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 RogerEbert.com. 

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.

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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 fa├žade; 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] ****

The Big Review: "Blue Jasmine"

Not pictured, a streetcar or a lady selling roses. 

A sweet and sad movie, and a fine effort from Allen. Cate Blanchett should get some consideration come Oscar time. (And, yes, I heard that Ellen DeGeneres is hosting this year. She's perfectly agreeable, but she's not dynamic me to watch genuinely or loathsome enough to hate-watch.)

Anyway, this review appeared in August's ICON and is reprinted with permission.


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A common complaint about Woody Allen is that his films profile a certain type of New Yorker: the urban dandy who wears a sports jacket to dinner and never has a roommate. These characters walk in rarified air—or take a cab if the weather is too chilly.

Blue Jasmine’s title character (Cate Blanchett) is an extreme example, a toned-down Queen of Versailles who considers Pilates and yoga part of her busy schedule and hosting a marketable skill. Such a high society nitwit begs for derision. Allen doesn’t go for the easy target. In his mind, Jasmine is permanently adrift. Thanks to the director’s compassion and Blanchett’s splendid performance, Blue Jasmine breaks our hearts instead of filling them with malevolent glee. And it’s a better, more substantial movie because of it.  

Jasmine, who has taken to talking to herself, is hanging by a thread when her plane lands in San Francisco. Her late husband (Alec Baldwin, whom we see in flashbacks) lost their fortune after being busted for a series of shady financial maneuverings. Jasmine still dresses like a politician’s wife and even flew first-class. Her sister and temporary host, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a grocery store employee, is confused. Isn’t first-class really expensive? How’d she end up there? “I just did,” replies Jasmine, as if she was being asked how one breathes. 

Ginger’s apartment—her whole life, really—is a severe disappointment to Jasmine. When she first enters the perfectly serviceable abode—and this is where Allen’s deft touch and Blanchett’s acting mesh—you can hear her world shatter as the director tours the main room. Forget about the cramped quarters. Its Southwestern-colored walls and flea market art assault Jasmine’s cream-colored, subdued sensibilities. Everything in San Francisco is harsher. The colors are brighter. The people she meets want more than an in at Le Cirque. Ginger’s boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), is a mechanic whom Jasmine immediately despises. He’s as refined as mozzarella sticks and has a short fuse, but his biggest flaw is that he traffics in realism. Chili hasn’t known Jasmine a day but keeps asking her what she’s going to do. There’s a vague notion of returning to college. What will she study? How will she get there? She hasn’t thought that far ahead.

Even without the Xanax and stiff drinks, Jasmine has woven a cocoon of delusion so thick that it’s impossible for her to break free. So she plays the role—her wardrobe remains immaculate throughout—hoping someone will provide a new, glamorous set. Until then, she’ll tell her sob stories and relate to Ginger by criticizing her lousy choice in men—while failing to see that Chili and her ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay, who’s great) are real and loyal and loving. But that damned reality. It always ruins how we want to see things.

There are more than a few similarities to A Streetcar Named Desire here, starting with the displaced, cracked belle forced to reunite with her shabby sister and grease monkey beau. Allen does not ride the same tracks for too long. Jasmine gets a job as a dentist’s receptionist while learning how to use a computer. Ultimately, the goal is to go online to become an interior designer. Sure. The class goes far beyond Internet basics, and the dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) throws himself on Jasmine, who storms out. 

She’s appalled by his behavior, I think, not because it is inappropriate. The dentist has committed the cardinal sin of seeing Jasmine at her bottom. This becomes evident a few scenes later, when she concocts a fabulous and false backstory upon meeting Dwight, a dashing almost-ambassador played by Peter Sarsgaard, at a party. Materialism governs Jasmine’s life. The flashbacks portray Jasmine and Hal as a husband and wife in name only. They’re playing roles. Jasmine, elegant and beautiful, gives Hal class; Hal gives Jasmine everything. “Is there anything you want that you don’t have?” he asks at one point. He was Jasmine’s conduit to a lifestyle. Dwight is a replacement. She doesn’t fall in love for who Dwight is but what he represents: a handsome man with political aspirations and a huge new house that can host a Gatsbyesque party. Jasmine can’t be saved. What’s worse, she doesn’t even know it. 

Blanchett offers a gut-wrenching performance, but it’s not so grand that we don’t see who Jasmine is and what Allen is saying about us: we are this close to losing our way, with only our memories to keep us company. The last time I checked that problem is not unique to the Upper East Side.