Thursday, May 31, 2007

Movie Review (1995): Mallrats

I found it odd that Kevin Smith himself has denounced this film as a failure. I think he saw his project as a failed teen comedy homage to John Hughes, whereas I didn't see it that way. I saw something original here.

I wrote this review a few years ago and it was my first or 2nd Kevin Smith (possibly behind Chasing Amy)

3 Stars:

With the valuable lesson that the little nuances found by hanging out at a shopping mall are the best parts of life, Mallrats is a piece of entertainment that's humor is crude yet insightful.

Jeremy London and Jason Lee as two guys who have just ended relationships, but have markedly different attitudes about it and they have a really great odd couple chemistry as a result. London plays T.S. Quint, the hopeless romantic type, not over the loss of a girl and determined to get her back that we see often in movies and in ourselves in real life sometimes. Lee's character, Brodie, is more what the movie is about. He cheers himself and his friend up by taking a trip to the mall, and indulging in the cookie stand, the comic book shop, and conspiring with two shady characters (Jay and Silent Bob) to screw over his unpleasant neighbor, who also happens to be a major reason that his friend got dumped.

Whether the film portrays Brodie's lifestyle is healthy or not is debatable, he lives with his mother and lacks ambition. However, I think Lee's character is the one we admire more of the two, because he is much happier and less worrisome over the course of the film as his counterpart T.S. and still gets the girl at the end.

The movie takes place over a short period of real time, pretty much, a single afternoon at the mall. Along with the two protagonists, a series of pleasantly quirky recurring characters are all found hanging out, including Joey Lauren Adams (as T.S.'s promiscuous ex-girlfriend) and Ben Affleck (as a perverted department store owner) in different roles than they'll have in Smith's future project Chasing Amy.

With great dialogue as a tool, these mundane interactions between these seemingly ordinary people come to life and as a result, it becomes so engaging to watch their paths intertwine all the way to the climactic live dating show scene at the film's finale.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Predicting Pirates will sweep the box office

I don't yet have a review of Pirates of Caribbean as I will see the movie tomorrow. Nevertheless, I am going to predict that Pirates of the Caribbean comes out on top this summer at the box office race and I just wanted to post it here before the box office report comes out.

My reasons:
1. It has more family appeal than Spiderman in my opinion, because Jack Sparrow might be more popular with kids. This is just my guess but Captain Jack Sparrow might be a little bit more appealing to kids at a slightly younger age, while Spiderman/Peter Parker is more of an adolescent hero. At the same time, Pirates might appeal to adults more because because many people in their 50s or 60s might have grown up on Pirate Movies as a kid and this is an effective homage to the genre. This is interesting because it's the first time the Pirates and Spiderman, the two biggest summer giants of the decade have squared off in the same season.

2. The release schedules. Spiderman 1's release at the beginning of the summer several weeks before any other movies came out was a strategy that paid off and shot the film northward of $300 million dollars. However, with two juggernauts being released within 2 and 3 weeks of Spiderman's opening in Shrek the Third and Pirates III, that is going to cut into its intake. Expect Spiderman to drop significantly this weekend. Pirates III has a wide open field that I doubt Ocean's 13 will do much to affect in a couple of weeks. The truth is that all three films will hurt their chances to realize their maximum profit by releasing their films so close to each other. And it's such a shame because it's all on memorial day, but Pirates will hurt itself the least. Pirates might not equal Spiderman's opening 3 day record, but it might gross higher in the long run. At least, I hope so because I am a pirate lover

3. Pirates has good reviews, whatever that's worth. It's even enough to get viewers on board who aren't familiar with the series, period.


So my predictions:
Spiderman III: $360 million
Shrek the third: $319 million (on the plus, there's no other kids' movies for competition, but May is a crowded month)
Pirates II:
Opening weekend: $124 million, total $387 million



Other summer films:
-Ocean's 13 will be an interesting choice. It's director Stephen Sodebergh won an oscar for his innovative film making in traffic and has since been nothing if not innovative and constantly experimenting with the medium (i.e. Full Frontal, Bubble, Good German). At the same time, a lot of these films are just plain awful. Unfortunately, Ocean's 12 fell under the same trap of a filmmaker so caught up in experimentation that he forgot to hold his story together with a coherent plot. Still, the greatness and potential of the director is evident and that might be enough for many to fill the seats. The film's gross is also hard to predict because the previous films were released during December and this one will be released in the Summer. Considering the first one made $183 million domestically, I'm gonna guess that this one can hit the $200 million mark if it gets decent to good reviews
Prediction: $49 mil opening $220 million

-Evan Almighty: the first film was a $200 mil+ hit. Evan Almighty has practically nothing to do with Bruce Allmighty in the sense that while Morgan Freeman still plays God, Jennifer Anniston and Jim Carrey are gone. This is just a cheap attempt to capitalize on Steve Carrell's rising stock and framing it as a sequel. So the question is how appealing is Steve Carrell? Well, the 40-Year Old Virgin did well but that was through good word-of-mouth, Steve Carrell as a break-out star, a catchy gimmick, and the revered reputation of writer/director Judd Apatow. I hear that if a guy is on a TV show, it's difficult to get anyone pay to see him in a movie when the TV show is free. I bet this one will be a little subpar on expectations
Prediction: $32 mil opening $121 mil

-Fantastic Four: The first one had bad reviews, a great opening weekend at $55.7 million, and a slightly above average total at $154 million total. In other words, this difference between great opening weekend and decent total means great hype but not-so-great word of mouth. I think the studio that funded this project underestimated the need for the sequel. Jessica Alba's growth as a star attraction will have to help move this film along. The film also needs to hope that comic book geeks will flock to the film for the added attraction of the Silver Surfer and unlike the first film, moviegoers might be more deterred by bad reviews if they occur a second time. This is what sunk Tomb Raider II and Charlie's Angels II.
Prediction: $44 mil opening, $152 mil

-Transformers: The transformers are a nostalgic trip for those raised in the 80s, but that's a small, small demographic, and I don't think live action will appeal as well. It's produced by Spielberg, which might sound like a sure thing, but remember: it's not directed or written by him. I predict this to be a bust, unfortunately. I am predicting this to be a humongous, humongous flop, by the way. This is the equivalent of predicting a 13 seed over a 4 seed in the NCAA tournament
Prediction: $19 mil opening, $100 mil

-Harry Potter V: The last Harry Potter movie to open in the summer was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azhkaban which had a respectable opening en route to $249 million dollars. I see no reason why this film will do better or worse than that one. If people are falling out of interest in the series, (which I don't think they are), I think the quality of the films is increasing anyway. It's getting a great release date, about 6 weeks after people will get tired of Pirates, so I predict slightly higher
Prediction: $66 mil opening, $258 mil

-Simpsons: Let's face it, the Simpsons are on the demise. They haven't had a remotely original episode in 5 years, at least, and while some people could successfully argue that Family Guy won't ever be as good as Simpsons was 10 years ago, in 2007, I can't see the Simpsons generating enough buzz for a decent season premiere this September, let alone show up in mass droves for a movie premiere. The Simpsons' success has always been that of casual viewership, in my opinion. It's just something decent to watch at 6 or 7 pm while preparing dinner and nothing more. It's just a generic answer you might have if someone asked you your favorite TV show and you didn't want to answer with something too wierd. Just like George Clooney when he was on E.R. and trying to become a bankable TV star, people often won't want to pay for something that's on TV.
Furthermore, I predict it will be the failure of this movie that will get people asking the long overdue question, "Is the Simpsons really that culturally relevant anymore?"
Prediction: $13 mil opening, $79 mil total

-Knocked Up: This is going to be the sleeper hit of the summer and raise Judd Apatow's profile even more. He's rumored to be launching Tom Cruise's comeback next. I've heard from everywhere it's very good, but I don't believe that'll translate into a strong weekend opening. Not with Pirates still around.
Prediction: $25 mil opening, $132 mil total

-Nancy Drew: Is the next tentpole for a series like Harry Potter? It might have that crossover appeal that parents might want to watch with their kids but it's just not being marketed heavily enough.
Prediction: $21 mil opening, $112 mil total

-Liscence to Wed: It looks like summer filler similar to RV. I'm not saying Robin Williams is by any means going downhill, but with RV, Man of the Year, and Liscence to Wed he's starting to get into too much of a comfortable zone
Predictions: $10 mil opening, $68 mil total

Friday, May 25, 2007

The era of the blockbuster

Five years ago, Spiderman burst into movie theaters across the country an unpredented three weekends before Memorial day. Boasting a head start over the rest of the summer films, an unlikely choice for the lead in Tobey MaGuire, and a legion of comic book aficianados eager for the movie's release, the film made movie history by becoming the first film to make one hundred million dollars in its opening weekend.

Since then, Spiderman 3 enters theatered the same weekend, but in an era that's completeley dominated by summer blockbusters. At $151 million Spiderman 3 broke the weekend record once again and has become the eighth picture to do so. Thirty-three movies have grossed $200 million or more domestically and 23 of those came out during the summer whereas only 28 films hit the $200 million mark before this decade.

Ten years ago, there might have been one or two big budget projects like Men in Black, Batman Forever, or Independence Day that would generate water cooler buzz all summer, but nowadays, a big-event picture enters the theaters once every other week during the summer months, with sequels, prequels, remakes. Everything practically falls into this pattern even if it's not technically a sequel. The 2002 hit Signs and M. Night Shamylan's sophomore effort, was anticipated "the next M. Night Shamylan film," which was in essence The Sixth Sense II or we could have called Michael Moore's Farenheight 911, "Bowling for Columbine II."

"Why don't the studios care about originality?" you may ask. They do. In fact, it's because of their love of filmmaking and their desire to want to make innovative and original films that the studios put us through this cycle and it also benefits us as well. Here's how:

By expending a lot of money on these cash cow films and shamelessly plugging away at them until every person and their grandmother has seen the movie twice, studios are able to pay for all the more interesting films that might not be as sure of a commercial bet. These films usually appear in theaters from around the end of the summer to the end of the year, and you can often find many of them spilling over into January and February. The films that are released during this time of year in hopes of winning Oscars, which are little toy statues that the winners like to wave around to their peers in hopes of gaining respect, power, and priority seating at high-class Hollywood establishments. It's a strange culture they have out there.

Nevertheless, once Oscar season ends, we have a season of pretty-much nothing on the movie front. Movie fans can spend their time watching the NHL or college basketball or whatever else catches their fancy, because the state of movies is pretty much unchanged. Sure, there are movies in the theaters between February and April but these are films that are released just for the sake of having something new for the movie theaters to show. With a few exceptions, these movies are usually very forgettable (If films in this category like R.V., the Pacifier, Norbit, Epic Movie, Failure to Launch, The Shaggy Dog, Date Movie or Wild Hogs become classics 10 years down the road, than I will eat my words on this one). I think of it as a kind of absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder-type of process where we take a break from watching current releases and might even swear off movies as a whole considering the quality of the films that comes out during this period.

This is where the summer Blockbuster season comes to the rescue. It presents us with sequels, remakes and tentpoles which are virtually impossible to turn down. Anyone who's watched Pirates of the Carribean 2 and has even the slightest interest in the characters is going to feel compelled to watch the third one just to see what happens to the characters. This is why sequels are so profitable, although that's based on the cliffhanger element being done well enough. Personally, I thought one of the weaknesses of Spiderman 2 was that it closed off all the loose threads for me to be invested in the third: Spiderman's identity revealed to Harry, Spiderman's identity revealed to Mary Jane, Spiderman's confession to his aunt, Spiderman and Mary Jane getting together, etc.

Still, the people saw it in mass droves ignoring mixed reviews because that's the power of the sequel: It's a must-see and more than that, it's a must-see on opening weekend, which some of us (myself included) have not been able to make.

The tragedy of this summer is that if we mutually agree that Ocean's 12 ruined our good faith in the Ocean's 11 and that the Rush Hour series was never very good in the first place, than the three big trilogy back-ends this summer, Shrek 3, Pirates 3, and Spiderman 3, are all taking place by Memorial Day Weekend which was when the summer seasion is traditionally supposed to start. The Early Bird catches the worm is the philosophy. So if you haven't been able to make the big opening-weekend rushes, don't worry, there's still the actual summer to see them. I myself am a little behind on starting my summer. I just saw Spiderman 3 last weekend and will see Pirates this weekend.

Star Wars Prequels and the DVD Revolution

I walked out of the theater from Star Wars III with my dad with whom I had a memorably different reaction than I did. "The movie wasn't fun like the old ones," my dad said. I couldn't argue that the dialogue was wooden and that is the general consensus. The lines have more gravity behind them than the innocent serial adventure that was the original Star Wars.

But then again, the Star Wars prequels weren't exactly serial adventures and this might have also been the source of their undoing in terms of connecting to the large base of viewers that the original trilogy did*. The Star Wars prequels were enjoyable, more than anything else, for those moments where we go, "Oooohhhh, so that's how it happened." To the extent that Star Wars is a pseudo-real universe**, this is like going back into the history books and reliving those historic events in a way that we can never actually do with real history. I might even consider it to be a more authentic experience, considering you can never truly recreate the Wild West or the Civil War except for a documentary but you can create the story before Star Wars IV with absolute authenticity, considering it exists only within the mind of the filmmaker who creates it. As mentioned before, this appeal has to do with one having to have extreme familiarity and interest in wanting to explore the Star Wars experience to further depths. Now, I don't know the exact numbers but we all know there is a significant following of Star Wars devotees who are very, very into the Star Wars phenomenon and the fan base extends beyond those who dress up in costumes and go to conventions.

When thinking about it more, it struck me that these elements that are what drives the prequels, catering to a fan base who wants to know the story behind the story, are also becoming an ever-increasing part of the present-day film experience with the advent of DVDs. With the extra features that come with DVD's, people who weren't necessarily film buffs before might be converted into them simply because learning things about what went behind the making of the movie they are watching becomes so much more readily available to them and is presented as entertainment. Movies are no longer texts that are limited to their final cut that appears on the screen. They become more plastic and your knowledge of that text changes as you chose immerse yourself into it more. That choice also makes the relationship between the viewer and the text interactive and as film watchers and it adds to the other outlets with which we, as film watchers, can immerse ourselves in these stories. The previous outlets were books that were relegated to the sci-fi section of the bookstore and only appeal to the hard core Star Wars (or Star Trek, for that matter) fans, but we can immerse ourselves in a more accessible way.

So to conclude, DVDs have helped to create the appeal of prequels ranging from Star Wars I-III to Batman Begins, or even stories that might fill-in-the-gap between previous stories like Superman Returns.

*One might argue that because Star Wars III became the 7th highest grossing film of all time (now 8th, displaced by Pirates II) and Star Wars I became the 4th highest grossing film of all time (now 5th, displaced by Shrek 2), that these films were seen be everyone. By "connecting," I'm speaking of number of satisfied film goers, which I don't believe Star Wars was able to do on the whole.
** I place myself in the casual fan category

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Hiro in Heroes

The NBC show Heroes was the #1 new drama this season and it was one of the few dramas that I did watch this season. I found it to be pretty good but it was also difficult to follow and it required a large commitment from the viewer. I'm not a humongous comic book geek so I might not have been drawn in as some other people but I liked it as I like X-Men: All the people with different powers.

It's a TV show that threads together multiple storylines and it juggles them pretty skillfully but some of the stories are more interesting than others. I think the most interesting of the storylines is that of the Japanese desk jockey Hiro Nakamura and his sidekick Ando. I wanted to analyze the relationship a little more here:

I think we love Hiro because he's a post-modern product of the superhero genre. He's this guy who's incredibly alien to our culture (it's kind of blatantly demonstrated through the fact that he doesn't speak Japanese) and understands it through his childhood affections of comic books. This is clearly reiterated through the line of Ando "you will follow in the footsteps of Star Trek and Superman" or whatever he said. That explains his geeky recitations of what a "hero" shouild be like. Also, there's a geographical symbolism. Wanting to come over to America and save New York is a kind of a twisted parrallel to immigrants wanting to come to America and take New York (the city long associated with the American immigrant experience) by storm in the 19th and early 20th century. Japan has higher living standards than America, but that's really irrelevant, anyway. It's kind of like Mystery Men or Galaxy Quest spoofing superheroes and Star Trek in a very post-modern way, by relying on characters who are intimately familiar and base their reality on those texts.

Ando is the muse through which the audience connects. He's this ordinary white collar worker like many of us who has this nutty friend who's a superhero. Like the audience he has a passing knowledge but a healthy superstition of superheroes until he sees Hiro's powers firsthand. Ando is drawn more and more into Hiro's quest and Hiro's enthusiasm spreads to Ando so he will follow him along on his journey, just as Hiro's enthusiasm is supposed to spread to the audience so we will follow him.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Movie Review (1992): Scent of a Woman

Scent of a Woman is a great film with a bad rep among Oscar pundits because it was the movie for which Al Pacino won the Oscar undeservedly. I personally think that Pacino deserved the Oscar and I don't care if I'm the only one in the world who thinks that. At the same time, I didn't think as highly of the movie as a whole, until when I rewatched it recently. Before rewatching it on TV last night, I had watched it once before about a decade ago. It's a typical "young man meets older man and he guides him through a coming of age" trial that's in the tradition of Dead Poet's Society, Goodbye Mr. Chips, and Good Will Hunting*. It stars Al Pacino as Colonel Slade, the old man who in this version has a pretty nasty exterior to get past, and Chris O'Donnell as the poor prep school student who must look after Pacino's character for a weekend so he can raise enough money to go home for Thanksgiving break. started out having three main problems with this movie.

First of all, Charlie (O'Donnell's character) is pretty asexual. Now, I think you're aloud to be asexual, and I don't think every protagonist in a movie has to be involved with a girl or something, but contrasted with so much talk about sex from the Colonel's character and the fact that Charlie who's in late adolescence when his hormones should be in full bloom, I found it rather curious. I wish he got to at least have danced with that pretty girl, rather than guided Al Pacino to dance with her in the tango scene. Nevertheless, it's still refreshing in the wake of some of the more oversexualized movies of the late 90s like American Pie and Cruel Intentions. My second problem lies in Al Pacino's character arc was from his impossible to get along with stage to his genuine self. I know it's necessary to create a certain progression for him, so he could've been so much more effective in his stubbornly likable personality, but still it was overdone and stretched out. My biggest beef, however, is that the boys who Charlie refuses to squeal on, have absolutely no likable traits whatsoever. They're ugly, uncharismatic, they rub it in how they're richer than him, and they're cowards. The pressure that one guy, George, exerts on him is cruel. It is true that the other headmaster is a jerk too, for picking on him, but I wasn't necessarily sure which was the lesser of two evils.

However, these three things were what lingered in my memory about the movie from the last time I saw it 10 years ago, but by the movie's end, I was left exuberant and moved, because those problems are more than cancelled out by what the film has going for it, which is the immeasurable chemistry between Pacino and O'Donnell's characters in this film. O'Donnell plays his part with a wide-eyed innocence and a guarded sense of caution that has the added effect of keeping the movie from being too corny, and Pacino is mesmerizing. The two create magic with every conversation they have. Also, the movie plays out like a series of short episodes and some of them like the car driving scene and the tango lesson are a lot of fun. What I also came to appreciate is that the film is a little harder to grasp because it doesn't follow conventional methods of storytelling. True, it would be easier for Charlie's peers to be worth standing up to, but the story never took the easy route.

The lesson learned? Star chemistry makes all the difference.

*Technically speaking, Good Will Hunting came after Scent of a Woman but you get my point

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Christopher Guest stock company

Christopher Guest, co-writer of This is Spinal Tap (1984) and director/co-writer of Waiting for Guffman (1997), Best in Show (2000), A Mighty Wind (2003) and For Your Consideration (2006) has successfully created a niche for himself in comedic films that makes him a very interesting character study.

One of the finer points of Andrew Sarris' auteur theory is that the mark of a great director is being able to impose their mark within the confines of a studio system. In other words, a director being able to take material he doesn't like (that he usually gets stuck with) and make it work within his style. This is one of the most prevalent theories in film study and has generated a lot of heated debate over the years. Some of its detractors might point to someone like Vincente Minelli who took many projects he didn't like just so he could get the financing necessary to make his dream project "Lust for Life." Christopher Guest seems to support that notion because not many of his fans are familiar with the fact that Guest has directed more than four films. A one-time castmember on SNL in the 80's, he has directed some other films and TV movies, like "Dead on Arrival" and the Chris Farley-Matthew Perry vehicle "Almost Heroes," that have absolutely nothing in common with the five films that bear the "Christopher Guest and Co." trademark. The fact that he was willing to completely ditch his style of comedy to play by the studio's rules of conventional comedy before making movies his way, suggests that the studios didn't have a lot of faith in his brand of comedy. Again, I don't have DVD production notes from Almost Heroes with which to make that judgement. The question I want to ask, however, was that deserved?

His films feature a stock company of actors led by Christopher Guest as an actor, Fred Willard, Eugene Levy, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer (although he's been absent from a couple of them), Catherine O'Hara and Parkey Posey. Other actors such as Ed Begley Jr, Michael E Hitchkock, Bob Balaban, Christopher Moynihan, Jane Lynch, and Jennifer Coolidge have grown into the group as a secondary set of characters, although there are no clear lines.





The Christopher guest method of movie making is establishing the characters and then improvising most of their dialogue along the lines of what the characters might say. Improvizational comedy is not entirely new: Good comic actors have generally been known to ad-lib on the set if something better comes to their mind at the moment but the Guest films are based entirely around improv comedy and market themselves as such. It's also done in a very organic way that's key to the creative process.

It's actually kind of odd how this pattern is so pervasive. Many people within the Christopher Guest camp have not achieved widespread fame outside of it or if they do, it's usually for one or two roles that don't express their full ability. Other actors in the Christopher Guest stock company who are known by just one or two roles. Examples include:
Catherine O'Hara from Home Alone
Eugene Levy as the dad from American Pie
Bob Balaban as the studio boss from Seinfeld (although some might recognize him from Godsford Park)
Michael McKean from Lenny and Squiggy and a brief SNL stint
Jennifer Coolidge from the TV show Joey

One could say that Fred Willard and Parker Posey enjoy careers that enable them to capitalize on their strong spots. Willard seems to pop up fairly heavily in TV series and films and has developed a comic persona of an affable fake know-it-all who interferes with everyone around him. It was best perfected in Best in Show for which he might have been considered the highlight of that film. Posey is known for some independent films.

I'm sure if you had some objective way to rank every actor based on their ability to improvize comedically, the top slots would go to people not from the Christopher Guest camp: Jim Carrey, Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Steve Martin, etc. Many Christopher Guest fans feel that Fred Willard, for example might be the funniest person on the face of the planet and would outperform all the others in an improv scene. It is hard to quantify exactly where a Fred Willard or Harry Shearer fits into the comic spectrum. I think it's very curious how the Christopher Guest stock company for all the praise they get (although, I have a feeling that took a negative turn with the lackluster film For Your Consideration), their stock company of actors has not moved up accordingly in fame. That Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn and Jack Black still dominate comedy.

Perhaps, the Christopher Guest films are very organic processes and they take some underrated actors and combine them together to form the sum of their parts. I don't think a Fred Willard would be able to draw the star power that Ferrell, Vaughn or Black would. He doesn't have the ability to make you laugh like a stand-up comedian would, where he fires a couple of opening liners that have you howling. I think he wears down your guard over time. It's the small subtleties of his character's humor that become more and more exxagerated the longer you watch him. This worked very well in "Best in Show" and in "Waiting for Guffman" with him but I think that kind of character-based comedy that slowly builds up on you would be a hard sell on the studio level.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The case against Charlie Sheen as an actor

I think it's odd how people are saying Charlie Sheen is having a great career in TV and is being nominated for emmys because he can't really act. On Spin City he just played exactly to type, so all he had to do was be himself. If there were any positive reviews of him on there, it was misdirected at the fact that the show was able to find at least another star to replace Michael J Fox. It was also that people weren't used to seeing him in a comic role and it was also the fact that he parodied his real life problems. But he talks the way he does in serious projects of his, it's just the people around him react differently and Spin City was so well-written that even when half of its original cast was gone and its stripped down to a cast of 6 that includes Heather Locklear (blah), it's still halfway watchable. Two and a Half Men is nothing more than an average sitcom that would have had the potential to transcend something like Yes, Dear or Still Standing, if there was better chemistry between the leads. Its emmy nods in the category are simply a desperate effort by the TV industry and emmys to remind its audiences that comedy's not completely dead, we have shows with laugh tracks too that are making the cut. Also, I can't name the number of shows alone that have used that plot of two brothers or two sisters being forced to live together after one encounters some marital troubles and moves in with a kid. A short-lived TV show from around 1998 called Brother's Keeper was the exact same plot (which I think was done better, anyway). There's also Three Sisters and Hope and Faith off the top of my head. It's saving grace is its ratings but make no mistake, there is nothing deserving about its acting or its writing.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

As John Mayer's critical reviews go up....

Has anyone noticed that as his music becomes more and more critically acclaimed and he grows as a respectable artist, John Mayer’s songs actually get worse?

I first started listening to John Mayer’s music as a college freshmen and I found his voice a little on the weak side but his lyrics were inspiring and the guitar work is amazing. Although one can see more evidence of his guitar work from other sources (an appearance on the Dave Chappelle show, for example), look at the sheet music for “Neon” and just look at how far all over the place the notes jump up and down and how they seem to jump the fences that contain the measures.

I can’t stress how much the lyrics of “No Such Thing” spoke to me and continue to speak to me as a guide through how to brush off the newfound pressures of adulthood that I continue to follow through this day: The good boys and girls who don’t get the answers after reading the books, making the transfers and getting the credits; the expectation of having to plot out our lives in black and white. “My Stupid Mouth” spoke to me about the subtleties of dating, “3 X 5” was about having new experiences, and “Neon” reminded me of practically every encounter with a girl I’d had that year. “Your Body is a Wonderland,” the one that caught on to the masses, seemed a bit sleazy.

The other song of his that really spoke to me was one I heard a year and a half later “Why Georgia” even though it was on the same album*, “Everybody’s just a stranger, but that’s the danger of going my own way, I guess that’s the price I’ll have to pay,” helped me as I was transferring out of one college and going back home for a year.

Sadly, John Mayer’s reputation as being too poppy and just being fodder for teen girls got on his nerves a little and he set out to prove among his peers that he was serious. So he got an electric guitar and that did the trick. He had one single, “Bigger than my Body” that contained brilliant lyrics about exceeding what other people think of you: “Someday I’ll fly, Someday I’ll soar, Cause I’m bigger than my body gives me credit for” but nothing else on his CD was remotely catchy except the song “New Deep,” with lyrics that were overly existential. Confirming my hunch about the Grammys and that they’re not based on anything having to do with talent, John Mayer’s song “Daughters” won an award for best-written song. The lyrics of this song sounds like it was written by a kindergarten teacher at a parent teacher conference: “Fathers be good to your daughters, daughters will love like they do, girls become lovers, then turn into mothers, so mothers be good to your daughters too.” I even remember the original Entertainment Weekly reviewer making fun of those lines too and I wonder why the rest of the entertainment world wouldn’t do the same. Maybe the Grammies were trying to cater to the preschool crowd?

And now he had his third CD which he says finally spoke about what he wanted to say but I think it only spoke to what his musical idols and critics at Rollingstone Magazine wanted to hear because he not only has AN ELECTRIC GUITAR but he CHANNELS THE BLUES. But is he actually saying anything in his new CD? I’ve only heard the two big hit singles: “Gravity” was so insipid and slow, I can’t stay with the song for the full three minutes before changing the radio dial. “Waiting on the World to Change,” is almost a parody of the countless hippie and reggae songs that call for revolution. All I can say, John, is that there’s no need to wait, you’ve already changed the world, or at least mine, by writing intelligent lyrics. Where did that go?

*As much of a John Mayer fan as I was, I only got to know him through the magic of Limewire and not through being one of his CDs per say so that’s why I didn’t write “Why Georgia”

Movie Review (2007): Music and Lyrics

Based around the rather flimsy premise that a musician falls into a state of creative desperation that a thesaurus couldn’t fix whenever he has to come up with a new single, “Music and Lyrics” stars Hugh Grant as a has-been writer and Drew Barrymore as an aspiring writer who through happenstance circumstances, team up to write a song that could put them on the map.

Hugh Grant plays his witty self in Alex Fletcher, with the exception that his character is actually surprisingly convincing as a pop star. He delivers those one-liners that can single-handedly deliver a movie like “Two Weeks Notice,” with a little less frequency than what might have let this movie get by on humor alone. Drew Barrymore, as slogan-writer Sophie Fisher enters Alex’s life as her plant lady (is there a such thing as a plant lady?). When he discovers her talents for rhyming, she recruits her to help write lyrics for a teen pop star who gives him a chance at a comeback. The pop star is played by Haley Bennett who as a parody of the empty spiritualism of Hollywood is one of the best parts of the movie. The film isn’t funny enough to recommend as a pure comedy and while Grant mixes it up a little, Barrymore doesn’t do anything she hasn’t done before here. Still the script manages to stay intelligent and natural enough that it keeps the film afloat. Even before Alex and Sophie get romantically involved, their characters are interesting enough for us to want to know more about them and their interactions are too. The movie does drag a little in the middle however.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Downfall of comedy I: Where it stands today

In response to an interesting question: What's a good "stupid" comedy?

I'm going to assume by "stupid" the person mean films that don't have the respect of critics or film academics. The truth, however, is that comedy usually doesn't get the respect of critics as much.

Although comedy is an integral part of movies and a respectable genres, you have to think that comedy isn't as well-respected as it used to be by the critical community, or not a lot of it anyway. Successful comedies today include:
-Indie hits like Little Mrs. Sunshine and Lost in Translation,
-Dramedies with good scripts and good dialogue by the likes of Alexander Payne, James L Brooks or Charlie Kaufman. It's no small coincidence that these guys win screenwriting rewards at the Oscars
-The Coen Brothers seem to be an outliar among comedic directors and that they seem to be put into a class well above other comic filmmakers by film critics. They're film scholars who are well-versed in film history (as if someone like Mel Brooks or Vince Vaughn isn't?) and it usually impresses the film critics that their movies are usually innovative in their technical aspects or clever uses of refences to past films (i.e. Man Who Wasn't There is based on film-noir, Intolerable Cruelty is based on screwball comedies, and Big Lebowski is based on The Big Sleep). A lot of casual movie fans like the Coen brothers too and have given them a large cult following. The reputation of the Coen brothers is continually being inflated through a mutual enthusiasm between the critics and the casual movie fans that "well, we at least agree on something on the comedy front."
-I could also see the critical community being split between many other comic autuers who would have had more critical respect if the comic genre itself was more respected such as Kevin Smith, Adam McKay, and Judd Apatow (and there might be some other examples in here). Kevin Smith has gotten some good reviews by Ebert and Roeper but I doubt more serious outlets like Sight & Sound or Premiere Magazines would give him the time of day on their review columns.

Comedy used to be equally viable in film achievement on every level back in the day. Columbia Studios became a major power player through the success of the pure comedy, "It Happened One Night" from 1935 which won the oscar that year. Screwball comedies dominated cinema in the 1930's and 1940's and Billy Wilder forged a great career out of comedies. What I find interesting is Mel Brooks' career and how it figures into that transition (which I'll cover in the next post)

The downfall of humor II: Mel Brooks

What I find interesting is that in the 1970's the two major comic autuers (if i'm wrong about this and missing someone, feel free to correct me) were Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. People who put "Spaceballs" on a list of best stupid comedies would be surprised to know that Mel Brooks was actually considered a very respectable filmmaker by the critical community. Of his first 4 films, 3 (The Producers, Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles) are on the AFI's list of top 100 comedies of all time, and all of them ranking in the top 13.
His first film "The Producers" (1968) which was a humongous critical and commercial success on Broadway this past decade, put him on the scene and his next big hits were both made in the same year, 1974: "Young Frankenstein" and "Blazing Saddles."

I researched Young Frankenstein's critical reception for a project in a film class a couple of years ago and that got great reviews from the New York Times, LA Times, and Long Island's Newsday. Frankenstein and Producers were comically intelligent films but didn't really push the envelope of the border between high-brow and low-brow entertainment that much. Young Frankenstein established Brooks as a master of parody: the genre of choice for pretty much the rest of his career. But Young Frankenstein was not really very low-brow at all. It had no bathroom humor and had sexual situations but used those in a way that evokes the innocent mix-ups of a screwball comedy. It also didn't go for cheap one-liners. Its subtlety was in its attention to detail in mimicking the original movies and perversing it ever so slightly.

Blazing Saddles was a different story. It was still relatively intelligent with its humor and a film academic could appreciate its clever metacinematic ending in which a brawl in a Western town spills over onto a studio lot and a movie villain tries to escape his own fate by going into a movie theater. It was also just plain hillarious and jam-packed with laughs that left audiences and critics defenseless. At the same time, the movie repeatedly dipped into crude humor and had the potential to be offensive in the way that his later films would soon follow the pattern of. It's possible for a movie to both deliver intelligent humor and be really stupid at the same time and I would give a good review to Blazing Saddles for its intelligent humor but I would be doing so because its pros outweigh the cons.

I didn't neccessarily like the dumb humor and that's where his movies have increasingly followed to. I have a theory that because of the decline of critical respect for Brook's films and because he was one of the leading comic filmmakers of his day, he played a large role in what makes comedy less respectable today.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

My Name is Earl picks it up in second season

I think as My Name is Earl hit the homestretch of its second season, it lifted itself from being a decent quirky hit that compliments shows like 30 Rock, Scrubs, and The Office to being a great show itself (note: I wouldn't count 2 of the three shows above as great shows yet although 30 Rock has shown flashes).

"My Name is Earl" works as a quirky no-laugh track show that used to get by on the star power of Jason Lee and the comic gifts of Jamie Pressley. It's storylines have a little humor and that humor is usually balanced by the feel-good aspects of the show. In other words, it's like "Touched by an Angel," only funnier. As of late, however, I think the show has not only been funnier than Touched by an Angel, but it's become funny period and as for the "Touched by an Angel" factor, I think the show has been moving into deeper territory to the point where we're actually caring about the characters' evolution from one episode to the next. It's starting to become dynamic and characters are starting to grow past the requirements of what would make the laughs meaningful within a half-hour episode. Earl is trying to grow up by getting an education and a job and he's taking his brother with him. Jamie is trying to become a mom and like The Office last season, the season finale ended with such a bang of a cliffhanger, it cemented the show as Must-See next year.

Cheaper by the Dozen I and II

Cheaper by the Dozen (2003) was one of my favorite movies of that year, even though it's just meant as family entertainment. On the DVD commentary, director Shaun Levy spoke of high ambitions he had when making the movieto really try to reinvigorate the classic family comedy with pathos, and I think he succeeded. The movie is actually quite touching and made me reflect on the value of my own family. Other strengths of the movie were a script that catered to Steve Martin's comic gifts and a talented ensemble of younger kids. Here were my reviews of the two films:

Cheaper by the Dozen (2003):
It's true that the fun of having more than two or three kids is cancelled out by the subsequent responsibility and expense of paying for their college, but when we don't have to pay more than the price of a movie ticket to experience a large family, then it's tons of fun. So, first off, yes, I have to admit that the mere fact that the movie centers around a 14-member extended family makes it enjoyable from the start. I was almost instanteously engaged until over halfway through the movie trying to keep track of who was who, and with such a talented and diverse ensemble, I enjoyed watching all of the development, especially Mark (Forest Landiss), the kid who kind of tied the whole story together. They even found room for overrated stars like Ashton Kutcher and Hillary Duff as one-note characters among the others. I also think that underneath all the comedy there was a lot of moral value within the conflicts between Steve Martin and his family and all those people trying to tear it apart (like the coach and his fame-career-driven attitude and Ashton Kuthcer's character and his narcissism and the bullies at school and Paula Marshall and her preppy conformity).

Cheaper by the Dozen II (2005):
Cheaper by the Dozen II like most sequels, wasnt as good as its predecessor but was a safe movie bet, allowing you to fall back into a familiarity of the first and have some more fun with it. It picks up a couple years after the first installment with changes abound as the oldest daughter is now married and pregnant and with everyone growing up, the Bakers plan to vacation one last time at their old summer nesting grounds before sending off newly graduated Lurraine (Hillary Duff) to New York. Ashton Kutchers out of the picture, while Eugene Levy enters the scene as Steve Martins rival, providing some decent comic relief. Knowing full-well, they cant focus on all twelve kids, Tom Wellings newfound romance and rebelliousness are underdeveloped, while the unfortunate mistake is made of shifting the focus to Hillary Duffs character. Duff basically plays a caricature of herself (or at least her public image) as a teenage diva, who only worked in the first movie because she was only added in at small doses. Theres also a side story with one of the younger siblings having her first crush. Like the first film, this installment relies on Martins physical comedy for laughs with some very relatable moments along the way and in the end, the family wins out over all other forces.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Top 10 Sci-Fi films and more

This is in response to an Entertainment Weekly article which identified the top 25 sci-fi TV and movie phenomenoms over the last 25 years.

I have a very detailed version of this I intend to expand upon as I improve on this, but here's what I would say are the ten most definitive sci-fi films of all time and when I get the time, I will expand upon this more. So consider this incomplete without explanations:
1. Star Wars, George Lucas, 1977
2. Metropolis, Fritz Lang, 1927
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, 1968
4. A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick, 1971
5. Close Encounters of a Third Kind, Stephen Spielberg, 1977
6. Blade Runner, Ridley Scott, 1982
7. Brazil, Terry Gilliam, 1986
8. Matrix, Wolchowski Bros., 1999
9. Alien, Ridley Scott, 1979
10. Back to the Future, Rob Zemeckis, 1985

10 other films of note: The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, War of the Worlds (original), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day, Aliens, Minority Report, X-Men, E.T.

10 great Sci-Fi TV Shows I recommend: Lost in Space, Star Trek, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Seaquest DSV, Futurama, Sliders, Quantum Leap, Firefly, Andromeda, Heroes

10 sci-fi books: Dune; I, Robot, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Ender's Game, The Time Machine, Journey to the Center of the Earth, 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, Farenheight 411, and hmmm, can't think of any other ones.

War of the Worlds (2005) review

Another review borrowed from jmaddy.com. I think this is a most interesting review in the sense that the response to Tom Cruise has grown worse and worse since the film came off. I even praised Tom Cruise's ability

My main concern going into this film was that I've seen it before and I'm not talking about the 1950s movie or the famous 1930s radio broadcast. I was thinking more in this case of the 1997 summer blockbuster hit Independence Day, and while a film being a remake doesn't automatically drive me away, I really couldn't see where this movie could go that its predecessors hadn't already explored.

Independence Day, after all, was a scientifically updated version with state-of-the-art special effects, and it's not like science has gotten THAT much more modern in the last 8 years...I was proved wrong. With Independence Day, director Roland Emmerich managed to recreate H.G. Wells' original "World" vision into a modern epic by showing us things on a truly global scale (he also showed his talent for globally scaled drama in 2004's Day After Tomorrow). War of the Worlds, on the other hand, tells the same story from the point-of-view of a single family's journey through the crisis.

The film's genius lies in how little he wavers from that vision. It's uncompromising in leaving the questions unanswered that this plot naturally lends itself to being asked (such as "what are these aliens doing here?", "where did they come from?", etc.). As a result, we went through the movie experiencing and learning about the danger at the same time the characters were. The effect was so pervasive it feels more than anything else like a 2-hour roller coaster ride, no doubt enhanced by Spielberg's deft camera- work, which for the first time since Jaws reminding us of his unrivaled brand of terror with which he revolutionized blockbusters 30 years ago in Jaws.

As with other films of his, Spielberg adds an estranged- father-and-son plot on top of the main story, with Tom Cruise as custody-sharing blue collar dad Ray Ferrier and Justin Chatwik as the rebellious son, with Dakota Fanning added as a loving young daughter for contrast. The relationships between Cruise and his two kids, both of whom carry significant loads of the script with precision, adds a whole new depth to the action scenes. As for Cruise, for all his crazy antics that have been filling the newspapers lately, he shows definite growth in this role and doesn't just carry this film with a mistimed sparkling grin, but with a convincing-yet-firm performance as a father.

Wedding Crashers (2005) review

This is another review that I'm proceeding to move from another site. I actually gave Wedding Crashers only a so-so review, despite the fact that most people loved it:

From the same comedic team (more or less) that brought you Zoolander, Dodgeball, and Old School, the latest annual installment of a comedy has arrived about people who don’t actually exist (frat boys who technically aren’t college students, professional dodgeball players, etc), but could very easily exist when you think about it.

The comedic team that I’m talking about is combination of at least one guy with the last name Wilson, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell who rotate playing the lead, playing the sidekick/rival, not being in the movie at all, and providing a much loved 2-minute cameo. Owen Wilson and Vaughn take the leads as two more characters that guys could easily enjoy vicariously living through for a couple hours: John Beckwith and Jeremy Klein (Wilson) are two divorce lawyers who spend their spare time crashing weddings solely to meet girls.
After years of practice they’ve refined it down to an art. One of the best running comic gags, in fact, is that they have a lengthy rule book that they memorize and regularly cite from in various situations.

The story begins when after a very successful wedding season, shown through a well-made opening montage; the two buddies decide to end off the season with a bang by crashing what will be their most high stakes wedding to date. Why this wedding is a bigger deal to them than any other wedding is beyond me, but nevertheless, the two go to the wedding and both find themselves with bigger messes than they can clean up by wedding’s end. Jeremy falls for one of the bride’s sisters, Claire, and all is going well until he meets her boyfriend. Rachel McAdams (The Notebook) plays Claire a little too lackadaisically charming to come off as anything but clich├ęd.

John, meanwhile, has such good luck with the bride’s other sister that he manages to have sex with her before the wedding is even over. Unfortunately, she mistakes his love of the chase for true love and his efforts to flee the scene get foiled by his love-struck partner in crime who insists they stick around. This is the point in the movie when, like John, it would be best to flee the scene ourselves.

While the film is lined with sharp and hilarious snippets of dialogue throughout, the story is unevenly paced and it never really gets back to that screwball comedy feel it attains in the film’s first half hour.

If not for the fact that these guys will probably be appearing in movie theaters again in some cameo or comedy vehicle before I even finish mourning their failure, I’d have been disappointed because with a few minor tweaks, I could have seen this movie working. For example, one of the downturns that are used in these types of romantic comedies to prevent the guy and girl from getting together before working things out takes up almost a year of the story and one of the characters gets depressed to the point of feeling suicidal. In this scene and in general, the movie too often drifts a little too far away from lighthearted-comedy mode. Considering how with characters that revel in the joy of taking advantage of girls at weddings, the movie’s tone is quite cynical when you think about it, it wouldn’t be a good idea to get the audience taking the film too seriously at all.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Why must professional athletes be such bad sports?

I saw Tracy McGrady lose the series to Utah the other night and I felt he was a better sport than most but he was awfully down on himself. I think that many professional sports teams have such unrealistic expectations of themselves and the culture that's created by it sets a bad example.

I'm sure that many people admire the attitude of pretty much every NBA player I've seen interviewed who will say that all the individual accolades don't compare to a championship ring. They say they're career is measured by championships won and that sounds like the most politically correct thing to say in the world, and you can't really knock them for saying that, but let's be honest.....I'm sure many people would rather have Kevin Garnett, Reggie Miller, John Stockton, or Karl Malone's career (although those people made the finals) than Beno Udrih, Tyronne Lue or Mark Madsen. So a championship isn't all that matters.

What's more, you can't judge an individual athletes' merits on a championship because as much as we might like to romanticize the notion of the player carrying his team to a championship, it doesn't really exist. There have been pretty much no championships that have been won by a single star. A championship is won by putting the right pieces together. Jordan had Pippen, Duncan has had Robinson, Ginobli and Parker at various points, and people are neglecting the fact that with the additions of Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall, Cleveland has one of the deepest benches in the league with Marshall, Snow, Damon Jones, Daniel Gibson and Anderson Varejo. If we'd like to knock ourselves back into reality and away from the romantic notions of the sport, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Ben Wallace, Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, Jason Kidd and Jermaine O'Neal are merely seperated as players by having front offices who were able to give them the right support at the right time and not by whether they've won a championship or led their team to the finals.

I understand the importance of a positive attitude and the need to shoot for the stars but you've got 30 teams and I don't like this attitude of 29 teams being losers. That's the professional athlete way of thinking, which in a way I can't complain about in the sense that at least they care about the game. If one charge about NBA players is that they're apathetic and only compare about the money so they can afford expensive jewelery and clubbing, than it's better that they're fixated on winning to the point where the press conferences show them getting depressed and feeling like failures if they don't.

In basketball, teams don't always win but you can appreciate what you've done right. Houston for instance, has made the playoffs for 3 of the last 4 years: that's something. They took it to 7 games, that's something else. That's better than sitting at home watching the play-offs. There was no sense in that locker room after the game or by the sports media of "well, the outcome was decided over a series of 7 games and it really could have gone either way." I used to be a cross-country and track runner for my high school team, and that's what a friend of mine once said to comfort me after he beat me in one race by a small margin and it gave me a great sense of perspective. I think the lesson Houston should have taken from their loss, was take it a sign that the team's doing well and move on and I think that's really the best lesson you can preach as a role model. Instead, the Houston organization fires the coach and will probably trade half the team away.

I have a belief and it's one that I'm often surprised isn't so universal as ethical values go. This belief is that I don't think people should be fired without due cause and I even feel this way about NBA Basketball Coaches even if they get paid millions of dollars. Even if Jeff Van Gundy was rehired by the Magic and he enjoys it there, I don't believe everything's ok. He should have had the chance to leave on his own terms.

Also, why did the Pacers just fire Rick Carlisle? The Pacers had an off-year: big deal. The Suns had an off-year in 2004 after making the playoffs in 2003. The year after that they won the West and made the conference finals with returning players as three of the four big pieces (I'm referring to Johnson, Marion, Stoudamire).

Why do GMs respond so melodramatically to one off-year and fire coaches who have proven to do more good than bad* to the team Aside from building up the Detroit team that won a championship, Carlisle led the Pacers to the playoffs in two of three seasons, and the 2004-2005 season and its first round upset in the playoffs was especially hard to pull off considering the infamous Ron Artest-Ben Wallace brawl in Auburn Hills. It's rediculous to think it was even Rick Carlisle's fault they didn't make the playoffs. I don't have exact numbers on me but it has been fairly apparent that when a team makes a big roster adjustment, it will usually take a significant amount of time for chemistry to be developed.

I think that when managers fire managers for what appears to be no legitimate reason, this sends an incredibly bad message to kids and all other athletes: "Either win, win, win or you're not good enough for the team." Trigger happy GMs and the mindset that victories are meaningless unless you win the big prize in the end is contributing to a culture of winning and losing that's becoming increasingly out of hand.


*i.e. Byron Scott in N.J. mid-season after leading his team to the finals twice, George Karl in Milwaulkee for one bad season, Paul Silas in Cleveland for one 12-game losing stretch with Cleveland, Flip Saunders

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Review of Bewitched

Will Ferrell's over-the-top comedy gives the movie its moments and Nicole Kidman proves she's just as capable of playing light-hearted fluff as she is at drama, but credit to this movie goes mainly to Nora Ephron. With Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, You've Got Mail and now Bewitched, the director and co-writer has further solidified herself as one of the few consistently good writers of romantic comedy films.

I read a negative review of this film by the Washington Post that called the movie outdated saying, "Nicole Kidman plays a role ordinary reserved for Meg Ryan, that Meg Ryan herself even stopped playing long ago." On the contrary, I think Nora Ephron makes such solid movies because she is so acutely attuned to the latest trend. You've Got Mail, a movie about two people falling in love over the internet, came out in 1998, well before widespread e-dating. Similarly, Sleepless in Seattle's star-crossed pair find each other through a call-in radio show. Sound familiar? Dr. Laura or the fictional Frasier Crane, maybe?

Considering that this own film's release date is sandwiched between remakes of the Longest Yard, Batman, the Honeymooners, and the Bad News Bears, the Pink Panther, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on the other end, it seems pretty far-fetched to call this picture outdated with all this hysterical nostalgia going on around us.

Ephron's story lines are also well-written and have a screwball comedy sense of fun, this one being no different. In particular, she has a lot of fun playing with her life-imitates-art theme here in her story about a has-been actor trying to reboot his career with a remake of Bewitched casts Nicole Kidman as his costar, who turns out to be an actual witch.

As mentioned previously, Will Ferrell's hilarious ad-libs make their way into the movie and while he's slightly miscast, it isn't too big of an obstacle. Nicole Kidman is excellent as well. Shirley MacLaine makes the most of her small role, especially the scenes she shares with Michael Caine in their romantic subplot

Review of Batman Begins

Whatever you think of Batman Begins, you kind of have to give more credit to X-Men and Spiderman for getting it right the first time. The execs at Warner Brothers have changed their minds over what they want to do with this superhero franchise of theirs that they go and retool it every two movies.

So it’s kind of disorienting watching this one, in ways good and bad. For one, I feel a little disappointed in the batmobile: it’s more like a bat tank. Mainly, though, the story’s a lot more complicated with its humongous cast of characters. If I didn’t know any better, I’d guess there’s a rule that anyone who’s ever been nominated for an Oscar gets a coupon for a free role in a Batman movie that everyone’s cashing in on (if you want to know the exact stats, which I hope you do because I spent 10 minutes researching this, 5 actors in this movie have earned 12 oscar nominations between them), and they had to try extra hard to find parts for everyone., which led to some characters who just didn’t need to be there.

Like Morgan Freeman, for example, is a scientist who designs Batman’s gadgets. I love Morgan Freeman but what exactly is he doing there? Doesn’t Q belong with James Bond? Also, who’s the real villain? Aside from making the story confusing, I think part of the fun of Batman is that you have this whacked hero dressed up as a bat and then you have even wackier villains with themes of their own, like a guy who dresses like a Penguin or the Riddler. With the exception of the Scarecrow, this movie doesn’t really have that here. Unfortunately, I didn’t really see the scarecrow that much, anyway. I think the reason for adding someone like crime boss Carmone Falcone was to show us how bad of a place Gotham is. Now Tim Burton didn’t ever need to resort to that. He created such a dark tone that he could show us what Gotham just by showing us a frame of it. I will add, though, that most people who see this movie will probably agree that Commisioner Gordon and Alfred are both two really strong characters in this movie and they add a lot, unlike the other movies where they kind of stand around and look like idiots next to Batman.

So, as I say, the story’s different but as it stands on its own, it really works well. It had the same piecing-together-of-the-puzzle element that the Star Wars III prequels had, which is real cool. If you’ve watched any Batman TV episode or watched any Batman movie, then you can’t help but be intrigued by a movie that answers the questions, where did Batman get the idea for Batman, how did he get the batmobile or the batcave, where did he learn to fight?, etc.

Review of the Aristocrats:

I'm currently in the process of transferring some old reviews I wrote for a website called J-Maddy the summer before last summer to this website, so here's The Aristocrats (2005):
Last night, I took the metro to Rosslyn, hiked over a mile across the Potomac River into Georgetown and down a ways to go see this movie because Georgetown Lowe’s was the only theater that was showing it, due to the fact that it was banned in the movie theater I worked at. The film I’m talking about is “The Aristocrats”, a really cool documentary where something like 100 comedians (a lot of them famous: Whoppi Golberg, Robin Williams, John Stewart, Kevin Nealon, etc.) are asked to tell the same joke. The documentary also throws in some commentary, interviews, joke swapping sessions, etc.

I know what you’re thinking: doesn’t the same joke get old if everyone tells it? Well, some people I talked to said it kind of did, they should’ve stopped at 50, but the point is, in general the answer is no. The joke is a really open-ended one that each comedian tells differently. Oh yeah, and it’s also a really dirty joke. Really, really dirty. The film takes your mind to new levels of dirtiness that you never even knew existed which is why it’s banned in like 46 states, and you feel kind of like a criminal watching it.

At the same time, that’s the point of the film: that everyone has a dirty place. If the film was made for any single purpose, it would be a crusade against censorship. I think they make their case best by the fact that in their film, the comedian behind the famously corny family sitcom Full House Bob Saget tells a version of the joke so dirty, that he probably had to flee the country immediately afterwards.

Even as you’re disgusted a lot of the time you’re laughing. I think I realized for the first time ever how liberating it is to rearrange your priorities for a couple hours where being politically correct takes a back seat to laughter. When that happened, I knew the film had accomplished its mission.

And the summer season is off: Spiderman breaks all the records

Well, the summer season has started (and I have yet to fully discuss that in another post that I had planned to post up) and it was a bang with the new Spiderman sequel. The critics gave it "mixed reviews" while the public saw it in record numbers. Early Sunday projections come to the tune of $149 million and all I can say is that I saw both these trends coming. It seemed obvious that the critics wouldn't like the 3rd part of a trilogy because they rarely do. The expectations are so high, that they're usually expecting the next Citizen Kane and this is usually more the case when the film directors like the 2nd half of the trilogy better. Roger Ebert called X-Men 2 the best superhero movie he'd ever seen until the year after that when he proclaimed Spiderman 2 the best superhero movie ever again, so again the expectations are going to be high.

My city paper's film critic, Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post, went on to express this self-fullfilling prophecy in her review of the film. She basically said, "Spiderman 3 cements the rule that the third leg of a trilogy will always be a massive disappointment, just like Batman Forever and X-Men 3." As I constantly try to remind people, it wasn't until Batman & Robin that the Batman series took a real dive. Batman Forever remains one of my favorite superhero films and I have yet to hear a rational argument for why X-Men 3 was not a good film. Maybe slightly less effective than the first two films, but the level of acting, plot complexity, and special effects are still way up there. By no means do I equate Brett Ratner and Bryan Singer as directors (I think much higher of the latter), but without seeing the opening credits, I would openly challenge many of the film critics who bashed X-Men 3 to identify whether it was a Singer or a Rattner movie.

I also expected Spiderman 3 to do tremendously well, but duh. The harder question is why. I much prefer the X-Men series and tried to show it to my dad once, but for some reason he has a habit of running in the opposite direction of anything that appears sci-fi and about halfway through, he felt it was just unappealling and walked away.

It was too complex for him and in that respect, Spiderman with only one hero (Peter Parker), one villain (Doc Ock or the Green Goblin), one girl (MJ), and one variable who shifts in between (Harry Osborn), it's superhero/supervillain entertainment watered down enough so that anyone can partake. That's kind of the way I see it, at least. Magneto is a villain of Shakesperean proportions and he plays games of chess with his biggest arch rival. Despite Alfred Molina and Willhem Dafoe being serviceable actors, they played one-dimenstional villains. In Spiderman 1, the Peter Parker-MJ relationship is so cliche of the girl-next-door type story, that she's even literally next door. I also didn't feel that any of the key relationships evolved organically from Spiderman 1 to Spiderman 2. Harry and Peter Parker are "best friends" but that is merely a plot point. Do we ever see the two actually canoodling as friends? Despite the cliche factor, I might say that it was a somewhat effective progression from boy having a crush on girl to the two falling in love in Spiderman 1, but in Spiderman 2, there's an awkward stability between the two and they act as if they're lifelong friends. MJ is expecting things of him as "her best friend" such as being on time to the play. It's merely a relationship established at the start of the picture to move it along from one end of the spectrum to another.

Nevertheless, I do like the Spiderman Series and would give both movies thumbs up. I think that they do a great job of intermixing the superhero within the mundane world and that's another reason why this superhero trilogy has become such a mega force at the box office. Because it attracts the comic book nerds in droves while it attracts the people who aren't drawn to comic book storytelling. I think Tobey MaGuire is cast extremely against type and it plays off especially well. I just don't think it's on the level of really great movie making

Nevertheless, I will probably see Spiderman 3, mainly because when something's this big, you've gotta jump in and see what it's all about. I'm also extremely curious to see what they've done with Thomas Haden Church

Saturday, May 05, 2007

NBA suffering from high expectations?

One particular belief of mine, that I'm often surprised isn't so universal as ethical values go, is is that I don't think people should be fired without due cause. This even extends to NBA Basketball Coaches even if they get paid millions of dollars, I think it's unethical to fire them when they don't deserve it.

For instance, why did the Pacers just fire Rick Carlisle? The Pacers had an off-year, big deal. Why do GMs respond so melodramatically to one off-year like it's the end of the world and fire coaches who have proven to do more good than bad to the team (i.e. Byron Scott in N.J. mid-season after leading his team to the finals twice, George Karl in Milwaulkee for one bad season, Paul Silas in Cleveland for one 12-game losing stretch with Cleveland, Flip Saunders). The Pheonix Suns made the playoffs in 2003 than were one of the last place teams in 2004 before being ranked #1 in 2005, so they had an off-year and became great*.

I think it's these high expectations that if you don't win a championship, you've failed. Rick Carlisle built up the Detroit Pistons to the team that upset LA in 2004 to win it all and had made the playoffs 2 out of 3 seasons. The 2004-2005 season was especially hard to pull off for Indiana considering suspensions (one of them season long) to their three best players, and they also managed to win a playoff series to an extremely formidable Detroit team.

*Granted they had a new point guard coming in but Stoudamire and Marion were on both teams.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Jamestown's 400th Anniversary & The New World Review

As a Virginia, I'm actually very excited that Jamestown is celebrating its 400th Anniversary. Time Magazine did a big feature on it and I agree with Time Magazine's assertion in the opening paragraph that Jamestown doesn't get the attention that Plymouth had.

As Virginians, we studied Jamestown closely in our history books, and as Americans, Jamestown is studied to a lesser degree. In pop culture, Jamestown might be best known as the inspiration for two movies set ten years apart.

The first Pocohantas was a 1995 cartoon from Disney starring, among others, Mel Gibson (it now seems like poetic justice, considering his Euro-centric views, that he played a character who learned to be less ignorant) and Christian Bale (which is also ironic considering Bale starred in the New World). It was a typical Disney musical that didn't really distinguish itself from the ones that came before it ("Aladdin" "Beauty and the Beast") or after it ("Mulan"), but it might be the one I have the warmest memories of because of the material. It also did win an oscar for its song (as well as best score) "Colors of the Wind," which its predecessors "The Lion King", "Aladdin", and "Beauty and the Beast" all did, so it wasn't really anything special for Disney at the time.

Exactly 10 years later in 2005, The New World told the story in epic fashion. Those who are passionate about the Jamestown story were incredibly fortunate to have Terrence Malick chose this subject as his material for only his fourth film ever. It was my favorite film of that year.

Malick takes on the story with that sense of imagination while he grounds the visual look with ameticulous attention to historic detail. Thats one thing that really stands out and keeps things interesting during the picture's slower parts, especially for for people who are familiar with Eastern Virginia, seeing this movie is to see exactly what yourhometowns looked like 400 years ago.

A lot of the story, however, is very abstract. The score brilliantly alternates between baroque piano music, what one would imagine to be the music of the Native American tribe, and a serene silence in which nothing but the sounds of nature can be heard. Time seems abstract and sometimes journal entries from John Smith's journal are laid out as voice-over.

I later heard a lecture from a historical consultant for the film who told us that the film was supposed to be like a dream and it was meant to play to an audience who was already familiar with the story. The names John Rolfe, John Smith, and Pocohantas are never mentioned once he said. It would figure then that Terrence Malick saw himself as not a storyteller but a reinterpreter of a story that stands either as historical truth or myth. And by myth, I do mean myth. According to some history majors at the lecture I attended, there was a lack of literate people in the Jamestown colony and there is good evidence to suggest that John Smith's journals were embellished to the point where he might not have even ever met Pocohantas. I found that fascinating.