Friday, August 31, 2012

Books of the Month, August 2012

I love books. They're fun, educational, and some of them require no recharging.

Originally, I wanted to write a piece for The Philly Post on how Phillies fans could cope with a lost season, an idea that my editor rejected. That surprised me, because as a lifelong Mets fan I could offer readers advice that psychologists from Albany to Zurich would applaud.  

Part of my coping technique included books, specifically ones about baseball. In my opinion, no sport has a greater literary tradition: Ball Four, The Boys of Summer, Roger Angell's voluptuous body of work, and so on. There is a world of words to get lost in as dreams of postseason glory evaporate with each passing game. 

Boy, that sounded like something from that Baseball documentary. Better get back on track. 

Here are five books that Phillie fans--or anyone who appreciates baseball and good writing--will savor.   

1.) A False Spring by Pat Jordan. Philadelphians know Jordan (pictured) as the magazine veteran who wrote not-so-favorable profiles of Steve Carlton and John Bolaris. But Jordan's recollections as a teenage minor league pitcher contribute to perhaps the best memoir about misspent youth ever written. 

2.) The Last Boy by Jane Leavy. Leavy's exhaustive look at Mickey Mantle's private life--which was staggeringly different from his public, good old boy persona--is one of the best biographies I've ever read on anyone. A staggering work.  

3.) The Game From Where I Stand by Doug Glanville. The former Phillie examines the everyday aspects of being a ballplayer. An eloquent, humorous look at the humdrum that the public rarely sees. 

4.) The Bad Guys Won! by Jeff Pearlman. About one of my favorite teams of all-time, the 1986 New York Mets. And it's written by an author with an insatiable appetite for research. Translation: Get ready for some unreal stories, starting with the flight after the Mets won the pennant. 

5.) The Last Night of the Yankees Dynasty by Buster Olney. Because sometimes you need to revel in the misfortune of your betters. And because Olney is a fantastic reporter.

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

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Review of "Premium Rush"

The movie wasn't that bad, a miracle considering I was in a less-than-objective state of mind before the Joseph Gordon-Levitt 10-speed epic began.

We got to the AMC Hamilton about 10 minutes before the 11:05 matinee. The lights dimmed, the promotional display appeared, and then the lights went back on. For 40 minutes, the audience waited and waited, held hostage by that banal, mall-friendly soft-rock that chain theaters insist on playing.

What bothers me wasn't the delay. Errors happen when humans are involved. What whipped me into a frenzy was that audience members had to trek from the theater to the customer service desk for an explanation, which was insulting. After hearing the second or third complaint, a manager should have walked into the theater and said the following:

"Folks, we're sorry about the delay. We're having some unanticipated issues with the projection system. We hope to have them fixed shortly. If you do no want to wait, we'll be happy to issue passes for the 12:05 show or refund your money. Again, we apologize for the inconvenience. Myself or someone else with AMC Hamilton will be back in 10 minutes with an update. Thank you."

How hard is that?

I've had good experiences with AMC Hamilton, so I'm hoping this was just a poorly handled situation, but I fully intend on writing a letter to theater management. Your free time is a valuable commodity. Don't stand for someone unapologetically frittering it away.

Here's the review of "Premium Rush,"--the reboot of "Quicksilver" we've all been hungering for. It appeared in this week's "Weekender." Flip to page 27 to read it.

Also, a couple of weeks ago, I reviewed "The Bourne Legacy." Flip to page 29 for the review.

Jesse Hassenger, our critic pal at "The L Magazine" had an issue with my complaint on the amount of backstory and dialogue in this outing, saying that Paul Greengrass' previous efforts exhibited the same qualities. Perhaps. But Greengrass always made me feel like I was peering into a world ripe with intrigue. In "The Bourne Legacy" that "we're through the looking glass" dialogue is all the movie offers. And it's boring, destroying any momentum. We're mired in a swamp of details. It reminded me of my days covering town council meetings--with slightly more gunplay.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Why the Hell Did I Watch..."Xanadu"

A dangerous mix led me to watch this, friends: morbid curiosity, loneliness, and the naive belief that, "Well, 'Ruby Sparks' was good. So maybe I'll like the same thing, only done much, much worse!"
So, what are the problems with the intoxicatingly bad "Xanadu," where a muse inspires an artist and a former bandleader to do, um, something? 

1.) Our protagonist's main attribute is that chicks dig him. And Michael Beck plays this role with a level of aloof entitlement that makes it impossible to like the guy. I can picture the director shouting, "Make us hate you, dahling!" 

2.) The movie's main conflict doesn't come along for an hour, so get ready to enjoy dance sequences that look like they were shot inside the world's biggest Lite-Brite. 

3.) Gene Kelly, who's like 106 here, has a dance sequence with Olivia Newton-John, a wonderful singer but a stiff dancer, that looks like it was filmed in slow-motion.

4.) Roller disco! 

5.) There's not enough acid I could take that could help me recreate the plot.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Review of "The Watch"

Ran on Wednesday in The Weekender. Sorry I'm just posting it now, but I've been commuting to New York for a freelance copy editing gig--Mr. Leland is busting my hump over these reports--and my schedule is off. I should be back to myself in no time flat.

You can read the review right here.

The Big Review: "Ruby Sparks"

Here's my choice for the summer's perfect date movie. The review previously appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission.


Like Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' long awaited follow-up to their 2006 critical and commercial hit, infuses a bouncy, inherently madcap idea with human frailty. Ruby Sparks lacks the unbridled everyman appeal of Little Miss Sunshine—some may find their follow-up too hip—but it's a welcome tweak to the filmmakers' early formula, one where intelligence and entertainment happily coexist.

Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is a young novelist whose career has stalled since he became a literary sensation at age 19. More great things were expected. Ten years later, the world, including Calvin's publisher, waits. Inspiration has not arrived even though the writer sequesters himself with a typewriter in an oppressively white, minimalist home. A woman may help. The two people Calvin sees regularly, his macho brother, Harry (Chris Messina), and his tolerant therapist (Elliott Gould), suggest as much. The latter offers an approach Calvin can appreciate. Calvin bought a dog as a way to meet people, so the therapist asks him to write about how someone else sees the pet.

The exercise works exceptionally well. Calvin dreams of a girl—who previously appeared as a sun-drenched silhouette—approaching him and his dog. A conversation ensues. Details emerge. When Calvin awakens, he starts writing about this bedtime woman—her life, her passions, everything. He even gives her a name: Ruby Sparks. The pages pile higher, and Calvin can't tear himself away. It's a masterpiece. Harry isn't so sure. "Where is this going?" he asks after reading the draft. We find out the next morning, when a stunned Calvin finds Ruby making eggs in the kitchen. After a trip outside to confirm that the tights-wearing ingénue (Zoe Kazan, Dano's real-life girlfriend) is indeed real, the young man is blissful. In creating his dream girl, he has solved two problems. And the best part is, Calvin can control her. Type a line and Ruby can be happy, sad, or speak fluent French.

Harry's question turns out to be oddly prophetic. Written by the 28-year-old Kazan, already a veteran playwright, Ruby Sparks doesn't look at the relationship dynamics between reality and fantasy. And with the exception of Calvin's frantic search for confirmation of Ruby's existence, the movie isn't particularly zany. Ruby Sparks spends its time dissecting the myth that finding the perfect mate solves every problem. Calvin is lonely, and with good reason: He is a moody, petulant brat who wants the relationship on his terms. After months together, Calvin finally introduces Ruby to his mother (Annette Bening) and lover (Antonio Banderas), a warm couple whose crunchy, free-spirited lifestyle the preppy and reserved Calvin abhors. Ruby loves the laughter and camaraderie. He spends time alone with a book, a world he can control.

Predictably, Ruby and Calvin's relationship grows static. Instead of taking a good, long look at himself Calvin unearths his manuscript and edits Ruby down to size. Kazan and the directors never lose sight that hyperbole is at the heart of all this. When Ruby has the gall to ask Calvin to spend one night a week at her place, his keystrokes turn the girl into a needy mess ("I miss you right now!"). Making her happy sounds easy in theory until she has the disposition of a morning show host on uppers. These moves don't feel cheap or easy because the film doesn't cram itself into a genre. Its energy comes from Kazan, Dayton, and Faris' refusal to indulge our expectations. You anticipate an outside threat: a hunky competitor or an angry and incredulous rival. None emerge. Calvin's oblivious fidelity to his sterile, bland world is the threat, and poor Ruby can't understand why she has to live there.

Kazan recently said that she didn't write the script, based on the Pygmalion myth, for an acting gig. I believe her. Ruby is a reflection of Calvin's issues more than a star-making performance, which makes me a bigger fan of Kazan (The Exploding Girl, Me and Orson Welles). She cares about the integrity of the film more than establishing a brand. Regardless, her performance reminds you of the smart, sexy girl in English lit—the one who loved bands and movies you never heard of—whom you never had the balls to approach. Dano's work is more important. He grows more obnoxious as Ruby grows tired of every writer's life cliché. But we never lose our patience with him. The guy is just clueless. Calvin must learn that you have to love yourself before you love someone else. Ruby Sparks' creativity and ingenuity makes it entertaining; that it's a magical reality check makes the film meaningful. [R]

Film Round-Up, August 2012: Goats, Killer Joe, 360, The Queen of Versailles,

In this edition of the Film Round-Up, we have a classic mixed bag. Though I will say that Killer Joe is excellent and marks the continued comeback of Matthew McConaughey, actor. These reviews previously appeared in the August issue of ICON and are reprinted with permission. 


Goats (Dir: Christopher Neil). Starring: Graham Phillips, David Duchovny, Vera Farmiga, Ty Burrell, Keri Russell, Justin Kirk, Dakota Johnson, Anthony Anderson. Fifteen going on 30, Ellis (Phillips, TV's The Good Wife) heads east to an elite boarding school, leaving behind two unusual, emotionally stunted guardians: his narcissistic New Agey mom, Wendy (Farmiga), and Goat Man (Duchovny), a mellow goat herder and botanist who permanently resides in the pool house. As Ellis flourishes socially and academically in New England—and reunites with his estranged, straight-laced dad (Burrell)—life in Tucson fades away. The emotionally needy Wendy takes up with a douchey mooch (Kirk) while Goat Man remains strangely incommunicado, mostly because shipping pot through the U.S. mail is too risky. The large number of subplots plus the lack of a compelling central conflict prevent this coming-of-age tale from gaining momentum. Just when we're covering territory we like, Neil, an acting and dialogue coach making his directorial debut, sends us somewhere else. The problem is, I don't think he knows the final destination. Mark Jude Poirer adapted the screenplay from his novel. [R] **

Killer Joe (Dir: William Friedkin). Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon. In debt to the wrong people, Texas dirtbag Chris (Hirsch) hatches a plan to make amends. The beneficiary of his mother's $50,000 life insurance policy is his little sister, Dottie (Temple). Kill mom, whom no one will miss, and everybody gets a share, including Chris's moron father (Church) and shrewish stepmother (Gershon). To perform the act, the cash-strapped Chris hires crooked Dallas detective Joe Cooper (McConaughey), who takes the child-like Dottie as a "retainer" for his services. And things get complicated (and delightfully weirder) in this atmospheric, really dark comedy featuring a stunning, coiled spring performance from McConaughey, who has spent a good portion of 2012 reminding us that his charisma has value beyond intolerable romantic comedies. Directed with gothic flair by Friedkin (The French Connection), this white trash film noir masterpiece doesn't have a lick of pretension. Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tracy Letts wrote the script, which is based on his off-Broadway play. [NC-17] ***1/2  

360 (Dir: Fernando Meirelles). Starring: Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Rachel Weisz, Ben Foster, Gabriela Marcinkova, Juliano Cazarré, Maria Flor, Dinara Drukarova, Jamel Debbouze. A gigantic international cast participates in this philosophical think piece on connections and life paths written by Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen). Law and Weisz are unhappily married in London. She's having an affair with a hunky photographer (Cazarré), whose fed-up girlfriend (Flor) returns to Brazil. On her way home, she meets a recently released prisoner (Foster) and an older gentleman (Hopkins) on a fruitless search for his missing daughter. Hopkins' character, now in Phoenix, then attends an AA meeting with a young married woman (Drukarova), who loves her boss (Debbouze), a morally conflicted Muslim dentist. And that doesn't include the subplots involving the gangster's bodyguard, a clueless prostitute, and her bookish sister. Morgan and Meirelles (City of God) encounter the two issues that befall many ensemble films: abruptly ended storylines and characters of inconsistent quality. What's frustrating with 360 is that the gaudy architecture dilutes the power of the film's message. Form doesn't follow function. Excellent performances—especially Foster and Hopkins—occasionally cut through the condescension. [R] **  

The Queen of Versailles (Dir: Lauren Greenfield). Florida's Jackie and David Siegel were determined to build their gaudy version of paradise: a 90,000 square foot mansion modeled after Versailles. (Their current house is a paltry 26,000 square feet.) Among the features in America's largest house: 10 kitchens, a ballroom, and a baseball field, which is totally practical since it doubles as a parking lot. Then, the stock market took its awful tumble, decimating David's time-share empire and causing the family to make sacrifices. "They might actually have to go to college," says an exasperated Jackie of her kids' suddenly not-so rosy futures. Greenfield lets her subjects speak for themselves, and she gets material better fit for a Christopher Guest feature. Jackie, now economical, loads multiple carts during a Christmas shopping run at Wal-Mart. The Siegels' nanny is overjoyed to move into the kids' old playhouse. David's solution is to work until he's 150—and he's serious. In this stellar, sober effort, Greenfield avoids turning high-maintenance Jackie and gruff workaholic David—whose marriage strains under the pressure—into caricatures. They're just hopelessly adrift, the result of countless years of distancing themselves from a reality they never planned on encountering. [PG] ***