Saturday, March 23, 2013

Why the Hell Did I Watch? "Fear"

I had just watched Aurora Borealis (which is absolutely lovely, by the way) and was in a sedentary groove that comes from a day off. And then I stumbled upon James Foley's ridiculous ode to teen love gone crazy, and I couldn't stop watching.

In my haze, I realized that Fear works best if you constantly scream at the characters like a douchebag. Like, "Ah, no, Judging Amy don't answer the door" and "Ooh, Gil Grissom, kick Marky Mark's ass." It was glorious to do this alone in my living room; my wife probably disagrees. I'd probably die from ecstasy if I did this in a movie theater.

Fear is one of those movies that I watch because I always forget about what happens. Then, I watch thinking that the thing will improve. It doesn't. Then I kick myself for having watched 35 minutes of Mark Wahlberg and his stupid menacing whimper-whisper.

I will say this: The ending is truly phenomenal. William Peterson throws Wahlberg out the window, but it looks like Wahlberg is blasted out of a cannon. And I love the crunch sound at the end. (Go to the 1:45 mark.)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Review of "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone"

I didn't find the movie to be magical 
No funny anecdotes about this one, though I will say that Olivia Wilde has to get a better agent. Otherwise, she's going to be the next Jessica Biel and she's better than that. Ditto Gillian Jacobs, who plays one of Steve Carell's conquests. Ugh...

Anyway, here's the review, which appeared in The Weekender

Friday, March 8, 2013

Review of "21 and Over"

Which one was in an Adam Sandler movie? 
I really have nothing to say about this movie, which I feel like I've seen 12 times before, that isn't  in my review for The Weekender. So, read it here.

Doesn't it seem like 10 years ago that Miles Teller was in Rabbit Hole? Now he's turning into Seann William Scott. Uh-oh...

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Film Round-Up, March 2013: Ginger & Rosa, Lore, A Place at the Table, Let Fury Have the Hour

Annette Bening and Elle Fanning in "Ginger & Rosa"

In this edition of the Film Round-Up, a solid array of movies. I'll be honest here. There are months where I feel I knock the reviews out of the park, and there are months where I barely get the ball out of the infield. This felt like the latter. I think part of it was exhaustion, another was having to see several movies in two days. The thoughts didn't get a chance to simmer like they should. 

This is one of those times where the writing felt like a job. I apologize if the reviews are below par. 

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


Ginger & Rosa (Dir: Sally Potter). Starring: Elle Fanning, Alice Englert, Christina Hendricks, Alessandro Nivola, Timothy Spall, Oliver Platt, Annette Bening, Jodhi May. In 1962 England, misfit teens Ginger (Fanning) and Rosa (Englert) are inseparable. Ginger is an aspiring, fatalistic poet worried about nuclear warfare. She latches onto Rosa’s brazenness, but what’s most noticeable is how their days have a boring poignancy. They are each other’s companions in the endless expanse of time that is growing up. That rapport is shattered when Ginger’s unbearably academic father (Nivola) moves out of the house and grows increasingly interested in Rosa, which leaves Ginger with her self-pitying mom (Hendricks) and two family friends (Platt, Spall). I’m not exactly a fan of Potter’s past work—the intellectual coldness of her films is hard to penetrate and even harder to appreciate. However in Ginger & Rosa, she has constructed a tender, original growing- up tale buoyed by terrific performances (including Fanning and Hendricks, surprisingly) and a refreshing lack of sentimentality. Haunting cinematography by Robbie Ryan. FYI: Englert is the daughter of director Jane Campion (The Piano). ***1/2 [R]

Lore (Dir: Cate Shortland). Starring: Saskia Rosendahl, Kai Malina, Nele Trebs, André Frid, Mika Seidel, Nick Holaschke, Ursina Lardi, Hans-Jochen Wagner. In the waning days of Nazi rule, 14-year-old Lore’s world falls apart. Her oafish Nazi officer father (Wagner) and mother (Lardi) are imprisoned, forcing Lore (Rosendahl) to care for her four younger siblings. With food and money dwindling and their safety compromised, she then has to escort them to their grandmother’s house through the war-torn countryside. A mysterious young refugee (Malina) comes to their rescue and tags along, an arrangement that stirs complicated feelings in Lore. The rare movie that trusts the audience to interpret the events on screen—a hard feat considering the swirl of drama involved—which allows for a refreshing, emotionally rewarding alternative to the war-is-hell genre. Instead, we see a girl’s innocence get peeled away layer by layer, thanks to Shortland’s artful restraint and Rosendahl’s gripping, artifice-free performance. In German with English subtitles, this was Australia’s official selection for the Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film. ***1/2 [No rating at press time]

A Place at the Table (Dirs: Kristi Jacobson, Lori Silverbush). Jacobson and Silverbush’s documentary takes a measured, eloquent approach to examining an issue that affects a shockingly large number of Americans. Fifty million are food insecure, meaning they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. One in six don’t have enough to eat. A level-headed examination of the causes of the problem—the high cost of fruits and vegetables, the federal government allowing charity to handle the masses, the uselessness of food stamps—is coupled with a compassionate, humane look at people who know hunger on an intimate level. In Philadelphia, Barbie, a single, unemployed mother struggles to feed her two kids even after she lands regular employment. Meanwhile in rural Colorado, Rosie, a fifth-grader, and her family are part of a growing community that relies on food banks and free hot meals. Uses logic, facts, and compassion in equal doses to make its points. Terrific interviews ranging from Marion Nestle to actor Jeff Bridges, cofounder of the End Hunger Network. ***1/2 [PG]  

Let Fury Have the Hour (Dir: Antonio D’Ambrosio). Director-writer-producer D’Ambrosio examines creative response as a way to deal with the conformity that started to waft over America and England in the 1950’s and culminated in Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s conservative reigns in the 1980’s. From a pop culture perspective that meant rap, punk rock, skate boarding, and artistic movements such as graffiti. D’Ambrosio’s intention is impressive, but the subject’s vastness is overwhelming and the connections dissolve when you start asking questions: Where do jazz and stand-up comedy and Beat poets fit along this spectrum? Why no mention of the Beatles, Elvis, and James Brown as the innovators behind these musical movements? How do these rebellious acts get into the mainstream without losing credibility, and thus impact? Let Fury Have the Hour comes across as a frequently intriguing, but ultimately incomplete, cultural history whose good intentions get lost amidst the constant pontificating and diversions. D’Ambrosio also wrote the book the movie is based on. Also available on demand.
**1/2 [NR] 

The Big Review: "Emperor"

This still is as exciting as it gets in "Emperor," unfortunately.

Matthew Fox is quickly becoming this decade's Dermot Mulroney. This is not how you build a career, unless you want to marry Catherine Keener. If that's the case, then go right ahead. 

This review appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission. 


Emperor’s greatest asset is also its biggest liability. Tommy Lee Jones, wielding his cantankerous charisma like a saber, plays Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He’s not the star. That designation goes to Matthew Fox (TV’s Lost, Speed Racer), whose professional clout mostly comes from his handsomeness.

Aside from being a tad stiff—perhaps a symptom of being confined to starchy WWII-era military garb—Fox gives an OK performance. But it still causes a constant state of confusion to hang over the movie. Why isn’t Jones in every scene, bringing crackling energy to a movie that’s perpetually running on empty? It makes as much sense as hiring the Black Keys and having them open for Maroon 5.

That’s par for the course in Emperor, a military procedure drama with little drama and a romance containing scant traces of romance. Director Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring) is working from a muted palette, and Jones is the only vivid color. You enjoy him when you can.

It’s August 1945. The United States has bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, turning Japan into a smoldering crater and leading to its surrender. After the U.S. military rounds up the country’s war criminals, there’s the matter of determining Emperor Hirohito’s role in the war. MacArthur assigns the task to General Bonner Fellers (Fox), who has 10 days to file a report.

That’s way too soon, Fetters says, but the venerable general doesn’t care. Fetters compiles a who’s-who of Japan’s political players. Interviewing these men is beyond difficult. Hirohito is considered a god in Japan, so the interview subjects aren’t exactly forthright. And there’s the small matter that anti-U.S. sentiment in Japan is sky high, so a negative report could lead to revolt.

Fetters’ intimacy with the country goes beyond his military obligations. In college, he fell in love with Aya, a Japanese student (Eriko Hatsune). While he hunts for more information about Hirohito, Fetters enlists his Japanese driver (Masayoshi Haneda) to pick up the trail of the grand romance that ended several years ago.

The romance and the investigation, the movie’s two big plotlines, both get bungled. What’s so surprising about Aya and Fetters’ romance is its limpness. Even their meet cute—she drops some papers, he picks them up—is boring. If war is hell, then the love arising from that period must save the soul. Where’s the sweaty bonding in a dumpy motel room, the vengeful tryst in the back of a Jeep? In real life, the rapport between these two wouldn’t make date three, most likely dying at a silent, awkward dinner in Ruby Tuesday’s. Here, it’s impossible to believe that Aya’s memory plagues Fetters’ every step.

Fox may be a Professional Handsome Guy but the lack of heat isn’t entirely his fault. Neither is the sluggish pacing of the investigation, which boils down to a series of conversations between Japanese government officials and a stoic Fox. It’s hard to build momentum—even in a “time is running out” scenario—around offices and conference rooms, so I’m curious why Webber and writers Vera Blasi and David Klass didn’t play around with the narrative. Include insider scenes from Washington, D.C. or more from the splintering Japanese government. Show MacArthur’s political aspirations instead of having someone telling Fetters that. The story proceeds in a straight line, and Fox doesn’t have the power to compel us to ignore the story’s faults.

Jones does. Emperor shakes off its stodginess whenever he’s around, whether he’s getting off a plane or wondering how in the world you talk to a god. The Oscar-winning actor is reaching the point where, like Sean Connery or Jack Nicholson, he can just play Tommy Lee Jones. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But there is something wrong with a movie that asks us to invest our attention in a less interesting character played by a serviceable actor when two superior alternatives are right there. [PG-13]

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Q&A: Paul Giamatti and Don Coscarelli

A combination that works. (Shame about the Bubba Ho-Tep sequel.) 
It's weird how things work out sometimes. I was given two six-minute interviews with these gentlemen, which spelled death. What in God's name was I going to do with six minutes? It takes me three minutes to say hello to people. 

But I think this turned out really well. The key, I've learned, is to cut to the chase. Have a game plan ready, say a polite hello, and let's go. It also helped that Giamatti and Coscarelli were pleasant and eloquent, especially Coscarelli. Yes, the dude behind Phantasm and Beast Master is a mensch. 

Honestly, though, I would have loved 35 minutes with either guy. Soon, child. Soon. 

This interview originally appeared in the February issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission. 


Paul Giamatti, the actor’s actor, loves variety. Don Coscarelli, the horror maestro behind Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep, has never been content to just throw gore on the wall and see what sticks.

These two men, who abhor the obvious, were meant to be together.

Giamatti has a supporting role in and is an executive producer for Coscarelli’s latest, John Dies at the End, a delightfully trippy, time-skipping adventure. (You can read my review on page TK.) Two things stand out about the film, opening February 8th in Philadelphia. First, Giamatti doesn’t go beyond his assignment. And that’s why he’s invaluable here and elsewhere: He can cooperate for a film’s greater good as well as lead the band. Second, Coscarelli shifts from shock to laughs to insight without losing momentum or creating annoyance. 

In separate phone interviews last month, Giamatti and Coscarelli briefly talked about John Dies at the End, working together, and their careers.

Giamatti is first.

Pete Croatto: I don’t know how to predict what you’re doing next. Since the summer, you’ve been punched in the face by a monkey (Rock of Ages), appeared in a Don DeLillo adaptation (Cosmopolis), and now a movie from the man behind Phantasm. How would you define your career path at this point?

Paul Giamatti: Oh, an unholy mess. I’m glad to hear you say it, that’s exactly how I like it. I don’t know where I’m going to go next; I don’t know what I’m going to do next. I do know what I’m going to do next, but I don’t like to have a plan. I like to do as many different kinds of things as I can. I just feel like it keeps me interested. It keeps me young. I feel like it’s kind of my job to go far afield and find different kinds of things to do.

PC: It seems like John Dies at the End ties into that.

PG: Yeah, sure. I enjoy movies like this. I enjoy kind of genre things like this and haven’t gotten much of a chance to do something like this. And I particularly enjoy Don’s movies, so yeah, this is something out of left field, but part of something that I’d been looking to do—a bit more fitting with the no plan thing.

PC:  I know that you and Don had wanted to do a sequel to Bubba Ho-Tep, but that fell through. How did the two of you first meet?

PG: I was working in Prague on a movie called The Illusionist and I became aware that a guy that I liked named Eli Roth [the director of Cabin Fever and Hostel] was also working there. You’re in Prague, why not hang out together with the other people making another movie? I got together with him, and he was talking about Don. I had always liked Don’s movies—I had recently seen Bubba Ho-Tep, I was very enthusiastic about it. And he said, “Well, I know him.” And he kind of got us together when I was in LA the next time. Don and I went out and had a meal and he started talking about the sequel to Bubba Ho-Tep that he wanted to do. We became friends and tried to work on that, but it was Eli Roth that got us together.

PC: I remember first seeing you as a screen actor in Private Parts, which blows my mind. It will be sixteen years old this year.

PG: Wow, wow…

PC: Did you ever think that part would be a springboard to a remarkably varied career?

PG: No, no. I loved doing that movie. That was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had making a movie. I was doing stage acting, and I figured that’s what I would do, which would be great. And I did not figure that that movie would particularly lead to much else at all. I guess it sort of did. I just started following the movie stuff that came along, and ended up doing more movie stuff than stage stuff.

PC: So, there was no master plan: “OK, I’ll transfer from stage to screen”?

PG: No, no. In fact, I’m going to do a play [Hamlet at the Yale Repertory Theater] again in a few weeks and I haven’t done a play in eight years or something like that. I was kind of shocked to realize it’s been that long that I haven’t done a play. I never intended not to be doing theater. If I had any plan, it was that I was going to do theater and subsidize a theater career by doing whatever TV or movie stuff I could do. And then it just changed into something else.

PC: What is it about the stage that you love?

PG: Everything about it is so different. It’s kind of a clichéd thing to say, but stage is the actor’s medium. You’re in control of it. The live audience and the audience’s reaction. And the physical space of it, there’s something I actually really miss: the freedom to think around in that space and act with your whole body, not sort of just your head for the most part. I miss it. It’s really fun. It’s kind of joyous in a way. Films can be totally great. It’s hard to describe [the theater]. It’s just a different thing. 

PC: How are you going to squeeze that performance in? You’re promoting this film, and looking at your IMDB page, it looks like you have half a dozen projects that are upcoming or in pre-production. Do you like being this busy?

PG: Not really, it’s too busy. I’m a little too scattered right now…A lot of those things I think are probably done. I have something to do in Texas and then I’m going to do the play. [Laughs] I’m a bit more lazy than it would appear to be.

And, now, Don Coscarelli.

Pete Croatto:  As a director, are you more attracted to the visual aspects of the story or the emotional? Because in watching Bubba Ho-Tep and John Dies at the End and even Phantasm, there’s a bit of a yin and yang going on.

Don Coscarelli:  Well, I like ‘em both. To me, there’s nothing like a movie that can capture you emotionally and, at the same time, a beautifully composed and designed shot. I come from a photography background and I just revel in that kind of stuff. I don’t know if I can pick one or the other. I like to shoot for both if I can.

PC: I don’t want call them horror movies, because it seems almost like a disservice to what you’re trying to do.

DC: One thing I’ve noticed during the process of this publicity it’s like retrospectively revisiting my career. It’s interesting that you bring this up because I look back at the movies and I think what I started in Phantasm and continued in Bubba and now into John is to really explore mashing up genres if you will. Phantasm was on many levels a horror film, but it was also a science fiction film, it was also a fantasy film, and it was also a comedy and it was also an action film. It had a lot of different things going on. And then I think about Bubba Ho-Tep in a very similar situation. We ostensibly had a movie about a mummy who is 4,000 years old at an old folks home, but the focus of the story [was] this drama—this story of dying with dignity—of these two old geezers. But at the same time it talks a lot about how we as a culture treat our elderly. It worked on a lot of levels, and I think John does the same thing.

PC: It’s very funny and it’s memorably graphic but there’s this philosophical side to it that caught me off guard.

DC: It really does. Some of the elements were in David Wong’s book. He had some monologues by some of these different characters, and I really tried to have them preserved in the movie because it was talking about some really deep subjects. In the context of this movie…I think we make that work.

PC: When I saw that Paul Giamatti was in your movie, my curiosity was piqued. Did you have any reservations working with him? How did it go?

DC: It went beautifully because the guy, in my mind, is one of the greatest actors working on the planet. To have him in a modest-budget horror film, or whatever we’ll call it—a mash-up—is a gift. To top it all off, he’s a decent and funny guy and a huge genre fan in his own right, so that part of it was great. And working with him was a total dream. The other great part about him is that, by nature, we used some lesser-known actors to play our two leads, especially Chase Williamson [who plays Dave, the film’s hero]. He had just gotten out of college, he had been in, like, one YouTube project video and his absolute first acting job of any sort, he’s on the first day of shooting with me and filming eight pages of dialogue with Paul Giamatti. Paul led him through it and made it happen. Some of the best acting in the movie is those two guys in the Chinese restaurant.

The Big Review: John Dies at the End

The young stars of "John Dies at the End" go around, through, and over the looking glass.
So goofy and bizarre you can't help loving it. This review originally appeared in the February issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission. 

And, yeah, consider this review the end of my Oscar bitching, which really is a tradition onto itself. 


For the past month, the buzz surrounding Oscar nominations has turned movies into a big plate of vegetables that we have to eat. This year’s big nominees—Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty—all have purpose: the grandeur of American history, love (or a dance contest) conquers all, current events come alive. It almost makes me feel guilty for enjoying The Avengers or 21 Jump Street as much as I did.

This solemn façade never holds for too long. Ironically, the first two months of the year are also when studios display their damaged goods in the hopes that someone might take them. OK, we got Marlon Wayans! He’s stale, but your kid might like him! Yo, who wants Gangster Squad! Gosling and Stone aren’t quite ripe for a mob movie, but they’ll blossom! As a movie fan, every year I go through the same routine: the giddy anticipation of November and December gives way to the grim desperation of January and February.  

Occasionally, one of these new misfit toys will do more than provide relief from the suffocating fumes of prestige or remind us that Cedric the Entertainer is still alive. Don Coscarelli’s John Dies at the End, opening in Philadelphia this month after playing On Demand, possesses an intoxicating, raggedy energy. You’re not sure where Coscarelli is taking you, but we don’t mind. The ride is the movie.

John Dies at the End, based on the book by David Wong, has a center. A young man named David (Chase Williamson) talks to a newspaper reporter (Paul Giamatti) about his abilities to cross time and dimensions, thanks to being injected with a black substance called “Soy Sauce.” David and his similarly affected buddy John (Rob Mayes) battle all sorts of paranormal problems--like demons made out of meat, for example. They have made powerful enemies. That happens when you can slow down time and hear other people’s thoughts, I guess.

Coscarelli, probably best known for Phantasm (as well as its three sequels) and Bubba Ho-Tep, has made a career out of going beyond campy first impressions. Despite its content—horror at a funeral home; Elvis Presley and JFK battling a mummy—those two movies possessed a goofy self-awareness to go with their sensitivity. Coscarelli brings that same fun to John Dies at the End. Unlike M. Night Shaymalan or the Wachowski siblings, he can express intellectual curiosity without the pretension. David and John’s issues—which include attacking moustaches, giant insects, and (why not?) world destruction—aren’t treated solely as an excuse to comment on the constraints of time or to offer insight into expanding our horizons. For the two friends, it’s an inconvenience. OK, so distressed citizens from the future consider them a savior. They’ll get right back to them after shooting hoops.

That Giamatti, perhaps America’s finest actor, is involved here isn’t accidental. Smart actors—and rabid movie fans—already know that it doesn’t matter if a movie is a blockbuster or a character study or a romantic comedy. Good movies are good movies and serious movies aren’t necessarily good movies. The Academy Awards has turned forgetting those facts into a yearly tradition, which is how Les Misérables and Life of Pi become the year’s best. Movies like John Dies at the End exist to make sure we don’t fall into that trap. [R]