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.

Click through...

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!

Click through...

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.

Click through...

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...

Click through...

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.

Click through...

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.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Moviewatch 4-Pack: "Pineapple Express," "The Wackness," "American Teen," "Hellboy II"

When I first set up the format for my movie reviews, the "In a Nutshell" part of the review actually meant "In a Nutshell," since I was usually writing first quick reactions to movies I'd seen in press screenings and I didn't want to say too much, lest it be construed as an actual, formal, embargo-breaking review. Then, when my concentration moved back to TV, I started to use "In a Nutshell" to stand for "In 2000 Words or So," which is a pretty massive nutshell.

Since I've been frustrated by the backlog of blog reviews I haven't written, though, today I've decided to temporarily return to the nutshell, to the sort of capsule reviews I used to do back when I freelanced for LA Weekly.

So in any case, after the bump, you'll find reviews of "Pineapple Express," "American Teen," "The Wackness" and "Hellboy II: The Golden Army." None of the reviews is longer than 250 words, so they are, indeed, my reactions in a nutshell.

Click through...

"Pineapple Express"
Director: David Gordon Green
Fien Print Rating: 71
In a Nutshell: For a movie about a pair of stoners, "Pineapple Express" has mighty big aspirations. Well, no. Not "big" aspirations, but "varied." Yeah. That's the ticket. To my mind, the number of things "Pineapple Express" works as outweighs exactly how well, exactly, it does those things. So I liked the pothead aspect of the comedy, particularly James Franco's deliriously committed turn as a low-aspiration dealer. I liked the Judd Apatovian bromance, with Seth Rogen going against type as the straight-man and letting Franco control the comedy in every scene (with a healthy assist from Danny McBride, whose comedy style is like a less desperate Will Ferrell). I liked the obvious admiration for a particular breed of '80s action-comedy, with indie director David Gordon Green showing himself surprisingly capable or orchestrating a rousing car chase. I liked the utterly berserker warehouse climax, the culmination of a triangulated pursuit that occasionally reached Midnight Run-levels of enjoyment. And I liked that even with all of those genre elements in play, Green still gave several key sequences an unformed, unstructured low-budget feel. All that being said, I probably laughed less at "Pineapple Express" than at, say, "Superbad" or "Knocked Up." And I found the main characters and their relationships to be less likeable and appealing than large parts of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." It's very much a "the whole is not equal to the sum of its parts" movie, but I found it more overall satisfying than, say, "Tropic Thunder" [review pending].

"American Teen"
Director: Nanette Burstein
Fien Print Rating: 58
In a Nutshell: A lot of critics are saying that "American Teen" is more realistic than MTV tripe like "The Hills," which is a bunch of bunk. The word they *mean* to use is "attainable," I think, because "American Teen" is every bit as over-edited, seemingly staged and generally contrived as "The Real Laguna Beach," but since it focuses on middle class white kids instead of rich white kids, critics feel more easily able to relate. Either way, Nanette Burstein's film achieves the somewhat unusual goal of proving that an unscripted movie about teens can be every bit as packed with cliches as a scripted high school movie, making the exact same general points -- high school is a cruel time, kids grow up too fast and our easy encapsulations of stereotypes aren't so useful all -- that John Hughes made over and over again 20 years ago. In the moment, "American Teen" is undeniably compelling, but its over-arced stories and all-too-carefully selected and manipulated characters become increasingly annoying the more you think about them. Burstein lacks the subtlety to leave anything open for debate or interpretation and most viewers will come out feeling exactly the same about every character. The director's goal is universality, but in the process of stripping the high school and the community of Warsaw, Indiana of anything that might be distinctive, Burstein achieves "generic" status instead. Burstein obviously would have preferred to make "Hannah Bailey, An American Girl," which might have been a better movie.

"The Wackness"
Director: Jonathan Levine
Fien Print Rating: 69
In a Nutshell: "The Wackness" won an Audience Award at Sundance, but Sony Pictures Classics has had a tough time convincing audiences at sea level to care. The sad thing is that "The Wackness" isn't some carefully pedigreed art film, it's a very simple, very pleasing coming-of-age story with a vaguely articulated period setting (New York City, 1994), a stoner's sense of humor and a kick-ass classic hip-hop soundtrack. All lazy eyes and slurred speech, Josh Peck is an oddly embraceable lead. He's like the more socially awkward brother of Leo Fitzpatrick's Telly from "Kids," with the key difference being that writer-director Jonathan Levine isn't going for some sort of grand cautionary tale with "The Wackness." This is really just the story of a directionless teen looking to sell pot and lose his virginity over one long-hot-summer, not some "Won't somebody please think of the children!" screed. Replacing anything high-minded with a "Let's get high, listen to Biggie and have awkward sex" ethos makes room enjoy the simpler pleasures like the burnt-out cinematography that seems to capture the heat radiating of the concrete, Ben Kingsley's gung-ho performance as a burnt-out shrink with a dreadful New York accent, Olivia Thirlby's undeniable energy as the young female lead and the sheer weirdness of seeing Mary-Kate Olsen as a hippie. Thinking back on the movie, I found myself a bit interested/concerned/irked by the way it erases any concept of diversity in New York City, but then Craig Mack's "Flava in Ya Ear" came on the soundtrack and I was distracted.

"Hellboy II: The Golden Army"
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Fien Print Rating: 61
In a Nutshell: Say this for Guillermo del Toro: The guy throws himself equally into every movie he makes, whether it's a historically rich prestige fairy tale or a comic book sequel. I just wonder what it says about del Toro's growth as a filmmaker that he was so easily able to switch aspirational tracks from "Pan's Labyrinth," my favorite movie of the past five years, to "Hellboy II: The Golden Army." Able to dispatch with the "normal" character (Rupert Evans' Myers) who made parts of the original movie so dull, del Toro is able to plunge back into the "Hellboy" universe with a surplus of visual ingenuity and a paucity of narrative momentum. Del Toro never lacks for memorable sequences: The nasty critters attacking the auction house, the teeming clandestine demon market, the marauding plant spirit and the winged healing seer are as memorable a quartet of creations as you'll see at the movie this year. But it's also hard to imagine any attempted franchise film overcoming a villain as tepid as Luke Goss' Prince Nuada, whose unengaging attempts to take over the Earth lead to the summer's latest CGI-on-CGI climactic battle, as Hellboy goes to war with an army made less of gold than of pixels. The movie's ethos of great ideas that serve no real purpose is embodied by the Seth MacFarlane-voiced Johann Krauss, a Germanic cloud of vapor that seems awesomely innovative at first, but eventually evaporates meaninglessly into the ether.