Thursday, May 16, 2013

Review of "The Great Gatsby" (2013)

Actually, I would have preferred if Luhrmann had adapted The Happy Banana, which gives me an excuse to run this terrific clip. Carey Mulligan can bring the funny, people!

Oh, and if you want to read my review of The Great Gatsby for The Weekender, you can read it here. Really pleased it with for a strange reason. That never happens.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Film Round-Up, May 2013: "At Any Price," "Mud," "Koch," "To The Wonder"

In this edition of the Film Round-Up: Heather Graham looks great, but her career? Uh...Matthew McConaughey's streak continues....The Ed Koch bio is quite good...And To the Wonder is a lovely poem of a film. 

My professional life is pretty isolated -- if you followed me on Foursquare, you'd probably kill yourself -- so it's always nice when to meet colleagues. And it's not just to prove that I can spit out sentence fragments and limply shake hands. 

When I went into New York last month, I met two people whom I've corresponded with and even worked for: Will Leitch, whose work I've admired for a while. (I also wrote a couple of pieces for Will when he edited Deadspin.) And I ran into Jesse Hassenger, the witty critic for The L Magazine, who is also a Twitter pal. Jesse, incidentally, is the first Racket writer I've ever met in the physical world. Strange.

Meeting these two gentlemen was a highlight. It's so nice to know people outside their avatars.

Anyway, my apologies for just getting this stuff up now. I used to be vigilant about posting, but as my writing load has increased, the blog is getting pushed to the side more and more. Stuff will still post, but it won't be at the speed of my younger days. I'm trying to accept that. 

Boy, making a living is tough! I've hard to start my day at 10:30 a.m. now. I'm like a goddamned farmer. 

These four reviews all previously appeared in the May issue of ICON, and are reprinted with permission. Please read these, as I'd love to know if captured To the Wonder in less than 200 words. It's about robot detectives, right? 


At Any Price (Dir: Ramin Bahrani). Starring: Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Maika Monroe, Kim Dickens, Heather Graham, Chelcie Ross, Clancy Brown, Red West. The corn country of Iowa is the setting for this modern-day family drama. Henry Whipple (Quaid, looking pained and awkward) is a seed salesman and farmer who wants to pass down the family business but finds no takers. One son is out climbing mountains in Argentina; the other, Dean (Efron, finally shaking off his awkward teenage star blues), is the town hotshot. He’s more interested in pursuing a NASCAR career than sweating over soil samples. As Dean and Henry butt heads, both deal with a heap of personal and professional issues that seal their futures. Bahrani and Hallie Newton’s overwrought, clunky script may steer audiences’ eyes toward their watches—or the exits. Every character is presented as a problem, a font of prairie wisdom, or, in Graham’s unfortunate case, a slut. Bahrani so overwhelms the story’s strong emotional foundation with conflicts that he overlooks something important: we have no reason to care about anyone in this confounding, frustrating movie. [R] **

Mud (Dir: Jeff Nichols). Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker. Grungy Mississippi River boys Ellis (Sheridan, The Tree of Life) and Neckbone (Lofland) head to a small island to claim their bounty, a boat nestled in a tree, only to find that a charismatic, shaggy-haired refugee named Mud (McConaughey) is living in it. Ellis takes a shine to the man and offers food. The rapport grows deeper. Eventually, the boys try to reunite Mud with his girlfriend (Witherspoon) before an angry Texas mobster (Baker) discovers him. Writer-director Nichols (Take Shelter) delivers a fugitive story with different spins, all of them pleasantly surprising and heart-warming. Occasionally, it’s a growing-up story with Sheridan’s Ellis providing a splendid example of how to be a kick-ass young adult. Then, it’s about how women can turn the most stoic men into emotional wrecks. At the heart of Mud, and what makes it a gritty treasure, is its exploration of male relationships. Every man needs another man to love. It could be your dad, an uncle, or a filthy fugitive with superior muscle tone. Sheridan and McConaughey are excellent. [R] ***1/2

Koch (Dir: Neil Barsky). It’s very easy to categorize Ed Koch, the three-time New York City mayor who died February 1 at age 88, as a borscht belt bully; a guy who was a little too in love with himself and his agenda. This touching documentary provides a heaping dose of perspective, and not just in defining Koch’s political legacy in New York, which includes affordable housing and starting Times Square’s renovation. Barsky provides context to Koch’s personality. He embraced the theatrics of politics. Whether it was staging a relationship to quell rumors of his homosexuality (never confirmed) or playing the role of heavy with the press or putting on his “how I’m doin'?” everyman shtick, Koch knew how to get the city’s attention. Love him or hate him—and Barsky finds plenty of sources in the latter camp—Koch represented the politician as schmoozer. The public life was his life. Away from the cameras and hellos, Barsky shows a man unfamiliar with the concept of solitude. Koch, a Jew, is buried at Trinity Church’s non-denominational cemetery. His reason? It’s bustling. A stellar directing debut from Barsky, a former journalist. [NR] ***

To The Wonder (Dir: Terrence Malick). Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams, Tatiana Chiline. Malick’s latest tone poem/meditation on the everyday has Neil (Affleck) bringing paramour Marina (Kurylenko) and her child (Chiline) from Paris to suburban Oklahoma, where domesticity slowly poisons everything. She and the child leave. He stays and begins a new relationship with a childhood acquaintance (McAdams), one his taciturn nature can’t sustain. Marina returns. Resentment builds. And in the middle of all this the town’s priest (Bardem) finds his faith crumbling. Like he did in The Tree of Life, Malick uses cryptic, thunderous narration and Emmanuel Lubezki’s museum-worthy cinematography to present (to paraphrase Tennessee Williams) a haunting memory film. With intense relationships, we don’t remember the details. It’s the grandness of our feelings that lasts. Some will call Malick’s presentation pretentious; others will call it brilliant. Say anything you want; don’t say you’re not engaged. So many directors spoon-feed us the answers. Malick, bless his heart, never stops challenging us to think beyond concrete concepts. [R] ***1/2

The Big Review: "What Maisie Knew"

Julianne Moore with her possession, ah, daughter (Onata Aprile) in What Maisie Knew
I can't think of a better movie to celebrate Mother's Day. Wait, that's not right.

This review previously appeared in the May issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission. Yo, Philly: The flick opens on May 24.


The six-year-old endures the shouting and the name-calling. It goes on all day, so there’s no choice. Her options are few. She can’t leave. She can’t fight. So she observes and catalogues the slights.

She looks up a lot, like she’s praying for a reprieve.

What Maisie Knew, directed by veterans Scott McGehee and David Siegel, is a stirring examination of a child stuck in purgatory. It captures the knee-high world of its title character (Onata Aprile) while illuminating the flaws of adults.

Maisie’s parents, Susana (the indispensible Julianne Moore) and Beale (Steve Coogan), are too busy engaging in a non-stop verbal battle to pay much attention to their daughter. The words no longer impact Maisie, who just makes a snack or grabs a tip for the pizza guy while mom and dad shout through closed doors. The one stable adult presence is Margot the nanny (Joanna Vanderham), whose warmth and enthusiasm provides an umbrella from the storm inside.

Predictably, Susana and Beale part ways. Things, however, get worse for the most mature member of the family. Susana, a fading rock star, is so consumed with getting custody that she hastily marries nice guy bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) to score points with the judge. It’s the desperate whine of an overgrown child who wants her doll back, and matrimony doesn’t quell Susana’s shameless narcissism. When Lincoln bonds with Maisie at her recording session, a hurt Susana intercepts the attention and asks Maisie to join her in the booth. Beale, concerned about his career momentum, marries Margot after a courtship of about five minutes. (Guess the maid was off that day.)

Susana and Beale’s new spouses learn very quickly that they are around to do the unpleasant work: pick-ups and drop offs and making meals and ostensibly raising Maisie. Margot and Lincoln, who don’t treat Maisie like an adorable prisoner shuffled between luxurious New York City confinements, grow to love the child, and she them.   

Siegel and McGehee, working from Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne’s screenplay, proceed with no preciousness and tons of assurance. By having every scene focus on or around Aprile, who acts like a kid instead of a kid actor, we get a merciless, impartial judge who doesn’t miss a thing. A child doesn’t care about limitations or intentions. That’s adult stuff. Results matter. That observational frame means the filmmakers don’t have to traffic in obviousness, and we can see the characters’ shortcomings as flaws, not cartoonish traits. Aided by Moore and Coogan’s fine, measured work, Susana and Beale’s biggest crime is that they love themselves more than their daughter. Meanwhile Skarsgård and Vanderham’s ease with each other tells you more about their burgeoning relationship than any monologue could.

What Maisie Knew doesn’t need to shout. It lays out the action and trusts you to put everything together. Still, there were times watching when I wished the movie, an update of Henry James’ novel, were more cutting and more obvious. Too many couples are in Susana and Beale’s situation, and they got for the same set of stupid reasons. The baby was a must-have accessory or an item to be checked off the “I can have it all!” checklist. Or maybe, consumed by disappointment and unmet expectations, they thought a kid would fill the void or make them better people.

Rants rarely make for good movies, and the message of the last, lovely scene in this quiet gem is, in its own way, very loud: The problems of adults belong to no one else. A child’s only responsibility is to be a child. [R]

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Marta Kauffman Interview

Man, this image brings me back to 1991.
The creator of Friends is from the Philly suburbs and the movie she produced (the entertaining Hava Nagila (The Movie)) is out today. So that means I'm back writing for The Philly Post. You can read the Q&A right here.

I grew up loving Friends and Dream On. Speaking of the latter show, it provided a terrific ice-breaker this time around. As a 14 year old, I adored Dream On, but not in the way you think. Instead of enjoying the copious female nudity and sexual escapades, I related to the sad-sack tendencies of the central character, Martin Tupper (Brian Benben).

Tupper, I should mention, was a 35 year old divorced dad. When you're a teenager you gravitate toward heroes full of woe -- especially if they're having copious amounts of sex. And because 14 year olds are idiots, I wrote an essay comparing myself to him that is committed to a notebook that I'm too afraid to open. God forbid my wife finds it.

I hadn't thought of that essay for years, but as I prepared for the interview, I remembered it. And I also thought that it would be a great conversation starter. So, after we introduced ourselves, I said:

"You know, Marta, I'm a big fan of your work. Somewhere in my house, deep in a box, is an essay that I wrote about 14 year old me comparing myself to Martin Tupper that I hope no one ever sees ever. So thank you."

She laughed uproariously. We were off. And she was fantastic.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Review of "Pain & Gain"

Michael Bay: The director who thought the wood chipper was the star of Fargo
Sorry for the delay. I had to wait for my rage to subside. You can read my review of this hot mess in The Weekender right here. The good news is that it made me appreciate Iron Man 3 all the more. So, that counts for something. I think.