Tuesday, December 23, 2008

HitFix Is Live!

I meant to have this post up yesterday but... exhaustion prevented it. Or something to that effect.

I posted a couple weeks ago with the basics about HitFix and have been mentioning it ever since. If you don't remember the background, read this handy Variety story...

In any case, HitFix is now live! You can check it out at HitFix.com. As it says in the upper left corner, we're live, but we're still in beta, so we know about various bugs and we're working to fix everything as fast as possible.

But what's there, we're mighty proud of. I'm especially happy with the logo for my HitFix blog, which I think is mighty snazzy. So go check out the site and lemme know what you think.

A couple recent posts to get you started:

My review of "Gran Torino"
My review of "Frost/Nixon"
And some thoughts on current state of The CW

Friday, December 19, 2008

SAG nominations don't go out on a 'Wire'

SAG TV 2009 nomination analysis

[For those of you looking, the launch of HitFix has obviously been very slightly delayed. I'm not going to make a promise to you about a specific date, but we're gonna have the site up as soon as we're ready to be proud of it. We very nearly are. VERY. Does "early next week" count as a promise? HitFix is coming. It looks and works better every day.

[This blog post will obviously be at HitFix.com when the site goes live....]

Full post below...

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Fien Print Neologism: Ducking the Shoe

[This post, like the past few, will be following me over to my new online home at HitFix.com... Keep an eye out, kids, because HitFix is launching on Friday. Or at least we're hoping it will be! To whet your appetite, go check out Drew McWeeny talking HitFix on G4's "Attack of the Show." ]

Because the English language is a living breathing creature, it's necessary to come up with new words and parts of speech...

New Phrase: Ducking the Shoe (or Duck the Shoe)

Part of Speech: Either a verb or a gerundive of some sort

Definition: Escaping even the most minor of punishments for extended errors or catastrophic misdeeds.

Used in a Sentence: Despite dwindling ratings at NBC, Jeff Zucker and Ben Silverman have been ducking the shoe for years.

Origin and Linguistic Evolution: Last week, a certain president of a Western Superpower with rather dramatically low approval ratings in his native land had a shoe whipped at him by a reporter from a country he supposedly liberated. Said lame duck president successfully evaded said shoe, just as he also evaded an electoral challenge four years earlier, an ill-ingested preztel and any sort of censure from the legal bodies in his home nation. This blog isn't a place to get political, so I won't. Y'all know about the shoe.

In any case, as jokes about the incident were spreading the Internet like pregnancies in an Eastern Massachusetts high school, Alan Sepinwall and I determined that "Ducking the Shoe" needed to become a catch phrase. The venerable "Jumping the Shark" became so meaninglessly mainstreamed that nobody using it knows what they're referring to anymore, while its media-annointed replacement, "Nuking the Fridge," fell flat when people realized that using the expression would force us all to remember sitting through "Indiana Jones and the Quest for Profit."

Hence... "Ducking the Shoe," the perfect phrase for a moment in history where avoiding accountability isn't just a way of life, it's an art form which, if handled properly, can cause the government to provide you with billions of dollars in compensation for your ineptitude. Ducking the Shoe isn't an insult, so much as a reflection on the renewable resilience of the American Spirit. At our finest, we're a nation of shoe duckers. What, you'd rather be hit by the shoe? Go back to CANADA.

I spent several days running "Ducking the Shoe" into the ground on Twitter, attempting to work the phrase into the vernacular.


The "Heroes" fall finale stunk, but don't expect any heads to role, as it was written by the already scapegoated Jeph Loeb. Tim Kring, meanwhile, continues to duck the shoe.

Sacramento Kings coach Reggie Theus was unable to duck the shoe and was fired for his team's slow start. Golden State Warriors coach Don Nelson, though, is ducking the shoe due to the mistaken impression that when Montae Ellis returns from injury, the team will cease to stink.

For an example of the myriad possible uses of the phrase, check out Medialoper's 2008 Ducking the Shoe Awards.

Medialoper's very thorough list inspired me to codify Ducking the Shoe in blog-post form. Take the phrase. Work it around in your mouth a little bit and hear how it sounds. Lace it up and walk around the store for a while to see if it fits. Sprinkle it on your food to taste -- It's fat-free!

It's not too late for 2008 to go down at The Year of Ducking the Shoe.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

TV Review: NBC's "Momma's Boys"

[Targeted launch date for HitFix.com is now Friday, Dec. 19. Mark your calendars. Tell your friends. Etc. This review is being posted in The Fien Print blog at HitFix, but since it won't be live until Friday, might as well give it a place to live until then...]

NBC's reality show "Momma's Boys" is being dumped into a mid-December wasteland of repeats and holiday specials. Clearly the network is hoping the tiresomely generic series will score big with viewers who can't distinguish between "previous unaired" and "actually original."

The rest of the review after the bump...

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

2009 Golden Globe Nominations: 10 Thoughts on the TV Nods

[Note: With HitFix still revving up for launch, I don't have an immediately place for this sort of rambling analysis. This post will migrate over to my HitFix blog as soon as it becomes active and available.]

My Ten Thoughts about the 2009 Golden Globe nominations in TV after the bump.

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2009 Golden Globe Nominations: 10 Thoughts on the Movie Nods

[Note: With HitFix still revving up for launch, I don't have an immediately place for this sort of rambling analysis. This post will migrate over to my HitFix blog as soon as it becomes active and available.]

My Ten Thoughts about the 2009 Golden Globe nominations in Movies after the bump.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

A Personal and Professional Update

While I probably should be writing my reviews of "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," I interrupt this semi-fallow blog not-quite-in-progress for a wee bit of a personal announcement...

As some of you already know, Friday (Nov. 28) was my last day at Zap2it.com.

I started at Zap2it in February of 2003 and will remain friends and allies with my former colleagues from Zap2it. I think we've made a pretty great site.

Beginning Monday, Dec. 1, I'll be starting a new gig as Executive Editor (putting it in caps makes me feel special) and All Around TV Guy at a new online entertainment site called HitFix.com.

After six years at Zap2it, it was time for a change, but I wouldn't have made the change for just for any startup or just for any group of people and I believe that HitFix has all of the components necessary to become a destination site for entertainment news and information and analysis. We also have plenty of special features that will set HitFix apart, but part of the joy of getting hype in motion is that you don't want to burn out the buzz too fast! Stay tuned!

We're aiming for a soft-launch of Dec. 15, so join me in knocking on wood. After that point, much of the content that's usually been posted in *this* blog and posted in the myriad Zap2it blogs will become a part of HitFix. That will include reviews, industry commentary and, heaven help me, "American Idol" recaps.

As I said, the HitFix editorial team is a stellar group, including MSN Movies guru Gregory Ellwood, Ain't It Cool legend Drew McWeeny and music insider Melinda Newman. And we have some damned smart people working on the tech, design and business end of things. We're going to be smart, funny, well-informed and timely.

I'm excited and I look forward to sharing more information soon...

[I also look forward to eventually writing those late movie reviews. Knock on wood there as well.]

Saturday, November 15, 2008

MovieWatch: "Quantum of Solace"

"Quantum of Solace"
Director: Marc Forster
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 68
In a Nutshell: [Yup. I've been a bad blogger. I have a half-finished review of "Changeling," a couple stray paragraphs of a review of "Synecdoche, NY," an a chunk of writing on "Waltz with Bashir" that I may still get to use at some point. I've also funneled a few things into various Zap2it blogs. And, probably much more than I should, I've left potentially fertile ideas go half-baked on my Zap2it Twitter feed (http://twitter.com/Zap2itDaniel). My apologies. I have other excuses as well, but I may get into those later.]

A thought (or maybe a meditation): When "The Bourne Identity" came out in 2002, an impressive number of the positive reviews shared a similar sentiment, one that said that this was a James Bond movie done right. Interesting how many reviews of "Quantum of Solace" already seem to be complaining that the new James Bond movie isn't a James Bond movie at all, but a Jason Bourne movie. But if a Bourne movie was a good Bond movie, when did a Bond movie being a Bourne movie necessarily become a bad thing?

Full review after the bump...

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

MovieWatch: "W [red period]"

"W [red period]"
Director: Oliver Stone
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 43
In a Nutshell: [Apologies for the long time between posts. I was unexpectedly called out of town for family matters and getting back into the writing swing of things these past few days has been a struggle.]

Oh Oliver Stone, you gloriously tricky bastard!

News comes out that you're making a George W. Bush biopic and everybody assumes it will be a leftist hatchet job. You [or your people, or your people's people] leak the script to said movie and everybody becomes *convinced* that it will be a leftist hatchet job. You release a trailer that's so bizarre and confusing that everybody decides your movie will actually be an unintentionally hilarious leftist hatchet job.

Then the movie comes out and it *isn't* a leftist hatchet job and it *isn't* really all that unintentionally funny.

Thus, thanks to the wonders of the ol' bait-n-switch, some critics, confused that "W [red period]" wasn't the thing they feared it might be, were fooled into thinking it's actually a good movie.

Full review after the bump, of course.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

10 Baseball Postseason Thoughts for 10/14/08

I'm not sure I have anything to say about last night's scripted television, but I probably have some thoughts on the baseball I've been watching for seemingly 12 hours a night all month.

Ten of them, in fact... Cuz it's a round number.

1) Some folks in Red Sox Nation are getting antsy about going down 2-1 to the Devil Rays. I say, "Bring it on!" If a very superficial gloss of recent history has taught me anything, it's that the Red Sox are incapable of *making* the World Series, much less winning it, without making a miraculous comeback from 3-games-to-1 down. The last time the Red Sox even made the World Series without overcoming a 3-1 deficit was, of course, 1975. And the last time they *won* a World Series without doing it was 1918. You may have heard about that one. In 1986, the Sox came from 3-1 down against the Angels. In 2004, of course, they came back from 3-0 down (and therefore also 3-1 down) against the Yankees. And last year the Sox won the World Series after digging out of a 3-1 hole against the Indians. So it's all part of the plan, Nation!

The rest of my thoughts after the bump...

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Start Making Sense: Thoughts on "My Own Worst Enemy" and "Life on Mars"

When the phrase "suspension of disbelieve" is tossed around, folks often exclude the first part of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's literary term, that being the "willing" part of "willing suspension of disbelief."

*Any* tv show, movie or book can ask its audience to suspend disbelief, but that doesn't mean we're gonna. And we're fickle, too. Like in the first season of "Friday Night Lights," there were cliches and contrivances aplenty, but because I was so wrapped up in the show, I almost never got into the sort of obsessive nit-picking that I usually get into. I didn't want to ruin the moment. Then when the show went off the rails, suddenly all of those affectations began to annoy me. Was the second season of "Friday Night Lights" less realistic -- Killer Landry aside -- than the first? Or was it just a case in which I felt as if my willingness to suspend disbelief had been corrupted and, with that contract in violation, I refused to play along any more? The latter I think. Many more people have experienced the same feelings with "Lost" in its second season or with "Heroes" in its second and third seasons. If the spell gets broken for a single second, it's something really hard to re-cast. Credit "Lost" for having mostly succeeded. Pity "Heroes" for not standing a chance.

Anyway, these thoughts came to my mind while thinking over the freshman dramas "Life on Mars" and "My Own Worst Enemy," two shows that ask an awful lot of their viewers.

My early read on "Mars," which premiered on ABC last Thursday, and "Enemy," which premieres on Monday (Oct. 13) on NBC, after the bump...

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

MovieWatch: "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist"

"Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist"
Director: Peter Sollett
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 69
In a Nutshell: Although it's a movie about high school kids and it features stars of several successful high school movies, "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist" is a teen romantic comedy that isn't really intended for teens. It stars actors who look like 20-something hipsters reading dialogue that sounds like it was written by 20-something (or 30-something) hipsters. The movie is sweetly innocent, but not in a way that speaks to or reflects genuine innocence so much as a nostalgic yearning for an innocence gone by. It's principle sentiment is "John Hughes Meets 'After Hours,'" so I guess I'm saying it's a movie about the young at heart made by and for people who may not be so young themselves?

There's nothing wrong with that, but I have reason to believe, based on the audience reaction around me, that "Nick and Norah" is a movie that doesn't play so well to the audience it's been targeted at and yet may not have been properly targeted to reach the audience that would actually find it to be a pleasant relief.

More thoughts after the bump, as I balance sports on television with a review I should have written a week ago...

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

MovieWatch: "Body of Lies"

"Body of Lies"
Director: Ridley Scott
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 63
In a Nutshell: [I feel like I've already over-blogged today. I mean, if I get this posted by the end of the evening, that'll be three posts in one day. Who do I think I am, Sepinwall? Even if it doesn't get posted til tomorrow, it'll still be excessively prolific. And I still won't have done my week-old review on "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist." Oh well. What I'm saying is that this may be a short review.]

"Body of Lies," which I saw because you're supposed to see Ridley Scott movies on the big screen just in case they're any good, isn't a bad movie. What it is is a movie with no imperative reason for existing. It's a movie that Ridley Scott made between other projects he wanted to do more simply because the script and cast were in place. It wasn't a movie Scott made because he had a story he needed to tell. It wasn't a movie he made because he had a desperate desire to work in a new genre or a new part of the world. It was just something to do. And that lack of urgency is tangible in the movie.

There are great directors who can still make great movies even with a lack of personal urgency. Scorsese's done it. Spielberg's done it. It's just not Scott's M.O.

Heck, Ridley's brother Tony has made a whole career out of simulating urgency that didn't otherwise exist, out of forcing so much visual frenzy onto a movie that you only sometimes notice that there wasn't a darned thing for the movie to hang its hat upon. OK, actually you often notice that there's no steak, only sizzle in Tony Scott's movies, but at his best, he distracts you.

So I guess that with "Body of Lies," Ridley Scott has actually made a pretty decent Tony Scott film. Of course, Tony Scott made his version of the same movie in 2001 when it was called "Spy Game."

Full review, as short as I can make it, after the bump.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

MovieWatch: "The Express"

"The Express"
Director: Gary Fleder
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 35
In a Nutshell: The story of Ernie "The Elmira Express" Davis is the stuff that a great underdog sports movie is made of. Perhaps, though, Ernie Davis was actually the stuff that too many great underdog sports movies are made of.

With screenwriter Charles Leavitt incapable of deciding the story he wants to tell, director Gary Fleder is unable to put the proper emotional emphasis on a single foot of celluloid. As a result, I sat in the theater constantly frustrated by all of the things I knew should be powerful or exciting that the filmmakers were botching.

Full review of "The Express" after the bump...

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Notes on Bob Dylan, Ray Guy and the Nobel Prize

While I was atoning for one or two of my sins on Thursday (Oct. 9), some random Swedish people announced the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. I didn't expect to win, so I wasn't disappointed. Ever since my former semi-neighbor Eudora Welty passed away, I haven't expected anybody I know or pseudo-know to win, so I wasn't disappointed.

And I can't really feel embarrassed that I don't really the work of the man who *did* win, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio. It sounds like he's an interesting enough guy and I'm sure he's a superior writer.

But I was listening to NPR on Wednesday and one of the anchors was telling people not to expect an American to win, going through the odds from some betting house that said that Phillip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates had the best chances. And the newsreader noted that way down the odds list was Bob Dylan at something like 50:1 and the anchor closed with a snort and said something akin to "We don't know why he's on the list at all."

What now? Snobbery is a built-in expectation when you listen to NPR, but that's ridiculous. Why *shouldn't* Bob Dylan win the Nobel Prize for literature?

My thoughts here after the bump, along with a REALLY strained analogy or two...

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Friday, October 03, 2008

MovieWatch: "Blindness"

Director: Fernando Meirelles
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 38
In a Nutshell: In college I took a sociology class titled "Deviance and Social Control." If they still teach it at Penn, I strongly recommend it. But anyway, one of the things that came up in that class was the old cliche that "In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." Our professor didn't buy into that at all, making it clear that the one-eyed man would, essentially, become the ultimate outsider as the blind developed their own coping mechanisms, their own way of life outside of the sighted world. He point? In the land of the blind, it would suck to be a one-eyed man.

That idea is carried through in the new theatrical release "Blindness," Fernando Meirelles' rather dismal adaptation of Jose Saramago well-regarded novel.

"Blindness" is being marketed with imagery that would seem to imply that it's a cross between "Children of Men," "28 Days Later" and "The Miracle Worker." It's a misleading ad campaign, but it's actually brilliant. People are much more likely to see "Blindness" thinking it's some sort of badass zombie flick or political thriller than if they knew the truth of the matter, which is that it's a thuddingly obvious allegory spiked with moments of pretentious artiness and very little actual soul.

A full review after bump...

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Monday TV: Good Luck, "Chuck"

Monday nights confuse and disturb my DVR.

Poor DVR.

It doesn't understand how it's supposed to record four shows in the 8 p.m. hour, how it's supposed to use its two tuners to get "Chuck" on NBC, "How I Met Your Mother" (and, to a much lesser degree of urgency, "Big Bang Theory) on CBS, "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" on FOX and "Gossip Girl" on The CW. It doesn't know to appreciate the fact that I only watch "Dancing with the Stars" in the office and only because it provides sometimes appealing lunchtime entertainment. And it doesn't even learn to appreciate that relatively calm, cool and collected 9 p.m. hour in which I'd normally only request NBC's "Heroes," FOX's "Prison Break" and The CW's "One Tree Hill" from it.

The fact is that while there's a logjam on Monday nights, a situation made worse by my decision not to watch "Mad Men" until the show becomes available in HD OnDemand, I don't actually love a lot of those shows.

In fact, in a twist, the Monday show that I've already moved to the top of my DVR priority list (and would, in a critical capacity, recommend highest), is "Chuck." I learned long ago that rooting for my favorite low-rated NBC shows to become hits -- think "Friday Night Lights" or "30 Rock" -- was a lost cause. But "Chuck" is a show so instantly accessible to so many different types of audiences that it ought to have room to grow.

More on Monday night TV and a review-y-thing of this Monday's (Sept. 29) "Chuck" after the bump...

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R.I.P. Paul Newman, 1925-2008

[This post was, of course, started on Saturday. Then things got busy... Better to post it now, even if somewhat truncated...]

If you go through Paul Newman's credits, there are certainly examples of roles in which he tried out accents. There are examples of him playing parts where he experimented with facial hair. A couple times, one of Hollywood's most lauded and conspicuous philanthropists went wildly against type and played characters who you'd consider to be villains.

When listing the great actors of the past 50 years, Newman's always there, but isn't he somewhat overshadowed by the Pacinos, the Brandos and the De Niros? The tendency is to over-rate the actor who appears to be working the hardest and to sell short the actor whose efforts seem most effort-less.

Paul Newman gets sold short for having been so pretty for so long and never being one of those actors who said, "I have to play ugly to get my Oscar." He gets penalized, I guess, for never making people go, "I can't believe that was Paul Newman in that role!" There's even a tendency to call Paul Newman "Eternally Cool" or "A True Movie Star," which are both sweet sentiments, but they're also both minimizing.

As much as he was adored, Paul Newman was taken for granted, or at least his greatness as an actor was.

A glance at my favorite Newman performances after the bump...

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Debriefing from the 2008 Emmys

[Yeah, I know. It's already a bit late in the game for Emmy analysis, but Nikki Finke has been promising *her* analysis for around 20 hours and she didn't blog or tweet on every second of the show and also review it last night.]

It's instinctive to want to complain about the Emmys, especially since the telecast is being general acknowledged as one of the worst broadcasts in recent award show history. And the Emmy show was, indeed, uncontestably awful, horribly paced, bloated to the extreme and full of easily mockable moments.

But the awards themselves? Well, if you happen to believe that "Mad Men" was probably last year's best television drama and that "30 Rock" was among the top three TV comedies, how can you possibly complain? Or how much?

I'll give it my shot after the bump...

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

MovieWatch Mini: "The Wrestler"

"The Wrestler"
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): Pending
In a Nutshell: ["The Wrestler" isn't coming out until the end of December and even though I really enjoyed the movie, I dunno how much Fox Searchlight would want me posting a full review, no matter how much I liked it. And I liked it *a lot*. But this really will be just a "nutshell."]

"The Wrestler" will be pushed for heavy Oscar consideration and the buzz is building thanks to festival screenings in Venice and Toronto, but it's really a very small movie and it may not be capable of sustaining an extreme amount of hype, the sort of hype that will almost certainly grow. I'd advise keeping expectations moderate once the hype explodes, but I advised the same thing on "Juno" last year and it mostly held up to the hype, backlash-be-damned.

Assuming Mickey Rourke doesn't do something hugely embarrassing between now and award season (obviously a distinct possibility), he'll be a lock for an Oscar nomination. I'd call the performance Brando-esque in its combination of emotional vulnerability and physical intensity, but not the young Brando. I'm thinking more the "Last Tango in Paris" Brando. The relief of seeing that the young Rourke's Method-y potential wasn't entirely wasted through the Lost '90s is palpable in nearly every scene.

And Marisa Tomei is every bit as worthy of awards attention, plus I think you can guarantee that she'll win her second consecutive annual commendation for Mr. Skin for cinematic nudity. Let's just say she isn't one of those stupid Natalie Portman-esque movie strippers who practically wear a parka on the poll. It baffles me that people still mention Tomei on lists of odd or undeserving Oscar winners. She's more than proven her worth as an actress and she's more than proven that her gifts go far beyond one-note comedy. She keeps getting better.

Since I've only really enjoyed one Aronofsky movie without reservations ("Requiem for a Dream"), I was impressed at how restrained and smart his direction is here. Robert D. Siegel's script is mostly strong and understated, but when it stumbles into more conventional Movie Moment territory, Aronofsky's touch is uncharacteristically humane and gentle.

I'll have more to say come December, but I just wanted to whet a few appetites. This one will most likely be heading for my yearly Top 10.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

On second thought: "Fringe," "Privileged" and "90210"

You often hear people discuss the advantages of high definition television to the overall viewership. Heck, I do it all the time. But outside of porn, you rarely hear people complain about the parts of viewership that it absolutely destroys

I started thinking about this last week when the shoddy makeup work on "One Tree Hill" made me get far more chuckles out of the sight of an abused woman than I normally would. It came up again during Tuesday (Sept. 16) night's "90210," when I fell into a giggle-loop watching Dixon and Silver drive through some of the worst-matched green screen shots of Beverly Hills I've ever seen. I was six when I saw "Return of the Jedi" and I remember the poorly lit outline around the Sarlacc, effects work so bad that it even confused Young Dan. That was still better than Dixon and Silver sitting in a stunt car. I'm not saying I wouldn't have noticed in low-def, but it might have hurt me less...

Follow through after the bump for some thoughts on the second episodes of "Fringe" and "Privileged," plus the third episode of "9021-Ohmigod Eat a Sandwich."

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

MovieWatch: "Burn After Reading"

"Burn After Reading"
Director: The Brothers Coen
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 68
In a Nutshell: Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of "Blood Simple." The Brothers Coen will have been making movies for 25 years. They didn't used to be prolific, but they're started turning out movies with increasing speed. Two movies in the '80s. Five movies in the '90s. They're already at six (plus a segment of "Paris, je t'aime") this decade.

But it's interesting. I have no idea what Joel and Ethan Coen think about ANYTHING. I don't know their politics. I don't know much of their spiritual ideology. Oh, I know what intrigues them and what makes them laugh. I know their cinematic influences and their formal amusements. But I wonder how many filmmakers of their stature have worked for so long and managed to give up so little of themselves.

Well, the general critical consensus has been to criticize "Burn After Reading" for being a trifle, a substance-free follow-up to what may be The Brothers' finest film, last year's "No Country For Old Men." That's a big odd to me, because I can launch a fairly coherent argument stating that "Burn After Reading" is the Coens' most political and dogmatic film to date. I have more trouble making an argument that it's as funny as they seem to think it is.

That argument follows after the bump.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Decent Options: "Privileged" and "Fringe" premiere

Thanks to last night's FOX Eco-Casino party, which now has my apartment well-stocked with enviro-friendly lightbulbs, and my "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" set visit today, I'm behind on my TV viewing for the week. I haven't watched "Mad Men," "Weeds," "Skinz," "One Tree Hill," "Weeds" or "Prison Break." I'm so far behind on "Big Brother" that I've quit entirely and started deleting the episodes piling up on my DVR, a decision that became a lot easier when I tried to think if I would possibly be rooting for anybody to win and came to the conclusion that I'm not.

Fortunately, I saw FOX's "Fringe" a while back. I was more enthusiastic after my first viewing during the summer, perhaps because I enjoy seeing things early, or maybe because seeing TV on the big screen -- a screening room on the FOX lot -- is ideal. Dunno. It's also possible that after reading the script and watching the pilot twice, I've burnt out a bit. My bottom line, as discussed in my Zap2it review, is that expectations are a problem after FOX's Summer of Unceasing Promotion. "Fringe" isn't "Lost" or "Alias" or "The X-Files." But that doesn't make it bad.

The night's other new show is The CW's "Privileged," a dramedy that I don't love, but that I feel a certain amount of warmth towards. A full review is after the bump.

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Sunday, September 07, 2008

HBO's "True Blood" and "Entourage" Revel in Childish Things

I'm not prone to beginning blog posts with quotes from the New Testament, but in reflecting on HBO's Sunday night lineup, I kept coming back to...

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."

Now obviously this quote from first Corinthians doesn't have a DARNED thing to do with me. I watch TV for a living and at my most mature, I'm fairly infantile.

But what I *do* know is that two subjects that used to excite and entertain me a heck of a lot more than they do now are the glamorous lives of Hollywood stars and the sex lives of vampires.

Follow through after the bump to see how that impacts my initial opinions on the premieres of "True Blood" and "Entourage"...

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Riding with FX's "Sons of Anarchy"

Last night built up, with growing enthusiasm, to the premiere of The CW's "90210," which ended up -- with an audience of just under 5 million -- either being the most watched scripted program in CW history or the least watched installment over "Beverly Hills, 90210" ever. The CW would like you to concentrate on the former and ignore the fact that despite the endless promotion and pimpage, "90210" failed to outdraw a successful episode of "America's Next Top Model," much less show that The CW is ready to compete with TNT. Fair nuf.

In any case, tonight's options are a bit less exciting. In the interest of equal time, I'll watch Sarah Palin's speech from the RNC, but that's only because I've already seen "Bones" (great use of London and lots of effective comedy) and "ANTM" (almost unwatchably bad this cycle).

And because I've seen FX's "Sons of Anarchy." While there are many reasons to like the FX bike gang drama, I suspect it will probably join the ranks of FX series that I watch in the initial batch of screeners and subsequently am unable to keep track of, either because I forget when they're on or I forget that they're on at all. Actually, USA shows have started to fall into that category as well. I like them well enough. But not well enough to become devoted. It's amazing I can still keep up with "Mad Men," actually.

So anyway, an actual review of "Sons of Anarchy" is after the bump...

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The CW's "90210" Premieres: Is it a Peach or the Pits?

The summer between my senior year in high school and college, I worked at a pizza place -- Boston's Favorite Pizza, Papa Gino's -- and did mostly night shifts, because that's what my friends were doing. That left me with my days free and since my summer reading was just a Tom Stoppard play, I discovered that FX aired two episodes of "Beverly Hills, 90210" each afternoon. The episodes were from different seasons, but they were at least in sequence, so I caught up on the first six seasons in weird epicycles, watching, say, Season One and Season Four in tandem and filling in blanks in fabulously non-linear ways.

As marvelously and deliciously trashy as it was, it would be wrong to forget that the original "Beverly Hills, 90210" was still over-earnest, ridiculously square, soapy trash. So it'll be interesting to see how rose-tinted critics' glasses are when it comes to "BH90210v.2.0." Will they complain that the acting on the new show doesn't equal the RSC standards set by a young Brian Austin Green and Luke Perry? Will they lament the occasionally preachy tone? Heck, will I fall into those traps?

We'll see after the bump, eh?

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MovieWatch: "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
Director: Woody Allen
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 68
In a Nutshell: I may be over-rating "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" a smidge because I subjected myself to "Cassandra's Dream" via Netflix last weekend and just about anything Woody Allen would have done as a follow-up would have been a blessed relief.

But Allen's entire career at this point is being graded on the curve. After "Anything Else" and "Hollywood Ending" and the professional nadir that was "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," Allen got to the point where his name was under-played in the ads for "Melinda and Melinda" and, particularly, "Match Point." But "Match Point" was such a hit that Allen's name was front-and-center in the advertising for "Scoop," which tanked. It was less visible on "Cassandra's Dream" and missing from most promotion for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." This latest film, now, has performed well enough that Allen's name can be resurrected for next year's "Whatever Works." But after three Oscars and dozens of nominations, Allen's commercial status can apparently only be judged on a film-by-film basis these days. I find that a bit sad.

Anyway, a full review of "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" after the bump...

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Television Returns: Breaking down the "Gossip Girl," "Prison Break" and "OTH" Premieres

Yes, I know. I've been a bad blogger. There's only so many times I can apologize. Heck, even my blog posted a comment over the summer complaining about being neglected.

But Monday (Sept. 1) night unofficially started the new television season! Nielsen doesn't think so, but to heck with them and their comically outmoded audience sampling system. If the girls are gossiping, the men are prison breaking and the hills have only a single tree once again, then my TV season has most certainly begun!

As as of the moment of posting, we're only six hours from what The CW tells me will be the most important event of the fall. More important that USC-Ohio State? More important than the Emmys? More important than Yom Kippur? More important than the election? Yes. Apparently. But more on the premiere of "90210" tomorrow, of course, since The CW wants to make me suffer.

Anywho... Thoughts on the premieres of "Prison Break," "Gossip Girl" and "One Tree Hill" after the bump...

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dan in Las Vegas: Part III [Belated] -- Cravings at The Mirage

[It's a teensy bit odd that I should have found it easier to be semi-blog-productive while I was in Las Vegas -- albeit relishing the chance to hide out from the 110-degree temperatures in my subpar, but at least vaguely air-conditioned hovel [errr... "hotel"] room -- but I've been back from Vegas for nearly a week now and I've been hesitant to type up the last two buffet reviews from my visit to The Desert. Fortunately, buffets aren't exactly timely, as writing subjects go.

And, as a side note, I strongly recommend the mid-week Vegas experience. It's a little bit quieter, a little bit less chaotic and a little bit cheaper than what happens over the weekend. In addition, my drive back to Los Angeles on Friday after took maybe 4:15, another remarkably smooth, traffic-free jaunt.]

Anyway, my second dinner buffet experience in Las Vegas was... Cravings at The Mirage.

The full review, complete with a couple pretty pictures, is after the bump.

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Buffet: Cravings at The Mirage
Price: $24.95
The Line: At 6:30 in the evening on a Thursday, there was absolutely no line to speak of. It took maybe five minutes to pay and get seated. Exiting nearly 90 minutes later -- What? I like to relish my buffet experience! -- a small line had formed, but I'd guess it didn't represent more than maybe 15 minutes of waiting. Given that The Mirage's outpost of California Pizza Kitchen had a formidable line, I'm not sure what to make of it.
Ambiance: Since I started my trip with The Buffet at The Bellagio, it's hard for me not to just compare everything else to that experience on a one-to-one basis. In that respect, Cravings is a much more self-consciously "designed" space. The undulating lights, smooth wooden chairs and clear, amber Lucite tables are all meant to be relaxing and bright and welcoming. The entire space is a rather marked contrast to the darkened interior of the Mirage. All of the smallest details follow the concept, including the ceramic salt-and-pepper shakers, the curved, square plates and even the silverware. I'm not sure how the rather grotesque carpeting fits with the aesthetic, nor the orange, red and brown napkins. But I guess the goal is comfort, however discordant, which isn't bad since Cravings feels much larger than the space taken up by The Buffet and certainly less cramped. An amazing series of stations wrap all the way around the outside, each clearly marked by a light blue or greenish sign explaining either the main food group or the superficial ethnic incarnation. It's easy to target your destination from across a room and head straight there, but I confess that I got disoriented and lost going back to my seat after my first serving.

The Food: Every station I went to at Cravings was a mixed bag, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. I found lots of great things to eat, but also some less inspired entries.

At the sushi station, I wasn't inspired by the variety. The California rolls with crab were fine, but the shrimp was oddly subpar given that perfectly fine shrimp were available in the cold seafood line next to the crab legs. But the salmon rolls featured fish that was both fatty and flavorful. That may have been a freak occurrence, though, since on subsequent trips through the line, the salmon looked drier and poorly cut, as if an entirely different sushi chef with a lower quality of fish had come on duty right at the start of the dinner rush. Color me confused.

Also on the confusion front, I mentioned that the sushi-cut shrimp wasn't very good -- rubbery and tasteless -- but the best item at the well-stocked dim-sum station was a moist shrimp shu mai. Even though they were freshly poured into the heating pan, pork pot stickers were dry and even a liberal dosing of soy sauce did nothing to bring them back. A wide selection of steamed buns looked promising, but they were confusingly labeled and even three requested attempts to land a BBQ pork bun left me with only seafood. Is anything in all the world more disappointing than biting into a piping hot bao and getting the wrong filling? Yes. Many things are far more disappointing. But that still sucks. The dim sum station also offered roast duck which, as those who know me know, is always a favorite. Unfortunately, the duck was pre-prepared in a drawer under the grill and the skim was less crispy than greasy. There. That's one thing that's at least as disappointing as mislabeled bao. But it's close.

Sticking with the Asian theme, the prepared dishes were superior to what was offered at The Buffet at Bellagio. The Singapore noodles had a good curried flavor and bountiful shrimp (clearly the sushi station just got last dibs on the cockroaches of the sea). I also got a kick out of the crunchy pork-filled wontons, though they were mostly fried dough and that's a recipe for buffet defeat, so I steered clear of seconds.

I dodged several sections entirely. The Spanish-inflected station was a bit of a disaster, with burnt (or maybe "caramelized" if I'm being generous) plantains fighting for reheating space with some watery fajita chicken. No spell coming off the food suggested anything Cuban, Mexican or even Texan. I wasn't engaged by any of the different kinds of soup, though there were seven or eight different varieties, ranging from a bouillabaisse to chicken rice congee. Based on looks, I think I'd have gone with the congee first. It seemed different. The deli station would be fine, though I dunno who gets deli at a buffet, while a BBQ spread didn't do anything for me.

Having skipped the prime rib at the Bellagio, I got a hunk at Cravings. I say "hunk," because the carving wasn't really impressive. At least the meat was properly cooked and except for the tooth-defying ring of gristle, it was decent. Mostly, it tasted like horseradish. End of the day? Prime rib would never make my list of my five or 10 favorite cuts of beef, so I may not be the best person to judge.

I preferred the quality of the crab at Cravings to that at The Bellagio, though when I went by a second time, the legs all looked thinner, with less easily accessible flesh. But the pizza at Cravings was a reminder of how excellent the pizza at The Buffet was, because even though it was baked on-site in visible ovens, my pepperoni slice was basically salty and greasy.

The clear dessert standout at Cravings is the gelato station, which generated a decent line. I'd describe the options as "eclectic," but not especially enticing. You don't see rum babas (with an assortment of sauce options), green tea roulade or papaya soup (an orange sludge in tall shot glasses) just anywhere. I was also impressed with the reduced sugar options, though none -- from a chocolate cake, to a white cake -- actually spoke to me. Strangely, the best dessert I had was a macaroon. Thanks to Passover-based associations, I shy away from macaroons, but these were the right combination of crunchy-chewy on the outside and airy and soft inside.

Bottom Line: If we're just talking food, Cravings isn't as good at Bellagio's The Buffet. But it has many things going for it. The price is lower, the wait is shorter and the space is more open and therefore quieter and less claustrophobic. Both buffets are clear steps above what you get at the cheaper, cut-rate buffets up and down the strip. Next trip? I wanna get to Planet Hollywood and The Rio and to Harrahs. I heard good things about all of them.

One more buffet review to go. Perhaps tomorrow?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Dan in Las Vegas: Part II -- The Buffet at The Bellagio

Originally, a central part of my intent in coming to Vegas was to go absolutely buffet mad and to go to at least four different buffets, write up reviews and even take digital pictures.

After gorging myself at The Buffet at The Bellagio, widely considered one of the very finest buffets available in Vegas and therefore in El Mundo, I may have decided to cut back my goals, just a wee bit. Two buffet dinners and a buffet breakfast on Friday? *Much* more plausible. Perhaps not as in-depth as I might have liked, but I'll be back.

I planned by first buffet based around Travel Channel's "All You Can Eat Paradise," which featured The Buffet at The Bellagio.

The basics...

Price: $27.95
The Line: At 6:30 on a Wednesday night, the wait was a little under 40 minutes. It looked like it would have been even longer if I had requeued at 8:45 when I left.
Service: Soda and water are included with the price and there's a full bar. The usual assortment of staff whisk in and out making sure that plates are never left and that drinks are only occasionally empty.
Ambiance: Very basic and almost entirely unthemed. Nice Asian-meets-Art-n-Crafts lamps hang over the line area, but the interior of the buffet is semi-classy and utilitarian.

What about the food? After the bump, of course... After the bump. Including pictures!

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The Food: The human blueberry -- short, round, azure shirt, azure shorts -- in front of me in line assured me that although other buffets in the city may be more expensive -- the Wynn is apparently $40-ish, with longer lines -- none are better.

Highlights: It's amazing how many things at The Buffet seem fresh. The main seafood station is, for many, an obvious standout with large shrimp, smoked salmon and giant crab legs. To my mind, the crab legs were too salty. I like mine crab legs natural and sweet. But folks were loading their plates. They know how to win at buffets. I preferred some of the smaller things at the station, including a shrimp-and-scallop ceviche, which had the sweetness I wanted from the crab legs, thanks in large part to the presence of mango.

While obviously you don't win at a buffet by loading up on carbs -- EVERYBODY knows that -- The Bellagio takes great pride in their assortment of fresh baked breads -- at least five kinds that I counted, constantly being replenished. Bread is usually a trick, an afterthought, at buffets. This bread was good. The pizza was even better. They have a brick over out back and at least six different kinds of pizza were constantly recirculating including basics like cheese and pepperoni, a lurid green pesto and rock shrimp, and the BBQ chicken w/bacon pizza I had. The crush was good enough that I could have had more. Oh well. Only so much tummy.

Plus, if you're at a buffet in Vegas, you have to hit the carving stations. The Buffet at The Bellagio has freshly carved lamb, perfectly pink prime rib, gyro trimmings (with fresh pita) and Chicken Wellington (I'd have preferred beef). For me, though, the best item was the duck leg in peanut sauce, which was amazingly moist for mass-produced poultry.

There were entirely too many things I didn't try at the main stations, because the desserts looked too good. What other buffet do you know that has four entirely different types of bread pudding? I sampled key lime pie, lemon meringue, carrot cake and the miniature ramekins of crème brulee without ever realizing that I hadn't gotten anything with chocolate. That's impressive.

Lowlights: This is just a little detail, but if you're priding yourself on chilled seafood and sushi, what sane place surrounds those stations only with hot plates? I don't want to get back to my table to find out that my salmon roll has been cooked through.

The Buffet prides itself on the freshly prepared foods, which is why the carving station and the pizzas are always turning over and staying in ideal condition. Somehow that didn't work out for the Generic Asian Station. Even if they were being regularly replenished, the dim sum-style steamed pork buns were always dried out and oddly crunchy. The Singapore noodles were also dried out and I couldn't really get a distinct flavor from there. Nothing else at the station looked worth grabbing.

The fish at the sushi station was of fine quality, though a bit limited. Ahi and salmon. Period. Plus ahi and salmon poke. The rice with the various rolls had obviously been pre-formed in cannels, making it dense and chewy.

The salad bar is a meager afterthought. Then again, once you're playing $30 for a buffet -- and even vegetarians could find a decent number of tofu and vegetabular items -- you probably shouldn't be loading up on leaves and dressing.

Bottom Line: If it weren't for my desire to branch out and see the world, I could absolutely return to The Buffet at the Bellagio. There were many things I didn't get to that seemed appetizing. Meanwhile, The Buffet becomes gourmet on Friday and Saturday nights with the promise of Kobe-style beef. My previous recent buffet experiences in Las Vegas had been at the Tropicana and the Excalibur and the quality of the food at the Bellagio is noticeably higher.

P.S. I have several options for tonight's dinner buffet, but if anybody has any suggestions they wanna share... go for it. Just do it fast.

Dan in Las Vegas: Part I -- Overview

So anyway, I took a week off from Zap2it to recharge my batteries. Actually, I had a bunch of goals, but the need to watch live-but-not-really coverage of the Olympics put a kibosh on much of that. But yeah, the goal was battery recharging. Somehow, in my warped version of "recharging," I decided it might be fun to drive off into the desert for a couple days. And in my warped version of "recharging," "drive off into the desert" became a couple days in Vegas.

Given that I'm typing this at 12:15 a.m. because I needed to cool off from The Strip (it's still around 85 degrees out), but I still intend to go back to some casino or another tonight... Not so much with the recharging.

But I probably won't post this until whenever I get out of bed tomorrow morning and maybe that'll be close to noonish, which would almost be recharging, except that I fear how warm my hotel room could get...

A few general and introductory thoughts after the bump, should you care... I'm not sure I've had enough to drink for them to be amusing.

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Travel Time: Last time I drove to Vegas, for my buddy Ezra's Bachelor Party, I was actually a passenger and the trip out took roughly seven hours, perhaps a smidge more. This time, door-to-door, I did the trip in 4:05, which includes a stop in Primm to get an energy drink. That's how long trips to Vegas should take, at least if you aren't flying.

You Get What You Pay For: My room at the Tropicana cost only $40 a night. Bless mid-week, August rates. Then again, my room is practically on the strip, I can't modify the temperature, the sofa has no springs and the bed is sortta caving in on itself. I opted to save $10 bucks a night rather than bumping up to The Tower at the Tropicana, which I know to be less skuzzy, albeit only slightly. The Tropicana has a smidge of that Old Vegas charm, but the fact that Sammy Davis Jr. got laid on my coach doesn't necessarily inspire the requisite nostalgic shivers, at least not out of me. All will be forgiven, though, if I can have a huge alcoholic beverage by the pool while reading the fourth book in the "Twilight" series. Ugh. Totally shouldn't have admitted that, right?

Americans Don't Go to Vegas Mid-Week: I've decided that *every* person in Vegas on a Wednesday night is Hungarian. Why Hungarian? Because listening in on conversations is like the hospital interrogation in "The Usual Suspects." Almost none of what I'm hearing makes sense, but I swear everybody keeps saying "Kaiser Soze!"

God Bless The Tackiness: Has the fountain at the Bellagio always used "God Bless the USA" as one of its swaying tunes? If so, I hadn't realized previously. If not, you haven't lived till you've heard jingoistic patriotism synchronized to a fountain in front of an Italian-themed casino next to an Ancient Roman-themed casino across the street from a Paris-themed casino.

I'm Gonna Get Pneumonia: As I may have mentioned, it's hot out here. Damn hot. Hotter than that, even. Tomorrow's forecast is for highs of 107, which is why God never intended for a resort community to be set up in the middle of the Nevada desert. Darned Jewish mobsters! Seriously, the draw of Vegas to people like Bugsy Siegel must have been some sort of vestigial "40 years in the desert" thing. Or maybe people just aren't supposed to go to Las Vegas for battery recharging in the middle of August. I can accept that as a possibility. In any case, though, between the sweltering heat outside and the hermetic air-conditioning inside, I should be ready to return to work next week with a cold. Unless I spend all of my time gambling at the Trop or at...

The Hooters Casino: Because I opted for the El Cheaper accommodations, my hotel room is actually closer to the Hooters Casino than to the Tropicana floor. So tonight, after walking from one end of The Strip to the other, losing about $5 bucks per casino, I ended up, at least for an hour, in the Hooters Casino, which is EVERYTHING you would imagine it to be. Yeah, it's a little sad and desperate (even by Vegas standards), but I walked into the Casino with $31 in my pocket and after that hour, I walked out with $31.50. HUZZAH!

Anywho... Time to go play some more slots. Tomorrow will be all Blackjack. Blackjack and battery recharging. But since The Tropicana appears not to believe in The Internet (neither cords in the room, nor WiFi anywhere), I won't post this until tomorrow. At that time I'll also hopefully post a review of The Buffet at The Bellagio...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

MovieWatch: "Tropic Thunder"

"Tropic Thunder"
Director: Ben Stiller
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 64
In a Nutshell: When critics are raving that "'Tropic Thunder' is the best comedy of the year!!!!" what are the really saying? Are they saying that Ben Stiller's Hollywood-action-satire is a fantastic comedy or are the complaining that the year's comedic pickings have been so slow and so unimpressive that *this* is what we've resorted to calling the year's best comedy?

If it's the latter, I can't necessarily disagree. I mean, I preferred "Pineapple Express," but that's sort of a personal preference and I'd acknowledge that I probably laughed out loud many more times at "Tropic Thunder." But, if I'm being completely honest, I've been so starved for big screen laughs that I found prolonged moments of pleasure watching the remarkable Anna Faris strut her stuff in the decidedly less-than-remarkable "The House Bunny."

But that doesn't mean that I'm not already getting the strong sense that "Tropic Thunder" is on the verge of being the most overrated, overhyped comedy in some time. But that's not a blurb they'd put on a poster.

The full review -- none of that stinkin' capsule review stuff -- is after the bump...

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Don't get me wrong. I'm not prepared to resent "Tropic Thunder" until the hype builds just a bit more. It's nice to see that more than 15 years after the premature cancellation of "The Ben Stiller Show," Ben Stiller has been able to go back to that sketch comedy well. Because "Tropic Thunder" is basically just a 100 minute version of a "Ben Stiller Show" action movie parody skit, expanded with a few fake trailers, a fake commercial and an awful lot of filler. And that filler was obviously so plentiful that the trailers and commercials are full of scenes and dialogue that aren't in the movie. "Tropic Thunder" is probably going to have a heck of a DVD.

The capable cast of stars are going through a series of bits and many of the -- heck, most of them -- are tremendously funny. The movie sets itself up perfectly with spot-on parody trailers for three movies featuring the stars of movie-within-a-movie "Tropic Thunder." Ben Stiller is the action guy, whose franchise has suffered from diminishing returns in its seventh installment. Jack Black is the low-brow comic promoting a makeup-heavy fart-driven comedy and Robert Downey Jr. is basically Russell Crowe, a temperamental Aussie Actor gunning for Oscar recognition in a movie about forbidden love.

All three actors, plus rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and young-star-on-the-rise Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) find themselves in a tropical jungle shooting a Vietnam movie.

What kind of movie is "Tropic Thunder" (the movie within the movie)? I'm not really sure. It's based on a best-selling war memoir by a crazed no-handed veteran (Nick Nolte, flawless cast), but it's being directed by an incompetent dolt (an amusing Steve Coogan) and micromanaged by Tom Cruise's bald, fat studio chief. As director and co-writer, Ben Stiller never commits to the aspirations of the meta-"Tropic Thunder." Are they making a bad movie? Are they making a movie they know is a bad movie? Do they think they're making a good movie, but it's a bad movie? The reverse? I have no idea. Because the movie-within-a-movie lacks focus, "Tropic Thunder" begins to lack focus when the movie becomes real for the actors. Stiller and fellow screenwriters Justin Therous and Etan Cohen are so invested in mocking the generic action movie that you want the overall picture to be a bit more self-aware when it becomes a generic action movie in and of itself.

"Tropic Thunder" absolutely has Hollywood's number, capturing the superficiality of the entertainment industry and its stars, poking fun at the illusions produced by the dream factory. "Tropic Thunder" has its pulse on Hollywood in a way that few fictional productions have, assuming you somehow haven't watched "Action," "Gross Pointe," "The Larry Sanders Show," "Singing in the Rain," "Network," "My Favorite Year" or several dozen industry satires. Hollywood likes laughing at itself, seemingly content that audiences outside of New York and Los Angeles don't actually give a shit about the behind-the-scenes machinations at the sausage plant.

Because of a well-crafted trailer and a group of A-list stars, "Tropic Thunder" is likely to be more successful than many of its inside baseball predecessors. The movie's been marketed broadly, so broadly that some audiences might not even know what they're laughing at. Is it enough to find it funny that Downey is playing a character playing a black character? For some viewers, it will be. Is it enough to find it funny to watch Jack Black twitch his way through drug withdrawal? For some viewers it will be. And Ben Stiller going native? Funny. Ben Stiller playing a mentally handicapped character? Well, for some viewers, that'll just be funny all on its own. Those are the viewers, incidentally, who advocates for the mentally handicapped are concerned about.

How much to most moviegoers actually care about the hilarity of an agent freaking out that his most important contract rider wasn't being fulfilled? How many viewers will be able to spot the eight or 10 different suits/producers/agents Cruise seems to be channeling? And as smart and self-aware as it is for Downey to lecture Stiller on how if you want an Oscar, you never go "full retard," how many casual viewers will be going through their favorite disabled Oscar-winners and how many will just be giggling at the use of the word "retard"? I'm not sure.

My biggest complaint with "Tropic Thunder" -- so sue me -- is that I wanted it to actually MEAN something. I wanted it to be more than witty, glib, meta-Hollywood snarkiness. I understand that I shouldn't be in any position to question or devalue a movie for going no deeper than meta-Hollywood snarkiness. I'm supposed to love and respect snarkiness in all of its forms.

But at the end of the movie, after the giggles had passed, I stopped and wondered: What does "Tropic Thunder" actually say about Hollywood other than that movies are full of artifice and actors are ego-driven jerks (who can actually be humans if you watch them under duress for long enough)? What does it actually say about Hollywood's artifice? What does it say about the people who construct the fiction? What does it say about the audience who consumes the fiction? What does it say about war? What does it say about Hollywood's construction of war? Given that the movie-within-a-movie is basically a parody of a half-dozen war movies that were made 10 or 15 or 20 years ago, what does it say about contemporary Hollywood? It doesn't say ANYTHING.

At every point, "Tropic Thunder" settles for finding laughs on the surface and turns away from making any sort of more challenging statement.

Take the Robert Downey Jr. character. Here's a guy who's in black-face for almost the entire movie. Is it racist? Heck no, because the joke is on the character and the absurdness and the superficiality of his gesture. But is there any sort of meaningful commentary on Hollywood's overall treatment of race? For all intents and purposes, the black character Downey's character is playing is a shameful stereotype and would be whether he was played by a white guy or Denzel Washington. But Brandon T. Jackson's Alpa Chino is only upset about the black-face and not in an interesting way, just in a "You're not black" way. Downey's character and the black-face could have been a gateway for all sorts of exploration of the functioning of an industry that would rather employ an Aussie actor in black-face than a strong black man. But no. Nothing. I might, in fact, have liked a plausible explanation for why Downey's character would have wanted this role in the first place other than the opportunity to play black.

And what about Stiller's "Simple Jack." Should it be taken as an affront on the mentally challenged? Heck no. The joke is completely at the expense of a brain-dead actor who sees this sort of broad and embarrassing characterization as his path to Oscar glory. But he doesn't get his Oscar and the movie fails. His decision is mocked and negatively sanctioned at every turn and the only people who are fans of "Simple Jack" are the isolated drug cartel who don't have access to any other movies. But as apt as Downey's lengthy speech about going "full retard" may be, it's just a rehashing of a joke that award-spotters -- they're a cottage industry out here -- have been making for years. There isn't a bold statement or a perceptive commentary being made.

You know who *should* probably be offended? Asians. The film's drug pushing villains are just out-of-nowhere caricatures. I think there was a way to actually handle the characters within the realm of parody. If, for example, the adversaries were mountain men who thought for some reason that they were still at war with the United States, then you could say that they were meant to mock the way Hollywood productions have traditionally treated the Vietnamese characters in Vietnam movies. I guess we're supposed to think they're even broader versions of the sort of Asian baddies Rambo or Chuck Norris used to dispatch, but again, it's a commentary on a genre that's been out-of-fashion for 15 years.

With the main actors, there's a certain familiarity from two of the three leads, which takes away from the pleasure. While obviously Ben Stiller has probably been considered too short and too Semitic to be an action lead, but he's played the blustery Alpha Male enough times that there are few surprises to how he plays Tugg Speedman. Similarly, Jack Black does the sort of even more uncomfortably intense Chris Farley thing that he does in his less subtle roles. I happen to like Black more when he underplays, but that doesn't mean that viewers won't love his character here. In fact, viewers will probably be content with the familiarity that both Stiller and Black bring to the table.

But I almost never found myself watching Black and Stiller. Forget the silly people suggesting he might be up for an Oscar for this performance. Downey is just having a lark here, as he -- an occasionally over-mannered actor himself at times -- has to imagine the way an Australian would imagine an African-American would look and sound. There are several scenes where I swear Downey breaks character and seems to giggle at what he's getting away with, but he's so good that you can't decide if he's breaking character as Downey or as Kirk Lazarus.

The other person who will be generating buzz out of the movie is Tom Cruise, whose part will eventually become central to the ad campaign, or at least as much of the part as they can show. I've seen several of the more zealous over-praisers try claiming that Cruise is unrecognizable. That's ridiculous. You never forget you're watching the former biggest movie star in the world in a bald-cap and a fat suit. What's important for Cruise is that you forget that the media has been training you to dislike and even fear Tom Cruise in recent years. He's in on the movie's joke and his engagement is infectious. Cruise's role is being presented as a cameo, but it's a pretty full-fledged supporting role. He's a contributor.

The movie I guess I wanted "Tropic Thunder" to be is Richard Rush's
"The Stunt Man," a satire of Hollywood so bitter and black that it still feels ahead of its time. For some reason, "The Stunt Man" is a relatively lost classic, but I'd urge readers to check out the DVD. "The Stunt Man" is funny. It's inside baseball. It's got one of Peter O'Toole's very best performances. And it has a lot to say about the movies, things that are still true, things that are more current than anything in "Tropic Thunder."

Saturday, August 09, 2008

My Second Look at "The Dark Knight"

In a Zap2it story yesterday, I wrote about the strong first day for "Pineapple Express" and the likelihood that the three week reign atop the box office for "The Dark Knight" was probably over. I may have been incorrect, as Christopher Nolan's film may have moved into the lead on Friday (there's some disagreement) and will probably make $25+ million again this weekend.

I contributed to that total, plunking down money for the first time to see "The Dark Knight" for a second time (I think that makes sense). I don't usually see movies twice in theaters. On DVD, sure. But I'm not sure I've seen a movie twice in the theaters since "Brick" and "Brokeback Mountain."

I've already given "The Dark Knight" the 2000-word treatment with the basic conclusion that it was the year's best film to date and probably the best comic book movie ever.

Some thoughts on a second viewing are after the bump... Since this isn't a review, I'm going to treat those comments like they're being written for somebody who has seen the movie, so there will be spoilers galore.

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So anyway, my thoughts upon revisitation...

It Is What I Thought It Was: I gave "The Dark Knight" an "86" on the Fien Print scale and then had to justify my overall scoring system to at least one commenter. Having rewatched the movie, I'm convinced that my numerical score was *exactly* right. By my scoring system, "The Dark Knight" got what it deserved. Watched for the very purpose of magnifying strengths and weaknesses, "The Dark Knight" is still far-and-away the year's best movie and I'll remove any hesitation I might have had: It's the best comic book movie ever made. Period. End scene.

Heath Ledger May Be Better Than I'd Thought: While there has been moderate backlash very slowly building against "The Dark Knight," beyond one infantile op-ed in the Los Angeles Times suggesting that given him an Oscar nomination would celebrate his lifestyle and send a bad message, nobody has backlashed on Heath Ledger. The performance was actually better than I remembered, with several key scenes standing out even better than before. I love Joker's inferiority complex at his first meeting with the crimelords, specifically when they attempt to minimize him and call him a freak. I could probably watch the Central Booking interrogation scenes on a loop, for his interactions with both Gary Oldman and Batman. And then the whole sequence in the nurse's uniform, culminating in his disappointment and hilarious confusion at the hospital only half-exploding, is both chilling and comedically brilliant. Mentioning those three scenes leaves out Joker's interaction with Bruce Wayne's fund raising friends, his semi-suicidal standoff with the BatCycle and the brilliant throwaway shot of Joker sticking his head out the window of the car escaping central booking.

The Plot Is Tighter Than I Thought: I have at least one friend who has accused me of overhyping the movie in the weeks before its release, leading to disappointment on his part. His main complaint was that the movie's plot is pretty loose and it's mostly just three interlocking character arcs without much of a narrative. I don't think that's true if you assume that The Joker's comment about just being a mad dog chasing a car is as much of a lie as his two, nearly three, different explanations for his scars. I think you have to assume that although the Joker is disappointed in the results of the two barges, everything else in the movie, even when it appears to be a failure for him, is a total success. He obviously wanted Rachel to die, not Dent. He obviously wanted the hospital destroyed more than he wanted the one Wayne Industries worker killed. His whole dalliance with the Mob was just a way to stir up that hornet's nest around Dent, the man poking his hand around the stinging insects. He wanted Dent brought down and Batman brought down to his level, the playing field in Gotham City totally equalized. In that light, with the Joker as a puppetmaster, every aspect of the plot actually builds very consciously. My major concern is that it builds to a third movie that we'll never see, because it builds to a third movie that features The Joker and requires some level of resolution beyond The Joker dangling from a building. I suspect that a third movie could include a computer generated shot of The Joker sitting in Arkham Asylum, but given just how easily escapable Arkham Asylum has always proven to be, it's doubtful that we'd be satisfied with that resolution.

Who Says the Action Scenes Aren't Coherent? One common complaint among the movie's few naysayers is that Christopher Nolan isn't an action director. I can't necessarily argue with that, but I also saw a couple complaints that the action sequences are incoherent, poorly edited together. I'm not sure there. I was never spatially confused for a second rewatching the movie. But no, the movie doesn't live in its action scenes, so much as its set-pieces. There isn't an ultra-memorable fight scene, but there are several memorable extended set-pieces that include action. Again... no real complaints on that front.

Three Things That Don't Fully Work For Me: The movie becomes ultra complex in its second half and some of the twists and turns aren't necessarily as effective as they ought to be.

The Mole in Gordon's Unit: Ramirez is immediately suspect and I hadn't remembered that there are at least two lines of planted dialogue mentioning her ailing mother in the hospital. The logic of her betrayal still falls flat for me, particularly after the confusing scene with Berg, the other cop who has a relative in the hospital. It's unnecessary complication to expect that this random officer would be willing to off Reese, much less that he'd be able to find himself in the car with the guy. So he ends up being both a red herring and yet not a red herring. All it does is makes me scratch my head.

The Two Barges: I get the point of the two barges, both in terms of what the Joker is hoping to do and how the choices on the barges play out dramatically. It still doesn't fully work for me. The sequence takes too long to develop and then the way it develops plays just for simple irony. The upstanding citizens are conflicted, become animals and then chicken out. The convicts are already animals, seem prepared to validate their positions as animals and then the one cross-eyed tattooed convict throws the detonator out the window. Other than irony -- morals where none are expected and immorality where morality would be expected -- is there a reason why the characters make the choices they make? If we had previously met the cross-eyed prisoner in some meaningful way and there was a backstory for his choice, it might play better. Ditto with the civilian who's finally unable to turn the key. Instead? It just doesn't play as well as it should.

Harvey Dent's Fall: There is at least one line of dialogue early in the movie in which the mayor explains to Harvey that his ability to prosecute the mobsters hangs entirely on his moral rectitude and that any indictments he gets might rise or fall on his remaining pure. This over-literalizes the idea that Gotham City has its Dark Knight, but also needs its White Knight. I think I might have liked to see just a little bit more on what Dent means to the city versus what Batman means and why it's so essential that Batman takes the fall to prevent the sullying of Dent's image. As it stands, the blood on Dent's hands isn't quite dark enough for me. He killed a couple crooked cops and the driver for a mob boss? That's not so bad. He goes that extra step too far putting Gordon's family in jeopardy, but I don't see why a selective truth wasn't an alternative. What I'm saying is that Dent's fall is far, but not far enough for it to send Batman off into exile.

Oscars? Ledger's nomination seems like a foregone conclusion. Again, I'm not going to predict a win with four months of movies still to come, but he's the frontrunner. Figure the movie for a slew of technical nominations -- editing, cinematography, two sound editing categories, etc. It's my opinion, one I've shared with several people, that if "The Dark Knight" passes $500 million at the domestic box office, it will also get a best picture nomination. We would have to have a hell of a high-quality autumn and winter for it not to deserve that honor. Meanwhile, "The Dark Knight" continues to hold down the status as the best movie of all-time, according to IMDB users. That's a little crazy. But we *are* talking about IMDB users here.