Sunday, April 26, 2009

Good news!

Back sometime last year, I came across a notice for a critic opening at Not necessarily expecting much to come of it, I sent a resume and clips over. Around Christmas while I was at home in El Paso, I received an email from, yes, Emanuel Levy, inviting me to write for his site. For various reasons, it's been a bit of a rough transition. And up to this point, only a back catalog review of Barbershop has appeared. Dr. Levy does seem to see every film, and by the time I see them, he has a review up already. But this week, my review of Fighting appears there. Hopefully, with summer coming up, and more releases coming out, more of my reviews will make an appearance at a really great site that a lot of film lovers know.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Soloist

The Soloist[PG-13]
Grade: F
Cast: Robert Downey, Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener
Director Joe Wright

The Soloist is a true-life story of Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) who discovers and helps a schizophrenic former Julliard cellist (Jamie Foxx) living on the streets of the City of Angels. The film, directed by Atonement’s Joe Wright, features a lead character tormented by multiple voices in his head. Likewise, we can hear the multiple voices going on in the film’s head. Here are some samples:

Foxx: “Didn’t Geoffrey Rush win an Oscar for this?”

Downey: “I’m playing the burnt out middle-aged guy seeking his one moment of redemption. I should do my best to look like George Clooney.”

Wright and Director of Photography Seamus MacGarvey: “Remember how we over-sugared the images in Atonement? This time, let’s over-dry out the images of Los Angeles. I mean, we want to make Janusz Kaminski wince.“

Screenwriter Susannah Grant: “A woman! He needs a woman to bring him out of his insanity! No. that’s been done. A cello!” (Yes, I know. it’s a real story.)

Downey: “Wait, wait, wait! I’m the sane guy. So why does the crazy homeless guy keep making wardrobe changes while I’m stuck in the same clothes in every scene?”

Catherine Keener: “The kinda kooky ex-wife? Yeah, I can do that.”

Wright: “Hey Mr. Newspaper Film Critic! Notice how we threw in those little asides about the sad decline of the newspaper industry? Did you see how we even went so far as to have one staff member being escorted out after being fired, thus acknowledging and sympathizing with your precarious employment situation? It’s because we respect you, and we salute your service in the face of this injustice. And rest assured, it has nothing to do with us sucking up for good reviews. Honest.”

Wright: “More extras! More colors for the light show! More …. Three-ring binders for Downey’s desk!”

I mean seriously, there’s never been a reporter with that many binders and government documents spewed across his desk. I should know. I once was competitive for the world record.

This is a film with too many things on its desk –too many actors on its streets, too many people in the newsroom – and not enough things in its heart. So all that’s left is Downey’s taut work; had this film been released in Oscar season as originally planned, he would have set some sort of record for performances that were better than the rest of the film. Yet it’s far from able to save this sad tune. This is the type of film that gets too many Gentleman Cs, and I just don’t want to let it off the hook.


Tyson [R]
Grade B
Cast: Mike Tyson
Director: James Toback

Is Mike Tyson the ear-chomping, woman-hating, sticking-and-moving offense to public decency that some would say?

Or is he the family man, Muslim convert, and spiritual seeker that his supporters (and enablers) have described for so many years?

Tyson, director James Toback’s point-blank documentary look at the former heavyweight terror, suggests some of each. The movie is part accusation, part denial, part accidental confession, and part yearning plea to just see it his way for one minute.

If the quality of a documentary often sways with the quality of the subject, then Tyson is at least a respectable contender, if not an undisputed champion. In his prime, Iron Mike was not merely a dominant fighter but a dominant personality. That’s why he remained one of the sport’s biggest draws, even as a former champ chasing his youthful shadow. He survived on notoriety as much as talent, as if Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman were rolled into the same pair of gym shorts.

The intrigue of Tyson stems from his brave-or-foolish willingness to talk about his checkered life. Some athletes get jaded by neverending interviews, exhausted by the years of “ready to help the team” quotes cast into a million random microphones. This isn’t the case here. Listening to Tyson candidly re-trace his past, you realize he doesn’t care what he says or what you think. There is no filter.

Whatever else Tyson has been over the years, he has been, in the terminology of journalism, good copy. Partly this derives from an early press image that so closely hews to the self-improvement myth of sports – that the discipline necessary for athletics matures wayward boys into responsible men. This theory often accompanied Tyson in his youth, as he made his way from young street ruffian to world champion, but left him as he grew older.

Then again, good copy follows a walking tabloid, too. Late night fistfights. Arrests. Shady business managers. Blown fortunes. A destructive celebrity marriage. And the very famous moment when he took a jagged into champion Evander Holyfield’s ear. Among the interesting walks down National Enquirer Memory Lane is Tyson’s take on his trial and conviction for a 1993 sexual assault, an event that would send him to jail for two years. Tyson remains vehement in his denial of wrongdoing. And yet to make his case to the audience, he confesses to “taking advantage” of other women. Jaw meet floor. If Tyson was unpredictable in the ring, wait until you see him on camera.

As such, there are at least 12 rounds worth of secrets revealed. For example, the sexually overactive champion describes his burning motivation in one title fight. Tyson is enflamed by a different burning issue – did boxing save Mike Tyson? Watching it, you are shocked to learn the extent of the things he has done. Yet you also wonder what else he might have done if he had never picked up a boxing glove.

The film is noticeably curt about one relationship you would expect to hear more about – his love-hate relationship with flamboyant promoter Don King. There is a colorful description of a punch-up between the two. But the film offers an unexpectedly small amount about how the partnership went so wrong for Tyson personally and financially. Assuming this dance was as damaging as it has been portrayed, it should have been a more central focus. If the stories were not true, Toback owed it to correct the record. Perhaps there were legal reasons for the sparse treatment. Or perhaps Tyson clammed up. It would be interesting to know.

The film has Tyson telling his story straight to the camera – no talking heads, childhood friends, or indignant prosecutors to add “perspective.” Toback engages in only so much directorial perspective, relying on archival footage and Tyson’s sometimes teary narration. The veteran director lays down his main mark at the several points in which he splits the screen among three or four Tysons, all of them speaking over each other in a mass mumble. The idea is to suggest that Tyson is a man of multiple voices, little angels and devils exchanging right crosses on his shoulder.

Tyson generously argues that the angels ultimately stood at the center of the ring with hand raised. We’re treated to post-boxing images of Tyson clowning with his children and walking in the surf. We even learn the meaning of the tattoos that he wears. No man willing to share his tattoos with you can be all bad. The suggestion is that Tyson has finally found a level of peace with the demons inside. Still, this is hard to square with the man that the champion himself relates. So the question is, do you buy this? Or is this a new myth of Tyson waiting to be broken?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Today I consider myself the unluckiest man on the face of the earth!

OK, so I love this story. It's not movie-related, beyond that an enterprising documentarian might make it into an interesting film. It's a music story.

It's the story of a guitarist/bassist named Jason Everman. Why should you know Jason Everman? You shouldn't, and that's the point.

A long time ago, about twenty years in fact, in a town called Seattle, there were a couple of friends who were in a band. Wanting to record a debut album and supposedly needing some dough to cover the costs, they sought to add a fourth member to their three-piece outfit. The band hired a fourth member, who helped finance the recording. He got in on the promo photo. He got an album credit. But supposedly he never played a single note on the released album. The fourth member, a guitarist, hit the road with the band, but supposedly his stage presence was a little too "showbiz" for the band's punk ethic. Therefore, he was fired shortly thereafter.

That fourth member was named Jason Everman. The two friends, in case you haven't guessed, were named Chris (later Krist) Novoselic and Kurt Cobain. After several early name changes, the band had settled on the name Nirvana. So Jason Everman joined a long line of men whose patron saint is Pete Best, the drummer fired from the Beatles a few weeks before the release of "Love Me Do." So Jason Everman became the Pete Best of Nirvana. (Actually, arguably one of them. The drummer at the time, Chad Channing, would have his own Pete Best moment. In fact, Nirvana went through something like five drummers before hiring the sixth, Dave Grohl, a few months before Nevermind. Zillions of records later, Grohl must count himself as one of the luckiest men on the face of the Earth, considering his perfect timing.)

But that wasn't the end of Jason Everman's story. Having been fired by (he claimed "left") the then unknown Nirvana, Everman had the good fortune to latch on to play bass in another young Seattle band. With this band. he recorded a few Beatles covers that would later show up as B-sides or in collections. And naturally he got in on some promo photos and such. But once again, Everman was found to be out of step with the band's persona. So once again he was relieved of his duties. The name of that band was Soundgarden.

So Jason Everman managed to get fired not once, but twice by iconic bands that turned out to be on the brink of stardom. All within the space of about a year. As I've seen it said, that's like Pete Best getting fired by The Beatles and then getting hired and fired by The Who. Thus, Jason Everman joined the short list for unluckiest man on the face of the Earth.

But that's not the end of the story. Everman went on to join a band called Mindfunk. True to form, he lasted one album there. Likely frustrated at this point, Everman enlisted in the Army. It turns out that Everman was a much more successful soldier than a musician. In the military, he would join the elite Special Forces. He would see action in both Afghanistan and Iraq. And how do we know this? Because completely at random, he was interviewed for this New Yorker piece. The article covers a showing of a play about Iraq, with a group of veterans in attendance commenting on it afterward. It's an interesting interview. Everman sounds like a rational and coherent Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, talking about something close to a poet-warrior ideal. There's a funny moment in there. His friend mentions that he's already fulfilled the artistic ideal portion of his journey. Everman casually mentions he was a guitarist. The writer, naturally, only learned later that she had been speaking to a fascinating footnote of rock history.

So what is Everman doing nowadays? Oh, studying philosophy at Columbia. Not a bad gig, really. Pretty impressive. Would it be too glib to suggest that he has had plenty of experience staying philosophical? I'll say it anyway. If yiou believe in karma, you have to figure this guy will one day be President of the United States.

So anyway, Chad Channing. An interesting story there, too. Channing was the drummer for Nirvana's debut album Bleach. He laid down some demos for Nevermind that Grohl would later follow. How did he leave? It seems like there were a couple theories, mostly involving his desire to contribute to the songwriting. He actually gets a credit on Sliver ("Grandma, take me home/Grandma, take me home"). When that didn't happen, he "lost his inspiration" and was fired, or left, or something. That was a year before Nevermind. That gives him a legitimate claim to Pete Best status, particularly being a drummer. He played in obscure bands since then. Then suddenly a few years ago, he put together a band with him in the lead, named it Before Cars, and released some material. You got to salute the guy for plugging away.

There are some great articles out there about Pete Best types. The best, I think, is the guitarist who left The Police to join another band because he thought it had a better chance at success. The frontman for that band was a transvestite. Does that choice look as baffling to you as it does to me?

Friday, April 3, 2009


Adventureland [R]
Grade: A
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart,
Director: Greg Mottola

When a filmmaker decides to make the film of his youth, he soon faces a critical choice.

He can either set it in the past, as it happened, or he can update it to modern times, parading it inside contemporary clothing, slang, and cultural touchstones. In fact, this choice usually becomes a tradeoff. With the former you get authenticity. With the latter, you can market it better to today's teen-agers and thereby improve its chances at the box office.

The best recent example of the latter is Juno. A big hit, yes. But it strikes me that Diablo Cody’s pregnant heroine is a mid-90s teenager masquerading in the high school of today. As I’ve said before, Juno is like watching The Wonder Years episode set in Ridgemont High in which Kevin tries to get Spiccoli to ditch class and go to the peace rally. While I am more positive than negative on Juno, there is a distracting dissonance between the character and the times.

In the former category, you tend to get films of limited box office appeal that can turn out to be classics. Think Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Or Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan. Or Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. Beyond their humor and the filmmaker’s personal stamp of affection, these films allow you to soak in for one moment a time and place. They don’t become sensations. But they last.

Aside from some lapses where it sinks into merely being a movie, Adventureland, from Superbad’s Greg Mottola, is the latter - a nervy, nostalgic park ride through another man’s memory. It will be advertised as a comedy, but what it goes for is a plausible sweetness and a sense of the bygone, with humor occasionally wandering in. This film is such a gentle look at young adulthood; when they finally write the book on this era of teen/young adult films, this one should lead.

I could tell you that Adventureland, set in 1987 Pittsburgh, is the story of a recent college graduate forced to take a summer amusement park job to pay for an Ivy League grad school. The comparative literature major hangs out for a summer with the people he wouldn’t meet at school. He’s just at the age when the zits have worn off and he suddenly finds himself the object of female interest. He spends three months doing all the things he missed in high school – smoking pot, forging bonds, falling in love.

And yet the film belongs to all of its characters. The love interest, just damaged enough to be exotic. The lazy hipster cynic. The married skirt-chasing handyman (a really good Ryan Reynolds) There’s the park bombshell, forever locked in time writhing to “Come Go With Me,” trapped eternally in one lonesome moment of stonewashed glory.

Yet for all its head-meet-nail attention on characters, Adventureland stands out for its intangibles. It so hits the right mood, the enjoyable wasting of an unnecessary summer when everything seems to have stopped for three months. Driving around with a girl you like when you know something is going to happen, sooner, later. Being in a parking lot after work gossiping, joking, having a beer, and standing around in the evening heat. What Adventureland has done is capture that feeling so precisely, and spread it from corner to corner, that feeling of a summer job as a giant, confusing in-between.

So I figured it out. Kristen Stewart is the new Jennifer Connelly, in more ways than just having dark hair and blue eyes. A good girl but not an innocent. Sweet but damaged. In need of saving. She’s such a remarkably casual presence onscreen. Her Twilight alter ego Bella Swan has the right name – it’s impossible to tell how hard the webbed feet are paddling. Equal to her casualness is Jesse Eisenberg, who plays like a brainier Michael Cera without the shackles of perpetual awkwardness.

Adventureland slips late in the film, as it slouches toward expectation. It’s not a crime, but we know the story, that we get the ending that we want rather than the ending that we need? Still, as I watched the final lovers’ embrace, I found myself asking the most important question that an autobiographical film can get you to ask. Whatever happened to them? My inner cynic tells me to give them five months. The inner romantic tells me to wish for more. Only Mottola knows the answer. And he ain’t telling.

Paris 36

Paris 36 (Faubourg36)
Grade: C
Cast: Gerard Jugnot, Clovis Cormillac, Kad Merad, Nora Arnezeder
Director: Christophe Barratier

The first beauty of Faubourg 36 – aka Paris 36, or whatever we uncultured Barbarian Americans are calling it – is that the story of the film is wrapped into the story of the story.

Dedicated but talent-short amateur performers keep the paint fresh at a Paris people’s theater in 1936. A Hitler-loving meanie financier treats the theater as a socialist bug to be crushed under his jackboot. Desperate one night to soothe a rowdy crowd from their desperately lacking performance, they send out the pretty cigarette girl and …. Boy, can she sing!

The second beauty of Faubourg 36 is the angel-voiced debutante Nora Arnezeder, who comes across here, at least for one movie, as the next great French star. Such an assessment can be fleeting – living as we are in the Age of Lindsay Lohan – but you sense that immediate “it” as she rises out of and above this well-meaning but earthbound production. Arnezeder is a 19-year-old just waiting for her Amelie. If this isn’t it, then one suspects it won’t be long before she finds it.

Hence, the young unknown saves the film in the film in which the young unknown saves the show. The world is a stage. The stage is a world. That’s entertainment.

There are certainly many other things going on in Faubourg 36, the second sentimental semi-musical from director Christopher Barratier of Les Choristes. The wife of the theater manager, the one-time star of the show, has left him and taken their accordion-playing son. A playboy electrician splits time between organizing socialist workers in the working class district and wooing the new sensation. Our sweet-faced heroine has mysteries of her own, ones that are mysteries to her, as well. And fitting in somewhere in all this is a man who hasn’t left his home in decades, and whose lone contact with the outside world is his radio.

It’s not a musical exactly, at least not a classically integrated Freed-Unit affair. No one sings their dialogue. Nor does Cyd Charisse show up for a 10-minute dance. It hues more closely to the Busby Berkeley revues, as the music swirls around the story’s mushy core. The character motivation is inexplicable outside of the sentimental spell of what I’ll call “musical realism.” Which is to say not realism at all.

Filmed with the honeyed drabness of socialist realist paintings, the film takes places in a working class Paris neighborhood of the 1930s. It might be the only film celebrating the era of the French socialist Leon Blum (1936 France was the wrong place and time to be a pacifist.). Through its contrived rivalry between its socialist heroes and Nazi villains, Faubourg 36 does engage in slight social commentary. This is most obvious in the subplot of its Jewish comedian, taking money out of desperation to pantomime Jewish stereotypes in front of a Nazi organization. While it doesn’t use Naziism as an engine of maudlin comedy like Life is Beautiful, it does produce considerable flinching.

So here’s the thing about this one. At first blush, it’s far too silly and sentimental to appeal to my personal taste. Yet what do you want from a musical? Method acting? Al Pacino intensity? I wouldn’t criticize Singin in the Rain for lacking those elements. Should I criticize The Godfather for its shortage of pep and dance numbers?

I’ll use Arnezeder as the tiebreaker. Pass granted. It’s not everyday that you see a star born.