Saturday, September 29, 2007

NetflixWatch: "Lucky You"

"Lucky You"
Director: Curtis Hanson
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 41
In a Nutshell: Hollywood romantic comedies (or dramedies, or whatever) usually only work because the writers, directors and actors collectively bend over backwards to have us love the main characters, or at least root for them to be together. I mean, if you aren't invested in a happy ending between the leads, what are you left with? "Must Love Dogs"? But as bad as "Must Love Dogs" was and as much as I wanted the two main characters to run as far away from each other as possible, you could feel the effort to make them likeable, which was perhaps why they were so very unlikeable. If I'm going to give Curtis Hanson's "Lucky You" credit for anything, it's a willingness to put two romantic leads on screen without any apparent regard for just how distasteful they are as people (the characters), just how little chemistry the two leads (Drew Barrymore and Eric Bana) have and just how unlikely they are to find any happiness together in even the short run. It's amazing (excruciating?) to watch! Given Curtis Hanson's consistent desire to subvert the character expectations of any variety of genres, I can almost believe it's all intentional, all some wicked bluff on Hanson's part.

I've got a wee bit more to say, but follow through after the bump if you care.

Click through...

"Lucky You" plays that Hanson wanted to handicap himself as much as possible and then see if he could play out. It's odd that Bana's reputation, pre-"Chopper," was as a comic actor, but since he's gone Hollywood, he appears to have lost all of his mirth and warmth, so casting him as a romantic lead (albeit not a romantic comic lead) is one recipe for disaster. Casting Barrymore as a singer (and actually letting her sing on-camera) is another recipe for disaster. And having Horatio Sanz? Well that's just masochistic. And as for the number of professional poker players popping up in the movie? I recognized about half of them, but whenever anybody appeared on-screen looking both unphotogenic and generally uncomfortable, I just assumed it was a pro. Hanson might as well have thrown in some kids and animals just to raise the stakes.

Then you have to give Hanson and co-writer Eric Roth for skipping out on the card-playing cliches that have marred films from "The Cincinnati Kid" to "Maverick" and even infiltrated mostly seemingly savvy card playing movies like "Rounders." There's a minimum of miraculous hands (the finale doesn't come down to somebody's royal straight flush to the ace beating somebody else's straight flush to the king) and once you get past the early rubes, people's tells aren't comic book-y either, nobody licks the filling from Oreos when they're nervous.

The dramatic problem, one that Hanson and Roth have no choice but to embrace, is that the World Series of Poker -- the 2003 WSoP is the movie's centerpiece -- isn't a winner-take-all event. Losers make a heap of money regardless, which plays directly into the ridiculous, and doubly unsatisfying, ending. Without contrivances, the movie's climax is just Bana and Robert Duvall starring back and forth at each other.

I don't know why Hanson and Roth decided to compensate for the lack of narrative cliches by larding up on thematic staleness. I was *shocked* that nobody at the end said to Bana's Huck, "Damn, you go boy! You finally learned to live your life and play poker in the proper ratios, because previously your priorities between poker and life-living were out of order, what with your recklessness in the former and your cautiousness in the latter." Because folks sure kept repeating the subtext earlier.

Is it any wonder Warner Bros. pushed the film's release date over and over and over before finally just burying it? Then again, what did the studio think it was bankrolling?

After an improbable winning streak that included "L.A. Confidential," "Wonder Boys," "8 Mile" *and* an episode of "Greg the Bunny," "Lucky You" represents Hanson's second dud in a row after "In Her Shoes," which some people actually liked. Not necessarily anybody I know personally, mind you, but they're out there... I still like those three winners enough that I'll keep seeing Hanson's movies.

Better not to waste too much time on "Lucky You," but since it made its way to me through Netflix...

MovieWatch: "Into the Wild"

"Into the Wild"
Director: Sean Penn
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 62 (but I'm wavering up *and* down)
In a Nutshell: While waiting for a different movie this afternoon ("The Kingdom," opinion pending), I stopped by a Borders and, since it was in the 3-for-2 stack and since I was able to easily secure another two and since I barely have any time to read *anything* anymore, I grabbed a copy of Jon Krakauer's "Into the Wild."

Basically, I want to read the book to try to unpack the reasons why so much of "Into the Wild" annoyed me so very, very much. I'm trying to get a grasp on whether I took issue with the story as Krakauer told it, whether I took issue with the story as the film's writer-director Sean Penn told it, or whether something about the film's main character -- tragic, glorified, pathologically egotistical Christopher McCandless -- just rubbed me the wrong way.

Of course, since my non-vacation reading pace is akin to a mentally stunted gerbil (bet you didn't know they were literate at all...), I don't have the time to read the book before reviewing the movie (if I'd been doing an actual journalistic feature on "Into the Wild," I'd surely have done my due diligence). Thus, this review is just of my reactions to the movie, which is probably what a movie review ought to be anyway, eh?

The short version of my feelings: Penn's film infuriatingly wants to have it both ways. The director wants to turn McCandless into a Christ-like figure (note the already notorious nude scene in which Penn depicts star Emile Hirsch in the Full Monty, arms outstretched) while also backtracking at the end into a "Yes, what he did was an awesome way to spend two years, a way that I wish I could spend two years, a way you should spend two years if you're COOL... But don't do this at home, because it's bad" conclusion. Somebody's gotta call bullshit on Penn here.

Follow through after the bump for my full review... Warning, though, it's gonna include spoilers, some of the "Well duh" variety.

Click through...

Granted that Chris McCandless seems to have had an awful childhood -- upper-middle-class upbringing, complete with all of its advantages and trappings aside -- but I never found myself viewing him as anything other than an arrogant ass with a classic 21-year-old's misunderstanding of Thoreau, of Tolstoy, of Pasternak. But Penn buys totally into Chris' view of the world, treating his written and spoken words as gospel, with both voice over and moments where his writing either animates across the screen or is shown in tight close-up as every pearl of wisdom is being transcribed. Accompanied by the solemn moaning of Eddie Vedder at his most earnest (which has to be just about the most earnest that any human being in history has ever been), the filmmaker offers no hints that Chris' choices are vaguely questionable. Even when Penn gives voice to Chris' cruelly abandoned sister Carine (Jena Malone), her thoughts are all weirdly understanding, weirdly robotic, weirdly retroactive and they're heard over Eric Gautier's lovely cinematography, which treats Chris' extreme lifestyle like it's nothing more than the most beautifully shot Mountain Dew commercial ever.

The film's point-of-view is a muddle. Usually, Penn just gives Chris the benefit of the doubt, treating his increasingly wiry physique like that of an absolute Vitruvian man, mens sana in corpore sano, on faith. But every once in a while, Penn sees things that his main character clearly wouldn't have noticed. He notices the underlying sadness in the way the film's male adults treat Chris. Brian Dierker's Rainey, Vince Vaughn's Wayne and particularly Hal Holbrook's Ron all love Chris, but know they can't save him.

Nowhere was I more perplexed than by Penn's depiction of Los Angeles, where Chris has a very brief. After treating hitchhiking and rural wandering as the safest possible way to see the country, Penn goes wildly overboard in depicting the threat of urban life. On one hand, you have LA's Skid Row, where Penn captures the film's only minority faces in the most threatening way possible. Compare Penn's portrayal of black city poverty to the nobility of white rural poverty and it's nearly laughable. But Penn isn't satisfied there, he also wants to show LA's downtown urban hipsters (Did LA have downtown urban hipsters in 1992?) as soulless ghouls too. I think these scenes are supposed to rely on Chris' actual point-of-view (hence the images where he sees his alternate self as a fellow hipster), but it's one of several moments where Penn's storytelling technique is just all over the place.

I hope you're sensing my ambivalence here. As I write this, I realize that many of the things that irked me within the movie were products of my distaste for main character. But it's also a distaste for the way the main character was being presented by a filmmaker who ought to be wiser, more mature, more reflective. After launching his directing career with three relatively introspective dramas, though, Penn is oddly extrospective (is that a word?) when it comes to McCandless. He just accepts the most superficial view of the guy, attempting to neither pity or understand him, just to embrace him.

Hirsch is treated as an idealistic vessel and as good as he is, I couldn't view the performance as anything other than "A series of things Sean Penn made Emile Hirsch do," from whitewater rafting to running up California mountains to dropping his weight down to a dangerous point that no piece of popular entertainment should ever require. Penn, who has always been an actors' director, gets fine work out of all of his performers, especially Holbrook, who has to be due for an honorary Oscar nomination of some type.

I'm just having a hard time evaluating this movie. If Sean Penn thinks Chris McCandless is worthy of only-slightly-cautionary adulation and I think he was probably more worthy of more of a "Grizzly Man"-style approach, am I approaching "Into the Wild" with clear eyes? Probably not. But I'm a kid who loved "My Side of the Mountain" growing up. "Easy Rider" remains one of my favorite films. Like just about every other male of a particular political incarnation, I was temporarily moved by "On the Road." Maybe there's just a certain amount of pragmatism I require from my stories of youthful rebellion and wish that Penn had been similarly pragmatic over the 145 minutes of his film.

I get the feeling I could talk in circles for hours about this one. But I've got to write up "The Kingdom" at some point...

Now back to watching USC football.

Friday, September 28, 2007

MovieWatch: "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"

"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"
Director: Andrew Dominik
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 76
In a Nutshell: [Here's the part where I apologize for the delay in writing this review, as if anybody has been waiting with bated or baited breath. Premiere week is a busy time. Yes. Boo-hoo. Poor me. Anywho... Back to the review I've been trying to write for nearly a week.]

You'll excuse me while I muse on the fact that Emmanuel Lubezki and Roger Deakins, probably my picks for the best cinematographers currently working, have collectively been nominated for 9 Oscars without a win.

That's a thought I'm only having because I'm musing over similarities between Terrence Malick's "The New World" (shot by Lubezki) and Andrew Dominik's appealingly cumbersomely titled "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (shot by Deakins), a movie that's almost certainly Malick-esque, though probably more like early Malick than later Malick. The comparison really boils down to an "Ooooh... Pretty pictures" response to both movies, as well as a "Dear Lord is this movie going to tank in Middle America" reaction.

Follow after the bump for the full review...

Click through...

"Assassination" has a robust 160 minute running time, which is almost the exact length that "The New World" was when critics saw it and when it first opened in Los Angeles and New York. By the time it played in theaters and basically tanked ($12.7 million domestic, just over $30 million worldwide), it was just over two hours.

Like "New World," "Assassination" is a piece of historical revisionism, first a foremost. It's an attempt to find something historical in a figure who has basically become an American folk legend (or the fodder for a Disney musical). Like "New World" is also probably more of an art house movie than the studio involved might have initially anticipated.

While "New World" was intentionally alienating in its depiction of the pre-colonialized America, using its seemingly hours of Q'Orianka Kilcher prancing around fields of grain as an image every bit as alien as Neil Armstrong bouncing around on the Moon, "Assassination" isn't at all inaccessible. The narrative is straight-forward and linear and the character progressions make absolute sense. It's an aesthetically lovely movie and an intellectually intriguing movie, but I can't help but wonder if a piece of "New World"-esque trimming might have benefited it. "New World" was never going to be a straight-forward romance or history or whatever Malick and New Line cut it down to being. "Assassination," while often magnificently made, is undeniably self-indulgent as well.

The obvious comparison that I assume everybody is making is to John Ford's classic "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," though "Assassination" may give an even more complicated spin on that oft quoted line: "This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." The disconnect between the legendary Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and the factual Jesse James (the man introduced to us in Hugh Ross' opening voiceover and throughout) is part of what motivates Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), whose eventual actions are unlikely to shock anybody, but for me the movie got even more fascinating after the event referred to in the title. It's not that I didn't like the supporting work by folks like Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner and particularly Garret Dillahunt, but their characters often distract from the movie's core focus.

The connection between Ross's narration -- fact-based, dispassionate -- and the imagery in those scenes was perhaps my favorite part of the whole film. They're shot with a distorted point of view, as if through either the lense of an old camera or through the thick, slightly warped, glass windows of the period homes. The voiceovers present the truth over the distortion, a truth that ultimately gets in the way of the legend, the myth.

Pitt's performance as James is similarly hard to read, similarly veering between iconically charismatic and luster-free real. Since I'm assuming that's exactly what Dominik wanted -- an A-list movie star giving a performance that's sometimes showy and sometimes blends into the background -- Pitt deserves his kudos. Ditto with Affleck, whose fall output -- this and "Gone Baby Gone" -- will assure both his stature in the creative community and his anonymity for mainstream moviegoers.

OK. I've got to post this or else it will never get posted and since I hope to catch a couple additional movies this weekend, I may never catch up.

One last thing: It ought to be against the law to waste Mary-Louise Parker as badly as she's wasted here as James' almost dialogue-free wife. There are things Parker conveys successfully through silence, but a lesser actress could have filled the part without causing me to lament the lost potential.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"Heroes" Premiere: The American Actors Strike Back

All spring long, they were pushed around by the influx of immigrant laborers. All summer, they idled their time, watching the immigrants attempt to assimilate, learning our actions, our mannerisms. All fall, they've have to listen to the press rave about how the immigrants are better than the indigenous work force.

But on September 24, on the season premiere of NBC's "Heroes," the American actors finally struck back!

Follow through after the bump for more hyperbolic rambling about the "Heroes" premiere.

Click through...

[Spoilers coming here, obviously...]

Sorry, but I'm just loving that fact that after a development season in which NBC's casting department said "Go British!" for every possible American lead role (regardless of whether or not the otherwise excellent Kevin McKidd is even vaguely capable of speaking with a Yankee accent [he isn't]), "Heroes" finally unveiled the 17th Century Japanese warrior Kensei and not only did he turn out to be a gaijin, but he turned out to be a Brit. But rather than actually casting a British actor? Nice! They go with Oregon-born David Anders, working a different Limey accent from the one he used for years on "Alias." I like Anders, because he starred in my friend Mike Arquilla's musical, but in a world where he's British and McKidd is from San Francisco, this writer is just very confused.

"Heroes" already has Chicago-born Sendhil Ramamurthy playing Indian academic Mohinder Suresh and Sepinwall notes that the hammy Irishman -- who went looking in a crate for his Lucky Charms and instead found the unclothed (but newly buff?) Peter Patrelli covering in the corner -- was played by New York-born Holt McCallany, who in real life doesn't talk like he's auditioning for an Irish Spring commercial.

I still imagine Anders, Ramamurthy and McCallany (and Masi Oka as well, I guess, though there hasn't been a run of Japanese actors rushing to steal parts on American series) standing up, Bill Pullman-style, and declaring, "And should we win the day, the 24th of September will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the American actors declared in one voice: 'We will not go quietly into the night!' We will not vanish without a fight! We're going to live on! We're going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!"

OK. I'm done with that. Really, the "Heroes" premiere was just an episode of "Heroes," which came as a pretty big relief after a finale that everybody but the show's creators knows was disastrous. Monday's episode laid the groundwork for the season, introduced oodles of new characters and never once caused me to yell at my TV, "Stop being so stupid, 'Heroes'!"

My favorite part of the episode may have been something we didn't see, namely Matt and Mohinder raising little Molly as a well-adjusted gay couple. I would love to have been a fly on the wall (or able to read minds) at *that* custody hearing. I imagine that it was like "Chuck and Larry" only without the positives of Jessica Biel in her undies, but also the negatives of Rob Schneider as an ethnic caricature.

Or else my favorite thing in the episode may have been Adrian Pasdar's beard. As faithful Zap2it blog readers know, I had a brief and awkward discussion with Pasdar at this year's TCA press tour. The long and short of the conversation was that as an owner of a newly acquired beard, I wanted to know if his own lustrous facial hair was conditioned in some way. The long and short of his answer (as he apparently spat chaw in a cup) was that his glow was all natural. The truth, it turns out, is that his beard was conditioned by beer and tears of grief at the death of his brother.

Of course, Peter isn't actually dead. He's just become Angel from the start of Season 3 of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," all half-feral, forgetful and naked. That plotline doesn't interest me so much, sorry.

There are, of course, myriad other things to discuss. Who threw Sulu off the rooftop? Who knew that Ned Ryerson was an alchemist? What is it that A.J. Soprano's ex-near-fiance is able to do? Why was Claire's chemistry teacher lecturing on Darwin (and why did nobody else know the answer)? And can we please have more Barry Shabaka Henley in upcoming episodes?

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Migratory Pattern of Blogs

This is just a brief post to note some blogular variation.

Not, this sporadically updated piece of blogulosity isn't going any place, nor will its blogulacious content be changed, particularly as to its blogularity.

No, this is just a quick notification to anybody who has previously sought out at least one daily recap over at Zap2it's From Inside The Box blog (p.k.a. "Gwyneth"). Starting today, recaps no longer live in Gwyneth. No, Gwyneth will be the home to periodic interviews, features, commentaries and other general observational things from Team Zap2it.

All daily (nightly?) recaps can be found in a new blog titled It Happened Last Night. Thanks to the classic '80s film "...About Last Night" (and thanks to a graphic featuring a sleeping naked woman), one might think that the new zap2it blog is all about one-night stands and a naked, young Demi Moore. Alas, tisn't the case.

In the place of those things, though, you can find things like my recap of tonight's episode of "Prison Break," already posted HERE.

Stay tuned, meanwhile, to this address, for a review of "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," which will be available just as soon as it is.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

MovieWatch: "Eastern Promises" (plus "Juno" and "American Gangster")

"Eastern Promises"
Director: David Cronenberg
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 67
In a Nutshell: I've been going back and forth on this one since Sunday, often with great frustration, since I like blogging promptly on movies I've seen.

On one hand, I was fascinated by "Eastern Promises" through Cronenberg's bravura Russian bathhouse sequence, as excruciatingly tense a fight scene as you'll see at the movies this year, putting the barely clothed man-on-man tussling in "300" to shame. At that point, I need the movie to go some place. I need something more than a frustrating character twist and a resolution that let several characters off the hook for their actions within the film.

Anyway, follow through after the bump for both my thoughts on "Eastern Promises" and my immediate and *very* truncated reactions to both Jason Reitman's "Juno" and Ridley Scott's "American Gangster" (both too far from their releases for anything more than a gut read.

Click through...

Because nobody in "Eastern Promises" sprouts a vagina in the chest, a phallus in their armpit, has sexual congress with a scar or mutates into a fly, I've noticed several dumb-ish critics say that the film is a departure for David Cronenberg. But if you're looking for recurring themes that run through Cronenberg's work, there are few regularly revisited than the idea of body modifications and how modern technology causes people to undergo physical changes that reflect either their true identities or the way they want the world to perceive them.

From sorority girls with their inviting Tramp Stamp back tattoos to the frat boy who gets an Asian character stamped on his arm without actually knowing what it means, getting ink is a pretty meaningless concept for maybe 85% of the people who do it. It's just a cool thing you get as a decoration without having to actually commit to the meaning that you've permanently emblazoned on your flesh. In 20 or 30 years, there are going to be some ridiculous looking seniors doing calisthenics at the rest home pool, with their butterflies above their sagging asses and misshapen barbed wire on their flabby arms. I can't wait.

For the characters in "Eastern Promises," though, tattoos are more important pieces of identification than faces or voices. Because Cronenberg has always obsessed over mysterious subcultures, the Russian mob proves predictably fruitful. As long as "Eastern Promises" is an ethnographic study of masculinity among Russian immigrants in London, it's fabulous. It helped that Cronenberg has gotten his second straight shockingly good performance out of Viggo Mortensen. As great as Mortensen was in "A History of Violence," he's far better here. Not only is his Russian accent not distractingly hammy (I'd had my fears based on the trailer), it's quite respectable. More notable, though, is the way the character carries himself physically. It isn't just the bath house scene [a totally balls-out -- literally... sorry... -- a piece of committed acting], but the way his Nikolai positions himself around mobsters of different ranks, the way he intimidates, but also flirts with Naomi Watts' Anna. There isn't the slightest chance he gets an Oscar nomination out of this, but he may well deserve one. Also perhaps deserving is Armin-Mueller-Stahl, marvelously avuncular and sadistic in equal measures. Even Vincent Cassel, oddly subtle in French performances but hammy in his English language work, keeps everything tightly wound.

Watts is one of those actresses who's almost never bad (if anything, she's underrated), but her character is frustratingly predictable in her motivations and arc. My lack of interest in whether or not Anna got to whisk away the little baby (remarkably healthy for the premature baby of a drug-addicted teen) probably played into how very unimpressed I was with the direction writer Steven Knight eventually decided to take the story. As a piece of screenwriting, I far preferred Knight's "Dirty Pretty Things" script.

Come to think of it, Cronenberg probably could have done great work with "Dirty Pretty Things" as well. A movie about organs mysteriously ending up in hotel toilets? That's right in Cronenberg territory.

My rating for this movie is, I think, a smidge lower than I may feel and may just be a manifestation of my disappointment at the ending. "A History of Violence" grew on me after watching it a second time and I'd bet "Eastern Promises" does the same.

Now a couple quickies.

Director: Jason Reitman
Fien Print Rating: 72
In a Nutshell: The title card says "A Jason Reitman Film," one of the biggest possessionary credit lies I can imagine. The film is dominated not by Reitman's direction -- straight out of the Wes Anderson/ Jared Hess school of quirk -- but by Diablo Cody's script, which is hyper-natural and, at times, hyper-brilliant. It's showy and hilarious, even if it runs out of energy by the end. Ellen Page couldn't be better (fulfilling all of that "Hard Candy" potential and then some) and, of the fine supporting players, I want to give a big nod to J.K. Simmons, utterly fantastic. Fox Searchlight is going to see if Cody can get an Oscar nomination for this and I wouldn't be shocked to see them pull it off.

"American Gangster"
Director: Ridley Scott
Fien Print Rating: 57
In a Nutshell: Hard for me to judge what *is* here (all 160 minutes of it) because I kept yearning for it to be something different. I kept wanting a director with a tangible grasp of New York City (specifically Harlem) to be at the helm. Spike Lee would have been ideal -- it would have either been a disaster or an utter masterpiece, but it wouldn't have been middling or pedestrian. The performances are all very good (Denzel's Oscar-worthy as always), but Scott doesn't quite understand the racial or economic or geographic dynamics of the story. Rather than being an epic saga of the American city, it just ends up being a decent gangster movie. Oddly, that's what will probably help "American Gangster" play to mainstream audiences.

Anyway, I'll have fuller reviews for those two movies in a couple months when they're actually being released...

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Baseball Moaning: Gagne, Thome, etc

I don't do this very often, but I have a little baseball-based ranting I need to do.

If you prefer my TV coverage...

Here's an article on Jeff Probst and "Survivor: China" for Zap2it!

Here's my recap of last night's "Kid Nation," which isn't necessarily good, but certainly isn't evil!

And one of these days I'm going to do a MovieWatch on "Eastern Promises" (I'm having a hard time cracking how much it does or doesn't matter to me that the ending doesn't work) and perhaps a couple words on "Juno" and "American Gangster," which I also caught earlier this week.

But follow through after the bump for a rant about Eric Gagne, a meditation on Jim Thome and whatever else I feel like adding.

Click through...

No Pain, No Gagne -- Might Eric Gagne single-handedly kill my eager anticipation for the July 31 trading deadline? Heck, might Eric Gagne single-handedly kill the July 31 trading deadling for all of baseball? If so, that would be a very sad thing. It used to be that I -- like so many baseball fans -- would look at the gaps on my favorite team (the Red Sox for those who somehow don't know me) and try concocting imaginary deadline deals of my own. Last summer, with the Sox on the verge of what would become a disappointing third-place season, I even won a buck from Sepinwall for asking Sox part-owner Tom Werner about possible deadline deals during a TCA press tour session (under normal circumstances, my journalistic qualms would prevent such a thing, but Werner's two shows last fall with "Twenty Good Years" and "Happy Hour" and I refuse to feel bad about straying off topic).

This was the first year that I told anybody who'd listen that I didn't want the Red Sox to make a trade. They had the best record in baseball and no player on the market seemed capable of improving the Sox at any particular position. When the Sox ended up getting formerly top-drawer closer Gagne (a favorite from his healthier [chemically suspect] days on the Dodgers), I was concerned. In the winter, I'd have signed him to an incentive-laden deal, what with Papelbon planning to start, but in late July, he served no purpose. The conclusion I came to, with some expert help, was that the Red Sox won by keeping Gagne away from the Yankees, the team with the seemingly more suspect bullpen. Addition by subtraction from another team. Who knew that the Yankees would actually win the trade with addition via subtraction from the Red Sox?

The stats for Gagne are remarkable. Three blown saves, 14 runs in 14 innings. He has been directly responsible for losses on four days when the Yankees also won (though, amazingly, he hasn't blown any games against the Yankees), meaning that he's single-handedly cost the Sox four games of a lead that once felt insurmountable. And he's actually been worse than the statistics show. Look at the appearances in which he hasn't given up runs and you'll see that he was great in games the Red Sox were either already losing or games in which they eventually won by scores like 11-1 or 10-1.

The Red Sox are no stranger to less-than-profitable deadline deals involving middle relievers. But as much as Sox fans lament the eventual absence of Jeff Bagwell, Larry Anderson was good for 15 games, 22 innings and an ERA of under 1.25. If Eric Gagne had provided those sorts of numbers the Red Sox would have clinched the division already. I can't help but feel that Gagne's ineptitude has directly put more pressure on Hideki Okajima, who has been shut down with a "tired arm," and on Papelbon, who suddenly looks mortal again. I think his presence has put extra stress on the starters and probably disheartened the hitters. If somebody can come up with a midseason acquisition who has had a more directly negative impact on his team in the history of the game, please share.

As God is my witness, I'll never root for a midseason trade again.

Thome or Not Thome -- Is Jim Thome a Hall of Famer? The dude hit his 500th home run last week against the Angels in darned dramatic walk-off fashion and now everybody's debating whether or not the slugger belongs in Cooperstown. The simple answer is that anybody with 500 home runs belongs in the Hall of Fame and that's that, which will cause additional complications when Carlos Delgado gets to 500 home runs in a couple years. Is Carlos Delgado also a Hall of Famer then? Carlos Delgado has made two All-Star teams in his career. Jim Thome has made five, which isn't all that many in an age where the same people go back to the All-Star games over and over and over again. 500 home runs sure seems like a lot, but this is for a guy who hit 52 home runs and drove in 118 runs in a season and finished *seventh* in the MVP voting. Why did Jim Thome magically become a Hall-of-Famer this week with his 500th home run and yet Fred McGriff won't make it to Cooperstown, despite a far cooler nickname, just because he came up a half-dozen home runs short. Jeff Bagwell is 51 home runs short of 500, but he's far more obviously a Hall of Famer in my book. Then again, Jack Morris and Bert Blyleven belong in as well. Speaking of Thome, did you know that he's No. 3 all-time in strikeouts for a batter? That's impressive to me. Yup. He passed Andres Galarraga earlier this year. Sometimes I like looking at some of the odder leader boards, and it amuses me to see that Reggie Sanders stands at No. 21 all-time in strikeouts.

An Even Odder Career Leader Board -- I remember when Hoyt Wilhelm made the Hall of Fame that one of his claims to fame was that he was the all-time career leader in games played. At the time, that was awfully impressive. He currently stands at No. 5, behind the esteemed Dennis Eckersley, the perfectly respectable John Franco, the ageless Jesse Orosco (your all-time leader, with 1252, 182 more than Wilhelm, though you don't hear anybody saying Orosco belongs in Cooperstown) and, at No. 2 all-time, Mike Stanton. The immortal Mike Stanton. Granted that your Top 15 includes Lee Smith, Kent Tekulve (my favorite baseball card player ever) Rich Gossage and Rollie Fingers, but it also features Dan Plesac, Jose Mesa, Roberto Hernandez and Mike Timlin. There's totally nothing suspect about all of these pitchers throwing well into their 40s. Actually, as I think about it, it's less the fault of steroids and more the fault of Tony Larussa.

OK. Baseball blogging is out of my system.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Emmys Happen, So I React

Ugh. I suppose I have to talk about the Emmys, don't I? Grumble. That's the problem with serving so many darned masters.

Want some Emmy coverage?

Check out my Zap2it feature story on host Ryan Seacrest HERE...

Then check out Zap2it's minute-by-minute coverage of the ceremony (I wrote the second half, with Rick Porter doing the first half) HERE...

Then check out some basic post-Emmy award analysis HERE...

And finally, if you're *really* bored, check out a story on Emmy Dark Horses I wrote for the LA Times' award site The Envelope. Yeah, my picks were almost all wrong (I got Sally Field, at least) and they misspelled my last name (We work for the same company, guys!!!!), but it's HERE...

Is that not enough? Fine, then... Follow through after the bump for my thoughts on the show itself including the show's Five Most Awkward Moments. Hopefully I'll be short and sweet, but probably (knowing me) not...

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The Emmys were just a little bit too amateur hour this year. The cross-promotion of FOX shows was just a little bit too ham-handed. The attempts to recapture previously appealing Emmy moments were just a little too forced (sorry Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert). The Theater-in-the-Round format made the whole thing just a bit too much like a Dane Cook comedy tour.

And overseeing the whole thing was Ryan Seacrest. As much as I joke about Seacrest all through "American Idol" season and as much as I lament the continued absence of Brian Dunkleman, Seacrest is a fine reality TV host. I've watched enough of "The Contender" or "On the Lot" to know that Seacrest may not be Jeff Probst or Phil Keoghan, but he's sure better than Sugar Ray Leonard and Arianna Costa. But Seacrest isn't the man you want to host an award show of this caliber, not when you have Conan O'Brien, Ellen DeGeneres, Hugh Laurie, Stewart and Colbert and at least a dozen other superior candidates sitting in the crowd. Although Seacrest swore up and down to reporters that he'd leave the comedy for the comedy pros, he actually tried selling punchlines and not just the lame one-liners he does on "Idol." Pacing the stage and clapping his hands together, Seacrest did something that all-too-closely resembled a monologue, only it wasn't funny. The biggest laugh came from the awkwardness of Seacrest's interaction with former alleged flame Teri Hatcher. Yawn.

That wasn't even *close* to being the most awkward moment of the night, the moment that had me shaking me head in shame for most involved.

Top Five Awkward Moments (in no particular order)

1)Opening "Family Guy" song, when Stewie and Brian sing about Isaiah Washington and the director cuts to T.R. Knight. Ugh.

2)The announcer pronounces Katherine Heigl's last name "Hi-Jel." Now that's just ridiculous, for a show of this stature, for an announcer to mispronounce an eventual winner's name, to mispronounce the name of a woman who starred in the year's biggest comedy hit. But things got worse first when the camera caught Heigl telling her co-presenter that her name had been pronounced wrong and then when she went up and, before doing her presenting duties, corrected the announcer. Discretion is just the better part of valor.

3)The way the FOX promo department kept running the same ads calling "K-Ville" a landmark show. Well, I guess with "Nashville" already done, they really really need to make something succeed.

4)The whole event was feeling amateurish and then Robert Duvall, one of the greatest actors EVER gets on stage to accept the first Emmy of his career. He talks for 20 seconds and the music begins playing. That's bad, but surely they have some place better to go, right? Wrong. It's Seacrest talking to a blogger in the crowd. And then he makes a lame-o Vanessa Anne Hudgens joke. I'm all for people passing around her nudie pictures like dirty, dirty currency, but did we really need to make jokes about her humiliation on a widely watched award telecast? Boo.

5)The standing ovation for CurrentTV. A bunch of Hollywood fakes applauding for the recognition of a cable network they've never watched just because Al Gore happens to be in the house. The same Al Gore whose wife would have put most of them out of business for being smutty? Yeah. Good times.

5a)Those three technical glitches where the audio cut out and the camera went up to the rafters. If they were actually glitches, they're awkward. If they were FOX's way of censoring people who said naughty words, they were just sloppy.

Awards I'm Happy About: "30 Rock," Jamie Pressly (even if Jenna Fischer deserved to win), Thomas Haden Church (finally getting the Emmy he deserved for "Wings")

Awards I'm Less Happy About: The Pivs? Again?!?! Spader? Again?!?!? "The Amazing Race"? Again?!?!?

Anyway, I've now written much too much about the 59th Primetime Emmy Awards.

NetflixWatch: "Disturbia"

Director: D.J. Caruso
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 56
In a Nutshell: How to explain the late-spring surprise success of "Disturbia"? Do we access, as Steve Spielberg seems to have, that Shia LaBeouf is a massive star? Do we figure that PG-13 thrillers are the new R-rated torture porn when it comes to young viewers? Do we somehow credit director D.J. Caruso and therefore assume that his three previous films ("Two for the Money," "Taking Lives" and "The Salton Sea") were just flukes of awfulness? Do we credit the DreamWorks marketing department and some well-placed ads? Or do we just blame Hollywood for producing so much tripe this spring that audiences were parched for even moderate signs of professionalism?

It's a bit of a mystery to me, because I'm late to the "Disturbia" party, but what I found was a so-so movie with around 30 minutes of clever suspense trappings stuck in the middle somewhere. The progression from voyeuristic thriller to straight-up slasher film comes with nearly 20 minutes to go and pretty well betrays what came before. Here I'll point out that "Disturbia" co-writer Carl Ellsworth's "Red Eye" had the identical problem. The guy has a gift for setting up Hitchcockian wackiness, but no sense of follow-through.

Follow after the bump for few more thoughts of "Disturbia," hopefully written before I have to rush off to see "Eastern Promises."

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I know I'm all literal and stuff, but the entire premise of "Disturbia" rings a bit off for me, because what kind of judge is going to think that the best way to punish a white, upper-middle-class suburban kid on the verge of summer vacation is with three months of isolation and containment, particularly in a post-Columbine age. The idea that a judge would opt to cultivate an under-aged loner as a sign of leniency (rather than, you know, imposing three months of community service?) loses me. Immediately.

That's too bad, because the movie's initial psychological hook is rather powerful. A young man feels the responsibility for his father's death and becomes a troubled misfit, much to the sadness of his mother (Carrie-Anne Moss), who doesn't know whether to blame her son for costing her time with the man she loved. The boy gets his house-arrest and becomes a crazed shut-in and begins imagining things, which leads him to doubt his own sanity when he comes to suspect that his neighbor (David Morse) might have killed somebody.

No. Wait. That's not *quite* the premise, because none of those darker things are explored at ALL. If they didn't occasionally mention the kid's dead dad, he wouldn't factor in the story or the character motivations at all. And the full extent of his shut-in wackiness is building a stack of Twinkies, because in the 21st century with video games and the Internet and 50-inch flat panel TVs, it really takes more than a few days to start going stir-crazy. And, worst of all, there's never any ambiguity about the neighbor's degree of wickedness. Yes, the template was stolen from "Rear Window," but in "Rear Window" you spend a lot more time wondering if L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) is imagining things and debating whether or not the man across the way (Raymond Burr) is a killer. In "Disturbia"? No room for gray.

And even though the visual template -- Peeping Tom POVs and whatnot -- were also lifted from "Rear Window," Caruso decides to cheat at inappropriate times. If you're going to go in for the Hitchcockian POV as a gimmick, don't abandon your conceit to be a perv. Shia The Beef and his barely named Asian buddy (Aaron Yoo) are checking out the hottie next door (Sarah Roemer) swimming in the pool and the shot goes from a standard POV shot of the characters ogling the neighbor (from an appropriate distance, as they have yet to use binoculars) to a far tighter and more intrusive shot of the young actress' butt, wet from the pool. At that point, the POV is no longer that of the cooped up character so much as the director checking out a nubile 22-year-old actress. Weak, buddy. There are also several entirely inappropriate cut-always later in the movie where we see things the main character couldn't have seen just to fill in gaps in the narrative, gaps that better storytelling could have filled in without the cheating.

Beyond the failure to suggest any amount of internal turmoil at all, The Beef's performance isn't bad, nor is leading lady Roemer, whose interchangeability with Blake Lively distracted me on several occasions. I don't know if I'm supposed to blame Morse for his character's one-dimensionality -- I think not, since the actor is plenty capable of crafting the right sort of is-he-or-isn't-he-evil character, he just wasn't asked to do it here.

As relatively painless as "Disturbia" was -- it's not an awful movie, just one that squanders its potential -- the sense that the entire movie, every freakin' second of it, was based lifted from other movies never left me.

Friday, September 14, 2007

MovieWatch: "The Darjeeling Limited"

"The Darjeeling Limited"
Director: Wes Anderson
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 68 (though 80 for "Hotel Chevalier")
In a Nutshell: First off, L'Shanah Tova, y'all...

In the comment section of my "3:10 to Yuma" review, there's a wee bit of discussion regarding James Mangold's hypothetical status among auteurists, whether his lack of clear thematic or visual directorial fingerprints should be construed as a negative or if we should just nod and be appreciative of his general genre-spanning competence (it's harder than you might think). Nobody is going to have any such confusion over Wes Anderson. With "The Darjeeling Limited," Anderson has crafted his fifth consecutive quirky concoctions featuring the same aesthetical trickery, the same self-conscious voice, the same emotional underpinnings, the same melancholic core. The law of diminishing returns has been kicking in for several projects now, as I feel like Anderson has to keep working harder and harder to create a similar effect. But even as I may have walked out of "The Darjeeling Limited" underwhelmed by the movie as a whole, the number of individual moments that had me marveling was still pretty high.

Follow through after the bump for additional thoughts on both "Darjeeling" and also on the Anderson short film "Hotel Chevalier."

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"Hotel Chevalier," a 13-minute prologue to "The Darjeeling Limited," won't be playing in front of the feature in theaters. The plan is to have the short available on the Internet and showing at festivals, though a note to critics said that the filmmaker still hopes that viewers will come to "Darjeeling" having already seen "Chevalier."

Certainly "Chevalier" will get an impressive Internet boost out of pure notoriety. It's doomed to be known as "That clip where Natalie Portman gets partially naked," rather than on its own merits, which is doubly cheap. The movie takes place entirely within a room at a Paris hotel, establishing through cryptic dialogue the relationship between Jack Whitman (Jason Schwartzman) and a mysterious woman (Portman). That relationship is moderately important as a backdrop to "Darjeeling" and there are several direct references to "Chevalier" in the feature. If you haven't seen the short, though, the only time you'll be confused is when Portman mysteriously flashes back in a montage toward the end.

It's simple, neat, existential and heart-felt and it's pure Anderson, from the gaudy gold hotel robes to every whip-pan and warped POV to the gloriously odd use of Peter Sarstedt's "Where Do You Go To My Lovely." It's like Wes Anderson Tang -- intensely concentrated, but still the same essence. The Internet wags will be all a-buzz about Portman's flashing of flesh and she does, indeed, show her butt, but that doesn't give enough credit to how beautiful, mature and impactful she is with so very little screentime. The maturity factor may be improved by Schwartzman's, um, diminutive stature (Portman has often been too wispy for her older screen partners), but the actors are well-matched.

I'd love to see "Hotel Chevalier" pick up an Oscar nomination for short film.

If "Hotel Chevalier" will probably be stuck as "That Portman Nudie Pick," "Darjeeling Limited" is almost certain to see most of its discourse focus on the presence of Owen Wilson as Francis Whitman, a man who forces a reunion with his brothers Jack and Peter (Adrien Brody) after he attempts suicide. Wilson, of course, has two brothers and just made headlines with his own suicide attempt. It's a pretty facile way of looking at the movie, to try seeing something that Anderson, Schwartzman and Roman Coppola wrote as a weird reflection on the life of Anderson's former regular co-writer.

It's not like the relationship between these three brothers break all that much new ground for Anderson. It's another family in extremis, another set of siblings so damaged by their collective past and their self-medicated present that they can't communicate normally anymore. Francis, Jack and Peter are all attempting to numb their feelings with pharmaceuticals, but Francis' grand plan is to bring them together in India and have spirituality and faith become their new placebo. These men don't understand a thing about Indian culture or the local religions, but Francis hopes that a few carefully reproduced rituals will help them recover whatever relationship they once had. Along the way, they have mishaps and hijinx, which ought to give you a sense of how loose the film's script is. Precious little is spelled out or over-explained. Much of the momentum comes via the eponymous train and from a typically Anderson-esque soundtrack that juxtaposes the Kinks with snippets of the score from a number of Indian classics including Satyajit Ray's "Pather Panchali" and "Aparajito."

Brody, Wilson and Schwartzman interact believably as brothers and their different performances styles -- Brody just a little bit more intense, Schwartzman just a little bit more hammy, Wilson just a little bit more hyperactive -- end up being complimentary.

The Oscar exposure for "Darjeeling" is likely to be limited to a few technical categories and it's a long-shot even there because there are strange things that the Academy seems not to get when it comes to Anderson's films. Both "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," for example, received production design nominations from the Art Directors Guild, but couldn't get Oscar nominations. In both cases, it was a crime. Similarly, if Mark Friedberg doesn't get Academy recognition for his work both recreating and fabricating an Indian railway line here, it will be a disservice. Every frame is packed with details and you either believe that India is a country that was organically designed with Wes Anderson in mind, or you salute the blending of Eastern and Western sensibilities that Friedberg achieves. I'm also feeling like it's about time for Anderson's regular cinematographer Robert Yeoman to grab an Oscar nomination. It's one thing to just capture India as a beautiful and exotic region, but Yeoman's participation appears to be central to Anderson's ability to deliver on his vision.

Bottom line -- "Darjeeling" isn't as cumulatively successful as "Rushmore" or even "Royal Tenenbaums," but it still feels more cohesive than "Steve Zissou." I think it's a movie that may play better as a well-stocked DVD package (complete with "Hotel Chevalier") than it will in theaters.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Evil Triumphs on "Big Brother" (plus thoughts on "Weeds" and "Californication")

I doubt I'll be the only person paraphrasing from "Spaceballs" when discussing tonight's key "Big Brother" Power of Veto competition and the resulting Final Three for this season.

"So, Zach, now you see that evil will always triumph because good is dumb."

I didn't like the Danato Alliance of name-dropping, spitting, maniacal, appropriately nicknamed Evil Dick and his bubbly, skeletal daughter Daniele, but once crazy (and crazy-hot) Jen was eliminated and sympathetically scheming and Semitic Eric got squeezed, I really had no choice. Root for personality-free uber-Christian Jameka, whose challenge performances and strategy were less-than-existent? Nah. And how could you root for Zach, a lunkhead who reminds me of nobody so much as Moose from the classic Archie comic series. Zach's rant last week about how unfair it's been that the Danatos have dominated this season was the sort of hypocritical behavior I most detest in reality show contestants. If you are going to waste your entire summer looking like moron on national TV, it's best not to turn around and whine about people who actually contributed to their own success or failure in said game.

I'd like for Zach to go next, because I want to see father and daughter turn on each other for the big prize. I think the summer in isolation has been good for Daniele, whose boney physique initially disgusted me. She's cheated and lied and played both ends against the middle, but I think I'd rather see her win than the alternatives. Oh and I look forward to seeing how Jessica, Eric's shiksa boobie prize, reacts to the America's Player revelation.

I know. Rambling about "Big Brother" isn't very intellectually substantive. Click through after the bump for my thoughts on this week's "Weeds" and on "Californication," which I'm finally caught up on.

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"Weeds" -- I'd been recapping "Weeds" over on the Zap2it blog, but people hadn't been commenting, so I took a week off. I'll be blogging there again next week when Mary-Kate Olsen makes her first twinless co-starring role. Can't wait!

This week's episode was the funniest in weeks and it continued the season's thematic push towards reinvention. The episode's title, "Bill Sussman," reflected Andy's temporary alter-ego as he fled from the US army, plus we got to see Silas claim a new pusher name, "Judah" after his father. In both cases the new names were also reclamations of the characters' Jewish identities, however subtle. The episode's only reference to Judaism was the season's most hilarious exchange to date, in which the woman from the Absolute Truth Ministry inquired about Shane's father's Jewish heritage and Nancy replied that he was.

Absolute Truth Woman: "Did he pass?"
Nancy: "Most people thought he was Italian."

Brilliant, if you happen to get a kick out of assimilation humor. I do.

Nancy didn't reinvent herself, but she claimed to find herself, as she cleaned Marvin's blood off the backseat of her Prius (a not-so-subtle "Pulp Fiction" reference).

"I think I am OK," she told Andy. "I mean, stuff keeps piling on, piling on, piling on and while tomorrow's another day, I'm pretty sure something even more heinous is gonna happen to me, because that just seems to be the way it rolls. I really think I'm finding myself."

Other highlights from the episode included the Agrestic Eco-Warrior stumping for the Santacitos Dirt Shrew, U-Turn electing to buy a fleet of Priuses for his whole crew ("They're real quiet. Good for sneaking up on mutherfuckas."), WWVMD (What Would Vic Mackey Do?) and the military man's warning that Andy shouldn't go around blabbing about poor Rodriguez's demise last week ("You were never at Ft. Irwin and the only man named Rodriguez you know is some asshole on the Yankees, thinks he's better than Graig Nettles.").

"Californication" -- Why am I still watching "Californication"? It's glibly profane, shamelessly derivative, predictably plotted and entirely unrealistic when it comes to the sex appeal of Los Angeles-based bloggers. The show has, in fact, gotten worse since David Duchovny's Hank started blogging, because it's forced a badly written voice-over onto the show, over-explaining each week's theme with all of the wisdom I expect from Dr. Meredith Grey. Hank's blog is to "Californication" as the comedy sketches were to "Studio 60." I feel particularly bad for Evan Handler and Rachel Miner, caught in a subplot that's been lifted wholesale from "Secretary."

The best reason for watching is the random, unexpected nudity from people like Paula Marshall and the little girl from "The Nanny." Some of the performances aren't bad, with Duchovny treating his new incarnation as a sitcom star with the proper level of bemusement, but one of the actresses I most enjoyed, Amy Price-Francis, appears to be done with her run. Even with "Weeds" in the midst of a somewhat bumpy season, it still exposes the shallowness of "Californication" on a weekly basis.

[And now, back to Showtime's Big Brother After Dark feed, where the last Head of Household competition is down to Zach and Evil Dick, who are standing in a fake rainstorm swearing at each other.]

Monday, September 10, 2007

MovieWatch: "3:10 to Yuma"

"3:10 to Yuma"
Director: James Mangold
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 70
In a Nutshell: Through one game, The Great Randy Moss Experiment of 2007-08 seems to be working out pretty well for the Patriots. Even if he tweaks his hamstring and doesn't feel like trying for another down this season, he's already been well worth a fourth round draft pick. And through one day of post-game interviews, he's said all the right things about how the Pats are a team of supporting players and he's just part of the support, like he's the most expensive jockstrap in New England. And I'm pretty confident that even without Moss, Welker and Stallworth and Watson will be able to catch enough balls on their own. I don't know if that was another jockstrap joke.

As I was writing that paragraph, I was trying to think of a way to use Randy Moss as a clever transitional point into James Mangold's remake of "3:10 to Yuma." It has something to do with how Delmer Daves' 1957 original was already a pretty good movie to begin with (just like the Patriots weren't such a bad football team last year), but that doesn't mean that there's any harm in revving up the engine with a few new supporting parts (that's where Russell Crowe and Christian Bale come in), as long as somebody respectable is at the helm. In that scenario, James Mangold somehow gets wildly inflated into becoming the cinematic equivalent of Bill Belichick. So I'll stop.

Follow through after the bump for my thoughts on "3:10 to Yuma," thoughts that make no mention whatsoever of the presumptive Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots.

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There are few Western genre tropes more common and recurring than the lone man standing up for what he knows is right, even if everybody around him lacks his integrity and convictions, and for that reason I've always sortta lumped the original "3:10 to Yuma" in with superior films like "The Ox-Bow Incident," "High Noon" and with moderate tweaking, "Bad Day at Black Rock," which all came earlier. That doesn't mean that "3:10 to Yuma" isn't without merits, particularly in the lead performances by Van Heflin and the evil-against-type Glenn Ford and in its ultra-lean 90-minute running time.

Mangold's film has been expanded to nearly two hours and, as a result, the new "Yuma" lacks the urgency that drove the original. It takes a lot longer for noble rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) get the wicked Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to the town of Contention, where he'll be put on a train to a prison to be hung. My filmgoing companion preferred the original movie's focus on the near-real-time wait for the train, where Dan and Ben test each others' mettle and come to inevitably learn important lessons about what constitutes manliness in the Old West.

Mangold's version muddies the waters by expanding on the Western milieu. He introduces fiercesome Injuns (whose faces are never seen) and he emphasizes the role of the encroaching railroad in the eventual elimination of the West's wide open spaces. The extra time also leaves room for plenty of reminders that Ben Wade is a vicious killer. In the original, Ford's character is insidiously and charismatically bad, but it's easy to fall under his sway. Crowe's character commits acts of violence before our eyes, killing people who skuzzy, but also one or two people who probably deserved to live. Dan's impressionable teenage son (Logan Lerman) says he detects the good in Ben, but it's only Crowe's lively performance (and the character's somewhat ham-handed artistic side) that makes us see what the kid sees.

If Crowe's Wade is more hiss-ably evil in this version, Bale's Dan is more ambiguously weak-kneed. I guess my read on Heflin's character from the original was just that he was a man beaten down by life, nearly out of chances to keep his family afloat. Bale was able to hint that some of Dan's misfortune was self-inflicted.

Extra time has also helped to flesh out four or five supporting roles from the original, giving actual substance to railway man Butterfield (Dallas Roberts), Doc Potter (Alan Tudyk), spectacularly suspect Pinkerton Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda) and, in particular, Ben Wade's right hand man Charlie (Ben Foster). It's hard not to be intrigued by Foster's career choices and he's always engaging to watch, even if his gonzo mannerisms are becoming increasingly familiar. After seeing this movie, "Alpha Dog" and Foster's contribution to the trailer for "30 Days of Night," I have a pretty good idea now of what constitutes a Ben Foster performance. He's becoming predictably unpredictable.

To some degree, "3:10 to Yuma" has been reimagined not as a fast-and-cheap B-movie, like the original, but as a star-studded Hawks or Ford film. Certainly Mangold has kept the Western revisionism to a minimum, aided by Marco Beltrami's uber-Western score and Phedon Papamichael's cinematography, which is full of images of manly men shot from low angles against the harsh natural terrain. This is an old-fashioned story well-told.

[Side note: Was there a reason for the Luke Wilson cameo that comes half-way through the movie? Were we going for a "Hoot" reunion with Lerman? It was needlessly distracting and Wilson's presence didn't add an iota to the movie, so I guess I'm wondering who thought there was a benefit to his being there.]

Saturday, September 08, 2007

MovieWatch: "Gone Baby Gone"

"Gone Baby Gone"
Director: Ben Affleck
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 70 (but I've gone higher and lower in my mind)
In a Nutshell: Regular readers know that I teased y'all back in July after seeing "Gone Baby Gone." I was supposed to interview Ben Affleck for Filter, but then that didn't happen (I'll forgive you someday, Ben), but I didn't wanna jump the gun by discussing a movie that wouldn't be out until October.

Now, of course, the industry trade papers have jumped the gun (they're all-powerful and get to do that) and while Variety was quite positive, The Hollywood Reporter critic spewed all over himself, saying "[I]t's going to be remembered as one of the best crime movies of this decade."

The thing that's prompting me to write is that my own feelings about the movie were inextricably tied to my affection for Dennis Lehane's Kenzie-Gennaro mysteries, while neither critic for either trade publication seemed to have read the books. I'm not insulting either of 'em, just explaining how their reactions were fundamentally different from mine.

So here's what I'm gonna do. After the bump, I'm gonna give a very basic not-quite-review of the movie, giving NOTHING away. Just a few things I liked, a few things I didn't. Then, after the proper spoiler space, I'm going to do a little bit of comparing of the book to the movie, particularly the fundamental ways in which the movie didn't succeed for me, in regards to the book.

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The most important thing to know about "Gone Baby Gone" is that if you didn't know it was directed by Ben Affleck, you would never know from watching it. That is to say that "Gone Baby Gone" doesn't feel like the work of a first-time director, nor does it feel like the work of an actor whose greatest asset over the years has been his glibness and gift for aware self-analysis. Despite narrative sloppiness, mostly in the adaptation process, "Gone Baby Gone" is a somber (a word likely to be attached to "Gone" as much as "twee" is to "Pushing Daisies) and mature film, a project full of great performance, authentic local color and the kind of moral pulse that you don't see very often in Hollywood films. "Gone Baby Gone" has things on its mind.

Casey Affleck is an odd choice for the lead role, but he contributes just enough assertiveness when required that he carries the film. The supporting cast is sterling, though nearly all of the South Boston accents waver erratically. Standouts include Amy Ryan, Titus Welliver, the welcome return of John Ashton and the always reliable Morgan Freeman. The obvious Oscar bait, to my mind, is Ed Harris, whose Remy Brousard is all exposed nerve endings, an ultra-intense man whose loyalties and ethical codes are entirely unique. Michelle Monaghan is disappointingly wasted as Angie Gennaro, but more on that in a bit.

[AMMENDED: My apologies. In listing the actors who made the greatest impressions in this fine cast, I totally forgot to mention Michael K. Williams. Now, you might think that the fact that I forgot to mention him meant that OMAR didn't leave an impression. That would be false. He passes through the background in one early shot and then you have to wait another 45 minutes for him to return, but he's every bit as searing and striking as fans of "The Wire" could hope for. I don't know what's going to happen to Williams' career after "The Wire" is over.]

"Gone Baby Gone" tip-toes around a number of familiar genre cliches and most avoids the worst, though familiarity sets in at certain points, particularly when the decisions made by individual characters become increasingly murky.

[OK. Spoiler time. Or maybe not. I'm not going to discuss anything in the movie in ultra-explicit form, but I'm going to compare Lehane's novel to Affleck's movie and so reading from here may tell you more than you want to know. You've been warned.]

I don't know why Affleck decided to begin a possible Kenzie-Gennaro film franchise with the middle book in the series. Because the ongoing serial plotlines are minimal, it might be an exaggeration to compare it to starting a "Lord of the Rings" franchise with "The Two Towers," but to my mind it's close. "Gone Baby Gone" finds the main characters in a very specific point in their relationship and if you don't understand how they arrived at where they were when they start to book (or movie) it's really hard to understand the choices they make by the end. It really *is* a journey, a journey that Affleck and co-writer Aaron Stockard have mostly skipped.

"Gone Baby Gone," remarkably, isn't the darkest of the five Kenzie-Gennaro novels, but it may be the most somber, the one that carries the most gravity. Certainly its villains are the most human. It still retains plenty of humor, the fabulous banter between characters that Affleck and Stockard have mostly removed, perhaps because it didn't fit with the tone of the movie they crafted.

The person who suffers most, without any question, is Gennaro. I LOVED the casting of Michelle Monahan in this role, but I never would have guessed how how little the actress would get to show off that brassy, sexy spark that she brought to "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang." Because Kenzie and Gennaro begin "Gone Baby Gone" already in a relationship, you miss out on the two books of flirtation, the 20 years of accumulated sexual tension. You also lose out, unfortunately, on any sense that this is an equal partnership. The case in "Gone Baby Gone" involves an abducted child and in the movie, Gennaro's reaction verges on gender stereotype. She makes a choice by the end of the movie that doesn't make a lick of sense, nor does it have any gravity because of the overall lack of equality on-screen. If you've read the book and you know about Gennaro's past -- her bloodlines in organized crime, her abusive ex-husband, her time with Kenzie -- it makes sense and it couldn't be more serious. Affleck didn't have time for Gennaro's full arc and Monaghan's performance and the weight of the film suffer. If "Gone Baby Gone" is successful, I'd love to see Affleck tackle another one of the books, this time bringing back the real Angie, letting Monaghan loose.

The will disappoint fans of the book. Fans of the books will also be confused by Casey Affleck's Kenzie, because it isn't close to the character in the book. Lehane's Kenzie, is very much a product of his upbringing, not necessarily the biggest man or the toughest man or the smartest man, but a man who invites danger with his mouth, his fists and his gun. By the end of the books, his entire body is a road-map of scars acquired in the line of duty. It's harder to tell how Casey Affleck's Kenzie is a product of his neighborhood and there's no trace of the book's fast-talking, charismatic, trouble-seeking Kenzie. Instead, it's a Casey Affleck character, albeit the most aggressive the actor has ever played. This Kenzie is withdrawn, introspective and reserved. When pushed against a wall, though, he fights back and those moments were my favorite in the movie. I liked the hints that if it had been required, Casey Affleck could have played the book's Kenzie, but his brother wanted to take things a different direction. Once I got over those reservations, I mostly accepted and enjoyed what Casey did.

The change fans of the book will find hardest to forgive is the near-elimination of Bubba Rogowski, probably Lehane's most beloved supporting character. Lehane's Bubba is a hulking "Soldier of Fortune"-style mercenary, a sociopath who terrifies the very worst criminals in Boston, but remains fiercely loyal to Kenzie and Gennaro because of past kindnesses. I defy anybody coming to "Gone Baby Gone" without knowledge of the books to even tell me who Bubba was. Yes, there's a character named "Bubba" in the movie, but there's barely a shred of Lehane's character. I'd honestly have preferred if the character had been eliminated entirely than to see him shrunken and unremarkable in this manner.

I could probably go on. But I won't. It turns out that I actually didn't give anything away in that spoiler section. Good for me!

Friday, September 07, 2007

Another TV Roundup ("Mad Men," "Damages," "Tell Me You Love Me," Etc.)

Fall can't get here soon enough. I want to see second episodes of "Pushing Daisies" and "Chuck" and "Reaper." I want to meet House's new condos. I want to meet the new top models. I want to continue the process of waiting for Ted to meet the mother of his children.

I'm tired of summer TV, for the most part. This week's "Big Brother" double-elimination left a house of unappealing jerks and while this week's "Top Chef" finally saw Howie get a well-deserved boot, I'm not sure if I'm really rooting for anybody.

Well, at least I'm rooting for the Red Sox. If the AL MVP race is over and A-Rod has won, can I at least lobby to get Mike Lowell into the Top five in the voting? I go back and forth as to whether the AL Rookie of the Year should go Dice-K, Pedroia, Okajima or Pedroia, Okajima, Dice-K. And is anybody noticing the statistics Papelbon has suddenly out up? 77 Ks in only 51 innings. A .135 opponents BA. An ERA of 1.58? That's Cy Young stuff.

Anyway, click through the bump for some quick thoughts on the shows I'm using to fill the time until the real season begins... The good ("Mad Men"), the bad (Sorry "Damages") and the done ("Entourage"... Whew).

Click through...

"Entourage" -- I don't remember the last time "Entourage" made me laugh out loud. That's not good for a show the TV Academy thinks is one of the year's five best comedies. But I won't go into that. I have just one question: Was having "Medellin" be unbearably awful an interesting creative decision? It was definitely the most predictable choice. After all, E has been the unheralded prophet for years now and if he kept saying that Billy made a bad film, everybody was supposed to listen. It will ultimately allow the show to bring Maury Chaykin's Harvey back next season and that's good. I just don't know how this sets up an interesting upcoming season. Fun in the editing room? And... Um... Pre-Production halts on "Silo"? At least if the movie had been good, "Entourage" could have done the a season about Vince's quest for an Oscar, the award show circuit, the Oscar hype machine, etc. For that to work, Vincent would have needed a good publicist, a publicist like Debi Mazar's Shauna.

"Damages" -- I hate the expression "Jump the shark," but if I were to ever feel inclined to use it, a relevant time might have come with this week's episode of "Damages." The revelation that Lila, the dead fiance's woman-on-the-side, wasn't just a man-stealing tart, she's a lying, pathologically jealous, single-white-female-style stalker went one step too far. I was never interested in the dead fiance in the first place and I've been increasingly disheartened by how obsessed the show's writers seemed to be with that revelation (at the expense of telling us *anything* about the Frobisher case), but barring some sort of extra link that ties Lila to either Glenn Close's Patty or directly to Frobisher, I have to call shenanigans. "Damages" was supposed to be the story of an innocent young attorney whose life gets hijacked by a brilliant legal shark, but it's been four or five episodes since Patty did anything brilliant, much less anything legally viable. My buddy Josh is also disappointed with this direction, but he tries rationalizing the Lila red herring, going so far as to link her "Fatal Attraction"-esque arc to Close's famous bunny boiling role. I'm not even vaguely convinced. In fact, I've given up any hope of being invested in either the discovery of who killed the fiance or what Patty has to do to crush Frobisher. I'm just killing time til "Damages" ends.

"Mad Men" -- "Mad Men," on the other hand, continues to be a show that I find myself strangely invested in, so much so that the amorphous lack of narrative has ceased to even be an issue. Do I still want to know why Betty's (January Jones) hands were shaking and how her therapy is going? Yeah. Would I like more excuses to see Joan's (Christina Hendricks) canoodling with Roger (John Slattery)? Absolutely. Do I prefer the episodes that feature Maggie Siff's Rachel? Sure. But I actually rewound Don's smackdown of the lipstick mogul three or four times, loving Jon Hamm's delivery of the line "Listen, I'm not here to tell you about Jesus. Either he lives in your heart or he doesn't..." Killer stuff. I liked the Don back-story with the hobo, with the one quibble that it was so obvious that the Hobo's entire ethos had spurred Don's personal reinvention that I was minorly astounded that we didn't get a big reveal in which the hobo said his real name was "Draper." Also on the Don front, I continue to love his interactions with the comic bohemian caricatures, especially the last kiss-off where the proto-hippy warns him that he can't leave their pot-filled apartment with cops standing outside and Don merely straightens his suit and spits out "*You* can't" and leaves.

Also, while other people remain unsure about the relationship between Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), I was amazed by how well the two actors played the scene at Peggy's celebration party, where Pete, unable to celebrate anything himself, tells her he doesn't like seeing her this way -- happy? out-going? just drunk? -- and leaves her dancing along, increasingly crushed. I'll just direct you to Alan's far sager comments on this week's storyline for Salvatore, which Bryan Batt used to turn the character from a cheap joke into a the show's most human character in one scene.

"Tell Me You Love Me" -- I have nothing to say on this one, except that it embarrasses me how many of my critical colleagues treated the show like it's porn and giggled nervously about all of the sex scenes and how graphic they were and whether or not they were simulated and other such nonsense. First, those critics should all spend a few minutes watching some actual porn, even late-night Cinemax stuff, just for a clarification. Second, the show isn't even vaguely sexy. Stars Ally Walker, Sonya Walger and particularly Michelle Borth certainly are plenty sexy, but whining middle class white emotional dysfunction is like saltpeter to me.

Could "Pushing Daisies" be any more Twee?

ABC's "Pushing Daisies" remains my favorite new show of the fall.

In my rave not-review for the pilot, though, I observed that "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." Sepinwall promptly turned around and, indeed, compared the degree of twee (Hey, that rhymes!!!) in the "Pushing Daisies" pilot to creator Bryan Fuller's similarly twee "Wonderfalls" and "Dead Like Me."

Currently a Google search for Pushing+Daisies+Twee gets you only 646 hits, but that's a number that I figure will go up, particularly in light of the press release sent out by ABC today making it clear that the show's first episode, set to air on October 3, will be called "Pie-lette."

You see, the show's about a guy who bakes pies (and resurrects the dead to help him solve crimes) and the first episode of a show is usually called its "pilot" and...

SO TWEE!!!!!

Stomach-churning twee-ness aside, ABC has been doing a surprisingly good job of trying to support "Pushing Daisies," a show that's already got its place reserved in a Brilliant-But-Cancelled line-up. The ads and billboards and general promotional push have done a decent job of establishing the show's mixture of dark comedy and day-glo whimsy. If it makes it through November Sweeps, I'll be stunned.

Anyway, expect a more substantive post of some sort -- Review of this week's "Damages" and "Made Men"? A MovieWatch on "Gone Baby Gone"? -- a bit later. I just had some blogging muscles I wanted to flex. and I wanted to roll my eyes at "Pie-lette."

Sunday, September 02, 2007

MovieWatch: "Rob Zombie's Halloween"

"Rob Zombie's Halloween"
Director: Rob Zombie
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 24
In a Nutshell: John Carpenter's "Halloween" is a genre masterpiece characterized almost entirely by insinuation -- faceless shapes in the shadows, implicating point-of-view shots, a minimalist insistent soundtrack. It's one of the scariest movies I've ever seen, but by today's standards, it could probably get a PG-13 rating.

To remake this classic of insinuation, Dimension naturally enlisted Rob Zombie, a director whose instincts couldn't possibly run more counter to the aesthetic of Carpenter's original. I've seen Zombie's "House of 1000 Corpses" and "The Devil's Rejects" and the nicest thing I can say about his body of work is that Rob Zombie has never insinuated a darned thing. Zombie's films are as raw, nasty, sloppy and obscene as he wants. He doesn't tip-toe or pussyfoot.

I didn't like either of Zombie's first two films, but "The Devil's Rejects" was a notable step forward from "Corpses," which was the work of an inept amateur. The qualitative leap between first and second features had me wanting to see Zombie's "Halloween" against my better judgment. I knew Zombie's version wasn't going to be Carpenter's, which would probably annoy me. But what I hoped was that working within the structure of a classic, Zombie's lesser narrative tendencies might be tamed and he might make an interesting and distinctive alternative text.

Follow through after the bump to see if I thought Zombie succeeded (the Fien Print rating probably ought to give some indication).

Click through...

The sad reality is that Zombie's "Halloween" falls short not for tinkering with Carpenter's classic, but for not tinkering enough. Zombie's never been much of a storyteller and he uses Carpenter's original script as a crutch as he distinctly runs out of energy in his film's second half.

For around 40 minutes, "Halloween" is a near-glorious mess, as Zombie takes the better part of an hour to do what Carpenter did in five minutes -- He delves deeply into the mythology of Michael Myers, showing the events that pushed the kid (Daeg Faerch) build up to his first Halloween night massacre. Zombie crafts a mythology that couldn't be more predictable if you've seen either of his first films. The character practically sings his litany of misfortunes like a Jet belting his heart out to Officer Kruptke ("I've got a social disease!"). It's pretty silly stuff -- Zombie's profane idea of dialogue makes all of his characters sound like the inbred offspring of David Mamet low-lifes (they're not as literate, but they do use profanity as punctuation) -- but it's also occasionally disturbing and fresh.

Then, after 15 years of incarceration -- during which time The State really ought to have prevented Michael from having extensive use of the weight room -- Michael escapes. That's when Zombie checks out. You figure his pitch to Bob Weinstein probably didn't get much deeper than Michael's backstory, so after going his own direction for his first act, Zombie suddenly starts ripping Carpenter off left and right. He's stealing characters, camera set-ups and punchlines, as well as every murderous beat of Michael's killing spree. And guess what? Zombie's never been a slasher director previously (both "Corpses" and "Rejects" are from a very different genre) and as a slasher director, he sucks. I just saw the movie an hour ago and I don't remember a single creative active of violence from its second act. This Michael's M.O. is overkill -- whether he stabs or chokes or bludgeons, the only thing that matters is that he does it for long enough to yield 30 or 40 seconds of screaming, followed by protracted Victim Crawls. Michael leaves each of his soon-to-be-corpses with just enough energy to slide across the floor, leaving a trail of blood as they grasp at the horizon for futile salvation. Neither the characters nor the killings in the movie's second half are even slightly memorable and the movie becomes increasingly unpleasant (and it starts off at a pretty unpleasant spot).

I'm not sure if there was a way Zombie could have rescued that film's second half, frankly. The dedication of time to Michael's backstory isn't a bad idea except for this most simple of facts: The idea of Michael Myers growing up in a perfect, white picket fence version of suburbia, somehow inexplicably developing into a soulless killer and returning to tear shit up and get an inexplicable revenge? That's creepy. The idea of Michael Myers grown up in a Rob Zombie-approved hillbilly hell, developing into a serial killer familiar to anybody who has ever looked at a case study (or Ed Gein or a dozen other famous wack-jobs) and returning to his Rob Zombie-approved hillbilly hell for one particularly reason? That's not creepy at all. It's banal and predictable. Carpenter's unmotivated Michael Myers ("He was just the quiet kid next door") may not be a psychologically rigorous as Zombie's ("Well, yeah, his mother was a tramp, his step-dad was an abusive drunk, he got picked on in school and he liked to kill and skin animals... I guess probably we might have seen this coming"), but it's scarier.

And what was up with Michael's mask, anyway? In the original, it's never explained how Michael comes upon the white-washed Shatner mask that he butchers in and it's much scarier as a result. In Zombie's world, Michael's slutty sister's braindead boyfriend pops up on Halloween thinking it's cool to don a Michael Myers mask after sex. Michael, already obsessed with masks puts on the Michael Myers mask for his early killings and then hides it under the floorboards, as if anticipating his return 15 years later. As to why this mask resonates with him? I doubt Zombie could explain.

What else to say about this new "Halloween"? Well, Zombie likes to get everybody to deliver identically shrill and screechy performances, so it's no wonder his whole ensemble -- Wife Sheri Moon Zombie, William Forsythe, Bill Moseley, Leslie Easterbrook, Sid Haig and Ken Foree -- shows up, along with logical additions like Brad Dourif and Danny Trejo. Among the younger cast members, famous kiddie runaway Scout Taylor-Compton is no more annoying than Jamie Lee Curtis in the original and ditto with her slutty teen friends. There's something more than a little distressing about how Zombie films Hanna Hall's naked body, but I guess the actress best known as Young Jenny from "Forrest Gump" had a little image adjustment in mind. Oh and Malcolm McDowell, such seemingly perfect casting as Dr. Loomis, has never been forced to deliver worse dialogue, which is saying something for a guy who starred in "Caligula."

What the heck was I expecting?!?!? I mean, this is a movie called "Halloween" that they released in late August out of fear of the "Saw" franchise!

Better, I guess.