Friday, June 26, 2009

AWAY WE GO: The Film Babble Blog Review

AWAY WE GO (Dir. Sam Mendes, 2009) 

 As a unmarried couple in their mid 30's, John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph roll with the punch of pregnancy without exaggerated comical reaction or cutesy comebacks. The same can be said for AWAY WE GO - Sam Mendes' follow-up to the cautionary tale period piece REVOLUTIONARY ROAD.

Krasinski and Rudolph live like college kids who have just moved in together. Their home is a broken down one story shack in the woods with no heat and cardboard covering one of the windows. "We don't even have the basic stuff figured out", Rudolph pouts one dark cold night after their power goes off.

Krasinski tries to console but she can't help but repeating: "I think we may be fuck-ups." With a baby on the way, the couple desire to live near family. Rudolph's parents are both deceased so this falls to Krasinski's parents, living close to them in Denver, played perfectly by Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels. 

This safety blanket is pulled off abruptly when O'Hara and Daniels announce that they are moving to Belgium. "You're moving 3 thousand miles away from your granchild!" Krasinski exclaims. "I think it's more than 3 thousand," is his aloof mother's response. Rudolph proposes they travel to seek out a new home, preferably near family or close friends. With big white on black block letter titles telling us which destination is next continually ("AWAY TO...") we visit Phoenix, Tucson, Madison, Montreal, and Miami; each location introducing a bevy of curious characters.

Sure, there are obligatory quirks aplenty with such stand-outs as Maggie Gyllenhall's self righteous earth mother who refuses to put her children in strollers and Allison Janey's sobering examples of obnoxious parenting, but the film is always grounded in a realism rarely found at the movies today (especially in the blockbuster world of summer). Though I never expected Krasinski to make his patented 'did you get that?' look to the camera, his character is a lot like a bearded Jim from The Office - a well meaning, funny, and mildly neurotic guy who genuinely loves his girlfriend.

Rudolph (known largely for being a long running cast member on SNL) shows layers she has never shown before but in movies like a lead in IDIOCRACY or lost in the ensemble in A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, how could she? Even with its multitude of standard issue sun drenched shots, poignant close-ups, and acoustic singer songwriter balladry (provided by Alexi Murdoch), this is a superior indie film to most. It has very little in the way of plot point payoffs or forced comedic contrivances. It just asks us to spend some time with a few likable characters at a crossroads. 

Dave Eggers, whose 2000 book "A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius" I highly recommend, is new to screenwriting yet this (co-written with his wife Vendela Vida) is a confident and accomplished debut. Mendes clears the air from the disturbing and foul feeling REVOLUTIONARY ROAD effectively and we are left with this sweet diversion. An "indie sleeper" if there ever was one, AWAY WE GO is quite a keeper.

More later...

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Statement From The Stones - The Varsity Theater Owners That Is

Just a quick note that the Varsity theater owners (Bruce and Mary Jo Stone) have released a statement about the theater's closing. Independent Weekly writer David Fellerath, who has diligently followed the story since the beginning, blogged about it with links to the written statements themselves:

Statement From Owners Of Varsity Theater (Yes, It's Closing Tonight) - Indy Week Blogs Jun 25 2009, 1:20 PM

If you live in the Triangle area you just may consider heading out to pay your respects. Neither THE HANGOVER or THE BROTHERS BLOOM are masterpieces, but they would still constitute a fine evening at a grand old theater.

The Varsity is dead! Long live the Varsity! (Such a cliché I know, but I just couldn't help it.)

At least Chapel Hill still has the Chelsea Theater (Check their site for listings, directions, etc.). Sigh. 

More later...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

It's Confirmed: The Varsity Theater Is Closing

"I love the smell of popcorn in the evening. It smells like...Varsity!" - Me from one of my first shifts ever at the theater in 2004 

After weeks of speculation and much community commentary, the Varsity Theater, built in 1927, located in downtown Chapel Hill, N.C. is closing.

The last night will be Thursday, June 25th with THE HANGOVER (7:15/9:30 PM) and THE BROTHERS BLOOM (7:00/9:20).

As I've blogged before I've worked there since 2004, but I've gone to the theater since the '70s having seen many crucial films from my youth there (STAR WARS, THE JERK, AIRPLANE!, etc.) so this is very sad for me personally.

For many folks in the area it will be a blow, maybe not a devastating one, but one that will grow as the idea of a Franklin Street without any movie screens has yet to sink in.

David Fellerath's blog post ("Varsity Theater To Go Dark Friday, June 26" - Film Beat, June 23rd) that broke the story reported: "Owner Bruce Stone wouldn't directly confirm the theater's closing, but when asked if the fact that the Indy had not been provided with movie listings for the Varsity meant there would be no movies there, he replied, 'That would be a correct inference.'" So there it is. 

Stone has still yet to make an official announcement but we all know the gig is up. Maybe, just maybe, with much hope a developer or future buyer will take on the place. Such a beautiful old iconic theater shouldn't end up like so many others across the country - old boarded up shells of former glory.

The Varsity Theater was so much more than an old art house - it was a beloved institution that really tied the town together, as The Dude might say. Farewell, sweet Varsity.

More later...

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Classic Films On The Big Screen In The Triangle Area

This post is extremely localized about theaters in my area that show old movies so it might not appeal to some of my readers. However, I think it’s possible that out-of-towners will find some interest and may be inspired to comment about revival showings at theaters near them.

The summer season is overflowing with movie choices, but many in the Triangle may not know that there is a welcome antidote to the mind numbing “event movies” arriving weekly at the multiplexes.

Favorite films from years past, both classic and cult, are being shown at a number of theaters and venues in the area alongside current releases. These screenings give moviegoers a chance to see on the big screen films they’ve loved before on television or DVD, or heard about but never seen, in all their 35 millimeter glory. Plus, they’re typically not as expensive as first run films.

Built in 1926, The Carolina Theater in Durham has a great reputation for revival shows with their popular weekend series of horror movies: “Retrofantasma” and a summer series that this year includes double features of Robert De Niro (TAXI DRIVER, THE UNTOUCHABLES), Alfred Hitchcock (REAR WiINDOW and VERTIGO, Steven Spielberg (JAWS and INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM) and John Belushi (ANIMAL HOUSE and THE BLUES BROTHERS) features. 

“Retrofantasma”, billed as “a joyful jolt of terror and nostalgia”, has a dedicated audience for a roster ranging from SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT to the tongue in cheek CLUE. They may be scratchy old prints for the most part, but there's no denying the thrill of seeing famous film history writ large.

Located in North Raleigh, The Colony Theater caters to the cult crowd; the kids who grew up on Lucas and Spielberg but leaned towards Tarentino and Lynch as they matured. “Cool Classics @ The Colony” has showcased a multitude of films with fanatic followings such as PURPLE RAIN, ERASERHEAD, PULP FICTION and MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. 

After 3 successful years the Colony is starting a new series: “Cinema Overdrive” which will feature far out and obscure oddities like DEATH RACE 2000 (starring the recently deceased David Carradine) and Frank Zappa’s 200 MOTELS.

Colony Theater General Manager Denver Hill, a film buff and 35 MM film collector, said that the “Cool Classics” often “do a lot better than the usual films” as it’s been “slow for indie films lately.” Hill, who has worked for the theater since 2002, also remarked that he expected the June 16th and 17th showings of the late 90’s Coen Brothers cult classic THE BIG LEBOWSKI to make more money than the current well reviewed Broadway documentary EVERY LITTLE STEP. LEBOWSKI, is a repeat performance as Hill explains: “90% of the films have been customer requests.”

The North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh offerings may be a bit more highbrow, but they are just as crowd pleasing. Over the fast few decades there have been many film festival of such icons as Woody Allen and such noted genres as “film noir.”

It should be noted that they could benefit from having more than one screening in the winter when movies are shown in their auditorium; multiple times when I tried to attend showings they were sold out or only single seats remained.

This is a non-issue in the summer season as they have outdoor screenings that can accommodate more people (of course, those can get rained out). This year the highlights will be a Watergate revisited weekend with AlLL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and FROST/NIXON, a tribute to Paul Newman with a showing of THE STING, and at the end of August a 70th anniversary showing of GONE WITH THE WIND with an accompanying documentary “The Making Of A Legend.”

The Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary, in their “Movies By Mooonlight” Summer series shows mostly movies from the last year (TWILIGHT, KUNG FU PANDA, IRON MAN, etc.) but does offer a few older titles: MOONSTRUCK and WAIT UNTIL DARK are showing this Summer. 

Be forewarned: Koka booth rarely shows 35 MM prints (the last one was 3 years ago: the legendary THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) – the films are projected from a DVD. Still, it’s a beautiful venue and a fine evening be had with the right companion, lawn-chairs and beverages.

The Galaxy Theater in Cary often screens older films, in the last year they’ve presented an overlooked beautifully restored Charlie Chaplin film - MONSIEUR VERDOUX as well as LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and DOUBLE INDEMNITY. The theater, which is something of an art-house multiplex, has several popular series such as the “Undiscovered Gem Series,” the “Silver Screen Spring Series”, and like a number of local theaters, a “Kids Summer Movie Series” that runs on weekday mornings.

And for almost 20 years there’s been the Friday midnight showing of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW* at The Rialto

Via email, Ambassador Entertainment owner Bill Peeples said that “attendance is high and consistent” for the long running late show that has played “every Friday at midnight since December, 1989.”

The Rialto, which is part of Ambassador Entertainment along with the Colony, Mission Valley Theatres, and Six Forks Station, also hosts “Cinema, Inc”, billed as Raleigh’s oldest and finest non-profit film society offering classic film presentations once a month on Sunday night.

With the possible closing of the Varsity and Chelsea Theaters in Chapel Hill, one might wonder if more revival screenings might have changed their fate. 

This spring at the Chelsea, a retrospective of director Mark Rydell (including ON GOLDEN POND and THE ROSE) drew respectable crowds so it goes to shows that there is definitely an audience for vintage cinema in this area. If the historic Varsity and Chelsea theaters are to continue operation I hope they embrace the past as they look to the future.

Post note: For more information like show-times and directions and please click on the theater's highlighted names in the article.

* I just blogged about seeing THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW for the first time - read the post here.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Despite The Cloying Quirks, THE BROTHERS BLOOM Works

THE BROTHERS BLOOM (Dir. Rian Johnson, 2009)

The opening set-up montage featuring the title's namesakes as kids is narrated by the voice of the actor, writer, and smooth magician Ricky Jay. 

Jay did the same duties for the striking beginning of MAGNOLIA 10 years ago so he lends an air of familiarity immediately to the punchy proceedings.

Likewise, straight out of the Wes Anderson playbook, comes another montage in which Rachel Weisz displays how she "collects hobbies." These devices recall the notion of a sea of quirk that Michael Hirschorn of the Atlantic envisioned a few years back ("Quirked Around" Sept. 2007). 

Hirschorn wrote that due to the likes of the Andersons (both Wes and Paul Thomas) and their peers, there was a threat that indie cinema could drown in quirk. It's an empty threat though; quirky characters in strained, possibly life endangering situations - the 'cinema of cringing' it could be called - have been the norm since the dawn of movie history. 

THE BROTHERS BLOOM, about con-artist brothers (Adrian Brody and Mark Ruffalo), has many bits that feel like re-fried quirk from other flicks, yet it still works, gloriously too at times. For some reason Brody is called Bloom while Ruffalo goes by Stephen so the title I don't get, but whatever. Brody, tired of an endless series of cons, decides he wants the "unwritten life" but Ruffalo gets him to go on one last big score. 

Of course, a woman (Weisz) fouls things up and twists them around and around in their little art smuggling scam. Brody says of his brother's cons that they are like the narratives of some Russian novelist, containing “thematic arcs and shit.” We're swept through scene after scene of double crossing with some predictable turns, yet just like the quirks they can be forgiven with such a capable cast and a not too clever for its own good tone. 

Brody and Ruffalo carry THE BROTHERS BLOOM and play off each other with the believable edge of siblings. Wiesz gels well with them too even with her sitcom girlfriend vibe going strong. The film shows director Johnson getting comfy with comedy, though it must be said that it isn't quite on the level of his previous dramatic work - the brilliant BRICK

Without a doubt, the stale "style over substance" complaint will be used in many reviews but many moviegoers will enjoy swimming in this particular sea of quirks.

More later...

Saturday, June 13, 2009


For almost 20 years the Rialto Theater in Raleigh has presented the cult classic THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW every Friday at Midnight. Despite hearing many amusing tales of sordid audience-interactive escapades that would occur during each showing, I had never attended before last night. 

I have seen parts of the movie on television and have heard songs from the soundtrack but knew those didn't count compared to the actual experience. However I didn't expect to be branded a "virgin" with a lipstick "v" on my head and forced to do a dance move twist in a line mashed together with other virgins - but hey! If that's the drill then so be it.

After that stupid spectacle, the real stupid spectacle began - the movie started and a cast of young folks (some looked like teenagers) mimicked the action onscreen. They came dressed like their respective characters and lip-synced their lines, some dead on, some less so. It was loud and chaotic, often indecipherable and yet it was a lot of fun. 

We threw rice, rolls of toilet paper, and playing cards (they sell prop bags if you come empty handed) at the crucial moments while obvious audience regulars shouted their snarky comebacks ("call backs" I'm told) at the screen.

My wife told me that it wasn't quite like the ROCKY HORROR shows she had seen in the past. Some of the "call backs" were new additions with recent references which I'm told on the internets, if applauded, are added to the ongoing repertoire. My wife also said the "underwear run" wasn't a part of any of the shows she had been to before (she had seen RHPS countless times at the now defunct AMC Fashion Village 8 in Orlando, Florida back in the late 80's and early 90's).

You might notice I'm not speaking about the plot (or lack thereof) and that's because it's the least important part of the whole shebang. The premise of a conservative couple (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon - "Saran-wrap" goes one of the "call-backs") who, one dark and dreary evening, find themselves in a castle surrounded by sexual deviants holding an Annual Transylvanian Convention is just an excuse for extravagant musical numbers and outrageous sci-fi shenanigans. Tim Curry's transsexual Dr. Frank N. Furter with his Mick Jaggeresque delivery and slimy charm steals the show, but he has stiff competition from Meat Loaf in one uproarious rowdy rock number.

As a "movie guy" who just moved to Raleigh, I couldn't go much longer without finally taking in the Rialto tradition of RHPS. It didn't disappoint and it was fascinating to find out afterwards that the players call themselves The Low Down Cheap Little Punks - here's their website. If you haven't seen THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW - I bet there's a theater near you that has the same tradition albeit a distinctly different presentation. 

It's impressive that this film that originally flopped and was bashed by critics became the ultimate midnight movie celebrated in cities all over the world every weekend. It's a great legacy for what is, honestly, a weird-ass kind of crappy movie. Without a doubt, the soundtrack and the outrageous spirit of it all win out at every show.

More later...

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Aging Struggling Metal Band Hasn't Spinal Tapped Out

ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL (Dir. Sasha Gervasi, 2008) A handful of rock documentaries including METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER and DiG! have been dubbed "the real life Spinal Tap" before, but this examination of who one fan calls "the demi-Gods of Canadian metal" definitely comes the closest to resembling that seminal 1984 hard rock doc satire. From the shining silver lettering of the band name to their over the top stage antics (I can totally see Nigel Tufnel playing a guitar with a dildo) to the mishandled gigs and then there's even the drummer's name being Robb Reiner, so we've definitely got a winner in the true-life Spinal Tap sweepstakes. Hell, their amps actually go to 11 and they even go to Stonehenge - not just sing about it.
The thing is, these are real guys who have struggled in the low tiers of heavy metal for years and through all the hilarity a touching pathos forms for their perseverance. Now in their 50's, guitarist/frontman Steve "Lips" Kudlow works for a children's catering company while Reiner does odd construction jobs between tours that are becoming less and less frequent. Lips is the de facto narrator taking us through a disastrous European tour complete with a screaming irate manager, poor attendance, and non paying promoters. A bit down, but not out, they return home to focus on making their 13th album which involves raising a hefty sum in order to secure studio time with infamous metal producer Chris Tsangarides.
They squabble during production yet are immensely proud of the disc they deliver. Trouble is, no record label wants it so they distribute it themselves. In the end, just like in THIS IS SPINAL TAP, there's always Japan. Filmed lovingly by a former roadie (who incidentally went on to co-write the screenplay for one of Steven Spielberg's worst movies: THE TERMINAL), ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL (love that wonderfully redundant title) isn't just one of the best rock documentaries of the last decade, it's one of the funniest films I've seen in ages - I laughed so hard that tears flowed at an 80's clip of Anvil appearing on some afternoon "issues" TV show (think a destitute woman's Sally Jessie Raphel) with the lyrics of an early crude song ("Toe Jam") being soberly recited. And speaking of tears, I was surprised to see so many shed by the participants (mostly Lips and his family members) throughout this film. It's weird but, I actually care about this band now (honestly though, I don't think I'll listen to their music) and think it's great they are on the movie map. Metal heads and casual movie-goers alike (which means just about everybody) ought to dig it. It's a hilarious and touching movie about pursuing one's dreams, at all costs (or none), even if they appear to be adolescent pipe dreams to a huge portion of the population. Pete Townshend once said: "Rock 'n roll can't solve your problems, but it can help you dance all over them." With ANVIL! make that "fist-pump and thrash" all over them too.
More later...

Thursday, June 04, 2009

My Last Night At The Varsity Theater & THE HANGOVER

As I reported before, The Varsity Theater in Chapel Hill, N.C. is in a period of transition.

The owner, Bruce Stone, is still in negotiations and nobody knows whether it'll remain open as it changes hands or if it will close unsold. This is all so timely as I will no longer be working at the theater.

Since my move to Raleigh I've decided I no longer want to commute, so yesterday was my last night working my all-time favorite part-time job. 

We were opening 2 new movies - oddly enough both feature Mike Tyson - so I needed to change the marquee for the last time. Of course, it rained last evening (which seems to be a Thursday night tradition here) so I wasn't feeling particularly sentimental as I climbed the ladder. 

All evening I fielded questions about the fate of the theater. Stone joked last weekend that our official line to everybody was: "We're confused." So we've been saying that (or variations thereof). 

David Fellerath wrote this insightful article in this week's Independent about not just the Varsity and its sister theater the Chelsea's fate but about the bleak business and uncertain future of independent art houses these days: The Unknown Futures Of Chapel Hill's Varsity And Chelsea Theaters: The Moviegoer's Lament (Independent Weekly June 3rd, 2009) Another Thursday night tradition is to have a late showing (not open to the public unless you know somebody) of the new movie that is opening the next day. 

I definitely wasn't going to miss the late show my last night at the Varsity:

THE HANGOVER (Dir. Todd Phillips, 2009)

"A bachelor party movie where you never see the bachelor party" is how director Phillips, responsible for the likes of OLD SCHOOL and STARSKY & HUTCH, described this Las Vegas-set silliness to The New York Times.

Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, and Ed Helms play the overgrown child protagonists who wake to find themselves in way over their heads after a night of stag party debauchery. In their trashed hotel suite they find that the groom (Justin Bartha) is missing, Helms has a tooth missing, a Bengal tiger is in the bathroom, and there's a baby in the closet. 

The trio remember nothing of what happened so you might expect more than a little of DUDE, WHERE'S MY CAR? mixed with just a dash of THREE MEN AND A BABY and you wouldn't be far off.

Galifianakis, in the Belushi/Jack Black role, has the funniest lines and frequently steals the movie from his co-stars. The one-liners come fast and furious but sadly there are a lot of stale comic stylizations like, for instance, a Tarentino slow-motion group walk towards the camera with "Who Let The Dogs Out" blaring on the soundtrack. 

As the events of the night before are revealed there are some tasty turns - Mike Tyson, playing himself, as the tiger's owner and Heather Graham as a hooker that Helms finds he's now married to have their charms but some other plot points and clichéd character bits fall flat.

As likable as the leads are, THE HANGOVER is only fitfully funny but I would still say it's has enough genuine laughs in it to meet my comedy quota. It is a definite improvement over Phillips previous lowbrow fare as it shows he can handle natural feeling rhythms, timing, and tone. While another draft (or 2) on the screenplay probably wouldn't have made this a comedy classic, it feels a tad undercooked so this is a pretty reserved recommendation. 

However, I suspect it may have a re-watchability factor and that some elements might rub me better sometime down the line. Maybe, like a real hangover, when the annoying pangs wear off I'll be able to remember the best of the original buzz. 

Okay! So that was my last night working at the Varsity. I'll miss working on Franklin Street and downtown Chapel Hill in general. I would usually post recent pictures of the marquee on the sidebar on this blog and that's something I'll also miss. 

But don't worry, this change won't affect this blog much - I love movies and will continue to see as many movies as possible and tell you what I think. I'll also keep you updated on the respective fates of the Varsity and Chelsea Theaters. So please - stay tuned. 

More later...

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

UP: The Film Babble Blog Review

UP (Dirs. Pete Doctor & Bob Peterson, 2009)

Another summer, another wonderful colorful emotionally-involving awe-inspiring magical masterpiece from Pixar. 

UP had me from the get go - I was crying within the first 5 minutes. It would be a critical sin to reveal the exact narrative that sets up the premise of an old man named Carl Frederickson who one day decides to tie thousands of helium balloons to his old home in order to fly it to Paradise Falls in South America, so I'll try and keep this relatively Spoiler-free. 

As voiced by the gruff Ed Asner, Carl is utterly sympathetic and not completely the cranky curmudgeon you might expect, though he is tasked when finding that there's an accidental stowaway on his makeshift aircraft: an 8 year old "wilderness explorer" named Russell (Jordan Nagai) who is full of spunk. Like Asner's classic Lou Grant character, Carl hates spunk but they form an alliance regardless as they brace a dark thunderstorm that is the first of many obstacles on their journey. 

"No rap music or flash dancing!" Asner mildly growls as they set out over the terrain making their way through a jungle full of exotic birds and a pack of vicious dogs that amusingly communicate through translating collars.

The boyhood hero of our protagonist, famous explorer Charles F. Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer) appears, at first welcoming but soon suspecting that his visitors are here to undo his life's work: the securing of an extremely rare tropical bird. 

Saving the bird, which the plucky Russell previously befriended and named Kevin (not know it was female), from the clutches of Muntz becomes the crux of this delicious cinematic biscuit as we sail through glorious set pieces and gripping chase scenes at an invigorating pace.

UP may lose some of its sense of invention in the second half, yet it's a gem that stands with the best Pixar productions. It maybe didn't wow me as much as last summer's WALL-E but that's a tiny quibble. Pixar continues to do amazing work by consistently making quality family films that hip, intelligent adults can enjoy. The sentiment is sans cynicism and the worlds they create are eye-poppingly and mind bendingly beautiful. 

It's a joyous feat to have a senior citizen as the lead battling another ornery old-timer while what could have been an obnoxious tag-along kid bounces around them. Surround them with patented Pixar inspiration and the result is pure exhilaration. Keep 'em coming, Pixar - there's no reason to look back or look down when you're this high in the sky.

Post note: There was a great UP sight gag in the season finale of The Simpsons this year. It may be the first time a movie was referenced on the show before it was even released. Actually, come to think of it, probably not.

More later...