Saturday, June 30, 2007

MovieWatch: "Ratatouille"

Director: Brad Bird
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 74
In a Nutshell: The sense that Pixar was infallible, incapable of producing anything less than a great movie, was taken out to the woodshed by last summer's "Cars." I'm still a wee bit confused by "Cars," seeing as how it was directed by John Lasseter, Pixar's acknowledged mastermind. In the moment, "Cars" was merely disappointing. A year later, I'm hard-pressed to remember a single character, a single line of dialogue, a single moment. That's the kind of disposable entertainment I expect and accept from the animation departments at Sony or DreamWorks. Marketed to the NASCAR Nation, "Cars" was a huge hit. In fact, I have a hard time imagining "Ratatouille" out-grossing "Cars," though I write that with resignation, since "Ratatouille" is a fine bounce-back film for the company.

Follow through after the bump for the rest of my thoughts on both "Ratatouille" and Gary Rydrom's "Lifted," the attached Pixar short...

Click through...

Although much has been made of the difficulties of marketing a movie in which the main character is a rat and the title is unspellable (by me at least) and unpronounceable (by stupid people at least) and the setting is French (who we apparently still hate), "Ratatouille" is tapping the zeitgeist pretty well. The obnoxious man behind me who guffawed through the entire movie and his stupid wife who announced that she'd totally known that Brad Bird was the voice of semi-evil chef Skinner (Ian Holm is actually the voice) saw the poster for "No Reservations" as they left the theater and said, without irony, that the Aaron Eckhart/Catherine Zeta-Jones movie obviously must be trying to capitalize on "Ratatouille" (they seem not to have seen "Mostly Martha). They may have been wrong, but a good argument could be made that food is everywhere this summer and not just on the big screen. I'm recapping both "Top Chef" (actually about food) and "Hell's Kitchen" (actually about Gordon Ramsay swearing at people) for Zap2it and look at all of the news coverage that accompanied word that Kobayashi might duck Joey Chestnut in the annual 4th of July Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest (he's decided to fight through his jaw arthritis, last I heard). Food is everywhere and "Ratatouille" ought to be able to captitalize, even if the hero is, indeed, a bit of a rodent.

But Remy, anthropomorphized within an inch of his life, is a loveable rodent, a huggable rodent, a rodent who knows the proper sauces to accompany sweetbreads. And the film's message -- "Anybody can cook" -- isn't really about rats or even about cooking. Like so many animated films before it, "Ratatouille" argues that no matter how you look on the outside and no matter how people may judge you, your only limitations are the ones you put on yourself.

That's a good lesson for kids, but indeed "Ratatouille" may not be aimed at the smallest of viewers, or at least it lacks the elements that non-Pixar animated films seem to think children require. Unless I'm forgetting, there's no toilet humor at all and only occasional gags based on bodily fluids of any sort. There's amply physical humor, but I laughed more at the wordplay and kitchen hijinx. Other studios may think kids require Robin Williams doing standard ethnic caricatures, but Pixar doesn't.

There's a certain strangeness to some of the voice casting, weird bits of Pixar ideology. While DreamWorks and Sony have always had the impression that casting A-list actors to do voice-overs was a good creative and financial decision, Pixar has gone a different direction. Stand-up fans know Patton Oswalt, but he isn't bringing kids to the theater and he's a fine voice. Ian Holm [hilarious], Peter O'Toole [utterly remarkable] and Brian Dennehy have great voices, so you can't go wrong letting them work. But who thought it was a good idea to have Janeane Garofalo doing an off-putting and erratic French accent as leading lady Colette? Total non-actors (and animators) Lou Romano and Peter Sohn do fine with their key roles, but might Linguini and Emile have been funnier if Pixar had gone to a veteran voice artist? I'm not sure. I guess I prefer the Pixar casting method to whatever stuck me with "Madagascar."

"Ratatouille" looks phenomenal, doing magical things with both food and Paris.

The movie's too long and I kind with Bird hadn't felt the need to articulate exactly why he hates critics. It wasn't our fault "Iron Giant" tanked, Brad. We all loved it!

In the Pixar Pantheon, I have "The Incredibles" far up in first. It's a great movie, quite deserving of a place on the AFI Top 100. I place the two "Toy Story" movies in second and third (pick your order). I think "Ratatouille" can go soon after that, ahead of "Bug's Life," "Monsters Inc." and "Finding Nemo" (in that order) and far ahead of "Cars." That's not a bad position to be in.

Although guaranteed at least a nomination in the animated short category, "Lifted" is by far the slightest of the Pixar shorts in recent years. It's very cute and adds up to very little, which wasn't the case with "Boundin'" or "One Man Band," much less "Geri's Game."

Friday, June 29, 2007

Take Me to the Pilots: ABC's 'Cashmere Mafia' and BBC America's 'Jekyll'

[I remind you here that these aren't reviews. Or at least my take on "Cashmere Mafia" isn't a review. There's still a chance for steps to be taken to make the show stink a lot less, or at least that's the benefit of the doubt that I'll give ABC. My take on BBC America's "Jekyll" probably could be a review, if I cared. The show has already aired twice in the U.K. and the only big differences will be minor edits for content.]

(Unrelated note: You know how some movies get better in your mind as you have time to think about them and mull them over and other movies, well, don't? You may wanna put "Live Free or Die Hard" in the second category. It's not that I didn't enjoy the experience of watching the movie, but it strikes me that my Fien Print rating [67] was much too high. Well, maybe not "much," but it doesn't clearly delineate between "good-fun" movies and "fun-fun" movies. "Live Free or Die Hard" fits in the second category. A movie that may improve in my mind is Ben Affleck's "Gone, Baby, Gone," which I saw last night, but can't even do a Nutshell review because it's four months from being released. Let's just say that the more I'm able to think of the movie on its own merits and separate it from the book in my mind, the more worthy it seems.)

Anywho, follow through after the bump for my thoughts on ABC's "Cashmere Mafia" and BBC America's "Jekyll."

Click on through...

Show: "Cashmere Mafia" (ABC drama)
The Pitch: You know how you can watch TBS repeats of "Sex and the City" and eventually they cease to be funny and they become flat, shrill and predictable? Now you can save the time and get the same effect from one viewing of "Cashmere Mafia."
Quick Response: Like the ladies of "Women's Murder Club," the high-flying female executives of "Cashmere Mafia" spend a lot of time discussing how men are all cads and how difficult it is to be a successful woman in the world, contentions that I wouldn't dare contest. At least when the characters of "Women's Murder Club" are done with their recycled, over-obvious, often painfully penned banter, they go out and SOLVE FREAKIN' MURDERS. When they're done gossiping like the third-rate "Sex and the City" knock-offs they are, the gals of "Cashmere Mafia" just go off to the most generic office drama imaginable to enact plotlines that couldn't be more predictable. The men in their lives are totally interchangeable, prompting me to think that a great gimmick for a show link this would be to just let all of the men be played by a single square-jawed actor -- let Jason Gedrick play the husbands of all four women to make a symbolic point of some sort. Instead, the men are interchangeable because you couldn't get recognizable actors to play such weak characters. The funny thing is that I don't blame leading ladies Miranda Otto, Frances O'Connor or even Bonnie Somerville for any of my problems with the show. Even Lucy Liu, so prone to caricature (and so gifted at it) that I can't believe her as a real person, isn't bad. They're just trapped in this uber-chick lit bore. Wanna know the saddest part? I was looking forward to this pilot FAR more than to NBC's slightly more comedic "Lipstick Jungle." That augurs poorly.
Desire to Watch Again: Less than zero. I'd love to get those manly CEOs from "Big Shots" together in a room with those womanly executives of "Cashmere Mafia." Then I'd blow up that room, setting all of those talented actors free.

Show: "Jekyll" (BBC America, Drama)
The Pitch: A modern spin on "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," sortta.
Quick Response: Created by "Coupling" auteur Steven Moffat, "Jekyll" is a wacky mixture of styles and tones. Sometimes it's a smart spin on the central issues of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel, a man losing control with his own duality and how this sort of unbridled id might be handled differently in the 21st century than in the 19th. Sometimes it's just a creepy psycho-horror drama. Sometimes it's a conspiracy drama of the sort that British and American TV audiences have become increasingly familiar with in recent years. Sometimes it's self-aware near-parody, a compilation of quips and one-lines and winking at the audience. As reimaginings of this concept go, it may not be as good as what Alan Moore did in "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," but it's a damn sight better than the Sean Young/Tim Daly vehicle "Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde." The anchor is leading man James Nesbitt, he of the generally perpetual hang-dog expression. It's Nesbitt's familiar solemnity that makes his transformation into his darker alter ego so entertaining. It's done with minimal makeup and hair work, plus black contact lenses. But really Nesbitt has to do most of the or himself, giving his "Hyde" side a spin that's part Jim Carrey, part Jack Nicholson, part Richard D. James on the cover of Aphex Twin's "Richard D. James Album." Nesbitt goes from tortured and internalized to torturing and externalized with broad, over-stated flair and it's fun to watch. It's also good to see the lovely Michelle Ryan, she of NBC's "Bionic Woman," sporting her natural accent. And it's different to see Gina Bellman (Jane on "Coupling") is a serious role as the main character's confused wife.
Desire to Watch Again: Strong. Some parts of the first two episodes (to be aired in a single block in familiar BBC America style) don't really work, but enough of it does that I'll be looking forward to see how the story plays out.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

MovieWatch: "Live Free or Die Hard"

"Live Free or Die Hard"
Director: Len Wiseman
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 67
In a Nutshell: [Sorry, but I'm still not prepared to forgive "Live Free or Die Hard" for its absolutely horrid title. The movie has nothing to do with New Hampshire and at no point does anybody in the movie have to make the titular choice. As sequel titles go, it's still better than "2 Fast 2 Furious," but at least for the third movie, that franchise didn't go with "3 Fast 3 Furious." I'm also unhappy with the PG-13 rating for this one. If John McClane can't say "mutherf***er" (we're a family-friendly blog here), why bother having him say "Yippee Ki Yay"? And if John McClane can't say "Yippee Ki Yay," is he even John McClane? But more on that after the bump, I suppose.]

The full review is after the bump...

Click Through...

I know it isn't necessarily saying all that much, but "Live Free or Die Hard" comes closer to delivering on its premise than any of this summer's various sequels to date. Although it instantly takes its place as one of the 10 or 20 must ludicrous movies every made (the defiance of narrative logic, much less the laws of physics is remarkable), "Die Hard 4" had me laughing at its balls-out audacity almost from the beginning. The trailer -- a magnificent piece of promotional editing if e'er there were one -- shows several of the best parts, but it only gives a taste of the masterful set-pieces, including the tunnel chase and John McClane going one-on-one with a military aircraft on a multi-level freeway.

I went back and forth on whether or not Len Wiseman was a good choice to reboot this franchise. At times, scenes were edited to bits like they were shot by a third-rate Michael Bay knock-off, like a feature length version of that "You wouldn't steal a car..." anti-piracy commercial. But then Wiseman and DP Simon Duggan would turn in some entirely improbably shot and I'd be sucked into the action completely. I would love to have seen the set-up for one early shot in which an evil French henchman (*all* the henchmen are French, for reasons that are never explained) jumps from one rooftop to the next and sweeps down a fire escape, parkour-style, in one continuous motion.

Great care has been taken to light Bruce Willis' bald dome, making him appear more than ever like the H.R. Giger's Alien Queen. He's definitely showing his age, but that doesn't mean that he can't deliver quips when required.

The supporting cast is full of performances that are less annoying than you may have feared. Justin Long as John McClane's hacker sidekick? Less annoying than you may have feared! Mary Elizabeth Winstead as John McClane's suddenly grown-up and sexy daughter? Less annoying than you may have feared! Kevin Smith as a hacker who lives in his mother's basement? Less annoying than you may have feared!

McClane's most worthy adversaries are just the various fireballs and projectile automobiles that are launched at him. One of the most interesting things about this franchise has always been that McClane's interactions with the Big Bad are usually limited to a series of menacing phone calls, so being a "Die Hard" villain is all about how well you can deliver threatening dialogue in the face of Willis' one-liners. It's not that Olyphant doesn't have it in him to play a fantastic villain -- see "Go" or "Girl Next Door." It's just that his character here is minimal and Olyphant's only responsibility is to get really close to the camera, grit his teeth and snarl. Far better is Maggie Q, who looks phenomenal, moves like a martial arts-trained cat and certainly would be a true star if Hollywood could view her as more than Token Asian Action Babe.

My biggest problem with "Die Hard 4" is that it continues the franchise's descent into better-than-average-but-generic action territory. The genius of the first movie was that the action was completely contained within the Nakatomi Tower. In the second movie McClane's universe expanded, but he was still mostly operated around an airport and the surrounding environs. The third movie expanded things to New York City. And by the fourth, we're using the entire Eastern Seaboard. Tension dwindles as the action becomes less restricted. Remember when every movie was "Die Hard on a ... [a plane, a boat, a bus]" I wish "Die Hard 4" had paid more attention to the "Die Hard" formula. Then, I guess, I would have missed seeing John McClane taking out a helicopter with a cop car. And that would have been sad.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Take Me to the Pilots '07: ABC Dramas

[I feel like I just wrote this yesterday. Perhaps you remember. THESE AREN'T REVIEWS! That would be wrong, wrong, wrong. The pilots sent to critics can change dramatically before they air. They probably won't. But they could. And if they did and I based a review on that original pilot, well that'd be evil of me. But here are my first impressions.]

FOX can take pride in being the only network to pick up a pilot in which a chimp anally violates a human in the first five minutes. Yeah, there's some pride in that. But surely ABC should be pleased to have not one, but two pilots milking comic and dramatic gold from tranny surprises. But not all transvestites (or transsexuals) are the same. No, in "Big Shots," it's a tranny hooker (HILARIOUS!) and in "Dirty Sexy Money," it's just a plain ol' tranny (DOUBLE HILARIOUS!). Other than the annoying over-use of Peter Bjorn and John's "Young Folks" as backing music, that may be my favorite pilot pseudo-trend of the season. To hell with your "Why are there so many British actors pretending to be American?" or "Why is everybody named Chuck?" trend pieces. I wanna know why Steve McPherson is so amused by trannies.

Follow after the bump for my first impressions of "Big Shots," "Dirty Sexy Money" and "Women's Murder Club"...

Click through...

Show: "Big Shots" (ABC drama)
The Pitch: "Desperate CEOs"
Quick Response: Darnit, ABC! The time to make a testosterone skewing companion piece to "Desperate Housewives" was two years ago when people still *liked* "Desperate Housewives" and the ratings were going up and not down! Or maybe it's true what Dylan McDermott says in the pilot when he announces "Men... We're the new women." That, by the way, is not meant as a compliment to women. It's pretty darned misogynistic, in fact. Basically, more than a few viewers are going to be watching this pilot -- about four Alpha Male CEOs who seem to have nothing better to do than sitting around getting spa treatments and gossiping about the women in the lives -- going "Dude, since when is that how men behave around each other?" That raises the question of why, exactly, ABC would expect anybody to be watching this show. The leading men -- McDermott, Michael Vartan, Christopher Titus and Josh Malina -- are all variably talented and good-looking and it's my hunch that they talk like women wish attractive and powerful men would talk when they get together. Everything is about their insecurities and their feelings and it's all just a bit insufferable. The performance that interests me belongs to Titus, since he's the one playing most against type. The one I'm most wary of is Vartan's, since he's got some work to do to convince me he's got enough substance to be a master of the universe. And honestly, would it have killed the casting director to have gone non-white with one of the four leads? Seriously, was Blair Underwood so busy? Sigh. Though their parts lacked any shading at all, I liked both Nia Long and Jessica Collins, as the only females with extended screentime.
Desire to Watch Again: Actual desire? Very low. Coming out of the pilot, I didn't care where any of the ongoing threads were headed. Realistic chance I'll watch again? Nearly 100 percent. It's on after "Grey's Anatomy," so I'm bound to give it a second chance.

Show: "Dirty Sexy Money" (ABC Drama)
The Pitch: "Great Expectations" meets "The Magnificent Ambersons"? Too high culture. "Igby Grows Up"? Too indie. "Representin' the Hiltons"? Too potentially litigious. But something like that.
Quick Response: "Big Shots" operates under the theory that even the fabulously wealthy have the same problems as the rest of us, a contention that doesn't amuse me in the least. If I have to spend an hour a week with the rich and powerful, I want them to have proportionately absurd problems. That's just the way it should go. That's why I like "Dirty Sexy Money" so much more than "Big Shots." It's a tawdry New York-set soap opera with a goofy prestige cast. Give me Donald Sutherland with a moustache, Peter Krause doing his "Six Feet Under" thing, William Baldwin gradually morphing into Alec and that's a good start. Throw in Glenn Fitzgerald going deliriously over-the-top as a less-than-holy priest, Samaire Armstrong doing and not-so-veiled Paris Hilton impression and Dakota Fanning's slightly-more-human sister and I'm ready to commit. Actually, I could do without Armstrong, whose Paris is shrieky and shrill. And I don't really need the murder mystery that's plunked down at the end just to give a serialized aspect. I just like the idea of a good man selling his soul to the Devil, as long as Satan is Donald Sutherland with a Moustache. So far, I'm also good with the Greg Berlanti-fication of ABC, a syndrome that has me watching every episode with only one question in mind: Who's gonna turn out to be gay?!?!?
Desire to Watch Again: Medium-to-strong

Show: "Women's Murder Club" (ABC Drama)
The Pitch: Nancy Drew and the Drewettes -- "Sisters are solvin' crimes for themselves"
Quick Response: I've now heard two or three people express disappointment that "Women's Murder Club" isn't about a group of women who commit murders. It isn't. But I'd watch that show. There are random intriguing things about "Women's Murder Club," though, as I look on the IMDB. The non-writing exec producers, for example, include James Patterson (this is based on his book), Joe Simpson (Jessica's dad) and "On the Lot" guest judge Brett Ratner. Oscar-winning cinematographer Dante Spinotti is credited with some photography, which is also peculiar. But oddest of all: "Women's Murder Club" is the only one of these three ABC dramas not to feature a tranny and it's the one set in San Francisco. Seriously, though, I didn't mind the pilot for "Women's Murder Club," but I doubt I'd ever watch it again. For one thing, I'm happy to see Angie Harmon in a better vehicle than "Inconceivable." I'm also pleased to see Laura Harris in a regular TV role, even if she'd being denied the opportunity to use her fabulous comic timing and if her jaunty haircut is a bit too Peter Pan for me. It's also a diverse cast without the sense of forced diversity. Plus there are several male guest stars in the pilot -- Matthew Davis and Robert Patrick -- who could yield worthwhile dynamics if they recur. But am I the only one who reckons that there's something fairly unethical and collusive about the way these ladies are solving crimes? And did this show really need an ongoing murder mystery as a background case? In any case, I'm not the target demo here, so I'll just let this one be. I'd still be happier if Laura Harris had a role on "Pushing Daisies."
Desire to Watch Again: Love [EDITED: Should probably be "Low"], but if I had a slow Friday night (no jokes from the peanut gallery), I might watch another episode.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Take Me to the Pilots '07: ABC Comedies

[My apologies for the less-than-timely first glance at the ABC pilots. I've spent the past two weekends out of town and I just fell behind on my pilot viewing. Just because I'm behind on my viewing, though, doesn't mean that you should have forgotten the rules, namely that these aren't intended as reviews. They're just my first impressions. Like a Brady going through puberty, the pilots will go through many changes between now and their premieres come September. Does that mean that "Cavemen" might suddenly become awesome in the next two months? No. No it doesn't.]

It's also here that I generally recommend you check out Sepinwall's similarly not-set-in-stone reactions to these pilots. He's so far ahead of me on his pilots that he's started reviewing episodes of a series that was cancelled seven years ago. That's just plain cocky, if you ask me.

Anyway, after the bump you'll find my first reaction to ABC's comedy pilots, namely "Carpoolers" (not funny), "Cavemen" (really not funny) and "Samantha Be Good" (less not funny than the other two)....

Click through...

Show: "Carpoolers" (ABC Comedy)
The Pitch: "Men in Cars."
Quick Response: "Carpoolers" is so mediocre and middle-of-the-road that I can't begin to figure out either what ABC thinks its upside is or why this was a comedy that ABC felt the desire to send to series in the first place. In 23 minutes of screentime, I never came close to laughing a single time, but I couldn't bring myself to mind. I guess I think the fat kid from "Stand By Me" is a likeable guy and I guess I'm inclined toward some warn feelings for Fred Goss stemming from "Sons & Daughters" (a show I didn't like very much, but which I *wanted* to like). I've always thought Faith Ford was cute and funny and I feel the same way about Allison Munn, though they're both background characters in this comedy about men going to work in the morning. Huh? Yes. That's the plot and, after watching the pilot, I don't really see where the series is here. Yes, the four men are all in different phases of their romantic lives, but none of them are in interesting or original phases. And how entertainingly can these banal stories be told if they're rendered in the close confines of a fake automobile? Oh and why is this a single-camera comedy anyway? The pilot looks ugly and cheap.
Desire to Watch Again: Low. ABC's comedy development is just a problem.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: I guess Balfour could probably have played the Tim Peper role as the car's newcomer. He probably thinks he's too edgy for this and, sad as it may be, he's right.

Show: "Cavemen" (ABC pseudo-comedy)
The Pitch: If you're perplexed at how many 30-second commercials Geico's gotten out of this thin premise, wait til you see 22 freakin' minutes!
Quick Response: I don't understand the alternate evolutionary saga depicted in "Cavemen." How did a certain group of Cro-Magnon just fail to evolve over the years? And are there Cavewomen? Not in the pilot. So that means that there have been many many generations of miscegenation of homo sapien women breeding with cavemen. Is the caveman gene just dominant? Can cavemen and human women not have daughters? And why can't cavemen just shave and cut their hair and attempt to integrate themselves into mainstream society as really ugly homo sapiens? These are the sorts of things I saw wondering while waiting for anything in "Cavemen" to make me chuckle. The network party line that "Cavemen" is using its titular characters as minorities to discuss issues of race in America is bizarre and ridiculous on two major levels: The first and most problematic is the notion ABC's schedule is so loaded with actual minorities that the network can afford to let white men wearing latex be the official voices of race-based concerns. If ABC wants to explore issues of race in contemporary America, maybe they'd be better off recruiting minority writers and building a sitcom around minority talent rather than letting a bunch of white guys use characters from a mega-corporation's ad campaign do that job for them. The second level is just how superficially "Cavemen" covers racial differences. A bunch of stereotypical characteristics attributed to other races have been put onto the main cavemen. Does that mean that this is an alternate America in which African Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanic Americans have total equality with white Americans and have just decided to band together to oppress cavemen? I'd expect a big audience the first week, rubber-neckers, followed by a massive viewer drop and a swift, humiliating cancellation.
Desire to Watch Again: None.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: It would be too easy to make a joke here. So I won't.

Show: "Samantha Be Good" (ABC comedy)
The Pitch: "My Name Is Samantha"
Quick Response: I don't know that "Samantha Be Good" is a better title for this show than "Sam I Am" was. "Samantha Be Good" is the third ABC pilot that was shot single-camera for no good reason. I know that multi-camera sitcoms are out of favor in the creative community, but none of the three ABC comedies is anything other than a traditional format delivered without a laff-track. Christina Applegate is a dependable centerpiece for a comedy, though there's a bit too much mugging and flailing in her pilot performance for my taste. She's trying to force less-than-funny dialogue to be funny. something that Jean Smart and Kevin Dunn, as her parents, do without effort. Applegate's talented enough that if the material gels, she'll be able to make it work. The problem is that I don't see how the pieces are going to come together in the weeks to come. Barry Watson seems to be part of one show, Melissa McCarthy part of another, Jennifer Esposito part of another and the parents part of another. I see the most potential in the parents and possibly with Watson, while Esposito's stuff isn't funny at all. Since ABC has no marketable comedies, the network has given "Samantha" the best lead-in they have, post-"Dancing with the Stars" on Monday. But is there a precedent for success as the half-hour filling in the middle of 150 minutes of unscripted programming?
Desire to Watch Again: Moderate. The people involved are funny and I'm sortta curious as to what the series will be, week in and week out. I also don't know if retrograde amnesia is a truly funny plot catalyst, or if it's an endlessly renewable source for hilarity.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: You know, I may finally have tired of this gimmick. Who'd have thunk it?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

MovieWatch: "A Mighty Heart"

"A Mighty Heart"
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 67
In a Nutshell: [Before I continue with my review after the bump, I want to join what I hope will be a general Internet critic Uproar over Variety's coverage of the death of E! veteran writer Andy Jones. Jones suffered a heart attack at a press screening during the week and was dead by the next day. I wasn't friends with Andy, I sat at at least a dozen junket roundtables with him. We was always enthusiastic and always dogged -- if there was a question he wanted to ask, he'd get it in and he'd get an answer, whether it flustered the talent in question (or his fellow journalists) or not. Sometimes that produced awkward moments and sometimes great answers. That's a risk you have to take to do your job. He had his fatal heart attack -- his second -- at a screening of "A Mighty Heart." In private conversation, I can understand the need to discuss the irony (not really "irony," but "coincidence" actually) therein. But Variety's use of "Film critic suffers fatal 'Heart' attack" as its headline is tactless and embarrassing. I doubt the copy editor in question would like to have his or her death used as an occasion for a cheap pun. And similarly, Diane Garrett's semi-obit for Jones is marginally disgraceful -- it's less about Jones and more about the difficulties surrounding the controversial film. Why make a man's death into a footnote in a cinematic saga that had nothing to do with his death? Jeez. (UPDATE: As of Sunday, the Variety headline for the Andy Jones story had been changed to the generic "Critic suffers heart attack at screening.") ]

Unconnected rant aside, follow through the bump for my thoughts on "A Might Heart" (which I need to stop calling "A Mighty Wind"). Click Through...

Although it's been positioned very much as an Angelina Jolie prestige film, an Oscar vehicle if ever there was one, "A Mighty Heart" is completely Michael Winterbottom's movie, a showcase for one of cinema's most prolific and often infuriating talents. Watching "A Mighty Heart," whenever something came across as troublesome or less-than-effective for me as a critic, I never doubted for a second that what I was watching and what I was feeling was exactly what Winterbottom intended for me to be watching and feeling. That makes evaluation complicated, because I want to contemplate authorial intent, particularly coming from a man as idiosyncratic as Winterbottom. And I want to value authorial intend over viewer expectation, since it isn't Winterbottom's fault that he didn't make the kind of movie that Paramount Vantage named and promoted.

Going into "A Mighty Heart," you probably think that the movie is about how Mariane Pearl dealt with husband Daniel Pearl's death and how she came out of it prepared to live life for their son. You might expect a sentimental story filled with huge emotional moments of both sadness and catharsis. It's not that. In fact, after seeing the movie it remains unclear whose heart the title refers to and whose movie it's supposed to be. Although Jolie's Mariane (not quite in black-face, but certainly perpetrating some sort of embellished ethnic charade) is at the center of the movie, she's a steady and passive point at the background of a very busy police procedural. Like David Fincher's "Zodiac" earlier this year, "A Mighty Heart" is a police procedural that attempts to simulate -- near documentary-style -- the chaos of an on-going investigation that viewers know will end in disappointment.

And even within the procedural aspects, Winterbottom plays it straight. My movie-going companion and I discussed afterwards what a different film Oliver Stone would have made about the kidnapping of an American journalist in Pakistan and the attempts to track down his captors and rescue him. The movie could have been a sensationalistic political thriller. It could have been a sociological or anthropological deconstruction of the ways these investigations are carried out in different countries compared to the "Without a Trace" or "CSI" model that we know so well. Peter Berg's upcoming "The Kingdom" looks like it combines those two approaches. It will aim to excite and thriller. At the end of the day, I'm not sure what Winterbottom is aiming for here. Is he just trying to inform? "This is what happened to Daniel Pearl. Here's how people tried to save him. Here's the people who were there. It didn't work." The movie is almost completely subjective -- we know what Mariane and the people trying to save Daniel know, without any hypothesized and omniscient cuts to Daniel in captivity. All viewers can do is go along with the story, which is a cold process.

Jolie is very good and only slightly distracting in her Jolie-ness. If you happen to know that Mariane is more clearly foreign and more clearly ethnic than this American movie star, that can get distracting, but if you don't, then Jolie's performance is admirably grounded and restrained until Winterbottom asked that it cease to be restrained (again, an obvious directing choice, even if it will rub some viewers the wrong way). Jolie, though, is such a big star that she's jarring amidst the relative anonymity of the rest of the cast (Dan Futterman makes a fine Daniel Pearl, though Will Patton's Randall Bennett is a weirdly conceived character and Patton may be too recognizable). The movie's most interesting turns come from Archie Panjabi and Irrfan Khan as the Pearls' Indian colleague and a local police captain, respectively. They never upstage Jolie, but they care whichever scenes she isn't in. Like the gritty photography, all of the performances are understated and naturalistic, again to prevent excessive emotional investment.

To boil my intellectual uncertainty on this film down, let me say this: I came away from "A Mighty Heart" more interested in Winterbottom's intentions than in the cumulative effect of the movie he'd made.

Friday, June 22, 2007

MovieWatch: "Sicko"

Director: Michael Moore
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 70
In a Nutshell: [I caught a press screening of "Sicko," which means I didn't pay to see it, but at least I didn't download it through the series of tubes known as the Internet. Michael Moore has been savvy enough to laugh off the movie's piracy. He has more money than he probably needs, so he can be satisfied with to play the role of agitator, box office aside. The good folks at the Weinstein Company are doubtlessly less amused. Michael Moore doesn't need a hit, but Harvey and Bob Weinstein do.]

Follow through the bump to see the full, somewhat lengthy, discussion of the film... Click Through...

I have no doubt that one man (and/or woman) can make a difference. I do, however, have doubts that Michael Moore can make a difference. That's a little sad, but can you disagree? "Bowling For Columbine" won an Oscar, broke box office records and failed to create a groundswell capable of yielding any meaningful new gun control legislation. "Fahrenheit 9/11" won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and broke even more box office records, but when I turn on my TV, George W. Bush is still president. So although Moore's latest, "Sicko," is a call to action that I happen to endorse whole-heartedly, I imagine that it will be just another Moore documentary that reaches only people who agree with Moore. That's the danger of being such a polarizing figure -- The things that "Sicko" advocates really ought to resonate across all ideological lines, but the people who are sick of Moore (and have been for 5 or 10 or 15 years) just won't care and won't be able to separate the messenger from the message.

You'd think it would help that "Sicko" is a far, far better movie than "Fahrenheit 9/11." Whereas "Fahrenheit" aimed straight for the gut and forced discriminating viewers to ignore an inexcusable rhetorical sloppiness, "Sicko" aims for the heart and has its argument well in hand and only a true fool would disagree: Although the American health care system may have the best doctors and facilities and technology in the world, the system has been co-opted by drug companies and HMOs to the point at which too many people are incapable of receiving, much less affording, the best available service. As Moore makes his argument, there are no heroes in this fight in the United States -- even Hilary Clinton, once a universal health care champion, has now joined every other politician in Washington in the pocket of Big Pharma.

The heroes, then, are in Canada and England and France and even Cuba, countries where anybody can walk into a hospital, get treatment and walk out, content that they aren't mortgaging their future to have a finger reattached. Moore certainly finds exceptions to the typical anti-universal health care canards, which isn't the same as disproving them completely. "Sicko" is full of anecdotal evidence, but only fleetingly encumbered by statistics and all-encompassing facts.

Because this is a Moore film, you know that most sentient people will instantly be able to notice the points where the director is fudging facts or ignoring pieces of the puzzle that don't fit his needs. Conservatives, for example, like to blame many of the health care system's faults on a legal system run amuck, waves of malpractice suits that leave doctors terrified to offer treatment in some circumstances and raises insurance premiums for everybody else, a litigious culture that doesn't exist to the same degree in England or France or Canada. Moore doesn't go anywhere near that path. In fact, he doesn't even provide a voice for the argument against universal health care in this country. I'm just guessing here, but I assume that Moore notoriety is such that no HMO bigwig, lobbyist or politician would willingly sit down with him for a fresh interview. His argument would probably be that the point-of-view in "Sicko" is so common-sensical that no opposition voice is needed.

I don't disagree. And I think Moore does a fine job telling the story here, actually building to his call to action, rather than just shouting random expletives into a vacuum, which was how "Fahrenheit 9/11" often felt to me. Appearing in the film only only sporadically, Moore plays his incredulous man-of-the-people routine well, though he can't help but get in his own way here and there. The politicizing of an issue that shouldn't be political becomes a stumbling point. Would "Sicko" be better without the attacks on President Bush the Second? The health care problem predated George Junior and probably won't be magically solved in his absence, so I'd say so.

I have a hunch that the Moore-haters out there will respond to this movie with taunts of "Well, if Michael Moore loves France/Canada/England/Cuba so much, why doesn't he just move there?" which is every bit as smart and well reasoned as the seven-year-old who says "If you love broccoli so much, why don't you marry it?" Moore *is* a patriot and the movie is about the United States failing to live up to its potential and failing to live up to its contract to its citizens.I guess some people will think that makes "Sicko" anti-American. Those people are wrong.

[I'm tempted to add five points to the movie's overall score just for the French-language rendition of Barry Maguire's "Eve of Destruction" that plays over the end of the credits. But I'm fine with where I am -- "Sicko" isn't a great movie, but it's a good movie and it's a movie that I hope people see, even if it probably won't make a difference.]

Thursday, June 21, 2007

My Take on the New AFI Top 100

These are, allegedly, the 10 Greatest American Films of All Time according to the latest AFI poll.

1. Citizen Kane (1941)
2. The Godfather (1972)
3. Casablanca (1942)
4. Raging Bull (1980)
5. Singin' in the Rain (1952)
6. Gone With the Wind (1939)
7. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
8. Schindler's List (1993)
9. Vertigo (1958)
10. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Since every other blogger on the Internet is professing to have an opinion, I guess that I ought to as well. Let's just say that I have a few quibbles, but isn't that the point of lists like this?

Follow through after the bump, because this will probably get long and rambling.

Click Through...

Before going any further, my advice is to wander over to Edward Copeland on Film, where he has done the great service of listing both the AFI's New 100 and the AFI's 1996 100 and without his dueling lists to show how things have gone up or down, I probably couldn't be bothered to do this. Thanks, Eddie.

Some thoughts:

So much for the past decade: One of the points of redoing the AFI list was to expand the range of eligible films to include 1996-2006. As a result, the list now includes "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," "Saving Private Ryan," "Titanic" and "The Sixth Sense." The only addition there that I find absolutely ludicrous is "The Sixth Sense," which should not legally be allowed to rank ahead of "Do the Right Thing," "The Last Picture Show," "Pulp Fiction," "The French Connection" or "Goodfellas" on any rational-minded list. If we're looking to add more spooky genre films to the list, how about Robert Wise's "The Haunting," William Friedkin's "The Exorcist" or Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg's "Poltergeist"? Just off the top of my head. And what happened to the other films from the past decade? What of films like "L.A. Confidential," "Fight Club," "The Matrix," "Three Kings," "Brokeback Mountain," "Traffic," "Million Dollar Baby," "Memento" or "Boogie Nights"? I'm not saying any or all of those needed to be added, but they were at least eligible and rejected.

The Top 10: You don't argue with "Citizen Kane" at No. 1. Ever. There's just no point. One of CBS' banal talking heads said that every single frame of the movie has a meaning and that's probably enough. When I'm feeling ornery, I like to call "The Godfather II" the greatest American movie ever. I prefer it to "The Godfather" on nearly every level and consider it to be the smarter, deeper, more textured work. That's just me playing Devil's Advocate, though. But I'm not one of those snobs who tries claiming that "Gone With the Wind" is a racist old relic -- it's as gorgeously constructed a piece of studio filmmaking as ever existed, that in addition to being a racist old relic. It can stay. The only film in the Top 10 that wouldn't make at least my Top 25 is "Raging Bull," which might even get left off my list of Top 5 Scorsese films, much less a ranking of the five best American films ever. Yes, it looks visionary if you show a couple moments of the black-and-white cinematography, but its narrative clunkiness is always too much for me.

Maybe I Just Like Fun Movies: "Lawrence of Arabia," "Schindler's List" and "Vertigo" are all masterpieces. Why is it, though, that I'd rather watch "Bridge on the River Kwai" (unfairly plummeting from No. 13 to No. 36), "Jaws" (dropping from No. 48 to No. 56) or "North by Northwest" (dropping from No. 40 to No. 55)? When did the AFI panel become so self-important?

The Great Shame: "Intolerance" at No. 49? Really? REALLY?!? Don't give me that kind of chicken-hearted bullshit. If you're going to honor D.W. Griffith as the cinematic pioneer he so clearly was, just suck it up and make it clear that "Birth of a Nation" is admirable for its technical innovation and repellent for its ideology. Make it clear that an endorsement of the film's aesthetics is in no way an endorsement of its values and then include Larry Fishbourne and Spike Lee talking about what an awful, evil movie it is. But don't try to tell me that a sufficient number of AFI voters loved and worshipped "Intolerance" on its own merits to justify its inclusion in the top half of this list. I'm honestly not going to believe that for a second. Like it's a coincidence that "Intolerance" ranks almost exactly where "Birth of a Nation" ranked last time? That's just comical.

Silence Is a Bit More Golden: One of the criticisms leveled against the first AFI list was the lack of great silent films outside of "Birth of a Nation" and Charlie Chaplin. As a result, we get "The General" soaring in at No. 18 and "Sunrise" taking No. 82. That's still not enough, but it's a start. But here's the problem: If you're going to make the token inclusion of "Sunrise," but then have it setting there as a less great film that "Spartacus" or "In the Heat of the Night" or "The Deer Hunter," you're just begging for ridicule. Once you include something like "Sunrise," its place is in the Top 20, not behind "Forrest Gump." Oh and seriously, what's "Forrest Gump" even doing on the list at this point?

Welcome to the List: In addition to those previously shunned silent films, several other films were added to cover for major flaws in the first list. Having Bob Fosse ("Cabaret" at No. 63), Peter Bogdanovich ("Last Picture Show" at No. 95) and, particularly, Preston Sturgess ("Sullivan's Travels" at No. 61) on the list just makes things look better. And having "Do the Right Thing" on the list at No. 96 eliminates any concerns of a racial whitewash. That was a joke. 100 films on a list and only one from a person of color? That's impressive, though not as impressive as 100 films without a single female director. If I were on the AFI team, I'd have juggled the list to put "Big" or "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" down at the very very bottom, just to get a woman on the list somewhere.

Come back, Shane: Actually, "Shane" is still on the list. You know what isn't? Lots of good stuff. "The Third Man," "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Rebel Without a Cause" are all comfortably inside my own personal Top 50, but they're off the AFI list. Because "Toy Story" is on, apparently "Fantasia" is off, since the AFI appears to have a two-animated-film quota (where, I'd ask, are "The Incredibles" or "Dumbo"?). While John Ford's "The Searchers" went from No. 96 to a much more appropriate No. 12, Ford's "Stagecoach" went from No. 63 to nowhere. And while I understand why "Dances With Wolves" would plummet off a list like this, what did "Fargo" do wrong in the past decade to suddenly become a lesser film? It's never been my favorite Coen Brothers film, but if "Miller's Crossing" and "Raising Arizona" weren't going to make it, surely "Fargo" could have stayed?

Movies I Value More than the AFI: I'd have found a way to get "Godfather II," "Chinatown" and "The Apartment" into the Top 20 for sure. I've already mentioned a few of my relative preferences, but I'd also have elevated "The Philadelphia Story," "Modern Times," "Bringing Up Baby" and "Dr. Strangelove." Oh and I'd have replaced "Star Wars" with "The Empire Strikes Back."

Movies I Value Less than the AFI: Sorry "Psycho," "2001," "It's a Wonderful Life," "The Deer Hunter," "Clockwork Orange," "The Sound of Music," "Rocky," "Network," "The African Queen" and "12 Angry Men." Y'all don't need to leave, but you can probably get pushed down a bit.

Movie I Most Wish Were on the List: Really, I want "The Third Man" and "Manchurian Candidate" back, but if I can't have then, how about adding "Groundhog Day" somewhere at the bottom? If voters saw that it was acceptable to have "Groundhog Day" on the list at all, I'm sure they'd get it moving up.

I could keep going for a while here, I suspect. Instead, I'll stop. Gotta stop.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Take Me to the Pilots '07: ABC's "Pushing Daisies"

[It's here that I remind you not to view this as a review so much as a collection of first impressions. I doubt ABC would mind one way or the other, though, because I really love "Pushing Daisies." I'll get to the rest of ABC's pilots by next week. For now, I'm concentrating on Showtime's "Meadowlands" (trippy and interesting) and maybe finally getting around to "John From Cincinnati" and "Big Love" (I'm behind). So "Big Shots," "Dirty Sexy Money" and "Women's Murder Club" will go under a separate heading. Oh and although Sepinwall is too busy whoring himself out in the almighty name of Tony Soprano, he'll eventually get around to looking at these pilots.]

Show: "Pushing Daisies" (ABC dramedy)
The Pitch: If you loved "Dead Like Me" and "Wonderfalls" and "The Amazing Screw-On Head," here's a show that may be even more quirky...
Quick Response: I've never seen a pilot that so clearly DEMANDED a "Save This Show" campaign earlier and more urgently than "Pushing Daisies." Well, maybe I have. When FOX sent out "Wonderfalls," I knew I loved the pilot and I knew there was no way it could possibly succeed and it's no coincidence that "Pushing Daisies" is from Bryan Fuller, the man largely responsible for those three shows I mentioned in my pitch, as well as for some of this season's better episodes of "Heroes." The thing that may give "Pushing Daisies" -- about a man with the ability to resurrect the dead, albeit briefly and inconveniently -- is that it's quirky and loopy and whimsical where "Dead Like Me" was quirky and brooding and cynical. While I may have instantly fallen in love with Jaye from "Wonderfalls" and George from "Dead Like Me," I can understand why they weren't necessarily accessible to viewers who, well, aren't me. Despite his twisted past, Lee Pace's Ned is less of a sarcasm-spewing anti-hero than a swoonably romantic lead, which will improve the show's prospects. I liked Pace on "Wonderfalls" and this would be a star-making performance if ABC could get anybody to tune in to a weird-ass new dramedy without a powerhouse lead-in. Sure-thing supporting performers Chi McBride, Kristin Chenowith will also help (as will Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene if they're going to be regulars). I'm tempted to wonder how well episodes will play without Fuller's marvelous wordplay (assuming he won't go all Aaron Sorkin on this one) and Barry Sonnenfeld's direction (the best think he's done since either 1997's "Men in Black" or the pilot for "The Tick," depending on your point of view). Then again, if viewers stupidly shun this one like Fuller's other shows, that won't become an issue. Others are likely to find the visuals, narration (courtesy of audiobook legend Jim Dale) and storybook format to be a little twee, but I didn't. As I said, let's start deciding now what we can send ABC to urge the network to reconsider canceling "Pushing Daisies." Flowers? Pies? Honey? Kristin Chenowith (she's small, persuasive and easily transportable)?
Desire to Watch Again: Strong. To date, "Pushing Daisies" is the best pilot I've watched this summer.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: The only thing more likely to get "Pushing Daisies" cancelled would be adding Eric Balfour to the cast.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The 'Sopranos' finale and our collective desire for unified closure

Thanks to Nikki Finke, the New York Daily News and literally dozens of other bloggers and disgruntled "Sopranos" viewers, I have a new favorite moronic way of approaching TV.

The headline of Finke's finale blog post: "THAAT'S What We Were All Waiting For?"

The headline of the Daily News story about unhappy fans: "We waited eight years for this?"

I could offer several other headlines from the "Won't somebody PLEASE think of the children!" Ending Police, but I have a simple answer, from my point of view:

When I was watching "The Sopranos" for 86 episodes, I wasn't *waiting* for a damn thing.

Continue reading after the bump for spoilers and the rest of my rambling... Click Through...

For some reason the expectation that resolution was inevitable never played into the pleasure I took in the show's finest moments. Nor did the desire for resolution have anything to do with why I came back to the show after the lackluster fourth season or after the disappointing first half of the drawn-out sixth season. While plenty of people have certainly done so, I never spent a single solitary second deciding how I needed the series to end to justify the three-plus days of my life I spent watching the show. Would Tony Soprano die? And if so, who would kill him? If not Tony, would somebody else close to Tony die? If so, who? Would Tony end up in Witness Protection? Funny. It never struck me as being so important to get so wrapped up in any of those possibilities that the absence of such an ending could leave me disappointed. And yet others? They needed more.

In yet another sad plea to be mollycoddled, Verne Gay of Newsday writes, "Funny thing about endings - they almost always come at the end, of books, movies, poems, symphonies, you-name-it. At their best, they are cathartic. They're also a final bow to meaning, but also to the audience's participation. A recapitulation, of themes, ideas, meaning."

First, I'd introduce Verne to Beckett. It's my contention that "Waiting for Godot" has one of the five greatest endings in all of literature ("Well? Shall we go?" "Yes, let's go." [They do not move]) and that Beckett's slightly less famous "Endgame" (Last line: "You... remain") isn't bad either.

But that's not the point. In what way was the Sunday night's "Sopranos" finale *not* a "recapitulation, of themes, ideas, meanings" for the series as a whole? Was the series not always about the ongoing imprint of family in Tony's life? About the uncertainty that he faced at every second? Wasn't it always about the fear or hope of becoming as great or unstable as our parents and the fear or hope that our children would become as flawed or as confident as we are? I reckoned that's what Sunday's episode was about -- Tony and Carmella's pride at the possibility Meadow might make $170 as a lawyer, their terror at A.J. going into the military, Tony's conversations first with Janice (where she said that she'd escaped from Livia's shadow) and then with Junior (where he had no memories of anything he'd done). I actually thought that the finale was a darned solid recapitulation for a series about insecure mobsters.

And weren't certain things resolved? Blood-thirsty fans love whacking, so between Bobby dying and Silvio being shot last week and Phil getting shot and then run over this week, that ought to have been sufficient. And Tony made at deal, at least in theory, to go back into public, to escape the threat from the New York family.

And yet, as with everything in "The Sopranos," any security Tony may have felt at the end, eating the best onion rings in New Jersey with his family, was always illusory anyway. The last scene, set to Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," was a masterpiece of thriller editing that verged on parody in the way "The Sopranos" always verged on parody, but generally pulled back. David Chase framed every shot to be pregnant with the possibility of tragedy -- every person in the restaurant could be the one to whack Tony, every bump in Meadow's parallel parking could be the bump that left her open to be collateral damage.

I don't buy for a second the popular online theory that Tony died at the end, that the person walking into the restaurant whacked him, but I guess that stems from that horrible need to be placated and coddled and resolved. Why would it be more satisfying for somebody -- anybody -- to kill Tony Soprano than to know that today, tomorrow, forever he'll watch every stranger and know that that unfamiliar face could be the person who ends his life?

Yes, there was something pretty darned nefarious about the way Chase wrote and directed the finale. While Finke claims that "instead of looking carefully crafted, the finale looked like it had been concocted in a day or two," I felt as if no framing or cut had been left to chance, that Chase knew that there are certain expectations for a finale and wanted to honor some -- at least a half-dozen characters and events that hadn't been mentioned in years got shout-outs -- and thwarting others. The episode's tension came from viewers assuming, hoping, dreading what might occur. "A.J.'s out in the wilderness in his SUV... Something awful's gonna happen!" "Well yeah, he didn't get laid and the SUV blew up in a fireball."

But what did Finke and Gay and all of those other people WANT (Finke's complaint that "'The Sopranos' was not a show that went on inside your head" is particularly absurd given Chase's regular reliance on dream sequences and hallucinations and philosophizing)? They wanted whatever ending they wanted and wouldn't have been satisfied with anything else anyway. And damn David Chase for his refusal to attempt to give absolutely everybody what they say this morning that they wanted all along, whatever thousand things that might mean. If Janice had killed Tony, lots of fans would have been happy, but just as many would have been annoyed. If Carmella had finally stabbed Tony, lots of fans would have yelled "I told you so!" and everybody else would have been annoyed. If Tony had gone into Witness protection, a few people would have gone "Well that was the right way for it to end," but others would have yelled, "I can't believe Paulie survived!" So rather than ending the show the way the fanboys and fangirls wanted to end it, Chase just chose to end it the way he wanted.

I haven't always loved the series, but the way it ended was just right for me.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

MovieWatch: "Mr. Brooks"

"Mr. Brooks"
Director: Bruce A. Evans
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 58
One Word Review: Plot-y
In a Nutshell: [I liked my first visit to the new local Landmark West L.A. that I decided to trot out again this afternoon, even though this wasn't necessarily a movie that I had any pressing need to see. I still love the *ample* free parking and the comfy chairs that still smell like leather. I'm still concerned by the soundproofing between theaters and, for a movie like this, maybe even by the size of the theaters themselves (mostly when compared to the Arclight, I guess). The concern I raised yesterday about crowding in the theater area will *absolutely* be a problem this fall. On a slightly busier Sunday afternoon, albeit still relatively quiet, there were long-jams of people at the concession counters and to get into the theater area. The clientele is also rather on the old side. That's not a bad thing, just an observation. It has nothing to do with why the couple a few seats away from me babbled through the entire movie and then had the balls to get ticked off at the woman behind them whose cell phone went off.]

Extended Nutshell review after the bump... Click through.

There's something slightly off-brand about "Mr. Brooks," like Fruit Rings in the cereal aisle instead of Fruit Loops, like the store expects that you'd willingly pay a buck less on the assumption that Kelloggs doesn't have any particular patent on the tasty flavor of the recognizable cereal. But if I'm getting "Oat Ovals," I'd rather just get Cheerios. Perhaps that's just the way I was raised?

In any case, "Mr. Brooks" feels a smidge muted, a bit cinematically taupe. I think the director, "Kuffs" auteur Bruce Evans, would tell you that he decided to mostly underplay the movie since its script and subject matter were so lurid. That's not a strategy I'd necessarily criticize except to say that while I was mostly intellectually involved with the movie -- studying its machinations, its few very find performances, its very well-conceived production design -- I never cared much what was happening or how it was eventually going to resolve.

The couple next to me, they were obviously involved with how the plot was going to untwist itself. Through the entire film, they kept trying to figure out the various character motivations and kept loudly guessing what surprises were going to be coming next. Either to the credit of the filmmakers, or to the demerit of said old couple, they weren't correct at any point. Evans and co-writer Raynold Gideon have woven an elaborate tapestry of serial killers (mostly Kevin Costner's self-hating Mr. Brooks and his gleeful alter ego played by William Hurt), cops (mostly Demi Moore, making a fine comeback performance) and the voyeurs (mostly Dane Cook, who should go back to accumulating MySpace friends) who love them. While so many films in this genre attempt to keep their narratives spare, the writers of "Mr. Brooks" have gone overboard to add seemingly endless backstories and subplots. Everything gets wrapped up by the end, but it takes a lot of coincidence and contrivance to let everything pay off. And even once things pay off, "Mr. Brooks" rather optimistically sets itself up to be the first film of a sortta odd franchise.

I have always been a fan of Kevin Costner, despite his frequent accent-based difficulties. As Evil Kevin Costner performances go, his work here is well below his much more malevolent and threatening turn in Clint Eastwood's "Perfect World," though it's still as cool and calculating as you could hope for. He doesn't have to be big, because that's William Hurt's job and Hurt cackles, sneers and works every ripe line of dialogue flawlessly. Hurt is a master of the measured, flat delivery and Costner is, at the very least, a savvy veteran, so they're a good team. Cook is embarrassingly out of his league at times, but it's possible that the role demanded amateurish looseness, which he has in spades. There's something nice about seeing the 44-year-old Moore and the 48-year-old (is that possible?!?!?) Marg Helgenberger looking so great up on the big screen.

Maybe my reservations on the movie come from how very many serial killer movies there are out there and how hard "Mr. Brooks" has to work to seem vaguely fresh. It's not without ideas -- the concept of mass killing as an addiction, potentially genetically transmitted, isn't awful -- and it's not without some solid execution. Maybe what's lacking is inspiration?

Saturday, June 02, 2007

MovieWatch: "Once"

Director: John Carney
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 79
One Word Review: Sparkling
In a Nutshell: [Before getting to the movie, I wanna mention that this was the first film I've seen at the new Landmark Theatres flagship in West L.A. This is the theater closest to me, geographically, and I get the impression that I'm going to see many, many, many more movies here in months to come (so they may want to set up a members rewards program... hint... hint...). The theaters are comfortable and exactly large enough to showcase the kind of niche faire they're likely to be presenting. I love the free parking and so far the film selection looks to be good. On the complaint side, the theaters on the lower level aren't well enough soundproofed and there was definite audio-bleed down from the theater on the top level, though since this theater hopefully won't be showing "Transformers," I doubt that'll make a massive difference. I'm also a bit concerned at the tight quarters, specifically the restroom area and the area immediately surrounding the lower group of theaters. On a slow Saturday afternoon, there weren't any problems but when it gets to be Oscar season and this venue hosts a number of exclusive limited showings, it could become awful in a hurry. Christina has pictures and a more complete review of the venue over on her blog, if you wanna know or see more.]

Extended nutshell review after the bump... Click through.

"Once," a dirt-cheap little Irish musical from writer-director John Carney, is the best film of its type since "Lost in Translation" or possibly even "Before Sunset." The difficulty, I guess, is in quantifying what, exactly, "its type" happens to be. Like those other films, "Once" is a passionate, platonic romance, a movie that just lets its two lead characters exist and relate together without having to force upon them the sorts of rom-com contrivances you'd see in a movie like "Music & Lyrics" (a film that might otherwise have superficial similarities to "Once").

It's safest not to over-analyze the spell that Carney and non-actor leads Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova cast here. The story -- a lovesick busker/vacuum repairman and a Czech ragamuffin meet-cute in Dublin and sing a little -- isn't deceptively simple. It's just plain simple, though Carney's rhythms are his own, not dictated in any way by the plot demands, again, of a standard Hollywood romantic comedy. The conversations between the two main characters -- they have no names, though that's less obnoxiously twee than it sounds -- aren't profound or clever. They're just conversations, though their words weight heavily with underlying feelings. The songs -- written and performed by Hansard and Irglova -- add extra layers, but this isn't the kind of musical where people burst into verse about what they're thinking or feeling. The characters' lives are invested in music, so they sing when they'd sing and the songs are more-than-serviceable singer-songwriter-style anthems (available and already being frequently downloaded off of iTunes).

And the movie's charm certainly doesn't come from its look. Shot on DV for a reported 180,000 euros, "Once" certainly isn't a pretty film and occasionally it's distractingly jittery, out-of-focus and grainy. That might be way I find myself preferring "Lost in Translation" or the "Sunset" films, simply because Sofia Coppola and Richard Linklater found ways of matching the aesthetics of their films to the cities their love stories occupied, while Carney has mostly matched his look to the limitations of his budget.

But the look suits the slightly rough characters at its center and the camera's freedom and mobility suits the easily accessible hooks of the song. And Hansard and Irglova are a beguiling screen couple, with their lack of experience making Carney's dialogue seem natural and unstudied, where trained actors might have exposed how little these characters are saying. Hansard is the slightly more known quantity -- music aficionados know him from the Frames, while I have vague memories of him from Alan Parker's cheesy-yet-loveable "The Commitments" -- but Irglova, expressively open and beautiful in a very un-Hollywood way, is the breakout performer.

"Once" is still in ultra-limited release, but this is one of those films that's probably best to see early, before the hype becomes all encompassing, rather than later once your expectations have moved to unreasonable heights. It's a gem of a movie, but a small gem.

It's also one of those films that expose the reliable idiocy of the MPAA's Ratings Board. As gentle, sweet and humane a movie as "Once" may be, it's just another R-rated film for the raters, who probably passed their quote of "f" and "s" words very early on. I'm not sure why anybody aged 12-to-16 would feel the desire to rush out to see "Once," but if they were so-inclined (and good for them), I wouldn't hesitate to sign off for those young viewers.

NetflixWatch: "Shooter"

Director: Antoine Fuqua
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 61
One Word Review: Muscular
In a Nutshell: Yeah, I'm a general snob, but every once in a while, I just to like applaud the proficiency of a movie like "Shooter," an it-is-what-it-is bit of "Rambo"-meets-"Dirty Harry"-meets-"The Bourne Identity" table-turning. In fact, if it weren't for at least 20 minutes worth of "We have no idea how to end the flipping movie" stumbles at the end, "Shooter" may have gotten as many as 10 additional points in my obscure and largely meaningless ratings system. What ultimately could have been a impressively contained little movie ends up only being a better-than-average genre entry, because director Antoine Fuqua couldn't leave well enough alone...

The "We're only facing one man, but he's an expert who knows everything we'll do before we do it" genre is a personal favorite of mine when executed properly, so there's fun in the almost immediate recognition that Wahlberg's character isn't just an ace sharp-shooter, he's the best trained Marine in the history of the universe. You know how Macgyver used to say he worked better without guns? Marky Mark's Bob Lee Swagger is as resourceful as Macgyver and he likes guns just fine. Oscar Nominee Marky Mark (his new full name) plays the part with just enough dead-pan intensity to carry the movie all around him, even when it has to expand its universe to include a barely written FBI agent (Michael Pena) and his even-more-underwritten FBI foil (Rhona Mitra). Fuqua carries the rest of the weight, orchestrating several nice set location set pieces in both urban and rural environments.

I can't tell if there's an audio problem with the soon-to-be-released DVD, if my home sound system (i.e. the speakers attached to my decade-old TV) stinks, or if the actors were all instructed to be unintelligible, but I found myself straining to hear every word of dialogue, a frustration given that every explosion and gun-shot is crystal clear. You've got Wahlberg mumbling, Danny Glover slurring his words, Kate Mara affecting a serviceable deep-South twang and Rade Serbedzija talking like Rade Serbedzija. I'm just assuming that little in Jonathan Lemkin's script required total intellectual understanding.

The question of whether or not "Shooter" is supposed to operate as some sort of liberal catharsis for the past seven years of Bush Junior Republican rule is one that I almost don't want to get into. Although Bob Lee is quick to say he didn't like the guy before the current president either, there's little question that his outrage is about the form of militarized capitalism that has become increasingly common under the current administration, a world in which moral right and wrong have been replaced by the more economic haves and have-nots. With Ned Beatty popping up as a thinly-veiled version of Dick Cheney, "Shooter" probably has a good amount of political annoyance under its surface, but I doubt that Fuqua was the man to delve into that subtext.