Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Movie Review: Shame

Apparently, being dead for 31 years makes you really horny. You want to claw your way out of the grave, grab a shaky handheld camera and start filming people doin’ it and doin’ it and doin’ it well.

Anything goes if you’re Steve McQueen and you’re making your zombie porn film called Shame. You’ll throw in male full-frontal nudity, female halfway-upside down nudity and shots of flesh pressed so close together you can’t tell what’s what.

Wait, I just checked it out and confirmed that the movie is not directed by the Steve McQueen who starred in Bullitt (1968) and died in 1980. Instead, it was made by the McQueen who was born the year after Bullitt was made and generally eschews bullitts or bullets in his movies, instead focuses on brainy art fare, including this and Hunger (2008), which starred Michael Fassbender as an Irish Republican Army volunteer who suffered in a hunger strike.

Fassbender is back for this film, and his hunger is for booty.

Playing a well-off New Yorker who houses his brooding lounge singer sister (Carey Mulligan) and entertains a series of high-class hookers into his penthouse, Fassbender did his part to spare the movie’s costume budget by going naked most of the time. His character tries to fill the holes in his life with bitter, self-loathing sex, and his obsession creeps into all facets of his life, suffocating him in sloppy misery.

Fassbender is so convincing in the role – especially in rare clothed moments when he comes to frantic realizations of his misery – that you genuinely ache for him. And for his flexible partners.

Mulligan, whose fragile character dances around her brother’s rage in a submissive slow burn, is equally mesmerizing.

The release of Shame is something of a holiday for film buffs, because when an NC-17 rated movie wins a bunch of festival awards and earns Oscar buzz, it gets movie geeks excited because they know they’ve got an ironclad excuse for going out and watching porn.

Although McQueen’s camerawork is pervy and lurid, it’s anything but sexy. His sex is miserable and sad, with the nudity used to expose the raw, unfulfilled vulnerability of his characters rather than excite.

There’s also probably a purpose for the scene in which Fassbender relieves himself in the toilet as the camera standing at attention to make sure he shakes out every last drop. Or not.

Starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. Written by Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen. Directed by McQueen. Rated NC-17. 99 minutes.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tap Dancing Class

I imagine that training for tap dancing goes like this: The teacher stands up in front of the room, sizes up his students, then declares "Spread your arms out and keep clicking your feet on the ground."

That's it, class over. From then on, tap dancers can continue spreading this fantastic art to others.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Review: J. Edgar

While far from perfect, J. Edgar is a perfectly valid investigation into the secret and public lives that the tyrannical FBI despot led. Director Clint Eastwood's take on the story is that Hoover, played with a soft touch by Leonardo DiCaprio, channeled his repressed homosexuality into obsessions with fame, seizing undue credit and violating the civil liberties of his countrymen under the guess of better protecting them.

DiCaprio again proves to be a chameleon capable of tackling any task set before him. The makeup department did him no favors in crafting him a ghastly deathmask as the older, plumper Hoover, though. No matter what DiCaprio does, the late-life Hoover scenes equate to a puppet show.

The actor excels as the younger Hoover, somehow making a near-unlikable character seem relatable. The humanity he infuses into the character shifts my perception of the figure. Eastwood has made better films, but this biopic stands as a solid, technically sound execution of his talents.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review: Hugo

A slow starter, Hugo gradually evolves into a grand celebration of the art of filmmaking that rivals anything of its ilk, including Cenema Paradiso and Day for Night.

The casting is uniformly superb. Martin Scorsese makes a spectacular find in Asa Butterfield, who plays the title character, a plucky orphan who is obsessed with resurrecting a mechanical robot, which he believes will bring himself spiritually closer to his departed dad. Chloe Grace Moretz continues her momentum from Let Me In, playing Hugo's partner in adorably lighthearted crime.

Sacha Baron Cohen nails a note of delightful incompetence as a station agent who serves as Hugo's Javert, while Ben Kingsley casts a penetrating figure as a patriarch who looks upon Hugo with scathing, bitter disapproval. The film takes the tone of a Miyazaki movie, in which the villains are usually misunderstood egomaniacs who are overcompensating for their own pain and insecurities.

Going in knowing little about the source material, I was sure we'd be in for a paint-by-numbers journey of magic and whimsy, but I loved the way the story stayed grounded. Instead of dreaming up gobbledygook, Scorsese has Hugo discover his magic internally, as he uses the idea of filmmaking to alter his bleak life. You get the sense that Scorsese found a similar vivaciousness inside himself as he stretches to bold new territory in his own career.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Review: The Descendants

Evil land developers are the most determined of movie villains. You can’t escape them no matter where you turn, even if you’re watching The Descendants, a prime slice of Oscar bait that’s supposed to be above such tired story devices.

George Clooney stars as Matt, a lawyer, who because his left eyebrow is Hawaiian, has inherited what looks to be the entire island of Kauai. The trustee in charge of selling a massive parcel of pristine land due to a little-known tenet of real estate law that forces families to do so, called The Law of Plot Constructs, Matt needs to decide whether to ruin Hawaii forever or do the right thing. Matt cocks his Hawaiian eyebrow throughout, wondering whether to pave paradise and put up a parking lot.

As far as moral dilemmas go, this is something like deciding whether to pet a baby kitty or blast her in the face with a shotgun.

The land thing is tough, but Matt has even greater problems – females. He’s got two daughters, a rebellious teen, Alex (Shailene Woodley) and a rebel-in-training tween, Scottie (Amara Miller). No explanation is given for the first girl in history to have been named Scottie, but it’s a reasonable assumption, given her age, that Matt must have been a huge Scottie Pippen fan.

Even an unconscious woman, his comatose wife, manages to give Matt problems. Her ultimate silent treatment makes him feel guilty for avoiding her for the loving arms of legal briefs. He takes solace in hanging out with his hateful offspring, who treat him the all the respect the Problem Child gives the dad in the movie Problem Child, figuring years of neglect is nothing two acts of movie time won’t change.

Matt attempts to solve his female and island problems by taking his brood, as well as Alex’s friend-zoned sidekick, Comic Relief (Nick Krause) along on a madcap adventure of telling friends, loved ones and a male mistress that they’re about to pull the plug on Mommy.

While the movie has its sharp moments, it’s nowhere near the level of mastery usually demonstrated by Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways). Take a Hallmark movie, throw in some swear words and intelligent dialogue and The Descendants is what you get. I kept expecting it to get better, but it just sort of did its thing and called it a day. Clooney is great in the film, but he’s great in pretty much everything, so his performance is a wash.

Being a fan of Rocky movies, I’ve got nothing against predictability, but I was really hoping that since Payne chose to use the evil land developer angle, he’d think of something to do with it.

I won’t spoil things by revealing whether or not Payne was successful. But I will say that I’ve always longed to see the evil land developers get his way in a movie – build his parking lot or shopping mall or garish resort or whatever – just to see how things would shake out.

What I will spoil is that if you’re hoping to see a surefire Oscar sweeper-upper, you’ll need to continue that search after the credits roll. A filmmaker who usually operates in the realm of The Spectaculars has come down with a middling case of The Decents.

Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Matthew Lillard, Nick Krause and Judy Greer. Written by Alexander Payne, Nate Faxon and Jim Rash, based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Directed by Payne. 115 minutes. Rated R.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Review: The Twilight Saga: New Moon Part 1

This is it, Twihards. Here is the moment you’ve been aching for since sparkly vampire Edward Cullen first laid eyes on Bella Swan, the one person on earth paler than him. Following a 3-movie courtship in which the 106-year-old immortal demonbeast seduced the shy 17-year-old in a totally legal way since Edward looks young for his age, it’s time for them to marry and get it on.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 wastes no time in setting up the rendezvous you’ve read about on the blogs. Well, it does waste a little time – maybe 20 minutes – to show necessary things such as Bella (Kristen Stewart) getting dressed for her wedding, Bella thinking about the wedding, Edward (Robert Pattinson) trying to talk Bella out of the wedding, Bella’s nightmare about the wedding and finally, the wedding. But after that, director Bill Condon gets right down to the good stuff.

There they are, these two fangs-crossed lovers, staring into one another’s lack-of-souls on an exotic beach, when finally the moment arrives.


Yep, they play chess. All night long, like animals. You should see the way Edward uses his rook. Long, strong, and down to get the friction on. Tireless and full of board game lust, Bella and Edward play chess again. And then again. The third time – get ready for an aww, cute alert – Edward lets Bella win!

Oh, yeah, and they also have sex in between. Or at least it looks like they’re about to have sex before it fades out and Bella’s lying there with that same look she’s always got on her face whether she’s being chased by a werewolf or served lunch in the school cafeteria. Pillow feathers are everywhere, the headboard is broken and Bella’s all bruised up in ways she assures a guilty Edward hurt so good. Guess she loves the way he lies. It must have been quite an event, but just as in the pages of Stephenie Meyer’s tome, the play-by-play is left mostly to our imaginations.

That’s right, people. Vampire sex is so intense that it makes the movie camera black out and cut to the next scene. And it also gets girls pregnant with Miracle-Gro babies that pop out within weeks, rendering the mom-to-be bedridden with broken ribs and a longing to slurp down Big Gulps of deli blood to keep the fetus happy.

The only guy who’s less satisfied by the viewer by this presentation is Bella’s doormat, werewolf-man transformatron Jacob (Taylor Lautner), whose pre-wedding pep talk includes an attempt to shake the Edward-obsession out of Bella. The guy thinks it’s not cool that a vampire demon behbeh is tearing up his unrequited love from the inside out, but he still stands guard on the off-chance that she’ll pop out a behbeh that will fall in love with him.

Since this movie has no villains – a post-credits scene shows that the bad guys are being saved for next year’s Part 2 (subtitle: Bella and Edward Play Parcheesi) – Jacob bickers with his wolfpack, who are convinced the behbeh will be a danger to their tribe and want to kill it. Or kill Edward. And/or maybe kill Bella. But really, just kill time.

What sets up to be an entertaining, UFC-style vampire-werewolf battle stops short of just that, ending up being just a bunch of growling and fang-baring for naught.

That’s just the way things go in this film, which is really a half-film, and the boring half at that. Such is the nature of things dubbed “Part 1.” It’s a film about things that will inevitably happen, but don’t until the next, more important part. If it were all the same to the studio, I’d rather it have just given us the full movie rather than stretch it out t h i s  m u c h. But it’s not all the same to the studio, because Meyer is fresh out of Twilight novels, and making a Part 1 adds an extra payday. It’s too bad that fans require the patience of a 106-year-old vampire to sit through it.

Starring Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner. Written by Melissa Rosenberg, based on a novel by Stephenie Meyer. Directed by Bill Condon. 119 minutes. Rated PG-13.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My New Literary Venture

Is a rhyming children's book I based on a conversation with my 4-year-old son about why he's not afraid of various monsters. It didn't take long to write and in the worst-case scenario I will provide stick figure Microsoft Paint illustrations and print it up myself.

I have no idea how to get a kid's book published — judging from my track record with traditional publishing, and given the ratio of completed manuscripts and proposals to actual publications, I barely know how to get a regular book published — but am starting to try to learn.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Review: Jack and Jill

Decades and decades ago, all an actor had to do to make audiences fall over with laughter was put on a dress. This is a major reason the in-no-way-funny Tootsie and Some Like it Hot are remembered as classics. Adam Sandler pulls out the old gag for Jack and Jill, in which he plays a jaded commercial director and his identical twin. In this post White Chicks and Sorority Boys era, the device has all the edge and freshness of “Take my wife… Please!”

Jack and Jill is as full of old-timey humor as your grandpa after a few swigs of gin. A screwball comedy with a set of extra balls, it trots out proven standbys in hopes that that some spacetime wormhole in between the screen and audience somehow warps the jokes into something resembling funny. Among the artifacts the yuk-yuk factory cranks out are a Blazing Saddles-like fart symphony, goofy beards and given-up-for-career-death Katie Holmes as a romantic lead.

That said, the movie is a lot better than what Sandler has subjected his fans to in recent years. By no means a Grown Ups or The Longest Yard remake style debacle, Jack and Jill is a half-chuckle funnier than Just Go with It and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. This is mainly due to self-mocking product placement, a dancing Al Pacino and an inspired sequence of Sandler-in-drag accidentally pummeling an old woman.

The presence of Pacino is probably the most important game-changer. Since Sandler’s dual roles cancel each other out, Pacino is pretty much the star of the show. He parodies his performances in The Godfather films, Scarface and Scent of a Woman, making such a fool of himself that it’s almost certain that he lost a bet to Sandler that made him his slave for a month.

The plot calls on regular Sandler – annoyed by a visit from his overbearing, inappropriate-acting twin Sandler – to hook his sister up with Pacino in order to get him to star in a Dunkin Donuts ad that will save his company. Pacino is so convincing as he puts the moves on Sandlerette that he truly deserves that Golden Globe nomination his handlers will probably buy for him.

Anyone who follows the actor absolutely has to see this movie for the inexplicable spectacle, especially for his song and dance number at the end of the movie that will haunt your nightmares for years to come. Pacino’s critics have said he’s turned into a parody of himself over the past decade, and he takes that accusation and runs with it here, going so far that you almost feel bad for him – like an overweight comedian who keeps telling fat jokes at his own expense.

Also making the movie fun to watch is an overflowing amount of cameos. Johnny Depp wearing a Justin Bieber shirt, David Spade’s face attached to someone else’s body and Subway’s Jared holding court at a party are among the strange sights that will be forever scarred into your mind.

The more I think about the movie, the more I like it, but I still don’t like it enough to recommend you expose your recession-drained wallet to its particular brand insanity in a wig and dress.

Starring Adam Sandler, Katie Holmes, Al Pacino and Nick Swardson. Written by Steve Koren, based on a Ben Zook story. Directed by Dennis Dugan. Rated PG. 91 minutes.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Learn to Speak Geek is Dead

The final publisher who was looking at it -- the one that very nearly decided to make it happen -- backed off, so I'm burying the project and moving on.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Pixar Movies From First To Worst

1. Toy Story 3 -- Nearly made me cry twice, sitting in the theater with my 3-year-old son, to whom it almost did the same. Lotso, that cruel bastard of a teddy bear, is just that cruel. The movie takes some characters we'd began to take advantage and yanks them out of their comfort zone into a story that questions the meaning and purpose of life, religion and family, touching the void with a fiery-tipped sword.

2. Finding Nemo -- Until last year, this was the vintage Pixar film, allowing the studio's talent to flex its creative muscles to the fullest extent. A great film by any definition, which philosophizes without smacking you over the head with its messages, the movie's beauty matches its brains.

3. Up -- The first 15 to 20 minutes of this movie, which describes how the main character evolved from a spirited young lad to a beaten-down old grump, make up some of the finest wordless storytelling I've ever experienced. Eventually the film stops reaching for the stars and settles into routine to wrap up the story, but the first act leaves you with enough of a high to float on through.

4. Monsters, Inc. -- The world it creates is vibrant and fascinating, and John Goodman and Billy Crystal deliver some of their finest work, in tandem with a lightning-paced script. Thoroughly enjoyable with just the right bittersweet touch at the end.

5. Toy Story -- Takes a brilliant concept and runs with it. While the animation is no longer mind-blowing, the story holds up, and the voice casting is perfect. Somehow, for once, Tim Allen is not annoying.

6. Toy Story 2 -- Also great, but doesn't step out of its comfort zone like 3. A fun movie that you can watch endlessly -- there aren't too many out there like that.

7. The Incredibles -- Rivals Wall-E and Ratatouille as the most overrated Pixar flick. I liked the Saturday morning cartoon vibe, but don't understand the over-the-moon love for what everyone would see as a run-of-the-mill action flick if it had been made by DreamWorks.

8. A Bug's Life -- Pixar was just starting out and didn't know what it was doing. This is the movie equivalent of a first kiss as a teenager. Exciting, but looking back at it, could have been a lot better.

9. Wall-E -- Pixar as shameless Oscar bait, abandoning efforts to entertain in the wake of attempting to be important and thought-provoking. Also, Wall-E is a total creeper and robo-necrophiliac whom the gorgeous Eva never should have given the time of day.

10. Ratatouille -- If you're going to be stuffy, pretentious and dull, just go all-in.. The part where the rat pulls the hair of the kid cook, turning him into a marionette, is something straight out of Tom and Jerry, the epitome of numskull idiocy. You can't have it both ways.

11. Cars -- I originally despised this, but then I had a kid and when he was 1 and 2 he liked it a lot and watched it 15 times a day and made me buy all the toys and bedsheets for him, which made me halfway respect it. Then he turned 3, hated it just like I do so that softness toward the movie went away.

12. Cars 2 -- An irredeemable mess and a blight upon humanity.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Grand Theft Auto V trailer

Surely poised to be a landmark achievement in gamedom, Grand Theft Auto V has popped onto the horizon. Is that an aged Tommy Vercetti I spy in the trailer?

Review: Tower Heist

Tower Heist is the Occupy Wall Street movement’s idea of a porno. A group of ritzy apartment complex clock-punchers who’ve had their pensions plundered by a master of the universe band together to storm the tower and take back what they believe is rightfully theirs. And just like the protests, there’s not much of a point to the whole thing, but it’s fun and exciting and you get to see a bunch of people get arrested.

Another parallel between the movie and movement is that one percent of its cast draws 99 percent of the laughs. The one-percenter in this case is Eddie Murphy, who used to be funny when everyone in the world was a kid before he decided to take a couple decades off being Norbit, Pluto Nash, Dr. Dolittle and Bitter Oscar Loser.

Murphy is back in Axel Foley form as an obscenity-spewing cat burglar who grudgingly joins the cause. Pairing Murphy’s suddenly re-animated corpse with ultimate straight man Ben Stiller is a masterstroke of casting that’s just like putting Penn with Teller or that hungry tiger with Siegfried and Roy.
A filmmaker not usually renowned for his restraint, director Brett Ratner seems to realize he has something potent in Murphy and Stiller, but holds the pairing back for fairly distant intervals, leaving them to explode together at crucial moments when the momentum starts to die down a bit.

Similarly successful in juggling the movies’ many other stars, Ratner and his screenwriters accomplish what Ocean’s 12 through 27 didn’t quite pull off: Introduce a not-so-merry band of fun-loving criminals and make us halfway care about them. Casey Affleck is the constant between those similarly-themed strike-outs and this ground-rule double, working with Matthew Broderick and Michael Pena to set up an intriguing sideshow in between Murphy-Stiller outbursts. Alan Alda is delightfully pompous as the Bernie Madoff-like villain, and Tea Leoni, who like Murphy has been missing in action for far too long, is also sharp as an FBI agent who’s a few hundred steps behind the heisters.

I don’t want to oversell the movie, which has its share of groan-inducing one-liners, and  a propensity for throwing around the word “vagina” seven-or-so times and hoping it’s funny enough on its own to draw laughs each time, unaware that vagina is only funny the first two times. Vagina. See? No longer funny.
But the film is at least a little bit magical, because it proves Murphy is funny again rather than a punchline himself. Hopefully this is the start of his next great act. If this turns out to be a one-time thing and Murphy plays DJ Lance Rock in the Yo Gabba Gabba movie and storms out of the Kids’ Choice Awards after he gets slimed, that will be cause for a protest indeed.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Review: I Am Better Than Your Kids

I've started freelancing at GuySpeed, and here is my first post: A review of Maddox's I Am Better Than Your Kids.

An excerpt:

‘I Am Better Than Your Kids’ could end up as the single most important work for the publishing industry. The author, whose 2006 literary debut, the bestseller ‘The Alphabet of Manliness,’ took it upon himself to handle much of the design and formatting of this book. That is crucial because the book is 90% style and 10% substance. That’s not a knock against it. It speaks to the very nature of what it felt like he was trying to accomplish, which was to critique the self-righteous, often resentful and bitter field of criticism as a whole.