Saturday, September 29, 2007

Into The Wild - B

In theaters. Rated R, 140 minutes.

The angst of upper middle class kids with every advantage is often annoying, but no less affecting than real 'angst.' Into The Wild is about one such kid, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), whose rebellion and angst cost him his life. The film starts out with his college graduation and follows him on his trip from Virginia to Alaska.

Sean Penn wrote and directed this film, which features a non-linear storyline with episodes from his journey intermixed with his 100 days in the Alaskan wild. Chris rejects his promising future and the careermindedness, materialism and hypocrisy of his parent's lives, and delves deep into Thoreau and Jack London for inspiration and a guidepost for his life. His is the classic male adolescent journey to independence, but instead of a phase, he carries it out to a tragic extreme.

The film is narrated by Chris' sister, who provides perspective and a connection to the real world during his travels. The best parts of the film are the scenes Hirsch shares with Catherine Keener (a traveling hippy with a missing son of her own), Vince Vaugh (a charismatic farmer in South Dakota), and especially Hal Holbrook (a lonely old man). These episodes offer up Chris chances to look himself in the mirror and realize the impact of his journey on others, but he chooses to ignore them by wrapping himself up in his smiley angst. Holbrook's scenes are the best, and they could have been expanded into a movie by themselves. The soundtrack, by Eddie Vedder, is excellent and it captures the mood and tone of the film perfectly.

Overall, the film is well directed, but the screenplay is weak (except for the sequences mentioned above) and the overall affect of the storyline cuts is a jumbled movie. The shots of Alaska and the wilderness are beautiful, but it doesn't take a talented director or cinematographer to make Alaska pretty. Hirsch's performance didn't impress me, and his character lacked depth. The portrayal of McCandless is somewhat messianic and positive, but I was sympathetic to his parents and everyone else that doesn't need to go on a self-indulgent trip to Alaska to exorcise the demons of a less than perfect childhood.

Pretty good, but not great. Roger Ebert called this movie spellbinding....he was wrong.

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Friday, September 28, 2007

Quirked Around

Must read article by Michael Hirschorn in The Atlantic Monthly about the obsession with quirk in pop culture (as defined by the author it includes a lot of what the writers on this site enjoy).

Opening Paragraph:
We’re drowning in quirk. It is the ruling sensibility of today’s Gen-X indie culture, defined territorially by the gentle ministrations of public radio’s This American Life; the strenuously odd (and now canceled) TV sitcom Arrested Development; the movies of Wes Anderson; Dave Eggers’s McSweeney’s Web site; the performance art, music, and writing of Miranda July; and the just-too-wacky-to-be-fully-believable memoirs of Augusten Burroughs.

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The Reagan Diaries

Released May 2007. 784 pages (13 hours on CD).

As someone that wasn't yet a teenager when Ronald Reagan left office, I have never been able to get past the archetypal Ronald Reagan, as characterized by the Left and the Right, to form my own opinion. This book is simply a collection of each of his diary entries while he was President, written in the first person. While it doesn't come close to giving the entire picture of his Presidency, it does go a long way toward understanding what made him click, and why he succeeded and failed.

The thing I hear most from liberal commentators is that Reagan was a dimwit and he and Nancy were weird spooks from old Hollywood. The diaries reveal a different Reagan than that, instead someone with a clear eyed (if naive) view of what he believed in and a firm resolve to work toward that. Crafting public policy and conducting foreign policy is massively complicated, with endless nuance and second-guessing. A president like Reagan that focuses on the big picture and refuses to back down or compromise unnecessarily is what it takes to lead the country in the right direction. My conclusion is that Reagan was no policy wonk, but his focused vision was more effective, and in concert with advisors like Secretary of State George Schultz, exactly what was needed at that point in our history.

The lionizing I hear on the right is that Reagan is responsible for everything good that ever happened. The book reveals that he raised taxes, conducted deficit spending, and likely had his 'big picture' approach abused by certain aides to achieve their own agendas. I still agree with these folks more...he cut the tax rate for the highest earners down from 50% and worked with Gorbachev to make huge strides toward ending the Cold War.

His vanity and desire for accolades was most surprising. Nearly every entry mentions that he had been the first president to do that or gotten more applause than ever before or a speech was the best someone had ever heard. He also calls Nancy 'mommy' and whines every time she left town. The passage regarding a columnist who had likened him to Hitler reveals a temper: his comment back to the columnist was that "If I am, he's the first in the gas chamber" - Ouch.

Reader note: I listened to all 10 CD's of this in my car over the last 2 weeks. I found it a perfect way to read this, especially because each entry is self-contained.

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The War

Ken Burns' documentary about World War II is in progress on PBS. I have watched a good chunk of it, and haven't been impressed. Part of it is my expectations for Burns, and part of it, I think, is that WWII has already been 'done' in American cinema and culture over the past 10-15 years. Instead of writing a review, I'll link to the review in The New Yorker, which I am in complete agreement with. Key sentence: "At fifteen hours, “The War” is too much of a not good enough thing."

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Errata (Wes Anderson/Darjeeling edition)

1. Hotel Chevalier: In connection with Wes Anderson's new movie, The Darjeeling Limited, he filmed a short film prequel for Jason Schwartzman's character with his estranged girlfriend (a 'natural' Natalie Portman) that is intended to be seen before the movie. It is available free on Itunes (open Itunes first) here:

2. Cool article on Wes and Owen Wilson:

3. Onion article

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Gracie - B-

Recently released on DVD.

In the late 1970s, a family obsessed with soccer suffers when the oldest son dies in an automobile accident. Their only daughter Gracie wants to follow in her brother’s footsteps and play on the high school varsity team. There is no female team so she must toughen up to play with the boys. Her father (Dermot Mulroney) is unsupportive at first but after she flunks some classes, steals the car, and acts as jail bait for some local college studs, he sees the error of his ways.

Directed by TV director Davis Guggenheim, the movie feels like a television movie, playing it entirely too safe with plotting, directing, and dialogue. Everyone feels to be running in low-gear. Even the musical choices seem stale. But the movie turns around when Elisabeth Shue stands up at an appeal to speak on her daughter’s behalf. The former Oscar-nominee not only gives a great performance, she pours much-needed emotion into the film. Makes sense. The movie is based on her teenage years. Needless to say, the ending is as predictable as it gets. But, if you don’t feel anything during the final scenes, you need to have a cardiologist check out that thing in the center of your chest – because there’s something wrong with it. B-

B- for this? Maybe Eastern Promises is a B+.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Eastern Promises - B

In theaters. Rated R. 100 minutes.

Naomi Watts is a London midwife who finds a young pregnant girl’s diary. The mother-to-be dies during pregnancy, but the baby lives. In an attempt to track down the baby’s family, she tries to have the diary translated from Russian to English. When her uncle refuses, she takes it to a restaurant connected with the diary. The restaurant owner (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is a member of the Russian mafia and is having trouble with his reckless son Sonny, I mean, Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Kirill and his driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) are setting up business behind the old man’s back, leading to violence, back-stabbings (literally and figuratively) and unnecessary songs featuring the accordion.
David Cronenberg’s follow-up to A History of Violence (A) once again features Mortensen, who is even more impressive here playing a rising member (ahem) of the Russian mafia. His accent never falters and his stony exterior hides warmth his eyes can’t. Cassel is less successful in a tough role, but Mueller-Stahl is solid as the grandfatherly figure who will kindly kill you if you get in his way. Watts is her usual excellent self, able to express ranges of emotion and turn on the tears when necessary.

In A History of Violence, the brutal violence commented on America’s fascination with violence. You were forced to really look at the effect of violence and examine yourself. Cronenberg seems to be getting off on the violence in Eastern Promises. The brutal deaths here don’t really add to the messages of denied hope and the suppression of females through sex. The climactic (ahem) scene occurs when 2 Russian thugs attack Nikolai in a bathhouse. Viewers should be prepared to witness the Full Aragorn. It ends up a memorable stunt, but signifies very little. Maybe I’m a being too harsh since A History of Violence was my favorite film of 2005, but: B.

Medical note: In most placental abruptions, the baby dies while the mother lives.

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Friday, September 21, 2007


1. Wes Anderson has directed several new American Express commercials:

2. Mikhail Gorbachev for Louis Vuitton, by the Berlin Wall.

Not sure why, but this feels wrong. Gorbachev is essentially trading on the Cold War and his place in history for handbags. Interesting, to say the least....I guess he really does like capitalism more than communism.

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Death Proof – B+

Grindhouse wasn’t in theaters long enough last Spring for me to get around to it. Its 3+ hour running time probably didn’t help at the box office. Now, Grindhouse is being released on DVD, severed into its 2 parts: Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (released next month) and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (released this week).
Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) stalks young women in his stunt-car which has been rigged so the driver’s seat is “death-proof”. He can cause car accidents and live while causing fatalities and dismemberments. The women he stalks in Tarantino’s latest 70s-inspired B-movie extravaganza are voluptuous, tough, and tough-talking. They talk – a lot – about music, movies, boys, sex, and everything in between. Vanessa Ferlito shines the brightest in the first set of chicks. It’s great to see fully-formed women play actual characters. You feel like you know these ladies and don’t mind the pages of dialogue.
The second set of women trade in the hips for biceps. Three girls (Tracie Thoms, Rosario Dawson, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead) are working on a movie in Tennessee and have a long weekend ahead of them. They pick up another friend (Zoe Bell) at the airport. Bell is from New Zealand and is a real-life stuntwoman (she performed the stunts for Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill movies). The resemblance is obvious, but her stunt-work is magnificent. Dawson is great but Tarantino’s dialogue is best served up by Thoms. These gals talk a lot, too, but it’s all a big set-up for the best car chase scene in ages. The last 20 minutes are, well, like a shot of adrenaline injected directly into the heart.
Tarantino’s immediately recognizable dialogue is great. No one writes for women like he does. He references car-chase movies from the 70s, as well as his own movies. In one extended take, women talk as the camera moves around them at head-level – a direct rip-off of Reservoir Dogs's opening scene. For fans of horror and slasher films, this may be a masterpiece. For others, you might wish he’d stop slumming and realize his potential as the next Scorsese. But he doesn’t want that – he’d rather be the first Tarantino. He’s definitely tilling new ground whether you want to walk on it or not. B+

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Lucky You – C+

Released on DVD this week.

I thought the extended poker scene in Casino Royale (2006) - (B+) nearly grinded the film to a halt. So I approached this one with some trepidation and was surprised when it wasn’t a complete bust. Eric Bana plays smooth-talking Huck, a gambling degenerate who is trying to get into the World Series of Poker. He is superb at reading the other players and bluffing, but his tendency to play from the gut keeps him in the hole. The always reliable Robert Duvall plays his father who has won the Tournament twice. Their unresolved issues concerning Huck’s mother drive the film.

At over 2 hours, the movie feels long and has too many anecdotes about Huck snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Drew Barrymore is Huck’s new love interest and she’s only playing herself. She really hasn’t shown any depth since 1982. The other secondary characters are borderline horrible. One of Huck’s male friends recently got breast implants, another (played by Horatio Sanz) already has man-boobs. (Insert Horatio Hornblower joke here).

Director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) does his best with this retread of a story. His best contribution is the source music – including the criminally underrated “Lucky Town” by Springsteen. There’s not one song that misses its mark – except the one that Barrymore sings - yikes. Hanson’s mechanics are as solid as you would expect from a veteran professional. Speaking of pros, Duvall does his usual Southern-fried stammering shtick (which I love). It’s too soon to tell if Bana has any real staying power, but the camera definitely loves him. He just needs to take a page out of Duvall’s book and loosen up. If they could have trimmed 15-20 minutes off and focused on the Bana-Duvall stuff, it would have played better. C+

P.S.: If you must watch one of these obsessive tournament movies with the father-son thing and great songs, The Color of Money (B+) will do.

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Upcoming TV highlights

Ken Burns new PBS documentary about World War II starts Sunday 9/23.

The Office Season 4 starts Thursday 9/27.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Down in the Valley, B+

On DVD (2006), 114 Minutes, Rated R.

Down in the Valley is an independent film that starts out like too many other independent films, with an inappropriate love story involving an underage girl and a misfit, but ends like too few, feeling honest and real. Edward Norton plays Harlan, a delusional cowboy with charm and an odd innocence who is swept up by the too-knowing, girl-on-the-verge, 17-year-old Tobe, played by Evan Rachel Wood. Their romance angers Tobe’s father, a police officer with demons of his own played by David Morse. He sees in Harlan every two-bit criminal he picks up every day. Eventually Tobe must push Harlan away, beginning a series of increasingly tragic acts of violence.

Norton is dynamite as Harlan, a cowboy searching for a way of life that no longer exists and a father who left when he was ten. Wood is solid here as well, bringing the conflicted feelings and surplus of emotion that marks late adolescents perfectly to the screen. The love scenes were honest if a bit much for me (Norton was 36 when this was filmed, Wood was 17) and seem oddly prophetic now considering Wood’s current love, Marilyn Manson. The film is largely about fathers: what happens when they leave, their flaws, how much we all need one, and how they do or don’t show love. But what really struck me was the dignity writer/director David Jacobson invests in every character. He mourns, and in so doing allows us to mourn, every death, even the needful ones. It’s not a perfect movie, but I can’t quit thinking about it. B+

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Words of Wisdom

From Fred Dalton Thompson:

The Hunt for Red October
As an aircraft carrier admiral: “Russians don’t take a dump, son, without a plan.”

Die Hard 2: Die Harder
As an air traffic controller (looking at weather satellite): “Look at this new front moving in. Makes its baby brother look like chickensh!t.”

In the Line of Fire
As the White House Chief of Staff: “You think the French want to knock off the president? Are you nuts? They love him.”

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Harold and Maude - A-

On DVD (1971). Rated PG, 91 minutes.

I never thought I'd like a 36 year old movie about a weird teenager falling in love with a 79 year old free spirited woman. Within the first 5 minutes, however, I knew this was a classic. Harold (Bud Cort) is the disaffected son of a domineering mother (his father is dead) and the two of them live in a palatial home and are extremely wealthy. He is obsessed with death and suicide, and fakes suicides throughout the film. Maude (Ruth Gordon) is a wild and vivacious 79 year old that steals cars on a whim and embodies a 'wise hippy' outlook on life. The two of them both attend funerals of people they don't know, and meet when Maude approaches Harold.
The two couldn't be more different in age, demeanor, experience and outlook, yet they make a great pair and, ultimately (yech) a couple. They slowly form a bond over stealing trees and fall in love. Along the way there are great scenes with Uncle Victor, Harold's one armed military general uncle. His 'salute' mechanism made me laugh out loud. There are multiple classic shots and sequences from Director Hal Ashby, such as the montage of shots of Harold's elders at their desks with their 'leaders' in a portrait to the side, Harold's look at the camera, the opening sequence/credits, shots of Harold at the therapist and all of the suicide 'gags'. The soundtrack is from Cat Stevens, and is perfect (it includes the theme song from Ricky Gervais' series, Extras).
The film intelligently and artfully deals with women, depression, suicide, death, love, parenting, wealth, and a host of other issues. Its strength is its lack of irony that spoils similar films made more recently, as well as its deep exploration of happiness and life in general.

I put this in my Netflix queue after seeing the poster in an obvious homage in Pedro Almodovar's 'Y Tu Mama Tambien'. It is weird to see these touchstone films out of order, 36 years later. This film feels like The Graduate or Garden State, with a little Dr. Strangelove and lots of Wes Anderson. Wes looks, acts, and dresses like Harold, and the film's pacing, soundtrack, tone and characters are all reminiscent of one of his films. This is a must see. Trailer:

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Trainspotting - in 10 Pictures

Ewan McGregor’s star-making role. He’s so charming here that in the next 94 minutes, you’ll almost forgive him after he commits statutory rape, turns a clean friend on to heroin, and steals from the public and his friends.

The lighting at the entrance and exit of the heroin den has a very hellish quality.

Still can’t understand a single word Robert Carlyle (as Begbie) says during the film.

Great positioning of McGregor in front of Travis Bickle.

Interesting that the protagonist has his back turned here. Is it foreshadowing that he will turn his back on his friends? Is he looking away from the train to accomplish something more substantial with his life? Or is it merely homage to the back cover of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”?

Great choices of music throughout the film, particularly in this overdose scene where some of lyrics to Lou Reed’s “A Perfect Day” provide another layer. By the way, you don’t typically shoot Narcan into the air.

The most effective substance withdrawal scene ever caught on film.

Lots of mirrors in the movie, often when Renton’s making a big decision.

Just when you think director Danny Boyle has run out of ideas, he creates this brilliant “Abbey Road” homage.

“So why did I do it? I could offer a million answers, all false. The truth is that I'm a bad person, but that's going to change, I'm going to change. This is the last of this sort of thing. I'm cleaning up and I'm moving on, going straight and choosing life. I'm looking forward to it already. I'm going to be just like you: the job, the family, the f@cking big television, the washing machine, the car, the compact disc and electrical tin opener, good health, low cholesterol, dental insurance, mortgage, starter home, leisurewear, luggage, three-piece suite, DIY, game shows, junk food, children, walks in the park, nine to five, good at golf, washing the car, choice of sweaters, family Christmas, indexed pension, tax exemption, clearing the gutters, getting by, looking ahead, to the day you die.”

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Who is your match?

There really isn't an entertainment angle on this post (except a strained Law & Order connection), but I found this 2008 Presidential candidate quiz very good. It is quick to answer with good analysis of your results. I'll put who I matched up with in the comments section.

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Recent DVD Releases

All of the following were dutifully reviewed by my collaborators during their theatrical run. For some of the reasons stated in Lawyer’s review of The Kingdom, I check out most movies on DVD. Included are the original reviews which I basically agree with, + or -. We’ll start with the best and begin the slow descent to movie hell.

The Lives of Others: - Original review:
Perfect framing in every scene. Maybe 5-10 minutes too long, but smart, gripping, and emotionally affecting. A-

Away From Her – Original review:
There are great performances from Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent(who manages to be unknown and familiar at the same time). Director Sarah Polley has great visuals and paces the film well. It’s so close to a B+ until it devolves into an Alzheimer’s version of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. That, and the unnecessary cheap shot about Iraq. B

Blades of Glory – Original review:
Will Ferrell seems to have an endless supply of one-liners, as evidenced by the DVD outtakes. The movie runs many of the same jokes over and over again, but they’re funny. Boy, are they funny. B

Shooter- Original review:
The action sequences are well done and exciting. Even more impressively, the movie takes time to develop character. Too bad it doesn’t know how to wrap it up, seal the deal, or land the plane. B

Fracture/Disturbia: – Original reviews:
In Fracture, Hopkins and Gosling are both better than the material, but do have fun with it. It’s like watching Primal Fear in a mirror (that’s a good thing). B- I was skeptical of Shia LeBeouf until Disturbia, which he carries effortlessly. B

300 – Original review:
I expected to like this more, but it turned into an over-directed, machismo, R-rated version of a single Lord of the Rings battle. At least we have a new gold standard for style over substance. C+

Smokin’ Aces – Original review:
I was surprised how much I disliked this. It didn’t help that (spoiler) all my favorite characters were killed first (Peter Berg – love the reading glasses, Ben Affleck – best performance in years, and Ray Liotta). C-

Bobby – Original review:
Lawyer nailed it. Without the excellent archival footage of Robert Kennedy, there is minimal redeeming value here. C-

Year of the Dog – Original review:
My biggest split with the original review. I’ll admit that Molly Shannon has a dramatic talent which I didn’t expect. It’s too bad the screenplay asks her to steal money from her company, indoctrinate a child she kidnaps to become a vegan, and blame her innocent neighbor for her dog’s death. Didn’t you leave the dog out? When I saw who directed this pile during the closing credits, I wasn’t surprised. I hate writer-director Mike White’s world view. He has, in past films, celebrated infidelity (The Good Girl), approved of stalking if the stalker is gay (Chuck and Buck), and honored unqualified “teachers” who use their students for selfish reasons (School of Rock). Plus, his dialogue is as bland as his name. D+

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Kingdom - B+

In theaters September 28. Rated R, 110 minutes.

"Does Allah love your kids more than mine?"

This line, delivered by a grieving father (Tim McGraw, in a cameo), sums up the underlying premise of The Kingdom. Directed by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights), this film follows an FBI team that is sent to Saudi Arabia to investigate a massive bombing and killing inside an American compound. Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper, and Jason Bateman star, with support from Jeremy Piven.

Berg lays the foundation for the film stylishly and effectively during the opening credits, and opens with an American softball game in Saudi Arabia. The bomb detonates and he cuts to the US and Jamie Foxx leading the charge to get his team sent to Saudi Arabia to examine who is responsible for the bomb (which also killed his best friend). Interesting scenes follow with lots of bureacratic doubletalk about whether anyone from the US should go; presumably if a US team goes, it will offend the terrorists and could lead to more violence (ed. comment: vote Democrat in '08 if you think that is the right way to fight terrorism). Ultimately Foxx uses his media connections to hold possible indictments over the head of a Saudi official, and his team is allowed to go. While there, Foxx befriends the Saudi in charge of shepherding them around and the team ultimately achieves its objective.

The film reaches for an A, but doesn't get there. It is basically a smart jingoistic action film, which I happen to enjoy, and it does raise some thoughtful points on religion, bureaucracy, and the perpetuation of hate on both sides of the conflict. The characters are underdeveloped and too one dimensional for this to be a serious film, and the answers are too easy. Foxx and his Saudi counterpart do share some good (but cliched) scenes. The action sequences are first rate, and the audience even burst into applause after the 10 minute climactic scene.

Foxx is good in his role as team leader, a toned down version of his Jarhead drill sergeant (he does manage to work in a Terrell, Texas (his hometown) reference in). Bateman plays the generic slacker funny guy with the alternat-shirts character that must have been offered first to Owen Wilson. Cooper is wasted in a small role as a ballistics expert, and Garner is actually good (I am not a fan, sorry priest) in a role as basically a subdued Sidney Bristow.


What strikes me about films like this and United 93 is that the filmmakers go out of their way not to paint muslims with a broad brush, but it can't be avoided. In his press for the film, Berg has said he tried hard not to make this a Toby Keith "Boot in your a##" movie. Problem is, seeing muslims mowing down innocent Americans (which is a fact) just for being Americans does nothing but reinforce prejudices Americans hold toward the muslim faith. Some things are what they are. No part of Christendom condones or carries out mass murder in the name of God, but a decent percentage of the muslim population condones it and/or carries it out in the name of their god, allah.

Viewing note: Had the pleasure of having a 4 year old with his mom, dad, and 14 year old brother at the movie with us tonight, which let us hear his crying (scared at the extreme violence) and snoring (after he cried himself to sleep), as well as his sucking on a bottle (yeah, he was 4). Makes me sick to have a kid that young in a movie like that. Also, in the men's restroom after the movie, I walk in to see a guy hairier than teenwolf at the urinal with his hand up resting on the wall while he peed. Awesome.

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New Trailers:

1. Bucket List. Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman star in this Boomer weep-fest about 2 guys with cancer that resolve to do everything on their 'things to do before I kick the bucket' list.

2. Youth Without Youth. Francis Ford Coppola's new movie, starring Tim Roth. Hard to tell what's going on in the trailer, but its set in the 1940's.

3. Juno. Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking) directs Michael Cera, Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner in this accidental pregnancy dramedy. Looks good, and has a somewhat different angle than Knocked Up.

4. Gone Baby Gone. Ben Affleck co-wrote and directs this film based on the novel by the same name (by the Mystic River author). Casey Affleck, Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, and Michelle Monaghan star in the Beantown child abduction/neighborhood toughs thriller. Hard to distinguish the plotline from Mystic River, but actually looks pretty good.


1. The American Film Institute is celebrating its 40th anniversary by screening 11 classic films in LA for the public, introduced in person by the primary artist for each film, most notably One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Nicholson introducing), Shawshank Redemption (Freeman Introducing), Star Wars (Lucas Introducing, and Unforgiven (Eastwood Introducing).

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Quick Hits

American Graffiti (1973) - B+. Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss and Harrison Ford star in George Lucas' directorial coming out party. Set in 1962 in the Valley in California, the tracks the last night in town for some graduating high school seniors before they head to college. The film has some interesting dialogue, and the way Lucas weaves the storylines is effective. The soundtrack is phenomenal, trotting out every 'americana' hit possible from the 50's and early 60's. This is Dazed and Confused for Baby Boomers. If I were 60 or thereabouts, this would probably have been an A for me. Trailer:

When We Were Kings (1996) - B+. This is a documentary about the "Rumble in the Jungle" boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, and doubles as an ode to Ali. It won the best documentary Oscar in 1996, so I gave it a shot. It was interesting to learn about the fight and some of the video of Ali is riveting just because of his audacity. The best parts of the film are Norman Mailer's commentary and the fight itself. Waaaaaaaaaay too many goofy African music interludes. Trailer:

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Shop Girl - B+

On DVD, Rated R, 105 minutes

Shop Girl is a small, devastating film dealing with the nature of relationships. It’s Steve Martin’s baby (he wrote the novella it’s based on and the screenplay as well as co-starring and co-producing), but Claire Danes as Mirabella owns the picture. Mirabella is a Vermont girl moved to L.A. to get out on her own and make it as an artist. Until the big break, she’s working at Saks selling high-end gloves to high-end patrons while living in a low-end apartment. Jason Schwartzman is Jeremy, a stencil artist (?) making ends meet selling amplifiers. Schwartzman, quickly becoming pigeon-holed as the go-to artists for complex roles that are not easily pigeon-holed, turns in a great performance here. Jeremy meets Mirabella at the laundry, and they share an awkward date and a more awkward one-night stand. Enter Steve Martin as Ray Porter a 50-year-old single bachelor with money and style who begins dating Mirabella. Ray is complex, caring and understanding but emotionally as cold and vacant as the modern house he indwells.

This film is difficult to categorize. It’s about love but is not really a romance. It’s comedic at moments, but not often enough to be a comedy. That really only leaves drama, but that’s not quite it either. It feels a little like Lost in Translation, another film that’s tough to group. Whatever it is, it’s beautifully filmed, with gorgeous scenes and its own interesting pacing. My only complaint is the voice-over by Martin (confusingly not as Ray Porter, but as a narrator only). While it is sparse, sometimes Martin says things that are obvious, tossing platitudes about that insult the audience. Still the ending rings true, and, if the narration is black-and-white, the characters aren’t.

This film probably isn’t for everyone and, I’ll admit, plays into my own special brand of neurosis. But for me it was an achingly beautiful surprise. B+

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