Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Town



The best part of Ben Affleck's The Town is the confirmation that Gone Baby Gone was neither fluke nor lightning in a bottle — Affleck is a filmmaker, and a damn good one, able to conjure suspense, stage action, command a gritty tone, and direct actors far beyond the skill of any of the men behind the shitty blockbusters he starred in over the last decade (refer to Pearl Harbor, Reindeer Games, Daredevil, Paycheck, The Sum of All Fears, and Armageddon for further details). Within two pictures his style has taken shape as something resembling a poor man's Departed-era Scorsese mixed with pre-Miami Vice Michael Mann, and for a director yet to hit forty you'd better believe I mean that as a compliment.

The Town centers on Boston bank robbery crew who are forced to take a hostage played by Rebecca Hall when a silent alarm gets tripped during a heist. They drop her off unharmed but even though they were wearing masks the volatile muscle of the crew played by Jeremy Renner gets nervous and pitches the idea of swinging back around to kill her and tie up loose ends. Ben Affleck, the relatively levelheaded brains of the outfit, instead follows her, makes contact to find out if she's been talking with the feds, and of course winds up falling in love.

For a while Affleck lives a double life as career criminal and Hall's boyfriend under constant threat of discovery by both her and the FBI team led by Mad Men's Jon Hamm out to shut his crew down, but when he starts to toy with the idea of getting out of the game his criminal employer (Pete Postlethwaite, who between supporting roles in this film, Clash of the Titans, and Inception I have seen in more movies this year than the last decade put together) is less than receptive to the idea. With threats made against Rebecca Hall's life if he fails to comply, Affleck is, as all cinematic criminals must be, roped into one last big score.

It's a clever setup that allows Affleck the filmmaker to dip his toe into many waters: The Town is part character study of its protagonist, part romance, and part action thriller. The romantic elements can be less than convincing, particularly as the narrative goes on, but as cops 'n' robbers pulp The Town is very successful. Affleck's last film Gone Baby Gone had violence and suspense but it didn't have anything that could be described as an action scene. The Town does. There's an awesome car chase through the narrow alleys of Boston's North End, multiple lengthy gunfights, and if I'm not mistaken there's even an explosion. Affleck is able to give fairly conventional cinematic sights like cars crunching into each other and a guy taking a bullet visceral impact that plenty of more experienced filmmakers could learn from, and after watching The Town the notion of him doing a full-tilt action picture is not at all unattractive.

I remain somewhat less sold on Ben Affleck the actor; he's nowhere near as distracting as when Tarantino or Shyamalan show up in their own stuff but I still fear that Affleck's acting career peaked with Chasing Amy back in 1997. I mean it not as an insult but as a suggestion of where his talent lies when I say that he should probably step behind the camera and stay there. I'm just never 100% convinced that he isn't delivering lines rather than actually being the Charlestown criminal he plays, and Gossip Girl's Blake Lively fairs worse still as his ex-girlfriend, never feeling like anything except a child playing dress-up.

But Rebecca Hall and Jon Hamm are completely naturalistic and convincing (and Hall continues to fall in that Christian Bale / Idris Elba / Hugh Laurie category of British actors who wind up putting on an American accent in almost every single role they do), while The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner effortlessly takes control of the whole film as Affleck's dumber and more violent sidekick, creating tension by merely stepping into the frame. The man has genuine star power, and Hollywood obviously realized it, casting him as the co-lead in Mission: Impossible IV and potential primary lead of the franchise after that. The Town makes him a very real contender for Best Supporting Actor.

A few years ago people were wondering whether or not Affleck was a filmmaker if not openly chuckling at the idea of him trying to be. Gone Baby Gone showed doubters where to stuff it (and, for the record, is still the better of the two films), while The Town confirms it. The question at this point is whether or not Affleck is capable of directing anything besides gritty crime dramas set in Boston. It'll be interesting to see what he does next — he could take The Town's financial success as a sign and make something even more action-oriented, or he make a swing for artier pastures. Either way, he's reached the level of filmmaker that I will see anything he does, and for the star of Gigli, that's a pretty impressive turnaround.


3 Stars out of 5

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Tim's Trailer Talk, Vol. 6


Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer



Chances of me seeing it: 20%. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room was exceptional (in fact, I believe I put it in the runners-up for my top 100 films of last decade), but despite sharing a director I don't know if I can really stomach sitting through a feature-length documentary where I despise every single person that appears onscreen. Except the hookers, I guess. They're just making a living, and probably humiliating their parents. But only really, really good reviews will persuade me to watch this film. The subject matter is just too fresh and too irritating. I'll probably watch Inside Job instead. It has Spitzer too but at least it's not about him.

Chances of me liking it: 10%. God, Spitzer, what the fuck? Going to whorehouses while you're governor? I thought that kind of shit only happened in grungy B-movies. You couldn't just jack off for a few years? If New York elects a Republican governor this fall then feel free to consider it your fault. Asshole.

Beyond the jump, we got a packed week. Tons of trailers. New Harry Potter, new Coen brothers, and, most importantly, new Human Centipede.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

NBC Sitcom Roundup — "Nepotism," "The Fabian Strategy," & "Anthropology 101"



Since it's the only multi-show block of television I watch I've decided to start doing weekly reviews of NBC's Thursday night comedy lineup, namely The Office, 30 Rock, and Community. "Reviews" isn't even the right word; I'm not going to waste time with extensive plot summary or tiptoe around spoilers or in any way write for the benefit of people who haven't seen the episodes — there's dozens of TV blogs that take care of that, even a couple good ones — but I'm just gonna jot down some quick impressions of each show on Friday or Saturday once I've caught up on Hulu, even if they're as short as a couple of sentences. This week's thoughts will be a little longer, though, since I wanna discuss each show in general first.

The Office, Season 7 Episode 1 — "Nepotism"

I'm not exactly taking a bold stance when I say that The Office is years past its prime (in fact, if anything, this view is so widespread that my actual bold stance is that I currently enjoy The Office more than 30 Rock). No surprise — seven years is ancient by TV standards. The well of ideas runs dry, characters get stretched into increasingly cartoonish versions of what they once were (see Ryan, Kevin, Meredith, Creed, and even the relatively new Erin), episodes like this one open with admittedly charming but very broad dance numbers that never, ever would have happened back in season two. With Jim and Pam married with a baby and Dunder Mifflin's financial collapse averted, I doubt many people would weep crocodile tears if the show brought itself to a (still late, but relatively) graceful end next May.

But The Office is one of NBC's biggest hits, and that ain't gonna happen. In fact, even Steve Carell's announcement that he will be leaving the show at the end of this season did nothing to deter the Peacock Network, who swiftly announced that there will be a new boss in season eight whether that means giving a current character a promotion or bringing in someone entirely new. The end of The Office as we know it is nigh, and this season carries a lingering dread, but, I confess, a vague sense of excitement. What will the post-Carell Office entail? Fresh blood and renewed sense of purpose? Or a ghastly, shambling corpse of a once-great sitcom embarrassing itself beyond measure? Probably closer to the latter, but either way, it'll be something fascinating. Save for HBO's Game of Thrones it might be the single television event of 2011 I'm most curious about.

But whatever they're planning for Michael Scott's departure, this episode makes no hint of it. Outside of a couple "what I did over the summer" confessionals at the beginning it doesn't even feel like a season premiere, plunging us straight back into business as usual without even the courtesy of mentioning last season's whistleblower subplot that took up most of the finale. It's not that I want Andy fired or anything, but he doesn't seem to have been punished in any way, retroactively giving the whole story a "what was the point of that?" vibe. Unless you count his karmic punishment of losing Erin to Gabe, which I doubt was related to the whistleblowing. Speaking of, doesn't it seem a little weird for the show to make its two newest characters a couple, the ones who could most use integration into the main cast? It's like they're sticking them out in no man's land.

The subplot with Michael's nephew was clever in theory and Luke was an amusingly well-sketched portrait of a little douche ("I love cinema. My favorite movies are Citizen Kane and The Boondock Saints."), but it never achieved the true potential of its akwardness until things took an impressively bizarre, uncomfortable turn with the spanking at the end. That I was a fan of, and much to my relief I finally had a big gut laugh a few minutes before the credits rolled. Pam's elevator prank against Dwight was gently amusing, including a moment that was funny but again shows how cartoonish the characters have become when Dwight starts pissing in the corner of elevator five seconds after they get stuck. At least the Devil wasn't in there with them.

All in all, a watchable but unremarkable season premiere, certainly not a speck on season three's sublime "Gay Witch Hunt" but not an embarrassment either. The Office's greatest strength at this point is probably its enormous cast — eighteen people listed as "Starring," as far as I know the biggest main cast of any show on TV right now, including hourlong cable dramas — and with the star leaving in about twenty short episodes and Jim and Pam's wistful love story resolved they gotta spend this season reaching into that bench and making some of their second-string into starters. In human years The Office is a senior citizen, and I just hope it can stay healthy for as long as possible before getting rolled permanently into the TV retirement home.

30 Rock, Season 5 Episode 1 — "The Fabian Strategy"

If you were unfamiliar with the show you would never guess from a cursory glance that 30 Rock is becoming a creaky thing. It's as peppy as ever, with cheerful music and snappy editing and impressive guest stars, including Elizabeth Banks and no less than Matt goddamn Damon in recurring roles this year. But, outside of Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy's initial antagonism gradually becoming a codependent friendship, a process which was complete by the end of season two, 30 Rock is a show that has resisted any evolution since settling on a tone in the first half of its first year. Yeah, Kenneth is working at CBS now, but I give that maybe two more episodes. Liz has a new man, but the downside of a character being played by one of the top movie stars in the world is that we know he can't be here to stay. Make no mistake, we'll be back at square one very soon.

And that's fine... as long as the jokes stay funny. With no additions to the main cast or character development beyond Liz and Jack becoming friends or shifts in setting or premise since the pilot four years ago, 30 Rock is in many respects actually coming to resemble Tina Fey's previous place of employment, Saturday Night Live. With each, the question of a new episode's quality comes down to one and one question only: were the jokes funny? And 81 episodes in, the answer with 30 Rock is "yes, but not nearly as funny as they used to be." I don't blame them. Anyone would get a little burned out writing a total of about eight new hours of wall-to-wall punchlines every year for half a decade.

In a strange, nearly unprecedented twist, the part of the premiere that actually made me laugh the most was Jenna's subplot, something I'm not sure has happened since season one's "Hardball." Seeing her usurp Pete's responsibilities as producer was a pleasure, bringing out entertaining new sides in both characters. I also liked Tracy and Kenneth's more absurd, hallucinatory subplot, although I hope I'm not speaking only for myself when I say that Tracy Jordan's crazy person gimmick has grown stale over time. Lots of sitcoms have characters who serve only as walking punchlines, but they're usually not third billed.

Jack didn't fare quite so well. Alec Baldwin can rasp all he wants but last season's seemingly endless Jack / Avery / Nancy love triangle really burned me out on the character's love life. Unless they bring in some more absurdist twists befitting the the rest of the show I just don't want to listen to Jack talk about him and Avery anymore until the birth, especially when they don't even pay Elizabeth Banks to show up. Let's move away from lovey dovey Jack back to the corporate shark, the one that we all, ironically, fell in love with.

Liz and Matt Damon's plot where Damon was revealed to be a crybaby wasn't quite as tedious but still did little to separate itself from Jon Hamm, Liz's last handsome and seemingly perfect boyfriend with a hidden character flaw. I'm a fan of Damon in Bourne and Good Will Hunting and The Informant! but he's doing little to distinguish himself in this part, even less than James Franco did as Liz's one-episode love interest last season. Truth be told, I miss Dennis Duffy. He may have been the worst of Liz's love interests for Liz in the world of the show, but he had the most personality of any of them by far.

I don't want to sound overly down on 30 Rock. I may gripe, but I'm still watching and still laughing here and there and it's still a country mile better than any of the new sitcoms that premiered this fall. But I am, sadly, well past the point of bona fide excitement over new episodes. In fact, I didn't even watch this one on Hulu until two days after it aired, something that never would have happened a couple years ago, and just a few hours after that while writing this post I had to skim the episode's summary on Wikipedia to remind myself exactly what happened. But that's okay, because there's a new sitcom in town that has casually swept aside 30 Rock to become the new king of madcap comedy, and that show is Community.

Community, Season 2 Episode 1 — "Anthropology 101"

I'mma be straight with you folks — I fucking love Community. A few months back I would have told you that it was the best comedy on television. Now that the great Party Down is deceased, I will tell you that it's the best comedy on television by far. You are absolutely missing out if you are not watching this show. It's terrific. The cast is electric, the tone and pacing maybe the best of any sitcom since Arrested, the dialogue tremendous, the jokes consistently laugh-out-loud hilarious, and the running, self-aware commentary on sitcom tropes even as it plays them up or parodies them is incredibly ambitious. If you haven't seen the first season don't bother with renting; hop your ass right on over to Amazon and buy that shit.

I don't want to gush and gush and gush. I have 21 more episodes to review (and, assuming being aired against CBS's groanworthy The Big Bang Theory doesn't kill the show, hopefully a third season after that), so gushing must be rationed, but I thought this was a really great premiere. The Jeff / Annie twist in last season's finale had me concerned that Community was going to be invaded by unwelcome soapy elements, but the way this episode blew all that to pieces was pretty goddamn brilliant, from the one of the funniest, most graphic kisses in sitcom history between Jeff and Britta to Annie's hilarious, shrieking, running-start punch to Jeff's face in the study hall (while Derrick Comedy cameoed in the background). Shitting all over the will-they-or-won't-they sitcom tradition by twisting Jeff and Britta's romance into a series of angry power plays makes countless televised romances now just look lazy and unimaginative in retrospect.

Much of the advertising for this premiere revolved around Betty White's guest spot, which again made me nervous, but once again, I should have had faith. As tired as I may have become with the Betty White meme her role as the gang's crazy, urine-drinking, potentially murderous anthropology professor worked. Most films and shows and sketches since White's recent career resurgence have cast her in same redundant "old lady saying inappropriate things, lol!" role, but Community took the unique approach of simply coming up with a funny character and casting a talented actress in the part. There's nothing about Professor June Bauer as written that couldn't have been played by a man in his forties, but White gave it a fresh vibe and fit seamlessly in the show's world.

I could go on and on about the episode's myriad brilliant touches, beginning a few seconds in when we see Troy getting out of bed in his Spider-Man pajamas (referencing actor Donald Glover's summer campaign to get an audition for Peter Parker) and lasting until a throwaway moment at the end where the gang agrees that Troy's oldwhitemansays Twitter feed would make a moronic TV show, a subtle yet viscously scathing takedown of CBS's $#*! My Dad Says seconds before its premiere, but why bother. If you watched the episode then you already know that Community fuckin' rules, and if you didn't, then you better catch up stat, because you're missing the best comedy on television.

Friday, September 24, 2010

TV Pilots, Day 2 — Detroit 1-8-7, Raising Hope, Running Wilde, Better With You, Undercovers


Tuesday and Wednesday's series premieres were a mixed bag, a disappointment for anyone looking for fresh, exciting appointment viewing to add to their regular schedule but with only one true disaster in the bunch (barring CBS shows, which I won't watch or review, but can all be safely assumed disasters). Lots of stuff in the B- and C+ range; the TV equivalent of McDonald's. It looks like this fall's new series may ultimately just be filler to bide time between new episodes of Boardwalk Empire and already-proven returning shows (and I would say Lone Star, but much as I predicted, Lone Star is proving too good for the diseased masses and will probably wind up having a mayfly-esque lifespan).

But let's not mourn the good TV that's probably going to get cancelled, let's look ahead to the mediocre TV of the future! Today we'll be examining ABC's Detroit 1-8-7, Fox's Raising Hope, Fox's Running Wilde, ABC's Better With You, and NBC's Undercovers:

DETROIT 1-8-7


The premise in ten words or less? Cops in Detroit solve murders.

Any good? Well, it's way better than NBC's Chase, I'll give it that much, but it's still just another police procedural. There's some cops, the men tough and the females attractive, with the protagonist being an arrogant, slightly off-kilter antihero cop who plays by his own rules. There's a murder, they parse the clues, get the lead, do the chase, make the arrest. Americans love episodic police procedurals because they're unambitious and easy to watch, and on that count Detroit 1-8-7 delivers. I'm sure lots of people will watch but I can't imagine anyone ever excitedly telling their friends about last night's amazing episode the next day.

What Detroit 1-8-7 admittedly does have is a strong sense of location. Other cop shows set in Manhattan or Miami or LA try to make their locations look sexy and vibrant, all epic skylines and gorgeous lights, but Detroit 1-8-7 proudly displays Detroit in all its grey, ghetto, semi-apocalyptic glory. Unlike The Wire they weren't courageous enough to actually have the cast reflect the city's demographics (real Detroit: 81.6% black, Detroit 1-8-7's main cast: 37.5% black), but there's still a genuine texture to it that most cop shows don't have. Shame the storytelling is so generic and uninteresting.

Will I watch again? I don't think so.

RAISING HOPE


The premise in ten words or less? White trash twentysomething unexpectedly winds up a single parent.

Any good? It was neither great nor as bad as some critics made it out to be. It's quite cinematically shot for a televised comedy, with palpable grunge to the white trash settings, and there's a couple of pretty subversive, out-there moments for a broadcast sitcom that made me laugh out loud (namely a comedic cutaway to a woman being fried in the electric chair in front of her baby, and the same baby getting thrown up on later in the episode), but these moments are sandwiched between wide dry stretches and capped off by a generically sitcommy warm hugs ending. The show's most tired element is probably the Alzheimery grandma who lives with the main family, because old ladies saying inappropriate things (and, in this case, running around naked) is not nearly as funny as sitcom writers seem to believe it to be.

Will I watch again? I dunno. I'm not completely averse to the idea of watching a few more but at the same time I can't really imagine spending my twentieth episode with these people, let alone my hundredth. I can easily see this one taking the same path of Greg Garcia's previous, equally white trash series My Name Is Earl, one I enjoyed for the first half of its first season but quickly grew tired with and eventually just vaguely disgusted by the very continued existence of.

RUNNING WILDE


The premise in ten words or less? Vain rich man reunites with his do-gooder childhood sweetheart.

Any good? I think we (and by "we" I mean people with taste) can all safely agree that Arrested Development is the greatest TV comedy ever. Everything about creator Mitch Hurtwitz's magnus opus came together perfectly for its brief yet beautiful run; its style, its pacing, its blisteringly brilliant joke structure, and of course its cast, one of the best comedic ensembles ever assembled. The show was true lightning in a bottle. But you know the thing about lightning — it never strikes in the same place twice.

Mitch Hurwitz's new show Running Wilde is about a dumb, blustery rich man played by Will Arnett, born into money with zero clue and zero responsibility. Or in other words, Gob Bluth. He's not named Gob Bluth ("Steve Wilde," if you must know), but Gob is obviously who he is, giving the vaguely tragic impression of Hurwitz as a man still wearing his high school letter jacket seven years later, trying to remind everyone of the glory days. Keri Russell is about 35% Michael Bluth everyman and 65% Lindsay Bluth daft wannabe humanitarian as Steve's childhood sweetheart Emmy, the daughter of a former maid of Steve's father, who decides to move back in with Steve to try to make him a better man when her daughter Puddle (Stefania Owen, filling Ron Howard's Arrested Development role as narrator, not bad for a child actress but without any compelling hook as a character) expresses desire to live back in America.

The show has scattered laughs in its more absurdist moments but the dialogue scenes are pretty dry and it quickly becomes apparent that Arrested Development would not have stood as the masterpiece it was with Gob as the protagonist and a small handful of supporting characters. It's not bad but it's kind of heartbreakingly mediocre. I suggest that Running Wilde change its title to the more accurate A Portrait of Mitch Hurwitz As a One-Hit Wonder.

Will I watch again? Well, it's the closest we're gonna get to Arrested Development until they finally put that long-rumored feature film together, ain't it? I doubt Running Wilde will see a second season so I might as well see it through to the (possibly very) bitter end.

BETTER WITH YOU


The premise in ten words or less? Two sisters, their boyfriends, their parents, and a laugh track.

Any good? Better With You is a notable entry in the television subgenre I affectionally refer to as "complete pieces of shit." A bland, sleepy regurgitation of Friends with a hint of How I Met Your Mother that feels a million years old by the end of its first scene, the show features three Manhattanite couples that have been together for lengths of time ranging from seven weeks to 35 years, and constantly presents us with the same scenario, but, get this, three times to show how couples change.

For example, we see the seven-weeks couple in a taxi cab, where they can't stop making out. We then see the nine-years couple in a taxi where they talk about their days. We then see the 35-years couple in a taxi where they, get this, sit in silence! Oh, ho ho! Later, we see the seven-weeks couple deciding to fool around because "it's been like six hours." We then see the nine-years couple deciding to fool around because "it's been like a week." We then see the 35-year couple sitting in silence. Hilarity! This is the main "joke" the show keeps repeating over and over, as the laugh track brays constantly like an ass in pain.

This show is the most generic, lowbrow, cookie cutter sitcom imaginable, lacking a single moment that attempts to genuinely stand out from the crowd or subvert expectations in any way, a show that has no business existing as we enter the second decade of the 21st century. You can almost see some ABC studio executive sneering with contempt, cackling "here, enjoy this multicamera piece of shit, you flyover fuckheads!" before squatting over and taking a wet dump in America's mouth.

Will I watch again?


UNDERCOVERS


The premise in ten words or less? Sexy spy couple goes on James Bondian secret missions.

Any good? Undercovers is a slick, sexy, cool little spy show about two insanely attractive people (seriously, female lead Gugu Mbatha-Raw is one of the most mind-bogglingly gorgeous people I've seen on TV in years, enough so that I actually need to take a moment here and emphasize that she is a Greek goddess come to life) who are married and go on secret missions together. The pilot is vibrantly directed by J.J. Abrams of Star Trek and Mission: Impossible III fame, opening with a sweet chase / shootout scene that wouldn't be out of place on the big screen and retaining a cinematic look the whole way through (or at least until a final car chase in a strangely Californian-looking "Russia"). The leads have peppy chemistry and the whole thing is a polished, glossy spy action package.

But I can't say I really want to watch it again, and I'll explain why: it's too cool. "Cool" to the point of having no personality. "Cool" to the point of smugness. The two leads have absolutely no character flaws whatsoever; they are the sexiest people in the world, the smartest people in the world, the best fighters in the world, possess every single talent and skill the plot can possibly ask of them, and never seem to struggle with anything, including catching a terrorist arms dealer in about two days that the CIA has been unsuccessfully tracking for five years when they finally get put on the case. If you compare it to NBC's other spy show Chuck, a show equally lighthearted but with a wry, knowing, self-depricating tone and a flawed protagonist in over his head in the spy game, the difference is clear. Chuck is for people who want to watch real characters, Undercovers is for people who just want a vague, detached sense of cool badassery.

Will I watch again? Not terribly likely. If I was the sort to channel surf I could imagine a worse way to kill an hour, but I really only have the inclination to keep up with one lighthearted action / comedy / romance spy series at a time, a role which Chuck will continue to fill exclusively.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

TV Pilots, Day 1 — Outlaw, Boardwalk Empire, Chase, The Event, Lone Star


I've been wanting to start doing more TV coverage on my blog, so I've decided to do something useful with my life waste time by watching this fall's series premieres and reporting back with some relatively brief thoughts on each. Note that I don't watch commercials out of principle, so that means that the shows I'll review are either 1) on HBO or other commercial-free premium networks, or more likely 2) on Hulu. And Hulu doesn't broadcast CBS shows, so I won't be reviewing all the shitty, lowbrow, soon-to-be-beloved-by-middle-America programs CBS is rolling out this week. So sad. How will I ever live with myself?

This review series will probably have three entires, and in the first we'll be looking at, in rough chronological order of premiere date, NBC's Outlaw, HBO's Boardwalk Empire, NBC's Chase, NBC's The Event, and Fox's Lone Star:

OUTLAW


The premise in ten words or less? Rogue Supreme Court justice quits, becomes private defense attorney.

Any good? In the pilot's climax, a man who has been on death row for eleven years is brought in for a retrial in light of new evidence that Jimmy Smits and his team have uncovered, because of course, like every other lawyer show, Outlaw assumes that lawyers also do the jobs of detectives, spies, and policemen. In about five minutes presented in real time, the trial begins, a new witness goes up, gives her story, points out the real guilty party who is of course in the courtroom, and Smits and the prosecuting attorney start screaming at each other until a pair of glasses belonging to the actual killer is presented and proves everything, at which point the police arrest the killer right there in the courtroom and the defendant who has been jail for eleven years immediately walks out a free man. It would be the funniest scene of the year if the show were kidding, but no, it's dead fucking serious.

The dialogue is awful, painfully expository and horribly on-the-nose (particularly the moment where one of Jimmy Smits' clerks hints at her secret love for him by shouting "I love you!" in front of the whole team), the moments of attempted comic relief will make you cringe, and even the cinematography and editing attempt to be flashy and modern in the most obnoxious way. And the premise is sort of moronic if you think about it. A Supreme Court justice willingly stepping down to fight for the little guy isn't the world's worst hook and could maybe work for a feature film with a much, much better writer, but in a TV series once you've gotten all that out of the way in the first half of the pilot it's just another fucking lawyer show for the rest of its lifespan, be that six episodes or, god forbid, six seasons.

Will I watch again? I admit, the sheer comedic value of how bad Outlaw is might actually drive me to watch another episode at some point. But probably not the next one. I need a little time to recover first.

BOARDWALK EMPIRE


The premise in ten words or less? Gangsters in Prohibition-era Atlantic City smuggle alcohol, Scorsese directs.

Any good? Well, no shit. So much digital ink has been spilled talking about this series that there isn't a whole lot left for me to add. It's a period piece gangster epic with terrific actors (Steve Buscemi is the star and brings his fascinating, off-kilter energy to every frame while A Serious Man's Michael Stuhlbarg makes nearly as great an impression as Arnold Rothstein), the production values surpass plenty of feature films and all except a few TV shows ever made, and there's lots of grit and moral ambiguity and a fantastic visual style established by no less than Martin Scorsese. The pilot was terrific, one of the best I've seen, albeit so obviously the first chapter in a sprawling and novelistic story that reviewing it by itself is probably akin to reviewing the first seven pages of a book.

The basic premise could be likened to The Wire (which examines how the War on Drugs actually bolsters crime in contemporary Baltimore, while this one examines how the illegality of booze bolsters crime in 1920s Jersey), but with all subtlety intentionally removed. Contemporary Scorsese is not a subtle filmmaker. Take a look at Gangs of New York, The Departed, or Shutter Island and you'll see what I mean; Scorsese lays out all themes and ideas with tremendous energy, muscular style, crackling dialogue, and, in Boardwalk Empire, a whole lot of pomp and circumstance. This show is smart and complex but it's also visually beautiful and really entertaining.

Will I watch again? Yes, I will be watching the whole season. And HBO has already renewed it for a second season, so we got at least 23 more hours of Atlantic City hilarity left to go. What a grand time to own a television!

CHASE


The premise in ten words or less? Unambitious procedural about federal marshals in Texas.

Any good? This show is a fucking catastrophe. I'm blown away that NBC would even take this thing to series. I'd discuss the plot of the pilot — a serial killer is loose in Texas, some interchangeable federal marshals led by Kelli Giddish bust down doors and connect the clues to track him down, culminating in a lackluster action scene when they finally reach him — but other than the fact that that's clearly going to be the plot of every single episode there's no point. The show has no serialized elements of any kind. It's dry and unambitious and takes itself so, so, so seriously for such a generic procedural. Longest 42 minutes I've sat through lately. In summary, Chase will be this season's breakout hit.

Will I watch again?


THE EVENT


The premise in ten words or less? Lost wannabe mixed with 24 wannabe.

Any good? I'm on the fence, leaning towards "no" but willing to keep an open mind. The pilot is a festival of nonsense that leaps back and forwards through time, with the president planning to release the captives of a Guantanamo-style secret prison in Alaska against the wishes of his advisors, some vague references to "the event," a man's girlfriend disappearing as if she never existed during a vacation, the same man appearing on a plane days later with no explanation and attempting to stop the pilot (his girlfriend's father) from dive-bombing the plane into the president, and finally the plane disappearing into a blue wormhole just before impact, presumably "the event."

It's obviously trying to be like Lost with its serialized mystery and ensemble cast and flashbacks, while it's obviously trying to be like 24 with its frenetic pacing and utilization of the President of the United States as a main character. And it kept my attention with relatively few scoffs along the way, but the biggest problem is that absolutely none of the characters made the slightest impact whatsoever. No personalities. Not one of them had a single quirk or flaw or unique character trait. Lost has also made me extremely nervous about getting involved in these longform serialized mysteries, because who knows whether or not the solution will turn out to be a giant glowing sand vagina.

Will I watch again? I swear to god I will use a straight razor to remove the nuts of the next person I hear excuse Lost's piece of shit finale with "it was always about the characters", but Lost did actually establish compelling and unique personalities within its first few episodes. However, The Event is still a couple short of a few episodes, so I'll give it a little more time to build its cast and to see if it provides satisfying answers to any of the mysteries. But the moment I start checking the clock in the middle of episodes to see when it's going to end, I'm done.

LONE STAR


The premise in ten words or less? Texas conman lives two separate lives, wants to go straight.

Any good? Really good, actually. With Friday Night Lights ending in six months I'm gonna be needing a new serialized drama set in Texas and co-starring Adrianne Palicki to fill the massive hole that will leave in my TV life, and Lone Star looks like it could do the trick. It plays a little bit like a modern riff on Dallas incorporating decades of advancement in TV storytelling — beautiful cinematography, film-quality performances, emotional subtlety, rich serialization, and actually being shot in Texas rather than on backlots in Hollywood.

We follow a conman named Bob Allen who sells phony gas and oil leases to people all across Texas, including to what seems like most everyone in a Midland suburb. Unfortunately he's also fallen in love and moved in with a Midland girl and can't bring himself to just take his money and run; he actually wants to find a way to pay the people back on their investments so he can keep up his charade. Meanwhile, in Houston, he's goddamn married to another woman who he had planned to use to worm his way into her father's oil business to steal millions, but when he's finally offered a job in the company he decides he loves his wife and wants to maintain that life, too. But his conman daddy ain't happy with his plans to go clean and both houses of cards seem poised to collapse at any moment.

The thing I enjoy about the show is the bundle of contradictions that is the protagonist. He's genial and kindhearted in his day-to-day demeanor (even giving $50 to a cashier he doesn't know so the cashier won't get fired for someone stealing from the store), but he's also an absolute piece of shit. He's a thief and a liar and a remorseless adulterer; perhaps not a terrible person by the standards of genre fiction where terrible people want to blow up the earth, but in a real-world based show like this he's just about the worst fucking human being on the planet. Actor James Wolk does a good job with the emotional complexity of the part but isn't 100% believable as the ladies man he's made out to be, complete with gorgeous women in hotel bars quickly propositioning him for no-strings-attached sex. He has boyish good looks but lacks the raw, Taylor Kitschian animal magnetism necessary to truly pull that off.

Will I watch again? Absolutely. Looking forward to it. But I suspect Lone Star is not long for this world. It's emotionally rich, original and well-acted, with strong dialogue, meaty characters and a palpable sense of its settings, which means mainstream America won't be interested. Add to that the fact that it's on the trigger-happy Fox network and we'll be lucky to see this thing through to the end of its (hopefully self-contained) thirteen-episode first season. But I'll be there to watch.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tim's Trailer Talk, Vol. 5


Casino Jack



Chances of me seeing it: 40%. Geez, when did Kevin Spacey become such an overactor? I'm going to have to read the reviews on this one before I commit to anything. This trailer also has one of the worst ending "tags" I've seen in a while. I hate how trailers always have to do that.

Chances of me liking it: 20%. The general vibe of this entire trailer really jumps out at me as being a poor man's Thank You For Smoking. Anyone else get that impression?

Lots to discuss this week! Good, bad, and ugly movies beyond the jump.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Devil



First off, let me be clear that Devil is far and away the best thing to have M. Night Shyamalan's name attached since 2002's Signs. With The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender all being unmitigated abominations that make you want to travel back through time to assassinate the inventor of film I know that isn't saying a whole hell of a lot, but in mercifully retreating from behind the camera to the positions of story writer and producer M. Night has actually masterminded a taut and reasonably watchable piece of B-movie horror pulp.

You don't have to scour the internet long to find countless reviews that boil down to "hurr M. Night Shyamaladingdog, worst movie EVAR, right guys?!!", but I assure you that these can all be discounted as the babblings of people physiologically incapable of forming their own opinions. If M. Night's name wasn't attached none of these reviews would be a tenth as scathing (and a lot would probably be flat-out positive), and that's simply a fact. I'm not saying Devil's great or even significantly good but as far as horror goes I'll take it over another derivate slasher flick in a heartbeat.

The plot is as follows: five strangers get on an elevator, the elevator gets stuck between floors, then bad stuff happens. I'm not going to say any more. This is a movie singularly reliant on the suspense of who's going to make it and the twists and revelations of the final act — I don't think it's a spoiler that there are twists, as any simpleton could guess that from the trailer even without M. Night's name attached — and because of that I doubt I'm ever going to watch it again, but if you have any inclination whatsoever you must go in knowing as little as possible (although, for the record, the trailer is surprisingly not bad at all in terms of spoilers, giving away not a single key event beyond the fifteen-minute mark).

The performances and cinematography are serviceable and unremarkable, as befits what is basically a modern Twilight Zone episode blown up to eighty minutes. Logan Marshall-Green stands out the most as a sort of poor man's Jeremy Renner, and I wouldn't mind seeing him in more films, albeit probably not in leading roles. The film's biggest problem by far is a constant, hideous stream of superfluous voiceover narration from a supporting character about his mom's bedtime stories on the Devil. I don't hate voiceover as much as Robert McKee and could name dozens of projects that put it to brilliant use (Arrested Development being the king), but this is absolutely not one of them, particularly when it poisons what would have been a perfectly acceptable ending.

I'd probably be fairly positive on Devil if it were a TV movie. Hell, if you cut it down to an hour, removed every hint of the voiceover, and aired it on the retardedly-named Syfy channel I might be heartily recommending it. As is I can't quite make the leap to advising you shell out the money and gasoline to see it in theaters (although, without specifics, I can say there was a pretty satisfying full-theater gasp in the third act, something that certainly can't be said for any slasher movie I've seen lately), but if they ever put it on Netflix View Instantly you could do worse on a free rainy evening.

And when I say "you could do worse," I'm referring to every Friday the 13th movie, almost every Nightmare on Elm Street after the first, the last two Final Destinations, Sorority Row, every Saw, Paranormal Activity, The Last Exorcist, The Fourth Kind, Cabin Fever, Piranha 3D, The Devil's Rejects, Hellraiser, Hostel, House of Wax, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scream 3, I Am Legend, Number 23, and, except for the special effects, Hollow Man. Just, you know, so we're clear. That most horror movies are bad. Sorry to blow your mind, horror fans!


2 Stars out of 5

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Sorcerer's Apprentice



Sorry if this sounds overdramatic, but The Sorcerer's Apprentice is everything that's wrong with contemporary cinema. Sure, it's robustly produced, splashing its $150 million budget all over the screen in glossy special effects, but it's all in service of an inert, made-by-committee lump of nothing. Nothing — I sat through 111 minutes and felt nothing, and I think that's the worst sin a film can commit. I would have even welcomed some embarrassingly awful moments to make me cringe or groan if only to shake me from my stupor, but save for one bit of the ending we'll discuss in a minute this safe, sterile cartoon can't even offer that. It's cinematic rice cake. The plot is a bland festival of clich├ęs, the obligatory love story dead on arrival, and the action scenes consist of guys pointing at each other and weightless CGI filling the screen. I hated this movie.

The film opens in an absurdly cheap facsimile of medieval times (especially considering their budget) where Merlin and the dark sorcereress Morgana do battle. Morgana is sealed away in a magical doll alongside her henchman Alfred Molina, but not before mortally wounding the good wizard. With his last breath Merlin gives his apprentice Nicolas Cage the dragon ring that will identify "the Prime Merlinian" (I shit you not) who inherits his power, and Cage spends centuries roaming the earth to find the child who will make the ring come alive.

In classic "we wish we had the licence to Spider-Man" tradition, this child turns out to be a physics nerd in modern-day New York City who we meet as a little kid and who grows up to be Jay Baruchel. Baruchel does a brief "magic isn't real, I must be going crazy!" routine, followed by a brief "I just want to live an ordinary life!" routine, then agrees to become Nicolas Cage's apprentice. The movie then turns into an extended magical training montage which doesn't work at all. Watching Jay Baruchel hold out his hands and make increasingly large balls of light just isn't engaging. It's not tangible, you can't relate, you can't feel it. Even if you've never thrown a punch in your life, the physical weight of martial arts makes the extended training montage of The Karate Kid work in a way The Sorcerer's Apprentice can only dream of.

Which isn't to say that watching people undergo magical training has never worked onscreen, but there needs to be a certain entry point for the viewer. For example, in the Harry Potter films we see the training filtered through academic classrooms, something everyone can relate with. In the Star Wars films, Luke's training in the Force was anchored by fascinating settings and great characters and a certain pop-philosophical edge ("A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack!"), all things entirely absent here. You can only watch a dude try to form a plasma bolt so many times before you don't really care if they just skip to him already being a wizard.

Of course there's a couple other things going on. Jay Baruchel has an incredibly generic and instantly forgettable romantic subplot with a pretty college girl which adds nothing to the movie except twenty minutes to the runtime (spoiler alert, they kiss in the end). And for convoluted reasons I don't care about, Alfred Molina is released from imprisonment and begins plotting Morgana's return to the mortal realm just as Baruchel begins his training, and Molina and the good guys have a number of CGI-spewing encounters which never convince you for a split second that Baruchel or Nicolas Cage are in danger. And it's a shame, because I really enjoyed watching Alfred Molina do battle with a superpowered New York City physics nerd in Spider-Man 2.

Through all of this I was bored and wildly unimpressed, but then the movie's ending had to go and take the next step and actively offend me. (Nonspecific spoilers incoming, for any who must experience this fine tale unsullied.) My most hated trope in all of fiction, one sadly omnipresent in fantasy and sci-fi, is a dead character being revived with magic. Whatever problems I may have with the aforementioned Star Wars and Harry Potter, let the record state that every character we saw die in those stories stayed dead. Lucas and Rowling stuck to their guns there. Well, not this fucking movie! A good guy who has been killed in the final battle is brought back with a spell (not even a difficult-looking one) just to make sure that the ending is super duper unambiguously happy. And that, my friends, is awful storytelling.

Ultimately, despite its running length, this film has just about the same level of depth as your average Saturday morning cartoon episode; a haphazardly colorful battle between the blandest heroes and the most cackling ciphers of evil. I dread a future where computers will be programmed to churn out lifeless, insulting dreck and the multiplexes will be flooded with pictures just like The Sorcerer's Apprentice, only to be enjoyed by small children and morons.


1 Star out of 5

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Tim's Trailer Talk, Vol. 4


Auschwitz



Chances of me seeing it: 0%. Unlike most people who expound at length on their hatred of German director Uwe Boll, I actually have seen one of his movies, 2003's House of the Dead, and I can say with absolute sincerity that it was one of the single worst movies I have ever seen in my entire life. The hype surrounding his awfulness is no lie, or even exaggerated. Even if I were to watch another Uwe Boll film, it would probably be In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale or BloodRayne, not creepy Holocaust porn demanding that I "never forget."

Chances of me liking it: 0%. Looks even worse than The Reader!

Beyond the jump: a festival of mediocrity!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Piranha 3D



About an hour into director Alexandre Aja's Piranha 3D comes one of the most insanely, unapologetically bloody ten minutes in the history of film. Until that point, the movie's kills are structured not unlike Spielberg's Jaws, violent and jarring but coming one at a time and spaced pretty far apart, but when the giant prehistoric piranhas descend upon the wet T-shirt contest being held on a float above the lake and the countless teenagers swimming nearby, the massacre begins. Dozens, maybe hundreds are devoured in minutes. What must have been tens of thousands of gallons of fake blood turn the sea red. It's a marvel of gore that achieves psuedo-B movie excess with aplomb unseen since Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror; a sequence destined to live on as a popular YouTube clip for all time.

This scene is more or less singlehandedly responsible for the film's enthusiastic reception among genre fans, but while I'd like to join them and I'd like to love Piranha 3D, I don't. It's not what's in the movie that bothers me so much as what's not in it. I'm not talking about stuff like rounded characters and human emotion that this sort of pulp doesn't demand, but more basic issues of pacing and structure and plain old satisfying horror. The wet T-shirt massacre is a grand set piece but there's still a fair bit of movie left afterwards, movie which does not live up to that scene's promise and actually ends up feeling dull, and the film's actual climax is so mild and understated in comparison that I had no idea I was even watching the climax until the credits suddenly started rolling, much left unresolved.

First off, there are characters who literally just disappear from the film. We don't see them die, we don't see them escape, they just mysteriously vanish. I've read that this is because they filmed death scenes and then didn't have the money to put in the CG to finish them, which I can sympathize with, but it doesn't change the fact that it plays ridiculously onscreen. More annoyingly, we briefly visit the piranhas' hive about halfway through the film, an eerie underground cavern deep beneath the water, and I assumed this location was being set up for a return trip during the climax, but no such luck. We never see it again. Made the trip to it feel kind of like a waste of time.

I also read a huge number of reviews suggesting that Piranha 3D is worthwhile because of all the nudity, but please. If a half dozen porn stars flashing their basketball-esque fake tits at the camera makes for great film, I could point you to hundreds of websites that create fine cinema each and every day. You'll never need to go to the multiplex again!

But I should say that, generic-looking porn stars aside, the cast of this film is in no way responsible for its shortcomings. Elisabeth Shue combines the roles of Roy Schneider in Jaws and Sigourney Weaver in Aliens as the town sheriff who battles the marine menace to save her children, and the role is noteworthy for being the most desexualized female action lead I've seen on film in a decade. I say this as a compliment. I mean, don't misunderstand, hot chick are awesome, but it was nice to see that in this day and age a woman can still kick ass on film while covered head to toe in a sheriff's outfit and without needing to fall in love or count on a man to save her. Piranha 3D improbably emerges, nudity, wet T-shirts and all, as one of the most feminist action films of 2010.

In addition to Shue, Adam Scott of the late, great sitcom Party Down is awesome as a badass seismologist, while Richard Dreyfuss puts in a cameo more or less reprising his lead role from Jaws and Christopher Lloyd channels Doc Brown with thrilling precision as a marine biologist. Elisabeth Shue of course played Jennifer Parker in Back to the Future Part II and Back to the Future Part III, so her scene across from Lloyd here functions as a little BttF reunion, particularly with Lloyd using Doc's exact inflections.

But in this case the whole is actually less than the sum of its parts. Lots of gore and entertaining performances give it some pulpy pleasure but I just didn't like the story and I didn't like the ending and I don't see myself ever watching it again. Nevertheless, the extremely low standards of the subgenre may still make it one of the top five "animals attack!" movies ever made. Jaws is clearly the best by a thousand miles, with Hitchcock's The Birds (not a great film as many claim, but still a very good one) being second. Piranha 3D's only real competitors for the remaining slots are Anaconda, Snakes on a Plane, and Jaws 2, so if you think those movies are awesome then maybe Piranha 3D is right up your alley, but if not there's better flicks to drop your cash on.


2 Stars out of 5

Monday, September 6, 2010

Tim's Trailer Talk, Vol. 3


22 Mei



Chances of me seeing it: 15%. It doesn't look boring, I'll grant that much, but it's never really a good thing if I can sit through an entire trailer and my reaction afterward can only be described as "...what?"

Chances of me liking it: 10%. I don't want to make any strong judgment calls here, because as I just admitted I have no idea what this film is about from its batshit trailer and movies have come out of nowhere to surprise me before and will again, but 22 Mei is not one I'm going to be counting down the days till.

Click bravely ahead for pulp, violence, arty foreign flicks, and at least one pulpy violent arty foreign flick...

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Cop Out



Upon the lukewarm-to-awful critical response to his latest film Cop Out (19% on Rotten Tomatoes), Kevin Smith lost his goddamn mind. I won't copy and paste his entire rant because it's one of the most excruciating and embarrassing things ever, but I do want to highlight one particularly relevant portion. Smith says:

"You wanna enjoy movies again? Stop reading about them & just go to the movies. It’s improved film/movie appreciation immensely for me. Seriously: so many critics lined-up to pull a sad & embarrassing train on Cop Out like it was Jennifer Jason Leigh in Last Exit to Brooklyn. Watching them beat the shit out of it was sad. Like, it’s called Cop Out; that sound like a very ambitious title to you? You REALLY wanna shit in the mouth of a flick that so OBVIOUSLY strived for nothing more than laughs. Was it called Schindler’s Cop Out?"

Oh dear. I hardly even know where to begin. Frankly, this shit is far more interesting and worthy of criticism than the film itself. You could point out Kevin Smith's stunning short-term memory, lambasting film criticism when critical acclaim is why Clerks developed a following and ignited his career back in 1994. You could point out the hypocrisy of Kevin Smith guesting on Ebert & Roeper multiple times during Ebert's illness back in 2006, notably giving a thumbs down to Woody Allen's Scoop while proclaiming it "just not funny." He was right, of course, but, like, it's called Scoop; that sound like a very ambitious title to you? Was it called Schindler's Scoop?

Or you could simply point out that if Smith wants to alleviate criticism of his work then throwing a hissy fit is probably, short of making indisputably good films, the worst possible way to do it. Think back on your own life experiences: has a hissy fit ever once improved anyone's standing in your eyes? The answer is no. Critics love shitting on Aaron Selzter and Jason Friedberg (Date Movie, Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, Disaster Movie, and Vampires Suck come out to an average Tomatometer of 3.6%), but can you imagine how much more they would love it if Seltzer and Friedberg didn't maintain their trademark silence and instead decided to piss and moan and cry about it?

Above all else though I find the general spirit of his words kind of loathsome. Not the part where he goes after critics, because lord knows I sometimes find film critics to be boring and predictable, with certain buttons to push (the Holocaust indeed being one of them) that will make acclaim spill out as surely as if you put a quarter in a gumball machine. But the idea that it's okay to make mediocre movies as long as they're intended to be mediocre is inexcusable, already sadly widespread, and needs to be extinguished, not have its flames fanned.

If you have the courage (and, let's be honest, stupidity) to trudge into message boards for soulless studio dreck like Clash of the Titans or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen you'll find plenty of idiots who passionately feel that these films deserve acclaim and should be immune from criticism by the mere fact that they exist; that demanding more from your entertainment is inherently wrong. This view is a cancer to the very concept of worthwhile film that excuses, no, encourages studios to churn out unimaginative crap for a quick buck, and it's a shame to see a filmmaker that commanded as much indie cred as Kevin Smith circa the late 90s to throw his lot in with their ilk.

Perhaps the greatest irony of it all is that Cop Out actually isn't that bad. By no means great or even good, but I do think the parade of one-star reviews I read were excessive and almost certainly more hyperbolic than they would have been had the film come from some anonymous no-name. We'll put it this way: it's definitely better than Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.

The story is about a cop played by Bruce Willis who has his rare baseball card he was going to sell to finance his daughter's wedding stolen, with the pursuit of it bringing him and his partner played by Tracy Morgan into conflict with a drug lord. But the story is irrelevant. This is a movie about a premise, not a story, and that premise is to watch John McClane from Die Hard and Tracy Jordan from 30 Rock bullshitting around and being cops together. Those aren't what the characters are named but they might as well be because that's clearly who Kevin Smith wanted them to play and the actors make absolutely no attempt to distance themselves from those roles. As an action-comedy the movie fails because Smith's action scenes have no energy or creativity, but viewed as a strict comedy I laughed a handful of times simply because it can be funny to watch John McClane and Tracy Jordan rub up against one another... if it doesn't just remind you that you'd rather be watching Die Hard or 30 Rock.

The film's pacing is somewhat slack. Tracy Morgan's character brings the momentum crashing to a halt every ten minutes or so with a terrible subplot about how he suspects his wife (played by Rashida Jones of The Office and Parks and Recreation fame, likable but bland here) is cheating on him. This subplot is never funny and makes the mistake of thinking we have any interest whatsoever in exploring the psyche of such a cartoonish, absurd character. Bruce Willis also has some personal angst about his strained relationship with his daughter, which isn't great, but at least it ties into the main storyline so it's not as tedious as Tracy Morgan's marital issues.

So there's a few shootouts, a few chases, clues are followed, Tracy Morgan acts wacky, Bruce Willis swears a lot, and yes, the captain asks for their guns and badges at one point. This film is not here to innovate and save for a couple of Star Wars references it contains none of Smith's personality, just pure, bland, made-by-committee buddy cop formula. While I was by no means offended (or at least I wouldn't have been if Smith had kept his mouth shut) it's certainly one of the least essential works of the year; even substantially worse films offer more to talk about. The fact that holding this opinion still probably makes me one of the film's biggest defenders probably says all that needs to be said about whether or not you should watch it.


2 Stars out of 5

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Top-Grossing Movie I Have Not Seen From Each of the Last Ten Years



Watching, discussing, pondering on, and writing about film is collectively by far my favorite hobby, and while I'm fine being out of the loop with other forms of pop culture it bothers me when there's a prominent dialogue going on about any film that I can't join in on. Maybe it's passionate fandom, maybe it's obsession, maybe it's a form of OCD, but every movie I haven't seen feels to me like an itch I need to scratch, even the ones I don't think I'll like.

But I can't see every movie, of course. That'd be an unrealistic waste of money and time. But I do see pretty much each and every "event" movie, the ones no one will shut up about, even if it's a Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen situation where most everything I'm hearing is about how much it sucks. I just gotta know what the deal is. Ergo, I was surprised while perusing Box Office Mojo's yearly gross charts to find that I actually failed to see the single highest-grossing movie of 2000, one of the only films along with 1987's Three Men and a Baby on that page I'm yet to get around to.

This got me curious what the highest grossing movie of each of the last ten years I haven't seen is, so I decided to do some (very quick and easy) research and post the results here.

2000: #1, How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Why didn't I watch it? The movie that inspired this post. I decided not to see it because it looked like embarrassing kiddy crap. It's not that I'm opposed to seeing family films — I love Pixar same as anyone else and I've also seen a fair number of DreamWorks flicks — but there's a big difference between a family film and kids film. This seems very much the latter.

Do I ever plan on watching it? Not particularly, although I have seen most of director Ron Howard's work and I suppose that if I wanted to complete his filmography I'd have to. I'd probably still save it for last though.

2001: #16, Dr. Doolittle 2

Why didn't I watch it? I don't think I really need to explain this one. It's embarrassing enough that I actually have seen the first Eddie Murphy Dr. Doolittle from 1998. The interesting part of 2001 is less the highest-grossing movie I haven't seen than the fact that I saw all of the top fifteen grossers in theaters, a record unmatched by any other year. Shame that about ten of them are horrible movies.

Do I ever plan on watching it? I emphatically do not.

2002: #5, My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Why didn't I watch it? I knew this movie was a hit, but I'm honestly a little surprised that it was this much of a hit. I don't really remember anyone I know talking about it, but then I was sixteen when it came out and heterosexual sixteen-year-old males rarely if ever gab about wedding movies. I suppose the subject matter just didn't interest me.

Do I ever plan on watching it? But I don't want to blame it all on age because I'm a lot older than sixteen now and the subject matter still doesn't interest me. I suppose I might watch it if they put it on Netflix View Instantly just to see what the big deal was. It would pretty goddamn low on my to-do list, though.

2003: #10, Cheaper by the Dozen

Why didn't I watch it? Kiddy crap.

Do I ever plan on watching it? No.

2004: #9, National Treasure

Why didn't I watch it? Honestly? I have no idea. I know the reviews weren't great but it's still pretty weird and unlike me to miss out on an Indiana Jones-inspired action-adventure flick with Sean Bean playing the villain, especially since I was living in a dorm directly across the street from a multiplex at the time it was released. Compounding the mystery, I actually did see 2007's Sean Beanless sequel, National Treasure: Book of Secrets. It was retarded.

Do I ever plan on watching it? Yeah, it's on my Netflix queue, hovering somewhere in the 20s or 30s.

2005: #9, Madagascar

Why didn't I watch it? Talking animal sitcom for babies.

Do I ever plan on watching it? Can't say that I do!

2006: #2, Night at the Museum

Why didn't I watch it? The trailers weren't offensively awful, but it definitely looked like one for the kids and only the kids. Funnily enough, it's directed by Shawn Levy, the same man who directed 2003's top-grossing unseen film, Cheaper by the Dozen. Shawn Levy is the grand maestro of movies I have no desire to watch.

Do I ever plan on watching it? If I had to I think I'd honestly rather watch the 2009 sequel Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. That one at least has Amy Adams in 1930s aviatrix pants as Amelia Earhart.

2007: #2, Shrek the Third

Why didn't I watch it? Shrek 2 left me cold and I assume this one was just more tired and redundant still.

Do I ever plan on watching it? Not really, but I suppose I'd rather watch it than Madagascar. Speaking of which...

2008: #8, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

Why didn't I watch it? NOOOO

Do I ever plan on watching it? NOOOOOOOO

2009: #9, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel

Why didn't I watch it? NOOOOOOOOOOOO

Do I ever plan on watching it? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Expendables



The irony of the stupid and juvenile internet cult surrounding the thoroughly mediocre The Expendables is that the last movie Sylvester Stallone wrote, directed, and starred in, 2008's Rambo, actually did do all of the things that fanboys in denial are pretending The Expendables does. Rambo expertly mined 80s action nostalgia while amping the tropes of the genre into absurd overdrive, it had satanic genocidal villains very satisfying to see taken down, it was a festival of viscera and gore and geysers of blood and it was just a lot of sweaty, pulpy, supremely masculine fun. The Expendables may deliver a parade of celebrity cameos but as an action movie it's a turgid and forgettable affair, yet it's the one being lavished with all the hype that Rambo deserved and never got. Go figure.

Granting that neither elaborate storytelling nor rich characterization are key to a film like this, the plot involves a crew of mercenaries, the titular Expendables, being hired to fly to an island in the Gulf of Mexico and overthrow its dictator and the evil Americans he's helping make drug money. And yep, that's about it. The movie's focus is much less on the sparse story than on the many personalities populating it: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, and Dolph Lundgren as the Expendables, with Eric Roberts, Stone Cold Steven Austin, and miscellaneous brown guys as the villains, plus Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Mickey Rourke in cameos. "Holy shit!" you say, "That's a lot of manliness! Plus Eric Roberts for some reason!" And you're right! Too much manliness, as a matter of fact.

Because there's so many characters, screentime is spread thin, and every member of the Expendables except Stallone and Statham gets the short end of the stick, including Jet Li, who despite being billed above the title is absent for huge swaths of the movie and spends no more than a couple of minutes total fighting (in shaky closeup). I say again, master martial artist and horrible English speaker Jet Li quite possibly delivers more lines of dialogue than punches and kicks in this film. What's wrong with that picture? Everything. The others get less screentime still, and outside of Stallone and Statham and Rourke in his brief, non-action appearances the sense of camaraderie in this group is nonexistent.

Also, Randy Couture straight-up should not be in movies. He may be one of the best mixed martial artists on earth and I heartily encourage him to continue entertaining his fans in the arena, but he has all the onscreen charisma of a dead fish, made worse by the fact that Stallone saddles him with an agonizing twenty-minute monologue (okay, probably closer to two minutes, but it felt like twenty minutes) about his cauliflower ears that I probably wouldn't even have noticed if the movie hadn't explicitly pointed them out. He then disappears for like an hour to emerge for the final showdown and you're left wondering why this "actor" is in the movie. He makes Stone Cold Steven Austin look like Laurence freakin' Olivier.

Since the much-ballyhooed action dream team cast turned out to be shockingly anticlimactic and the movie obviously doesn't have any story of note, one is forced to turn to the action in desperate pursuit of thrills and will find the movie wanting in that department too. For starters, the action is poorly motivated. The Expendables fails the "show, don't tell" test of fiction when it comes to its villains and fails it badly, which is really surprising coming from the writer and director of Rambo.

In Rambo, we first meet our villain Major Tint forcing Burmese civilians to race across active mine fields for his pleasure, most of them exploding in red bursts after which the rest are shot. We then see Tint and his men slaughter an entire innocent village, having nearly every man, woman, and child burned or bayonetted and the survivors of the initial attack either crucified, sliced up and fed to his pigs, or made into sex slaves. What an asshole, right? He's a a nasty piece of work and so when John Rambo starts fucking up his operation and butchering his men it's all you can do not to shoot to your feet and start chanting "USA! USA!"

In The Expendables, we're told a few times that General Garza is a brutal dictator who has his fictitious country of Vilena oppressed by fear and violence, but when Stallone and Statham fly in for a visit we see jack shit. We see people getting disappeared into the back of vans by Stone Cold Steve Austin and Garza's men try to kill Stallone when he pokes his nose where he shouldn't, but compared to the way Rambo established its antagonists we might as well be watching Teletubbies, ergo you neither hate nor love to hate the bad guys. You don't give a shit whether General Garza and Eric Roberts and Stone Cold get overthrown or not, it doesn't matter, and that makes the action meaningless and impossible to invest in.

So let's break this down to the most animal level, ignore the plot, ignore the characters, ignore the conflict, and focus on nothing but the action; the shooting and the fighting and the killing. It's passable. Unimaginative and unremarkable, with the highlight probably being a scene where Jason Statham beats up a bunch of dudes on a basketball court that might give you a brief, pleasant flashback to Transporter 2, but it passes the time. Stallone knows how to put lots of explosions and loud gunfire and dead henchmen on a movie screen, and the lengthy climactic sequence where all the Expendables roll up to Garza's mansion for the showdown, while unfolding with rigid predictability, will numb your brain into a marginally enjoyable stupor.

For some reason though, perhaps because Stallone was at one point toying with idea of making the film PG-13, The Expendables has like 5% as much blood and gore as Rambo did. The movie lulls you into a false sense of security by having Dolph Lundgren rip a man in half at the torso with a burst of minigun fire within the first few minutes, but sadly that is the absolute peak of gore for the entire duration of the film. I mean, what's the deal? The violence in Rambo was beyond the pale. Throats were ripped, guts were spilled, bones were shattered, and the rivers of Burma ran red with enough blood to form a new ocean. The action in the The Expendables is loud and explodey but so very sanitized in comparison. Your grandma could probably sit through it.

Perhaps the only thing that saves the film from a one-star rating is the already legendary scene featuring Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger meeting in a church. That Sly and Arnold never teamed up to make an 80s action buddy flick together remains a wound that will never heal, but this scene, while a bit forced and very brief (I doubt Arnold has more than two minutes of screentime), serves as a small band-aid. If you're a fan of the 80s it's hard not to grin, and it's among the few moments where the film achieves the the level of testosterone saturation that the ad campaign promised. It's destined to be viewed by millions as a YouTube clip for years to come.

Ultimately though, The Expendables brings absolutely nothing new to the table beyond a big collection of action stars, but when most of them are relegated to cameos I'm not sure that's particularly worthy of lauding anyway. For a film featuring so many personalities it has a strange, persistent lack of personality itself, with precious little wit and not a single moment that attempts to genuinely surprise or invest you. It's virtually bloodless in every sense of the word. If the fact that it's peppered with big guns and big explosions is enough for you to join in the film's bafflingly large fanbase, then, well, I'm frankly a little shocked you're capable of reading these words.


2 Stars out of 5