Sunday, December 31, 2006

MovieWatch: "The Good Shepherd"

"The Good Shepherd"
Director: Robert DeNiro
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 73
In a Nutshell: Back after 10 exhausting days in Europe, which forced the New Year's Eve question of "If there are a dozen movies I want to go see and my filmgoing partner of the afternoon won't want to see the tearjerking underdog sports movies I wanna see -- Sorry, "Rocky 6" and "We Are Marshall" -- and I'm too darned jet-lagged to wanna go see a movie that requires reading -- Sorry, "Letters From Iwo Jima" -- or potentially frustrating emotional manipulation -- Sorry, for the 100th time, "Babel" -- what's out there as a compromise?" The answer was Robert DeNiro's second directing effort, a frequently fascinating and textured peek at the early years of the CIA that I was captivated by for around 90 minutes before I tired.

Eric Roth's script does the difficult things very well. It plunges viewers into the world of pre-WWII intellectual privilege -- Yale, Skull & Bones -- and shows how one man, Matt Damon's Edward Wilson, came to develop and launch a prodigious intelligence body. Full of skullduggery, vaguely familiar characters and international intrigue, "The Good Shepherd" has more density and complexity than most films could dream of. It's also a bloated 2-hours-46-minutes and could have been shorter if Roth's script hadn't kept explaining its subtext and over-articulating how Wilson's own life was a prism for the missteps in the CIA. There were a half-dozen times when I thought "Hmmm... I guess I understand how that fits with the films themes" and then waiting two or three minutes to have a character -- too often DeNiro's Gen. Sullivan -- explain those themes in a monologue that would only be necessary if the movie was playing to an audience of monkeys. DeNiro's failure to trust viewers to connect the dots in many crucial scenes probably came about after testing a variety of different cuts of the movie, but it isn't the right result.

I'm also tempted to wonder if "The Good Shepherd" wouldn't have worked better if it had been structured along the "Iris" model and double-cast most of the lead roles, despite the fact that the characters age less than 25 years. Instead, Damon is both the oldest looking Yale Man imaginable and the most boyish 50-year-old on the planet, believable as neither despite a determined and emotionally guarded performance. And Jolie has similarly forfeited the ability to play a coquettish co-ed and her aging matron is full of tics and limps and postural shifts that suggest Jolie will make a poor grandmother indeed.

Couple quick other things: Can it ever be said enough that Alec Baldwin is just about the most valuable supporting actor on Earth? And if he isn't, might Michael Gambon be? And who knew Billy Crudup was so darned British? Or that Keir Dullea was still alive? Or that it would be so nice to see Joe Pesci on the big screen again?

On a side note: I hope to get to a bundle of movies in the next week before Press Tour begins, but with an impending move (next door, so it shouldn't involve huge tsuris) I may not have the chance. I'd still like to remind folks to go see the year's two best movies -- "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Children of Men" when they get to a theater near you. Otherwise, we're just going to be stuck with "Night at the Museum" sequels. Nobody wants that. Oh wait. They do? Sigh.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

MovieWatch: "Children of Men"

"Children of Men"
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 87
In a Nutshell: I've got a plane to catch, so this is going to be ultra-brief. Think "Casablanca" meets "The Nativity Story" as written by Philip K. Dick and directed by some unholy spawn of early Stanley Kubrick and Emir Kusturica. If "Pan's Labyrinth" remains the year's signature piece of pure storytelling, "Children of Men" is the year's best piece of feature filmmaking. Some people will complain that it's heavy-handed and they won't necessarily be wrong. It's a fable about hope and government oppression. There'd be no point in it being subtle. The film's first half -- establishing the world of 2027 in which all women have become infertile and humanity is on the verge of collapse -- is very fine, but the second half -- set mostly in a remote Refugee Camp -- is mind-blowing. Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have constructed shots of unbearable suspense and stark beauty and Clive Owen is just asked to hold the frame and be a leading man, which he is. The soundtrack -- lots of '60s remakes and originals and a Jarvis Cocker credit song that would make a great Oscar night performance -- is killer and the performances around Owen are strong as well. I imagine that "Children of Men" will be tucked in after "Pan's Labyrinth" on my Top 10. It's a meaty piece of cinema and I look forward to seeing it again.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

MovieWatch: "The Pursuit of Happyness"

"The Pursuit of Happyness"
Director: Gabriele Muccino
Fien Print Rating: 68
In a Nutshell: The title of "The Pursuit of Happyness" -- or as I'd rather call it "Run, Will Smith, Run" -- has been under scrutiny, with most of the discussion concentrating on the misspelling of "happiness," a typo found on the door of a Chinatown daycare center where Will Smith's Chris Gardner sends his son. Not enough emphasis, I reckon, as been put on the other word in the title, "pursuit," which is really what the movie is about. As Smith's Gardner says early in the movie, the Declaration of Independence makes no promise of happiness. It just suggests that the ability to pursue happiness is an inalienable right.

"Happyness" is actually a good companion piece to the inspirational Disney football drama "Invincible," which I viewed as a surprisingly un-mawkish and dreary glimpse of a Cinderella story that concentrated more on the mire than on the triumphant exit. Directed with a poetically realistic sense of purpose by Gabriele Muccino, "Happyness" offers precious little by way of triumph until its conclusion, which is bound to surprise a lot of viewers excepting something more Hollywood, more consistently uplifting. Perhaps the least shocking thing about the film is that it was scripted by Steve Conrad, whose "The Weather Man" was as complicatedly depressing a film as any major studio has released in recent memory. He was brought on here, no doubt, to keep "Happyness" from wallowing in sentimentality and it mostly doesn't.

Instead, it becomes a litany of the misfortunes that befall Garner on his journey from homelessness to millionaire success as a stock broker. There are at least a half dozen sequences of Smith sprinting away from angry cabbies, sprinting after people who stole his bone density machines and sprinting toward business meetings that he may or may not ever make. And the gloominess does, rapidly, become redundant and, in that redundancy, it becomes distasteful. In fact, if *any* other actor had played Gardner, the movie would have collapsed under the weight of its discontent, but Smith shoulders all of his character's burdens and with them the weight of the whole movie. Casting Smith's son Jaden as Gardener's son was a stroke of absolutely genius because of the movie is all cold visuals and numbing disappointments, the warmth between father and son -- the heart of the story -- can't be faked. Frankly, they should have cast Jada Pinkett Smith as Gardner's bitter, abandoning wife, because poor Thandie Newton gets engulfed by the thankless and distasteful part. I think they could have trimmed about 10 minutes worth of Thandie's shrill harpie and the movie wouldn't have lost a thing.

I don't know if I'm conveying well enough why I liked the movie beyond Smith's performance, but I guess I felt like by the end, Muccino and Smith had mostly earned the misty eyes and sniffles that filled the theater. That being said? No interest in seeing this one again at any point.

Friday, December 15, 2006

MovieWatch: "Charlotte's Web"

"Charlotte's Web"
Director: Gary Winick
Fien Print Rating: A sentimental and *generous* 60
In a Nutshell: To really and truly know me, you need know only two things: The Red Sox's current absence of quality late-inning relief pitching is keeping me up at nights and I love movies featuring talking pigs. Take a couple seconds to parse that and get back to me.

That's why when it became too late to catch the showing of "Babel" that I'd hoped to make tonight (no comment), I dispatched with the other unseen suspects -- Leo whining about diamonds, 50 Cent whining about Iraq, Eragon whining about the difficulties of riding a dragon -- and opted for "Charlotte's Web."

My simple, short and superficial reaction is that it's a painlessly cute movie, one that kids should enjoy and that adults should tolerate provided they have sufficient nostalgia for the E.B. White classic, or a sufficient taste for talking pigs. My Favorite Martian Dakota Fanning provides solid human support to the strong voice cast lead by Julia Roberts, who makes a maternal and nurturing Charlotte, and Steve Buscemi's Templeton the Rat, who may not be Paul Lynde, but who is? Pushed forward by a Rachel Portman-esque Danny Elfman score (which is to same hammy, magically and literary, but almost understated by Elfman standards), the movie builds to many of the right emotional notes.

My shorter and simpler reaction: "Babe" is a magnificent movie, perhaps the greatest ever made for kids and "Charlotte's Web" is unavoidably in its shadow. Heck, while Charlotte's Web" may be twice as good as "Gordy," it's no "Babe: Pig in the City" either.

From "Tadpole" to "13 Going on 30," Gary Winick has proven himself to be amongst the least visual of mainstream directors, so if visual magic was necessary to make "Charlotte's Web" a big screen classic, then the failings are Winick's. How many shots are static, without any point of view or perspective? More than I'd care to count. And the animals? They rarely move and they look either animatronic or drugged, rarely real. The visual effects are never transparent and the straight forward computer animated stuff -- Charlotte in particular -- is better than the integration of actual animals and effects, especially since the art of animal lip-flap (making critters look conversational) hasn't improved at all in the past decade.

And last and probably least for the evening, it's disturbing that Dakota Fanning has been given a love interest in the movie. She's not yet at the point where I'm prepared to see her as a human, much less as a human of necessary romancin' age.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

R.I.P. Peter Boyle (1935-2006)

Since I never really cared for "Everybody Loves Raymond," my associations with Peter Boyle are mostly from that brief period in the 1970s, when his balding, bird-like features (and surprisingly hulking body) made him the embodiment of a certain edgy aesthetic that defined the period. He was fantastic in films from John G. Avildsen's under-remembered "Joe" through "Taxi Driver" and "Hardcore."

At the end of the day, though, for all of those dramatic turns, the best way to pay tribute to Boyle is to post this clip from "Young Frankenstein." For my money, it's one of the 10 funniest moments in cinema history.

Friday, December 08, 2006

MovieWatch: "The Fountain"

"The Fountain"
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 48 (59 if high)
In a Nutshell: [I saw this one nearly a week ago, but my ambivalence was so great that it took til now for me to feel like writing even the briefest of reviews.]
We were infinitely far into "The Fountain" (for time and space matter not with such ephemeral and negligible narrative) and beautifully lit, temporally and terminally frustrated lovers Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz started whispering in each other's ears. "Forever," "Forever," "Forever," they whispered as they floated weightlessly in a snow-globe meant to represent Earth, humanity, life, death, frailty and other nebulous themes. Suddenly it struck me that I wasn't waiting for action or catharsis or for something -- ANYTHING!!!! -- to actually happen. I was waiting to find out what the movie was a commercial for.




"The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky's new fragrance for doomed women and passionate, soulful men."

Au d'toilet, indeed.





"DeBeers' new diamonds... Even if you discover the Tree of Life, they'll last you forever."

Instead, "The Fountain" is a 96-minute piece of product placement that doesn't even have a product to sell, unless you're buying into its crushingly superficial lip service to the ideas of everlasting love, the redemptive and saving possibilities of death and the advantages of animal testing. It's a very sweet, but somewhat sophomoric little mood poem from Aronofsky to the woman he'd impregnate. But it sure isn't deep and it sure isn't profound, because if it were either of those things, I suspect its pretentiousness would have annoyed me. Instead, I invested some time in ogling its technical merits and was neither enthralled nor irked.

Aronofsky is a talented filmmaker and with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, he's crafted imagery so gorgeous that I often found myself frustratedly praying that meaning would arrive to compliment the aesthetic passion. [I won't even complain that Aronofsky consistantly confuses stylistic redundancy with the creation of visual themes, a problem that's plagued all three of his movies.] Certainly the actors are buying into it. Jackman gives his second consecutive sterling performance after his recent turn in "The Prestige," proving once again that the problem with movies like "Swordfish," "Kate & Leopold," "Someone Like You" and "Van Helsing" wasn't the ability of their leading man. He invests Aronofsky's trio of thinly written characters with a wounded and wonder-filled heart. Weisz merely asks Jackman's various characters to fall in love with her, which has to be an easier chore than inhabiting an actual character, particularly if the director has fallen in love with you.

I have no doubt that 10 years from now, "The Fountain" will have a select group of stoners and romantics who think it's a misunderstood masterpiece. They won't be right, but I wouldn't mind partaking in whatever they're smoking.

Friday, December 01, 2006

MovieWatch: "Deja Vu"

"Deja Vu"
Director: Tony Scott
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 59
In a Nutshell:[This review discusses the film's ending in nebulous terms, but it *does* discuss its ending. Be advised. Be very advised.]
After suffering through the last hour of "Domino," it's hard to make me feel sorry for Tony Scott, but after seeing "Deja Vu," I kinda do. You're Tony Scott and your orchestra an expensive, twisty, high concept thriller and you leave it with the studio and then you happen to catch the extended trailer and... DEAR LORD! The studio decided that it was a good idea to include the movie's very last line in its promotion. Now since I mostly don't cover movies anymore, I walked into "Deja Vu" knowing absolutely nothing about the movie except what I'd seen in the trailers, but I *had* -- unavoidably -- seen the trailer and the movie must have been 15 minutes in before I realized, from the trailer, how every single step of the movie was going to progress from there. Yeah, "Deja Vu" was a tough movie to market but geez... Given that it made an underwhelming $28-million-plus in its first long weekend, Buena Vista obviously bungled the job on several levels.

It's disappointing, because for much of its running time, "Deja Vu" is a dazzling and dizzying thriller that runs in enough circles to obscure its mostly illogical time-loop premise that plays like "Day Break" meets "Enemy of the State" meets every single movie in which Denzel Washington plays that one good cop going on a crusade against the corrupt system. The movie cheats many rules of Hollywood structure in that the time travel aspect -- given away in the trailer, naturally -- doesn't kick in until well past the half-way point. In fact, Denzel's tip-toeing through the timeline is the least interesting part of the movie, so thin and uninvolving from a character and emotional standpoint that even if you *didn't* reverse-engineer the movie based on the trailer, you'd probably walk out a little flat.

It turns out that plot is king here, which isn't surprising. What is surprising is just how thin all of the characters are. Denzel is a AFT agent. Nothing more or less. The lovely Paula Patton is the innocent woman in the middle of things. Nothing more or less. Although the cast is loaded with familiar character actors who have played surprise villains in the past, the actual villain behind an impressive ferry explosion is just a fanatical wacko, a McVeigh-inspired "Patriot" without any backstory or extra motivation. Since it's an over-priced B-movie, you forgive that stuff.

Scott exploits Hurricane Katrina marvelously, tying the film's New Orleans setting in with its major theme -- some tragedies (killer storms, for example) can't be prevented, but how far would you go to prevent a hypothetically preventable disaster? New Orleans is used mostly for background flavor, with a large portion of the film taking place in a high tech trailer. The second unit took a trip to the ruins of the Ninth Ward for a jaunt that barely ties to the plot.

If the Disney marketing department hadn't spoiled the entire movie for me, I honestly can't say how it might have played differently. I guess this goes under the heading of Things I Can't Go Back In Time To Change. Nuts.

Friday, November 17, 2006

MovieWatch: "Dreamgirls"

Director: Bill Condon
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 72
In a Nutshell: Mull this phrase over in your head: Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson. Given that I'm talking about an "American Idol" bootee here, a singer who gained her reputation as much for her early reality show departure (and subsequent accusations, not so much by her, of racism) as for her performance on the show (characterized by over-singing and bug-eyes when she wasn't blowing the roof off), that makes the phrase "Jennifer Hudson Oscar winner" one of the most unlikely four-worders this side of "California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger" or "guest starring Patty Hearst." And yet, here we are. I'm hesitant to go into any extensive details on "Dreamgirls," which I saw on Wednesday night, largely because this is the kind of month-early screening where embargoes are only acceptably skirted in cases of rapture. My feelings came up short of rapture, though the film's production values are beyond reproach and Oscar-worthy from every costume to every set to every carefully composed shot.

But it's hard to argue with several performances. Eddie Murphy can also expect a minimum of an Oscar nomination for taking his "James Brown's Celebrity Hot Tub Party" caricature of a '60s soul singer and turning it into a deeply wounded, human performance. But for all of the stars in the cast -- Beyonce is solid, Jamie Foxx less so -- the movie ends up being Hudson's entirely. She isn't going to make anybody forget about Jennifer Holliday, but that assumes you know who Jennifer Holliday is or remember her performance as Effie, the deposed lead singer of the Dreamettes. If you don't, Hudson erases reality show stigmas in an instant -- this acclaim is bound to just off cheese "Real World London" star Jacinda Barrett -- and by the time she gets through the show-stopping "I Am Telling You" (again, try not to remember Jennifer Holliday) you're entirely willing to accept that she's done something amazing here. The most notable thing about her performance is that director Bill Condon doesn't need to finesse her screentime, he doesn't need to avoid shooting her in close-ups or staying on her for dialogue or intense singing scenes, as so often happens with first-time film performers. Even if I might have wanted her to go just a bit deeper at times (and even if her voice is darned good, but not quite remarkable), she sells her biggest moments like a pro.

Of course, the movie also peaks at "I Am Telling You," a flaw I assume holds true of the stage production as well. "Dreamgirls" is hardly the only musical to fall apart in its second act. Heck, "Oklahoma" hardly has a second act at all and it's one of my all-time favorites. But so much emotion is invested into the nearly 10-minute "I Am Telling You" -- the film's Oscar team ought to just send out DVDs with only that sequence and watch the trophies spill in -- and nothing that follows is anywhere near as good. And that's nearly half the movie that lags.

We're in the midst of a year that makes last year's thin cinematic crop look bountiful and given the reaction from the Academy member-heavy screening I went to, "Dreamgirls" may be the kind of film that stands out and stays strong as the disappoints arrive and fade into the background. You can count on this one getting between 10 and 12 Oscar nods and I wouldn't be at all surprised if five or six trophies are already 100% in the bag (including possibly Hudson, assuming they keep her in the supporting category).

Funny old world.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

MovieWatch: "Casino Royale"

"Casino Royale"
Director: Martin Campbell
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 72
In a Nutshell: You've got to love the James Bond franchise, or at least proprietors Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson. On one hand, everybody's all "Oooh... Look at us! We're revamping and remodeling our franchise." On the other hand, they're hiring the director of "Goldeneye" and the writers "Die Another Day" and "The World Is Not Enough" to oversee the change. It's a little bit like all the times George Steinbrenner rehired Billy Martin or all the different sitcoms networks keep giving Jenny McCarthy. It goes back to that whole cliche about the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.

In this case, almost by dumb luck, they got it mostly right. After a search that seemed to last years, they ended up with the man they should have hired in the first place (always assuming that Clive Owen kept saying no). Daniel Craig's Bond is an absolute revelation, the perfect actor for a film that thematically revolves around a man who comes to embody his violent job and falls into crisis when he lets his guard down and shows his human side. Part of why people who hate James Bond loved Pierce Brosnan was his effortless cool. He looked like he rolled out of bed every morning in a tux with his martini in one hand, a gun in the other and a beautiful woman sleeping there next to him. That bores me to tears. Daniel Craig's Bond sweats, gets bruised and cut to pieces and finds himself out of breath if he runs for too long. His muscles show strain and his veins pop on his forehead. He understands that taking a life or sleeping with a vixen are choices and he copes with the repercussions. Brosnan was a well-oiled machine, but Craig is a human being, a man with a job that's both cool and also dangerous as heck. [Hmmmm... I'm gonna need to steal that last bit for my Zap2it review.]

Craig is so good -- when did anybody last talk about the actor playing James Bond as giving a "performance" -- that the movie follows him. Campbell, a respectable craftsman without an iota of inspiration, shows a grittier and more energetic side, particularly in the film's two opening sequences, a black-and-white flashback to Bond's second MI6 kill and a splendid parkour-flavored sequence featuring Sebastien Foucan. Craig's intensity even carries the film as the writers are pushing to add action set pieces to an Ian Fleming book that's 95% character study. With a 144 minute running time, these embellishments are often grating, as with an extended scene in Miami that could have been trimmed entirely without any loss to story.

I need to praise Bond Girl Eva Green for being beyond ravishing, but also to note that she's too young for the role.

And I need to emphasize the utter stupidity of turning Bond and La Chiffre's key baccarat game into Hold-'Em Poker. The notion that Bond would be an expert in a game as trendy and common as Hold 'Em is an embarrassment. Might as well have the guy playing Uno.

That being said, I liked the movie more than any Bond film since Who-Knows-When. And a full review will be up by Friday on Zap2it.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Stanley Tucci Is a Giant Phallus

Back in college, a former roommate and I spent a while brainstorming bemusing euphemisms for masturbation. In our defense, I can only say that it was the '90s. In any case, one of the oddest we came up with was "Shaking hands with Yul Brenner," on the grounds that Yul Brenner was the single most phallic human being we could think of.

He may have competition in Stanley Tucci. Although he's one of our finest actors, Tucci isn't at his best in the new CBS drama "3 Lbs." His character is a hazy, derivative blur (I like to pitch "3 Lbs." as "'House' With Doctors!") and with his head clean-shaven, Tucci wanders around for 44 minutes looking like a giant penis. If you like that sort of thing, I highly recommend "3 Lbs."

In any case, whenever you look at Stanley Tucci, I'd like you to think "big schlong." I'm sure he wouldn't mind.


Mel Gibson's a Giant Dick

When Jewish groups expressed early concerns about "The Passion of the Christ," Mel responded quickly. Rather than showing his movie to the worried Jews to allay those fears, he showed the film to fundamentalist Christians who vouched for the movie's accuracy. Then Mel expressed disappointment and confusion that Jews hadn't been pacified and rallied his base to go see the movie. It was utterly brilliant. Mel made hundreds of millions by fracturing his audience. Would he have made less if he'd just shown the darned movie to Abraham Foxman and the ADL beforehand? I say yes.

Well, he's at it again. Mel gets busted for drunk driving and embarrassing reports swirl about his alcoholic ramblings about the Jews. Instantly, Disney gets concerned that his new movie, "Apocalypto," might be unpromotable, which leaves the studio up a creek. So first Mel goes on "Good Morning America" an gives semi-apologetic sob story to Diane Sawyer -- he was remorseful, but he also blamed his Anti-Semitic comments about the Jews on the wrong done to him during the "Passion" fiasco. Now, Mel's showing unfinished prints of "Apocalypto" to some very specific hand-picked people. Working on the margins again, Gibson is screening the unfinished movie for Latino organizations and leaders and they love it. He's showing it to some industry friends. And they love it. And now everybody's writing "Mel Gibson has made a brilliant movie, but will anybody be able to see past his personal misdeeds?" articles. Come December, after a few more of these articles, it will be impossible to dislike the movie without showing that you're less willing to forgive and forget than Mel himself. It will be impossible to dislike the movie on its cinematic merits, with all pans only being yet another example of the media persecuting Mel, refusing to forgive him.


I decided I'd written too many MovieWatch posts in a row. Decided to mix it up a little.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

MovieWatch: "Stranger Than Fiction"

"Stranger Than Fiction"
Director: Marc Forster
Fien Print Rating: 61
In a Nutshell: Screenwriter Zach Helm has used a high-flying intellectual premise and mushed it down into a simple-minded fable in "Stranger Than Fiction," a film that starts off trying to appeal to fans of the literary meta-text, aficionados of Charlie Kauffman-style post-modernism, and ends up most appealing to fans of fell-good stories, New Age self-affirmation tales. I don't doubt that Helm is a darned smart writer. I doubt that he's written a smart movie here.

The man-hears-narrator premise is a good one, but it's not the kind of thing that makes writers go "Damn, I wish I thought of that" so much as "Damn, I wish I'd actually written my own script that had that idea." "Stranger than Fiction" is close kin to "The Truman Show," a half-dozen Charlie Kaufman scripts, "I [Heart] Huckabees" and even, in some difficult-to-quantify-ways, "Punchdrunk Love."

Many of those films, for whatever reason, have been vehicles for broad comic actors to Play It Straight (code for Underplay to the Point of Sleepwalking). Will Ferrell stars in "Stranger" and gives a solid performance that never for a second made me stop thinking "Geez, if Paul Giamatti were playing this role, I'd like this movie at least twice as much." I credit director Marc Forster for getting Maggie Gyllenhaal's most purely appealing (and incontestably sexy) performance in several years and for rounding up unimpeachable pros like Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson.

But the end of the day, despite all of its intellectual tricky and structural deception, "Stranger Than Fiction" is nothing more than the latest in a never-ending series of schmaltzy fictions about men (and women, though less frequently based on how often Hollywood hires women to write things) who only discover how to truly live when they're faced with death. While you get good movies in the genre, unexpected films like "Fearless," but far more often you get "The Doctor" or "Regarding Henry." The almost provocative idea -- that people who feel powerless in their own lives have to create a greater guiding force (a narrator, God, Xenu, Dr. Phil) to give their lives purpose is almost entirely invalidated by the progression of the plot.

[Spoilers here regarding the ending of the film...]

For this reason, I found the ending of the movie almost depressing. Crick decides to be a Biblical Jesus rather than a "Last Temptation of Chris" Jesus -- He sacrifices himself, which leads to rebirth, rather than deciding to take his fate in his own hands and determine his own life. Meanwhile, the author learns to sacrifice the artistic merit of her work for a soft-headed moralistic message, tacking on a useless message that even she admits will cause her to rewrite the rest of the book, a book that both characters who read it described as a masterpiece (Dubious readers in both cases, but still). All she's done is sacrificed one simplistically ironic ending -- Crick is most alive at the moment he dies -- for another -- Crick's watch, which previously ruled his life saves it. Yawn. Is that really the most creative thing Helm, thinking of himself as a profound writer, could think of to do? I almost crave a movie in which the narrator is somehow the creation of Crick's unused artistic desire, an unwilled construct of his inactivity. And why did Queen Latifah's character end up being literal and not an entry way for something deeper? I really wanted her to be imaginary, but she seems not to have been. Boo.

[OK. Done spoiling the movie.]

I'm sure I have more to say beyond that, but this is too long already. Here's the key: I went in expecting Charlie Kauffman For Dummies (Kaufman doesn't know how to end his movies either), but "Stranger Than Fiction" doesn't want to be that challenging at the end. It wants to engender warm feelings, more than discussion. I guess that's OK, but whatever...

Saturday, November 11, 2006

MovieWatch: "Unknown"

Director: Simon Brand
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 33
In a Nutshell: Even though it features so many actors you've heard of -- Greg Kinnear, Joe Pantoliano, Barry Pepper, Jeremy Sisto, Bridget Moynahan, Jim "Jesus" Caviezel, Peter Stormare -- you probably haven't heard much of anything about "Unknown," which ought to set off warning signs. Even after seeing the movie -- one of the filmmakers is a friend of a friend, otherwise I'd have no excuse -- I still don't know why so many good actors decided to waste a couple weeks on this one.

I guess that the basic premise is an appealing one: Five men wake up in an abandoned, but tightly sealed, factory way out in the desert. Thanks to a weakly justified plot contrivance, they all have short-term memory loss. But one of them is tied to a chair, another handcuffed to a railing, another's nose is broken. Thanks to another weakly justified plot contrivance (a newspaper in the bathroom), they know there was a kidnapping and deduce that some of them must be the villains and others the victims. But who is who? Moral ambiguity is always a treat for actors to play, but Matthew Waynee's script only begins to touch on the most dynamic part of that premise -- the question of how identity is constructed, whether good and evil are products of context or upbringing or even more psychological forces. Mostly, the characters yell at each other for 85 minutes and their absence of memory becomes an absence of character depth so pervasive that I never cared about anybody for a second.

Because there are no characters and no plot beyond the basic story mechanics, there's no way to logically deduce the various twists. Instead, you have to look at the bare bones, assume that the genre requires twists and just guess based on conventions. The sad thing is how often you'll be right. "Unknown" is basically devoid of intrigue or surprise, replacing those storytelling essentials with vague writing and murky visuals.

Brand thinks that choppy and disorienting editing is the path to making the material feel like a movie, rather than a third-rate chamber play. He definitely achieves disorientation, but only some of it seems intentional. And is there a more overused shot in filmmaking than the distraught character standing in a bathroom bowing to splash his face and then rising to stare into a mirror? They keep doing it over and over again in "Unknown," because the only way the characters can have flashbacks (at least in the beginning) is to examine themselves.

I've been assured that the script was written long before "Saw" or "Memento" was written, but that doesn't keep "Unknown" from feeling derivative of those two successful movies as well as a dozen other genre pieces. The cast tries hard (Moynahan is the weak link, but her part is tertiary), but even they shouldn't be seen as reason to check this one out when it makes its swift trip to DVD.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

MovieWatch: 'Volver'

Director: Pedro Almodovar
Fien Print Rating (out of 100): 79
In a Nutshell:

You don't blame Pedro Almodovar for being melodramatically convoluted any more than you'd fret about Spielberg being skillfully manipulative or Goddard being dyspeptically French. That being said, the number of half-gestated films suspended in Amodovar's "Volver" amniotic fluid is a bit daunting. I'm not complaining, mind you. "Volver" is one part ghost story, one part murder semi-mystery and one part woman-recovers-spirit-through-food celebration and it's striking that not a single one of the stories goes to a traditionally satisfying place and yet the movie resolves in an emotionally confident manner. The movie takes a traditional Almodovar theme -- women coming together to reclaim their identities through sisterhood, motherhood and friendship -- and delivers them in just about the least Almodovar-esque manner imaginable. An Almodovar movie you could almost go to with your grandparents? How peculiar.

The movie is a celebration of leading lady Penelope Cruz, with Almodovar taking obvious pleasure in reclaiming his frequent collaborator after otherwise respectable American filmmakers -- yes, I'm looking at you Billy Bob Thornton and Cameron Crowe -- conspired to convince English-speaking audiences she couldn't act (see also what Michael Mann did to Gong Li this summer in "Miami Vice"). In her native tongue, treated with directorial respect, Cruz is captivating. She's funny, passionate and grounded. Even if Almodovar didn't insert a clip of Visconti's "Bellissima," you'd know he was approaching Cruz as a far sexier version of Anna Magnani's Earth Mother archetype, with Cruz's rather amazing cleavage serving as a running visual joke as well as a key verbal punchline later. As much buzz as there's already been for Cruz receiving an Oscar nomination, I'd love a bit of extra talk to focus on Carmen Maura, another frequent Almodovar favorite.

The film's title, generally translated "To Return" or "To Come Back" takes many meanings with in the film, both literal resurrection, but also a darker idea of history repeating itself and old misdeeds coming unburied. It's also a reference to the film's most Almodovar-ian sequence in which Cruz lip-synchs a famous Argentinean tango of the same name. Exiting the theater, I hear at least one person complain about how fake that scene seemed. Such people shouldn't be allowed at Almodovar movies.

Monday, October 30, 2006

MovieWatch: "The Queen"

"The Queen"
Director: Stephen Frears
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 69 (Same as "Marie Antoinette" for whatever reason)
In a Nutshell: I didn't dislike Stephen Frears' "The Queen," but I need somebody to explain to me why it was made. Or, to be more specific, I need an explanation for why, nine years after Princess Diana's death, this was the time to explore the royal family's reaction to the tragedy and why, in turn, that reaction had to be a feature film, rather than a BBC or HBO telefilm. Or maybe I just need an explanation of why *this* was the movie to be made on the subject. A perfectly interesting fly-on-the-wall piece full of interesting details, unexpected humor and fine performances, "The Queen" lacks a narrative imperative, a thematic motivation.

I like Stephen Frears, "The Queen" could have been made by any number of competent directors of the British big and small screen. Screenwriter Peter Morgan, rather than Frears, drives this talky film, which spends much time explaining the protocol of British Royalty and government, exposition which is much more for the audience than for the characters on screen, which caused the former writing student in me to scream, "Show me, don't tell me!"

And, in the process, the movie bends over backwards to offend nobody. The Queen is out of touch with reality, but she's a noble woman who has spent too long in too difficult a position, a position made more difficult by the need to show love for a woman who dedicated her life to undermining her. Tony Blair is a modern man and a progressive thinker, but he holds traditional values and cares too much, perhaps, for many of the establishment institutions he swore to tear down. If "The Queen" wanted to be political, it could have made more hay from Blair's decline from leftist innovator into a man who may not best be known as George W. Bush's willing lap-dog. Instead, the movie is anonymous.

Oscar prognosticators -- folks like Jeffrey Wells, David Poland and, at the very nadir, Tom O'Neil -- love deciding the Academy races early and Mirren has already been given the Oscar for the year. Bravo. And she's great here, playing a far more muted, internalized performance than you typically see drawing this kind of awards attention. The performance is all in subtle intonation and mannerisms and how she, as the God-saved Queen, carries herself. But I suspect that Mirren is going to win an Oscar this year because she's Helen Mirren and she doesn't have an Oscar and not because this is somehow the finest performance of her career. A reasonable and possibly correct argument could be made that in the calendar year, this is Mirren's third best filmed performance, following her Emmy-winning work as a different Elizabeth in HBO's eponymous film and the latest incarnation of her "Prime Suspect" franchise. You don't see that very often.

I'd like to see more buzz, incidentally, for Michael Sheen's performance as Blair, as he manages to look both foppish and pragmatic in a very interesting way.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

MovieWatch: "The Prestige"

"The Prestige"
Director: Christopher Nolan
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 81
In a Nutshell: When I read Christopher Priest's novel "The Prestige," my reaction was that the book wasn't necessarily all that good, but that it ought to make a great movie. In the surface, I may not have actually been right about that. The book relies on shifting time frames and narration to perform its slight-of-hand, well aware that certain tricks are best masked by the limitations of the reader's imagination. It would take a masterful piece of adaptation to replicate the book's deception. In that context, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan have done about as good a job of adapting as was humanly possible. Tightening the book's unwieldy structure, particularly its slowly unraveling conclusion and sacrificing only a few of my favorite images from the page. On screen, "The Prestige" is a much more contained text. Giving dueling magicians Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) a tragic shared past and semi-friendship separate from what was contained in the book explains much of the rivalry that follows. The magical obsession of these two men fits "The Prestige" into Nolan's gallery of pathologically obsessed heroes, men too bent on the business of revenge to exist within the natural world. I've read complaints that the film's twists are too easy to spot, but I can't speculate on that, since I knew the answers going in. I just relished the craftsmanship Nolan uses to distribute clues while also misdirecting. I don't think the movie -- about how magicians perform tricks, about they steps they take to get to that wondrous final step... the prestige -- is really about amazing the audience at the end. It's about the audience's pleasure in knowing they're being tricked throughout. That's why the final reveals aren't supposed to be out-of-left-field-stunning like in a cheap twist film like "The Sixth Sense."

Technically, "The Prestige" is marvelous. Wally Pfister's cinematography balances the obviously glorious moments -- the opening shot is a thing of beauty, particularly if you know its meaning and the image of Angier in a field of inexplicable light bulbs also lingers -- with less showy period details and Lee Smith's editing is flawlessly complicit in Nolan's storytelling. The performances are also strong throughout, with Jackman and Bale working hard to protect two characters who are distinctly unheroic and almost impossible to identify with. As related in Priest's book, I think the casting should have been reversed, but the brothers Nolan have similarly reversed which character ends the story as the tragic anti-hero. Bale is intense and believable and this is unquestionably the finest work Jackman has ever done on the big screen, by a wide margin, I'd say. While Michael Caine's wise old engineer is a good addition from the book, the ladies are still distinctly background characters. That being said, I though Scarlett Johansson's British accent (which geographically all over the map) was passable and her appearance in period magical assistant's garb was beyond reproach.

I think "The Prestige" is a better movie than many of its reviews have been indicating and a *far* better movie than Disney has been able to market it as. For me, "The Prestige" is one of the year's very best studio releases and one of its better films overall as well.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

MovieWatch: "Flags of Our Fathers"

"Flags of our Fathers"
Director: Clint Eastwood
Fien Print Rating (out of 100): 70
In a Nutshell: I saw "Flags of our Fathers" immediately after seeing "Running with Scissors" and in the aftermath of having plodded through Ryan Murphy's directorial clumsiness, Clint Eastwood's utter professionalism was a welcome relief. I've also spent the past week scratching my head and wondering if that juxtaposition caused me to mentally over-rate "Flags," which is a good movie, but by no means a great one. The problems begin and probably focus on screenwriters William Boyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, who had high aspirations for the movie, but never cracked the narrative puzzle of James Bradley and Ron Powers' book. The problem is that the movie is being promoted as a "Saving Private Ryan"-style "war is hell" depiction of one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific Front. Many of the people who criticize the movie will like denounce it in exactly those terms: It isn't as viscerally thrilling as "Saving Private Ryan," nor do the scenes of conflict get much deeper than exploring what happens to innocent young men when they're thrust into horrifying battle. That's a short-sighted view of the movie, though. The movie Eastwood wanted to make isn't about boys at war, but about three men -- Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach -- who are brought back home to be representative heroes in order to help sell bonds. The movie is a semiotic puzzle about the value of imagery -- in this case, the famous photo of the soldiers raising the flag -- and whether a reproduced image can have historic merit beyond the men or events it depicts. This is a natural topic for Eastwood, who has been mechanically reproduced in faux-heroic contexts as often as any man alive. And I applaud his desire to make his own "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (nobody says "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," but you know they're thinking it). But Eastwood and his writers know that viewers expect an extended centerpiece fight scene and even though the director doesn't sleepwalk through the battle scenes -- they're full of limbs, CGI planes and explosions and heart-breaking deaths -- you can tell that that's not the movie he wants to make and yet it has to be there anyway. So Eastwood and the writers fragment the story so that it jumps around from the present -- with an underused Thomas McCarthy as James Bradley trying to learn about his father -- to the battle, to the bond-tour afterwards, occasionally integrating flashbacks-within-flashbacks even if that strategy proves more confusing than illuminating. I think I liked the individual pieces of the movie, but as it neared its end, I began to wonder if it had made the unified argument about what "printing the legend" does to the facts.

On a technical note, the movie is marvelous and as evocative as anything Eastwood has ever shot, particularly the dark, over-saturated look of Iwo Jima contrasted with the more basic colors of life back home. The cast is deep, but beyond the three leads -- Beach has the showy part and can expect an Oscar nomination if the movie plays well, though there's much to be said for Phillippe's restraint, which makes this his most adult performance -- nobody gets much of a character. As a result, you never much figure out who the soldiers are by name, but you find yourself looking for Barry Pepper or Jamie Bell or Paul Walker just to find people to identify with.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

MovieWatch: "The Departed"

"The Departed"
Director: Martin Scorsese
Fien Print Rating (out of 100): 75
In a Nutshell: Forgive me if I have to turn my film snob card in, but I *liked* "Gangs of New York." I don't care for Leo's accent or much that Cameron Diaz did, but I'm not prepared to dismiss its nearly unique combination of brutality and period excess (and artistry). But it's become trendy to be all "Blah, blah, blah Scorsese Wanted An Oscar blah blah blah." That may be why most critics, in their rush to hail Scorsese's "return to form" in departed are ignoring the fact that "The Departed" has taken the utterly brilliant conceit of "Infernal Affairs" and transposed it onto the father-son dynamic of "Gangs of New York," with Jack Nicholson's fiercesome scenery-chewy standing in for Daniel Day-Lewis' and Leo's erratic Boston accent standing in for Leo's erratic Irish accent. Heck, Ray Winstone stands in for Brendan Gleeson, which is about the most equal trade I can imagine. Regardless, the "Infernal Affairs" mechanics -- a cop inside the mob and a mobster inside the police department play cat and mouse -- are infused by the story of an heirless king so desperate for a son that he's willing to overlook the fact that the son will inevitably bring him down. Screenwriter William Monahan has done a good job of giving the story a Boston flavor and an string of tough guy bon mot, even if the accents are all over the map. He hasn't changed the plot very much, that's for sure. The crime lord part has been effectively beefed up for Nicholson, which was a fine decision. The dueling moles have been made younger and less experienced, which is a bit more problematic (Tony Leung's undercover cop had been inside for a number of years, which made it more plausible that he wouldn't be suspected -- that Nicholson refuses to just assume Leo's the mole is a different character wrinkle, I guess).

And Scorsese does his thing, collaborating with DP Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker to show all variety of hacky Tarantino and Tony Scott imitators how a twisty, violent thriller should be produced. More than a few times I found myself thinking of Spike Lee's "Inside Man" in the sense that neither movie reinvents the genre wheel, but they accentuate the ineptitude of something like "The Sentinel" or "Lucky Number Slevin" or "16 Blocks." The three leads -- Nicholson, DiCaprio and the always reliable Matt Damon -- are such strong personalities that it's amazing how many secondary performers are able to make impressions. Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin provide comic relief without sacrificing testosterone, which isn't surprisingly in Baldwin's case, but comes off as near-revelatory in Wahlberg's. While his performance isn't specifically notable, I was also pleased to see Kim Bauer's CTU boyfriend Chase (or his real-life alter ego James Badge Dale) appearing in a major part in a major movie and not looking at all out of place [Oh and Chase's hand has grown back well]. I don't know that "The Departed" is actually a better movie than "Infernal Affairs," but that isn't an insult. I'm guessing it'll play better on a second viewing.

Friday, October 06, 2006

MovieWatch:"Running With Scissors"

"Running With Scissors"
Director: Ryan Murphy
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 50
In a Nutshell: I was not spectacularly enamored with (by?) Augusten Burroughs' memoir "Running with Scissors," which frequently felt disingenuously self-indulgent to me, but if the book has a great virtue, it's Burroughs' refusal to let the absurdist tragedy of his life ever effect the comic rhythm of his prose. Even when it's miserable, it zips along with an undeniable energy. It's unfortunately, then, that in writer-director Ryan Murphy's hands, a book that felt like it could be read in two hours has become a movie that feels like it takes 10 hours to watch. Despite TV credits -- the underrated "Popular" and the overrated "Nip/Tuck" -- that suggest a gift with mixing melodrama and pitch black comedy, Murphy only occasionally captures Burroughs' tone and never for a second does he get Burroughs pace. Murphy's problem comes out of the book, which is long on eccentric anecdotes and short on traditional emotional arc, and out of an inability to build a separate cinematic momentum. Too many scenes devolve into two characters sitting next to each other or across from each other delivered in static shot-reverse-shots that seem to go on forever. While certain images are well-realized from the book, the Murphy is never confident with camera placement, which drains impact from a number of shots. And Murphy is smart enough that he feels every lag, but inexperienced enough to believe that a cliched piece of campy classic rock can smooth things over. Whole stretches of the movie play out over one song after another, with the lyrics often over-articulating what's happening on screen. For all of his aesthetic problems, Murphy gets a slew of excellent performances, with Brian Cox and the underused Alec Baldwin standing out and Joseph Cross, as Burroughs, doing decent work as well. As in the book, the women are more arch and Annette Benning's performance will be polarizing, I'd imagine. If she hadn't done similarly affected work to Oscar-nominated effect in "American Beauty" and "Being Julia," I'd have been more impressed. This was a book that had to be adapted by a Bennett Miller or a Noah Baumbach or even a Wes Anderson. Actually, it had to be adapted by Hal Ashby or Billy Wilder, but neither was, um, available.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

MovieWatch: "Marie Antoinette"

"Marie Antoinette"
Director: Sofia Coppola
Fien Print Rating: 69
In a Nutshell: Is Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" a superficial movie about a superficial woman? Or is it a flawed, but fascinating movie that uses the language of superficiality to explore an interesting historical figure who has been accused -- correctly it seems -- of being superficial. Does that make sense? What I'm sayin' is that either Coppola has perfectly captured the rituals, costumes and decorations of the 18th century French court and called it a day or else she uses the luscious gowns, the ornate food preparations and the ridiculous formality to comment on undeserved and unexpected celebrity in some semi-profound and certainly poetic way. Expect plenty of reviews calling "Marie Antoinette" something like "Paris Hilton: Queen of France" and mean it almost as a compliment. Expect plenty more to call it "Kirsten Dunst Plays Dress-Up For Two Hours," which would also probably be correct. Dunst is perfect as the giggling, silly young Antoinette who arrives in the French court as a teen entirely unprepared for the responsibilities and duties of her new position. She's delightful as she learns relearns how to eat breakfast, get dressed in the morning and choose her friends. Much of the movie is pitched towards a comedy of manners tone that's likely to either be missed by detractors or misinterpreted as unintentional. But since nobody casts Molly Shannon as a bitchy noble or Asia Argento as a French slut with a straight face, that would be foolish. Where Dunst and Coppola and the movie are less confident is when things are supposed to get darker and we're supposed to see how Marie's self-indulgence and waste led to her eventual fate (a fate that's never mentioned even in titles at the end of the movie). Coppola, using many of the New Wave-y visual tricks that she worked out in "Virgin Suicides" and "Lost in Translation," definitely lets us know why we should be amused by Marie and her life, but never conveys why we should care, much less why the people of France cared enough to first love her and ultimately wish her dead. Is that actually Coppola's point? Is it a condemnation of any culture that would raise a no-talent like Hilton or Jessica Simpson to a position of glory and then would see any purpose at all in attempting to tear them down? Heck is it a parable about Coppola herself, an undeniably gifted but somewhat simplistic young woman raised to Oscar-winning royalty before her time? I wish I understood.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

MovieWatch: "Pan's Labyrinth"

"Pan's Labyrinth"
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Fien Print Rating: 90
In a Nutshell: To put it simply, "Pan's Labyrinth" is far and away the best film I've seen in 2006 (pushing "Brick" and "Dave Chappelle's Block Party" down a couple notches if you're scoring at home). To go that extra step, I'd be surprised -- pleased, but surprised -- if a better movie comes out for the rest of this year. "Pan's Labyrinth" is a piece of peerless fantastical storytelling, a poetic tribute to the liberating power of belief and magic and an allegory on the dangers of fascism and extremism that's absolutely universal despite the subtitles and its setting in 1944 Civil War-torn Spain. Although most casual filmmakers mostly know Del Toro from his work on "Blade 2" and "Hellboy," better than average genre pieces that are still glorified hackwork, "Pan's Labyrinth" is the logical successor to the director's underseen 2001 film "The Devil's Backbone," both stories that use imagination and mythical trappings to explore how children are effected by war. "Labyrinth" is going to be a tough sell. In addition to the period and language barriers, it's also an R-rated fairy tale -- drawing from a Campbell-style well of classic tropes, rather than any one specific story -- unremittingly dark and shockingly violent with sequences that will, indeed, scare coddled small children. It will also enchant older kids or kids who haven't been sheltered from original Grimm fairy tales or anything with a spine. Its best hope for finding an audience will be in the embrace of the critical community -- it's already played well at Cannes and in Toronto -- and in awards attention. In an ideal world, Del Toro would be a cinch for directing prizes and Guillermo Navarro's cinematography and Javier Navarrete's haunting score would receive laurels as well, as would the production design and the make-up work, which includes both fantastical creatures and nifty gore. The performances are all perfectly pitched, particularly young Ivana Baquero as the film's heroine and Sergi Lopez as the ultra-wicked Captain Vidal. It's been a long time since a movie has filled me with such pleasure at the full realization of filmmaking promise. So I'm pleased.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The New Zap2it Blog and Why I Love 'The Contender'

If you've noticed a drop-off in blogging in the past couple weeks, it's because of the beginning of a Zap2it shift that will see me covering much more television and much less movies. Don't worry. I'll still go see movies on my own dime and blog about 'em, but there may be a reduction in early screening reviews. Such is life.

In addition, Zap2it has just launched a new TV blog titled From Inside the Box. It'll have reality recaps, our thoughts on the shows we've seen and our thoughts on TV in general. We're attempting to populate the heck out of it, so check it out.

If you can't remember the name "From Inside the Box," feel free to call it "Head In a Box," or "Gwyneth" for short.

On an entirely different note, do you want to know why "The Contender" is possibly the best reality show out there? Even in its cut-rate ESPN version without Sylvester Stallone and without challenges and without flashing editing and without celebrities in the crowd, it's capable of producing moments of utter elation in a way that no other unscripted program can.

Tuesday's night's episode offered the best fight of the season. For the first 20 minutes of the episode, Michael Stewart, a Jesus-loving palooka who only won his first fight because Ebo Elder -- a vastly superior boxer -- walked into an uppercut, gushed on and on about how Grady Brewer was only adept at losing. He told his wife he was fighting a chump. He told everybody that there were just too many ways to beat Grady, who was too old and too weak. He talked endless trash.

Then they got in the ring and Grady won all five rounds. He pounded Michael around the ring like the tomato can he is. He out-boxed him, out-danced him and out-punched him. And yet, you watch every second of every fight holding your breath. Over the course of a season, these contestants become sympathetic, human figures. They becomes people with wives and kids and you grow to love some and hate others and you know that even if four straight rounds have gone for your guy, one punch can end it. It's bloody and primal and animalistic and it's every bit the best show Mark Burnett has produced since "Eco-Challenge."

They're up to the Final Four for the season, but it's not too late to start tuning in. OK. It may be too late. But I'm hopeful it'll get another run. For the rest of the season, I'm rooting a bit for Omar Bravo, but most I just want somebody to beat K-9 Bundrage, who clenched and held his way to beat the competition's best pure boxer, Walter Wright in last week's fight.

And now... Time to watch "Bones."

Thursday, September 07, 2006

MovieWatch: "The Black Dahlia"

"The Black Dahlia"
Director: Brian DePalma
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 70
In a Nutshell: Although the names above the title may include Josh Hartnett, Hilary Swank, Scarlett Johansson and Aaron Eckhart, the true star of "The Black Dahlia" is director Brian DePalma, which has been the case for many of the helmer's finest movies. Josh Friedman's script takes the skeleton of James Ellroy's tortured novel and maintains several of the key themes, but it's really just an excuse for DePalma -- actually at his most restrained -- to mimic the film noir stylings of directors like Hawks and Huston, playing with shadows and perspective and delivering a slew of the his expected set pieces. It's a perfect story for DePalma, a murderous melodrama complete with all types of psychosexual obsession and doppelgangers, so he has fun even as the script has to pack near-endless exposition into several key scenes. Missing a number of main characters and instances from the book, what's on screen may leave lazy viewers wondering what the central mystery was, who the murder happened to be and why anything happened the way it did. But who cares about those things when DePalma is showing his usual mastery of the crane and he's working with craftsmen like cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, production designer Dante Ferretti and costumer Jenny Beavan? The movie suffers from black holes in the middle where Hartnett and Eckhart just aren't up for the degree of mental anguish required by the text. As usual, Hartnett's problem is that while he's capable of teenage angst and brooding, he never gets any deeper, while Eckhart is just hampered by the gaps in his storyline, holes that keep his arc from feeling believable. Johansson looks stunning in the period costumes and is quite sympathetic when she's quiet, but her flat delivery kills several lines. Swank looks like she's having fun playing the vamp and I'll forgive an accent that never quite settles. The film's best performances are Fiona Shaw's operatic over-acting as Swank's socialite mother and Mia Kirshner, who somehow makes the Dahlia into a fleshed out character despite minimal screentime. They weren't really ever going to make a literal adaptation of Ellroy's novel. It's too bleak. So I'll applaud the aspirations of this film despite its myriad flaws.

A full review will be up on Zap2it on Friday, Sept. 15. That may be my last Zap2it film review...

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Take Me To The Pilots: "Brothers & Sisters"

[I've said it before and I'll say it again: These capsules aren't meant as reviews. Most of these pilots will undergo at least minor -- and possibly major -- alterations, tweaks and recastings before they make it on air in the fall. These are, however, my first impressions:]

Show: "Brother & Sisters"
The Pitch: The title kinda says it all.
Quick Response: Among the basic plots that writers of all stripes are addicted to is the prodigal son or daughter returning to the family fold, facing past demons and gaining a new sense of responsibilities. That's about all that many months of retooling have yielded ABC in the case of the star-studded "Brothers & Sisters." In this case, the prodigal daughter is play by Calista Flockhart, whose character is a radio host, a conservative radio host. How do I know that? The first character to mention her refers to the "bile" she spews. The second calls her a "right-wing conservative." Really? Both? Then she refers to crack as "so blue state." I'm gonna stop here, but rest assured that for 44 minutes, Flockhart's character is defined as nothing but a conservative in a family of liberals. That's not uninteresting, particularly since Flockhart is playing the character straight-forward-human as opposed to Ann Coulter-Evil, but I like people who are more than just one thing. Unfortunately, in 44 minutes, there isn't time for any of the characters -- all played by excellent actors -- to be defined as anything more than broad outlines. There's the Gay Brother, the Sister-Mother, the Veteran Brother and a couple siblings who aren't even that definable. That's what happens with ensembles of this kind and it's probably unavoidable. This side of maybe "Smith" and "The Nine," "Brothers & Sisters" has the fall's deepest ensemble cast, with Flockhart, Sally Field, Rachel Griffiths, Tom Skerritt and Patricia Wettig, who have many Emmy nominations and wins between them, along with the very recognizable Ron Rifkin and Balthazar Getty, who don't have any Emmy nominations between them. I can see the appeal of working with a cast this good and of playing one part of a big puzzle and having days off for movies or other TV cameos, but nothing in this pilot feels clearly fresh enough to have attracted any of these actors.
Desire To Watch Again: The pilot was such a struggle, with recasting, rewriting and reshooting that it seems unfair not to give "Brothers & Sisters" a second episode, particularly given that I don't watch anything else in its time slot and that Greg Berlanti ("Everwood") has come in to right the ship.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: Producers, have you no shame? There are at least three or four parts for males of Balfour's age, minimum. And he totally would fit in perfectly with the "Six Feet Under"-lite tone of the piece. This was a missed opportunity for all and sundry and I hope everybody involved with this show is embarrassed.
And Speaking Of Balfour-Esque Show-Killers: The "B&S" producers should also be embarrassed about being the third new show in less than six months to feature Josh Hopkins. It's not that he's a bad actor, but nothing he does in "Brothers & Sisters" makes his appeal any more clear than his work in "Pepper Dennis" or "Vanished" (where, as my colleague Rick reminded me, his Boston accent "vanished" in this week's episode). If "Vanished" and "Brothers & Sisters" fail to make it into the new year, Hopkins would have a killing rate that even Balfour can't match.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Release "Method & Red" on DVD!

I feel like the Internet is constantly being used for nefarious purposes, be they Chuck Norris Facts or attempting to get a bridge named after Stephen Colbert or convincing people to see a movie called "Snakes on a Plane."

I have to admit that I attempted to start a campaign myself, a charge to secure fall employment for Mr. Eric Balfour. How did I do? So-so. Balfour isn't on any shows at all this fall, either established or new. That ain't right. But I've made my peace since Balfour will be returning to "24" this winter. Not quite "Mission Accomplished" on my end, but it's something.

Thus today I unveil my newest campaign, one even more doomed to failure:

It's time to get "Method & Red" released on DVD.

Many of you probably don't remember "Method & Red," a somewhat self-explanatory show that ran for nine episodes in the summer of 2004, part of FOX's entirely unsuccessful attempt at year-round original scripted programming. It starred rappers Method Man and Redman as a pair for frequently stoned musicians who moved into a suburban New Jersey neighborhood. Yes, Method Man and Redman were playing entirely sterotypical versions of their own personae, but they were surrounded in their new home by equally stereotypical white folks, including Beth Littleford, as a realtor who they called Neighbor Lady, and Peter Jacobson. Naturally, Method and Red didn't seem to fit in well with their neighbors, but by the end of each episode, with the help of some prime bud, they were all able to learn to get along.

What can you say about a show that introduced the world to legendary characters like Downtown Clowny Brown, evil music critic Keith Debeetham and the frequently incarcerated Chu Chu Hillfong?

Look, "How High" has sold fairly well on DVD. Or at least I'm assuming it has, without any kind of statistical evidence. Why wouldn't "Method & Red" move some copies? The show was being watched by a few million people a week.

FOX has been good in recent years with releasing short-lived shows on DVD. Sure, we may never see "The Ortegas" or "Still Life," but viewers have been able get the entire run of shows like "Wonderfalls," "Action," "Greg the Bunny" and "Keen Eddie" on DVD. If I'm being honest, "Method & Red" isn't as good as any of those shows.

It is, however, better than the fourth season of "Alf," which I got as a screener today. It's better than the second season of "One Tree Hill," which has been out on DVD for a long time. It's better than "Flavor of Love," which seems to be selling OK on Amazon. I'm not 100% sure, but I'm thinking it's better than "Sesame Street: Elmo's Potty Time," currently No. 37 on Amazon's bestsellers list.

It's not as good as the second, third or fourth seasons of "Everwood," which are all in some sort of weird limbo because the first season didn't sell well enough, but I'm sure that there are oodles of "Everwood" fans out there banging the drums for that one.

Thus, I urge any and all readers to join my quixotic quest to get "Method & Red" released on DVD.


Urge friends to sign as well.

Or not.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Wednesday's Red Sox Lineup

I usually opt not to discuss sports in this blog, for whatever reason, but since I've been ranting and raving about it all afternoon, I figure why not rant and rave in blog form...

The gist:

Today's (08/30/06) starting lineup for my beloved Boston Red Sox may well be the worst batting lineup in the history of the franchise.

It went a little something like this:

Kevin Youkilis LF
Alex Cora SS
Mark Loretta DH
Mike Lowell 3B
Gabe Kapler CF
Doug Mirabelli C
Eric Hinske RF 3
Dustin Pedroia 2B
Carlos Pena 1B

Not surprisingly, the Sox lost 7-2, though those two runs (and 10 mysterious hits -- one for every person in the lineup not named Alex Cora) are slightly miraculous. In addition, despite oodles of defensive inexperience, the Sox didn't make a single error today. Odd.

Interesting things about the Sox lineup today:

1)Only three of the players have been regular starters this season -- Youkilis, Lowell and Loretta. Of those three players, only Lowell was playing in his natural position. The batters who didn't/couldn't play for the Sox today include David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Coco Crisp, Jason Varitek, Wily Mo Pena, Trot Nixon and Alex Gonzalez. That's insane.

2)Loretta, an all-star at second, was the designated hitter, which is a bit odd for a second baseman with four home runs for the season. It makes sense, though, when you know that Loretta DHed so that rookie Dustin Pedroia and his .138 batting average could be in the lineup.

3)Mirabelli, the catcher, is a .189 hitter. Of course, the Sox only have Mirabelli because he can catch Tim Wakefield's knuckleball. That's valuable. Unfortunately, Wakefield has been on the disabled list for a long time and, thus, Mirabelli and his .189 average are playing regularly, because the alternative is Javy Lopez, who has no knees. To Mirabelli's credit, he only allowed one stolen base today. Not to his credit? He allowed the opposing team's catcher to steal the base.

4)Best of all: The Sox had two Jewish players -- Youkilis and Kapler -- in the same outfield today. That doesn't happen very often. I'm too lazy to see if Youkilis and Kapler have been in the outfield together at any point this season. I'd still be curious to know when the last time it happened previously.

4a)This has absolutely nothing to do with their respective degrees of Jewishness, but is a Youkilis-Kapler-Hinske outfield the lead coordinated outfield imaginable? Yes. It may be.

This is why the Sox are going to need a miracle to stay ahead of the Blue Jays for third place in the AL East.

It makes me sad. ays for third place in the AL East.

It makes me sad.

And do you want to know the worst part? I still found this freak show more interesting to write about than last night's premiere of "Celebrity Duets."

MovieWatch: "Fast Food Nation"

"Fast Food Nation"
Director: Richard Linklater
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 71
In a Nutshell: For at least its first hour, Richard Linklater's semi-adaptation of Eric Schlosser's muckraking expose about the fast food industry is about as strong as one could possibly hope, given that it's a movie based on a book that's based on statistics and research. With only the barest of plots involving a burger company exec (Greg Kinnear), several illegal immigrants (including Wilmer Valderamma, Catalina Sandino Moreno) at a meat packing company and several high schoolers working McJobs (led by Ashley Johnson), Linklater weaves a story of corporate complicity that goes into more depth and detail on issues of class and race in contemporary America than nearly any studio film I can think of. There isn't much plot, but people keep encountering familiar actors (Bruce Willis, Kris Kristofferson and Ethan Hawke), who deliver long and politicized monologues. It's clunky, but I was never bored and I appreciated Linklater's commitment to intelligence as a corrective to the glibness of Jason Reitman's over-praised "Thank You For Smoking." It's rare that you can pin-point so perfectly where a movie goes off the rails, but in the case of "Fast Food Nation," it's the moment that Avril Lavigne pops up as a chirpy college activist. She jeopardizes any claim to authenticity the movie may have made and announces an over-plotted attempt to tie everything up by the end. She's so distracting (her character as much as her pseudo-punky Canadian presence) that some viewers may tune out and miss the Killing Floor sequence that so clearly is mean as the Money Shot for "Fast Food Nation." I still appreciated the movie for its politics and its aspirations and also for a number of the performances, particularly those given by Kinnear, Johnson, Willis, Bobby Cannavale and the entirely Fez-Free Valderamma (who is good entirely by virtue of not being an annoying distraction).

Monday, August 28, 2006

A Second Look at "Vanished"

Since I haven't posted to the blog in a week -- a combination of shake-ups on the job and an absence of time in general -- I figured I should sit down with the second episode of FOX's "Vanished" to see if things have gotten any better since the pilot, which I wasn't enthralled by.

The short answer: It hasn't gotten any better. It's still an over-populated kidnapping drama without an iota of urgency, with a bland main cast and a barely-hinted-at mythology that isn't going to be nearly as cool as creator Josh Berman seems to suspect it will be. Since watching this stuff is at least *somewhat* what I do for a living, I'll probably stick with the show for a couple weeks, at least until "Heroes" premieres on Sept. 25. That should coincide pretty well with the end of the show's pre-baseball run on FOX. Folks on The Net are already buzzing with rumors of a "shocking" twist at the end of that episode and I've gotten independent confirmation that the rumors are true. And that's all I'll say about that.

In the interest of generosity, a few things that are improved:

**John Allen Nelson: Maybe this past season of "24" was too fresh in my mind when I watched the pilot, but I didn't give Nelson enough credit. We're not supposed to be sure whether to trust Senator Collins and he pulls of the ambiguity well.

**Esai Morales: It was just a good idea to cast a lawman with a bit of credibility, which Morales has thanks to "NYPD Blue." He didn't have much to do in the second episode, but he seemed sure of himself on screen, which is more than one can say for most of the cast.

Umm... Yeah. That's about it. I didn't mind some of the high tech gizmos the FBI seems to be using and the idea of being able to follow someone through Atlanta via a series of surveillance cameras with various purposes isn't bad.

Some things that still to work:

**It Looks Generic: I don't care how much director Mimi Leder pushes the camera around and how many *whoosh* effects take us through phone lines or whatever. "Vanished" just looks cheap, like the very worst episodes of "24," the episodes where you just know they're trying to save money so that they can blow up Air Force One in a couple weeks. The explosion in the mine-shaft beneath some tunnel where Gale Harold's Agent Kelton sees a flashing red light, we get a close-up on his "Oh No!" eyes and then things go boom was the stuff of syndicated action shows, probably lower in production values than, say, "Xena." There's no personality to the FBI offices, the Senator's home or, frankly, any of the environs. And does anybody out there know Atlanta? Does the show feel like it's really set there? "24" feels like it's set in Los Angeles. To me, "Vanished" feels like it's set in an American Uber-City.

**The Actors Are Generic: Harold is bland, but that's almost a blessing compared to poor Ming-Na. I can't tell if she's done in by the wretched writing in the second episode, or if she just isn't the least bit convincing as government agent. Regardless, her flat delivery is matched only by the Senator's anonymous kids and the slew of undistinguished supporting players working behind-the-scenes in either the FBI settings or on the Senator's staff. It's here that I admit that it took me a very long time to warm up to Carlos Bernard and Reiko Aylesworth on "24." They seemed like flat soap opera rejects to me for more than a season. The difference was that Kiefer Sutherland has always been a magnetic center for "24," while no such center exists on the excessively diffuse "Vanished." The addition of Eddie Cibrian to the cast isn't likely to change this for me. My rhetorical question: How much better with "Vanished" be with Bill Fichtner in the Harold role? Fichtner is an actor with the intensity to do what Kiefer does on "24."

**The "Centuries Old Mystery" Isn't Worth It: A writing mentor, Paul Hendrickson, was prone to using the expression "But is the game worth the candle?" whenever a student put too much effort into a writing flourish that couldn't hold up. So far, the "Vanished" team has done nothing to suggest that the religious mumbo-jumbo is doing anything more than detracting from the already lackluster kidnapping plot.

**It's Humorless: Good writers make sure that there's tonal variation. A well-written wise-cracking sidekick doesn't need to drain tension, but he can keep a self-serious show from drowning in its monotony. Currently, "Vanished" is drowning in its monotony.

**Flashbacks Just Stink: In general, unless you're "Lost," you probably shouldn't be using "Flashbacks." And you particularly shouldn't be doing flashbacks involving Josh Hopkins with a bad Massachusetts accent shot through a greenish-yellow filter. Hopkins isn't the worst of actors, but he probably shouldn't have me thinking about how much better he was back on "North Shore."

I could actually go on with this one, but it's getting late and "Vanished" isn't suddenly getting more worthy of discussion. As I've said, though, I will keep watching it. It's on after "Prison Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo" (or "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Prison Break") and I'm sticking with that one for a while too.

Did anybody else watch the second episode of "Vanished"? Thoughts?

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Sorry to Beat a Dead "Snake"...

It seems only fair to follow up yesterday's "Is 'Snakes on a Plane' Dead in the Air?" query with a solid answer:

Yes. Yes it is.

"Snakes" finished the weekend with a $15.25 million take.

All sorts of websites -- Zap2it included -- are documenting "Snakes" as the weekend's top movie, which I guess it technically is. But that "Snakes" total still includes the $1.4 million the movie made on Thursday night. That's not the weekend in my world. Take that out of the equation and "Snakes" made only $13.8 million, which would have put it second for the weekend, behind yet another frame for "Talladega Nights."

As I noted yesterday, "Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid" made only a million less in its first weekend, and if you adjust for inflation and increased ticket prices and all that stuff? Well, there's just no sugar-coating the disappointment. Guess what? With a budget estimated between $35 and $40 million, "Snakes on a Plane" may not make its money back at the domestic box office. Sure, it's still gonna make money down the road. But not much. Who'd have predicted that?

"Snakes" made less money in its opening weekend than "Coach Carter" ($24 million) or "Deep Blue Sea" ($19 million). It made more than "The Man" and "XXX: State of the Union" and "Freedomland" made in their opening weekends. So it's got that going for it.

The simple fact is this: "Snakes on a Plane," despite the months of hype, buzz, magazine covers and endless discussion, did no better than you would expect a Samuel L. Jackson late-summer creature feature to do and may have even done worse.

It could easily be argued that had the Internet buzz never happened and had New Line just made up several traditional trailers of scary snakes, SamJack being authoritative and maybe Kenan Thompson being funny, that hypothetical film might well have had a superior box office performance.

In fact, I kinda made that argument yesterday.

[On a side note: I find it coincidental -- stupider people would probably call it "ironic" -- that this same weekend last year was won by an R-rated movie that initially stirred up interest entirely because it had a goofy, fun name. "The 40 Year-Old Virgin" made more than $21 million and had sufficient legs to carry to $100 million. That's a hit.]

Thoughs? Analysis? Disagreements? Wanna try to tell me that "Snakes" is still a huge hit and I'm just not understanding the numbers?

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Is "Snakes on a Plane" Dead in the Air?

Hmmm... So much for that whole "'Snakes on a Plane' Is a Phenomenon'" juggernaut. It was only a few months ago that I cautioned against the bandwagon-jumping mentality that declared "Mission: Impossible III" a bomb after its Friday returns came in lower than expectations. But here I go doing the same thing...

"Snakes on a Plane" has made an estimated $7.5 million since it opened late Thursday night. It's Friday figures were closer to 6.13 million, according to BoxOfficeMojo. If ever a film were designed for a big must-see-on-first-day-or-not-at-all gross, it's "Snakes," so you can figure a three-day weekend total of only $16 or 17 million and you may need to include Thursday totals to make that number.

Why is that a massive disappointment for New Line? Well, for one thing, industry observers were predicting a first weekend gross anywhere between the low $20s and the upper $30s. Nobody had a clue what to expect, but no expert I've read went on record with anything as low as what actually took place. Figure that the movie will take a %60-65 percent drop in weekend two and that's just not impressive.

But would you like a better idea of why it's disappointing? Because back in 2004, two August weekends later (and therefore worse), another film about killer snakes -- "Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid" -- was released. An entirely unnecessarily and undemanded sequel to a seven year-old movie, with a budget of only $20 million and no star bigger than Johnny Messner, "Anacondas" took in nearly $13 million. More importantly, there were no magazine covers for "Anacondas," no newspaper articles about how it had changed the face of movies forever, no epic deconstructions of how it became a phenomenon. Nope. "Anacondas" just dropped into theaters and took in $13 million. That fact should cause the New Line marketing department to weep a little, as should the fact that "Snakes" is going to post a lower first weekend than "Step Up." Oye.

In the media and over at New Line, the next week will see a lot of question-asking. And keep in mind that I kinda liked the movie, but here's a few issues that might come up:

Is the Internet a hoax? Well, it sure is when you look to a niche group as somehow indicative of a national sentiment. Duh. The New Line people looked at SnakesonaBlog and the dozens of imitators and confused the "X" number of readers and posters with a mainstream moviegoing audience. I don't know, in that previous sentence, if "X" equals thousands or millions, but whatever the figure is, if you multiple it by the average ticket price nationwide, I suspect you'll get a very similar figure to the first week gross. Similarly, New Line looked at the 7000 people at the film's Comic-Con presentation last month and confused that audience with a mainstream moviegoing audience. New Line spent the last 6 months preaching to the choir and never for a second thought that it was necessary to turn to the congregation. In electoral politics, there's a statistic of people who make their voting decision in the final week before the election. Does anybody track a similar stat for moviegoers? Because I'd wager that the number of people who only decided to see "Snakes on a Plane" in the past week is miniscule.

So who was reading all of those trend pieces anyway? People who already knew about "Snakes on a Plane" already, mostly. Again, more preaching to the choir. On Wednesday, when I announced to a close friend who lives in Chicago, watches plenty of TV and spends a decent amount of time on the Internet that I was seeing a 10 p.m. Thursday show of "Snakes on a Plane," she responded, "Huh?" Apparently the LA Times, Entertainment Weekly and all variety of other outposts were mostly telling "Snakes on a Plane" fans about how cool and influential they were. The stories weren't actually doing a thing to make people outside of the phenomenon feel like they could be part of it. In fact, the stories probably made many people feel like they'd already missed the bus.

Should New Line have screened the movie for critics? This is the biggest no-brainer on Earth. Yes. Yes they should have. Reviews for "Snakes" were largely positive, but that's almost beside the point. If regular folks read reviews anymore, it's people who are deciding on a Friday what movies to go see, undecided theatergoers. Instead, New Line decided those viewers weren't important and actively told them so. Everybody affiliated with the movie who did the talk show circuit announced that the movie wasn't screening for critics because it was for "the fans." That classing of "the fans" excludes anybody casually interested in the movie and alienates them.

Should the movie have been marketed differently, as something else? I've heard several people saying that they couldn't tell from the advertising if "Snakes on a Plane" was a scary movie or a comedy. The same confusion helped kill "Slither" this spring despite excessively positive reviews. The commercials I saw made "Snakes" look like campy fun, which it kinda was, emphasizing the changes made for fans, particularly The Line delivered by Samuel Jackson. Nobody ever tried convincing horror fans that "Snakes" was scary. "Anacondas," if you actually see it, is plenty campy. It was marketed as a scary movie. I'm just sayin'...

Should "Snakes" have been released sooner? Did the "Snakes" buzz peak too soon? Did "Snakes" cease to be cool sometime between April and August? Probably. The party line has always been that "Snakes" couldn't have opened any sooner because there wasn't a free weekend, there was too much competition. How much worse could it have done? There's also the issue of perception. If "Snakes" opens to $16 million in mid-April, it's a surprise hit. If you set up four months of hype, suddenly that isn't so good. I'm not saying I commented on this back in April, but I commented on it back in April.

Should "Snakes" have stayed PG-13? I loved The Line and I enjoyed the boobs and I'm sure the extra violence was a treat. But was it worth the time and the money? Was it worth the lost ticket sales for younger viewers? Once again, those changes were only beneficial to people who would have seen the movie with or without them.

"Snakes" may shock everybody by having legs (that may be an evolution joke... I'm not sure). People may go back multiple times and tell their friends and it may have a long life as a midnight movie. It's almost certain to do well on DVD and New Line isn't going to lose money on this.

But I can't help but feel like somebody should have made more money, that this was an opportunity lost.

Any thoughts? Was the media just overestimating the interest in snakes on planes? Was the media just overestimating its interest in itself?

MovieWatch: "The Last Kiss"

"The Last Kiss"
Director: Tony Goldwyn
Fien Print Rating: 60
In a Nutshell: "The Last Kiss" -- based on the 2001 Italian film of the same name [only in Italian, of course] -- continues the EMO-ization of my generation, a process largely perpetuated by "The O.C." creator Josh Schwartz and by Zach Braff. Although Braff only stars in "The Last Kiss," he also supervised the soundtrack, which flavors the movie so completely that it could almost be a sequel to "Garden State," which will be a positive for some viewers and a negative for others, of course. While Paul Haggis is credited on the screenplay, he was just collecting a paycheck here. The film goes plot point for plot point with the original, almost beginning to end. It's still a male melodrama, a weepy story of guys on the cusp of turning 30, who ought to be men, but refuse to give up being boys. It's the kind of brazenly sentimental, but still masculine, movie that American directors really have difficulties with, and I say that as a big fan of Ted Demme's work on "Beautiful Girls." Goldwyn has serious problems with both the tone and pacing of the movie, though he ties the movie together decently by the ending. For my money, "The Last Kiss" would have been a far better movie if Zach Braff and Casey Affleck had swapped roles, as Casey's hangdog earnestness would have better suited the film's lead than Braff's perpetual edge of irony. Several supporting actors stand out, particularly Jacinda Barrett (suggesting, for the first time, that she's more than just the star of "Real World: London"), Rachel Bilson (melting hearts and suggesting that she should be able to have a big screen career after "The O.C.") and Eric Christian Olsen (suggesting that he can do more than just sitcom mugging). Points also for Blythe Danner and Tom Wilkinson, representing the older generation.

Expect a real review on Zap2it on September 15.