Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Review of "Life of Pi"

An average Ang Lee effort is still better than most directors' best work. You can read my review for The Weekender right here.

The one thing that bothered me when I saw this on a Sunday afternoon was the number of families present for such a heady film. I have a strange feeling that parents saw the preview and said, "Hey, it looks like a kid-friendly tale about a plucky boy and his pet tiger. Sasha and Mason will love it!"

A quick look at Lee's filmography and a trip to Rotten Tomatoes could have saved everyone a lot of grief, but maybe the adults wanted to have bragging rights at the PTA meeting. "Oh, Brave was cute, but we expose the kids to more substantial fare. That's why we all saw Life of Pi."

Cue audible eye-rolling from listener. 

Adding to the absurdity was that "Rise of the Guardians," by all accounts a solid animated feature, was playing like 100 feet away.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving

From all of us at What Pete's Watching--um, me--have a wonderful holiday. Let's hope that your weekend travel plans don't involve hitching a ride on the back of a milk truck.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Review of Skyfall

This ran last week in The Weekender though I'm just getting around to posting now. The previous week was ripe with deadlines, and posting a review for one of the best Bond films ever didn't take precedence. For the curious, you can read my thoughts here.

As you might have heard, Skyfall had the best opening ever for a Bond film, raking in close to $90 million over its opening weekend, its impressive box office undoubtedly helped in that it was the weekend's only big premiere. 

Knowing this, my wife and I arrived 10 minutes early for the 10:10 a.m. show. By that time, the place was about 75 percent full and I considered us lucky to get two seats that weren't behind the screen. 

Others were not so lucky. 

I counted at least 25 people who came in after 10:10 a.m, looking dazed and confused. Why is it so crowded? Usually it isn't this bad until the fifth preview. Granted, not everyone knew this was the only new thing coming out this weekend--unless you were one of the cities that got an early release of Lincoln. But, jeez, Bond is super-popular. People are bound to come in droves, even if it's during a time when people are usually sleeping, eating breakfast, or settling in for 15 hours of pro football.

So, here's a list of characteristics signifying when you should arrive early for a movie. These apply for opening weekends. 

1.) Any movie based on a comic book, especially from the Marvel or DC family.

2.) Any movie based on a hot book (e.g., The Hunger Games, 50 Shades of Grey)

3.) Any movie involving Kate Winslet, Woody Allen, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Thomas Anderson, or Alexander Payne (art house only)

4.) Any movie based on an iconic, long-running character or is a massively successful franchise (i.e., Bond, The Twilight movies) 

5.) Any movie featuring a superstar loved by grandmothers and gangsters.

6.) When early arrival is most important: Friday and Saturday nights; Sunday afternoons.

UPDATE from our pal, NYC film critic Jesse Hassenger: "Ten minutes before is early? NYC says ha! Arrive 30 minutes early for everything, 60 for a big movie, 90 for real IMAX!" 

This post is according to SST, Suburban Standard Time. Also, Jesse's quote illuminates why I can't abide living in New York, a city I love. Not only would I have to make twice what I'm making now to live like I do now--I'm a regular Prince of Versailles, baby--I don't want to destroy my day in an attempt to see "Taken 2." 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Latest for Philly Post: On the Awfulness A "Casablanca" Sequel Will Inspire

Who's up for "The Wrath of Zihuatenejo" or "Aloha, Memories"? You can read my apocalyptic musings right here.

Janine White, my editor at The Philly Post, gives me freedom to respond to pop culture nuggets, instead of having a set weekly deadline. That's a really nice offer that becomes dreadful when it's Thursday morning and the pantry is bare. I was striking out left and right with ideas last week, until I found the item regarding a "Casablanca" sequel. After that, I got cracking.

One myth about professional writing that I must tear into a thousand pieces: You will get absolutely nowhere if you wait for the muse to pay a visit. Just ask anyone who's ever written for a newspaper, or needed to write something to pay the electric bill. It's a job--a fantastic job--but a job just the same.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Film Round-Up, November 2012: A Royal Affair, Sister, The Black Tulip, Smashed

In this edition of the Film Round-Up: One of the best movies of the year and Mary Elizabeth Winstead delivering a wonderful, nuanced performance. Oh and there are two more foreign movies thrown in to makes us look all smart and sophisticated.

These reviews previously appeared in ICON and are reprinted with permission. 


A Royal Affair (Dir: Nicolaj Arcel). Starring: Alicia Vikander, Mads Mikkelsen, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Trine Dyrholm, David Dencik, Thomas W. Gabrielsson, Cyron Melville. In the late 1760s and early 1770s Denmark ‘s ruler is the whoring, boozing, and mentally precarious Christian VII (Følsgaard). His beautiful, neglected wife, Caroline Mathilde (Vikander), wisely stays in the background, giving birth to a son and lending placid class to the national farce. When Christian is appointed a personal physician (Mikkelsen) to rein him in, Caroline’s indifference vanishes upon discovering that she and Dr. Strauss share two loves: books and the tenets of the Age of Enlightenment. They start a torrid affair in the bedroom and legislative chambers, where Strauss uses Christian’s trust and admiration to overhaul Denmark’s punishing laws, in the process drawing resentment from the nobility. Sumptuously filmed historical drama is well acted by the three principals (particularly the rugged and dignified Mikkelsen), ripe with backroom intrigue, and always engaging. Perhaps its most useful purpose is serving as a reminder, like last month’s The Other Dream Team, that sacrifice for a fair and just way of life is not just an American concept.  [R] ***  

Sister (Dir: Ursula Meier). Starring: Kacey Mottet Klein, Léa Seydoux, Martin Compston, Gillian Anderson. Whip-smart, 12-year-old Simon (Klein) takes advantage of living near a fancy Swiss ski resort, stealing ski equipment and reselling it to the neighborhood kids at reduced prices. His entrepreneurial hustle is out of necessity; his independence is a mirage. Living with an older sister (Seydoux) more concerned with having a good time than earning a steady paycheck, Simon runs the household and pays the bills. Desperate for love and submerged by responsibility, he is the world’s oldest, loneliest boy—a condition that becomes harder to endure as his sister drifts further away from him. Meier builds the plot and the characters through small moments (Simon learning English through ski magazines) and leitmotivs (the brother and sister’s isolated, towering apartment; wide-angle shots that emphasize space). The movie’s power and poetry gradually seize your attention then never let go. A haunting, beautiful film about a family that runs on obligation, not love, brought to vividness by Klein and Seydoux’s desperate, stirring performances. [NR] ****  

The Black Tulip (Dir: Sonia Nassery Cole). Starring: Haji Gul Asser, Sonia Nassery Cole, Walid Amini, Somaia Razaye, Hosna Tanha. In 2010, a husband and wife (Asser, Cole) open a restaurant in Kabul called The Poet’s Corner, where guests can recite poetry. This development enrages the Taliban, which employs extreme measures to shut down the business. Shot entirely in Afghanistan, The Black Tulip provides an extensive look at the real lives of Afghanis. If you want to observe a wedding and learn about women’s changing role in the country, look no further. But by serving as a fact-heavy cultural brochure, Cole extinguishes the narrative momentum, resulting in a violent second half that feels dissonant and shrill. In the film’s production notes, it’s clear that Cole wants to portray Afghanistan beyond the accounts we’ve absorbed in sobering news reports. If that’s the case, why not make a documentary about this unseen side instead of incorporating it into a spiritless, forgettable revenge film? Afghanistan’s official entry for the 2011 Academy Awards. [NR] **

Smashed (Dir: James Ponsoldt). Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman, Octavia Spencer, Mary Kay Place, Megan Mullally. Frightened by her increasingly erratic behavior—which includes succumbing to a hangover in front of her elementary school class and waking up in strange places—a young woman (Winstead) decides to quit drinking and attend AA meetings. She gains support from a sympathetic co-worker (Offerman) and her straight-shooting sponsor (Spencer) but lacks support where it matters most. Her writer husband (Paul, TV’s Breaking Bad), sill stuck in booze-induced neutral, is upset that he and his wife’s common bond has vanished. Director Ponsoldt and writer Susan Burke, a recovering alcoholic, offer an unflinching, refreshingly blunt account of the unexpected rewards and obstacles that occur in forging a new, unpopular life path. Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) is fantastic—you never stop rooting for her. And she’s supported by a sterling group of actors that lends depth and humanity to characters usually presented as devils or Samaritans. [R] ***1/2

The Big Review: The Sessions

"I'll get up when the Academy calls."

John Hawkes gets his moment...and doesn't blow it. This review previously appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission. 


The poster I saw for The Sessions includes this breathless blurb from “Destined to be a player at the Academy Awards.” This comment is as deceiving—does the person actually like the movie?—as it is telling.

Between now and the end of December, we will be inundated with movies aimed directly at Academy members, efforts usually affixed with such adjectives as “inspiring,” “heartwarming,” and “crowd-pleasing.” Let’s be clear: there’s a difference between movies that shamelessly mug for awards (War Horse) and ones that earn them by being terrific and without agenda (The Artist).

Written and directed by Ben Lewin, The Sessions lies somewhere in between. It will be discussed come awards season because it covers the prestige picture playbook: earnest characters facing challenges, a storyline celebrating the tenacity of the human spirit, tasteful, functional nudity. Even though we know the film is conning our heartstrings, we don’t mind. We like the main character. His problems resonate with us. We can cry without feeling duped.

The Sessions introduces us to real-life journalist and poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) whose body has been rendered twisted and immobile since a childhood bout with polio. It’s a setback he’s overcome quite nicely. By 1988, he is a college graduate with a career as a working writer. And he has an upbeat attitude, something rarely found even in healthy writers.

In a life full of professional and personal accomplishments, Mark has never enjoyed a romance—in any form. He falls in love with his assistant (Annika Marks), a charming young woman who sees past his physical shortcomings but can’t reciprocate his feelings. Shortly afterward, he’s assigned to write an article about sex and the disabled. It’s unfamiliar terrain. “I feel like an anthropologist interviewing a tribe of headhunters,” Mark says.

But 38-year-old Mark wants to feel what his interview subjects discuss, so he hires Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate, to get his body and mind to respond sexually. Mark is as skittish as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs, but Cheryl is calm, soothing, and has unlimited patience. He soon falls in love with her. The therapist in Cheryl expects that. What she doesn’t expect is that she begins to feel the same way, which gives each of their mandated six sessions a delicious uneasiness.

The Sessions is a vexing movie because Lewin unintentionally trivializes the material. William H. Macy co-stars as Mark’s priest. Instead of offering a moral counterpoint to Mark’s plan, the padre playfully furrows his brow over these organized sexual conquests, proving that the Catholic Church is a swinging place, baby. During one of Mark and Cheryl’s Holiday Inn therapy sessions, his new assistant (Moon Bloodgood) discusses today’s agenda, simultaneous orgasms, with the hotel manager. “What’s that?” he asks, in a moment better suited for a sitcom. Lewin even has trouble steering the story; the finale is a deflating series of postscripts that almost negates Cheryl and Mark’s relationship. But he never loses sight of Mark’s plight, which is why we stick around. It’s not about getting laid. Sex allows Mark to feel like everyone else after a life of being in everyone’s way.  Anybody who hasn’t felt undesirable or unwanted hasn’t breathed a breath.

Attribute the movie’s heights to Hawkes, an ace character actor who refuses to chew the scenery or emote to the heavens. The obstacles imposed by polio aren’t part of the performance. It’s stripped to the essentials: a man wants to experience sex so he’s one step closer to reciprocal love. Hawkes’ fine work atones for another labored performance from Hunt, who still believes that ridiculous accents are the key to authenticity, and the criminal misuse of Macy’s talents.

The Sessions should be a player at the Academy Awards, thanks to Hawkes’ restraint and the film’s almost accidental dignity. It’s solid and spirited. And that’s probably more than can be said for the eventual Oscar nominees that will heartwarm and crowdplease their way to blandness. [R]

Review of "Cloud Atlas"

On tonight's episode of Medical Center..
Apologies for the delay. We're just getting over Hurricane Sandy disrupting our lives for a week, a situation that readjusted my work routine--but made me truly appreciative of the conveniences we have. 

One of the last things I did before the storm hit Monday night was write this review. And for the next five days, Monday night through Saturday night, there was very little I could do aside from sit and have PECO tease us with status updates about when power would be restored. 

(Though I did buy a nifty Pele shirt at Old Navy for six bucks, and get a new pair of basketball sneakers at Kohl's. See, the suburbs are good for something.)  

It's good to be back. You can read the review for "Cloud Atlas" right here