest our time.

Despite the activity and displaying his exploitative touch with some rough sex and grisly violence, Daniels’ pacing is positively pedestrian. Perhaps it’s atonement for the lack of urgency. Every big reveal in The Paperboy is explained away or squeezed into a quickly summoned scene that fits right into the film’s short-attention span. A movie like this needs elec- tricity and slowly escalating anticipation. Daniels occasionally summons the over-the-top drama of Precious, like when Hilary and Charlotte drive each other wild (without touching each other) during a prison visit. But we keep wondering why we’re so bored.

Look no further than Anita (Macy Gray), the aforementioned maid, who also serves as the film’s narrator. The way Dexter and Daniels define her is disastrous, almost as bad as if the actors were instructed to speak every other line in gibberish. If the character is not stat- ing what we already know (Jack’s love for Charlotte), she is slaughtering any dramatic potential. A major plot twist involving Ward and Jack that would have benefitted from acting has its conflict and resolution neatly summarized by Anita. Who cares that she’s recalling the twisty tale perfectly for someone who was only peripherally involved? Her existence here confuses me, unless the three people who haven’t seen or read The Help need to understand the plight of Southern black domestics in the 1960s.

The maid’s omnipresence may signal Daniels’ lack of confidence in Efron, who is at- tempting more mature roles after graduating from High School Musical. Every emotion is assigned to Jack via Anita’s memories, and the script avoids running the action through Jack though he’s the best candidate to tell the story. It’s probably the right decision, even if it halves the movie’s I.Q. Efron again proves that he lacks the adult intangibles that separate handsome men from leading men. That might explain why Daniels has the actor (who turns 25 this month) in his underwear for most of the film—or attacked by jellyfish.

Any pleasures in The Paperboy you hang onto with grim desperation: Cusack as psychotic swamp trash; McConaughey playing his fourth complex role in 2012 after years of romantic claptrap; Kidman moaning and groaning as a southern-fried trollop, even though her longtime friend Naomi Watts would have set the screen on fire in that role. There are plenty of assets on hand. Everything else is missing. Anyone who sees The Paperboy won’t be part of an audience; they’ll be part of a doomed search party.