Tuesday, October 30, 2007
It was back in July that the Television Critics Association voted "Heroes" as its Program of the Year, the key award we present annually. Me, I voted for Spike Lee's "When the Levees Broke," though "The Wire" would have been a worthy alternative.
The problems with giving such a relatively prestigious honor to a new show are becoming increasingly evident with each episode of "Heroes," which has followed up its nimble and intriguing first season with a second season that has, thus far, been nothing short of a plodding mess.
When it comes to "Heroes," I'm not yet at the point where I'm ready to drop out entirely, but after Monday (Oct. 29) night's episode, I'm left wondering how a show that did so many right things its first season has made so many poor choices so fast. Throw in a similar poor judgment spiral on "Friday Night Lights" and somebody -- certainly not me -- might begin to wonder about the quality of notes percolating down from the new creative administration at NBC. I'd be worried about "30 Rock" too, except that the scene of Alec Baldwin at the therapist's office last week was the funniest television scene since... I dunno when.
Follow through after the bump for the usual ramblings.
So what has gone wrong with "Heroes"?
You start all over again... In my rant about my "FNL" disappointment, I reflected on who the nine-month gap between the events of the first season and the events of the second season had allowed the writers to basically throw out all of the character growth from the first season, returning to the original unevolved archetypes. "Heroes," unfortunately, did something similar. When "Heroes" began, it was about all of these characters, in disparate locations, coming to understand their special gifts and ultimately come together and save the world. After doing that, though, everybody scattered again. Yes, Matt and Mohinder are living in sin together, raising a small superpowered girl. But otherwise, for the most part, the character were all sent spinning off in their own directions. The problem: If you assemble your heroes in three or four heroic clumps, it allows you to follow those three or four narrative strains on a week-to-week basis. As it is now, the writers are stuck juggling a dozen plotlines that will eventually have to come together again, which is why you can go weeks without Niki or Hiro or Parkman, which is either bad if you love those characters, or an unfair tease if you happen to hate them. They've made no storytelling progress, only regression. Plus, since most of the characters got to know their powers last season, we've had to meet five or six new heroes and reexperience that "Getting to know me/ Getting to know all about me..." process all over again. Plus, somebody must have told the producers that Milo Ventimiglia is especially good at furrowing his brow in confusion, because they wiped his memory and he's rediscovering everything all over again. So if everything that's happened feels like a drag, it's because you've seen it all before. It doesn't help that the "Heroes" lead-in, "Chuck," is a fast-paced TV souffle.
Mo' characters, mo' problems... One week you introduce Veronica Mars as a spark-spitting killer with daddy issues and feed into the wet dreams of geeks everywhere and then she's gone? That's not maintaining momentum. Who, exactly, has been enthralled by Copycat N'awlins Girl or the Ying Yang Twins? Much less Claire's Flying Prick of a Boyfriend? We get it. He's gonna be evil. And since the revelation that the Great Hero Kensei is actually a drunk Brit played by an American speaking broken Japanese with a British accent, has anybody cared for a second about anything happening back in the Japanese past? I can't be the only person who lets loose an audible grown each and every time Ando shows up and starts reading a scroll.
You start all over again, Part II... The big reveal at the end of Monday's episode was that Peter found himself standing in the middle of Time Square looking at New York City in ruins. AGAIN! Yes, we're well aware that Manhattan in ruins is a haunting image, that it conjures up subconscious post-9/11 fears and therefore it's a potent narrative shortcut. Why not go a different direction? Why not Fake Paris in ruins? Or Fake Moscow? Or why not find a threat to humanity that can't be easily encapsulated with a single short of a depopulated urban area? I mean, it's not like ANYBODY liked the way New York City was ultimately saved last season. Why not distance yourself that dud of a finale?
But speaking of Fake Paris and Fake Moscow... If you can't go to foreign locations, maybe you shouldn't go to foreign locations. The special effects last season were always hit and miss. Sometimes the superpowers would manifest themselves in awesome ways and other times I'd yearn for the sophisticated effects of, say, "Smallville." Since the superpowers have been generally deprioritized this season -- mostly mental stuff, blackening eyes and cheesy electrical sparks -- most of the FX has been poured into... I don't know what. Most of last season's plots took place in domestic locations, Las Vegas or New York or Texas, locations that could be easily replicated in the environs around LA. This year, in an effort to expand the story, I suppose, we've been treated to Mexico, Ireland, Feudal Japan and, in the past couple weeks Fauxdessa and Mock-treal. That has mostly meant cheap sets and flat, inept green screen work. When Peter and his Irish Rose got to Mock-real last night, I think they may have been standing in front of a matte painting, while Hiro's Japanese Adventure feels like it's all been shot in the same green corner of Griffith Park. Potentially Intriguing Supposition: What if, at some point during sweeps, it's revealed that the characters who have been stuck on soundstages this season, have all just been bouncing around in a virtual world in the mind of Molly or the Haitian or somebody else with amazing mental gifts. I prefer the idea of Molly being the intellectual fabricator of the season. A young girl wouldn't know what Ireland or New Orleans or Feudal Japan or Montreal would look like, so she would invent them in the broadest and flattest of terms. If the answer isn't that, there's no excuse.
Adrian Pasdar shaved his beard... My man-crush on Adrian Pasdar's bear [EDIT: Or, well, his "beard"] is well established. Then he shaved it. In the end, it served no purpose. He was drunk and depressed, so he grew a beard? And then his kids didn't like it, so he shaved it? For that they made Pasdar look like a hobo for four months? What a waste.
OK. That's all I feel like writing.
Monday, October 29, 2007
"Dan in Real Life"
Director: Peter Hedges
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 60
In a Nutshell: "Dan in Real Life" is a tragic-comedy, something this real-life Dan has known for slightly over 30 years.
I'd like to temporarily turn this review over to my movie-going companion, my Bubie Ida. She's 91 and she's a far more succinct reviewer than I am.
Her three-word review: "Sweet and innocuous."
Yup. That's about right.
Follow through after the bump, though, as I expand on my Bubie's basic review and also muse hopefully only briefly on "Evan Almighty."
So "sweet and innocuous" works well for me. "Cute and insubstantial" is fine also. I may go with "harmless and contrived," though that's only if I'm feeling in a less generous movie.
Like Peter Hedges' directing debut, "Pieces of April," "Dan in Real Life" shows a confidence with family nuances, but no real gift for the mechanics necessary to make a movie run. It isn't that Hedges' movies are plotless, it's that they're plotless except for when broad, sitcom-style dramatics flair up and threaten to sink the ship.
It's for that reason that "Dan" both rises and falls on the considerable gifts of Steve Carell. Remember what I wrote about "Michael Clayton"? About movies or TV shows based on a central character irony? Well, if "Michael Clayton" was about a law firm fixer who runs into a case he can't fix, "Dan in Real Life" is based on a family advice columnist who runs into the only family he can't fix -- his own. Once again, it's a thin premise better suited to an NBC half-hour comedy than a feature film, a fact that Carell's presence only amplifies. When he's allowed to be wry, morose and, well, human, Carell is exceptional, like a less depressed version of his "Little Miss Sunshine" character. But because it's Carell and the "40 Year-Old Virgin" star is being forced to carry what could have been a much smaller indie film, Hedges feels the inclination to play about the actor's broad comic gifts. You can check off the scenes in the movie that get the biggest laughs and they are, to me at least, the ones that work the least, the ones that try pushing the movie into mainstream territory. Dan ends up hiding with his lady love in the shower and ends up falling out the window? Why?!? Dan dances like a maladjusted maniac at a bar with a slutty plastic surgeon? Why?!? I'm OK with the inference that this emotionally repressed and wounded man acts like a fool when he falls in love, but why must love knock him into an episode of "Three's Company"? And why must they undermine the rest of what Carell is doing? Suddenly he's playing his "Virgin" or "Office" characters and Dan vanishes.
The movie loses believability in those bigger moments and that's bad because Hedges is already asking for a lot of faith with the initial premise that Juliette Binoche's character would, under even the explained circumstances, find herself "in love" with the utter lug played by Dane Cook.
Cook, I need note, isn't bad. He's been written without any real redeeming features, but at least you can make sense of the guy in context. The movie is scattered with excellent supporting actors who aren't so lucky. As the top of the family tree, John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest bring decades of well-regarded acting experience to help us fill in the blanks, but I lost track of the characters played by Jessica Hecht, Amy Ryan and Norbert Leo Butz, so much so that I'm not really sure which characters were blood relations and which were in-laws. If Miramax wants to get Amy Ryan an Oscar nomination for "Gone Baby Gone," incidentally, the student would be well-served by sending out screeners of "Dan." Seeing her just be happy and normal (even moreso that in her time on "The Wire") in "Dan" shows off how great she is in Ben Affleck's directing debut. Most people won't even know they're watching the same person.
As Dan's kids, Alison Pill, Brittany Robertson and Marlene Lawston are more memorable and well-defined than most of their older co-stars.
I could go on, but let me quickly skip over to...
Director: Tom Shadyac
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 30
In a Nutshell: To be fair, I saw this on a long plane ride on a tiny screen. I'll acknowledge that in its wide-screen glory, it may have improved somewhat if the filmmakers will acknowledge that in a time-wasting free movie scenario, I might be more generous than I would have been if I'd paid $12 bucks to see this in the theater.
"Bruce Almighty" was already a horrible movie, a simplistic piece of pabulum that dumbed down spirituality and faith to an unbearable point. "Yes, faith is hard, but maybe more people would believe if they had divine powers and saw how difficult Morgan Freeman has it." So the sequel was never a good idea. It's not like Carell's Evan Baxter is this movie is even vaguely connected to his "Bruce" character of the same name. And it's not like Carell is really trying. This feels like a paycheck role and I'm not going to begrudge him for a second. Sure, he probably could have taken a few weeks, rewritten the entire script himself and maybe it would have been good, but why bother? If the original writers couldn't be bothered to put 10 seconds into the story, which is darned near blasphemous. I'm OK with God choosing a modern prophet, but why would God rip himself off? The Noah thing? Been there and done that. Either think up something new or don't bother.
And if you're going to cast Lauren Graham, give her *something* to do. ANYTHING. Let her be funny. Let her be sexy. Let her be defiant. Don't just let her be that wife who very briefly doubts her husband's sanity, but comes to see that he's part of something bigger. That's a role you give to Monica Potter.
I will say that I laughed out loud at "Evan Almighty" at least four times, or snickered out loud. I'm gonna stay that it was twice at Wanda Sykes and twice at Jonah Hill, playing members of Evan's office staff.
That's not good enough, even for free on a five-hour flight.
[This review was written at 35,000 feet. My apologies.]
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Red Sox Nation is split today, between those folks who viewed 2004 as a mixture of anti-depressant and colonic -- purging decades of bad memories or past traumas and leaving only happy feelings [Yeah, I'm talkin' to you, Jamie] -- and those of us who can't shake that being a Red Sox fan is about being uncomfortable even in the midst of success.
The first group is talking about a sweep. The second group is still biting their fingernails. Well, I quit biting my fingernails, but that doesn't mean that I'm at ease, even after a 13-1 victory.
But the good thing about living on the Left Coast is that for me, the game was already out-of-reach well before the start of primetime (even with the looming prospect of Eric Gagne pitching the 9th), which left me able to muse on last night's "Pushing Daisies" and "Bionic Woman," plus maybe a wee bit on other programs from the week...
Click through while I think about how to pitch the networks on my "Bionic Women's Murder Club" pilot...
"Bionic Woman" -- Usually I'd lead with "Pushing Daisies," but last night's "Bionic Woman" was pretty good, although it sported the show's fourth or fifth different tone in just five episodes and drew some rather ridiculously low ratings. Who knew so many "Bionic Woman" fans were also Colorado Rockies fans?
Given that Katee Sackhoff's Sarah Corvus has been the series' most interesting character, it's a bit surprising that the show's most consistent episode to date was Sackhoff-free. Will Yun Lee's character was also absent, plus the episode was low on Molly Price's Ruth, Lucy Hale's formerly hacking sister (whatever happened to *that* character detail) and Miguel Ferrer's Jonas. Guess what? Didn't miss 'em. Well, maybe I missed Ferrer. Instead, we got an awful lot of Kevin Rankin's techie, whose part has increased each week as producers have realized two things: First, Rankin's a very good actor and second that Rankin's funny and that the "funny" is playing better than then "dark and moody" these days. Wednesday's episode suggests a "Chuck"-ification of "Bionic Woman," full of quips, geekiness and low stakes espionage (the stakes may actually have been kinda high, but I ignore the terrorist-of-the-week plot). Much of the new tone comes, I'm assuming, from consultant Jason Katims, still far from atoning for making Landry into a killing machine.
Oh and after only five episodes, the writers contrived to make Michelle Ryan pose as a British exchange student just so that she could use her actual accent for an hour. It isn't just that Ryan seemed hotter with her British accent, because that's a weird and semi-subjective thing (though she *totally* was hotter). It's that she appeared more comfortable, more confident and more capable of being both funny and dramatic. The Michelle Ryan in Wednesday's episode is, I have to believe, the potential star the producers hoped they had cast.
Look, you cast this woman:
Now who would have thought it was a good idea to cover her up and make her speak with an American accent? Seriously, folks.
"Pushing Daisies" -- Another encouraging week. Who would have guessed that "Pushing Daisies" might actually make it through a full season? Actually, ratings have been dropping very, very slowly week-to-week, which cases me a bit of concern. But maybe there's a bit overlap between baseball fans and lovers of twee forensic fairy tales.
A one-legged woman living in a windmill sending letters on the behalf of her deceased mother to a one-armed convict reading the letters on the behalf of his deceased cell-mate? Twee-tastic! Chuck's former occupation as a stay-at-home juror for a paraplegic judge? Twee-riffic! Putting big funny sunglasses on a decomposing corpse to cover his absence of eye-jelly? Tweelicious! A one-winged resurrected carrier pigeon flying with the help of a parrot wing? Twee-diddlyumptious!
Often I mock just for the sake of mocking, but in the case of "Pushing Daisies" I mock because I love. Although I wonder how many different suits and semi-permeable membranes Chuck and The Piemaker can dance through, kiss through and dry hump through, their relationship is still swooningly sweet.
Oh and you want an example of "Good Twee" versus "Bad Twee"? Good Twee is Kristin Chenoweth singing They Might Be Giants. Bad Twee would be having them sing Barenaked Ladies.
Several favorite lines of dialogue:
** "It's a miracle bird! It's swimming in miracles, not disease." (followed later by "It's a carrier pigeon." "Diseases or messages?" "Both.")
** "Was that your boyfriend back there, the one who took a step back to let you fall?" "He didn't let me fall. It was actually a very affectionate gesture in context."
** "It's funny. You really are a one-armed bandit. Your name's not McClappin, is it? As in the sound of one hand..."
** "I'm sure it's just the mailman or a windmill to windmill salesman."
** "My name is Elsa... This is my windmill."
Jayma Mays and Dash Mihok (well free of "Cavemen") continued the show's fine supporting casting and Digby the Dog needs more screentime.
Also, while the show's production values have obviously gone down in recent weeks with the rumored budget drops, it turns out the the claymation and CG effects weren't the most important part of what made the pilot work. Good thing, too...
Other quick hits from recent viewing:
"Damages" -- As much as Glenn Close and Ted Danson and even Rose Byrne made the series perpetually watchable, the game turned out not to be worth the candle. I was neither pleasantly shocked nor shockingly disappointed by the revels in the final episodes. I just shrugged my shoulders and went about my business. And the hypothetical next season is ridiculous, since there's no way Patty would have acquiesced to Ellen's request to investigate her boring fiance's murder, knowing that that trade will eventually possibly lead to the discovery that Patty tried to have her offed. Or something.
"Journeyman" -- Was bored by the pilot. Didn't much care for the second episode. Also thought the earthquake episode was silly. But the past two episodes have begun to get into the nuts and bolts of what lets Kevin McKidd jump through time and the show has become vaguely intriguing. Naturally, nobody is watching.
"Gossip Girl" -- Next week's episode looks great, but Cindy Lou Who needs to stop doing naughty things.
"Reaper" -- Go ahead, guys. It's time to introduce the attractive female reaper character as a love interest for Sam while he deals with keeping secrets from Andi. You know you're going to do it. Get it over with.
"Big Bang Theory" -- Still watching by default, though this week's episode was somewhat better. Jim Parsons? Funny. Johnny Galecki? Not funny here.
OK. That's it for me for today...
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Director: Anton Corbijn
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 57
In a Nutshell: Sorry. I'm going to have to politely decline to join the hype brigade on this one.
Respect the performance by relative unknown Sam Riley who does, from what I can find on the Internet, utterly channel Ian Curtis? Sure thing. Count me in.
Salute the black-and-white cinematography by Martin Ruhe? By all means. I'll even respect the eye of first-time feature director Anton Corbijn.
Here's the problem: I've seen musical biopics before. I've seen them done better and I've seen them done worse, but nothing in "Control" did anything to break the exhaustively established genre rhythms and, as a result, I was kind of bored stiff awaiting the conclusion, which is inevitable whether or not you know a thing about Curtis' life.
Follow through after the bump for more.
While I came into the movie knowing a handful of Joy Division songs -- mostly from placement in various movies, I've gotta imagine -- the only biographical facts I knew about Curtis and the band came from Michael Winterbottom's "24 Hour Party People."
Yeah, I know. I'm lame. This isn't quite as bad as when I was one of two music editors at the Penn newspaper as a freshman and I didn't know who David Byrne was, mind you. There, it was my responsibility to be vaguely musically astute. With "Control," it wasn't necessarily the movie's responsibility to inform me (I have Wikipedia for that), but surely it was the movie's responsibility to make me care about Ian Curtis and perhaps recognize why, if I cared about Joy Division, I'd recognize his genius.
In that, the movie fails utterly.
[Spoilers coming, I guess.]
I defy anybody who enters "Control" with a comparable knowledge of Curtis (comparable to mine, I mean) to leave with any awareness of what Joy Division meant to the British music scene, what role Curtis played in their success and why there are people who still care deeply about him to this day.
I am going to give Corbijn and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh a measure of credit and assume that part of what drew them (and fans of the band) to Curtis was that he was an enigma, a mystery man. He was 23 when he killed himself and he'd barely established any body of work, nor had a body of journalistic work built up about him. The movie is based on the book by his widow Debbie (played well, but thanklessly by Samantha Morton), but a major part of the movie seems to be that *she* didn't really get him either.
Riley plays Curtis as something of a lost boy, as a possible genius unable to deal with either the potential of celebrity or with the betrayal of his own body. If only the movie could have provided some context, any context, which makes it the flip-side of "24-Hour Party People," a movie that was all about context and milieu surrounding Steve Coogan's splendid performance as Tony Wilson.
As it is, Curtis is just a mopey British guy who listened to David Bowie and read J.G. Ballard. What separated him from the literally thousands of mopey British guys of the period with the exact same interests is unclear. He joins the other three members of Joy Division -- the filmmakers don't even *attempt* to make them into characters -- and they start clubbing. If you want to know, though, where Joy Division fit amidst the Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, The Fall and a dozen other artists of the period, there are no hints. Again, I wonder if that ambiguity is intentional, or if Corbijn simply decided to make a movie that would only be meaningful to pre-existing fans.
If the film's look is distinctive -- every green-ish black and white frame seeming to correspond with a classic black and white photograph from Rolling Stone or an NME issue -- the narrative is crushingly indistinctive. It's that rock-n-roll biopic you've seen several dozen times with epilepsy substituted for rampant drug use, or perhaps just epilepsy drugs substituted for anything more illicit. Curtis' relationship with both Debbie and "journalist" Annik Honore are prefunctory, but Greenhalgh tries making every kiss or fight significant by tying it to the creation of a Joy Division song, which is both over-obvious and finally silly. And Corbijn's inexperience as a director becomes evident in Curtis' final spiral, which grinds on and on, encumbered by one emotionally redundant scene after another.
I've been sitting on this review for three days trying to see if my feelings toward the movie would settle into anything more positive.
I like Lauren Wissot's take on the movie over at The House Next Door and not just because I agree with her and she supplies a good Werner Herzog quote...
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Airing in the same time period as "Pushing Daisies" and "America's Next Top Model" and Game One of the World Series (GO SOX!), I could hardly be less excited to watch spoon-bender Uri Geller and magician/starfucker Criss Angel search for the next great charlatan.
But I *love* the excuse to post this clip... Makes me giggle every time.
Airing in the same time period as "Pushing Daisies" and "America's Next Top Model" and Game One of the World Series (GO SOX!), I could hardly be less excited to watch spoon-bender Uri Geller and magician/starfucker Criss Angel search for the next great charlatan.
But I *love* the excuse to post this clip... Makes me giggle every time.
Saturday, October 20, 2007
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 77
In a Nutshell: [It's been that kinda week. On Monday, I thought "Hey, I'll blog on 'Heroes,' but then suddenly it was late Tuesday and I thought "Hey, I'll blog on, um, 'Caveman'" and then suddenly it was late Wednesday and I thought "Hey, I'll blog on the tweeness of 'Pushing Daisies'" and then suddenly it was late Thursday and then Friday. But now I'm sitting on my couch watching the Red Sox game and if ever there was a chance to sit down and blog on *anything* it was now... And, to be perfectly fair, I blogged on something every night this week, but it was all for Zap2it...Not all blogs are created equal.]
For around an hour into Juan Antonio Bayona's "The Orphanage" (or "El Orfanato"), I was wondering if this could somehow be the second consecutive year that a "genre" movie from Spain came out of nowhere to shock me and rank as my favorite film of the year? Last year, of course, it was Guillermo Del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth," which is very possibly the finest film of the 21st Century to date. "The Orphanage" isn't quite on that level ultimately. It lacks the historical and cultural subtext that lifted "Pan's Labyrinth" and "The Devil's Backbone" from their fairy tale and haunted house trappings. However, executive produced and "presented" by Del Toro, "The Orphanage" is as proficient and effective a scary movie as one could hope for, supplying both insidious creepiness and at least three or four jump-out-of-your-seat shocks.
I'll continue for a little after the bump.
Describing "The Orphanage" is a complicated task. It's got an awful lot of "The Others" or "The Haunting" or "The Innocents" or whatever version of "Turn of the Screw" you want to highlight. It's more than slightly indebted to "Poltergeist" and "The Omen" and "Rosemary's Baby" and to "Devil's Backbone," but to my mind, "The Orphanage" is, as much as anything, like a Spanish inflected equivalent of the kind of J-Horror movies that Hollywood has been relentlessly messing up since "The Ring," including "The Grudge" and "Dark Water."
That's partially my way of saying that if "The Orphanage" doesn't end up being a surprise subtitled hit when it premieres late this December (mirroring, you can safely assume, the platform pattern followed by "Pan's Labyrinth"), plans to remake it will begin almost immediately. The friend I saw the movie with cast Renee Zellweger as the woman who returns to reopen the orphanage where she grew up and soon begins noticing some supernatural doings afoot. I don't mind Zellweger, but I'm going younger and more commercial, putting Charlize Theron in the lead of my own remake. Either way? It's sure to get screwed up in the translation.
The absence of historical context that I mentioned earlier hampers "The Orphanage" in comparison to the Del Toro films, but also, truthfully, in comparison to the best of the J-Horror movies. Part of why the American remakes of "Ringu" and "Pulse" failed is that they didn't locate any sort of American equivalent of the over-arching Japanese sense of isolation and technological alienation that infused the original. That Walter Salles' "Dark Water" remake actually *did* make the original Japanese format into a specifically American and New York-based story is why I think that movie is decidedly underrated.
One way or the other, "The Orphanage" is technically magnificent, but geographically and culturally generic by nature. The old coastal orphanage that serves as the movie's main (almost exclusive) location could be in rural Maine or Northern Washington and except for the language spoken, nothing would need to be changed. Even the parts of the story that have a time-period specificity -- one character has HIV, a group of paranormal experts come with a decent haul of technical gizmos, etc -- aren't unique to Spanish culture.
That's a quibble. Well, not a minor quibble. It's a quibble that may impact "The Orphanage" on an end of the year list. But that doesn't mean that "The Orphanage" isn't the scariest movie I've seen since last year's "The Descent."
Bayona makes the most of old-fashioned horror technique -- his framing is always impeccable and suggestive and the movie's sound design is never haphazard and feeds major parts of the plot. He uses gore sparingly, but when he wants to gross you out, he knows how.
What heft "The Orphanage" lacks in the context department, it almost picks up in fairy tale resonance. While not as obviously settled, intellectually, in a wealth of folkloric study as "Pan's Labyrinth," Sergio Sanchez's script shows the hallmarks of a man who knows his Brothers Grimm and also understands why "Peter Pan" (the Barrie original more than the Disney version) has its timeless lyricism. The movie also mines from the near-ancient tradition of stories about women whose desire for maternity leads to questionable decisions and even more questionable sanity.
And now back to the Sox. J.D. Drew has already provided some heroism, which must mean that Eric Gagne will pitch three scoreless innings for the win.
Saturday, October 13, 2007
Director: Tony Gilroy
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 64
In a Nutshell: [It's been a week that I've been batting "Michael Clayton" around in my head reflecting on whether or not I actually liked it more than I initially thought I liked it. I couldn't put my thoughts together well enough because I didn't of the kernel of why it fell short for me. Then, in the midst of a comment over at A List of Things Thrown Five Minutes Ago" something clicked. Maybe not fully, but enough to write a blog post.]
Yes, "Michael Clayton" is a thoughtful and serious movie, a movie made with brains and aesthetic precision, a movie full of strong acting and cracklingly well-composed dialogue.
At its most basic level, though, it's also just a pilot for an intriguing FX or Showtime or HBO TV show, nothing more or less.
Go through after the bump for the rest of my thoughts.
More frequently than movies, TV shows can be based on a central ironic character construction. She's a matchmaker, but she's also a divorce attorney and she can't find love herself... It's "Miss/Match." He's a shrink, but he's crazier than any of his patients... It's "Huff." He's a cop, but he's more dangerous than most of the criminals... It's too many different shows to list. Movies aren't immune to the formula, by any means, but movies are, by their nature, more narrative driven, while TV shows can be more character-driven. And "Michael Clayton" is a movie that's more character-driven.
For better or for worse, though, it's driven by a surprisingly banal character construct. Our main character, Michael Clayton (George Clooney), is a fixer for an all-powerful New York law film. He's the guy who can get you out of any situation, no matter how awful. But guess what? Michael may be able to fix anything in his professional life, but in his personal life... HE'S A MESS!!! Bet you never would have seen that coming. He was a bad husband and now he's a well-intentioned but fairly weak father. He has a by-the-numbers gambling addiction -- in the past week, I've seen the exact same underground poker den in "Michael Clayton," "Gossip Girl" and "Journeyman," suggesting that it's zeitgeisty, but over-done -- and a by-the-numbers assortment of estranged siblings (One's a cop! One's a drug addict! Yawn...). Now, suddenly, the man who has never given ethics a second though in either his personal or professional life has run into a professional problem he can't fix and it's going to change his life forever.
I don't wanna be a pill, but if you find the right under-employed movie star or well-traveled veteran TV star -- Maybe Bradley Whitford? Or Bill Pullman? Or Matthew Modine? -- and they could star in "Michael Clayton: The Series." Each week, Michael does his fixing duties for his real job, while working on the sly to root out corporate corruption and repair the tattered shards of his personal life. In a TV series, he could dedicate whole episodes to bonding with his son or fighting off the desire to place a bet.
It would take bullshit movie snobbery to begin to suggest that Michael Clayton is in any way a more complicated character than Vic Mackey or Brenda Johnson or Dexter Morgan. And with those characters, you know that each week's generic or vague procedural plotline is just a means to a character end and that something different or better will be along next week. The critics who are most impressed with "Michael Clayton" are, I suspect, exactly the sort of cinema elitists who don't watch TV.
In "Michael Clayton," though, the superficially and ironically conflicted title character is caught up in a generic and vague court case and, because this is a movie, there isn't anything else. You're stuck with Michael Clayton versus the Environmental Meanies, because that's all there is.
By just being another movie about a court case involving an evil chemical company poisoning the groundwater, "Michael Clayton" ends up occasionally feeling like a more smug version of "A Civil Action," which was already a pretty smug movie to begin with. The biggest difference is that "A Civil Action" (or "Erin Brokovich") were actually about their court cases and their political actions, at least to some degree. In "Michael Clayton," the court case is 100% a red herring. It doesn't have an iota of meaning. Why, then, not come up either with a different kind of court case involving an identical ethical crisis, or else provide no information at all about the case that's pushing the action, make it a complete MacGuffin. If you keep referring to "The U-North Case," people can either draw their own assumptions or not and you don't need to bog the plot down with generic legal procedural stuff.
[In that respect, actually, "Michael Clayton" is almost the reverse of "Syriana." Steven Gaghan's movie was so overly invested in the meat of its subject matter that the half-dozen characters experiencing Clayton-esque ethical dilemmas were somewhat undersold. I may actually prefer "Michael Clayton" to the cluttered "Syriana." A comparable movie that I prefer to "Michael Clayton," though, is Roger Michell's "Changing Lanes."]
As a writer, Gilroy made his bones on ethical thrillers [a genre that also includes "Changing Lanes"] that were too high minded to be actual thrillers. I'm thinking of things like "Extreme Measures" and "Proof of Life," both movies with more on their minds than typical popcorn movies, but also less corn than a good popcorn movie needs.
As a director of his own material, Gilroy actually proves more capable than either Michael Apted or Taylor Hackford were with the aforementioned scripts (though less capable than Dough Liman and Paul Greengrass were with his "Bourne" scripts). He coaxes a great leading performance from Clooney and good work from Tilda Swinton and the assortment of less recognizable supporting players (lots of New York theater types, I'm assuming). Depending on your tolerance for scenery chewing, you'll either find Tom Wilkinson Oscar-worthy or else you'll wonder why, in a movie where everything else is muted, he's bellowing like this was finally his chance to play King Lear. Wilkinson is such a good actor that I can't begrudge people for continuing to cast him as Americans even though he's utterly incapable of doing an American accent.
We've now reached the point at which I could keep rambling or walk away.
Since the Red Sox are obviously requiring more of my attention, I'm going to walk away.
Friday, October 12, 2007
At Ralphs on my way home from a late day at work (maybe later I'll get to a review of either "Michael Clayton" [I can't seem to review George Clooney movies, since "Ocean's Thirteen" went unremarked upon this summer since my reaction of "Meh" couldn't really be expanded to 500 words] or "Margot at the Wedding," which I saw this morning to interview Noah Baumbach [smart guy, maybe too smart] for Filter). I'm grabbing a sandwich from their deli. Turkey. Cheese. Mustard. Mayo. Tomato, just for luck.
Going through the check-out line. In front of me is an absurd looking woman -- short, well-along in pregnancy, wearing a low-cut top exposing her fake breast, skin leathery from a fake tan, could have been any age. Well, maybe not any age. She looks used up. Formerly cute. She gets carded. Strikes me as odd, both that she's purchasing alcohol in her delicate condition, but also that the register guy could have guessed her under 21. I'd have put her age closer to 35. We're both wrong.
The guy at the register looks over her ID. Perhaps a picture of a dewier, cuter, less baked woman. He comments, "Oh, a bicentennial baby!"
I don't know why he thinks it's was worth mentioning. He might just as well share memories of the Tall Ships. Actually, in this case, he might just as well be speaking Swedish.
"A bicentennial baby."
I don't know why he repeats it. No light goes on in her eyes. He'd have better luck reaching over, taking her head in his hands and shaking. But she giggles supportively.
"You were born in 1976."
The cashier doesn't look like he has vivid memories of 1976 either. Maybe when I get to the register, I'll card him. Equally pointless.
Still no lights.
"That was the bicentennial."
"What now? Oh. Umm... Yeah."
He doesn't know what to say to that. Would it be insulting if he adds "...of The United States" or "That means its 200th birthday." What is he hoping for? "Hells yeah! Us '76ers gonna roll!" Or "Ah yes. Breast feeding. Good times."
She walks out, still mostly oblivious I'm guessing.
These are the people reproducing in the City of Angels.
Time to eat my sandwich. Turkey. Cheese. Mustard. Mayo. Tomato, just for luck.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
In a blog post last week, Ken Levine did a fine job of explaining why second episodes are often more complicated or challenging than pilots and why we need to cut our friendly neighborhood showrunners a little more slack.
This season has provided ample evidence to back him up. For every "Dirty Sexy Money" or "Chuck," which basically stayed on creative par or dipped only slightly in quality, there have been three or four shows like "Bionic Woman," "Journeyman" or "Big Bang Theory," which either squandered initial affections or confirmed initial dread.
I've been nervous about the second episode of "Pushing Daisies" since May. While my initial instinct -- that audiences would run scurrying from the stench of twee like Mormons from a rum-and-coke, leading the near-instant cancellation -- appears not to have come true, I still had qualitative worries.
Short answer: Wednesday's second episode of "Pushing Daisies" didn't make me as happy as the pilot, but it made me far happier than most of what I've been watching on TV these past couple weeks.
Follow after the bump for more thoughts on "Pushing Daisies" and my other Wednesday TV viewing.
Let's look at some of the concerns one-by-one.
Week-to-Week Plot Sustainability -- How would the show handle the need to go to its forensic fairy tale week-to-week structure? So far, so good. Episode two had a mystery, but nobody put much effort into investigating the murder in question. It was more about letting the story of the crime be told. That meant a lot of monologuing, first from the victim, then from the victim's beloved and finally from the killer. The key, I guess, is in presenting that monologuing in an appealing fashion (flashbacks and fantasy sequences and whatnot), rather than in watching Chi McBride's character follow clues. If he were that good a detective, he wouldn't need Ned, would he? A bigger roadblock in the week-to-week sustainability is Chuck-Ned dynamic and their very distracting inability to make direct contact. I know I'm not the only viewer who wondered why they walk in stride together, why they walk through doorways together, why they sit across from each other at tables. I've been known to accidentally bump into people when I'm walking next to them. It rarely causes death, but then again, I lack special powers. It'd be in Ned's best interest to constantly be wearing long-sleeve turtlenecks and gloves and it would behoove Chuck to do the same. Full body spandex suits? The best ways to avoid the death problem probably aren't very actor-friendly (look at poor Wentworth Miller, who has to over-dress for his sweltering Panamanian prison just his character's pesky tattoos probably haven't vanished).
Week-to-Week Stylistic Sustainability -- Week two of "Pushing Daisies" wasn't quite as saturatedly colorful as the pilot. The camera wasn't as free. There were fewer flights of visual fancy. Those of use who do this for a living are all "Oooh, this just goes to reflect the budgetary and creative restrictions ABC is putting on the show and on Barry Sonnefeld." I wonder what people who just watch TV programming when it comes on their TV and don't think about TV for 17 or 18 hours out of every day are able to notice. I'm a big fan of the Orson Welles quote "The enemy of art is the absence of limitation." That's to say that real artists see limitations and look for ways to accomplish the same goals in different ways. If a fish-eye camera lense can convey a similar sense of disorientation as a more expensive and time-consuming crane shot, let's do that. If Kristin Chenoweth breaking into a marvelous rendition of "Hopelessly Devoted" can convey a similar sense of not-of-this-world whimsy as an extended claymation sequence, let's do that. In its second week, "Pushing Daisies" still looked and felt pretty close to unique, even if it wasn't the exact same uniqueness as the first time around.
Week-to-Week Smartness Sustainability -- In his recap over at Zap2it, my colleague Rick groused a bit about Jim Dale's voice-over and the frequency with which we were being told things they should have shown us instead. Do I think there's too much voice-over? Yup. But I'm happy to put up with three or four instances where the voice-over falls flat for the following transition from Digby licking Olive's love-lorn tears: "While Olive considered how much she loved Digby for paying attention to her when the piemaker would not, and Digby considered how much he liked salt..." That's just great writing. The characters continue to talk fast and talk clever ("You love secrets. You want to marry secrets and have little half-secret, half-human babies.") and the universe of the show continues to be mighty savvy. It's a town that features not just The Pie Hole, but also Pies R Us, Pie City and Thousands of Pies in One Place. I love that.
Week-to-Week Tweeness Sustainability -- I've heard episode two described as even more twee than the first episode. That's what happens when your plot revolves around a dandelion-powered car ("The spores car of tomorrow!) and the main guest character is a bulimic woman who dresses as a flower. So far, though, I remain tolerant of a young girl learning to say "The Jarlsberg is on the table" in many languages. I'm content with Chi McBride's character being an art school drop-out who knit himself a sweatervest and handgun cozies. And I'll even put up with a woman in a full-body cast putting on make-up and asking if her bandages make her look fat. So far, I'm right there with "Pushing Daisies."
The transition from pilot fairy tale exposition to weekly proceduralism hurt the show's charm just a bit, but McBride and Lee Pace were every bit as good, Anna Friel was even more adorable and Chenoweth can break into song whenever she wants, as far as I'm concerned. The casting of guest stars will be key going forward, but the second episode's Riki Lindhome (as Janine the flower girl) and Patrick Fabian (as the mastermind of the Dany Lion SX) slid into the show's rhythms perfectly.
I don't know if it's ever going to be possible to sit back, relax and rest assured that "Pushing Daisies" will be able to maintain its quality, but so far so good.
Other Wednesday viewing?
"Back to You" -- OK. I gave this one four weeks to stop being generic and to find some of the intelligence that Christopher Lloyd brought to "Frasier" or even some of the workplace humor Steve Levitan brought to "Just Shoot Me." I think I'm done. It's odd that Ty Burrell is the funniest part of the cast and that when he isn't in an episode (like last night's), the show suffers. That shouldn't happen if you're giving all of that money to Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton.
"Bionic Woman" -- Back on track after an awful second episode. The third episode was credited to David Eick and it shouldn't be surprising that it was the season's first episode to have any sort of consistency at all. It also shouldn't be surprising that part of why the episode worked so well was that it was heavy on Katee Sackhoff. It was also a better showcase episode for Michelle Ryan, though something has to be done to make that character stop bitching about suddenly being bionic. I get that this wasn't what she signed on for, but she needs an attitude readjustment, plus a second bionic arm, stat!
"Gossip Girl" -- Serena and Blair had better not stay friendly for long. In the short term, I enjoyed their reconciliation with its simmering underlying tensions, but the less trashy the show gets, the more it becomes "Sweet Valley High: Upper Manhattan Edition," which is a show I probably wouldn't watch. I'd have been fine with the warmer and fuzzier A-plot if the B-Plot (Chuck's Lost Weekend Party) had been as full of debauchery as the promo teasers suggested it would be. Nate's such a wet fish to begin with and I think we're much too early in the series to already be seeing Chuck's softer side.
OK. This is too long. I stop now.
"We Own the Night"
Director: James Gray
Fien Print Rating: 60
In a Nutshell: [I saw this movie back in July for a really solid Filter magazine interview with Gray, a director I've talked to a couple times and who always impresses me as a man who may be too smart for the industry, hence his rather deliberate working pace. Because of my own rather deliberate working pace, I may have some gaps in my memory of the movie, but since it's opening on Friday, I wanted to get something up...]
A quote generally attributed to director Howard Hawks (and reproduced in so many different variable forms that it might as well have been said by Hudson Hawk) is "A good movie is three good scenes and no bad scenes." It's not a quote I necessarily like, agree with or would ever use and yet it came to mind thinking back over "We Own the Night."
Actually, "We Own the Night" isn't a movie without bad scenes. It falls shocking flat in its final act. But I still find it odd that the director of the understated "Little Odessa" and "The Yards" has managed to orchestrate several of the year's very finest set pieces to date.
Follow through after the bump for my actual thoughts, with only occasional spoilers.
When it comes to New York-set period dramas about cops and gangsters, the movie that'll get the most press and make the most money is "American Gangster," but there were three or four instances watching "American Gangster," where I thought "Boy, this is just like the same scene in 'We Own the Night' only blander and less impactful." While "American Gangster" may end up being a slightly more satisfying movie overall, nothing in Ridley Scott's film can compare to the "WOtN" rain-drenched car chase and in the head-to-head battle of drug den raids, the one in "WOtN" wins hands down as well.
That Gray is out-of-touch with the contemporary aesthetic of filmmaking almost goes without saying. I've seen several critics refer to his style as "neo-classical," but I think that refers more to what he doesn't do -- showy camera moves, ADD editing, etc -- than what he does. He's a slow and methodical director who concentrates on the details -- the never-haphazard art direction, the limited color palette, the complex framing -- and that makes his ability to get these two or three masterful set-pieces here all the more admirable.
This is Gray's third consecutive movie about a polarized immigrant family in New York and it's certainly his most commercial. When Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix did "The Yards," they weren't box office draws and the movie was more about brooding dinner scenes in underlit rooms than about giving the audience any thrills. Sony is rightly playing up "WOtN" as a straight-forward, star-driven crime thriller, which is the strategy that's most likely to bring viewers to the theaters, but also probably most likely to leave viewers existing in disappointment.
Coasting off an Oscar nomination for "The Departed" and a confident star-turn in "Shooter," Wahlberg takes a big risk here, playing a character who becomes less dynamic and less heroic as the movie progresses. Although the two stars get equal billing on the poster, Wahlberg's role is very much supporting and Phoenix is very much the star, giving one of the finest performances of his career. Like the movie itself, Phoenix's Bobby is more interesting in the beginning and then goes down a conventional path, but the performance features few of the twitchy affectations that occasionally mar the actor's work.
This may be the first time I've ever really "gotten" Eva Mendes as a potential movie star. More than any other part of the movie, her subplot crumbles down the stretch, but for an hour or so, she's sultry and compelling every time the camera moves in her direction.
While it's hard to think of more than two or three bad performances in his entire career, Robert Duvall doesn't distinguish himself as the pater familias, perhaps because the role is too similar to ones he's played many, many times before.
The use of Russian and Polish enclaves in New York gives "We Own the Night" a richness that unfortunately amplifies the flaws of the last act. If you dedicate yourself to texture and specificity for an hour and then go strictly by-the-numbers for 30 minutes, that 30 minutes is going to seem even blander in comparison.
I could go on, but I want to get to Wednesday night TV and to "Michael Clayton." There's just too much to blog.
Saturday, October 06, 2007
When, many a moon from now, my kids or grandparents or children of friends ask me where I was the day Powerful USC's 35-game home winning streak came to an end against an academically superior, football clown college from Palo Alto, I'll be able to point to the picture above and say that I was so confident that of all of the games in the whole season, the one USC was least likely to lose would surely be against Stanford, which would surely make it the perfect day to accompany old friends and their lovely 16-month-old daughter (Hi Sonya!) to the Happiest Place on Earth. Lemme tell you, the happiest place on earth becomes less happy when you're constantly checking your cell phone for updates on a football tragedy (not to be confused with a genuine tragedy... don't think I don't know the difference) in the making. I'd been hoping I could check the score once, go "35-0 USC five minutes in? Nifty" and tuned it out. Oh well. Does this mean the Mark Sanchez Era begins next week for USC? I've cheered for John David Booty in the past, but four interceptions against Stanford? People have been justifiably benched for a quarter of that.
As you can see, if you look closely, I *am* wearing my USC colors in the picture. Spirit did no good. And lest you get the impression otherwise, Disneyland was still great fun. The new Space Mountain rocks, even though I wish the Haunted Mansion hadn't been barfed all over by "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and that Johnny Depp hadn't infiltrated Pirates of the Caribbean.
My shooting partner from the picture above gave me a "Sleepy" pin (of the "Seven Dwarfs" fame), seeing as how generalized insomnia and the weight of my insignificant world often have me yawning my way through my days.
It strikes me, though, that I cannot be encapsulated in a single dwarf. I am a legion of dwarfs. I have a multitude of dwarfs inside me -- I am at times Sleepy. I'm often Grumpy. When I run out of Claritin, I'm Sneezy. The instances in which I'm Dopey and Bashful are obvious to those who know me. And I'm even at times Happy. I'm never Doc.
Anyway, I just wanted to acknowledge today's USC football loss (and Disney expedition) in some manner. My apologies for the intellectual detour. Tomorrow I'll try to review "Michael Clayton," a movie other critics seem to like more than I do.
[EDITED: It strikes me that this post, or at least its tone, isn't particularly clear if you don't actually know me and if you don't know that I went to grad school at USC and that my every Saturday in the autumn is set aside for watching USC football and that today was one of the very, very, very rare Saturdays in which I had an activity that I found important enough not to watch the USC football game...]
Friday, October 05, 2007
I spent nine months last year on this blog and Zap2it's myriad outlets trying to get everybody I know to watch "Friday Night Lights." I told my friends. I told my family. I told the occasional people who would interview me for the radio or whatever. I would occasionally shake random strangers in the street, grab them by the shoulders and yell, "You fool! Why aren't you watching 'Friday Night Lights'?"
So I'm not going to sit here at my keyboard and say, "I'm not sure that the 'Friday Night Lights' that's premiering tonight is really the 'Friday Night Lights' I wanted you to watch last season." I'm not going to tell you that you should skip tonight's season premiere, because what are you gonna do instead, watch "Moonlight"? Watch "K-Ville" repeats on FOX? Seriously?
Everybody else I know (I only know odd people) has already written their "Why I'm uncomfortable with the start of the 'Friday Night Lights' season" article, review or blog post, so here's another. I hate to be original.
Follow through after the bump. There are going to be huge spoilers for the premiere and rather vague spoilers about the next two episodes, which have also been sent to critics. You've been warned.
In the past week, the industry trade paper Variety has run both a review of "Friday Night Lights" and a roundtable critical discussion of the show's opening episodes. In the process, at least three alleged critics have said almost the exact same thing: The things that happen at the end of the season premiere are bad, but I can't say anything negative about them because the show's creative team has earned my faith and my unqualified acceptance that if they make mistakes, they'll fix them so fast that they weren't mistakes at all.
That's not the job of a critic, kids.
The producers of "24" start off every single season with six great episodes, dick around for 12 episodes and then close with six strong episodes, during which fans say, "Yeah, those middle episodes *all* sucked, but I had faith that the producers would right the ship." But. But. But. But those 12 episodes were horrible, they floundered and stumbled and bumbled and meandered and maybe they righted the ship and maybe they didn't, but the half a season in the middle was worse that "Threat Matrix." Fans have faith in show creators to fix things, they have confidence that they'll make things right. Critics look at what's there and that's what they address.
One fabulous season of TV hasn't earned the producers of "Friday Night Lights" a pass. Unfortunately, it's raised expectations. The first three episodes of "FNL" for this second season are *not* bad. It really hasn't become "One Tree Hill" while it was on vacation.
The things that work in the first few episodes still work gloriously. Eric and Tami Taylor remain my favorite couple on TV and an Emmy-giving universe in which television professionals fail to recognize that Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton are at the very peak of the profession doesn't deserve to be taken seriously. The new season finds Coach and Mrs. Coach separated just at the moment they need each other most, him with a new job in the big city and her (within minutes of the start of the premiere) with a new baby.
As their daughter Julie, Aimee Teegarden is sculpting the most believable portrait of teenage femininity since Claire Danes in "My So-Called Life" and the relationship between Julie and Zach Gilford's Matt Saracen has always rung true. The premiere finds Julie and Matt experiencing their own tension and distance, as Julie deals with the changes in her family and Matt faces another season of football.
While there were plenty of moments early last season when certain actors -- Minka Kelly, Taylor Kitsch, Scott Porter -- did show certain signs of just how green they were, every member of the cast has the chance to shine before the end.
If I'm being frank, the show's problems began with the finale of the first season. As I wrote extensively at the time, they made a finale that felt like they almost hoped the show didn't come back. They let the Panthers win, which was a mistake. They let wheelchair-bound QB Jason Street suddenly become a football strategic mastermind, which was a mistake. They pushed Landry (the marvelous Jessie Plemons) and Tyra (the always better-than-expected Adrianne Palicki) in the direction of a romance, which was a mistake. They did a bunch of things that were aimed at bringing the show to a happy, hopeful, satisfying series conclusion. And then NBC brought them back (and canned Kevin Reilly, the man who brought them back).
The second season begins roughly eight months later, which has allowed the show's producers to reboot several characters in ways that dismiss the journeys they went on last season. It was a long road for Gaius Charles' Smash to regain the support of viewers and become a smarter, more humble, heroic character, but in the eight months we were away, he's back to being the brash, ego-driven Smash from the pilot. It was a long road for Kitsch's Riggins to go from a drunk, womanizing burn-out to a mostly sober, responsible teammate, but in the eight months we were away, he's back to being that guy who shows up at practice drunk and takes pleasure in bedding twins, just because he can. Here again, the producers obviously realized that they'd made everything too stable by the first season finale, so they pushed the reset button. The transitions for Teegarden's Julie (more pouty than we remember), Kelly's Lyla (more Christian than we remember), for Brad Leland's Buddy Garrity (more drunk than we remember) are all much more plausible.
When talking about what goes wrong with the premiere and what hasn't been fixed or smoothed out in the two subsequent episodes, it's necessary to talk about Tyra and Landry. But first I wanna note that lots of things happened last season that even the biggest fans had trouble defending and they were usually the biggest plotpoints, the moments of high drama amidst the minutiae of small town life and football-as-religion. "That's such a 'Star Is Born' cliche!" people cried when Jason Street was injured in the pilot, forcing Matt Saracen into a featured role. "How are they ever going to redeem that character?" people wailed when Lyla screwed her paralyzed boyfriend's best friend. "Are they seriously doing *this* plotline," folks groused when Smash began taking steroids to improve his ranking in a touting publication. The team staging a walk-out due to a racist coach, a Katrina victim nearly getting the team put on probation, Riggins and the MILF next door... The season was full of moments that seemed iffy and many of 'em (most? nearly all?) were worked out satisfactorily, albeit faster and easier than might have happened in real life.
The things that went wrong last year were, if anything, a product of being too perfectly designed for a show of this nature. They were attempts to use the conventions of the sports genre to touch on the obligatory conflicts of the genre.
[OK. Last warning. Spoilers and some such!!! STOP READING!]
Landry knocking a guy upside the head with a pipe and killing him? That's just the producers coming up with big plot points to get buzz, because even crappy buzz isn't worse than no buzz. And I don't much care what Jason Katims has said to the contrary in interviews. I blame Ben Silverman. Just on principle.
Some reviewers have said that the premiere subplot in which Tyra is arbitrarily stalked by the man who assaulted her last season and in a tragic twist he ends up [last spoiler warning!!!!] dead and, presumably, dumped in the river is less like something from "FNL" and more like something from "One Tree Hill," though as dedicated "OTH" fans know even that silly, silly show didn't go so far as to have Peyton (or any of the other Ravens) kill her crazed fake brother. It's bad enough that the stalker plot returned in the premiere. Sure, we knew it was going to return eventually, but what was the guy doing for eight months? And why is he suddenly menacing her at all hours and in relatively public places? What does he think is going to happen? And it's bad enough that the scenes with the aspiring rapist are shot like they were taken from a slasher movie, rather than from the best directed show on TV. But did Landry need to kill the guy? Did they need to reshoot the scene, in fact, so that Landry kills the guy in cold blood, as he's turning away vanquished, rather than in total self-defense as in the original version of the premiere?
The mechanics here should be beneath the writers of such a good show. For most of last season, Tyra was the strong and capable girl, the girl you'd bet could take care of herself. She reduced Landry to a stuttering boob as a girl of that sort would do to a guy of that sort. But the producers realized that Plemmons is really good and that his scenes with Tyra, however awkward, were gold. So they said, "What can we do to make this work? What can we do to make her weak enough to need him and to make him manly enough to somehow be worthy of her?" How do lazy Hollywood minds accomplish such things? Naturally, they made Tyra into a victim, a sexual victim. Even that wasn't enough. So they made Landry try out for football, despite the fact that in a community like Dillon, a kid with no athletic interests doesn't magically say, "OK, today I try out for football" and even make the JV bench, given what we've seen of Dillon's Pop Warner devotion. That's stupid and I found it nearly unforgivable when I heard it was happening. That was before I knew we'd be introduced to Landry: Killing Machine. Basically the writers realized that the only way they could bring together these two characters loved by fans was to make them into two entirely different characters, incompatible with the characters they once were. To hell with it.
It's not a little mistake. For a show even an iota less wonderful than "Friday Night Lights," it would be "Jump the Shark"-level "Bad."
[Those are only spoilers for the premiere. Here come vaguely spoilers for other upcoming episodes.]
The so-called-reviewers at Variety said they had faith that "FNL" would work things out, but the Landry-Tyra subplots get worse in subsequent episodes. The characters get further and further from where they used to be and become more and more removed from the universe of the show. A change in Julie and Matt's relationship makes sense, but the new arrival in Matt's house is laugh-out-loud silly. You knew Coach Taylor wouldn't stay away from Dillon and the Panthers all season, but his path back into fold jeopardizes some of the things I most respect about the character. And Riggins and Street are heading someplace wacky at the end of the third episode and nothing good can happen there.
You know, this is long enough. I just wanted to chime in.
Now watch "Friday Night Lights." Its problems shouldn't excused and I don't have faith that they're going to be fixed to my satisfaction, but damned if I don't want to keep the show around.
"In the Valley of Elah"
Director: Paul Haggis
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 62
In a Nutshell: [Having a three-movie weekend in the midst of premiere season wasn't a mistake while I was doing it. Heck, I like going to the movies even if I don't like the movies and even if the still-new Westside Landmark has begun to lose just a bit of its shine with its embarrassingly poor soundproofing between theaters, occasionally frustrating in-theater sight-lines and inadequate bathroom facilities. But if I hoped to turn around blog reviews quickly, this was the wrong time to do it. Oh well. I've been pumping out content on other fronts. Content is king. Yada. Yada.]
I've made no secret of my utter and mostly unqualified hatred for Paul Haggis' Oscar-winning "Crash." Then again, lots of people made no secret of hating it. That doesn't make me courageous, just right. But that's a different issue. I was in a bit more of a minority, though, in standing behind Haggis' immediate follow-up, the NBC dud "The Black Donnellys," which was an underrated little piece of drama.
That's all the context you get for my saying that "In the Valley of Elah" is a far better movie than "Crash," but probably could have been a far better movie than it is. Know what I mean? No? Follow through after the bump...
The most recent movie I got around to reviewing was, of course, "The Kingdom," or as everybody's callin' it, "CSI: Riyadh." "In the Valley of Elah" is actually the flip-side of the coin from "The Kingdom," so they were a good pairing for the weekend.
In "The Kingdom," the genre pyrotechnics and procedural mechanics had to work to cover up the fact that they were being used in service of what could have been a provocative and complicated story, a piece of actual dramatic depth. With "In the Valley of Elah," it's exactly the opposite. In "Elah," the conspicuous attempts to overlay depth, meaning and contemporary resonance often covered up or bogged down what should, essentially, have been a procedural with a provocative under-current.
"Elah" is really just about a father (Tommy Lee Jones) and a local cop (Charlize Theron) investigating the disappearance and (this isn't really giving anything away) death of the man's son. This is the sort of thing that "Law & Order" and British TV do really well, a crime thriller in which the political subtext *eventually* becomes everything.
I haven't gone searching through other reviews, but has anybody compared "In the Valley of Elah" to Paul Schrader's "Hardcore"? It seems like an obvious comparison, but I'm too lazy to go look. "Hardcore" is, of course, the story of a religious father (George C. Scott) who travels to the depths of Hell (errrr... Los Angeles) to find his missing daughter, only to get sucked into the world of then-mostly-underground pornography. I guess the comparison would have worked better if Scott's "Hardcore" character had been a former porn star himself, because the military background in Jones' past is key to the plot momentum of "Elah." Jones's Hank Deerfield wasn't just military, he was a military investigator and, if the movie is correct, just about the smartest darned military investigator ever (imagine if Scott had once been Ron Jeremy or Peter North or John Holmes, I guess). But just as "Hardcore" is about Scott's character's view of the adult industry through his Lutheran eyes, "Elah" is about the way Jones' character approaches the modern military through the eyes of a man we can only assume was active in Vietnam and perhaps subsequent smaller actions. ["Elah," in fact, becomes muddled for me by how naive Hank is about post-traumatic stress and the impact of war on young soldiers. While he isn't shocked that soldiers sometimes do drugs or screw whores, the movie goes on at least an hour longer than it needs to because of his failure to see clearly.]
If Haggis had treated the movie as a thriller, first and foremost, and as a story about soldiers coming back from Iraq secondarily, I bet he'd have made the same points in a much more subtle way. Then again, even at his very best, Haggis and subtlety have gone together like peanut butter and dish washing detergent.
"In the Valley of Elah" is tanking at the box office, which didn't need to happen. But from the obscure title (and even after a week of thought, it's unclear to me who specifically Haggis wants to imply is our contemporary David and who is our contemporary Goliath [I have at least four or five possible pairings, several of which take into account outside knowledge of Haggis' politics and religious background] through every aspect of the style, "Elah" works awfully hard to be taken more seriously than you might have taken, say, "A Few Good Men," which could be the most popcorn-y equivalent of what Haggis' movie could have been. Everybody frowns through the entire movie and delivers their dialogue as slowly and deliberately as possible. Every edit is half-a-second slow, lest your mind too quickly move away from whatever has just transpired. Cinematographer Roger Deakins was entrusted with sucking all life-like color from the movie, leaving blues and grays and other cold, steely tones (and he does his job wonderfully, because that's what Deakins does).
I would describe the film's performances as universally somber and sour, from the "Eat a Lemon" school of ultra-important dramatic acting. Don't take that as implying that I dislike the work done by Jones, Theron or Susan Sarandon, who all do variations on their standard character types (or, in Theron's case, a variation on her standard "I'm not wearing make-up, so take me seriously" character type). If these people have any shadings at all, it's the acting and not the writing. In fact, Haggis seems purposely to have filled as many supporting roles as possible with familiar faces as a shortcut. If you plunk James Franco, Jason Patric, Josh Brolin (building a resume as this fall's Most Improved Actor), Frances Fisher or Barry Corbin in a one or two scene part, you can underwrite those characters, since the actors bring their own strengths and baggage.
I gotta say that my overall rating for this movie took three big hits at the very end, with Haggis' refusal to believe that he'd made his point with his storytelling. The final shot, the closing credits dedication and the Annie Lennox final dirge were unnecessary, since it's not like Haggis was making some deeply provocative, insightful or controversial point. His argument is as safe and wishy-washy as you'd expect from the man behind the "Everyone's a little bit racist, we all need a hug" faux-complexity of "Crash."
None of the three movies I saw last week have worn very well in my mind and I'd probably lower all of their Fien Print ratings to something in the upper-50s if I could go back. But that ship done sailed...
Thursday, October 04, 2007
Yesterday I said some, um, things. Some things I didn't mean. I blamed you for George W. Bush and criticized your lack of respect for Barry Bonds. While I stand by both comments (762 home runs... 514 steals... Get over the steroid thing, people!), I'm going to cut you a bit of slack.
Nearly 13 million of you (not my readers, since this blog would be a lot more lucrative if I had 13 million readers) tuned in for the premiere of "Pushing Daisies." That's a lot, thankfully more than tuned in to "Cavemen." Whew. This means several things: First, it seems unlikely that ABC will pull "Pushing Daisies" before the start of November sweeps as I'd predicted. Second, it means we're going to get to watch enough episodes to see just how difficult is is to sustain that level of intelligence, whimsy and twee, plus those production values. Yup, thanks to the endorsement of the American People, we're gonna get to see "Pushing Daisies" eventually suck. Sorry. I'm cautiously pessimistic about the show's long-term potential. But love that pilot.
Other thoughts from last night's TV? Well, you can read my reactions to "Kid Nation" (Yay Mallory!) and "Top Chef" (Yay Hung!) over at Zap2it. I haven't gotten to "Dirty Sexy Money" (on my DVR at home) or Mandy Patinkin's "Criminal Minds" exit (on my DVR at work).
But how about...
"Bionic Woman" -- The second episode was, um, muddled. My first and biggest question: Why hasn't Jamie Summers gone into her employers and asked to have her other arm bionicized? That's going to be a really annoying liability if she has to do everything left-handed (or right-handed, whichever is actually bionic). As it is, I don't exactly understand the degree of her strength. Yes, she can run 60mph and punch through brick, but in hand-to-hand combat with her Asian trainer she's got an even match? Is he bionic? And what can we do to write off Molly Price entirely? She's uncomfortably uncharismatic in that way that stars of SciFi Channel shows are entitled to be, but network stars just aren't. They have to turn up the sexy and turn down the whiny on Michelle Ryan, who is perfectly capable of being the former and not interesting as the latter. I continue to believe this show has potential, but it's not there yet.
"Gossip Girl" -- Those who know me known my policy when it comes to field hockey catfights: I fall squarely in the "Pro" camp. It then shouldn't be surprising that my sense of "Gossip Girl" is that the more trashy the show goes, the better. If it's going to be a guilty pleasure, make me guilty! I highly doubt that Blair and Serena are going to be reconciled for long, so we'll get to see more of Leighton Meester as apple-cheeked Bad Girl, which she does very very well. But maybe it's also time for Blake Lively's Serena to get to fight back? After stammering and attempting to be funny like the male leads in several different Josh Schwartz shows, Penn Badgley was ultra-serious this week, which comes across as ultra-ultra-serious, because his cheekbones are scary-defined. For the future, I'd like to request more of Ed Westwick's Chuck and less of Chace Crawford's Nate, since I forget about him whenever he's not on the screen.
OK. That "Criminal Minds" episode won't watch itself (nor will the story about Frankie Muniz guesting on "Criminal Minds" write itself).
Til later, America...
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
If you wonder why you make me really uncomfortable, don't look to the guy currently in the White House, or to the fact that an awful looking family comedy starring "The Rock" is the most popular movie in America (in a year in which the top overall comedy remains "Wild Hogs"), or at the fact that outside of San Francisco most of you don't respect Barry Bonds as the best baseball player of your lifetime. No, look to the ratings for the premiere of "Cavemen" on ABC.
I suppose that in a nation of 270 million (or more, possibly many more) residents, a new sitcom premiering with an audience of just under 9 million viewers shouldn't be all that impressive, really. That's still more people than will watch any comedy this week besides "Two and a Half Men" and [*sigh*] "Rules of Engagement." More than "How I Met Your Mother" or "The Office" or "30 Rock." The show did a 3.3 rating among adults 18-49, which is thankfully lower than most of the NBC comedies, but still higher than, say, FOX's "Bones" did last night.
The original "Cavemen" pilot sent to critics in May was all "Cavemen are an oppressed minority just like African-Americans, aren't we provocative?" It wasn't funny. That's why the new pilot that aired last night was all "Cavemen are just like everybody else only hairier and less funny, aren't we provocative?" And although the whole thing was declawed of its racial subtext, every once in a while somebody would make a comment about people needing to date their own kind or about the sexual potency of cavemen and I would just shrug. There's also something disturbing about watching a 30 minute show in which the actors can barely change their expressions and in which there's no sense of the performer under the make-up at all. That's Sam Huntington in the picture up there. Why is this what Sam Huntington wants to be doing now?
Are Cavemen drunk dialing or playing Wii or racquetball actually funny? If so, I may need an explanation to the subtle humor. Then you can go into what extra depths "traveler's cheque" satire got from having been delivered by Cro-Magnons.
I laughed twice at the original pilot, both times at the spectacular Julie White, a recent Tony winner who deserves some sort of even bigger award for being the only vaguely funny part of the new "Cavemen," something the producers obviously recognized, because she's a totally different character now. Still funny. Nothing else is.
I'd talk about why last night's "Reaper" was much less funny than the pilot -- something about the editing and direction not recapturing the splendidly dead-pan pacing Kevin Smith helped bring to the first episode -- but I've gotta rush to a set visit.
My Zap2it colleague Rick has gone into more depth on the suckage of "Caveman" over at the sporadically populated Gwyneth blog...
Oh and since I began this post in letter form, I guess I have to sign off...
Monday, October 01, 2007
Director: Peter Berg
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 61
In a Nutshell: There's an interesting cycle to "The Kingdom." I was immediately sucked in, from the exceptional title sequence tracing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since the discover of oil, through the horrible tragedy that leaves lots of unimportant people dead along with one FBI agent. As we all know, one FBI agent has the symbolic value of at least five American civilians and probably several hundred Middle Eastern civilians (a policy both Hollywood and the United States government has adhered to for years). I lost interest for nearly an hour as a team of FBI investigative agents -- Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper and a couple TV stars -- got to Saudi Arabia and realized that it's different investigating a crime there than in the United States (SHOCKING!!!). Then, as Peter Berg pulled out all the stops and staged a fantastically sustained final 30 minutes, including a powerful echoed final line, I was hooked again.
But 48 hours later? Some of the gut-punch from the final line has worn off, some of the adrenaline from that climax has gone out of my system.
I'm ready to step back and say that "The Kingdom" is a fine action film with just a bit of extra weight, but that there's still less human value than Berg was able to pour into "Friday Night Lights," either the feature (his last big screen effort) or the pilot for the NBC series (don't get me started on the new season's first three episodes).
Follow through after the bump for the rest of my thoughts.
There was some sort of debate over on the often pugnacious Hollywood Elsewhere blog about just who should get the cookie for having first called "The Kingdom" "CSI: Riyadh." Not only did Jeffrey Wells demand the cookie for himself, but he demanded that all people to subsequently use said catch-title present him with new cookies, as well as other genuflection. I noted on the message boards that fellow blogger/Check the Fien Print reader Andrew Dignan had used the phrase on his Punitive Superego blog back in April and that I couldn't find any earlier uses.
But I also noted that sometimes things are so manifestly *right* that if one person didn't say it first, another would have. After viewing clips from CBS' "Cane" at network upfronts in May, I called it "'Dallas' with Rum." I don't have a clue if anybody used the phrase first, but I saw a half-dozen reviewers (including me) use it last week when the show premiered (to lower demo ratings than the all-too-swiftly cancelled "Smith," but that's a different story).
"The Kingdom" *is* "CSI: Riyadh" a reduction that encapsulates both what it does well and why it falls short. Matthew Michael Carnahan's script is full of fine quips (mostly given to Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) and reasonably intelligent and sympathetic pieces of investigative work (most from Cooper and Foxx). The pieces add up and no clue is introduced without a well-announced payoff. Shot by Mauro Fiore on locations in the United Arab Emirates, "The Kingdom" practically oozes Middle Eastern ambiance, particularly with the performances by Ashraf Barhom and Ali Suliman, stars of the Oscar-winning "Paradise Now," a fact that probably opens up another can of political worms (barrel of political monkeys?) that I don't want to get into.
What you can't get beyond is the idea that "The Kingdom" probably tiptoes around something that's much too important to be tiptoed around in a mere action film until that mere action film is something as atypically brainy and brawny as "Three Kings." [Wait. Can I pause and ask why we're just now getting around to this onslaught of movies about our current situation in Iraq, but none of them is as forward thinking and perceptive as a movie David O. Russell made back in the 20th Century about the *last* war with Iraq? At a certain point, critics are going to recognize and proclaim that "Three Kings" is the best and most important movie of the past decade. I'm just saying...]
So "The Kingdom" can't just be a grenades/bombs/chases/happy ending action movie. Berg already did a fine version of that genre with "The Rundown" and he obviously is shooting bigger political fish in a barrel (that barrel of monkeys?) here. The film's "Violence perpetuates more violence" conclusion has almost nothing to do the overall message of the film which suggests that without American interventionism the somewhat backwards and certainly procedurally disadvantaged foreigners would probably never solve any crimes at all. It's a weird breed of bleeding heard jingoism and it isn't satisfying after additional reflection.
I wonder if the movie might have been improved if it had made more use of the femininity of Garner's character and the Jewishness of Bateman's. Those character traits are just signposts to remind us, whenever we forget, that Saudi Arabia is a different world. Actually, Bateman's Jewishness never figures in at all, except perhaps to the undercurrent.
Garner and Bateman are just two of the familiar TV faces who pop up to enhance that television-plus procedural feel. You also add Jeremy Piven, Frances Fisher and Ashley Scott, plus Berg transporting two of his small screen "Friday Night Lights" stars -- Minka Kelly and Kyle Chandler -- for early cameos.
Stay tuned maybe tomorrow for my thoughts on "The Valley of Elah," another movie that uses a TV-style procedural format to try dealing with world events in a cinematic way...