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Why We Love Julia — Despite the Eat, Pray, Love Merch Machine

By Sara Vilkomerson
Friday, August 13th, 2010

Julia Roberts

For the next week (at least) we’ll all be besieged by the Eat Pray Love promotional machine. Do not try to fight it: turn on your television and you’ll see the Moonlighting-esque hazy lighting of Italy and Julia Roberts eating spaghetti (or looking beatific in India or adorably riding a bicycle in Indonesia). Cruise by a newsstand and see Julia gazing seductively at you from a glossy magazine cover. And walk into a Fresh store to buy some face cream, and you can buy the limited edition fragrances — or candle votives! — of ‘Eat’, ‘Pray’, and ‘Love’ (warning: one of them, in our opinion, smells terrible! We’ll leave it up to you to decide which one).

The fact that the movie isn’t really getting the greatest of reviews almost doesn’t matter. Consider it an opportunity to spend a good two plus hours with one of the world’s only bona fide female Movie Stars. Sure, Angelina Jolie has that dangerous intrigue and animal grace that makes her impossible not to watch. And yes, we hate that poor Sandra Bullock has been publicly treated so badly, and we’ll happily watch Cameron Diaz frolic on the beach with Tom Cruise on a lazy afternoon. (Hey, where the heck is Reece Witherspoon these days anyway?)

But, really, is there anyone quite like Julia Roberts? Forget about the fact that this is a woman who has been an A-lister pretty much from the start of her career in 1987, before the Kristen Stewarts of the world were even born. (And yes, for anyone wondering we did indeed see and enjoy 1988’s Satisfaction and can quote from memory just about all of Mystic Pizza). Like the greatest of the great Hollywood stars, Julia Roberts has managed to rise above any of her various roles — she’s created a Julia Roberts Persona. It’s one of sass and wit and charm, with a lot of teeth and infectious grin that’s present in just about all her films: She’s the girl that can keep up with all the guys (see: Ocean’s 11, 12,13, Duplicity), the great romantic heroine you root for in spite of her flaws (My Best Friend’s Wedding, Notting Hill, and – duh – Pretty Woman), and even in her bombs, cause sure she’s had those too (Mary Reilly, Michael Collins, and does anyone remember Mona Lisa Smile except devoted watchers of TBS?), it’s still pretty much a lot of fun to watch her work.

But here’s our confession: our favorite Julia Roberts performance? Every single time she is on Dave Letterman’s couch. You want to talk about chemistry? We could watch these two affectionately tease and flirt with each other forever! If you haven’t been converted to the Julia Roberts fan club after watching a Letterman appearance…well, you apparently are a lot stronger willed then we are.

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Apocalypse Now: Give the Film Version of The Road a Chance

By Sara Vilkomerson
Friday, August 6th, 2010

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in "The Road"

Hey, have you read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road?

There was a while there when that seemed to be the only question asked at various dinner and cocktail parties around town. The 2006 Pulizer Prize winning novel was kind of like the Harry Potter/Twilight of the intellectual world — cool kids had it in their back pockets, you could use both hands to count how many people you saw reading it on the subway daily, and Oprah did it as a book club pick. And it was all for good reason — McCarthy’s sparse and unflinching tale of a father and son traveling through a post-apocalyptic world after some unnamed disaster manage to hit just the right tender nerve (particularly among PTSD’d New Yorkers). The book itself, at just 256 pages, was gripping enough that you could read in a single weekend — maybe only to find yourself blinking late into the night, wondering how you might best pack up a shopping cart or how hungry you’d have to be in order to eat another human being (or was that was just us?).

The Hollywood adaptation seemed inevitable, even though it seemed near impossible to make this particular movie, from source material so bleak, and with so little dialogue. And then the movie came out and guess what? No one went to go see it! The film grossed just over 8 million dollars (production budget was reportedly $25 million), and while some critics raved (The New York Observer’s Rex Reed said, “It is sad, bleak and unbearably depressing. It is also gripping, shattering and brilliant.”) others, well, not so much (“The Road possesses undeniable sweep and a grim kind of grandeur, but it ultimately plays like a zombie movie with literary pretensions,” sniffed The Washington Post).

But we would like to now go on record as being decidedly pro The Road. And now that the film is available on pay-per-view, here is why you should crank up the AC, turn off the lights and give it a chance. For starters, fans of the book should take heart: this is about as faithful an adaptation as you can hope for. It stays true to the essence of McCarthy’s novel and eliminated only one of the very terrible things that happen in the book (we won’t ruin the surprise). In fact, if possible the movie made one particularly scary scene even more terrifying in the movie version. And then there’s the great Viggo Mortensen. It just doesn’t matter what this guy does, he’s always great. (Always: Remember when he was a basically just a mute Amish farmer in Witness? He brought a lot to the role!). In The Road he is spectacular. Even if you aren’t a fan of anything else — the stunning art direction, the (perhaps questionable) Nick Cave soundtrack — see this movie to see one of the best actors working today turn in what is arguably one of his finest performances. Charlize Theron takes what is the wispiest of characters in the novel, and fleshes her role into something fascinating. And, not for nothing, young Kodi Smit-McPhee is not annoying in what could have been a disastrous role for a child actor. (This is all to say nothing of the excellent small turns turned in by Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, and Garrett Dillahunt.) So it’s not the same experience as reading the novel. Of course it isn’t! But enjoy it for what it is, an excellent and underappreciated film with remarkable performances.

PS! We are delighted by the news that Viggo Mortensen has not been scared off of movies with “Road” in the title or daunting literary adaptations: he’s signed on to play Old Bull Lee in the adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.

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Wither the Debonair Dick?

Despite the charms of Clooney, Owen and Draper, it's time to stop looking for the next Cary Grant.
By Sara Vilkomerson
Friday, July 30th, 2010

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in "Notorious"

Last Sunday evening there wasn’t an empty seat at the 6:50 p.m. screening at BAM for Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. Interchangeable bearded hipsters with thick-rimmed glasses, girls in flimsy rompers and slightly peeved looking middle-age Brooklynites crammed together in a small theater — which, not for nothing, rivals only the Film Forum when it comes to uncomfortable seating — for the 1946 thriller. But no one complained. How could they? Notorious, part of BAM’s Cary Grant series (including classics such as North by North West, Bringing Up Baby, and Charade) has Grant facing off against Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains at the height of his appealing powers. He is, as the BAM write up helpfully explains, “the inimitable leading man, whose iconic blend of elegance, comic timing, and flawless physique led Howard Hawks to declare him ‘by so far the best that there isn’t anybody to be compared to him.”

The audience at BAM laughed, nervously, when Grant hits Ingrid Bergman in the face in order to get her to stop drunk driving. And each time he managed to call her character a boozy strumpet!

Not that it’s stopped anyone from trying. Google the phrase “the new Cary Grant” and the hits keep coming. Some of them are surprising (Ashton Kutcher? Justin Timberlake? President Obama…really?) and some seem to be obvious: Hugh Grant and all his floppy haired, charm. Pierce Brosnan with his impossible bone structure and easy-glide gait; Clive Owen with those wet, soulful eyes. And then, of course, there’s George Clooney, who perhaps indeed gets closest to tapping into the Grant allure. In a 2007 essay for The Guardian, David Thomson — who in 1975 called Cary Grant the most important actor the movies have ever — mulled the topic over, conceding that, “We accept the fundamental justice of comparing Clooney with Grant because Clooney seems to share some Grantian traits: he is very good-looking, and yet quite self-deprecating about that huge advantage; he is prepared to be taken for smart and sophisticated, while nursing quite serious and profound thoughts, and he is bred in a tradition that knows it’s easier to be smart when others underestimate you; and Clooney has a look in his eye — it’s been there ever since ER, though it has seldom flourished — that says high romance with the right woman must be one of the great things in life.”

However, Thompson also argued that Clooney would be better served making films like Notorious which is a great idea but somewhat unimaginable, when you think about characters like Grant’s Devlin. Can you imagine a movie in 2010 that has its leading man treating his love interest the way Grant treats his? The audience at BAM laughed, nervously, when Grant hits Ingrid Bergman in the face in order to get her to stop drunk driving. And each time he managed to call her character a boozy strumpet! Grant excelled at playing the Debonair Dick, a kind of hero we’re just not seeing these days.  (The closest thing that comes close to a DD is a character with the right initials, Don Draper on Mad Men.) We tend to like our cads redeemed! So maybe it’s time we stop looking for the Next Cary Grant (if we hear the words ‘Cary Grant’ and ‘Zac Efron’ in the same sentence we might just have to move to Alaska) and accept the fact like so many things from the days of yore we think we miss — martini lunches, smoking in the office, and excellent romantic comedies — there is no new Cary Grant and nor can there be another. And that’s ok!

Photo courtesy Museum of Modern Art.

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The Mark Ruffalo Mystique

By Sara Vilkomerson
Thursday, July 22nd, 2010
Mark Ruffalo in "The Kids Are All Right"

Mark Ruffalo in "The Kids Are All Right"

This weekend moviegoers who are a bit beaten down by a summer of vampires, airbenders, and Tom Cruise can instead go and see The Kids are All Right, by Lisa Cholodenko, which has been accruing buzz since its Sundance Film Festival premiere in January, and in the last week has made film critics reach for new superlatives — it’s currently boasting a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. And rightly so! The Kids are All Right not only has a near-perfect script — the quirky-but-not-too-quirky tale of a married lesbian couple and the two children they conceived with the help of a sperm donor — but it’s elevated by excellent performances by leads Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. But it also has a secret weapon, and no little one at that: Mark Ruffalo. And not just Mark Ruffalo, but Mark Ruffalo playing the most Mark Ruffalo-like Mark Ruffalo part ever.

But what is it? Is it his big labrador-like head? Or that gravelly-cracked voice that imbues vulnerability into every mild sentence?

It’s not really a spoiler to say that once Ruffalo’s character, sperm-donor Paul — a charming man-boy — enters the lives of this modern-on-the-outside-familiar-on-the-inside family things get all sorts of topsey turvey, including one of the moms actually switching teams for a bit of sheet time with Paul. Which only proves a theory we’ve had for some time now: everyone wants to make out with Mark Ruffalo. We’re kidding… sort of. But how many actors have the ability — or, in old fashioned Hollywood speak, a quality — that gets smart women in a swoon and has their male companions bob their heads in universal acceptance; ‘oh yeah, I like that guy.’

But what is it? Is it his big Labrador-like head? Or that gravelly-cracked voice that imbues vulnerability into every mild sentence? A.O. Scott, in his The New York Times review wrote, “The shorthand description of Paul is that he is played by Mark Ruffalo, with specific reference to the goodnatured, feckless brother Mr. Ruffalo played in You Can Count on Me. Paul is sort of like a cleaned-up, more self-confident version of that guy, with the same hesitant intonation, crooked smile (behind a graying goatee) and a slightly dangerous charm.”

Indeed it was probably 2000’s You Can Count on Me that Ruffalo Mystique began, or at least when audiences took note of him — sitting on the floor smoking and speaking frankly to his young nephew, sneaking said kid out on an illicit trip to a bar,  which does not end in disaster but with the boy winning a pool game and getting held up by his ankles to loud cheers. That Ruffalo played a character who seemed to understand that he could do nothing but disappoint those who counted on him didn’t make him any less likeable.

Or, perhaps, more clarifying is The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, in his review for The Kids are All Right, who writes; “Paul, a bearded restaurateur, turns out to be randy but unthreatening, warm to the touch but cool about stuff, with a dash of smugness in his easy smile, all of which is a way of saying that he is played by Mark Ruffalo. One of these days, someone should cast Ruffalo as a quarterback, or a Cistercian monk, just to see what happens.”

Lane, as usual, seems to get at the heart of it – particularly the “warm to the touch but cool about stuff.”  We’re not convinced of the smugness part, if anything Paul struck us as a guy who can’t believe his good luck, whether its picking vegetables in his sun-dappled garden or bedding gorgeous waitresses and confused lesbians. But then again, maybe that’s just the Ruffalo Mystique, striking again; no matter what he’s doing, we give him the benefit of the doubt. Even if, as the latest rumor goes, he puts on a pair of sweatpants and plays the Incredible Hulk. Do not make the Ruffalo angry.

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