Monday, April 13, 2009

Greg Mottola and The Comeback

I got curious about Greg Mottola, the director of Adventureland, so I did a quick IMDB search on him (when I should have been doing “real” work). I discovered that he directed two episodes of The Comeback, Lisa Kudrow’s all-to-brief series on HBO.

It was a smart show that I thought had real potential and I was sorry to see it go. Occasionally, it shows up on HBO In Demand, so if you’re ever caught without something to watch, and you see it pop up—give it a shot.

The Comeback is the story of Valerie Cherish, a forty-something actress who’s fighting desperately to re-claim the adoration and status she enjoyed as a twenty-something hottie on what appears to have been a popular but dorky show (something along the lines of Threes Company. Ouch.)

At the start of the series, she lands her big chance—a small role on a new show, and a reality show documenting her “Comeback” (though like Nora Desmond, she laughs of the idea that she was ever gone). Valerie, with her feathered hair and seventies wardrobe, is every bit as awkward and self-conscious as Larry David, and what’s worse, she’s always smilingly trying to deflect the moments (and there are many) that show her in an un-fabulous light.

Other characters include her dorky but loyal husband, her bitchy step-daughter, who’s scornful of Valerie but loath to turn down a few moments in front of the camera and a shot at Nicole Richie-dom, a gay hairdresser who keeps Valerie’s hair in seventies fabulosity, and some snarky twenty-somethings (mainly writers on the show) who think being nice to her will diminish their coolness. Episode after episode, they try to humiliate her, and she gamely takes it all in, insisting on seeing it as peers teasing a peer.

You know, it wasn’t a perfect show. It was occasionally unwatchable in that I’m-so-uncomfortable-I-can’t-watch way that Curb Your Enthusiasm sometimes is. And it hadn’t quite found it’s pace—kind of like the first season of Seinfeld, in which the jokes are a little slow yet.

Seinfeld was given a chance to mature, though. I wish The Comeback had been given the same chance—and with directors like Mottola. I think we would have seen some great stuff.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Was James supposed to be played by Michael Cera?

This one's for Deborah, who asked if the part of James in Adventureland was possibly supposed to be played by Michael Cera (of Juno fame), i.e. was Eisenberg a substitute? Never occured to me until you mentioned it, but I did a Google search and found an interview with Greg Mottola, Adventureland's director, in which the interviewer raised the same question. (It's an especially relevant question because Mottola has directed Cera before....which I didn't know. I only know Cera from Juno.) Unless Mottola is doing some very diplomatic dancing here, it sounds like Eisenberg was meant to play the role. (Though I'm sure Cera would have been up to it.)

It’s hard to avoid some comparisons with Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg. Who would win in a cage match?
A cage match of awkwardness? Who’s the awkward king of America? Of young adult America?

Well, I knew of Jesse before I knew of Michael Cera, actually, because I had seen [Jesse’s] first film Roger Dodger when it came out because I was friends with Campbell Scott. I really liked him and I liked the movie, and that came out before I did Arrested Development. When I did Arrested Development, I was very excited because I was already a fan of Jason Bateman and Jeffrey Tambor and the whole cast, pretty much, and Michael was the only person I didn’t know, and he was the one who I was like, “I can’t believe this fifteen-year-old kid is the funniest person in the room.” It kind of blew my mind.

Michael is a very specific ... He’s unique. I mean, there’s no one like Michael Cera. He’s his own thing, and I feel the same way about Jesse. I mean, Jesse has a slightly more neurotic New York Jewish energy to him, but Jesse, I think, is a little more sexualized than Michael. Michael is so sweet that some of the stuff, some of the yearning in Adventureland I wanted to have something of a sexual component, and I think that felt better, that felt more correct with Jesse, although Jesse has a lot of the sincerity and sweetness. You know, I’m glad that there are two actors like that out in the world because there’s not a lot of young people who could have played parts like that, in either Superbad or this, so I’d say it’s a toss-up. I love them equally.


I didn’t really know what this movie was about. I just knew it had gotten some nice reviews, and that my friend Nancy, who has very trustworthy taste, had actually read them—and wanted to see it. (Apologies to Nancy for seeing it without her.)

In truth, I’m not very good at the what’s-it-about question—with regard to movies OR books. Generally I enjoy the ride, and then puzzle over what it all means, later. Sometimes I just savor a few seconds or minutes of them, over-and-over again, and forget about worrying over the big picture.

After I saw Doubt, for example, what kept coming back to me was not so much thoughts about the nature of doubt itself (though this was clearly the intention of the movie), but a 20 second or so scene in which the kids are learning to dance in the school gymnasium, and Amy Adams is sitting in a chair on the side, clapping awkwardly. She clapped the way my mom might clap if she were watching me do something I was enjoying, even though she’d never want to try it herself. There’s something so piercingly right and true about those moments. And I felt it again and again in that movie. Does the total movie add up to the greatness of those few moments here and there? I don’t know yet. I’m still enjoying the moments. Haven’t totally gotten to the big picture yet.

That’s sort of where I am with Adventureland right now, too.

It’s 1987. James Brennan, a nerdy but sweet kid with annoying hair (a shelf of bang-curls…were the eighties really that egregious?) is graduating from college and making his plans. He’s going to travel in Europe for the summer with his best friend, then go to journalism school at Columbia.

That’s the plan, at least, until graduation weekend, when his bitchy mom and passive-aggressive dad inform him that his dad’s been demoted and plans have changed. If he’s going to make it to journalism school, he’s going to have to kiss the summer in Europe goodbye and get a job to earn his keep in the fall.

This is one of those movies where the parents are kind of set up as oblivious assholes—the kind who don’t realize that fair’s fair and a deal’s a deal. (The kid only needs 200 bucks to make Europe happen, and it was his graduation gift, for God’s sake.) Other parents are similarly dim-witted or incapable of handling situations with their kids fairly. It reminded me of Peanuts, where we see Charlie Brown and his buddies tangling with painful kid issues (and a few existential ones), while the parents are notably absent or prattling nonsensically in the background.

At any rate, James gets home, only to discover that his nerdy intellectual resume doesn’t get him far. The only job he can get is at a kind of embarrassing local theme park, run by a husband and wife team, Bobby and Paulette (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig), who met while Bobby was running the horse-racing game. The interview consists of him asking for the job. Five seconds later, he’s handed a “Games” t-shirt, because Bobby and Paulette proclaim him "definitely" a games guy, not a ride guy, and he’s good to go.

It’s at this point where we meet the freaks and geeks who will people his summer—and the next hour-and-a-half or so of our time. A friend of mine wanted to know if this was a movie about intellectual slackers. Not really. James and a few others are there because they simply can’t get jobs elsewhere and they need the money. Other vacillate between attractive enough but not distinguishable in any other way, or dim-witted, or stuck. It’s a pretty good cross-section of humanity, albeit one within a certain age-range.

And I suppose you could say it’s a growing up movie, which normally wouldn’t appeal to me, except that the lesson learned here is one I wish I’d learn at the tender age of 21: You can’t just avoid the people you fuck up with. I’m not sure I’m quoting that correctly, but I love it. Because we all fuck up, so if you start the avoiding game, you’re going to run out of people to hang with, or need a constant supply of new friends and lovers, on a pretty regular basis.

I’ll say it again, Oh, if I’d only learned this at 21. Or even 31.

There are some great performances here. Jesse Eisenberg (who was in The Squid and the Whale, though I don’t remember him). And Kristen Stewart, as Em, whose performance actually makes me want to see Twilight. Oh, and Martin Starr as Joel, James’s buddy. The coolest nerd you’ll ever encounter.

What’s it all about (Alfie)? I don’t know. I’m not really prepared to say yet. But I’m definitely still savoring its bits….the tube socks, the turquoise jewelry, the way James uses his line about wanting to be a travel writer in the same way that Charles Dickens was several times, knowing that, with the right audience, it makes him sound cool. The scene were Bobby goes after a thug with a baseball bat, and, a second later, goes back to tabulating his accounts.

I could go on.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Friday the 13th

(A still from the ending of the first Friday the 13th--the dream sequence that allows for the possibility of a sequel. Ha. Little did we know we'd be enjoying Jason's antics twenty years later.)

I trudged off to see this one rather guiltily. Guiltily because, let’s face it, I knew I was going to while away a few precious work hours, not to mention babysitter time, on a crap movie. I mean, Friday the 13th the original was a crap movie (though I loved it). The re-make was bound to be crap, too, no?

Well, it was, but…I still loved it.

It has what feels like three beginnings. It starts with a little montage from the very first story, just in case you don’t know the back-story (though they used different actors to depict it, rather than footage from the original…maybe they couldn’t buy the rights?)

Then it goes to what seems like the real, modern-day beginning—a bunch of hormonal kids go camping too close to the former site of Camp Crystal Lake. Predictably, they get slaughtered by our pal, Jason. But it happens so fast—they’re all dispatched within about ten minutes—that you’re left wondering how the hell they’re going to fill in the next hour or so of the movie.

On to part three. This is where the brother of one of the randy campers (I think his name was Clay) comes to town looking for his sister, Jenna. The locals are mum about goings on at Camp Crystal Lake, though one particularly odd one does allow that smart people know where not to go thereabouts.

Clay runs into some kids at the local gas station, while posting flyers of his missing sister. One of those kids, a snarky forgettable jerk, has a family cabin in the area. He’s brought a bunch of his buddies (all pretty annoying) and a sort-of girlfriend up to party/exercise their hormones for a few days.

Long story short, they all end up at the snarky guy’s house, getting slaughtered in one way or another. (I think there might be a few colorful dismemberings on the lake, but most take place in or around the house.)

There are a few attempts at Jason-psychology—a suggestion that he thinks Jenna looks like a younger version of his mother (killed in the end of the first Friday the 13th). I’m not averse to a little pop-serial-killer psychology…but in this case, it really didn’t go anywhere.

I really tried to remember some of the horrendous dialogue so I could repeat it for you here. But it’s been awhile now. (I really should have written some of it down.) The only line I think I’m remembering correctly is: “Your tits are spectacular!” (Fab, huh??)

The ending is sort of a nod to the ending of the first movie…but to tell you the truth, I’m not sure if it was supposed to be a dream (like the end of the first one) or real…Either way, I suspect Jason will live to kill on another day.

You know what I found myself utterly amused by, as I was walking out of this movie? I realized that the kids in this movie were SO obnoxious, I kind of found myself rooting for Jason.

Kill, Kill, Kill, Now, Now, Now.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Coming soon: Adventureland

I saw this last night and adored it. I'm on a deadline right now, so more to come, but for the moment just wanted to share one of my favorite lines: "You can't avoid everyone you've fucked up with."

Sunday, April 5, 2009

DVD: Then She Found Me

I actually had a lot of fun checking out Blockbusters when we were in Florida. At one time, a membership at a movie rental place (a place you actually have to go to, and browse) was a must. Now, with Netflix, it seems so passé….I don’t mean to sound snotty. It’s just that I’m so computer dependent now---services like Netflix, Fresh Direct, and have made my disorganized life so much easier. It’s hard to imagine voluntarily taking more time to do something I can do online.

I do occasionally go to Alvin’s Alley, the goofy rental place—half antique store, have DVD/VHS rental—on 9th between 22nd and 23rd. They have almost everything, even the very obscure. And they’re always willing to dig it out of a back recess of the store. Plus most of the people who work there are the nerdy movie types who’ve actually watched everything in the place and are happy to chat movies or make a recommendation. (And they’re only a block away.)

But a suburban Blockbusters is a different deal. What shocked me more than anything was that they have stuff that’s still in the movie theaters, or just recently out of them. I had NO idea. In other words, it’s possible to do some pretty sophisticated and current viewing with just the aid of a little suburban store. It was, I must say, a pleasant surprise. I mean, I love Rachel Maddow, but sometimes (a lot of times) I don’t want to think, I want to be entertained.

Anyway, I was looking for something I’d wanted to see, but missed. Looking, I might add, while occasionally disentangling Henry from a rack of DVDs, or pulling three bags of gummy bears out of his enthralled little hands. Once he scared the cr*p out of me by utterly disappearing and not answering when I called, thus raising the specter of myself on national T.V., begging for the return of my son, who I lost while checking out the current releases in the video store. I’m sure people would be VERY sympathetic.

But I was spared the humiliation. I found him. (Gummy Bear aisle again.) And I also found “Then She Found Me,” Helen Hunt’s directorial debut (she also co-wrote the screenplay, which is based on a novel by Ellen Lipman), which I wanted to see when it was out in 2007.

I wanted to like it. I like Helen Hunt. She’s a capable actor who, I think, knows what she’s doing—as an actor, anyway. But I guess there’s more to directing than that. My assumption was that someone who has been in the field as long as she has would get it, but there’s clearly more to it than having been in a zillion films since you were a teenager. In fact, one of my thoughts, after watching this movie was “Wow, I guess Ron Howard really has a unique talent.”

At any rate, here’s the plot: April (Helen Hunt) gets married at 39 (or possibly late 38, it’s not spelled out), to Ben (Matthew Broderick), a fellow grade school teacher. We learn, shortly thereafter, that she herself was adopted, and desperately wants to have a biological child. She and Ben have been trying, we discover (about ten months into the marriage), but to no avail.

Helen’s adoptive mother, Trudy, keeps telling her to adopt. To which April responds that she wants the biological connection, that she always knew there was a difference in the way Trudy looked at her and Ben (April’s brother, not adopted). Trudy glares at her, tells her there’s no difference, but April is adamant. There is, and she’s having a baby biologically, come hell or high water.

Then hell and/or high water arrives. Ben decides the marriage isn’t for him after all, Trudy dies, April discovers she’s pregnant after a round of goodbye sex with Ben, and April’s biological mother, Bernice (played by Bette Midler), tracks April down. Oh, and April meets a guy, Frank (Colin Firth), who’s very charming, for the most part, but also very fucked up after having been left by his wife to raise two kids on his own. Phew.

The tagline for this movie is: “Life can change in a heartbeat.” April certainly experiences a lot of changes. And I think, in the end, we’re to take away the idea that our hearts often have a greater ability to love and take risks than we give them credit for. It’s our fears of the heart’s limitations, not their actual ones, that get in our way. But, frankly, I’m digging, based on the last minute or so of the movie. Because most of this movie is a mess that doesn’t lead much of anywhere.

It’s possible that Hunt just can’t get past relatively surface, quick-to-resolve sitcom scenarios at this point. Because no character really totally makes sense. And no storyline really goes much of anywhere. When you see Helen Hunt, Colin Firth, Matthew Broderick and Bette Midler in a movie, and it still can’t come together, you know it’s because there’s just crap writing underneath it all.

Maybe Hunt should have skipped the writing credit and just gone with a tried and true screenplay. But I suspect that Hunt, who had a baby at about 40, was trying to do something personally meaningful here. No harm in that. But…it kind of sucks to have done that when the movie, well, kind of sucks.

Things that particularly bothered me:

*Hunt is distractingly gaunt and aged looking in this movie. She can’t be much above 40, but she looks 50, and she’s all bony and hunched over. I know there’s pressure to be thin in Hollywood, but God, she looked AWFUL.

*Colin Firth’s character…charming in stereotypical Colin Firth way, but there’s one outburst scene from him that made me think his character was irretrievably fucked up, mean and awful…though that was not, I think, what you were supposed to take away from it. I think you were supposed to think the outburst was endearing and honest. But….yikes. Psychotic is more like it.

*The non-exploration/resolution of the there’s no difference/there is a difference between a biological and adoptive relationship. I think in the end you’re supposed to come away with the there’s no difference attitude. But though this question is the premise of the movie, they don’t explore it at all. Okay, there’s one weird scene with April and Ben in which he talks about how hard it is to be the biological child…. embarrassing at times, he tells her. And…that’s the end of that exploring.

*Paul also felt that the music was strangely paired with the scenes….I didn’t notice this so much, but he’s much more attuned to music than I am. It kind of did feel like Hunt chose music she liked, more than music that fit the scenes, though.

And there you have it. High, or reasonable hopes, not such a great movie. Oh well. I wonder if she’ll try it again.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

DVD: Rumor Has It

Okay, normally I wouldn’t be caught dead watching a movie starring Jennifer Aniston. No offense to Jennifer, but her presence in a movie connotes adjectives like dumb, surface, and cute. (Okay, I’m willing to bet she’d find that summary a tad offensive. But what can I say? It’s true.)

But, here we were in the Florida rental, Henry in bed, limited cable…and no Netflix. We turned the place upside down and found a few DVDs the owners had left, the most palatable of which was “Rumor Has It,” the 2005 flick, directed by Rob Reiner and starring Aniston, Kevin Costner, Mark Ruffalo, Shirley MacLain, Richard Jenkins and Mena Suvari.

Here’s the plot summary: A young woman from Pasadena realizes that her now-dead mother both knew (and slept with) the guy who was the inspiration for the character, Benjamin, in “The Graduate.” And she wonders if she might be his daughter. (And whether her grandmother, played by MacLain, was Mrs. Robinson.) The rest of the movie is Aniston trying to figure out the truth.

It’s cute. In fact, it was better than I expected it to be. Shirley MacLain is good for a laugh or two, as usual. And there’s a bit of physical comedy from Jenkins, as Aniston’s father, that left us laughing out loud for a good five or ten minutes.

In short, if you’re ever stuck in a beach house with nothing else to watch, I wouldn’t suggest that you, say, play backgammon instead of watching this movie.

Two Lovers

It made a lot more sense for me to work than to go to a movie last Friday. I mean, I’d just gotten back from a month in Florida, I’m way behind, and I’d hired a sitter for the day. Isn’t that a scenario that spells catch-up?

But I woke up hearing the sound of tires on wet streets, and rain pattering the window. And it was gray out. It was a day, in short, that just screamed buy a bagel, a ticket, and a huge Diet Coke (in that order) and settle into a nearly empty theater. So, I did. Bliss.

(Bliss except for the peculiar, slightly dead-in-the-eyes, afternoon movie-goer ahead of me at the concession counter, who peppered me with questions as we waited…I let some distance accrue between us as we both made our way to the same theater, to make sure he wasn’t going to suggest we sit together. Shiver.)

So, Two Lovers, a movie that was suggested by several other movie fans.

It’s a lover’s quad, I guess. On the one hand, there’s the depressive, and, in her words, “fucked up,” Michele, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, and her boyfriend, the much older, cringe-inducing, married-lawyer boyfriend, Ronald (Elias Koteas).

And then there’s Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), the oafish, endearing, slightly unstable son of Jewish immigrants who own a dry cleaning business in deep dark Brooklyn. Leonard’s heart was broken by his former fiancée, who ditched him (I’ll let you find out why). He’s home with his parents after a stint in an institution, trying to put his life back together.

He seems like a hopeless case, frankly, until he finds himself in the spotlight of a woman’s gaze—at which point he turns into an endearing clown who wants to please, amuse and entertain. And he does. The transformation is striking. And though it’s jarring, Phoenix makes it believable. Here is a man who comes alive at the prospect of love.

Leonard is torn between Michele, whom he’s technically friends with, but really pines for, and Sandra, the beautiful daughter of family friends, who doesn’t give off even the slightest whiff of crazy. Obviously Sandra is the right choice. Even Leonard knows that, occasionally blowing off Michele’s histrionics to focus on Sandra.

But crazy, as many of us know (okay, maybe just those of us with a checkered relationship history) has a strange allure. And, of course, it’s Gwynie, who looks like Gwynie in a photo shoot for Harper’s Bazaar for most of the movie. Kind of hard to turn your back on that, I imagine. Plus she’s needy in a way that lights up that male I’ll take-care-of-you gene. (Leonard lights up the female version of this gene in Sandra.)

The performances in this movie are really good. I loved Isabella Rossellini as Leonard’s mom. She didn’t need dialogue. It was all in her beautiful, worried, aging face. Phoenix is great. (I really do hope he hasn’t gone off the rails.) And Gwyneth seems to have a knack for depressive characters. (Though, with the exception of a gum-smacking, big hair club scene, she seemed a little too pretty and polished to me.)

It’s a solid movie, though a bit like an emotional horror flick (“Oh, no, don’t go in the basement/answer Michele’s call!”) Nowhere was I as horrified, however, as at the end—which, I lift my hat to the director, James Gray—I could not predict.

I think what troubles me is that I don’t ultimately know what it all MEANS. Is it, I thought, as I left the movie (after checking that dead-in-the-eyes was gone) about the lies we tell ourselves, and the compromises we accept, in love and relationships? Or is it merely a portrait of some hapless attempts at love?

Either way, it rang unnervingly true.

Friday, April 3, 2009


(This was the pier in Deerfield Beach, Florida. We spent a lot of time taking walks on it, checking out the pelicans, and seeing what people were catching.)

Hi all. I was away all of March in Florida without a close movie theater (or sitter, even if there had been one). To make matters worse, my internet access was spotty. Which is more of an explanation, I suppose, than an apology, for why this blog has been so quiet of late. There WAS, however, a Blockbusters nearby....(boy did browsing those aisles recall junior high school) so I did some good renting. And I've seen two movies this week, so there'll be more activity soon.