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What’s your damage, Fox TV?

The unthinkable has happened, and I hesitate to tell you about it because then you’ll be thinking these same wretched thoughts, too. But misery loves company, so ready yourself to be hit by the big, fat, yellow Truth Express:

Fox TV is turning “Heathers” — that acidic, twisted teen comedy classic from 1989 that inspired countless (and inferior) copies — into a television show.

Someone, please, pass me the Draino. I have nothing left to live for.

If that’s an overreaction, well, it isn’t much of one. Fox Television? All the great, edgy, risk-taking stations out there — Showtime and HBO, for starters — and Fox Television is the final answer? I shudder to think all the things that will be lost in translation from the big screen to a network TV station — the scalding one-liners, the hilariously creative use of profanity, the inventive death scenes, the beautiful, tragic satire of it all. Yes, I expect writer Mark Rizzo (who has served as a designer on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”!) and Producer Jenny Bicks (“Sex and the City,” which only makes me feel slightly less nauseated) will murder all the things that made this movie so incisive and wonderful.

Click here for the full story, and try to keep down your lunch. Remember, bulimia’s so 1987.


10 (working) directors I love

Parters in crime: Ethan (left) and Joel Coen make the ultimate directing duo.

Partners in crime: Ethan (left) and Joel Coen make the ultimate directing duo.

Steven Spielberg is not on this list.

You want a controversial statement? Well, there it is. After “Crystal Skull,” don’t even think of saying his name to me. And since I’m apparently flirting with controversy and confrontation today (I’m tarty like that), here’s another: You won’t see Ridley Scott’s name here. Peter Jackson’s been given a pass. Ditto George Lucas.

However, here are a few directors who make the cut. Some are obvious (see No. 1), others are a tad obscure and some are maybe even a little questionable (hey, I never said I was mainstream):

1. Joel + Ethan Coen — The shock! The pure and utter dismay! Right … anyone who knows me knows that I’m a late-in-life Coen convert, so my decision to award them top honors is hardly surprising. But, really, could any two directors be any more deserving? This is the duo that gave us terse, meticulously paced masterpieces like “No Country for Old Men,” “Fargo” and “Blood Simple” and inspired, idiotic comedies like “The Big Lebowski” and “Raising Arizona.” That warped humor, that eye for minute details and foreshadowing — love ’em or hate ’em, you can’t deny Joel and Ethan have imagination and talent to burn.

2. Clint Eastwood — Eastwood’s a prime reminder that we should never go for the knee-jerk sneer of disdain when an actor steps behind the camera. For as fine an actor as Eastwood is, he’s an even better director with a knack for casting (who but Hillary Swank could have made “Million-Dollar Baby” so hopeful and bittersweet?) and a desire to plumb the dark depths of the human psyche (see “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River” and “Changeling”). What’s more remarkable is the fact that, at 79, he’s only nicked the surface of his directing abilities … and that’s a miracle in itself.

3. Martin Scorcese — Let’s go ahead and state the obvious: Nobody makes gangster sagas like Martin Scorcese. It simply can’t be done (not even by the Coen brothers). He is the modern master of the genre. But what people forget is that he’s a genius when it comes to creating movies that explore man’s darker side, the blind rage and the ambition and the fear that take us to evil places. From “The Aviator” to “Cape Fear” to “The Departed,” arguably Scorcese’s magnum opus, this is a director whose take-no-prisoners approach translates into stunning films.

4. Christopher Nolan — It would be easy to think Nolan’s such a hot commodity because he reinvigorated the long-dead and much-maligned Batman franchise. Though he did that, and radiantly, he also makes movies that are rather fearless in the way they jumble our concepts of linear time and play with human memory (“Memento”) and challenge us to play architect in order to find out what’s really happening (“The Prestige”). His films demand intelligence and vigilence, but the payoffs are extraordinary. My only question: After “The Dark Knight,” how can he do better?

Todd Solondz

Todd Solondz, King of the Sadsacks

5. Todd Solondz — Solondz is a director who’s hard to like, much less love. He makes experimental little films about ordinary people with few redeeming qualities, odes to the pathetic masses leading lives of quiet desperation. Even worse, he makes the kind of movies that contain no traces of optimism, or hope, or anything resembling closure (re: “Storytelling” and “Happiness”). But in a world where fluff like “The Proposal” lobotomizes us regularly, isn’t that kind of terribly refreshing?

6. Sam Raimi — How unfortunate that these days Raimi is known as “the guy who directed those ‘Spiderman’ movies,” for there was a time — long, long ago, in the ’80s — where he made the kind of unapologetic horror camp (the “Evil Dead” series) that delighted and repulsed us. He jumps from serious movies (“A Simple Plan” is the quintessential thriller) to “Spiderman” to the recent “Drag Me to Hell.” And he never takes himself too seriously. What’s not to love?

7. David Fincher — Fincher has made a very fine career out of making very fine thrillers that possess a kind of bruising intensity, sly, punishing humor and startling intelligence. (He is, after all, the man who gave us “Fight Club.” Yes, “Fight Club.”) It’s his niche, and if he rarely strays from it, well, it hardly matters — he’s so good at being dark and twisty (recall “Se7en”) we don’t want him to. Then he brains us with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and now he’s making a movie about the creators of Facebook. I sense that Fincher’s zigging when we expected him to zag … and I dig that about him.

8. Steve Buscemi — There’s not much difference between Steve Buscemi the actor and Steve Buscemi the director. In his performances, he gives us fully realized but completely understated characters like Seymour in “Ghost World,” who use bitter humor to keep the world at a distance. In his movies, like the exquisite “Trees Lounge” and the haunting “Lonesome Jim,” he creates worlds where people are subdued and real and loose ends are left dangling. And, in his way, that makes him one of the most amazingly observant directors working today.

Behold the Jedi Master of Piquant Wit: Alexander Payne

Behold the Jedi Master of Piquant Wit: Alexander Payne

9. Alexander Payne — Payne is one of those directors who lives to frustrate his fans because he makes sharp, attentive, penetrating satires/character studies (“Election” and “Sideways,” you may have noticed, appear proudly in my Top 100) but he makes far too few of them. This speaks, no doubt, to his meticulous nature, since his films are flawless. So I have but one request, Mr. Payne: More please, and the sooner the better.

10. Sofia Coppola — It’s the eternal question: Will Sofia ever live up to her last name? Or live down that dreadful performance in “Godfather III”? Given the fact that she’s created films as innovative as “Marie Antoinette” (criminally underrated) and stunning sleepers like “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation,” she’s well on her way. There’s a few more masterpieces in her yet.

Honorable mentions: Tarsem Singh (“The Fall”); Rian Johnson (“Brick,” “The Brothers Bloom”); Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “Stop-Loss”); Pedro Almodovar (“Todo Sobre Mi Made,” “Volver”); Quentin Tarantino; John Hughes; Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”); and Fernando Meirelles (“City of God,” “The Constant Gardener”).

Review: “Swimming with Sharks” (1994)

Swimming_with_SharksMuch like Mike Judge’s “Office Space,” George Huang’s “Swimming with Sharks” is something of a cautionary tale, a warning about how marking time at a pointless, demeaning job strangles the soul. But Huang, with his bleak view of humanity, has no interest in delighting us with jokes about tempermental fax machines. No, his meaning here, in this shockingly violent black comedy, is to show how constant humiliation can motivate a man to do just about anything … and how “anything,” in the movie business, leads to bigger, better opportunities. “Between Heaven and Hell there’s always Hollywood” and all that.

Guy (Frank Whaley) does not belong in Hollywood. He’s navigating foreign territory with no map and no compass and probably no pocketknife, either. Guy’s the kind of shy, hard-working, fresh-out-of-film-school man who’d name “It’s a Wonderful Life” as his favorite film. Movie mogul Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey divinely playing, well, Kevin Spacey) senses that about his new assistant and proceeds to eat Guy alive. And Buddy covers all the spirit-breaking bases, from unrelenting verbal abuse (“If you were in my toilet, I wouldn’t bother flushing it” he spits at Guy) to menial grunt work and pointless errands. Buddy’s no mentor, though he does, on occasion, offer Guy helpful advice like “Punching below the belt is not only all right, it’s rewarded.” The fact Guy doesn’t quit says more about his impressive ability to swallow rage than some great inner drive for success. This makes him more dangerous than Buddy, who screams at everyone but leaves his work at work. Nice men like Guy never quite seem able to do that.

At this point Huang takes a turn that — well, let’s just agree to call it “unexpected.” Or perhaps “expectedly unexpected” is more accurate. Being a human, Guy doesn’t have limitless space to store his anger, and so one day he confronts Buddy at home, where he knows his boss is most vulnerable. Details of this meeting are best kept on lockdown, but there are scenes — particularly one involving paper cuts, table salt and hot sauce — so stomach-churning they prove impossible to unsee. (Your brain will store it in the same vault as the “Stuck in the Middle with You” sequence from “Reservoir Dogs.”) And since “Swimming with Sharks” has a certain kind of momentum, there is a showdown, but one that makes us sense the director has no intention of air-planing a spoon in our mouths. Bravo for that. 

But wait. All this makes “Swimming with Sharks” sound like a 101-minute gleeful festival of torture and sadness. That’s not true. The torture only takes up about 90 minutes. Still, Huang’s pitch-black movie falls squarely into the “cringe with laughter” category. It’s tense and brutal and exhausting, the kind of film that wears down your resistance to relishing Guy’s, then Buddy’s, abuse. It’s hard to say what’s more disturbing: the physical violence (there’s plenty) or astonishing but comical insults like “You’re happy. I hate that.” Only Spacey could deliver a line like that. It was meant for his lips only.

And how about that Spacey? He plays the same character over and over, but he does it so well I never notice or care. He’s the only actor who could play Buddy, the only one who could find the right notes of viciousness, sarcasm and bitterness. He shreds the scenery all to hell, alright, but Spacey’s having so much fun you don’t want to plug up your ears and eyes. Don’t go thinking that’s all Spacey’s got up his sleeve, though. Observe subtle demeanor changes as Guy breaks down that ruthless bravado. Buddy’s got a story and he’s got his reasons, but Spacey is too smart to go for melodrama or easy answers. Whaley, the kind of no-name talent just right to play Guy, is no slouch, either. When he finally explodes, the fallout is impressive. What’s better is the way Whaley disturbs us in the quiet moments, makes us feel the sting of life defined by constant and unrelenting humiliation. He may be weak, but anger’s a powerful motivator. Watching him spar with Spacey is a treat, and it’s what makes “Swimming with Sharks” a gripping and bizarrely entertaining character study.

Grade: B

Trivia tidbit

What movie starred Susan Sarandon, Christina Ricci and John Goodman?

Thanks to Comedian — and his Rain Man-like grasp of trivia — for providing today’s question

“(500) Days” an inventive, touching look at lost love


In "(500) Days," Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel discover a harsh truth: Love isn't all you need.

“Next time you look back, I think you should look again.”

There are many memorable lines in “(500) Days of Summer,” Marc Webb’s attentive, carefully crafted ode to 20-something love lost, but none resonate this strongly. Call it “hindsight is 20/20” for the 21st-century indie hipsters. What simple beauty there is in this observation, for who doesn’t see the past through the haze of happiness? Who bothers to remember what actually happened, the ugly parts unpainted, unsanded, unprettied?

Welcome to the universal appeal of “(500) Days of Summer,” a movie about a romance that sours naturally and a man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who’s heard too many pop songs (hint: he loves The Smiths) to believe that can happen. There’s a kind of endearing, tortured earnestness in Levitt’s Tom, who channels all those ideas about love everlasting into the greeting cards he writes. He may own a T-shirt that emblazoned with “love will tear us apart,” but he damn sure doesn’t believe that. When he meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel), a free spirit who loves her independence and doesn’t give a fig about soulmates, he’s certain he’s found just what he thinks Ben Braddock did in Mrs. Robinson. And so the exquisite agony begins.

What makes that agony so achingly real, not the slightest bit generic, is the way Webb unfolds Tom and Summer’s story. Much has been written about the way Webb plays with the concept of time in the film’s script, leaping from the beginning of the relationship to the end to the middle with just a screenshot and a number (i.e., Day 1) to guide us. There’s no concealing the fact that this is a commonplace gimmick, but it’s an extremely effective one in a movie about failed love affairs and how we recall them. Does Day 1 really mean more than Day 37, or Day 185, or the last day? Webb suggests not, since our brains capture snapshots, not linear, neatly drawn timelines. Nor do we number the days. The beginning, the end, happy times in the middle — those are the things that stick with us.

There are other things besides the time splicing that Webb, a big-screen novice, does to make “(500) Days” surprising, unusual and unforgettable. Consider a dance sequence — that Levitt, arthouse boy though he is, can cut a rug — after Tom’s first night with Summer. Or a clip where the cityscape of Los Angeles become a crude sketch, fading around Tom’s slumped silhouette. Webb pokes such self-conscious fun at some staples of the romantic dramedy genre that you can’t help but smile. If only it didn’t go so wibbly-wobbly at the en- … oh never mind. For a new director capable of this level of ironic self-awareness and humor, a little forgiveness isn’t out of the question.

Webb’s eye for details, however, is matched by his unusually keen eye for talent. Deschanel’s an obvious and spot-on choice for Summer (she’s lovely and quirky and retro, the Indie Trinity), but Levitt? The really intense, moody guy from “Manic” and “Brick” and “Mysterious Skin”? Any remaining reservations about his talent — sure he’s edgy, but is he leading man material? — evaporate in “(500) Days of Summer.” He finds humor in darker moments and exposed nerves in quieter, happier ones. Tom’s experience with Summer could be cloying or irritating, but Levitt finds the tragedy there and gives us a man who, after years of bad programming, grows up. Watching that transition is one of the chief pleasures of the insightful “(500) Days of Summer,” a look at the ways bad love changes us as much — usually even more — than the love affairs that end with wine and roses.

Other characters pop in and out with insights that nudge Tom along. Notable is Chloe Moretz, who plays Tom’s younger but infinitely smarter sister Rachel. She’s the voice of reason that cuts straight through all his syrupy, sentimental, useless greeting card crap. Wise, too, is Paul (Matthew Gray Gubler), who offers another uncomplicated but revolutionary insight of his own: “She’s better than the girl of my dreams,” he says of his girlfriend. “She’s real.” Such wisdom and hope in those words. And if we’re half that smart, that’s exactly what we take away from “(500) Days of Summer.” 

Grade: B+

A smart verdict on “Twilight”

Erin Meanley, a freelancer for Shine on Yahoo!, is a very smart woman. How do I know this? She shares my intense dislike for the unrealistic, moony and “evil and brainwashy” — her words, and what fine words they are — relationship between Bella and Edward in “Twilight.” So much does she dislike this torrid affair, in fact, that she’s dreamed up “4 Reasons Why ‘Twilight’ Is Bad for Your Love Life.”

And because I am the founding member of the Society for ‘Twilight’ Haters, I implore you to read it.

Review: “Lonesome Jim” (2005)

Lonesome_JimEntitlement, sad sackery and ennui seem to be the defining characteristics of that spiritual dead zone that exists between ages 25 and 30 these days. Consider Jim (Casey Affleck) the perfect spokesman for his people. A self-proclaimed creative type/writer who never manages to be creative or write anything, the 27-year-old shuffles home to Indiana after discovering Random House does not hand you a publishing contract the day you arrive in the Big Apple. So Jim finds himself back at home with Mom (Mary Kay Place) and Dad (Seymour Casesl) possessed of no will to live but less desire to pull the “goodbye, cruel world” card.

Right about now, “Lonesome Jim” is starting to sound like a grim, tedious, moody affair. And, truth be told, that’s sort of what it is for about 70 minutes. But there’s one excellent reason to stick around, and his name is Steve Buscemi. (Tempted as I am to repeat my Steve Buscemi rule, I will abstain.) As an actor, he’s got a talent for finding quirks that make his characters memorable. When he’s directing, he uses the camera to find those idiosyncracies, insightful lines and quiet moments. Buscemi doesn’t rush his actors or his movie, so things unfold without much fanfare. The slow pacing isn’t for everyone, but “Lonesome Jim” rewards anyone patient enough to look closer with a laconic but affecting character study.

The character in question, Jim, is tailor-made for Casey Affleck, a budding actor who deserves no comparison to his more famous brother. Much like Buscemi, he underacts religiously, almost to the point of seeming catatonic. Which, you see, is the point — Jim is no fun to be around. He believes he’s a writer, but he barely tries and still seems put off by his lack of success. (Apparently he missed that whole “you miss 90 percent of the shots you don’t take” movement.) Jim even manages to see himself as superior to his family, particularly his divorced brother Tim (Kevin Corrigan), whom he calls a “goddamn tragedy,” and his manic-or-just-really-cheerful? mother, whose $20 bills he lifts from her purse. Even meeting Anika (Liv Tyler), a kind-hearted single mother who seems to like him, doesn’t seem to affect him that much. Anything less than abject misery is unthinkable to him. Somehow, though, he starts to change so gradually it’s almost invisible.

And here’s where the infamous Buscemi touch comes in. He makes Jim’s move from mournful lump to human being subtle but blackly funny. This guy needs outside forces to help him grow, and Buscemi gives him a whole mess of odd personalities who facilitate this change. Anika, of course, is key. When Jim’s relationship with her starts to grow a pulse, he asks her: “There’s so many fun and cheery people in the world. Don’t you think you’d be better off with one of them?” That she’s influenced him to ask himself that question is progress, a move from self-absorption to self-awareness. Tyler plays Anika not as a doormat but as a helper who sees potential in Jim.

Other characters make “Lonesome Jim” an insightful little movie. Take Jim’s mom Sally (Place, always wonderful), whose cheerful front belies her own unhappiness. Note her weary reaction to Jim’s decision to move to New Orleans — her line delivery is note-perfect. As Jim’s drug-dealing uncle “Evil,” Mark Boone Jr. serves up most of the film’s humor, the best being his conviction that hookers are cheaper than girlfriends. He tries to get Jim to loosen up, but mainly he sets events in motion that force the slacker to wake the hell up. Affleck, mop-topped and sporting perpetual facial scruff, gives us small glimpses into these changes. He’s all about facial expressions, and here they are so illusive as to rival Zach Braff’s in “Garden State.” Jim’s not the same guy in the end that he was in the beginning, and Affleck’s transition is practically seamless.

And speaking of the end: It will enrage some but enlighten others. Simple, ephemeral and barely hopeful (or is it?) — it’s classic Buscemi. He pares “Lonesome Jim” to the bone, and that’s why it leaves a lasting impression.

Grade: B

Trivia tidbit

What movie starred Angelina Jolie, a Japanese-American fashion model and the lead singer of Rilo Kiley?

A chunk of childhood

“Hello, Innocent and Unfettered Child Named Meredith.”

That’s what I said to myself today when, whilst surfing about the Web, I discovered that “Ramona and Beezus” releases in March 2010. The discovery took me back to a simpler time, when the wild-n-crazy antics of Ramona Quimby, not my untended and mangy credit score, occupied all my thoughts. These two characters, created by Beverly Cleary, were such a part of my youth that I once tried to order a hamburger with peanut butter (classic Ramona) and I got in a whole heap of trouble for squeezing an entire tube of toothpaste into the sink (what will that devilish little imp think of next?). Yes, the Quimby sisters were a fixture in my childhood, so I’m excited at the chance to rip the duct tape of my inner child’s mouth and shove her out of the linen closet. She’s bound to be hot in there, under all those pillow cases too ugly to put out but too good to throw away.

But the cast is … spotty. Bridget Moynahan as Mrs. Quimby? I ask: WTF? Wrong. John Corbett as dad I can support. Ginnifer Goodwin as Aunt Bea sounds reasonable because she’s a very fine actress, indeed. Joey King looks about right as Ramona, but Selena Gomez as Beezus? It’s enough to make me wonder: Did the casting director call in sick that day? How, exactly, is Selena Gomez going to pass as the sister of a tiny blond girl? And why — why why why why why — would Josh Duhamel from “Las Vegas” show up here? Urgh. Would it have killed anyone to try for William H. Macy? Come on, folks — this is a cast that’s screaming for at least one Hollywood heavyweight.

“(500) Days of Summer”…

… and “Julie & Julia” and “The Goods”! This weekend!

That is all.