Friday, November 26, 2010

More Suicide Than Rainbow: For Colored Girls

The original of a review that was published recently.

Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls is a melodramatic adaptation of a classic play

By Pamela Zoslov

For Colored Girls represents a marriage of two very different traditions: the downtown feminism of Ntozage Shange’s influential 1975 play for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, and the “chitlin’ circuit” box-office bait of Tyler Perry, the successful playwright, movie director and portrayer of Madea, his saucy, amply padded matriarchal alter ego. Shange’s play, or “choreopoem,” as she called it, is a blend of poetry, music and drama performed by seven women identified only by the colors they wear (“Lady in Red,” “Lady in Blue,” etc.). Through vernacular poetic monologues, the women explore issues including domestic abuse, love, rape, abortion, spirituality and black revolutionary history. When it was announced that Perry would direct the movie version, there was widespread worry: how would Perry, the director Spike Lee denounced for perpetuating negative racial stereotypes (“coonery and buffoonery”), realize this serious, important work? Would Madea be in it? Would he call it “Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls”?

Perry did neither of those things, but his adaptation is still uneven. Colored Girls has ample star wattage, with a cast that includes Janet Jackson, Loretta Devine, Thandie Newton, Whoopi Goldberg and Phylicia Rashad. The characters are given names, and the abstract structure has been given a concrete narrative, shifting the focus from sisterhood to soap opera. It also introduces men into the scenario, in ways that are none too flattering. Perry’s roundelay of stories follows an increasingly familiar formula of demonizing black men. If the abusive males in The Color Purple and the overpraised Precious weren’t repellent enough, consider the depraved lineup in For Colored Girls: philanderers, abusers, rapists, husbands who give their wives HIV, fathers who murder their children. America elected its first black president, but at the movies, images of black men are increasingly retrograde. While the same stories were told retrospectively by the women in the stage play, acting them out literally on the screen makes them seem more vulgar than poetic.

The movie often wallows in misery — of the male-generated variety — lingering on a brutal rape (crosscut with scenes from an opera) and, based on one of Shange’s poems, the dangling of two children from a fifth-floor window by their demented father. Though beautifully acted and photographed, For Colored Girls is hampered by the fact that what was richly moving in the oral storytelling tradition becomes over-the-top melodrama on the screen.

Where the movie does succeed is in preserving the music of Shange’s poetry, weaving her monologues skillfully into the narrative and eliciting stirring recitations by the actresses. Phylicia Rashad, as Gilda, manager of the tenement building where several of the women live, delivers a particularly haunting, quietly melodious reading. And yet for every savory subtlety, there’s some regrettable burlesque, as with Whoopi Goldberg’s character, a white-turbaned religious fanatic who pours oil on her daughter’s head and exhorts passersby to “Repent! Repent!” Ultimately, the movie soars only when Shange’s poetry is center stage, calling into question the wisdom of “opening up” the play for the big screen.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Love and Other Drugs: Pissing Off Big Pharma

Rarely does a movie pack as much into 113 minutes as this exceptional romantic “dramedy” by Edward Zwick (thirtysomething).

Directors often stumble when trying to balance comedy and drama (consider Judd Apatow’s limp Funny People), but Zwick and co-writers Marshall Herskovitz and Charles Randolph make it work, while also providing an acrid satire of the pharmaceutical industry.

The movie, set in the 1990s, is partly based on Jamie Reidy’s memoir of his stint as a Pfizer salesman, with a love story appended to it. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jamie, a glib womanizer and chronic failure who gets by on his seductive charm. After losing his electronics-salesman gig for screwing the boss' girlfriend, he enlists as a pharmaceutical rep, a lucrative job whose slippery ethics are a good match for his personality. The movie details the sleazy sales tactics used to push Pfizer’s pills — primarily Zoloft, which is competing fruitlessly against Eli Lilly's Prozac — such as seducing eager medical receptionists and pimping for horny physicians like Dr. Knight (Hank Azaria).

Jamie relentlessly pursues Dr. Knight's patient Maggie (Anne Hathaway), a clever, beautiful artist with pre-Raphaelite curls and early-onset Parkinson’s disease, and the pair — both averse to commitment — begin a libidinous affair, with ample onscreen nudity. Jamie’s career rockets when Pfizer launches its magical moneymaker, Viagra, but he’s blindsided by his love and concern for Maggie.

So entertaining is this sardonic romp that the sadness arising from Maggie’s illness delivers an unexpected wallop. Though the movie meanders a bit, it brims with sharp lines and good performances. The movie gets bonus points for pissing off Big Pharma: asked for its reaction to the movie, a Pfizer spokesperson sniffed in the Wall Street Journal: “The sales practices portrayed…do not conform to our policies and procedures.”

A version of this appears in Cleveland Scene.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Fair Game: The Spy Left Out in the Cold

Fair Game dramatizes the Valerie Plame affair and the lies that led to war

By Pamela Zoslov

If truth is the first casualty of war, the second must be the truth-tellers. Consider Julian Assange, the internationally hounded founder of the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks, and Joe Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame, the subjects of Doug Liman’s sharply observed drama Fair Game.

The movie is based on the memoirs of Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador who wrote a famous New York Times Op-Ed in 2003 disputing the manipulated intelligence cited by the Bush administration as a pretext for invading Iraq, and Plame, a CIA officer whose career ended when her covert identity was revealed by conservative columnist Robert Novak, evidently in retaliation for her husband’s outspokenness (Karl Rove reportedly said Plame was “fair game.”)

Although the Wilsons – the attractive, blond Valerie, once imagined by Maureen Dowd as Marvel Comics super-heroine “Valerie Flame,” and Joe, an éminence grise with a salt-and-pepper mane and wire spectacles, are natural subjects for a movie spy thriller (like an older Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, stars of Liman’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith), the film wouldn’t succeed if it weren’t about something bigger: lies, propaganda, war, abuse of power, and the hijacking of democracy.

The casting could not be more perfect. Naomi Watts not only resembles Plame physically, but is credible and affecting as the gutsy covert operative who wears multiple identities in her often dangerous work — romanticized for the movie, but compelling — including that of a businesswoman, the disguise she wears in her daily life as a wife and mother in a prosperous Washington, D.C. suburb. Sean Penn seems to not so much impersonate Wilson as channel him, in a nuanced performance that reminds us of how fine an actor he is. The movie’s Wilson is principled, arrogant, a bit of a blowhard, and his self-righteous but understandable bluster places his wife in jeopardy.

As part of her work in non-proliferation, Plame is asked to recommend her husband, a former ambassador with expertise in African nations, for a trip to Niger to research whether Saddam Hussein bought weapons-grade yellowcake uranium. Wilson’s report concludes that no such purchase was made, and he’s incensed when the now-infamous “16 words” — claiming Hussein sought “significant quantities of uranium from Africa” — make their way into Bush’s State of the Union address. Wilson fires off his Times article, which reverberates in the White House, where Scooter Libby (David Andrews) and Rove, surely acting on behalf of Vice President Dick Cheney, seek to discredit him by leaking his wife’s identity to Novak.

Following her exposure, Plame is subjected to death threats, and Wilson is denounced by the cable-news noise machine as a flake, hack, liar and traitor. Jez and John Henry Butterworth’s excellent screenplay doesn’t overlook the dire human consequences of Plame’s blown cover – a group of Iraqi scientists she promised to smuggle out of Iraq are left stranded and in jeopardy. The Wilsons’ marriage falters, and Plame takes refuge with her mother and father (Sam Shepard), a retired Air Force colonel.

Soon the affair known as “Plamegate” erupts, and Libby – “the fall guy,” according to the movie’s Wilson -- is convicted of obstruction of justice and other charges and sentenced to prison before his sentence is commuted by Bush. The Wilsons, today still denounced by many on the right, left D.C. for a new life in Santa Fe. They survived the ordeal, spoke out and wrote books, but the same can’t be said of the other victims of the mendacious invasion — the uncounted thousands of dead Iraqis, victims of gruesome torture, brutal home raids, random shooting and indiscriminate bombing. The public’s memory is short, but as the ongoing, terrible revelations attest, history will not forget.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Into the Hollywood Abyss: You Again

The notion, stated by the lead character in You Again, that “who you are in high school determines who you are for the rest of your life” is hardly a new one in Hollywood-land,  but seldom has it been as clumsily dramatized as in this woeful comedy about teen rivalries revived among multiple generations of a California family. We encounter Marni Olsen (Kristin Bell) in a video of her awkward ’90s self, with oversized glasses and acne, being bullied by a cabal of cheerleaders chanting Queen’s “We Are The Champions” as they shove poor Marni out of the school.

Now a young adult, Marni has triumphed by becoming a pretty, successful PR executive in L.A.. Traveling home for her brother’s wedding, she learns his fiancée is Joanna (Odette Yustman), Marni’s erstwhile chief tormentor, who has wormed her way into Marni’s family’s hearts. Through a series of mirthless mishaps, Marni is restored to her bad-skinned, bespectacled high school self, laboring desperately—in appallingly implausible ways that include excavating a buried time capsule—to stop the wedding. Joanna’s glamorous Aunt Ramona (Sigourney Weaver) sashays in, reigniting her ill-defined ’70s-vintage rivalry with Marni’s mom (Jamie Lee Curtis).

The pairing of Weaver and Curtis is the movie’s big draw, but with Moe Jelline’s witless screenplay, Andy Fickman’s feckless direction, indifferent performances by the supporting cast, and some remarkably bad camera work, it’s a rickety vehicle indeed for these veteran actresses. Betty White, still riding the crest of renewed popularity, provides the sole laugh near the end, where she's reunited momentarily with an old co-star, but it’s a dreadfully long haul getting there. — Pamela Zoslov

Originally published in Cleveland Scene.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Hawthorne in Her Side: Easy A

Easy A

“John Hughes did not write my life,” laments Olive Penderghast, a high school student longing to be Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles rather than the scandalous harlot of Ojai, California’s senior high school in Will Gluck’s Easy A. The sentiment, part of a webcast Olive is making, characterizes this very “meta” movie, which winks at the conventions of movies— the 1980s teen wet dreams of John Hughes and Cameron Crowe, and film adaptations of The Scarlet Letter, a 1926 silent version with Lillian Gish and a “freely adapted” version with Demi Moore, in which Moore spoke with an inexplicable English accent. Olive’s English teacher (Thomas Haden Church), opening a discussion of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel with an improvised rap, mocks himself for being a clichéd hip English teacher, “just like in every bad movie you’ve ever seen.”

Bert Royal’s irony-laden script has clever, straight-laced Olive acquiring her “filthy skank” reputation by accident. She invents an imaginary boyfriend and fake-confesses to her best friend Rhiannon (Aly Michalka) that she lost her virginity to him. The “admission” is overheard by the school’s Jesus-freak-in-chief, Marianne (Amanda Bynes).

Rumors of Olive’s loose ways spread like a text-message virus. Olive cements her bad-girl reputation by agreeing to let her friend Brandon (Dan Byrd), who Olive describes as a “Kinsey 6 homosexual,” pretend he had sex with her so he can dodge the daily beatings he’s getting for being gay. Unwilling to do anything “half-assed,” Olive stages a fake raucous bedroom grunt-fest meant to be overheard by a house party of slavering classmates.

Soon Olive is being approached by all manner of nerds, fat boys and outcasts who want help acquiring an instant studly reputation. They begin offering her store gift cards (one hapless fellow can muster only a 20-percent-off coupon for Bed, Bath & Beyond) in return for the status-enhancing right to brag about having sex with her.

Suddenly awash in gift cards and condemnation (the Jesus-freak students pray for her and mount a picket line), virginal Olive decides to embrace her inner Hester Prynne. Whereas in real life high school girls have committed suicide as a result of such scorn, Olive cuts up her conservative wardrobe and starts wearing sexy improvised bustiers, each adorned with a huge red letter ‘A.’ She struts down the school hallways, turning teenage (or twentysomething playing teenage) heads.

These rather outlandish plot machinations are made quite tolerable by the witty writing—toned down considerably from the original script to avoid an “Easy R” rating—and a winning lead performance by 22-year-old Stone, whose sultry voice and oversized eyes make her an eminently appealing heroine. The supporting cast, too, is superb: Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as Olive’s tolerant, jokey parents, Malcolm McDowell as the beleaguered school principal, and Lisa Kudrow as the guidance counselor who’s a bit of a scarlet woman herself.

This is a movie best appreciated for its texture rather than its silly plot, but as with all comedies, attention must eventually be paid to the story. Combating the calumny of her classmates, Olive realizes she would really rather be romanced by someone like John Cusack in Say Anything, and sets her sights on the object of her girlhood crush, Todd (Penn Badgely), who stays nobly above the gossipy fray. She also muses that life should feature the kind of nonsensical musical number that climaxed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and so the movie obliges, providing her with a steamy show-stopper that gets her escorted off the gym floor. As if to underscore how much the world has changed since John Hughes’ heyday, Olive’s dance number is also a commercial for her free confessional webcast. -- Pamela Zoslov

Originally published in the Cleveland Scene,

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Robert Schimmel, 1950-2010

It was sad to learn of the death September 3 of comedian Robert Schimmel, 60, after a car accident. This is an interview I did with him in 2002, a conversation that I found very moving.

Death Takes a Holiday

Robert Schimmel, a “comedian’s comedian,” talks about sex, success and surviving cancer.

By Pamela Zoslov

Think of it as a cosmic joke— God having a bit of fun. A guy’s at the cusp of a brilliant career, and he finds out he has less than a year to live. It happened to Robert Schimmel, the comedian. And, this being God’s joke, the timing was perfect. It was 2000, and Schimmel was living every standup comic’s dream. He had toiled for two decades on the yuk-club circuit, won numerous comedy awards, had his own HBO special. He wasn’t yet a household name, but he was generating buzz as a “comedian’s comedian,” a smart, no-holds-barred performer whose straight talk about sex, relationships and matters scatological endeared him to Conan O’Brien and Howard Stern, who made him a frequent (and brilliant) guest on their shows. Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Jimmie Walker are fans, and Jerry Lewis, asked to name his favorite comedian, said “Robert Schimmel.”

So what happens? Schimmel gets within millimeters of comedy’s brass ring: his own TV series. Fox wants to star Schimmel in a sitcom, and they shoot a pilot. It gets picked up for 13 episodes. And then he gets the diagnosis: non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a deadly cancer of the lymphatic system. The kind of cancer that killed Jacqueline Onassis. He has a year, at best. “Everything had to go on hold,” Schimmel says on the phone from L.A. — the sitcom, his tour. He endures a series of chemotherapy treatments, and now cautiously celebrates 17 months of remission. In the hospital, needle I his arm, he had a lot of time to think about life, death and comedy. “I found humor in what I was going through,” he recalls. “It’s hard to take if you don’t find humor. If you really think about what it is you’re going through and how terrifying and hopeless it could be, it would be hard to recover from. So I never dwell on the negative.”

If he wanted to dwell on the negative, Schimmel has a hell of lot of material. His life has been a litany of death, disease and disaster, enough to give Job (a guy who never got his own sitcom) a run for his shekels. Born in the Bronx 52 years ago, Schimmel is the son of Holocaust survivors. His 11-year-old son, Derek, died of cancer. At 48, Schimmel had a heart attack. His wife suffered a nervous collapse, and the couple separated after 23 years.

Even his comedy debut was marked by disaster. In 1981, he was selling stereos in Scottsdale, Arizona, when he went to L.A. and killed at open-mike night at the Improv. The club gave him an open invitation to perform anytime, so he quit his job and moved his family to L.A. He drove up to the club and found it bordered up and smoldering from a fire the night before.

But Schimmel figured if his parents could survive concentration camps, he could learn not to be bitter. After his diagnosis, Schimmel says, “I had a decision to make. I could feel sorry for myself, say that life sucks — I have good reason to say that life sucks. But life doesn’t suck. As shitty as it can be sometimes, life is still worth living.
In a way, being raised by Holocaust survivors influenced his comedy. “I’m the butt of all my jokes, which makes me the victim — which is what they were. I learned a long time ago that you get a bigger laugh when you’re making fun of yourself.”

He certainly has no patience with those who blame God. “Every time something happens, the insurance companies say ‘It’s an act of God,’ he muses. He gets the blame. When I go to the Pearly Gates, I want to be standing behind an insurance agent, and I want to hear God say to him, ‘Wait a minute: didn’t you blame me for that fire in Malibu in 1993?”

Like Lenny Bruce, Schimmel exposes what he considers to be the truth about men — that they’re all perverts who will have sex with anyone or anything, and who foolishly expect their women to perform like porn queens. Their fixation on physical perfection strikes Schimmel as absurd. “You’re always looking for something you’re never going to find. Nothing is perfect. Well, there is something perfect: real love is perfect. Then none of those things — sex, size, performance — none of it means anything.”

He is also realistic about success. Having your own sitcom is supposed to be every comedian’s dream, but it doesn’t mean that much to Schimmel now. “You do a sitcom, you’re there for 12, 13 hours a day, five days a week. You could be a household name, like Ray Romano or Jerry Seinfeld, but you can get stuck in a rut. It means a lot to me to be live in front of an audience, because I’m happy to be alive. A lot of those sitcom guys, you never see them live. Being super-big doesn’t mean that much to me.” If financial success did mean a lot to Schimmel, he says, he wouldn’t have chosen to do such risqué comedy. “I think I’ve done okay for somebody that isn’t really mainstream, but this is me, and that’s what I love doing. I only want to do stuff onstage that’s me. I don’t want to go out there and recite.”

What does mean a lot to Schimmel is helping other people with cancer. Listening to comedy and music helped Schimmel get through chemotherapy, so he is asking fans to bring new or used comedy and music CDs or audio books to the Improv, which he will donate, along with CD players, to local cancer treatment centers.

Comedians always complain about life on the road —Steve Martin once said it was like rock and roll without the chicks — but Schimmel relishes it. “I just finished 14 weeks on the road. I live for it. I can’t imagine not doing it, like I can’t imagine not breathing. I used to dream about it, so I still get goose bumps when I hear the emcee announce my name.

“Knowing you can make people forget about their problems for a little while — no matter if you’re a middle-aged, balding, pudgy Jewish guy that people wouldn’t give a second look at walking down the street. For that one hour, you’re Matt Damon and Brad Pitt.”

But don’t women always say they like a guy with a sense of humor? “Women say it’s number one,” he replies thoughtfully. “Guys usually think the dick is number one, and the sense of humor is number two.”

Going the Distance: Separation Anxiety

Barrymore and her boytoy are bicoastal lovers in Going the Distance

By Pamela Zoslov

The lengthy running time (102 minutes) of Going the Distance, a romantic comedy starring Drew Barrymore and her current boyfriend, Justin Long, coupled with its wearily predictable ending, allows the viewer ample time to think about the relentless demands of commercial moviemaking. In this case, a gifted documentary filmmaker, Nanette Burstein, whose portraits of young boxers (On the Ropes) and high school students (American Teen) were noteworthy for their emotional realism, is given the difficult task of making something new and different from the formulaic story of a couple separated by miles and trying to make a long-distance relationship work. With first-time screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe, Burstein tries mightily to bring some believability to the story — witty, improvisational-style dialogue, an acknowledgement of the sagging recessionary job market — only to be largely defeated by the necessary clichés of the Hollywood rom-com.

One necessary evil is the casting. Barrymore, never quite as talented or charming as her family legacy implies, looks a bit haggard for the ingénue role she’s playing, and Long has a long way to go before being considered leading-man material. Barrymore and Long, despite being a real-life couple, generate little charisma or erotic heat. Barrymore plays Erin, a clever 31-year-old graduate student who is a superannuated intern for a mythical New York newspaper, the “New York Sentinel.” She meets Garrett (Long), an indie record-company employee freshly dumped by his girlfriend, and they bond over shared interests in circa-1980s music and vintage arcade video games. Their budding romance is narrated with the help of a montage of New York romantic cavorting, in which Burstein resurrects split-screen techniques that hark back to Pillow Talk. Six weeks into this romantic idyll, Erin must return to California to finish school (Stanford, no less), leaving Garrett to his goofy pals Dan (Charlie Day) and Box (Jason Sudeikis) and his unrealistic music-industry job.

Another necessary evil is plot mechanics, which require a labored exposition of the challenges of Erin and Garrett’s separation, handled with frequent phone calls, texts, split-screen guffaws over a sneezing-panda YouTube video, sexual jealousy, comically failed phone sex, and occasional sex-charged reunions. Since the couple are less interesting than the supporting characters — the funny Sudeikis and Day, and lovely Christina Applegate (Married With Children) as Erin’s sister, who’s saddled with the sole unfunny trait of being a hygiene freak — our emotional investment in the couple’s eventual success is limited.

The relationship reaches a crisis point when Erin, attempting the quixotic feat of obtaining a full-time job as a newspaper reporter, receives an offer from a major paper that will keep her on the West Coast, leaving Garrett to sulk petulantly in his dumpy Manhattan apartment and consider seeking solace with a pretty co-worker (Kelli Garner). Burstein and LaTulippe’s efforts to bring realism to the rom-com is again subverted: with one hand the movie acknowledges that newspapers are going the way of the buggy whip, and with the other performs a bit of movie magic as dated as the 1980s-style music of the bands the couple enjoy.

Overlong and meandering, the movie has trouble maintaining a consistent tone. Naturalistic scenes reside uncomfortably beside slapstick sequences — Garrett dodging wild spray at a fake-tan salon, Erin and Garrett caught screwing on her sister’s dining-room table. And yet, with all its problems, the movie has an appealing texture. The jokey, sub-Judd Apatow banter, unusually frank sexual dialogue (feisty Erin lamenting the problems of men dawdling while performing oral sex, or screaming “Suck my dick!” drunkenly at an angry biker in a bar), strong supporting cast and general amiability liberate the movie somewhat from its genre-dictated confines.

Originally published in Cleveland Scene.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Artful Dodger

The pseudonymous British street artist Banksy, who is known for such prankish works as a life-size replica of a Guantanamo prisoner chained to a fence at Disneyland, paradisical scenes painted on the Palestinian side of the West Bank partition, a “murdered” phone booth, and ten-pound notes with Princess Diana’s face replacing the Queen’s, is the putative director of Exit Through The Gift Shop, an alleged documentary about street art.

The film, which focuses on an eccentric French-born clothing seller-turned-filmmaker named Thierry Guetta, raises provocative questions about authenticity, art marketing, and the nature of reality itself. Is it a documentary about Guetta, who in the course of the narrative becomes a successful Pop artist called “Mr. Brainwash”? Was it really directed by Banksy, who appears in it with his face in shadow? Does Mr. Brainwash actually exist? And, for that matter, does Banksy? The film is a masterpiece of misdirection. Actor Rhys Ifans’ narration claims the film was originally intended to be Guetta’s documentary about street artists including Banksy, whose identity has sparked much speculation (he’s said to be from South Gloucestershire, and his name may or may not be Robert or Robin Banks).

Guetta, a puckish fellow in a fedora and Chester Arthur mustache, talks about his obsession with videotaping every moment of his life. He is drawn, through a graffiti-artist cousin, into the exciting, subversive world of street art, filming artists like Shepard Fairey (of Obama “HOPE” fame) plastering their art on buildings and bridges, in dark of night and one step ahead of the police.

Guetta gains access to Banksy by claiming he’s making a documentary, but Banksy soon realizes Guetta is no filmmaker. He takes over the documentary project and urges Guetta to “make some art.” Guetta transforms himself, seemingly overnight, into Mr. Brainwash and mounts a massive gallery show featuring pieces brazenly derivative of Andy Warhol, among others.

If Mr. Brainwash and the documentary are a hoax — and it’s hard to see how it can be otherwise, despite Banksy’s ardent protestations — it’s a fairly extensive one. The LA Weekly credulously covered the Mr. Brainwash exhibit, and his pieces have supposedly sold for five-figure sums. Even if Guetta’s story were true, it’s not nearly as interesting as Banksy and the other street artists. The film is at its best when focusing on the artists and their inspiration and methods. Whether or not Banksy wielded the camera, Exit Through the Gift Shop is of a piece with his art: clever, ephemeral and a little maddening, sparking interesting ideas while deftly eluding our ultimate grasp.

This appeared in the Cleveland Scene.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sex and Sand: Summer Movies 2010

Hollywood is still reeling from the nightmare that was 2009, a year that brought a screenwriters’ strike and a global recession, calamities that not even a sweet $2.7 billion in worldwide Avatar receipts could remedy. Production companies and studios were shuttered, jobs, budgets and salaries were slashed

There’s an upside to the belt-tightening: filmmakers have been forced to be more creative with less cash. That means that summer, traditionally the season of effects-laden blockbusters, this year is leaner, more varied and slightly more gender-balanced. There are the usual sequels, superheroes and remakes, but fewer of them. Studios have learned from the success of Sex and the City and Julie and Julia that women buy tickets, too, and so there are more of the romantic comedies often dismissed as “chick flicks”: Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love, Drew Barrymore in Going the Distance, and Jennifer Aniston in The Switch.

The lineup also includes lots of cost-saving genre hybrids: action-comedies like Scott Pilgrim vs.the World and The Expendables, and action-romances like Knight and Day with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, and Killers, with Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher. Of course 3-D, that high-tech excuse for raising ticket prices, gets a workout with Shrek Forever After, Toy Story 3D and Step Up 3D.

Hollywood’s summer starts in early May, and Iron Man 2, Robin Hood and Shrek have already hit theaters. But the season’s still young, and lots of cinematic thrills await

Advance tickets for Sex and the City 2 (May 27) have already outsold current releases like Kick Ass. There’s been loads of speculation about the plot, but let’s be real: Sarah Jessica Parker and castmates could recite the 1,017-page health care bill, but as long as they’re wearing Patricia Field’s outlandish costumes, women will storm the theater. Carrie, still married to Big (and still calling him that, for some reason), travels with her friends to Abu Dhabi, where the ladies ride camels and have romantic adventures

In the “movies based on video games with world-destroying sandstorms” category, we have Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (May 28), in which a rogue prince (Jake Gyllenhaal) teams up with a gorgeous princess (Gemma Arterton) to save the world from villain Ben Kingsley. If you have ever read the “Marmaduke” comic feature and thought, “The only thing that would make this funnier is if that giant dog could talk,” then the live-action family comedy Marmaduke (June 4) is your movie. The Great Dane not only speaks (in Owen Wilson’s voice), he surfs, dances and frets about his looks.

In the action-romance Killers (June 4), Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher as a hastily married couple on the run from hired assassins. One of the season’s more promising buddy comedies, Get Him to the Greek (June 4), has outrageous British comedian Russell Brand reprising his role as Aldous Snow, the obnoxious rock star from Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Jonah Hill plays a record company intern enlisted to accompany Snow to a concert at L.A.’s Greek Theater.

I pity the critic who succumbs to lame “I pity the fool” jokes in previewing The A-Team (June 11), which updates the popular ’80s TV show’s Vietnam vets to Iraq vets and boasts an impressive cast including Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in the role originated by Mr. T. If that doesn’t satisfy your ‘80s jones, maybe The Karate Kid (June 11), a remake of the 1984 Ralph Macchio movie, will. Jada Pinkett and Will Smith’s son, Jaden Smith, plays the kid, whose mom moves him from Detroit to Beijing, where he’s bullied until he learns karate from maintenance man Mr. Han (the great Jackie Chan), a secret kung fu master. What kid couldn’t relate?

Summer’s most bankable sequel, Toy Story 3D (June 18) follows its predecessor by 11 years; it was delayed by the near-divorce of Disney and Pixar, which have since reconciled. Tom Hanks and Tim Allen return to voice Woody and Buzz, who are abused by toddlers in a daycare center, from which the toys plot an escape. The endless geek debate — DC or Marvel? — heats up as DC counters Marvel’s surefire hit Iron Man 2 with Jonah Hex (June 18), a live-action adaptation of the DC comic about a scarred Confederate bounty hunter (Josh Brolin) who must stop a terrorist.

Jay and Mark Duplass’s improv-style comedy Cyrus (June 18) offers John C. Reilly (Step Brothers) as a divorced loser who hooks up with beautiful Molly (Marisa Tomei), who has a large, possessive grown son (Jonah Hill). Tom Cruise’s zany turn in Tropic Thunder established the idea that Cruise can do comedy, and he’s paired with Cameron Diaz in the action comedy Knight and Day (June 25). Cruise plays a secret agent who is saddled with a blind date (Diaz) after she sees him wipe out a planeload of people. The midlife-crisis comedy Grown Ups (June 25) breaks out the pee-in-the-pool jokes, with Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, David Spade, Rob Schneider and Kevin James as high-school buddies who reunite 30 years later.

The third installment in the wildly successful Twilight series, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (June 30) finds Bella (Kristen Stewart) beset by the usual problems facing high school seniors: whether to choose love with vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) or friendship with his werewolf rival, Jacob (Taylor Lautner). Will the live-action fantasy-adventure The Last Airbender (July 2) mark the hoped-for redemption of M. Night Shyamalan after several recent flops? The visually arresting movie, with postproduction 3D, is adapted from a Nickelodeon cartoon series about a boy trying to stop a war among the four elements.

Universal’s summer animation entry is the 3D Despicable Me (July 9), which sounds like a Cold War rejoinder to Disney/Pixar’s Up. Steve Carell provides the voice of Gru, a curmudgeonly Russian supervillain whose plan to steal the moon is complicated when a trio of orphaned girls choose him as a potential Dad. Predators (July 9), sequel to the 1987 Predator, is the quintessence of the summer movie, with killer aliens, death squads and other seasonal pleasures.

Adrien Brody plays a mercenary who leads a group of elite warriors in a fight against killer extraterrestrials. Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan brings his noir action style to Inception (July 16), with Leonardo DiCaprio as an agent who can enter businessmen’s minds and sell their secrets. Jerry Bruckheimer unveils Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (July 16), which is not another re-release of that dancing-broomsticks cartoon, but a live-action adventure comedy starring Nicolas Cage stars as a shaggy-haired wizard who enlists an NYU physics student (Jay Baruchel) in his battle against rival Alfred Molina.

Pete Townsend is nowhere in sight in The Kids Are All Right (July 23), a winsome comedy starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a lesbian couple whose artificially conceived teenagers seek out their donor dad (Mark Ruffalo.) The prize for Best French-to-Yiddish Translation goes to Dinner for Schmucks, a remake of the 1998 French farce The Dinner Game, in which a group of men hold a weekly dinner party to which each must bring a pathetic loser. The movie stars irresistible Paul Rudd as a rising exec and funny Steve Carell as his “idiot.” The girls of summer triumph again: Angelina Jolie replaced Tom Cruise as the lead in the action thriller Salt (July 23). She plays a CIA superagent who goes on the lam to prove she isn’t a Russian agent.

Step Up 3D (August 6), third installment in the street-dancing franchise, focuses on a group of dancers who compete in a breakdancing showdown. Middle Men August 6), based on a true story, revisits the ’90s dot-com bubble, with Luke Wilson as a businessman who gets rich via Internet porn. Mark Wahlberg teams up with Will Ferrell in the buddy-cop comedy The Other Guys, in which the inept pair try unsuccessfully to emulate tough cops Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson.

The female-friendly season continues as Julia Roberts brings her toothy grin to Eat Pray Love (August 13), based on the Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir about her global travels in search of fulfillment, a book people either adore or deplore for its rampant narcissism (one Amazon customer titled her review “Eat Pray Shove (It).”). Javier Bardem plays the Brazilian with whom Gilbert finds “Love,” after all the eating and praying.

And, after all that estrogen, a little steroid action: The Expendables (August 13), an action thriller about a group of mercenaries hired to overthrow a South American dictator, with an old-school cast: Sylvester Stallone (who also directed and co-wrote), Arnold “Governator” Schwarzenegger, Dolph Ludgren, Steve Austin, Bruce Willis and Mickey Rourke.

In the wake of Kick Ass, other comics about ordinary kids are getting screen treatment:: Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (August 13) becomes a movie starring Michael Cera as a bassist who must defeat his new girlfriend’s seven evil ex-boyfriends in order to win her heart. Jennifer Aniston is a single mom in the romantic comedy The Switch (August 20), in which her friend (Jason Bateman) discovers he’s the real father of her artificially inseminated baby. The low-key Get Low (August 20) features veteran actors Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray in a Depression-era drama about a Tennessee hermit who holds his own funeral while still alive. Documentarian Nanette Burstein (American Teen) makes her fiction debut with Going the Distance (August 27) an R-rated romp about a couple (Drew Barrymore and Justin Long) coping with a long-distance relationship.

In homage to Jaws, the summer movie that has a lot to answer for, every summer must have something like Piranha 3-D (August 27), with postproduction 3D. The title says it all.

Labor Day weekend seems appropriate for Robert Rodriguez’s Machete (September 3), the feature made from his fake Grindhouse trailer. Danny Trejo plays revenge-seeking Mexican ex-Federale and Robert De Niro as a nativist senator who calls Mexican immigrants “cucarachas.”

A different version of this appears in Cleveland Scene.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Enfant Terrible

“A SOILED BABY, with a neglected nose, cannot be conscientiously regarded as a thing of beauty,” said Mark Twain. Beloved as they are, babies are not always adorable or even interesting — they are notoriously poor conversationalists, they don’t smoke, and they seldom give useful stock tips.

Nonetheless, French producer Alain Chabat thought it would be a wonderful idea to make a documentary capturing the first year of life of four babies in different parts of the world, with music, no commentary and minimal dialogue — a sort of wildlife movie about human infancy. “I felt it could be an emotional experience,” Chabat says. “I dreamt of a movie theater audience that would applaud because a baby would stand on their own two feet.” Chabat enlisted Thomas Balmès to direct the movie, which, like its subjects, is alternately endearing, surprising, lovely and maddening. Its most interesting element, the ethnographic comparisons of child-raising practices and culture in Africa, Japan, Mongolia and the U.S., is left largely unexplored, leaving the audience, like an underfed baby, hungry for more.

Digitally shot over a period of two years, followed by another two years of editing, the movie follows four families from the woman’s late pregnancy through their babies’ first year (three of the babies are girls because the “casting” was unpredictable.) The audience is introduced to Ponijaio of Namibia, Africa, Bayar of Mongolia, Hattie of San Francisco, and Mari of Tokyo. Although the babies are doing the things universal to child development — being groomed, crawling, fussing, laughing, harassing surprisingly tolerant pets and being harassed by older siblings, they are doing these things in vastly different settings, and therein lies the movie’s sole interest.

Babies’ beautiful cinematography caresses the plains of Namibia, where little Ponijaio’s mother and eldest daughter, in loincloths and elaborately braided hair, are members of the Himba tribe. The men are off camera somewhere, raising cattle, while the women look after the children in a loving and refreshingly laissez-faire way. The film shows rituals like the shaving of the baby’s head with a sharp knife and washing him with a mixture of red earth pigment and oil that are not explained. Indeed, at times during this mostly word-free movie, you long for the BBC-style announcer to intone, “To clean the dust out of the babies’ eyes, without traveling by donkey or walking for hours to fetch water, the Himba mother uses her own saliva.” It would also be interesting to read subtitles for their lively-sounding native language.

Although Chabot claims the film makes no judgments about any of the families, there are certain implications in the editing. Following the very natural childbirths of Asian and African babies, we meet the American baby in a hospital setting, where newborn Hattie was being monitored for a breathing problem. The parents are almost comically “New Age,” with their parenting books, hot tub and Native American chanting circle. The film emphasizes the noisy chaos of Tokyo, underscoring the point by showing Mari crying amid a group of other daycare babies, a book titled “Where Is My Mommy?” under on the floor nearby. But all the babies are equally cute, sweet, mischievous and loved.

The idea is a lovely one, but unenhanced footage of babies cannot be considered a theatrical event. Even over its short 79-minute running time, the movie becomes as tiresome as your neighbor’s home movies. Midway through, audiences not besotted with the babyness of it all will relate to little Mari, who grows bored with her toys and pitches a solitary fit, lying on her back and kicking her tiny legs in utter frustration.

Originally published in Cleveland Scene,

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Life's A Beach And Then You Die

By Pamela Zoslov

The Last Song represents a collision between two of the more synthetic entities in American popular culture: Nicholas Sparks novels and Disney’s Hannah Montana franchise star Miley Cyrus. It’s hard to say which is worse, Sparks’ predictably sappy, emotionally manipulative writing or the flat, charmless pout that passes for Cyrus’s acting.

Sparks’ winning sentimental formula is by now well known, and at this point in his successful career, he merely rearranges the elements in increasingly random ways. The Windswept Beachfront House. The Regrettable Divorce. The Lovers from Different Worlds. A Packet of Unread Letters. An Amazing Act of Self-Sacrifice. A Lingering But Impossibly Beautiful Death by Cancer. If The Last Song seems even more slipshod than previous Sparks adaptations, it may be because it was commissioned expressly as a star vehicle for Cyrus, then turned into a “novelization.” Co-written by Jeff Van Wie and directed by Julie Anne Robinson, the movie is so unfocused it makes this year’s earlier Sparks adaptation, Dear John, look like Shakespeare.

The story is about a rebellious New York teen named Ronnie (Cyrus) whose mom (Kelly Preston) brings her and her weepy little brother (Bobby Coleman) to spend the summer with Dad (Greg Kinnear) at his Windswept Beachfront House in Tybee Island, Georgia. Dad has little to do but tinker at making a stained-glass window for a church that burned down under suspicious circumstances. Under Dad’s tutelage, Ronnie was a piano prodigy at 5, but since the Regrettable Divorce, she hasn’t played a note. Nonetheless, she has been accepted into Juilliard without even having to audition.

Dressed in black and wearing combat boots on the beach, sullen Ronnie meets Will (real-life boyfriend Liam Hemsworth), a handsome, WASPy volleyball player who takes an inexplicable shine to her, to the chagrin of his rich, uptight mom. Will volunteers at the aquarium, where he takes Ronnie swimming in the fish tanks. Through Will’s transformative love, Ronnie opens her heart, rescues some baby sea turtles, plays some bad New Age piano music, wears a frilly dress to Will’s sister’s fancy wedding, and grows closer to her dad, just in time for….well, I shan’t spoil the rest for you.

Usually there is some redeeming quality in a Sparks movie — nice coastal scenery, Lasse Hallström’s excellent direction in Dear John. In this case it’s Greg Kinnear, who brings a pleasant sincerity to the part of the father. It takes real acting skill to be able to recite with conviction pseudo-profound Sparksian bromides like, “Love is fragile, and we’re not always its best caretakers.”

The movie may raise lumps in the throat among those susceptible, but its appeal is probably limited to young Miley Cyrus fans and diehard devotees of Nicholas Sparks.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Bounty Hunter

She hasn’t starred in a good movie since, oh, The Good Girl in 2002. So why is Jennifer Aniston Hollywood’s second highest-paid actress (just behind romantic rival Angelina Jolie)?

You might ponder this during the dull spots in her latest, The Bounty Hunter. I think it’s because despite her Architectural Digest house and compulsively sculpted face, she has an appealing regular-girl charm, amply in evidence in this shambling screwball comedy directed by Andy Tennant.

Aniston plays New York Daily News reporter Nicole Hurley, the kind of journalist found in no newsroom on earth, pursuing hot leads while wearing skin-tight miniskirts and six-inch spike heels. Arrested after a police scuffle, Nicole jumps bail to follow a lead on a murder case. Her ex-husband Milo (Gerard Butler), an ex-cop turned bounty hunter, gets the job of apprehending her. They set off on an acrimonious road trip through Atlantic City that involves Milo locking Nicole into a car trunk, vengeful bookies gunning for Milo, murderous tattoo artists gunning for Nicole, and Milo and Nicole fighting, flirting and contemplating a reunion.

The plot gears grind a little sluggishly, and few sparks are generated between Aniston and Butler, a Scot whose American accent makes him sound like he’s from nowhere. Yet like Aniston, the movie has a redeeming amiability. Sarah Thorp’s screenplay furnishes some laughs, and the zesty supporting cast includes Christine Baranski as Nicole’s mom, a bawdy casino singer, Jason Sudeikis as the nerdy reporter in love with Nicole, and Cathy Moriarty as a ruthless bookie.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Humanity of the Moment

Click here for more photographs of the human landscape by Pamela Zoslov.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Cop Out

(Note: I see this movie garnered an abysmal 13% on Rotten Tomatoes. I thought it was pretty darn funny.)

Former indie director Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) didn’t write the screenplay for this cop-buddy action comedy starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan as hapless NYPD cops; it was written by Robb and Mark Cullen. But you would never know it: the movie is landscaped with Smith’s brand of laid-back, affectionately profane male banter.

Remarkably, in his first foray into this well-worn genre, Smith achieves what many have failed to do: blend action successfully with comedy. Even the most tired cop-movie tropes (the police captain exasperated with the team’s unorthodox methods, the divorced cop dealing with his ex-wife) feel refreshed here. Willis is veteran cop Jimmy Monroe, whose childlike partner, Paul Hodges (Tracy Morgan) is prone to giving Jimmy sentimental anniversary cards and intimidating suspects by reciting dialogue, badly, from famous cop movies. Paul worries about his wife (Rashida Jones) cheating on him, while Jimmy frets about how to pay for his daughter’s wedding. Jimmy’s plan to sell a valuable baseball card is foiled when obnoxious robber Dave (Seann William Scott, very funny) steals it, leading Jimmy and Paul into an underworld of violent Mexican drug dealers.

The action plot is beside the point; the comic byplay is the heart of the movie, which, like most of Smith’s films — and unlike most action movies — is funny, humane and rather sweet.

This appeared originally in Cleveland Scene.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Happy Tears

The Parent Trap

Two sisters deal with their dad’s dementia in Happy Tears

By Pamela Zoslov

There’s a scene in Happy Tears in which Jackson (Christian Camargo), an art dealer who is going insane, cuts himself, and the spurting blood decorates the canvas of an abstract painting. The scene is a metaphor for the movie, which was written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, son of famed Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein pére bleeds his personal history onto the canvas of this strange, often hilarious film about two sisters dealing with the dementia of their aging dad, Joe (Rip Torn as a randy hell-raiser even closer to reality than we imagined before his recent arrest for armed, drunken after-hours banking).

Named after one of Roy Lichtenstein’s most famous paintings, Happy Tears is informed by Mitchell’s experience, revealed in a Huffington Post interview, as a young man watching his mother lose her mind. (He would come home to find her drunk, sitting with her pet monkey on her shoulder.) He paints himself not only as Jackson, the dealer burdened with the task of managing his famous father’s legacy, but also as Jayne, Jackson’s pampered wife, who resorts to cheerful fantasy rather than face unpleasant realities.

Jayne, played magnificently by Parker Posey, indulges in $2,200 boots and clings to the heroic legends told by guitar-strumming old Joe, who boasts that he could have been a famous singer, has buried treasure in his backyard, and isn’t losing control of his mind and bowels. Her earthier sister Laura (Demi Moore), shoulders the dirty work of cleaning up Joe’s backside and tolerating his lady friend, Shelly (a brilliantly feral Ellen Barkin), a grifter in spike heels posing as a nurse.

Called back from California to the gritty Pittsburgh family home, Jayne drifts in and out of hallucinatory states to escape the realities of Dad’s dementia, Jackson’s fragmenting psyche and her continued infertility, while Laura, a pragmatic environmentalist in peasant blouses, tries to drag her into the real world, where Dad was a philanderer who cheated on “Mommy” for years.

Lichtenstein, whose previous film was the bizarre Teeth, which made literal the “vagina dentata” myth, ornaments this oddly touching family drama with audacious flights of fantasy: a shoe salesman transformed into a giant, predatory bird, Jackson bouncing off padded walls, a crazy backyard treasure hunt. These absurdist sequences, carried off with film-school flamboyance, will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who favor smaller, offbeat movies, Happy Tears is a dream movie, graced by a dream cast.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Monday, February 15, 2010

Valentine's Day, the movie

Never has the importance of opening weekend been more obvious than with the release of this one-day holiday movie, whose success hinges on the idea that women will drag their romance-challenged menfolk to a V-Day comedy. (Pretty clever marketing strategy, at that).

The movie, directed by 75-year-old Garry Marshall (Happy Days, Pretty Woman), is a labored, wheezing affair, with an all-star cast more populous than It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. The idea is a roundelay of relationship stories set in L.A., but there are so many plots, interchangeable actors (Topher Grace and Ashton Kutcher? The two Jessicas, Alba and Biel?) and people in half-written parts (Queen Latifah as a sports agent, Taylor Swift as a lovestruck cheerleader, beautiful Jessica Biel as, unbelievably, a wallflower) that the result is eye-crossing confusion rather than amusement.

The few more or less fully developed stories have Jennifer Garner as a schoolteacher in love with a caddish doctor (Patrick Dempsey), while her dopey florist pal (Kutcher) secretly yearns for her, and Anne Hathaway as a phone-sex worker whose naughty career repels her straitlaced suitor (Grace). (The “phone sex” conceit, which has Hathaway imitating a Southern belle and other characters, gives you an idea of how dated and tired this movie’s tropes are). Hector Elizondo and Shirley MacLaine show up as long-married grandparents spatting over a long-ago affair, and Julia Roberts plays an Army captain who bonds with Bradley Cooper aboard an airplane. Katherine Fugate’s script furnishes too many situations and too few laughs, though I'll give the movie half a point for the unexpected gay twist in a macho character's story.

(A shorter version of this appeared in Cleveland Scene.)