Friday, April 21, 2017

Looking at guest list rosters: The Crazy Ones, Masters of Sex, Arrested Development, Mom

The Crazy Ones: Ashley Tisdale, Brad Garrett*, Brad Paisley+, Cheryl Hines, Ed Asner, Fred Meladed, Josh Groban, Kelly Clarkson+, Marilu Henner, Pam Dawber, Saffron Burrows, Sandeep Prakh

Notes: The opportunity for the cast to interact with a wide array of famous names outside the world of sitcomdom playing themselves was one of the selling points of the show. The pilot (as well as a clip of that pilot presented at the upfronts) featured Robin Williams dueting with Kelly Clarkson as herself. Despite the early promise, the show remained relatively tame in comparison to a show like Extras (whose entire gimmick rested on a guest star of the week making a fool of themselves) or Party Down (where not all but part of the allure was tuning in for a guest star of the week). The most meaningful guest stars the show boasted were the ones of star Robin Williams’ generation such as Ed Asner, Marilu Henner or Pam Dawber. The latter allowed the show to promote the episode as a Mork and Mindy Reunion.

Highlights: Josh Groban’s strange trajectory to TV acting has evolved from cornering the niche market of opera singers teeny-boppers will save a spot for on their playlists to using those singing talents for a standout guest spot on Ally McBeal to roles as aloof characters  on The Office and  Coffee Town. Groban channels his voice and doofus charm as an old coworker of  Sidney’s who carries a torch for her. Addiionally, Ashley Tisdale displays the kind of meta-awareness that is needed for ex Disney-stars trying to outgrow their squeaky clean image as a bratty intern. 

Arrested Development (Season 4 Only): Adam Devine, Alan Tyduk, Anders Holm, Andy Buckley, Andy Richter, Ben Stiller, Ben Schwartz, Blake Anderson, Bobby Lee, Bruce McCulloch, Carl Weathers+,  Chris Dianotopolous, Christine Taylor, Diedrich Baker, Ed Begley Jr, Ed Helms, Garcelle Beauvais, Henry Winkler, Ian Roberts, Ione Skye, Isla Fisher, James Lipton, Jeff Garlin, Jerry Minor, John Michael Higgins, John Beard+, Judy Greer, Kristen Wiig, Lennon Parham, Lonny Ross, Liza Minnelli, Mae Wittman, Margaret Cho, Maria Bamford, Maria Thayer, Martin Mull, Mary Lynn Ruskjab, Natasha Legerro, Nadine Velazquez,  Parveesh Cheena, Rizwan Manji, Ron Howard+, Seth Rogen, Terry Crews, Tommy Tone, Zach Woods

Notes: The fourth season is a testament to just how much talent a casting director can accumulate if they have seven years of anticipation and a decade of good will to work with.

In addition to the superbly talented ensemble of the Bluths, fans of the show are equally as likely to cite the brilliant creations of Lucille Austero (Liza Minnelli), Bob Lablaw (Scott Baio), Anne “Her” Veal (Mae Wittman), and others when discussing what made the show so memorable. For actors like Liza Minnelli, Carl Weathers and Henry Winkler the show gave the chance to redefine themselves for a new generation.

In order to give the 4th season an added flavor, AD weaved a handful of new characters as central parts of the story: Maria Bamford as a looney drug-addled soulmate to Tobias, Chris Dianotopolous as an activist to give Lindsey new purpose and love, Terry Crews as a soulless politician loosely modeled on 2012 also-ran Herman Cain and Isla Fisher as an intriguing actress who gets entangled with both Michael and his son. 

Mom: Ed Asner, French Stewart, Jamie Pressley*, Jim Piddock, Kevin Pollock*, Mimi Kennedy*, Nate Curddroy, Richard Schiff, Rick Fox, Sarah Rue

Notes: For all the talk of Kevin Pollock as a character actor, this is the only time I’ve eve seen him acting. Every other time, I scratch my head and realize “Oh, that’s just Saul Rubineck.” One of the most critically respected multi-cam sitcoms out there, “Mom”  is a great venue for veterans like French Stewart, Ed Asner, and Sarah Rue to dip their toe in a more sophisticated comedy while staying in their comfort zone. The blue collar nature of the show has proven to be a great fit for Jamie Pressley whose most famous role was a similar financially down-and-out character in My Name is Earl’s Joe

Masters of Sex: Alex Borstein, Allison Janney, Beau Bridges*, Betsy Brandt, Frances Fisher, Greg, Grunberg, Josh Charles, Julianne Nicholson*, Judy Greer, Laura Silverman, Keir O’Donnell, Mae Whitman, Nicholas D’Agosto*, Rene Auberjonois, Sara Silverman*, Tate Donovan

Notes: A prestige period drama like this will inevitably attract the usual candidiates: The versatile Betsy Brandt, fast-rising Julianne Nicholson, the droll Rene Auberjonois and Josh Charles who’s been immersed in high-level drama since he broke out some 25 years ago in a period piece (“Dead Poets Society”). At the same time, the show is trying to bring a bit of edge which is why they’ve also reached from the comedic pool of actors including Mad TV’s Alex Borstein as a crazy zoo lady and the counterintuitive yet brilliant choice of Sara Silverman. While Silverman is too idiosyncratic in her comedic style to convince someone that she’s from the 1950’s, the exuberance and sassiness in her comedic persona make her an ideal source of attraction to the high-spirited character of Betty DeMilo. 

Monday, April 03, 2017

Cracked photoshop enties

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Gold (2016) Review

The problem with "Gold" is that it takes you into an esoteric world (in this case, let's call it "large-scale multi-national gold mining?") without making us care about the intricacies of the topic. Instead, it follows the template laid out in Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" (and that Martin Scorsese bludgeoned to death in "Wolf of Wall Street") of showering the viewer in capitalism porn: Shots of people getting rowdier as visual cues (i.e. graphs going upwards, the stock exchange ringing) show them getting richer and richer. This is a shame because Stephen Gaghan masterfully wove story threads in an Altmanesque manner to tell the story of the global oil crisis.

Without that effort to make the economics of an economics film engaging ("Big Short" is a better example of this), there's little reason to care about this story. It's just some schlub who looks an awful lot like Christian Bale's character in "American Hustle" (another better film with which this one shares suspicious stylistic similarities) on a lucky streak.

In the second half, some twists emerge, including one big blind-siding whopper that is very likely what catapulted the real life story out of obscurity and led to the existence of this film, but by then it's too little too late and there's not really any foreshadowing that makes the big reveal interesting.

What's even more frustrating is that what could have made the film palatable was right there in the script. The story is framed around a mysterious interview that McConaughey's character has with either his lawyer or the FBI but this narrative device is employed extremely half-heartedly.

Despite the film's grandiose ambitions, the film is only memorable in the end for a smattering of striking images that don't lead up to more than the sum of their parts: The "Apocalypse Now" allusion of a man coming to terms with his demons in the Southeast Asian jungle, the contrast between the sweetness of Bryce Dallas Howard and the raw ugliness of McConaughey (I'm presuming he gained weight for this part), and the odd homoerotic gaze from McConaughey shows to Edgar Ramirez's character.

If there's a film to be told about David Walsh, Stephen Gaghan's approach isn't the way to best do it justice.

Finding Dory (2016) Review

For its grandiose reputation as a creative mecca, even Pixar has been unable to resist the Faustian bargain of a sequel every now and then. While Ellen DeGeneres' popularity and the Best Picture Oscar nomination for "Toy Story 3" made a sequel inevitable, it shouldn't be discounted that Dory (DeGeneres) was deservedly a breakout character in her own right when she debuted thirteen years ago as Marlon's (Albert Brooks) memory-addled sidekick. The circuitous dialogue resulting from Dory's short-term memory loss makes for the kind of back-and- forth of an updated Abbott and Costello routine. Similarly, Dory's chipper attitude in the face of her (presupposed) inability to accomplish anything outside a 30-second window makes her a spunky can-do everyman.

The challenge coming for "Finding Dory" is similar to nearly every TV spin-off from Gomer Pyle to Joey: Can a comic relief character carry his or her own storyline? In this case, yes: It turns out there's a lot of depth to Dory when you factor in the potential that her memory could resurface and, indeed, that's the route we go down.

Dory begins to experience flashbacks that take her, Nemo, and a reluctant Marlon (taking each other for granted is a theme here) all the way to a Seaworld-like aquarium in California where Dory, Nemo, and Marlin find themselves in and out of various rooms and fish tanks. Lack of opposable limbs or bodies larger than three inches be damned, this is the Pixar universe and pesky human contraptions like doors are no match for you if you have determination and some crafty friends to help. These include a beluga whale (Ty Burrell) with echolocation, a near-sighted whale shark (Kaitlin Olson), and a curmudgeon of an octopus whose congruence with voice actor Ed O'Neill's screen persona makes him the film's breakout character.

If you're someone with a deep-seated love for aquariums and Jacques Cousteau like me, there's an enchantment in the animation that you would never get from the renderings of toys, ants, superheroes, or dystopian garbage piles that Pixar has previously done. There's also the added bonus of the biological accuracy and the clever ways in which these traits are ingrained in their characters. Yes, octopi could can change color and have dangerous levels of dexterity. Do not let them near your steering wheel.

High-quality animated flicks typically come with moral parables and the original one here is the way that people with disabilities can contribute to society and are capable of surprise. Although Dory couldn't really navigate the freeways of California, it all feels surprisingly organic here.

As far as sequels go, "Finding Dory" makes its case well as unique and fresh enough to justify its existence.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

"Special Correspondents" (2016) and Ricky Gervais's curious lowered bar in the filmic world

If there's one thing most people can agree on, it's that Ricky Gervais is a comic genius when it comes to making TV. The breadth of influence from his melancholy character creations on "The Office" and "Extras" has been seen all over the TV landscape.
What's curious is that a lot of this innovation is absent in Ricky Gervais's films. "Ghost Town", "Invention of Lying" and this film basically work through the age-old comic method of character and opposing concept like (off the top of my head) guy who wishes to grow up meets adulthood ("Big" or "13 on 30" in reverse), president wielding extraordinary power meets small-town politics ("Welcome to Mooseport"), thoughtless man with no appreciation for present meets eternal present ("Groundhog Day"), or powerless man meets eternal power ("Bruce Almighty") "Ghost Town" is a case of a guy who wishes to be left alone being forced to deal with the dead on top of the living people he wishes to avoid. "Invention of Lying" is a case of man without influence gets power over gullible society. "Special Correspondents" is a case of lazy news reporters meeting real news.
With the exception of "Invention of Lying" (which lends itself to home-run-hitting dialogue), none of these have the depth in their premise that could reach the same comic heights. As is, it's a decent film that works at the lower degree of difficulty set in by its script. The quieter moments of character development, though somewhat sitcom-llke, tend to work and the characters hit their notes.
Ricky Gervais is a news reporter who has accepted he's a schlub in life (much like his "Invention of Lying" character at the start) despite somehow managing to snag Vera Farminga as a wife. Gervais digs relatively deep although the tone of the supporting cast (Vera Farmiga is pretty arch, America Ferrera is "Latino comical" in a way that mirrors Sofia Vergara's "Modern Family" role) and the film's plot would pick a fight with any sense of pathos. Still, Gervais is likable and kind of sweet and his chemistry with love interest (though the two have an admirably platonic vibe).
Why Gervais is so stifled when he apparently has directorial control and is credited as a writer on these films is hard to figure out, but the film is what it is.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Big Eyes (2014) Review

"Big Eyes" tells the real-life story of painter Margaret Keane and how she was trapped by a marriage in the worst way: Stripped of her name and artistic identity through her husband's lies. Tim Burton previously made one of the best films about the artistic struggle with "Ed Wood" and he touches upon similar themes here. Like how "Ed Wood" flips the traditional artistic biopic formula on its head, "Big Eyes" is cleverly inverted here. Instead of portraying the joy of art, the film takes on the trappings of being a great artist: That if art is intertwined with the aspects of your identity, you can lose it at any moment.

The film is a departure from Tim Burton's usual Gothic style but it has shadings of the characters he's drawn to in both Walter and Amy. What originally unites them together is perhaps where many Tim Burton characters might finish their filmic journey: Outsiders to the mainstream who have found a partner-in-crime that could move them closer to the center of societal acceptance and, ultimately, societal success.

But as they say, "Happily ever after fails" (In this case, I'm specifically thinking of  Don Henley
who followed  that line with "We've been poisoned by these fairy tales") and what's left is the trappings of a psychological thriller. This ends up being a more adult conflict than  his way, this is a much more adult work than say "Corpse Bride" or "Alice in Wonderland."

The film is egregiously mislabelled as a comedy by organizations such as the Golden Globes (and Netflix). The closest it comes to comedic is Walter Keane's sense of self-delusion. That characterization, however, is an important plot point, and ignoring that is a sign that perhaps Burton's reputation prevents the film from being taken as seriously as it should.

The film is also further evidence that Christophe Waltz is one of the most fascinating actors of today. He is mostly consigned to villains but can make something out of practically everything he's handed.  It's hard to fathom that this remarkable actor was toiling in the German film industry for years before being discovered. He's well-known for his roles in Quentin Tarantino films but I can't emphasize how much fans of this actor should check this film out: By requiring him to turn from a sympathetic artist in the first act to a devious villain, few films have tested his range as such.

Additionally, check out the real life story.

Our Brand is Crisis (2015) Review

"Our Brand is Crisis" was supposed to be a realization of director David Gordon Green's potential with big-budget projects (his film "George Washington" launched his career as an indie darling that culminated only in "Pineapple Express" and not too much since then). Unfortunately, this film saw its pre-release hype dissipate by the time it hit theaters for reasons I can't easily pin down with a few minutes of googling.

What I can say is that it's a definite shame this film didn't make it into the conversation for Oscar or gross more than $7 million domestically, because it's a richly textured film with a well-paced sense of adventure and exoticism.

The film revolves around the rivalry between two ace political strategists (Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton) working different sides of a Bolivian election with the cultural sensitivity of two seasoned board game players competing in a heated contest of Risk.

Bob Thornton's character is based on James Carville (between this, Saturday Night Live, and Documentary Now, he seems to be a standard part of any impressionist's repertoire). Bullock channels a slightly darker version of her frazzled but endearing rom-com persona in a part that was originally scripted for a male character and she steals the show.

A supporting cast of Scoot McNairy, Anthony Mackie, Zoe Kazan and Ann Dowd adds a cadre of characters with varying degrees of seriousness that makes for some memorable bantered dialogue. It's perhaps in keeping with the film's commentary on geopolitical ethno- centrism that the presidential candidatate (Joaquim de Almeida) is the least interesting character in the entourage. There is, however, a relationship that Sandra Bullock's character develops with a local teenager that comes closest to providing the film's protagonist with a moral awakening.

The film successfully threads the needle of thought-provoking without being overly preachy, even if
the resolution is slightly less profound than it thinks it is.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

All 32 films I've seen in 2016 ranked from best to worst

1. Eye in the Sky, Gavin Hood-Extremely economic storytelling, and theatrical in its execution, provocative in its dedication to showing the nuance of a military strike. If it was released at a better time of year, it could have been remembered years from now as the definitive film of the military-via-drones era.

2. My Name is Doris, Michael Showalter-Sally Field's sweet spinster character is the perfect remedy to check our own ageist tendencies but this is also a bit of a psychological thriller wrapped in a misplaced comedy of errors. This lady is really on a collision course with an embarrassing truth bomb and you can't look away.

3. Don't Think Twice, Mike Biribiglia-The film has a great balance between its ensemble and really captures that world (although why they couldn't just say "SNL" is beyond me). A very loving film.

4. Hidden Figures-An uplifting film but one that’s generally earned despite a couple moments where the film erroneously steers towards schmaltz. It walks that fine line between historically faithfulness, go-for-broke sentimentally and grittily realism. Taraji P Henson deserves accolades here

5. Hell or High Water-A great exercise in genre experimentation: Tackling the housing crisis by moving the Western forward in time 120 years.

6. Mascots, Christopher Guest-The best thing about this film is that it exists at all if you read the news article a few years back that Guest didn't feel he had anything more to give to the genre he practically created. This isn't a game changer but it's a joy to see so many rich comic stories merge together like this for the first time in a decade.

7. Lion, Garth Davis-The first half had a really dark look at life in the streets of a third world country like 1990s Calcutta. The second half could have done a better job or picking and choosing which scenes were most relevant and God bless Dev Patel for finally getting an overdue Oscar nom from Slumdog, but this felt like a casting mistake: He just had too much swagger and self-confidence to fit the narrative. I would assume what motivated him to find his family was a feeling of being an outsider but he seems like the most popular kid in class and picks up Rooney Mara as a girlfriend within minutes of meeting her. Still, this is the most emotional film I’ve seen regardless so the sentimental effect overflowed past any sloppy positioning.

8. Fences, Denzel Washington- Does Troy represent the popular image of the African-American man? Is he to blame for his ill fortunes or is he a product of society? The fact that he and his situation are complex enough that you can argue so well either way makes this such a provocative work of art. The film embodies what’s best about theatrical adaptations from the poetry in the dialogue to the thoroughness with which the actors do their legwork. The film also boasts the year’s best ensemble.

9. Star Trek Beyond, Justin Lin- Very much enjoyed the smaller scale in story as it allowed the characters more quiet moments of character development and pairings that showed new angles. This was balanced by special effects that wowed me in an era where every blockbuster has a budget larger than many 3rd world countries

10. La La Land-The romantic plot between the numbers felt kind of empty, but damn, the musical numbers were amazing. I still support it for a best picture win. It was extremely innovative and extremely thematically coherent and smart. Nearly every second is visually thoughtful and its very clear that Damien Chazelle and his team used an encyclopedic knowledge of movie musicals to fashion its commentary.

11. Aquarius-It's a foreign film (I watch very few foreign films) about a woman in her 60's struggling in Brazil against a corporation who wants to tear her house down. A very solid character piece that like "Hello My Name is Doris" is a celebration of an elderly woman in defiance of the way society tries to (literally and figuratively) make her obsolete

12. Popstar: Never Stop Popping, The Lonely Island team- The film sails by more on cameos and side joke than the character-based humor of Connor 4 Real but laughter speaks: It was just plain hilarious. Lonely Island can get random and scattered in 3-minute clips, so it works to their advantage to be able to develop their riffs over a longer running time.

13. The Lobster: Satirizing both the problems with pressure to couple up and overly conservative societies, the film has thematic currents against both sexual obsession and sexual chastity which is really interesting. Colin Farrell is really interesting and the ensemble is filled with all kinds of interesting characters. Has some wierdly dark moments.

14. Alice Through the Looking Glass: It’s kid-oriented, but surprisingly coherent and complex storyline-wise and works on a kid’s level. Visually quite wonderous.

15. Deepwater Horizon: I have a soft-spot for a good disaster film and consider the genre a form of art with a slightly higher purpose than the typical "things go boom" fare. Like "Captian Phillips"the film gets full-on emotional in the last act as its hero, Mark Wahlberg, starts suffering PTSD. Both films redefine the image of the hero in a larger way then the traditional view thats restricted to members of the military, inspirational teachers and fireman/cops.

16. Arrival-Didn’t appeal that much to me beyond the deep sciencey premise. If you buy Amy Adams’ performance, then you’ll feel the film on an emotional level

17. Now You See Me 2-Sleight-of-hand magicing is a great way to reinvent the heist genre (like adding history professors as in National Treasure). The story twisted and turned too much for me to care and the sexual chemistry between Lizzy Caplain and Dave Franco was forced (I don't think either of the Franco brothers has an easy time with romance) but it was pretty fun along the way.

18. Ghostbusters, Paul Fieg-Serviceably funny. It might be a bold statement here but a side-by-side comparion of this quartet of characters to the original shows how the UCB generation of comedy really goes a step beyond in developing comic characters from the inside out.

19. Tallulah-A Netflix film with Ellen Page and Allison Janney. I thought it's most interesting element was that this despicable character played by Ellen Page is unapolagetically the protagonist. The movie is kind of a ticking time bomb. You have no idea how long she'll get away w/this ruse of stealing someone else's baby but you're bracing for the explosion.

20. The Bronze-As an Olympics enthusiast, I enjoyed the exploration of what happens to Olympics stars after their big movement. The love story was sweet and I liked that Melissa Raunch's character had to grow but she never really had to bend her own personality that much to get to a happy place w/her dad, her gymnastics and her boyfriend. Some of the humor's bread and it had the grossest sex scene I've seen in a while

21. Special Correspondents-Ricky Gervais is curiously nowhere near as bold in film (Ghost Town, Invention of Lying, this) as he is with his TV work. I would be interested in reading an essay as to why, but I can't say that these films aren't pleasant if you don't take away the high expectations. Besides Gervais'

22. Sing Steet, John Carney: Not as memorable as the last Carney film I saw ("Begin Again") but a pretty sweet film about a kid reinventing himself through creating an 80's band. It has a strong sense of place and a sweet love story. Reminder of how cruel certain schools can be.

23. Captain Fantastic, Matt Ross-Stretches reality a little bit in the form of this superdad who can keep his kids extremely isolated and turn them into extreme geniuses with abnormal levels of obedience (except one of the six kids) but an interesting film. Some might call it artsy, but I found the camera work obnoxious.

24. Race: A pretty generic sports film but with a lot of chemistry between the characters and interesting historic detail

25. Batman vs Superman, Zach Snyder-I'd classify this as not awful. Tonally it was pretty consistent. Batman's kind of dark and Superman kind of got there too and Jesse Eisenberg was nice and playful with his part. I don't know if the film had much to say though but I've seen worse...

26. Eddie the Eagle, Dexter Fletcher-Pretty generic with a few sweet moments. The film curiously cares very little about history which is odd because the actual historical facts of Eddie the Eagle would have made a better movie. Taran Eagleton plays a mostly asexual klutz well. Also, Lake Placid is all wrong.

27. X-Men Apocalypse, Brian Singer-Because it is the sole superhero series I’ve ever gotten into as a kid, I watch every X-Men film as a general rule. Still, my loyalty doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to rip on it. Still, they are going through the motions here. Some of the criticisms of X-Men 3 (needing to decrowd the landscape) would hae been wise here and Apocalypse lacked personality. Why waste Oscar Isaac’s valuable time (as well as that of the make-up department) for something so lifeless. hey needed to decrowd the landscape a bit and have given Acopalypse some personality. Special-effects wise, Psyloche was one of the highlights.

28. Gold-The film's big twist had no foreshadowing and came way too late in the movie for me to care. The first hour of the film had no real point to make? The film could have at least tried to make the gold trade interesting but instead, it is capitalism porn: the stuff found in Wolf of Wall Street, Boiler Room and American Hustle.

29. Zootopia-I heard it had an interesting message but I wasn't really interested in being preached to by a Pixar-like cartoon. Found it uneventful with a few spare jokes here and there

30. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot-Is anyone else getting tired of Tina Fey playing Tina Fey? 40ish woman feeling down on herself bc she's on the verge of no longer being able to meet Mr. Right in time to have kids who is always surrounded by idiots. And this is supposed to be about a serious war film and not an episode of 30 Rock?

31. Keanu-I like Key and Peele a lot but this felt like swing and a miss for me. They've done stuff way more nuanced and complicated than here. So they're forced to act like gangsters?  That's a 5-minute skit, guys, not a movie.

32. Suicide Squad-Oh, the horror! Why did I watch this. It felt like a violent video game specifically made for 12-year-old boys. When the dialogue seems like filler to get to the action and the action seems like filler to get to the dialogue, you know you’ve got a problem. Still, Margo Robbie manages to dazzle and Jared Leto gives a brave performance.