Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Some Capsule Reviews of 2011

This holiday season, consider making a $1 donation to this blog.

Some links: What if the SAG Awards Didn't Exist?
An Open Letter to Dwight Howard and Chris Paul on Gunaxin

Some movie reviews of 2011 Films (rapid fire edition)
Cedar Rapids-Ed Helms plays a small town insurance salesman who goes on his first plane trip to the big city to attend a convention. This movie is an excellent example of "Funny cause it's true" comedy. Trade and professional conventions are treated by the people who put them on and many of the attendees as highly exciting. From an outsider's perspective, it's a bunch of people overly excited to be spending a weekend at a hotel listening to lectures. Thus, you have a perfect premise for a movie and with the point of view being told from the perspective of the greenest convention goer ever to exist, there's not a mean bone in the film's body. John C. Reilly does his best to channel Jack Black. If I have one complaint about the film, is it ends on too much of a high. Even the best convention experiences aren't THAT life-changing.

We Built a Zoo-Covered here in my retrospective of Cameron Crowe. A must read if there ever was one.

Horrible Bosses-That was one enticing trailer that "Horrible Bosses" offered. Unfortunately, many of the best jokes were in the trailer. Oh yeah, and the trailer was misleading. It's not a film about three people trying to murder their bosses. That's really just the first act of the story. Maybe it's because the film switches directions in so many spots, that the film feels kind of rushed.

Overall, the film is still pretty decent. Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day, and Jason Bateman have some pretty good chemistry and Kevin Spacey and Colin Farrell have a lot of fun hamming it up as villains. Also, Julie Bowen of "Modern Family" pops up into the mix and gets kind of naughty.

Hangover II-Probably THE most shameless sequel to come along as of lately. It was enjoyable only on account of the fact that I was already in the theater (on account of other people) and did my darndest to forget I ever saw the first film. So if you try really hard, you can enjoy this film, but I do strongly believe that if a film has nothing original to say, then there's no reason for it to be made.

Cowboys and Aliens-This wasn't meant to have a shelf life beyond the two hours you spent watching it last summer, but this movie has proven surprisingly memorable for me. Several elements in the plot (i.e. why aliens would want gold, why Olivia Wilde's character wouldn't reveal her form, etc.) didn't make too much sense but it wasn't a movie that took itself seriously and I really appreciated it on the level of genre filmmaking (or more specifically, double genre filmmaking). The visuals, special effects and certain members of the cast (Adam Beach and Sam Rockwell made great supporting players) worked well. There was a sort of clash between Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford (One reviewer called the pairing a "peanut butter and peanut butter sandwich" and I ) both being the grumpiest guys you've ever seen, but I was won over by both of them even if I felt like it was a little too much friction.

Hugo-The main negative is that pretty much everyone says the movie starts off pretty slowly. It's over two hours and you could easily come in 45 minutes in and not miss much. This is somewhat of a problem because it's a mystery and the film works best on first viewing as the clues come together.

Other than that, it's an excellent film. The colorful cast of characters and excellent actors behind them are the film's biggest strength.

Descendants-This film is really two stories that don't connect as well as they should. It's not really a negative, though, because both stories work very well. One story is about a man coping with his wife's death and the other is about the responsibilities of the descendants of a land-owning clan to preserve the land. It's material that falls really well in Alexander Payne's ball park (co-written by Dean Pelton on Community of all people).

Both of the two central performances are overrated in terms of the Oscar buzz they're receiving. As I've written extensively, I'm finding the hoopla surrounding George Clooney to be overpowering of him whenever he is on screen. His performance is good but doesn't show many new notes in comparison to Up in the Air or Michael Clayton. Shalene Woodley is good but not great.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Directorial Progress Report

My annual progress report for 2011. New additions over the last two years added at end:

18 Alfred Hitchkock-Family Plot, Torn Curtain, Rebecca, 39 Steps, North by Northwest, Sabetour, The Wrong Man, Strangers on a Train, Shadow of a Doubt, Topaz, The Birds, Psycho, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much (both versions), Rear Window

14 Stephen Spielberg-Color Purple, Raiders of the Last Ark, Jurassic Park, Temple of Doom, The Last Crusade, The Terminal, Catch Me If You Can, Schindler's List, Hook, ET, Jaws, War of the Worlds, Indiana Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
PLUS: Saving Private Ryan
14 Woody Allen-Hollywood Ending, Curse of the Jaded Scorpion, Manhattan, Annie Hall, Small Time Crooks, Sweet and Lowdown, Mighty Aphrodite, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Melinda and Melinda, Ants, Sleeper, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, Bullets Over Broadway

10 Billy Wilder-Spirit of St. Louis, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, Irma la Douce, Double Indemnity, Sabrina, Ace in the Hole, Major and the Minor
PLUS: 1,2,3; The Front Page

9 Joel and Ethan Coen-Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Ladykillers, Man Who Knew Too Much, Intolerable Cruelty, Big Lebowski, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading
PLUS: True Grit

8 Martin Scorsesee-Color of Money, Age of Innocence, Goodfellas, Aviator, The Departed, Gangs of New York
PLUS: Hugo
8 Mike Nicholls-Primary Colors, The Birdcage, The Graduate, Working Girl, Charlie Wilson’s War, What Planet Are You From?, Postcards from the Edge, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff

7 Ivan Reitman- Ghostbusters, 6 Days 7 Days, Old School, Space Jam, Fathers Day, Beethoven, Beethoven’s 2nd
7 Rob Altman-Mash, McCabe & Mrs Miller, California Split, Buffalo Bill and the Indian, The Player, Dr. T and the Women, Prairie Home Companion
7 Rob Zemeckis-Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back to the Future I-III, Contact, Romancing the Stone
7 Steve Sodebergh-Erin Brockovitch, Ocean’s 11, Ocean’s 12, Full Frontal, Good German, Ocean’s 13, Informant
7 Clint Eastwood-Mystic River, Unforgiven, Bronco Billy, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Invictus, Gran Torino
PLUS: White Heart, Lonely Hunter
7 Howard Hawks-Sgt. York, Bringing Up Baby, Big Sleep, Ball of Fire, Rio Bravo, His Girl Friday
PLUS: Gentlemen Perfer Blondes

6 Mel Brooks-Spaceballs, High Anxiety, Young Frankenstein, The Producers, Blazing Saddles, History of the World Part I
6 Vincente Minelli-Meet me in St Louis, American in Paris, The Pirate, Brigadoon, The Band Wagon, Kismet
6 Frank Oz-Bowfinger, In and Out, Stepford Wives, The Score, What About Bob, Housesitter
5 Terry Gilliam-Time Bandits, Brazil, Fisher King, Monty Python, Brothers Grimm, Baron Muchenhausen
6 Barry Levinson-Tin Men, Rain Man, Sleepers, Good Morning Vietnam, Man of the Year, Wag the Dog
6 Peter Segal-Naked Gun 33 1/3, Tommy Boy, My Fellow Americans, 50 First Dates, Get Smart
6 Jay Roach-Austin Powers I-III, Meet the Parents, Mystery Alaska, Dinner for Schmucks

5 George Lucas-Star Wars I-IV, American Graffiti
5 Gore Verbinski-Pirates of the Carribean 1, 2, & 3, Weatherman, The Mexican
5 Stanley Donen-Take Me Out to the Ballgame (most sources insist that he really was the director, not Bugsy Berkley), On the Town, Singing in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Charade
5 John Huston-Treasure of Sierra Madre, Beat the Devil, African Queen, Man Who Would be King, Key Largo
5 Tom Shadyac-Liar Liar, Bruce Almighty, Patch Adams, Evan Allmighty, Ace Ventura
5 Sydney Pollack-Sabrina, Out of Africa, Tootsie, The Interpreter, Slender Thread
5 Joel Schumaker-Time to Kill, 8 MM, Batman and Robin, Batman Forever, The Client
5 Orson Welles-Citizen Kane, Lady of Shanghai, Othello, Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil
5 Ron Howard-Apollo 13, Beautiful Mind, Da Vinci Code, Frost/Nixon, Angels and Demons
5 Bryan Singer-Usual Suspects, X-Men, X2, Superman Returns, Valkyrie
5 Terrence Young-Wait Until Dark, 4 Bonds
5 John Glenn-5 Bonds
5 Brett Ratner-After the Sunset, Rush Hour 2, Family Man, X-Men 3, Red Dragon
5 Johnothan Demme-Silence of the Lambs, Melvin and Howard, Manchurian Candidate, Married to the Mob, Rachel Getting Married
5 Tim Burton-Batman, Batman Returns, Ed Wood, Charlie and the Chocolate Factor, Alice in Wonderland
5 Roland Emmerich-ID4, Stargate, Patriot, Day After Tomorrow, 2012
5 Robert Rodriguez-El Mariachi Trilogy, Spy Kids and Lava Girl, Sin City
5 Peter Weir-Witness, Dead Poet’s Society, The Truman Show, Master and Commander
PLUS: Year of Living Dangerously
5 Rob Reiner-Stand and Deliver, Princess Bride, Rumor Has It, American President
PLUS: Ghosts of Mississippi
5 Tony Scott- Enemy of the State, Déjà Vu, Crimson Tide, Top Gun
PLUS: Taking of Pelham 1,2,3
5 Curtis Hanson- LA Confidential, Wonderboys, In Her Shoes, Lucky You
PLUS: 8 Mile
5 Cameron Crowe-Almost Famous, Jerry MaGuire, Vanilla Sky, Elizabethtown,
PLUS: We Built a Zoo
5 Chris Columbis-Mrs. Doubtfire, Home Alone, Home Alone 2, Stepmom
PLUS: I Love You Beth Cooper
5 Sidney Lumet: Network, 12 Angry Men, Murder on the Orient Express, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
PLUS: Fail Safe

4 Harold Lloyd-Safety Last, Feet First, The Freshman, Kid Brother
4 Guy Hamilton-4 Bond movies
4 Peter and Bobby Farrelly
4 Kevin Smith-Chasing Amy, Mallrats, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Dogma
4 D. Herek-Mr. Holland’s Opus, Three Musketeers, Mighty Ducks, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures
4 John Lynn-Whole Nine Yards, Trial and Error, Sgt Bilko, Trial and Error
4 Barry Sonnenfeld-Men in Black I, II, Wild Wild West, Big Trouble
4 Wes Anderson-Rushmore, Royal Tannenbaums, The Life Aquatic, Darjeerling Limited
4 Penny Marshall-Awakenings, Rennisance Man, Big, League of their Own
4 Ernst Lubitsch-Shop Around the Corner, Ninotchka, Merry Widow, Trouble in Paradise
4 Lasse Holstrom-What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Hoax, Cider House rules, Shipping News
4 James Mangold-3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line, Kate and Leopold, Night and Day
4 Dennis Dungan
4 Sam Weisman
4 Christopher Guest-For Your Consideration, Mighty Wind, Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman
4 John Lasseter-Lady and the Tramp, Toy Story 1, Cars, Toy Story 2,
4 Jon Favreau-Elf, Iron Man
PLUS: Iron Man 2, Cowboys and Aliens
4 Adam McKay: Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers
PLUS: The Other Guys
4 David Lean-Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai, Passage to India
PLUS A Passage to India
4 John Ford-How Green was my Valley, Stagecoach, The Searchers
PLUS The Hurricane
4 Michael Moore-Roger and Me, F 411, Sicko
PLUS Capitalism: A Love Story

Once Upon a Time....

“Once Upon a Time” is an interesting show to watch in a vacuum (what I call watching a TV show or a movie without having read any reviews, reading commentary, or internet message boards). So many questions are popping up that I can’t turn to the convenience of the internet for: Does Regina know that she’s an evil queen? So the bail bondswoman’s stated reason for being in town is to stalk the kid she gave up for adoption ten years ago against her mother’s wishes? Is that the crazy guy from Prison Break as the town sheriff?


Once Upon a Time is a show about the residents of modern-day Storybrooke, Maine, who previously inhabited the world of familiar fairy tales before being banished by the evil queen from the Snow White story.

In the modern-day world, that evil queen goes by the name of Regina Mills (Lana Parrilla) and she is the town's mayor. The narrative is complex and highly confusing which is due to the fact that the plot is dictated almost entirely by Regina's 10-year old adopted son, Henry. The other characters all have amnesia and somehow he is the only one to have figured this all out.

Thus, the story is told from two conflicting perspectives and that's a very interesting scenario that the show delivers on. From the point of view of everyone else, Henry is a troubled child with a big imagination and from the POV of Henry, these are lost fairy tale characters who haven't figured out their true identity.

Because Once Upon a Time jumps back and forth between Storybrooke and the actual fairy tale world (I'd estimate the screentime is split 70-30 between the two universes with Maine getting the 70%), the show is on the side of Henry and we know it's only a matter of time before the rest of the town starts seeing things from his point of view. This is the central conflict and that's reinforced by Henry's belief that the characters will all be happy when they discover their true nature. Thus, it's a show of characters awakening to their true nature and works on that level.

This also makes Henry the guy who's always right. He's also a giant exposition machine. The person who he's doing most of his expositioning to is Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison). Swan is a cynical 30-something bounty hunter who discovers in the pilot episode that she is Henry's birth mother.

Emma's a key figure in the story, but the reasons that she impulsively uproots from Boston to Storybrooke after the pilot episode aren't particularly well hashed out. There's not really a strong case for why she's there. Emma's concerned that Regina doesn't have her son's best interests at heart but, then again Regina doesn't want her to take an active role in the kid's life ten years later and Emma has no rights to do otherwise. It's a good thing the show's fantasy, because if we looked at Emma's rationale from a realistic ethical or legal standpoint, we might not really be on her side at all.

Regina is eventually revealed to be somewhat malignant, but the show starts off with some genuine thematic confusion as we're left wondering why we should be behind a woman who voluntarily gave up her kid in a closed adoption process, and is now upending everyone's life on a hunch that the boy's adopted mother isn't all she seems. This is made iffier by the fact that Emma reconnecting with her son is one of the key conflicts in the story. If you can discount the clunky set-up (the key to enjoying much of this show), it's not such a bad story either).

Besides, the pilot at least establishes Emma's motivation, although somewhat weakly. The "why" of what Emma's doing in Storybrooke, is more of a "Why not?". One of Emma's key characters traits is that she's being rootless and having close to no support system (she's adopted herself).

The show's biggest strength is that it works both as an overarcing storyline, and as a series of entertaining one-off episodes. The fairytale land sequences are having diminishing returns with me for each episode, but it frames the story well.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Chris Farley hosts Saturday Night Live: Season 23 Episode 4

I recently watched the episode of Saturday Night Live that Chris Farley hosted in October 1997. Inviting Farley to host at the time was a somewhat controversial decision because Farley was on a downward spiral at this point that would eventually lead to his untimely death.

As for my experiences with Chris Farley, I originally never had a special attraction to him when I used to watch old episodes. Perhaps, I was just used to thinking of the heavy-set guy as a stock character and not the main star. My fascination grew, however, as I began reading about how amazing of a performer he was from other sources.

In Jay Mohr's book "Gasping for Airtime", the former SNL recurring player of two years clearly thought he was the most talented member of the cast. He devotes a whole chapter to Chris Farley. The introduction:
"Chris Farley was the most beautiful person I have ever met. You wanted him around all the time. You craved his presence...."

More here:

Coupled with other pieces of high praise I heard about the late comic star, I gradually began to shift my focus on Farley whenever I saw an old SNL rerun.

The most obvious thing one can say about Chris Farley is that he followed in the transition of fat comedians who were unaware of their girth. The Chippendales sketch is an example of Farley acting so gleefully free in spite of his girth. In the book co-written by his brother Tom, Chris Rock says that the Chippendale's Sketch might have been pigeonholed Farley too much in the "fat guy falls down" type of sketch.

The way I see it, there were two basic components that defined Farely's comedic skill set and he simultaneously played both masterfully. He had a consistent intensity. In whatever sketch he was in, he went full-force with the character. On the flip side of that coin, he had a charming Midwestern affability buried underneath. He was essentially a sweet and naive kid and that would come across even as he would erupt into a hysterical fit.

I think one of the reasons Farley drew so much curiosity and the book written about him was such a fascinating read, was that he was an elusive figure. Chris Farley might have had a consistent screen persona but you never felt like you really knew him. He would not be a likely candidate for the Weekend Update chair. In fact, it dawned on me as the opening credits were rolling that Chris's monologue would be the first time I've ever seen him addressing the camera and the audience as himself.

In a highly anticlimactic turn of events, Chris's monologue was averted in place of a sketch where he (as a character, not himself) gets distracted by Ana Gasteyer (whom he seduces), Tim Meadows attempts to take over hosting duties, and Lorne Michaels decides to get Chris Rock to come in last minute. At the end of the sketch, Chris Farley shows up and goofily does the requisite "We've get a great show/ ____ is here/Stick around" lines. It was pretty much the least amount of involvement a host could have for his own monologue.

For a show that's supposed to center around him, Farley hides himself pretty well too. The second sketch of the night is a parody of a morning talk show where Farley plays Gellman to Will Ferrell's Regis equivalent and Cheri Oteri's Kathy Lee equivalent.

He's inserted into a Mary Katherine Gallagher (Molly Shannon) sketch and doesn't appear at all in a Martha Stewart sketch.

Because popular demand wouldn't have had it any other way at the time, Farley got to do the motivational speaker sketch and the premise was ramped up to new heights with the sight of Matt Foley on a stationary bicycle in the gym. In the same vein, the Bears superfan character is given an update wherein Coach Mike Ditka has relocated to New Orleans and Chris' character refuses to accept it.

All in all, some interesting stuff.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Sing-Off wrap up: Fixing the season length

As we hit the Christmas special tonight of the Sing-Off and look back on it once more, I'd have to say that the season for me with its 16-group format didn't work as well as I might have expected.

I obviously love watching the show and I can't conclusively say that more of a good thing is bad, but there were drastically diminished returns in the last three or four weeks.

For one, we basically knew what the groups could do after a certain point so there was little element of surprise in the last few episodes. Most of the breakthroughs and surprises (the big dramatic moments which non-scripted and scripted shows alike rely on) came in the first few weeks. It seemed to me like most of the groups came together and had their best performances at the guilty pleasure show. The judges tried to frame Urban Method, Delilah, and Afro-Blue as having narrative arcs of falling and coming back, but I felt like those were exxagerated. I thought Katey Turley of Urban Method sounded just fine in Love the Way You Lie and the Rhianna medley. Was it that humongous of a difference?

To me, it wasn't so much groups were having big comebacks and finally figuring it out. It was more of a matter of the groups being out of their element in certain genres or just rubbing the judges the wrong way.

With the more articulate Sara Bareilles filling in for Nicole Scherzinger, the judges had more credibility on the whole and when they're saying all those intelligent-sounding words, you are really sold on that. Ironically, this is all flying in the face of what look like baffling decisions.

I think the general consensus on the blogosphere is that Afro-Blue's dismissal was a big goof on the part of the judges. I'd even go so far as to say it hurt the credibility of the show. Those conspiracy theories I've heard that the judges being influenced by the producers seem possible with Afro-Blue.

More than that, I think it's more of a matter of the fact that if you have 5 or 6 groups who all have what it takes and it's apples and oranges and the judges are trying to make convincing cases for Afro-Blue or BYU or Delilah being sent home when they all sound great, the judges are not gonna look good no matter what.

My suggestion: Expand the final round to five groups. Keep it as one episode with viewers voting. The dangers of America getting it wrong might be a problem if there were more than one week of audience voting because they might believe they're favorite group is safe. In this case, they're still voting for a winner.

This will cut the season by a couple weeks and eliminate viewer fatigue. It will also allow groups that are capable of delivering by the judges' standards to have an equal chance to compete for America's vote. Most importantly, it will give those poor performers a break. They looked thoroughly exhausted.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Capitol Critters

Anthony Scibelli on had a particularly inspired article about the early stages of prime time cartoons. Apparently, the success of the Simpsons sent networks in a rush to develop cartoons for the prime-time landscape in the early 1990's but it took break away tonally from children's shows. As a result, the first batch of prime time children's shows occupied an awkward middle ground between preachy Disneyesqe and the animated shows of today which are indistinguishable from live action TV shows in quality and maturity.

I just watched several episodes of Capitol Critters which first aired in 1992. Five minutes into the show, the protagonist's family is brutally murdered by fumigators which is very jarring. In his article, Scibelli seems equally jarred by this:

"It opens with what may be the most horrific scene I've ever witnessed in a cartoon. The series stars a young mouse named Max, voiced by a young Neil Patrick Harris, who lives on a Nebraska farm with his parents, grandfather and what appears to be about four or five brothers and sisters. After spending a day gathering corn, Max returns home to find an exterminator truck parked out front."

To be fair, Finding Nemo opens with one such tragedy and Bambi has a more tear-jerking scene. Unlike those two films, "Capitol Critters" makes the mistake of treating this opening passage relatively casually. The little guy lost his entire
family yesterday and it's treated as just a typical first act designed to move the plot along and explain Max's move to D.C. For comparison's sake, imagine how jarring it would be if a show with a similar premise, "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air", described Will's mom being killed and raped.

One of the show's strengths, to me, was the ensemble. None of the characters (with the partial exception of Jammet) were overly bland.

1. Max's cousin, Berkley, is a hippie mouse who calls everyone fascist. She has the least screen time of the five main characters on the show, yet the writers impressively mold her into a fully formed satire of the kinds of socially-conscious people I see in D.C. all the time (I live less then a third of a mile from the nation's capitol, I should know).
2. Trixie is a landlord and maternal figure of sorts with a Jersey-accent who gets some choice lines. Her vague resemblance to some regional New York/New Jersey/Boston stereotype (she'd fit in with the ladies from the SNL sketch "Good Morning Bronx")that somehow worked for me.
3. Trixie's son, Jammet, is the most broadly drawn character. Scibelli describes him as "streetwise" (because of his idiosyncratic speech patterns? he doesn't exactly sound like he's from the hood). Mostly, he's the bad influence on innocent Max. The group troublemaker, who inexplicably remains friends with the people who's plots he foils (think Shake in "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" or Dr. Smith in "Lost in Space"), is a long-standing sitcom staple that I'm a sucker for.
4. Lastly, there's the particularly inspired invention of Muggles. Voiced by Bobcat Goldwaith (who has a voice suited for comedy like no one else), Muggles is a former lab rat (or is he a mouse? he doesn't look like Jammet and Trixie) who still has the after effects of countless experiments. He goes on an LSD trip in one episode and in another he turns into the Manchurian Candidate. He also possesses an inordinate amount of knowledge like Chuck (from "Chuck") and regularly explodes like a popcorn kernel.

Like a kid's show, the episodes have moral themes and teach a lesson. One episode is about the danger of drugs while another is about cultural acceptance and so on and so forth. This didn't strike me as cleverly conceived satire so much as the remnants of a children's show which the art form hadn't yet transitioned out of.

To make a show about mice and rats in the White House be an effective satire about politics presented a lot of challenges anyway. The mice are primarily interacting with each other and have little to do with the lawmakers. If you wanted to overthink the premise, you might ask why Berkley is invested in the happenings in the White House when the legislators make laws that probably don't affect the lives of mice and if so, only inadvertantly. The show might have been better if there was something along the lines of a separate mouse congress.

When they get the mice interacting with the human world, it creates a few moments of effective satire. In one episode, Max gets stuck in the briefcase of a congressman, and he learns the truth about bribery in Washington. The show can also be kind of cute when it asks us to look at things from a mouse's perspective, although that's
what most Disney cartoons of that genre do.

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