Friday, May 30, 2008

Take Me to the Pilots '08: FOX's 'Fringe'

[Herein I remind you, faithful readers, that these aren't reviews of the pilots in question. If they were, they'd be much longer and much more divided into paragraphs. In fact, I've pretty much decided that "paragraphs" would be the clearest distinction I'd give between a review and first impressions. Just as the pilots themselves are just a wee bit unformed, these first impressions are also just a wee bit unformed. That's not the same as being a wee bit uniformed, which would involve funny sailor suits, I suspect. OK. Enough of that. Not. A. Review.

I'm not sure when TV critics are likely to get the next wave of screeners this summer. CBS sent out what it had. I covered that. NBC and ABC are still casting and tinkering and in pre-production and whatnot. The CW is shooting the "90210" pilot, but it's hard to imagine them rushing together a rough edit just to tease critics, at least not until we're a bit closer to Press Tour. So it may be a while before the next "Take Me to the Pilots" update.

Nice of FOX, at least, to screen a rough version of the "Fringe" pilot for available scribes yesterday. FOX publicists wanted to emphasize its roughness, though it was complete enough that the effects work looked polished and the location identifying titles, a snazzy trademark for the series, are in place. FOX is banking pretty highly on "Fringe," which will launch with an ambitious two-hour pilot and will then reap the rewards of a "House" lead-in. Put simply, I think they can be confident that "Fringe" will open. Where it goes from there? Who knows? But I sure preferred the "Fringe" pilot to either of the CBS drama pilots, which isn't really a good blurb, is it?

More impressions after the bump...

Click through...

Show: "Fringe" (FOX Drama)
The Pitch: "X-Files" meets "Altered States" meets "The Odd Couple"!
Quick Response: I read an early version of the script and semi-reviewed it for Zap2it just before the upfronts. The draft I read was 114 pages, a bit rough and felt *really* long for a TV pilot. The produced version is a more respectable 90-ish minutes. The pilot moves relatively well -- thanks largely to director Alex Graves, who's about as good as it gets when it comes to setting the style and tone for a series in short order -- but I'm not exactly sure that all of the right choices were made in the trimming of the script. The set-up exposition is nearly untouched, establishing FBI Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) and the mysterious and slightly gross happenings on an international flight into Boston. It's intentionally semi-generic stuff, creepy and icky, but familiar and almost devoid of humor. The story kicks into gear in its body with the introduction of an institutionalized mad scientist (John Noble) and his estranged genius son (Joshua Jackson). That's the meat of the show, the relationship between the father and son with the young FBI agent as buffer, that's where the dark comedy builds. If the "X-Files" procedural aspects aren't unique, this main dynamic is and all three actors are solid. Noble is spectacularly twitchy and endearing as the more-than-eccentric father and Jackson is effectively scruffy and incredulous as his kid. To my mind, Torv was the wild card due to her unproven track record and since I couldn't get a real sense of her personality from the early clips. While her American accent comes and goes -- it limits the expressiveness of her line-readings in a way that domestic audiences have come to expect from the seemingly neverending slew of foreign actors who do the exact same regionless, flat "American" accent -- Torv won me over really fast (albeit may not as instantly as previous Abrams discoveries Keri Russell, Jennifer Garner and Evangeline Lilly). Odds are you've never seen her before (unless you're a fan of Aussie TV), but you'll feel like you recognize Torv, which caused me to spend a while playing the "Recognizable Actress Mash-Up" game to decide which titillating union would best produce an Anna Torv. I'm going with Poppy Montgomery plus Kiele Sanchez, but others' results may vary (I feel confident with the Poppy Montgomery part, but replacing Sanchez with Kate Hudson or maybe Laura Prepon might make sense). She's beautiful, but she doesn't look like a 21-year-old model masquerading as a law enforcement official. She has a smidge of weathering, which I mean as a total compliment. As long as Torv, Jackson and Noble continue to play well off of each other, "Fringe" should work, though cutting to Lance Reddick, as a stern and possibly shady Homeland Security bigwig, is always a safe alternative. Much of the fat from the script has been trimmed from the last act, which now feels a bit too scattered for my tastes. In less than 15 minutes there's one major unexplained character reversal, the introduction of an Evil Corporate Conspiracy (wouldn't be Abrams without one) and the laid foundation for the week-to-week series. Each of those elements feels rushed and, looking back over the script, each of those elements -- all crucial moving forward -- could be propped up with an additional line or two of excised dialogue. If that material was actually shot and if the pilot is as unfinished as FOX publicists tried to suggest, I'd love to see five minutes trimmed from the set-up and padded onto the end. If you haven't seen the pilot -- and you presumably haven't -- that's probably a bit vague, eh? My apologies. This isn't a review, after all. Otherwise... High production values, good location work, nice set direction, Michael Giacchino-esque score (either because it was actually Michael Giacchino or because they were using temp score from "Alias" or "Lost"), some snazzy and gross makeup and practical effects, plus a cow... "Fringe" looks good... I would caution FOX, though, on over-exposure. I already feel like I've seen the same extended ad too many times... [POST SCRIPT: There are two other changes from the script I read that made me pause. One: The Potentially Evil Corporate Entity at the story's center has gone from "Prometheus" to "Massive Dynamics." The old name was obviously better, but I'm guessing it didn't clear, since somebody must have named their corporation after the fire-stealer at some point. I wonder how far down the clearance list "Massive Dynamics" was. I wouldn't be surprised to see that change. Another change, a small one, is that in an early scene Jackson's character is in Iraq negotiating with two shady businessmen who try talking behind their backs. As it is now, he informs them, after they've talked, that he speaks Farsi. This seeming cultural inaccuracy annoyed several people at the screening I was at. In the original script, though, he tells them he speaks Arabic, which makes more sense. Why was this change made, I wonder...]
Desire to Watch Again: High.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

MovieWatch: "The Visitor"

"The Visitor"
Director: Thomas McCarthy
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 70
In a Nutshell: I know it's early, but I'm not feelin' the summer of 2008 just yet, at least movie-wise. Looking back at the big blockbusters -- or presumptive blockbusters -- I've seen and reviewed, none have held up particularly well in my mind. It's only been a month, but I don't remember anything from "Iron Man" that I hadn't already seen in the Comic-Con clip reel last summer. I remember plenty from "Speed Racer," but while its visual audacity was occasionally admirable, I remember it more as a over-long sensory overload without any narratively redeeming features. And as for "Indiana Jones and the Quest for Profit," I was caught at exactly the right moment in terms of expectations, where my hopes were just low enough and it was lucky enough not to be worse than I'd feared, but I no longer recall which things I liked exactly, only the CG ants.

So that's why it's important to pay heed to the merits of Thomas McCarthy's "The Visitor," even though it's about as tiny and understated a film as you're likely to see this summer. Yes, the movie is limited in scale and emotionally muted, but the impact of the gentle storytelling and Richard Jenkins' performance transcend the special effects that drive everything at your local multiplex.

A full review will pop up after the break, assuming I ever finish it. But if this is appearing at all, I've probably made it.

So click through...

There's a pretty simple rule in Hollywood: If you make a well-regarded, moderately successful indie movie that critics describe as "quirky" or "sensitive," your next project has to be a lame romantic comedy starring either Ashley Judd or Kate Hudson as a successful single woman who's been too busy to find a man.

Interesting, then, that McCarthy decided to follow "The Station Agent" -- a "quirky" and "sensitive" little short story of a movie -- with "The Visitor," which is in many ways even more unassuming and which is certainly burdened with even less star wattage.

McCarthy is a character actor himself, so he appreciates the kindness of a writer or director tailoring a leading role for a performer who would otherwise only get a line or two in a bigger production. McCarthy has had a good year in that respect, having gone from "You know, that guy who was on that episode of that show" to "The dude who was making up the stories on 'The Wire.'" So just as he saw Peter Dinklage as being capable of more than just "Hey look, it's that sarcastic dwarf" roles, he gets infinite credit for knowing that Jenkins could carry the right sort of movie.

Jenkins has had an odd career in general. He's probably best known as the deceased father from "Six Feet Under," but he's also gone into broad comedy in a couple Farrelly Brothers movies and, memorably, in David O. Russell's "Flirting With Disaster." On a scale of employability, he probably sees scripts after Bill Murray has rejected them, but before James Rebhorn gets a crack. Does that seem about right?

In "The Visitor," he plays an absolutely archetype. Walter Vale the desiccated intellectual who gets shaken from his complacent routine by an outsider. In this case, the outsiders are Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), to illegal immigrants who end up occupying his uninhabited New York City apartment during his long absence. Jenkins' character is, academically speaking, an expert on immerging third world economies, but he gets a practical lesson courtesy of his new friends, who hail from Syria and Senegal. Things get darker and he learns a lesson in post-9/11 American immigration issues and the new realities of the American Dream and what happens to the huddled masses when she show up in Manhattan just yearning to breathe free. He also has new feelings stirred up by Tarek's mother Mouna (the excellent Hiam Abbass).

While those lessons and realities and other thematic undercurrents play out in "The Visitor," McCarthy excels at tiptoeing. Yes, Tarek rekindles Walter's inner spirit by teaching him to play the African drums, even introducing him to a Central Park drum circle, but because of how casually McCarthy and particularly Jenkins play it, you don't get that exploitative feeling that usually comes from movies in which the White Man and the Magical Ethnic Other are played as binary opposites. McCarthy absolutely meanders around the outside of that short of exploitation. This could have been a movie where Walter is a husk of a man, eats a shwarma, pounds a tribal beat on his drum and is suddenly able to stand up to the Evil Dean, impress his students with his newfound hipness and bed his inquisitive young TA. Instead, Walter's disconnect from the world is far greater than that and the movie is a starting point, not a conclusion.

McCarthy shies from major character transformations and from major statements, which was part of the pleasure of "The Station Agent" as well. It never became manipulative. As one character finds himself in a detention facility -- McCarthy is, again, interested in how the anonymous correction center blends into the run-down neighborhood -- Walter is given one moment of magnificent catharsis, but no more. Jenkins' performance, which will be too subtle for Oscar voters later this year, but seems perfect for an Independent Spirit Award nomination, is about noticing the little details.

"The Visitor" is a softer version of Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers," with Jenkins standing in for Murray and Sleiman giving him a Fela Kuti CD instead of Jeffrey Wright and a Mulatu Astatke mix. If McCarthy avoids charges of exploitation by staying on the outside, Jarmusch has always gone exactly the opposite way, approaching the immigrant experience and the blending of cultures with an anthropologist's eye and a wickedly sardonic sense of humor.

If I'm being honest, I prefer the Jarmusch approach, in which language, music and general internationality are things to be marveled at an enjoyed. For Jarmusch, people are all the same in their eccentricities. For McCarthy, our similarities are simpler than that. As was also the case in "The Station Agent," he's still at a point where he finds it interesting that seemingly different people might have core values in common. I guess I'd like for him to dig deeper, but his perspective is simple, sweet and emotionally satisfying, however limited it is.

So bottom line: "The Visitor" isn't an antidote for the summer blockbuster, but it's a refreshing sorbet and its flavors may linger long after the frontal assault of the bigger films passes on.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Take Me to the Pilots '08: CBS Comedies

[As per usual: These are NOT reviews of the CBS pilots. These are first glimpses and impressions of pilots that may change dramatically -- casting, plotlines, sets -- before they hit the air this fall. Again... NOT a review. Heck, I've already been told by two people that my first impressions of "The Ex List" are wrong, so who knows?]

Two quick CBS trends after watching the network's available pilots...

1)Gandhi is funny. Both "The Ex List" and "Project Gary" have jokes about the Indian leader. The jokes are very very different.

2)CBS Thinks Minority Actors Can't Act. In reality, network TV is uncomfortable with minorities. It isn't just that all of CBS' leads are white, but all of the second and third bananas are white. Did CBS learn the wrong lesson from the failure of "Cane" last season? Interestingly, each and every CBS pilot seems to have a random ethnic fourth banana, half-hearted semi-token casting in which a minority has been cast color-blind in a role that otherwise wouldn't have needed to exist at all. You have Amir Talai in "The Ex List," Tim Kang in "The Mentalist," Al Madrigal in "Project Gary" and, stretching things quite a bit, Tamara Mello in "Worst Week." Things are so bad that on "The Ex List," Elizabeth Reaser's character doesn't even have a Black Best Friend. How can she possibly hope to find love without one?!?!? The two leads in "Eleventh Hour" are both white and the original cast of "Harper's Island" looked to be 95% white, though that may change. ABC and NBC haven't done much better this development season, though FOX and The CW have hints at diversity. It continues to amaze me that the networks don't see this as a bigger problem.

Anyway, my first impressions of "Worst Week" and "Project Gary" are after the bump.

Click through...

Show: "Worst Week" (CBS Comedy)
The Pitch: "Alexander's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: The Sitcom"
Quick Response: My instant reaction is that "Worst Week" is an ABC comedy, with a single-camera aesthetic and willingness to bend structure that would fit in perfectly between "Jake in Progress" and "Notes from the Underbelly." That yields a minimum of two obvious problems: The first is that "Worst Week" is on CBS, a network that still believes in the multi-camera laffer (a belief that, based on TV comedy ratings these days, has been validated). The second is that "Jake in Progress" and "Notes from the Underbelly" are both dead, as is nearly every ABC comedy from recent years not named "According to Jim." It's hard, then, to feel all that confident about "Worst Week." That doesn't mean that "Worst Week" is unfunny. It has a frenzied pace that for a pilot yields a slew of guffaws, but I don't really expect it to sustain for an actual series. The pilot takes place over less than 24 hours and finds our hero -- likeable lug Kyle Bornheimer, whose slightly cross-eyed exterior belies a sort of Patrick Warburton meets Richard Kind appeal -- getting barfed on, running around in a plastic diaper, urinating on a goose and all manner of other humiliations. Bornheimer has a refreshing lack of ego, which is just about all that the situation really requires. He's surrounded by capable support, particularly Erinn Hayes, who has proven in both "The Winner" and the episodes of "Kitchen Confidential" that never aired that she's eventually going to be a sitcom star. Or at least that's what I believe. America doesn't know whether or not to agree with me. The casting of Hayes' parents -- Kurtwood Smith and Nancy Lenehan -- is spot-on, but perhaps *too* spot-on. Smith playing maternal menace and Lenehan doing scatterbrained maternity is just a wee bit predictable. I mean, if you're dating a girl and her father is Kurtwood Smith, you have to expect a certain amount of thin-lipped disapproval. That doesn't mean both actors don't do it well. The pilot leaves some doubt as to how future episodes will be structured. Will each episode show an awkward day in the main character's life? Is the second episode going to pick up instantly the following day and try packing a season into a single week? Do other characters get to have bad weeks? And will Tamara Mello be back? I don't know if I've seen her since "Popular."
Desire to Watch Again: Medium. "Worst Week" isn't all that smart or particularly innovative, but it's well-enough-executed. I'll absolutely be curious to see how well it delivers its second time out.

Show: "Project Gary" (CBS Comedy)
The Pitch: "The Somewhat Reheated Adventures of Old Gary"
Quick Response: I don't want to question the wisdom of CBS' programming executives, but it's clear to me that "Project Gary" belongs on Monday night after "Two and a Half Men" and "Worst Week" belongs on Wednesday (if not, as I've already said, on a different network). Yes, "Project Gary" has tons of thematic similarities to "The New Adventures of Old Christine" -- post-divorce family blending and life restarting -- and yes the current schedule gives "Worst Week" a better chance to survive. But the single-camera "Worst Week" is going to look even stranger after the uber-traditional "2.5 Men," while "Project Gary" is as familiar and sitcom-y as it gets. Just about every second of the "Project Gary" pilot feels like a retread, from the central premise, to the annoying kids to the prefab sets to the obnoxious canned laughter at jokes that aren't all that funny. Jay Mohr does his shtick -- though, interestingly, nothing in this character plays to any of his pre-existing strengths -- and Paula Marshall is almost dangerously unlikeable, which is the fault of the character and not the actress, I might add. The sitcom kids are instantly annoying in predictable ways (The daughter's a budding leftist and the show's a socially awkward geek!) and Jaime King playing against blonde space cadet type (something she's done VERY well in the past) leaves her character without any kind of definition. Even though Larry Miller shows up and instantly nails two or three punchlines and gets the pilot's only real laughs, I don't know what jumped out for CBS here. Did the world really need another "War at Home"?
Desire to Watch Again: Low. I'll watch a second episode, just because CBS is my beat.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Take Me to the Pilots '08: CBS Dramas

[It seems like only yesterday I was getting my first glimpse at last year's pilot. The strike threw my entire schedule off-kilter. Anyway, the same thing I've set at the beginning of every one of these for two years is true: THIS IS NOT A REVIEW!!!! These are my first impressions of the network pilots, usually based on unfinished or partially finished screeners. Many of the pilots will undergo reworking, recasting and, in some cases, top-to-bottom reshooting or reconceptualization. Many of the complains I have about the pilots are things that the networks already know, details that are already undergoing alterations. But anyway, here are my first impressions...]

CBS actually picked up four dramas, but only two full screeners -- "The Ex List" and "The Mentalist" -- were sent to critics. In the case of the midseason horror drama "Harper's Island," I understand the decision not to send out a pilot. The network picked the show up based on a presentation and even that presentation is expected to be entirely rewritten and almost entirely recast. "Harper's Island," then, is this season's "Moonlight."

I don't understand as easily while "Eleventh Hour" wasn't sent out. It was picked up and cast long before "The Ex List" or "The Mentalist" and its pilot plot is taken wholesale from the first part of the original British miniseries, which starred Patrick Stewart. The series will air after "CSI" on Thursday nights and it's a Jerry Bruckheimer production, so CBS may just figure critics don't matter in the process. It's also possible that there's a reason that co-star Marley Shelton wasn't mentioned in any CBS press releases for the show and is barely spotted in the clip reel. I've been told that she isn't being recast. For now I guess I'll believe that, though I wouldn't be the least bit shocked if Rufus Sewell has a different bodyguard come fall.

Follow through after the bump for my first impressions of "The Ex List" and "The Mentalist"...

Click through...

Show: "The Mentalist" (CBS Drama)
The Pitch: "CSI: Psych"
Quick Response: The jump-off point -- ultra-observant man used to be a faux psychic now uses his perception to solve different sorts of problems -- is identical to that of USA's "Psych," but this being CBS, "The Mentalist" takes an ultra serious approach. Much of the show's appeal or lack thereof hinges on whether you believe, as CBS very obviously does, that Simon Baker is a huge TV star just waiting for his breakout vehicle. I had no problems with Baker in "The Guardian" and I actually liked him a lot in "Smith," though CBS cancelled the former for no reason and cancelled the latter for the very good reason that nobody was watching it. Baker is perfectly cast here, since he's got very expressive eyes and the point of the whole show is that his character keeps noticing things and the camera keeps cutting back to him squinting and processing data. I've never seen more insert shots in my life, because for this guy, life is just cluttered with clues. The show's main cast -- featuring Robin Tunney, Owain Yeoman, Tim Kang and a miscast Amanda Righetti -- is strong and the guest cast is outrageously guest star laden. If you blow out Steven Culp, Gail O'Grady, Jeffrey Nordling, Zeljko Ivanek and Tim Guinee in a single episode, how can you hope to make it through three or four seasons?!?!? It's been a while since CBS effectively launched a show with tonal variation and "The Mentalist" suffers from being far too serious for its own good. I get that the main character is quirky and haunted and obsessive, but if he doesn't find some levity, this could become an unpleasant slog. The pilot is very straight-forward procedural, but it also introduces a serial killer named Red John, who will presumably be an ongoing aspect. I was interested in the fact that the main character's maverick independence is already grating on the members of his team, who are feeling superfluous. That could either make for a good dynamic, or they'll actually become superfluous.
Desire to Watch Again: Moderate. This is a good fit with CBS' lineup and I'd expect it to be successful.

Show: "The Ex List" (CBS Dramedy)
The Pitch: "My Husband's Name May Be Earl"
Quick Response: I absolutely understand CBS' decision to cancel "Moonlight." Yes, the network opened the door for outrage from a fanbase that's utterly irrational, but if CBS wants to cancel its lowest rated Friday drama, that's the network's priority. No drama returning to CBS' schedule had fewer viewers than "Moonlight" and the network cancelled dramas with more viewers. Stop bitching, "Moonlight" fans. And stop nattering about that People's Choice Award. BUT... If the network was going to cancel "Moonlight," some effort should have been put into replacing it with a show with just a wee bit more broad-based appeal, because no straight man on this planet is going to voluntarily watch "The Ex List." EVER. Elizabeth Reaser is a fine series lead. She's beautiful and capable of being both serious and funny. Rachel Boston has a sexiness and an energy that makes her an absolutely force of nature and Alexandra Breckenridge couldn't be cuter. But there is no genre I hate more than the "Successful and ridiculously attractive woman who has everything she could ever want except a man and thus she remains pathetically unfulfilled even though her life appears pretty great from the outside" TV/movie subset. "The Ex List" makes things worse by putting a one-year timetable on the main character's desperation (a timetable that's bound to cause near-instant narrative problems and self-imposed urgency, a la "How I Met Your Mother"). The ex-boyfriend-of-the-week structure gets off to an amusing start with Eric Balfour playing an emotionally vulnerable douche of a musician. It's the part he was born to play and he's funny enough that you may want him to return. Maybe. There are some sharp lines in Diane Ruggiero script, but they don't mask that it's just women whining about how hard it is to find a good man. And then there's a b-plot about pubic hair. Yes. Really. When I say no man is ever going to watch this show, I'm not kidding. So if they don't hold 100% of the female audience coming out of "Ghost Whisperer," the show is dead and don't expect "Moonlight" fans to be generous about its demise. I know "Ghost Whisperer" skews female and "Moonlight" did as well, but doesn't "Numb3rs" draw male viewers?
Desire to Watch Again: Low, though early fall boredom could convince me to give it a second chance.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

MovieWatch: "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"

"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"
Director: Steven Spielberg
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 65
In a Nutshell: The good news first: Reports that "Indiana Jones and the Quest For Profit" was an unmitigated disaster appear to have been somewhat overblown. I'd say "This is proof that even as part of a pure money-grab, Spielberg isn't capable of making an unmitigated disaster," but the guy's last sequel was "The Lost World." So I won't say that. But no, the early reviews suggesting that "Indy 4" would torpedo the franchise and rape all of our childhood memories in the manner George Lucas previously perpetrated with the "Star Wars" prequels aren't really accurate.

Since the movie was first announced, I've been plagued by the feeling that nobody was making the movie for the right reasons: Lucas, Spielberg and Harrison Ford aren't short on money, so they aren't exactly hungry. The third movie left no unresolved plotlines or cliffhangers. To be frank, fans have only been clamoring for another Indy movie in a nebulous sense. And, worst of all, it wasn't like Spielberg and company had a story they NEEDED to tell, the number of writers and drafts for this movie confirm that nobody had a narrative imperative to make another "Indiana Jones" adventure. So why did they bother? They seem to have all felt that it was something that was inevitably expected of them and, after nearly 20 years, I guess they all came to the conclusion that they'd waited as long as they could, so they might as well make SOMETHING.

"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is, given all of those liabilities, almost as good a movie as could possibly have been made. It doesn't have an iota of urgency, but it's gracefully respectful. There's fun to be had and you won't feel like retroactive enjoyment of the first three movies has been damaged.

Full review after the bump...

Click through...

[In terms of hard-and-fast spoilers, this review doesn't go overboard. But it does contain some spoilers, to be sure. Feel free to skim. I won't be insulted. I never am.]

In reviewing the newly released DVD box set for the first three movies last weekend, I went through the entire trilogy for the first time since... I dunno when. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" remains one of the two or three finest popcorn movies ever made and one of the all-time best action movies. It's superior. I'm still a huge "Temple of Doom" fan and not just because of how much I loved it when I was young and how central it was to my sense of "play" for years afterwards. It's as messed up and demented a mainstream movie as has ever been made and the final hour is non-stop action, relentless. Even in my youth, "The Last Crusade" didn't blow me away and rewatched now, through the prism of nearly two decades of increasing cynicism, it was even worse. On my Twitter Feed (Subscribe now!) I wrote "Watched immediately after "Temple," "Last Crusade" is like an eager-to-please puppy, all loose-bowelled pandering, panting and mugging. Ick." I'm gonna stand by that.

The best thing about "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is that it isn't "Lethal Weapon 4." That is to say that the actors don't stop the action every 15 minutes to wink and the audience and say, "Yes, we're too old for this shit." Harrison Ford is too old to be the Indiana Jones of yesteryear, but he's plenty young enough to put on the fedora, unfurl his whip and kick but in that exaggerated Saturday Morning Serial Brawling style that the franchise has always enjoyed. Yes, his first line of dialogue is an "I'm too old for this" wink and there are probably three or four similar nods throughout.

The action has certainly slowed to accommodate him. As a prequel, "Temple of Doom" was more intense and faster paced to remind you that you were watching a younger Indiana Jones. Similarly, "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" dials things down just a bit. Is that because Ford didn't want to do more aggressive stunts? Is it because Spielberg was afraid that audiences would shy from watching a senior citizen in any extreme jeopardy? Or is it just that Ford, Spielberg and Lucas are older and they approach the world in a different way. I'm less convinced on that last one, since Spielberg's two most recent movies -- "Munich" and "War of the Worlds" -- were plenty intense, at their best. I think the character just dictated the action.

So Ford's ability to wisecrack hasn't been numbed and he can still punch and jump and run just fine. He's respectful to the character and the movie is respectful to the franchise. As usual, "Temple of Doom" is ignored entirely -- Couldn't we have gotten one Short Round joke? -- but characters from the other films are acknowledged and in-jokes are tossed around.

The movie is loaded with set pieces, but I don't know which of the set pieces I'm actually going to remember. The movie starts with a romp in an airplane hanger and later includes a chase through the streets of New Haven and several extended jungle-based sequences. But none of them are likely to define the movie in the way that Indy following the baskets in the market did the first movie or the mine cart chase defined the second. Nor will the locations define this movie, as they have the first three.

Part of the problem with both of those complaints is that a franchise originally characterized by its respect for stunt work and practical effects has become just another slave to special effects. I think Spielberg probably is still using more practical effects here than you'll see in most any other movie this summer, but so many key moments are just glutted with computer accompaniment. If the first movie had snakes and the second bugs and the third rats, "Indy 4" has its own creepy, crawly menace. I won't spoil it, but it's a computer effect. A good one, but a computer effect. The South African jungle scenes, while clearly shot somewhere exotic, have been so augmented by effects and matte work that they're not really referencing any place in the real world anymore. If there are rocks falling or secret passages opening or giant stone sculptures coming together, they're mostly CG. Sorry, but I miss the innocence of Indy outrunning that boulder in the first movie.

As it is, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" feels much too influenced by the "National Treasure" movies, where character stand around solving stupid puzzles in the least believable and cinematic way possible and they have CG-flavored adventures. "Indy 4" is better than either of the "National Treasure" movies. Much. But it has the same problematic narrative structure, which stems from the fact that David Koepp's script has long been accepted as a Frankenstein's Monster of previous "Indy 4" script drafts. So if scenes don't necessarily flow together, that's why. And if plot threads introduced early are never mentioned again, much less paid off, that's probably why. The eponymous Crystal Skull is like the ultimate hero prop. Whenever Koepp runs into a storytelling problem, he relies on the skull's magical mystical powers for an escape. Then he whips out a climax that strongly resembles the end of "Raiders" only with a lot more effects.

Fans have been terrified about Shia LaBeouf's presence in this movie for well over a year and TheBeef isn't a distraction. Nor, though, is he well enough utilized. Spielberg, a director whose work has long shown an obsession with father/son dynamics, hasn't bothered to decide how Ford and TheBeef should relate to each other and, as a disappointing result, having this new pint-sized addition brings out nothing in Indiana Jones' character, neither when he first meets the boy, nor when he learns the boy's relationship to Marion Ravenwood, whose return means more time for Karen Allen. So no, TheBeef doesn't carry his fair share of the "Indy 4" dramatic weight, but that's the fault of the script and not of the actor and fans will probably just be relieved at how unannoying he is.

As for the rest of the cast, Jim Broadbent's totally wasted and Ray Winstone and John Hurt are underused. With her severe haircut in-and-out accent, Cate Blanchett makes such a fabulous serial-style villain that you yearn for her to have more of a character so that Blanchett could do a bit more acting. TV familiar faces Neil Flynn and Alan Dale appear in an early scene, one that was absolutely leftover from a different script draft.

Bottom line: I went into "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" expecting the worst. And I had fun watching. But I never felt inclined to cheer. I never experienced the exhilaration that even "The Last Crusade" gave me when I was younger and that "Raiders" and "Temple" still give me today. But Indy's back and he still hates snakes. The hat's back. The whip's back. Marion's back. Take those things for what they're worth.

Friday, May 09, 2008

MovieWatch: "Speed Racer"

"Speed Racer"
Director[s]: The Brothers Wachowski
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 57
In a Nutshell: With some movies, there are advantages to putting the opening scenes online. You suck viewers in and you make them think, "Damn, if what the studio is giving us for FREE is so cool, think of all the fun we might have if we shell out our $12 bucks!"

It's basic Drug Dealing 101.

But I think Warner Bros. is making a mistake in making the first seven minutes of "Speed Racer" online. The first seven minutes of the Wachowski Brothers' first feature since the two-part desecration of the "Matrix" franchise are the best part of "Speed Racer." In the short term, teasing that footage is bound to excite a few undecided viewers. In the long term, it's going to raise expectations, expectations that "Speed Racer" just can't meet, despite a running time of nearly 130 minutes.

Yes, that's more than two hours for a movie based on an animated series and aimed mostly at small children. I expect more than a few viewers to leave "Speed Racer" feeling exhausted and bludgeoned, a strange sensation when it comes on top of feeling bored.

The greater distance I put between myself and my viewing of "Speed Racer," the less I like the movie in my mind. In the immediate aftermath of seeing it three weeks ago, a bit of the adrenaline rush from the beginning carried over afterwards and I'd have maybe gone 10 points higher in my arbitrary and meaningless ratings system. Since "Speed Racer" is a movie with a pulse, but no heart -- don't ask me to explain the biology -- it hasn't lingered well and by next week, my arbitrary and meaningless rating might be even lower.

As for a review? That's after the bump.

Click through...

One thing that can't be denied is that "Speed Racer" looks like nothing you've ever seen before, though there's a very "Tron"-esque sense that the technology on display will someday be put to better use by somebody else.

The Wachowskis and cinematographer David Tattersall have created a unique color scheme of bright colors and shiny, glossy surfaces. It's like falling into a bag of Skittles, with just as much narrative continuity. The aesthetic is complicated by the fact that it borrows heavily from the classic "Speed Racer" animated series, which projected a view of the future from a late-60s context, while the movie takes that retro-futurism and gives it a fresh coat of paint. So the future as the Wachowskis, production designer Owen Paterson and the visual effects team have depicted it is partially based on an outmoded version of technological evolution, with a new set of projections scaffolded over it. Wait. That makes no sense. The world of this "Speed Racer" is set in both the Wachowskis' future and in the future of the original series, futures devised out of totally different presents and totally different contexts and it's a unique hodge-podge. Does that make more sense?

The difference, I guess, is that the original creators of "Speed Racer" had never played a video game and since leaving reality behind after "Bound," the Wachowskis have decided that the real world is a video game.

Of course, that's all made screwy by the fact that "Speed Racer" doesn't really take place on Earth, or at least not our version of Earth.

Sigh. Still not making sense.

"Speed Racer" is a fast-paced swirl of flipping and flying cars and even if the storytelling gets increasingly bungled as the movie progresses, there isn't a stagnant frame in the entire movie. The Wachowskis are versed enough in comic book paneling and in the vernacular of the animated series that "Speed Racer" never feels as flat as the Robert Rodriguez's "Spy Kids" movies, which had a similar color scheme but suffered from Rodriguez's "jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none" version of distracted filmmaking.

Like the snazzy cars themselves, images fly by in "Speed Racer," a movie whose greatest service to humanity may be in revealing children with epileptic tendencies.

In theory what ought to be grounding the movie is its better-than-expected cast.

I didn't feel bad or sad or embarrassed for the actors caught up in the phantasmagorical nightmare of shapes, colors and imaginary imagery. But I never got so caught up in the movie to stop thinking about how blatantly silly the production process was for them. Sometimes I thought about how much fun this must have been for them and other times about what a pain it looked like, but the movie never became so immersive that I forgot about the process.

So I watched Emile Hirsh as Speed Racer and I thought about how weird it must have been to go from "Into the Wild" to "Speed Racer," how Sean Penn must have received periodic collect calls from Hirsh wailing, "Oh Method Acting God, I've completely lost my motivation, again!" to which Penn's response was probably something along the lines of, "Your motivation, son, is money." Fortunately or unfortunately, Hirsh seems to have found his motivation in discomfort, so he's never quite as placid and implacable as I think of Speed Racer being in the cartoon. Hirsh is playing "low-grade tortured," when I think the role's demands were closer to "low-grade intense." He looks the part, but he isn't as perfectly plastic as Zak Efron might have been.

The most flawless member of the cast is clearly Christina Ricci, who has always been an anime character to begin with, with her eyes and smile capable of taking over 95% of her face. Ricci's Trixie isn't much of a character -- none of them really are, so that doesn't matter -- but the she carries over just enough of her "Black Snake Moan" raunch to create a marvelous dichotomy. Trixie's so darned pure that she and Speed go to makeout point to talk about racing. They don't even hold hands. But if you periodically think back to Samuel L. Jackson chaining Ricci to a radiator in her undies, the movie suddenly becomes much more exciting.

Ricci and Susan Sarandon, as Speedy's doting mum, look like they ought to be related and all Sarandon has to do is ratchet up the nurturing instinct on the sort of mother role she's played a thousand times. And as Pops Racer, Goodman is just adding to a catalogue of larger-than-life semi-animated characters including Fred Flintstone and Babe Ruth. Goodman looks a bit slimmed down here, though in the scenes where he gets to kick a little ass, there's less of the actor and more of his body doubles than I might have liked.

A dispiriting revelation: Those who know me know that my tolerance for antics involving monkeys and pigs is near limitless. And that extends to nearly all things simian. I'm easily entertained, so the fact that Chim-Chim, the beloved "Speed Racer" simian, didn't amuse me left me scratching my head as to why my pleasure centers had become so dulled. I mean, there's a monkey bumping into things, doing martial arts, apparently regretting in impact of excessive human-style consumption and I couldn't muster even a giggle. Were Chim-Chim's attempts at hilarity being pitched too low-brow even for me? Was he too anthropomorphized? Or not anthropomorphized enough? Was I simultaneously being distracted by Chim-Chim's human lesser half Spritle, played charmlessly by Paulie Litt? I don't know. Perhaps my problem was that the Spritle/Chim-Chim movie only rarely meshed with the bigger film featuring Speed, Trixie, Racer X and the characters I cared more about and so every time we flashed back to that G-rated part of the ensemble, I was disappointed.

I was even more disappointed by the villain, Roget Allam's Evil Corporate Overlord. Part of me was tempted to wonder if the Wachowskis were attempting some sort of really low level political satire here, if Royalton Industries was supposed to represent Haliburton and if racing was supposed to be a metaphor for war and if the movie's entire theme had to do with big business staging and fixing wars just to elevate stock price. If they were, they didn't do it very well.

Allam is totally forgettable in a role that requires an over-the-top level of malevolence, rather than just smarminess. It's a role that required an Alan Rickman or an Ian McKellan or a John Hurt or a Hugo Weaving. It's a role that required the kind of stature that transcends script limitations. I don't doubt Allam's general acting chops, but I've seen him in at least a dozen film and TV projects and I can never remember his name and this probably won't be the film in which he makes his imprint. It's telling that Hiroyuki Sanada has almost no dialogue and what dialogue he has is unintelligible, but he still brought more wicked charisma to the movie than Allam.

That Allam is the main antagonist in the movie and yet lacks a head-to-head on-screen final confrontation with Speed Racer is just one of the movie's biggest dramatic flaws.

Basically, if you're having a racing movie, it has to build to The Big Race and that Big Race has to be on a physical and emotional scale that make it markedly bigger than the races that have come before. The movie has to BUILD. With "Speed Racer," there are at least three big races and they actually diminish in technical expertise. The opening time trial sequence, in which Speed's backstory and the entire history of his family are intercut with a single looping lap, is tighter and better edited than anything that comes afterwards. The road race, in which the competitors advance through countless backdrops and Speed has to deal with his brother's fate, features visual variety and several short-lived adversaries. The final Grand Prix? It's nothing. It's a couple laps around a track against other drivers we've never seen before as the evil Royalton fumes and looks uncomfortable. The movie starts with a bang and ends with a whimper and that's flaw that I put on the Wachowskis as writers, but also on editors Roger Barton and Zach Staenberg, whose job it is to recognize the flow of the movie as a whole.

In the rather lengthy period of time that I've been writing this review, adding a sentence or two per day, I've seen several reviewers who have gone all excitable about how the movie is a video game, a comic strip, a fantasy that defies laws of gravity. I don't think any of those things should be even vaguely taken as negatives on their own. But even if a movie isn't at all bound by reality, it has to be bound by other realities:

1)A kids movie can be a video game, but it can't be 130 minutes long unless you have a story to tell.

2)If you have a story to tell, it can't peak at the beginning and become increasingly less interesting.

3)If your protagonist isn't much of a character and you don't have any sort of antagonist, you're not going to get people invested in seeing one succeed and another fail.

4)It's OK to cotton to Asian markets if you think your movie will play best abroad and probably casting certain roles to appease those markets is OK. But just because somebody named "Rain" is a pop star in Korea doesn't mean that casting him in an English speaking role is actually a good idea.

5)Matthew Fox can make exactly one facial expression, that pinched glower that says, "I have daddy issues!"

Anywho... Gonna post this now.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

MovieWatch: "Iron Man"

"Iron Man"
Director: Jon Favreau
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 67
In a Nutshell: [For those of you keeping score at home, the reaction to the pre-"Iron Man" trailers were as follows: Silence at "Indiana Jones and the Quest for Profit" except for a hoot or two of derision at the first appearance of Shia TheBeef, playing Marlon Brandon from "The Wild Ones," only minus the testosterone. Utter silence -- but a comforting lack of mockery -- to the new "Incredible Hulk" trailer, which is just like the earlier one -- i.e. the CGI is REALLY unimpressive and Edward Norton is REALLY mopey -- only it makes a little sense, narrative-wise. As for "The Dark Knight," much excitement at the beginning, buzzing and whatnot, polite quiet throughout and scattering applause at the end. That's not scientific or anything, but it sure feels like "The Dark Knight" is generating enthusiasm, "The Incredible Hulk" is generating indifference and "Indiana Jones 4: The Quest for Profit" is well on its way to reminding viewers of a certain age -- my age, in particular -- that we never really wanted another Indy movie so much in the first place. The only think that's going to get me into the theater to see "Indy 4" is my abiding and unshakeable faith in Steven Spielberg, even though the last sequel the guy directed himself was "The Lost World." Anywho...]

I understand why so many sitcoms have button endings, that last punchline that comes after the credits. The networks want that last commercial break to be as watched as all of the previous commercial breaks and therefore worth as much to the advertisers. So throwing in a final joke for viewers is a nice compromise: You help us make a few more bucks and we'll give you one last laugh, a gag that your DVRs will probably cut off by accident anyway.

I understand why other movies might include a little Easter egg at the end of their closing credits, a last punchline or even a direct fourth-wall-breaking nod to viewers dedicated enough to stay through the names of all of the valuable below-the-line people who made the movie possible.

I'm a wee bit irked by "Iron Man" because staying for the full credit sequence isn't optional. It's pretty darned near mandatory. The thing that happens after the closing credits isn't just a wink at geeks and comic book fans, as I've seen other people try to say. It's the ending of the movie and the push into the inevitable sequel (a $32 million Friday only helps matters). And "Iron Man" had a lot of people working on it, so you have to stay through a ton of credits, but the stuff that happens after the credits, it's a plot point, not an Easter Egg. It's the most satisfying available conclusion to a movie that already suffers from thin storytelling.

And yet I saw the movie with a mostly full house on Friday afternoon and fewer than a dozen people stayed.

So all I'm saying before the bump is stay for the credits. You don't need to read every name that comes on screen. You can talk to your friends or check headlines on your cell phone or whatever. Even if you don't understand the information imparted at the end -- the guys in front of me went CRAZY, while the older couple behind me said, "So what did that actually mean?" -- it's important.

Now the actual review? That's after the bump...

Click through...

[I'm sure there are spoilers coming...]

I've yet to talk to anybody who actively disliked "Iron Man." That's impressive. I'm not including Kenneth Turan's L.A. Times review in this ranks, because I've never read a more clear example of a "I'm too old for this shit!" review in recent memory.

There are those who leave with the orgasmic gushings of "It's the best comic book movie since [INSERT RELIABLE CLICHE (i.e. Richard Donner's "Superman" or Tim Burton's "Batman") HERE]! They got it right!" Those gushings have been building since Comic-Con last summer, a reception that I've seen Jon Favreau mention in at least two publicity interviews. Who knew at the time that we were witnessing our generation's comic book Woodstock? Certainly not I.

And then there are the Moderate Positives. Those reviews appear to rave about Robert Downer Jr. in the lead role, tend to talk about how fun the movie is and then tend to criticize just how little actually happens in it beyond the basic origin story.

I fall in the latter camp and I guess I'm trying to think if I have anything new to add.

Robert Downey Jr. does, indeed, keep "Iron Man" afloat, serving almost the exact same purpose that Michael Keaton served in the first two "Batman" movies. It's a mistake to assume or believe that any man who tries living as an upstanding citizen by day, but yearns to don a funny suit and fight crime by night is completely normal or sane and Downey and Keaton have a similar off-kilter indie charm that says, "Well, it was either I become a superhero or I turn to drugs, alcohol and randomly climbing into the beds of neighbor children in a deranged stupor." Downey's Tony Stark spends an awful lot of time talking to robots and even if a certain amount of sentience is assumed on their part -- some are, some aren't -- that's probably a sign of a certain degree of psychological dysfunction and Downey conveys that flawlessly.

It shouldn't be surprising that Downey is such a confident physical actor. He earned an Oscar nomination for playing Charlie Chaplin, for heaven's sake. But so much of buying Stark's transition into Iron Man comes from Downey's body language, since that's what keeps us from viewing the snarky billionaire and the robotic suit as two separate entities. Top-to-bottom, it's a great piece of casting and a great performance.

But Downey's hardly the only actor-of-quality in the "Iron Man" cast.

Gwyneth Paltrow has long been an enigma, because she's been drawn to a certain kind of wan and bloodless character and that's been the sort of role directors have pictured her for, but the best performances of her career -- "Emma" and "Flesh and Blood" and "Shakespeare in Love" -- have all be feisty and spirited. But who thinks of Gwyneth Paltrow as a potentially strong or lusty actress? Her Pepper Potts is underwritten to the extreme, but she comes to life because of Paltrow's line readings and just her presence and it's such a relief to see Paltrow taking a role that offers no chance of an Oscar at the end of the line. Her only task is to be a fun part of an ensemble and to hint that in future movies, her character can become more important.

The same is true of Terrence Howard, who has to be one of my three or four favorite working actors at this moment. I love the way he plays against the type that his heavy-lidded drowsy eyes and soft, nearly feminine, voice would seem to push him toward. He's now played a string of authority figures, giving unexpected punch each time. Like Paltrow, some people will think that Howard is wasted in "Iron Man," but the franchise fans know that Rhodes and Pepper Potts are introduced here to pay dividends in the sequel. Or possibly the sequel after that. They're there to give the universe flexibility in the movies to come.

[Speaking of that, is Favreau-the-Actor setting himself up for a bigger part in future films?]

The film's final major cast member is Jeff Bridges, who looks effectively evil and malevolently avuncular with his bald head and bushy beard, which is countered whenever he opens his mouth and you remember that he's The Dude. Bridges' Obadiah is so clearly wicked from the beginning that he's denied any sort of arc either on his own or with Stark. And as a result, he makes a half-hearted adversary for the first film in a franchise. And as a result of that, "Iron Man," as a movie, lacks the requisite build-up and climax.

A lot of time is spent on the original Iron Man origin. Then a lot of time is spent experimenting on different suits. And by the time Iron Man makes his first fully formed appearance, he has time to do one quick heroic act and then it's time for him to dispatch the Big Bad and for the movie to end. Like Potts and Rhodes, the entire "Iron Man" movie is just the set-up to a sequel.

That's always the problem with first superhero movies, that everybody loves origin stories, but they may not make for the most satisfying of movies. The theory should always be, then, that the second movie in a franchise is better than the first, a la "Spider-Man" and "Spider-Man 2," though "Spider-Man 3" stunk, so that's a problem. Christopher Nolan appears to have understood that truism. While I preferred "Batman Begins" to "Iron Man," it's still an origin movie and, as a result, it has too many false climaxes and the actual climax isn't all that memory. Nolan was smart to introduce lower-first-tier villains for his first movie, saving The Joker, Two-Face, et al for subsequent features where they can actually stand out. Favreau has pretty much done the same in "Iron Man." It's a prologue.

And the problem with the prologue approach is that it's always asking you to project forward to the next movie, the Real Movie. As such, "Iron Man" has almost no dramatic stakes. If the shady Middle Eastern Terrorists (no less faceless and generic for setting the beginning of the movie against the real world context of Afghanistan), get Jericho missiles or even Iron Man suits of their own, so what? Even Faran Tahir's Raza, so negligible a baddie here that his fate is never hinted at, only lists his plans as taking over Asia. That may be serious, but it doesn't mean much in the context of the movie. The stakes for Stark and Iron Man mostly involve protecting the name of his company and restoring consumer confidence. Yes, he feels a bit of conservative-turned-liberal guilt, but it's an afterthought.

So the finale of "Iron Man" is just another of those CGI Creation #1 vs. CGI Creation #2 closings, the sort of thing that almost never satisfies and that leaves me, just one day later, without any memory of how Iron Man ended up winning the day.

Little else in the movie is truly memorable because of how little emotion is involved.

I guess it boils down to this: When "Iron Man 2" comes out, I'll be eager to see the sequel. When "Iron Man" comes out on DVD, though, I doubt I'll care much about seeing it a second time.

Now, time to get ready for the Kentucky Derby, the most exciting three minutes in sports.