Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Big Review: "Gravity"

When the beat goes on, and you can't go on...
Forget about the IMAX and 3D nonsense, it would be a classic in any era. (Just like 2001.) This review previously appeared in ICON and appears with permission.

With Gravity, director Alfonso Cuarón has made a masterpiece via a simple, frequently forgotten fact: the best movies in any genre are built on emotions. Stars come and go. Budgets increase. The technology gets better and faster. But the need for audiences to feel something is an unquenchable desire, and Gravity satisfies it better than any movie I’ve seen in years.

Far above the earth, a five-person crew repairs a satellite, which slowly drifts into view from right to left. We pick up snippets of conversation between the crew and mission control. That’s the extent of the set-up. It’s a humdrum stretch during another workday where the routine lulls everyone into a complacent efficiency.

The announcement of oncoming debris doesn’t come with much urgency. What’s supposed to be nothing turns into a catastrophe; the satellite and ship are destroyed, leaving astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) tumbling through the vast blackness, their chances of survival evaporating with each second. No one can hear them. Help is not coming. They are truly alone. 

Doom creeps in, slowly and assuredly. I saw the 3-D version of Gravity in the newly renovated Prince Music Theater, which is now equipped with all the digital trimmings that will make movies better and cure cancer or whatever. Cuarón uses the technology afforded him for what is: a complement. Gravity grabs you through traditional mastery: the reflection of the earth spinning in Stone’s helmet as she goes topsy-turvy; the shot of a family photo next to the poor bastard whose head looks like a hollowed out pumpkin. A Marvin the Martian figurine floats into the frame, and then—oh my God! Wait, was that a piece of debris? Move your ass, Stone!

You can count the number of cuts on two hands in the film’s first 45 minutes. Frequently, all we hear is the whirring of machines or a heartbeat as the soundtrack. Cuarón establishes an intolerable and never-ending loneliness. Stone keeps talking to mission control, almost out of habit.

Kowalski, essentially Clooney’s Danny Ocean in a spacesuit, is smooth-talking calm. He guides her. Through their clipped conversation, we learn a bit about Stone. She’s a workaholic. Her child died unexpectedly. She listens to anything on the radio when she drives home from the hospital. Bullock, to her credit, holsters the charisma and sports a borderline mom haircut that dampens the glamour. That she and Clooney don’t always take roles equipped with halos helps immeasurably. If Julia Roberts or Will Smith were the stars, their agents would have demanded that they ride back to Earth on a comet. With Clooney and Bullock on board, not trying to triumph over the material, we honestly don’t know if Stone and Kowalsky are going to make it.

Especially Stone. Space is where she can stay comfortably numb. Now that her paradise is lost, how badly does she want to live? How many obstacles can she summon the strength to overcome? Cuarón uses Stone as his social commentary. We’ve grown so reliant on things—technology, religion, outside forces—to guide our lives that we’ve stopped believing in the abilities of the human race. Stone represents a different kind of change, which is why we believe in her even when she’s stopped doing that herself. We need her to survive.

Gravity folds its allegory into the horror of Stone and Kowalski’s predicament. The excitement never dims the message and vice versa. One of the great thrills is watching Cuarón keep this balance throughout—catching us off-guard with the special effects, letting Stone battle to find her resolve, knowing when to whisper and when to shout. Everything about Gravity is seamless and assured yet brimming with the soul of an optimist. Cuarón has captured and amplified the human experience without isolating us from it. We lose and find ourselves all at once. [PG-13]

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Film Round-Up for October 2013: Don Jon, Inequality for All, Blue Caprice, Salinger

Joseph Gordon-Levitt overexerts himself in his directorial debut.

Kind of a mixed bag this month. A review of Gravity will be up Thursday night, so that should be fun, no? But the review is in the print version of ICON, which you can pick up right now.

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

Don Jon (Dir: Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headley, Brie Larson, Rob Brown, Jeremy Luc. What matters to twentysomething Jersey bartender Jon (Gordon-Levitt) can fit on a postage stamp. Topping the list is online porn, a pursuit he prefers to the sex he regularly gets. Jon’s priorities shift when his desire to hook up with a “dime” (Johansson) turns into an actual relationship. Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut starts with lots of energy and smarts—Jon doesn’t realize that his dream girl is playing him like a fiddle—before running out of ideas. A working-class cartoon, complete with dem-dese-dose accents and greasy leering, then emerges. The worst part of this quest for “authenticity” is whenever Jon and his father (Danza) meet for Sunday dinner. Donning wife-beaters, they compete in a Stanley Kowalski-off while the TV blares football and Jon’s mom (Headley) wails about not having grandkids. By the time Moore’s pointless character arrives, Gordon-Levitt is so consumed with establishing his blue-collar bona fides—and spoon-feeding us emotions a la David O. Russell—that he obscures his main character’s soul. We can’t root for a caricature. Don Jon is not only hopelessly disconnected to anything resembling real life, writer-director Gordon-Levitt embraces the Hollywood nonsense his main character openly disdains. ** [R] 

Inequality for All (Dir: Jacob Kornbluth). With this and last year’s pandering Bully, The Weinstein Company must stop being part of releasing documentaries that urge us to change at gunpoint (or at least via Website) and support movies where the content alone inspires viewers to act. Fortunately, Robert Reich, the Secretary of Labor under Clinton, is eloquent and intelligent in explaining why we have constant class warfare. Very simply put, America’s wealth is hoarded by a small number of people who don’t pay enough in taxes. That burden falls to the members of the vast middle class, a faulty plan considering those people spend the most money. Spending, of course, helps revive a sagging economy. Investing in the middle class—for example, higher education—is one way to straighten things out. The movie veers from Reich’s graphics-assisted rhetoric to his life story to profiles of real people. The last part is when the movie breaks the bonds of ideology and marketing slickness to become something audiences can appreciate. **1/2 [PG]

Blue Caprice (Dir: Alexandre Moors). Starring: Isaiah Washington, Tequan Richmond, Tim Blake Nelson, Joey Lauren Adams, Cassandra Freeman. Quiet, unsettling debut feature from Moors examines the relationship between John Allen Muhammad (Washington) and Lee Boyd Malvo (Richmond), the man and teenager behind the Beltway sniper attacks in 2002. They first meet in Antigua, where an abandoned Malvo, flocks to the charismatic Muhammad, who gives him work and food. Later, the pair heads to Muhammad’s old home in Tacoma, Washington. In America, Muhammad is just another disaffected, unemployable loser. Desperate for any adult influence, Malvo latches onto Muhammad and his anger at the world. Muhammad, finally, has someone who takes him seriously who is also in his debt. Moors and screenwriter Ronnie Porto show how easy it was for this tragedy to come together without offering much insight into how the killers’ minds operated. “You’re not going to figure it out, even if I tell you,” Malvo says to an investigator after he’s caught. The willingness to embrace vagueness gives Blue Caprice a coiled, cold menace--even if you wish it would boil over instead of simmer. *** [R]

Salinger (Dir: Shane Salerno). From our friends at TWC comes A Current Affair meets American Masters. Highly anticipated documentary of author J.D. Salinger (1919-2010) contains a stunning announcement that fans of The Catcher in the Rye scribe’s catalogue will relish. Other than that, things bottom out after Salinger reaches the crest of his literary success and morphs into a shut-in with a fondness for young women. Information gives way to distractions—whether it’s pundits offering theories or journalists recalling brusque encounters with Salinger. And, Lord help us, there are breathless, almost laughable reenactments such as Salinger feverishly typing on a stage bathed in atmospheric lighting, like he’s opening for Jethro Tull. The first half is solid because we actually learn something about Salinger the person and the writer. (The insights of his former paramour, Jean Miller, are particularly revealing.)  Salinger was so good at being inscrutable—tightening his inner circle, isolating his family and friends—that his mysteriousness is practically impregnable. For all of Salerno’s urgency and energy, not unexpected from someone who helped write Armageddon, we leave not understanding Salinger. I almost expect the late author would be pleased with this film. He’d be in a slim minority. Note: This does not refer to the newer version with exclusive footage. ** [PG-13]

Friday, September 13, 2013

Film Round-Up for September: "Morning," "Una Noche," "Short Term 12," "I Give It a Year"

Brie Larson (left), future Oscar nominee.
Reprinted with permission from ICON, here's an eclectic collection of reviews. The reason? Well, August and early September is a time when the new releases go on. Next month should be more promising.

"Short Term 12" was excellent. I'm rooting super-hard for Brie Larson.


Morning (Dir: Leland Orser). Starring: Jeanne Tripplehorn, Leland Orser, Laura Linney, Elliott Gould, Kyle Chandler, Jason Ritter, Gina Morelli. A married couple (real-life husband and wife Orser and Tripplehorn) can’t cope with the death of their young son. Over the course of several days away from each other their lives unravel. He reverts to the behavior of a child, playing with toy trains and eating Spaghetti-Os. She walks around like an anesthetized soul in a Swedish film, alternately zoning out or lashing out at those who try to comfort her. Orser, who also wrote and directed, has a good story and a knack for telling it through images. (The opening shots of the house—eerily quiet and unsettling—set the tone.) It’s a shame that Morning doesn’t have a narrative base to support its two main characters, so Orser and Tripplehorn (who is, to put it nicely, over her head here) come across as wailing theatrically instead of expressing their characters’ anguish. The way Morning is constructed we care more about the supporting characters than the leading one. Another crippling issue: a crucial plot point will make you wish Orser had used that as the script’s thrust. [R] **

Una Noche (Dir: Lucy Mulloy). Starring: Dariel Arrechaga, Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre, Javier Núñez Florián. Best friends Raul (Arrechaga) and Elio (Florián) long to leave the sweltering despair of Havana, where, according to Raul, all you can do is “sweat and fuck.” Salvation lies in Miami, 90 miles across the ocean, and in a barge constructed from wooden planks, inner tubes, and a prayer. Mulloy paints modern-day Havana as a pitiless pit of poverty and decadence, so you know exactly why the boys want to leave. But that doesn’t mean they should. Elio is in love with unaware ladies’ man Raul, who believes his long-estranged father will be thrilled to reunite. And Elio’s clingy twin sister (de la Rúa de la Torre) wants in because she cannot bear to be away from her brother. So many movies tell immigration stories that serve as triumphs of the human spirit. Mulloy shows that the desire to leave can be fueled by delusions. Just because the mission is noble and right, there’s no guarantee the participants will succeed. You are invested in Una Noche because its characters never stop battling against their fate. Filmed on location in Havana on 35 mm film. Inspired by a true story. [NR] ***1/2

Short Term 12 (Dir: Destin Cretton). Starring: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Keith Stanfield. Quick-witted and no-nonsense, Grace (Larson) effectively supervises a halfway house for troubled youths. Her personal life is a different story. She’s in a serious relationship with her co-worker, Mason (The Newsroom’s Gallagher Jr.), who clearly loves her. That’s not enough. Grace’s unfortunate past prevents her from opening up, while a recent development forces her further inward. Throw in the arrival of a new charge (Dever), who reminds Grace too much of her own troubled childhood, and Grace’s carefully constructed equilibrium threatens to shatter. Larson (21 Jump Street, The Spectacular Now) is fantastic in a star-making turn—she is dramatically compelling while remaining fragile and human-sized—but she’s surrounded by fantastic performances, including Stanfield as an 18-year-old resident who is afraid to leave the only loving environment he’s ever known. Directed and written with assurance and heart by Cretton, this might be one of 2013’s best films when all is said and done. [R] ****

I Give It a Year (Dir: Dan Mazer). Starring: Rose Byrne, Rafe Spall, Anna Faris, Simon Baker, Stephen Merchant, Minnie Driver, Jason Flemyng. Business executive Nat (Byrne) and novelist Josh (Spall) had a whirlwind courtship. Now closing in on a year of marriage, the two cannot stand each other. And more appealing options have emerged. Nat is enchanted with her client (Simon Baker), a rich American who is also handsome and intelligent. Josh, for reasons never made entirely clear, gravitates toward his ex-girlfriend (Faris). Everyone knows who should end up with whom, but director-writer Mazer’s idea of originality is to overstuff his frantic affair with “inappropriate” humor. So we have to endure Faris getting tangled in a threesome, stuffy parents viewing risqué honeymoon photos, and a marriage therapist shouting at her husband David Mamet style. This bombardment can’t hide a glaring omission: Mazer, a longtime collaborator with Sacha Baron Cohen, forgets that a romantic comedy—even a spoof of one—must feature people we actually have some affection for. Even the wonderful Byrne can’t help much this time around. [R] **

The Big Review: "Lee Daniels' The Butler"

Standing in the shadows of history.
Oh yeah, this will get a ton of Oscar nominations--though I won't care if that happens since it's quite good. Sorry for the tardiness of the review. It's been obnoxiously busy around these parts. 

This review previously appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission.


Making a crowd-pleasing historical film isn’t that hard. Making a good one is damn near impossible because it’s so tempting (and easy) to cater to the lowest common denominator. Just show stock footage that reminds us of more challenging times, making sure to reveal the sentimental spot in that historical briar patch. This is usually done by having a character comment about “how those days were so, so tough.” And highlight the fashion and music of the good old days, because nostalgia is the cement that holds the rickety structure together.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler, based on a 2008 Washington Post profile, never chokes us with its historical swoop—interactions with presidents, various social movements, and oh so many hairdos. Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong are more concerned with telling a good story about a father and son divided—and later reunited—by history.

Growing up on a Georgia cotton farm in the 1920s, Cecil Gaines saw his father shot to death by a white man. Young Cecil’s reward was that he was taught to be a “house nigger” or butler, a skill he took to a fancy hotel in Washington, D.C. and ultimately to the White House, where, according to the movie, he served presidents Eisenhower through Reagan.  

Along the way, Cecil achieved a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, complete with a wife (Oprah Winfrey) and kids, which was miles away from the cotton fields. In 1957, this is a dream life for most, especially African-Americans. Times are changing. Older son Louis (David Oyelowo) looks at the world differently. As a butler, Cecil is taught that “the room should feel empty when you’re in it.” Louis is tired of living life as an invisible man, forced to stay on one side of the line. He leaves for college in Tennessee fully intending to fight the power. 

Years pass. Cecil (played in his adult years by Forest Whitaker) continues to serve in the White House while Louis looks to forge a new identity, taking up the cause of the Freedom Riders, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Father and son grow further apart, even though each is making progress. Cecil is there for the Voting Rights Act; Louis holds vigil at Woolworth’s lunch counter and faces the unforgiving blast of fire hoses.

Louis thinks he knows everything, dismissing his father’s job—one that gives a black man dignity in a world where it’s hard to come by—as the career of an Uncle Tom. The young man expresses his views from a distance and without context, not realizing that Cecil’s hard work has allowed him the ability to protest. And Cecil, committed to a lifestyle of being neither seen nor heard, doesn’t realize that the acts of kids like Louis are why presidents are passing legislation to make things equal.

There is no Forrest Gump-like gimmickry. Remove the high-profile presidential cameos from Lee Daniels’ The Butler and you still have a searing family drama. I never thought I’d say this about Daniels, a director whose best-known work is either exploitative (The Paperboy) or an urban poor burlesque (Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire) but he’s finally learned to hold back. Instead of trafficking in schlock, he builds his scenes, taking the time to draw out characters in living rooms and front porches. The conversations feel real, not like historical footnotes. We always return to two men making their way in an unforgiving world: one by working twice as hard for half the pay, and the other by any means necessary.

The performances are lived-in, realistic, and keep you involved. Whitaker plays the lead role as a kind man navigating constant hurt, not as an observer to change. Terrence Howard is all oily charm as Cecil’s tomcatting neighbor, and it’s so nice to see Cuba Gooding Jr. find his swagger. Winfrey sheds her entitled air to play a woman whose increasing distance from her husband and her son cause her to drift into booze and questionable decisions. Her unraveling is treated as part of a family’s evolving history. Sometimes things are good, sometimes things turn bad. If we stick together, it’ll all be just fine.  

I think that’s why people have already flocked to see Lee Daniels’ The Butler. We need a reminder that we’re living our lives the right way, that what happened in the past led us to better times. People want their souls fed, and Daniels and Strong have offered a heaping plate of comfort food, a lovely, lyrical film that focuses on people, not pomp. 

Note (10/1/13)--It's come to my attention that Cecil Gaines is not the actual name of the butler profiled in The Washington Post story. It's Eugene Allen. My apologies for any confusion.

Monday, August 19, 2013

On Zander Hollander and the New York Times

This was an unbelievable experience. I grew up reading Zander's Complete Handbooks, so to shake hands with the man who defined a large part of my childhood was meaningful. It really was like shaking hands with my childhood. Also, the Times was a constant presence in my family's house, which makes this story even more bittersweet.

Click here to read the story.

Then to talk to such wonderful people: his wife, Phyllis (a woman of bottomless warmth), his daughter, Susan, and Eric Compton, a longtime collaborator. What a treat. Plus, the reaction over the last week has been, to use a rather ineloquent word, awesome. People have flooded Phyllis and Susan with phone calls and emails, shared memories in the comments section, and showed their appreciation for a sportswriting legend.

To be part of this is a reminder of why I love to tell stories: it's an opportunity to celebrate the past as we soullessly march toward the future. I'm looking forward to doing this again and again.

Rose Darling, My Friend

I had a nice chat with Rose Byrne a couple of weeks ago for Film Racket, which the peerless Matt Zoller Seitz was gracious enough to link on 

And, yes, she was positively charming. Great, hearty laugh. It's easy to see why so many guys love her. When I told friends and acquaintances that I was interviewing the Bridesmaids star, they were really interested. Marriage proposals were bandied, wives were discarded. I felt like a geeky freshman interviewing the prom queen. 

So, yeah, sometimes this job is pretty fun. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Film Round-Up, August 2013: "Drinking Buddies," "Prince Avalanche," "Lovelace," "The Spectacular Now"

These are the days! These are the party days!
In this edition of the Film Round-Up: Lovelace blows, a movie where Olivia Wilde gets to act like a human being, David Gordon Green's indie return, and Shailene Woodley gives the performance of her young life.

These reviews appeared in the August issue of ICON and are reprinted with permission.


Drinking Buddies (Dir: Joe Swanberg). Starring: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston. Kate (Wilde, never better) and Luke (Johnson) are co-workers at a Chicago brewery, though they’re really more of a work couple. So, why can’t they make the transition to dating? Well, Luke is attached to Jill (Kendrick), a sweet schoolteacher, while Kate is seeing Chris (Livingston), an older music producer who doesn’t appear to be an ideal fit for the freewheeling, let’s-close-down-the-bar Kate. When her relationship ends, it seems inevitable that Kate and Luke would immediately start sharing a toothbrush. Not so. Swanberg’s smart, unhurried drama reveals that such a situation is not something two people can just segue into. First come the half-gestures, unspoken words, and the feelings of others. And there’s the chance that you might not be relationship material: Luke approaches Jill’s talk of marriage like a kid forced to eat his vegetables. Some may hate the film’s open-endedness, but I think that’s what makes it so refreshing. Regardless, it’s nice to see a director finally take advantage of Wilde’s bottomless charisma. [R] ***1/2

Prince Avalanche (Dir: David Gordon Green). Starring: Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch, Lance LeGault. In desolate central Texas, two state workers spend the summer of 1988 painting miles of lines on an anonymous stretch of highway surrounded by fire-damaged forest. Alvin (Rudd), disciplined and serious, looks at the time as an opportunity to reflect and improve himself, two things that will surely help matters with his girlfriend. Alvin’s colleague, his beloved’s oafish brother, Lance (Hirsch), is more concerned about getting laid, a tough prospect in the middle of nowhere. As the days trudge by, both men’s flaws and strengths emerge, a pleasant surprise in this offbeat comedy-drama from Green (All the Real Girls, Pineapple Express). The writer-director explores the philosophical quirkiness of the situation—Alvin pretends to play house among the charred ruins; an old-timer truck driver (LeGault) pops up with booze and (maybe) a female passenger—but it’s never at the expense of these two misguided souls who are forced to confront themselves. Hirsch and Rudd, as you would expect, are excellent. The disappointment Hirsch expresses in recapping his version of a lost weekend is a highlight. Based on the 2011 Icelandic film Either Way. [R] ***

Lovelace (Dirs: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman). Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard, Sharon Stone, Robert Patrick, Chris Noth, Bobby Cannavale, Hank Azaria, Debi Mazar, Juno Temple, James Franco, Wes Bentley, Adam Brody.  Biopic examines the tumultuous life of Linda Lovelace (1949-2002), who became a national sensation thanks to her work in the insanely popular mainstream porno, Deep Throat (1972). As her fame grew, Lovelace’s svengali husband Chuck Traynor (Sarsgaard) turned possessive and abusive, even forcing the surprise starlet into prostitution. Actresses such as Malin Akerman have clamored to play Lovelace, though it’s hard to see why in this uneven slog. Epstein and Friedman foolishly divide Lovelace’s life into two halves, a happy version and an unhappy version. Neither segment portrays Lovelace as more than a little girl lost or a punching bag for the psychotic Traynor, so Sarsgaard’s terrifying performance is out of place with the film’s skin-deep approach. Seyfried does what she can with the simplified material, but there’s nothing she can do. The movie can’t decide whether it wants to be a campy reflection of a hedonistic time or a movie-of-the-week with nudity. Nobody—the actors, the audience—is winning that battle. Stone, in a strong supporting role, is unrecognizable as Lovelace’s perpetually defeated mother. Also available on demand starting 8/9. [R] *1/2

The Spectacular Now (Dir: James Ponsoldt). Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler, Brie Larson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Bob Odenkirk. High school senior Sutter Keely (Teller, Rabbit Hole) is perfectly content with his life as the good-time guy—charming, forever buzzed, and always ready for a party. After an especially boozy night, classmate Aimee Finicky (Woodley, The Descendants) discovers Sutter passed out on her lawn and helps him out. As they spend more time together, he charitably (in his mind) steers the friendship toward romance. When Sutter actually falls in love, he’s faced with a choice as graduation approaches: grow up or let the ambitious and mature Aimee move on without him. This ripe ode to young love is refreshingly nuanced and mature; Ponsoldt (Smashed) forces nothing. Teller and Woodley’s superb work take the movie someplace special. He captures the big heart and wounded soul behind Sutter’s party-boy façade; she embodies every cute, unjustly overlooked high school girl whose depth and warmth will distinguish her from the pack in 10 years. If you’re a guy with some mileage, Woodley will remind you of five girls you failed to appreciate back then; Teller will make you wish you knew then what you know now. The personal nostalgia of The Spectacular Now is painful, sweet, and nearly palpable. I loved this movie. [R] ****