Friday, August 31, 2007

The Seven Year Itch...

I'm sure I should say something about this week's superior "Mad Men" (Love Don Draper's revenge!) or about this week's creative nadir of "Entourage" (Stale 9/11 flight humor? Deus Ex Kanye? Inexplicable disappearing Anna Faris? Kill this show now!) or about the recent events on "Big Brother" (I can't believe God let Amber down like that... Ought to tell her something) or about the fact that the presumptive NL Rookie of the Year Ryan Braun is a MoT (They call him The Hebrew Hammer, I call him The He-Brewer) or perhaps about the season premiere of FOX's "Prison Break" (Michael in a Panamanian Prison? Stupid. Robert Wisdom as the Emperor of Said Panamanian Prison? Brilliant) or about one of the coolest things I've ever stumbled upon in the Internet (Hasbro's special section dedicated to G.I. Joe's Kung Fu Grip). Maybe I'll get to some of that eventually.

Instead, I just want to very quickly reflect on something that will probably matter only to me.

Almost exactly seven years ago (either today or tomorrow... I've lost track) I moved to Los Angeles to begin grad school at USC. In a city where virtually nobody's a native and everybody is a variable degree of immigrant, seven years is neither a long time nor does it make me Fresh Off the Plane. However, as I pass the seven year plateau, Los Angeles claims an important place in my heart as it becomes the place I've spent the plurality of my life.

It's a wee bit odd to reach 30 without having lived any city (I'm including multiple residences within the same general location) longer than seven years, but I'm sure there are few other military or academic brats in the same boat with me.

Los Angeles passes Jackson, Mississippi, where I lived between the ages of 7 and 14. It's always been bizarre to me that I've had to say I spent the plurality of my life in Mississippi, both because it wasn't necessarily my favorite stop and because nobody knows what the heck "the plurality of my life" means. Now Mississippi can just go on that list of places I've lived -- Seven years in Mississippi, four years apiece in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, four or five years smooshed confusingly between Iowa and Minnesota, a year in Tennessee, a year (my first) in Oakland, a year in New Hampshire, six or seven months in London.

Does that make me a Los Angeleno? I hope not. If it does, I may need to start scouting real estate in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Who wouldn't want to be a Yooper?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

MovieWatch: "The Bourne Ultimatum"

"The Bourne Ultimatum"
Director: Paul Greengrass
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 76
In a Nutshell: When listing my favorite films of 2004, I ranked Paul Greengrass' "The Bourne Supremacy" as my 8th favorite movie of the year and it might have been higher. The film had a perfect nihilistic ending, with our hero walking off into the snowy streets of Moscow after *not* killing somebody. Then Greengrass and company had to go and mess with things, tacking on a sunny and relatively upbeat ending in New York City, wrapping up the story and opening things up for a sequel. FEH!

On his commentary track for "Supremacy," Greengrass admits that they had trouble coming up with the right conclusion and that what eventually made it on screen was the product of extensive group-think, sort of an uneasy consensus.

For my money, the most satisfying thing about Greengrass' "Bourne Ultimatum" is that it somehow manages to validate the last scene of the earlier movie. The bland coda to "Supremacy" and reshot and repurposed in the middle of "Ultimatum" and suddenly the scene has meaning and context, suddenly it's another mind-game in a franchise full of mind-games. If I believed for a second that anybody wrote the original scene intending to bring a new spin to the sequel, I'd be impressed. But I don't. And actually I'm even more amazing and pleased that in preproduction on "Ultimatum" somebody realized that they could salvage what went wrong on the earlier movie.

The rest of my musings will be after the bump.

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[While I may have already thrown out a few spoilers for "The Bourne Supremacy," I'm gonna go into "Bourne Ultimatum" spoilers from here, so be aware...]

If I prefer "Supremacy" and maybe even "Identity" slightly over "Ultimatum" it shouldn't take away from what has now become cinema's most consistent action franchise, a series so reliable that it disappoints me to hear talk of ending things at a trilogy. I understand that they're rolling the dice with any subsequent films, practically begging for a let-down, but so far the "Bourne" movies have been exemplary in terms of using the finest actors and craftsmen in the industry in the blockbuster field. When the summer of 2007 is weighed in the balance, most of the sequels well have to go in the "sucked" category, with "Harry Potter 5" and "Die Hard 4" going under "better than expected," but only "The Bourne Ultimatum" goes down as "darned good."

I guess I felt like the story of "Bourne Ultimatum" tied everything up too neatly. I preferred "Supremacy" with its "drop you in the action/leave you in the action" pseudo-arc. The friend I saw the movie with said he preferred that "Ultimatum" told a full story and that "Supremacy" had problems standing alone, but I liked the "Empire Strikes Back"-ness of the middle installment. The less I know about Jason Bourne, the better, it turns out. Damon's performances in these movies may play the same single, intense note, but to my mind that makes the character every bit as instantly recognizable and iconic as Eastwood's nameless Western heroes. We never wasted time in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" trying to figure out the backstory for Eastwood's character and I don't know that Bourne is more or less watchable knowing that he may or may not have had some sort of past with Julia Stiles' Nicky.

I'm pleased enough that the people from Bourne's past seem to repeat themselves and that he can't kill one without an identical shadowy government figure popping up. It took me a long time in "Ultimatum" to fully ascertain that brilliantly taciturn, Oscar nominated, John Sayles-trained character actor David Strathairn wasn't playing the exact same guy that brilliantly taciturn, Oscar nominated John Sayles-trained character actor Chris Cooper played in the first movie. And if Albert Finney and Brian Cox's characters weren't siblings, they were at least kissing cousins.

I also continue to love that the "Bourne" movies are a leftist inversion of Eastwood's Dirty Harry films. As many killers as Harry Callahan tracked down, the real villain was always the bureaucracy that kept making it harder for him to shoot first and ask questions later. Jason Bourne, though, is faced by a government cabal that, thanks to 9/11, can now operate without a shred of accountability. Bourne doesn't want anybody dead. He just wants a little government oversight, some checks and balances, a few Congressional hearings. He was trained to be a heartless killing machine, but Bourne is a Big Government softie.

Lost in Greengrass' gift with stomach-churning car chases and action sequences is the fact that he doesn't require millions in smashed automobiles and mangled stuntmen to create a tense action sequence. For me, the best scene in "Ultimatum" was Bourne attempting to navigate Paddy Considine's intrepid reporter through London's Waterloo Station and away from intrusive CIA agents, ubiquitous cameras and one nameless assassin. In addition to making me want to hop on the Tube to Waterloo Station and then head over to the National Theatre to see a show, the sequence worked entirely because of Christopher Rouse's editing, John Powell's score and Greengrass' unparalleled ability to create disorientation without ever sacrificing a sense of space and geography. Whether on a scale model of United 93 or on the streets of Tangier or Paris, Greengrass is happy to mess with the viewer's head, but he never loses a clear grasp on where the movie is taking place.

But for all of my admiration of Greengrass' work, I loved the stylistic transition for Doug Liman to Greengrass between the first and second films and I wish the franchise had gone to a different indie director for the third, just for fun. How about urging Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu to get off his mopey, self-righteous high horse and make an international action movie? What about seeing if Gus Van Sant can take his experiences with Damon to the not-so-logical next level? What would Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck do with a paranoid studio feature?

Anyway, since I'm a month late to catching this movie, I assume that all of the observations I think are so clever have already been made. So I'm gonna stop here.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

MovieWatch: "The Simpsons Movie"

"The Simpsons Movie"
Director: David Silverman
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 59
In a Nutshell: The opposite of "Harry Potter 5," really. I had low expectations for "The Simpsons Movie" after the early trailers and buzz, but then people started saying, "It's not great, but it's as good as we could have hoped for," so that raised my hopes. Sure, that probably shouldn't have boosted my hopes *that* much, but I came away marginally disappointed. Not hugely disappointed. But marginally.

Then again? How disappointed could I possibly have been in a movie that brought me Spider-Pig. Like all of the very finest "Simpsons" gags ("I hate every ape I see/ From chimpan-A to chimpan-Z"), the "Spider-Pig" theme makes me giggle every time I sing it to myself. Of course, I knew the Spider-Pig song going in and I don't know if the movie gave me anything more memorable.

Additional thoughts after the bump...

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"The Simpsons Movie" took many of the right approaches to bringing the series -- which I still watch religiously every Sunday night -- to the big screen. Unlike the "Family Guy" direct-to-DVD movie, it wasn't just three episodes stapled together, sutures visible at all times. Instead, it was a 22 minute episode that was fleshed out and expanded to 80-plus minutes, only showing occasional signs of bloating. The Homer causes Springfield to get deemed an environmental disaster and stuck under a dome could have been covered in the standard episode length, so they padded it with a trip to Alaska, Bart's brief desire to be adopted by the Flanderses, Lisa's crush on a randomly introduced Irish boy and Grandpa's random gifts as a soothsayer. Oh and they added Spider-Pig, who set the plot in motion, but vanished entirely from the second half (at Comic-Con, Matt Selman [Penn alum!!!] said that off-screen, Spider-Pig was killed by Dr. Octo-Pig or Dr. Pig-to-Pus...). So, unlike the "South Park" movie, "The Simpsons Movie" felt padded and, honestly, slow and bloated in places.

First complaint: How do you have a "Simpsons Movie" without a coach gag? Even a built-in couch gag within the film some place?

Second complaint: Not quite enough brains. At its very best, "The Simpsons" throws cultural references around like mad and despite how semi-timely many of the pop culture nods end up feeling (impressive given the long lead time for episodes), they're almost never dated with the repeats come along. I think an effort was made to down-play pop culture and politics and anything contemporary in the movie, perhaps to aid its shelf-life and perhaps to aid play in foreign markets. Regardless, I didn't feel like there was enough intelligence. Plus, despite the extra large screen and room for additional details, I didn't get the sense that the movie was as chock-full of visual references and in-jokes as I might have liked. I appreciated the various self-referential "We're a movie based on a FOX TV show" moments, but I may have wanted more of that.

Third complaint: Sure, I love The Simpson family. But we got less of the supporting cast that you might in a standard 22 minute episode. Give me more Lenny and Carl. Give me more Mr. Burns. Give me more Chief Wiggum and Ralph Wiggum. Give me more of Dr. Nick and Gil and Apu and Bumblebee Man and Krusty and Kang & Kodos and Mr. Teeny. How is it that Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel had a bigger part than so many of those favorite characters?

Fourth complaint: This is just me, but if I were the members of "The Simpsons" team, I'd have tried to find a way to pay tribute to Phil Hartman in the movie somewhere, even if that just meant a Lionel Hutz reference or a Troy McLure movie playing at the Aztec. I'm sure there are several other folks from the "Simpsons" voice roster who have passed on (including guest voices like George Plimpton ["And a hotplate!"]) who might have warranted salutes, but Hartman kind of deserved one.

I laughed and chuckled, but probably less hard than I laugh at a good episode of the show, especially on a per-minute basis.

So it wasn't awful. And perhaps if I hadn't waited over a month to see it, I would have felt less build-up. But I wanted a wee bit more.

Spider-Pig, Spider-Pig/ Does whatever a Spider-Pig does/ Can he swing/ From a web/ No he can't/ He's a pig.

Tomorrow? "The Bourne Ultimatum."

Catching up on "Mad Men," "Damages," "Big Love" and "Entourage"

Back in the stone age, before TiVo and 500 channels of cable and before the networks began half-heartedly programming the summer months, it was possible to take a vacation from this job in early August and know that you'd return home as connected to the entertainment universe as you were before.

I've already mentioned how behind I am on movies and this weekend I attend to see "The Simpsons" and "The Bourne Ultimatum," which I view as two of the major stumbling blocks on my road to overall connectivity.

But that makes no mention of the TV I've been catching up on the past five days, shows I'd been in a deficit on for well more than my two AWOL weeks. I've watched seven episodes of "Big Love," six episodes of "Mad Men," three episodes of "Entourage," three episodes of "Damages" and three episodes of "Top Chef." I accepted that I would never catch up on "Big Brother" and deleted all of my DVRed hours (but tuned back into regular episodes). And I know that I still need to watch the last staggering gasps of "John From Cincinnati," though I have the leisure of knowing that that show is finite.

Because at least one reader has expressed frustration at my lack of posting, click through after the bump for my thoughts on some of those shows I've been catching up on. Otherwise, you can just wait for a "Simpsons Movie" post later in the day.

Click through...

"Mad Men" -- I loved the polished exteriors of the pilot, but was a bit concerned that the show's use of dramatic irony for humorous purposes might become a stumbling block. I've now made it through seven episodes and most of my concerns have been allayed. "Man Men" is still a show in which precious little happens and yet I'm watching it with a level of enthusiasm I don't have for anything else on TV this summer. Much of my pleasure in the show comes from the remarkable lead performance by Jon Hamm, an actor who wasn't even vaguely on my radar previously. Hamm looks like a prototypical man for the '50s, so it isn't surprising that most of his early work was below my radar. He has the kind of square-jawed manly looks that casting directors just don't like anymore when they're preferring to cast leading men who are less handsome and more pretty. He has the same problems that Nathan Fillion would have if Fillion didn't come equipped with that perpetual ironic smirk that makes him generally employable. As his wife, January Jones has almost the exact same problem -- she's too pert, too blonde, too seemingly generic. Both actors have been complex, both with their delivery of the show's twisty, antiquated, wordy dialogue and with the slew of physical mannerisms the show's directors seem to crave. But really the entire "Mad Men" cast is exceptional, including the reliable John Slattery and the vivacious (and then some) Christina Hendricks, Vincent Kartheiser (who I'd have thought too contemporary an actor previously) and Maggie Siff (another actress I may never have noticed before). The mystery of Don Draper's (Hamm) past is probably the most reliable ongoing plot, but I'd watch every week even if nothing carried over. There's some fantastic stuff in Episode Seven for those who haven't made it there yet.

"Big Love" -- I've heard a lot of buzz about how "Big Love" has really come into its own in its second season and I'm not sure I agree completely. In the first season, I had a pretty good sense of Bill Hendrickson (Bill Paxton) and his motivations and the risks he had to take to protect his lifestyle. I guess the Season One finale shocked Bill's system so badly that he determined he'd do whatever it took to keep his family safe that Season Two has been spent with Bill making one wrong decision after another for 12 episodes. In this respect, Season Two of "Big Love" has been a bit like Season Two of "Weeds," which focused on Nancy Botwin's wrong-headed quest to become a big-time dealer, something that could only have left her life in Season Three disrepair. Season Two has shifted away from the kind of "Ooooh... The Compound is Wacky and Scary" episodes that fueled the first run of episodes, though we met a different polygamist sect led by the brilliant Luke Askew's Hollis Greene and discovered that Old Roman Grant was just a big softy. As Bill has become less and less sympathetic and more and more clearly doomed to take a big fall, Paxton's performance has become less interesting (he isn't an actor who plays complexity very well). So the second season has been about appreciating the supporting and fringe players. Different parts of this season have showcased Ginner Goodwin (my favorite wife), Amanda Seyfried (who ought to have a well-written TV show built around her), Melora Walters, Grace Zabriskie, Bruce Dern, Matt Ross and Tina Majorino (she could co-star in Seyfried's well-written show... Rob Thomas could write it). The season finale of "Big Love" is coming up this week and I'm not optimistic that our happy polygamist family will be quite so happy and unified when things start off next year.

"Damages" -- The problems with this show couldn't be simpler: The more time we waste on Anastasia Griffith's reluctant witness Katie and Noah Bean's soon-to-be-dead fiance David, that's less time we have to spend with Glenn Close's Patty and, more importantly, Ted Danson's Arthur Frobisher. That seems pretty obvious, right? Less time with the attractive and less experienced younger actors and more time with two of the best actors on TV? And yet "Damages" keeps losing me, every single week, by wasting time on subplots I don't even vaguely care about. I've also ceased to care about the flash-forward framing devices, because that over-saturated stuff has stopped showing me things I couldn't have guessed myself. I'm also continually perplexed by how Rose Byrne's Ellen is being written -- I'd like to see more of the extremely smart and capable lawyer we're continually told she is and less of the callow, deer-in-headlights obliviousness Byrne has been forced to play. The combination of Patty Hewes' (Close) omniscience and Ellen's obviousness makes for an odd sort of drama in which the show's supposed heroine spends every single episode playing catch-up and never develops any kind of agency or active intellect. So really, I just hope we get more of Danson and more of Zeljko Ivanek's wonderfully bizarre Atticus Finch impression in the weeks to come.

"Entourage" -- Sepinwall doesn't know why I bother anymore, since he claims he's only watching as a way to get to "Flight of the Conchords," a comedy that hasn't hooked me in the way I'm told it should have. I wish I knew why I bother. The show has become truly awful in this rushed fourth season. "Entourage" used to just be silly Hollywood wish fulfillment, but it's become a show written by people with ADHD, incapable of sticking with any plotline long enough for it to become a story. What's the state of Vince's career at this point? He's gone from a huge star to unemployable to a huge star and at least to the best of my knowledge, he hasn't had a movie released since "Aquaman." I have backlash on the week-to-week back-and-forth on whether "Medellin" is a smash or a disaster or a smash and I'm not sure I have a clue where Vince and the gang are even living at this point or how they're affording to live there. What happened to Turtle's fling with talent management last year? How have the ratings been for Johnny's TV show? And why do the writers think that viewers are just tuning in for the cameos and thus subjecting us to appearances by folks like Mary J. Blige and Brian Grazer? Note the law of diminishing returns in Gary Busey cameos -- So good in Season One, So bad in Season Four. I've been OK with Anna Faris' recent turn, though it's unclear if she's engaging in actual self-parody or parody of the public perception of her image or what. I'm guessing Debi Mazar as reduced availability because of her baby, but is there anybody else out there who would rather see twice as much of her and half as much of Rhys Coiro's enfant terrible Billy Walsh? I guess I keep watching because I remember that as recently as last season, I used to really enjoy "Entourage." Maybe if they take a good long writing break after this season's over, the show can bounce back. Don't the writers know that once you're forced to resort to casting the Sklars (Jason and Randy, who I find funny talking about sports and little else) as bickering brothers, you might as well throw in the towel? Bring back Carla Gugino!

Whew. OK. I've got a movie to go catch...

Saturday, August 18, 2007

MovieWatch: "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"

"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"
Director: David Yates
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 68
In a Nutshell: [Before getting to my wildly out-of-date review (I've been BUSY!!!!), I've gotta ask: Am I the only one who can't handle 3-D? Physically, I mean. I'm going to blame my astigmatism or something, but even with the newest technology and the snazzy new glasses, 3-D still makes my eyes water and my head throb and the actual payoff isn't close to worth it. For a movie like "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," that wasn't a huge problem since only the last 20 minutes required the use of glasses, but when I hear that James Cameron is going to force me to watch "Avatar" in 3-D, my brain already begins to hurt. That aside, I saw the not-so-new Potter flick at the IMAX screen at Jordan's in Natick, Mass, which happens to be one of the oddest places I've ever seen a movie. No, it's still not as odd as the outdoor theater in Athens where I kept being distracted from "The Sweet Hereafter" to look up at the Acropolis, but there's something darned weird about marching through a furniture store to get to a movie. Not quite as big a screen as what you'd get at Los Angeles' fancier IMAX theaters, but incredibly comfortable seats and appropriately bone-rattling sound. But enough of that digression...]

As everybody who hasn't spent the past month at Press Tour, Comic-Con and on a remote island in the Atlantic may already know, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is a nice rebound for the franchise after Mike Newell's aggressively bland "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." I confess, before continuing, that I'd heard enough negative buzz about the movie from people I respect that my expectations were properly lowered. Thus, I enjoyed large parts of "Harry Potter 5," even if its 3-D enhanced climax may have been largely wasted on me.

Follow through after the bump for any additional thoughts...

Click through...

To start with, I didn't much care for this particular book. It had a distinct beginning-of-the-end feeling wherein it was the first of Rowling's novels not to be essentially self-contained. It lays an awful lot of groundwork over a ton of pages, but its storytelling is really scattershot. Michael Goldenberg's adaptation is surprisingly smooth, then, eliminating large plot strands without causing me to bend my memories to recall what had been trimmed, at least not more than once or twice. Goldenberg's script can't change that "Order of the Phoenix" is all about transition rather than destination, but I didn't feel like I'd wasted my 135 minutes.

If I were to list the things I most appreciated about "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," I'd have to start with its occasionally inspired glimpses of realism, for which I largely credit director David Yates, a respected TV helmer with no experience at all in films of this scale. The movie's opening sequence, a Dementor attack in a London suburb, may be one of the most cinematic moments in the big screen franchise to date -- the haunting images of outcast Harry at a playground enhanced with the threat of casual teenage cruelty, rather than anything supernatural. Even after that first scene, though, Yates took the time to remind viewers that the universe of Harry Potter is just on the outskirts of the Muggle world that the rest of us inhabit.

For the rest of the franchise, I'd like to suggest a moratorium on critics being allowed to say "This is the darkest Harry Potter yet!!!" That's just plain lazy, kids. We get it -- Each of J.K. Rowling's books was darker than the one before, as the kids matured and were more capable of facing darkness. The movies? They just follow suit. So guess what? "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" is going to be "The darkest Harry Potter yet!!!" and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" will also be "The darkest Harry Potter yet!!!" Get over it. Or at least find a new pull-quote.

That being said, "Harry Potter 5" is the darkest Harry Potter yet!!! Sigh. That's not even necessarily true, but as the actors have aged, they've been allowed to let their performances get just a bit more tortured. Or at least Daniel Radcliffe has, mirroring the book-by-book transitions that took Harry from an innocent boy to an increasingly mopey and annoying teen. Since Radcliffe is generally more believable playing Harry as a whiny pill than anything human, this is a good thing.

The other kids have matured in ways that have altered how their characters can be depicted. For example, with Rupert Grint through the worst of his awkward phase, Ron seems a bit more present in this movie than in the last one, ditto with Matthew Lewis' Neville, who I feared might vanish from the franchise entirely after puberty struck. You'll notice, though, that the camera can't afford to linger very long on Tom Felton's Draco Malfoy. Emma Watson continues to be good enough as Hermione that I wish Rowling hadn't essentially cut her character adrift in the closing books.

England's finest actors continue to be wasted in this franchise in near-record numbers. Alan Rickman and Gary Oldman have the best moments here, but folks like Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, David Thewlis, Jason Isaacs, Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson have rarely seemed less valuable. Imelda Staunton is the biggest new adult addition and despite being perfect casting, her Dolores Umbridge feel even more one-note on the big screen than she was on the page. Helena Bonham Carter also joins the cast as Bellatrix Lestrange and manages to play the part exactly the way you'd think Helena Bonham Carter would play it, which may or may not be a compliment. I look forward to seeing a bit more of Natalie Tena's Tonks as well as George Harris' Kingsley, since both of those characters have increased profiles in the final chapters.

The movie's best new piece of casting, actually, is Evanna Lynch, who makes a rather amazing Luna Lovegood. Somehow a character whose winsome quirkiness always irked me in the books felt human and Lynch's reactions stole nearly every one of her scenes. I also look forward to seeing more of the mostly CG house elf Kreacher in the final installments.

How about the 3-D part of the IMAX experience? My moviegoing partner had seen the movie in 2-D and she said that it was more probably more exciting in its enhanced form. Certainly the hail of falling prophesy orbs and the shattered Ministry of Magic windows got a boost. The climactic showdown between Voldemort and Dumbledore (not really all that climactic in a general sense, but the movie had to end somewhere) probably played better with sparks flying into the audience. But darned if my head wouldn't have felt better if I could have just watched those last 20 minutes without the huge glasses that made the entire audience look like deceased Old Navy pitchwoman Carrie Donovan.

But at least I got out to see a movie. I still have a ton more catching up to do once I return to Los Angeles.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

MovieWatch: "Superbad"

Director: Greg Mottola
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 69 (I'd actually have gone with something a point or two lower, but I'm happy to honor the low-brow sensibility of the film)
In a Nutshell: An absurd percentage of media reporting is just trendspotting and when the media catches hold of a cover-all catch phrase that it (we?) likes, it rides that sucker til the pony collapses and dies. I've never been as sick of a reductive phrase, for example, than I am of "Torture Porn," which has become critical shorthand for dozens of disparate movies that both do and don't deserve to fall under the heading.

Why, then, have I not read an adequate one or two or three word deconstruction for the output of the Judd Apatow Empire, for the slew of films and TV shows that Apatow has producer, written or directed in the past decade, dating back to "Freaks & Geeks" (or maybe "Cable Guy," if you're so-inclined). Is it something as simple as Outcast Porn? Or Underdog Porn? Or Geek Porn? Something reflecting the way that films like "40 Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" and now "Superbad" allow viewers to get off on the celebration of outside-of-the-mainstream male heroes, to both laugh at the characters but simultaneously liberate them from stereotypes. However, while porn is participatory, the participation is essentially self-contained and profoundly limited. Apatow's films are about recognition, both from the actual freaks and the geeks in the audience, but maybe also from the people whose high school years were more socially fruitful. Maybe Nerdsploitation or Jewsploitation or Goofsploitation would be a better term? Perhaps that tie into the fact that while many blaxploitation films were, indeed, exploitative -- written, directed and produced by mainstream white men to take money from black audiences -- many of the best were generated within the African-American community itself. Even though Apatow has a fabulously hot and funny wife (Leslie Mann) there's no doubt that his youth mirrored that of his protagonists. Seth Rogen isn't playing at being the funny, husky, Jewish-Canadian. That's who he is. Other members of the Apatow Family Ensemble -- Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Jason Segel -- are striking for how truly comfortable they are both with the roles the play on-screen and, at least to some extent, embodying them in real life.

Anyway, that's just me thinking out loud. Any suggestions?

Follow through after the bump for my thoughts on "Superbad."

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I saw "Superbad" almost a year to the night I caught last summer's underrated "Accepted." I caught both films in early screenings at Comic-Con, which meant that both films were being screened for their core audiences. And both comedies were darned well-received. "Accepted" wasn't a smash hit or anything, but its $36 million gross far exceeded its budget.

Check the Zap2it Comic-Con blog for my initial reaction to the movie (some of which will be repeated below) and some of the funnier moments of the post-film Q&A.

Because I liked "Accepted" -- it's loose, rough and far funnier than it has any right to be, given its pedigree -- it isn't damning "Superbad" with faint praise to say that the new flick is far, far superior in every way. It's the story of three guys who would traditionally be depicted as losers -- Hill, Michael Cera and Christopher Mintz-Plasse -- who attempt to acquire alcohol to secure their entrance to a key pre-graduation party and, hopefully, into the undies of a trio of previously unobtainable women -- played by Emma Stone, Martha MacIsaac and Aviva.

Even by "Porkys" standards, "Superbad" doesn't have much of a plot, but the script by Rogen and Evan Goldberg is magnificently digressive. The characters are on a Rabelaisian journey in which the specific events hardly matter. What matters are their conversations along the way -- the lewd, rawkus, inappropriate, occasionally brilliant conversations that feel distressingly believable and familiar. The movie is as raunchy and stupid as any 15-year-old could hope to see (assuming they buy tickets for a less R-rated movie and sneak in), but Rogen and Goldberg are stealth-smart and the film's love of language is always evident. Greg Mottola's direction is focused on making the movie look as jagged and naturalistic as possible, but mostly letting the comedy breath.

The thin narrative (and its over-long 114 minute running time) and aforementioned naturalistic visual style combine to keep "Superbad" from feeling like a "whole" movie at times, certainly when compared to the Apatow written-and-directed "Knocked Up" and "Virgin." While the best parts of those two films were still just the scenes in which the main characters sat around and shot the shit, you left with a sense that a full story had been told and that, occasionally, the resources of the cinema had been invoked. "Superbad" is mostly a string of those shit-shooting moments strung together toward a conclusion that isn't quite as satisfyingly heartwarming as it thinks it is. As such, it's very possible that "Superbad" is a funnier movie -- laugh-for-laugh -- "Knocked Up." It's certain to inspire repeated viewings and there's a good chance that its dialogue will be repeated and woven into the overall vernacular to an extent not seen since "Napoleon Dynamite" (an awful movie that totally could be called "Nerd Porn").

Although not quite as loaded with Apatow-friendly cameos as "Knocked Up," "Superbad" still features folks like Martin Starr and David Krumholtz in small roles, while Carla Gallo is the center of one of movie's most memorable scenes as a particularly aggressive dancing girl.

Now why, I ask you, isn't Sony using my pull quote "A rough-and-raunchy tribute to being geeky and white." Why?!?

Monday, August 13, 2007

I'm Back Like Chris Tucker...

Did you miss me?

Sigh. Probably not.

I've been off the grid for a while. There were three weeks of Press Tour, followed by Comic-Con, followed by a desperate attempt to meet a series of last minute deadlines for Filter. In the past month, I've seen exactly two movies -- "Superbad" and "We Own the Night" -- and I haven't been able to blog on either of 'em... It's my goal to get a blog post up for "Superbad" before the movie's actually in release this Friday. Gotta have goals.

I did, however, get an actual vacation. Seven days of sun, Kosher shellfish and Anne of Green Gables memorabilia in Prince Edward Island. So while I didn't see any movies last week or even watch a single full episode of TV, I did read five books, which would really impress you if you knew the pace at which I read.

They weren't exactly intensive or scholarly books I read, of course. They were exactly the kind of books you're supposed to read if you're on a beach and you already panicked to finish "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" in anticipation of inevitably ubiquitous spoilers at Comic-Con (a concern that was ultimately overblown). Actually, as I think about it, I mostly read books that are going to become movies later this fall.

I read Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend," a nifty vampire yarn I should have read when I was 12 as a way of knowing just how totally Stephen King (my literary idol of the time) was ripping off Mattheson's prose style. I zipped through Scott Smith's "The Ruins," a chilling read, though I may not be tired of Smith's by-rote fatalism after this book and "A Simple Plan." I plowed through Richard Yates's "Revolutionary Road," a book I probably should have read long ago, one that's almost sure to be slaughtered by Sam Mendes despite the note-perfect casting of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead roles. I read my third Cormac McCarthy book of the year in "No Country For Old Men," which has me eagerly anticipating the Coen Brothers' latest flick. And I also wasted little time going through Neil Gaiman's "Neverwhere," just because it happened to be in the pile of available options.

Whew. Anyway, I'll try to get my blog on again a bit later in the week, but I wanted to reassure my half-dozen readers that this space hasn't gone fallow.