Thursday, February 27, 2014

Jason Sudeikis and We're the Millers

Part of the fun of watching SNL is seeing actors transform from nobodies into film stars before your very eyes. I remember when Jason Sudeikis was a highly inconspicuous featured player who had just a few lines in the entirety of the 2004-2005 season. He seemed to blend into the background so well, it was hard to imagine him being up to the task of leading the show when the  older cast members left. His early bit with Kristen Wiig "Two A-Holes..." was hillarious but it didn't make any arguments in favor of Sudeikis being a guy with great range when you saw him using the same persona for game show hosts and other straight men and it didn't help that he was being relegated to those roles.

Saturday Night Live lends credence to the thesis, however, that performers need time to grow with the
audience. Like 90% of performers on SNL, Sudeikis gradually surprised me with new sides of himself. When Anne Hathaway hosted, we discovered Jason Sudeikis could sing. When Obama ran for office, we discovered Sudeikis could make a great Biden and four years later, he was even more hillarious as Romney. He was even impressive in the Lord Wyndemere skits and he wasn't the star of it. In short, Sudeikis is still the quintessential straight man he was when he started but he's refined that persona to be able to play variations.

In his first post-SNL vehicle in which he's a leading man, Sudeikis plays a slightly darker shade of the same guy: A bit more self-centered, a bit meaner, and a bit more prone to wreckless behavior. As a drug dealer devoid of any personal attachments (all the better for his character to arc in the opposite direction), Sudeikis's slight adjustments fit the story well.

In this film, Sudeikis plays a drug dealer who recruits three neighbors--  Emma Roberts as a teenage runaway, Jennifer Aniston as a stripper (not particularly convincing. She comes off as an improbably white trash version of Rachel) and Will Poulter as a sheltered teenage kid with an absentee mom  -- to help him evade border police while carrying drugs back from Mexico. As you might expect, the film will aims for sappiness points as the group of misfits bonds and forms a makeshift family as they experience misadventures together. What one might not expect is that despite being rather dark and edgy, the film manages to find some room for those heartfelt moments and does indeed earn its ending.

Also worth noting that certain set pieces (like Jennifer Aniston stripping her way out of a sticky situation or Nick Offerman licking Jason's ear off) don't work as well as others, but the heart is there.

Philip Seymour Hoffman passes away

I called my sister (who could be categorized as an ordinary moviegoer) the night Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away and she scratched her head when I delivered the news. "The guy from the Hunger Games?" she asked after IMDBing him. "Oh no, what's gonna happen to the sequel?" Because there are members of my immediate family (the main readership of this blog) who think of Hoffman primarily as the guy from The Hunger Games, I feel compelled to raise awareness for this late great star.

Was I a fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman? Let's just say I was a fan of great films around the turn of the century like "25th Hour", "Almost Famous", "Cold Mountain"*, "Big Lebowski" and "Talented Mr. Ripley." In other words, it was impossible not to be a fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman if you started becoming serious about watching films in that era because he had a great supporting role in practically every underrated film in those years. I'm not even counting "Magnolia" or "Boogie Nights."

If you might have missed Philip Seymour Hoffman in those years, it's because a lot of those movies weren't as famous now as they were back then. One might think Hoffman had a crystal ball predicting what would be a classic years later. Considering his talent and his heavy interest in the theater (his estate went to a foundation that would award promising playwrights with grants), it seems likely that Hoffman had a great talent for discernment.

Although he had the lead in small films like "Owning Mahowny", Hoffman had a sort of breaking out in 2005's Capote. While the film only grossed $28 million domestically, (which while admittedly better than Owning Mahowny's $1.1 million) it earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination and it gave Philip Seymour Hoffman the ultimate accolade for a leading man: a Best Actor Academy Award.

At that point, Hoffman could have gotten some meaty leading man parts** and been spared the indignity of only having my sister remember her as "The Hunger Games guy" eight years later. He could have also just stuck with his bread and butter and been a subtle character actor.

Instead, he did a little bit of everything. He carried films as the lead or co-lead in "Doubt" (my personal favorite), "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead", "Synecdoche New York" and "The Master." He lent his weight behind smaller indie films like "Pirate Radio," "A Late Quartet," and "The Savages." He stole scenes in supporting roles like "Ides of March," "Moneyball," and "Charlie Wilson's War." He even played a classic action villain in "Mission Impossible 3," he had a comic cameo in  "Invention of Lying," and he dove into a fantasy franchise with the "Hunger Games."

In short, Hoffman knew no boundaries when choosing films and his filmography is astounding. A highly experimental piece that Roger Ebert named the best film of the year (Synecdoche), Sidney Lumet's most acclaimed film in years (Devil) and a quiet anti-hero sports film inspired stylistically by "All the President's Men" that got nominated for Best Picture (Moneyball). He might be remembered as the quintessential character actor, but because his film choices were so smart, he was one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood in my book. Was there a film role he couldn't take on? Was there a better indication that a film would be something special than seeing his name in the opening credits?

I haven't even said much about his acting, but it's probably just to let it speak for itself

*To be fair, "Cold Mountain" is largely remembered as a failed Weinstein Oscar vehicle more than an underrated film but its a great historical epic in my opinion

** I know you're thinking of that Arrested Development reference. Shut up

Sunday, February 23, 2014

About a Boy pilot review

Nick Hornby, the author filmic inspiration (if you're not a book reader*) of "High Fidelity" "Fever Pitch" and "About a Boy" is like a wittier 21st century version of Douglas Sirk. Most of his characters seem to exist unapolagetically outside conventional society. We have people on suicide watch ("Long Way Down"), late bloomers whose idiosyncratic obsessions take the place of normal relationships ("High Fidelity" and "Fever Pitch") and "About a Boy" which is about a guy whose life exists entirely in terms of leisure and running mundane errands as shown in this clip from the 2002 filmic adaptation:

He lives off the royalties of a song his dad wrote so he never meaningfully earned any income and sees human relationships in curiously absent ways. He has some interest in dating and makes the admittedly foolish mistake of thinking single mothers are low-effort and high-reward. His plan to meet single mothers backfires when his first date results in a hanger-on and her son who get the whole gang in trouble on an outing to the park. Although his dating scheme is foiled, he ends up  forming an unconventional but meaningful friendship with the 11-year-old kid and that's how we have our titular story.

The American TV adaptation's pilot features most of the movie and book's plot in the opening episode which is somewhat of a necessity and not much of a concern because there's a lot more fun to be had. David Walton plays the lead and it's disappointing that he doesn't present us with a character significantly different from his California sun-dried womanizer in "Bent." Hugh Grant is by no means a great actor but he bought a sort of aimless whimsical charm to the role. In the film (and book) his lies to the eventual love interestish character about his child were fairly minimal and he makes an honest effort top backtrack on his lies. Walton is unapologetic and, frankly, quite sleazy. There's no middle ground in terms of whether to root for or against him. 

The degree to which the character (ok I'm just going to look it up) Will contributes to society is also changed here. Instead of the son of a song writer who sits around collecting royalties, Will at some point did something to earn money himself. He's a musician who's suffering from the dismantlement of his band but wrote a hit song once and lives on the royalties. The con about this is that as an ex-musician Will is considerably more cliched whereas Hugh Grant's Will was truly a unique creation. On the other hand, this scenario provides something more for Will to strive for in terms of his maturation: Reclaiming his friends and former band mates in addition to the regular sitcomey stuff (dating, career, etc.).

One clear strength of the TV show is the relationship between Fiona and Will which was relatively unexplored in the film. Toni Collette is a highly underrated gem who always brings something to whatever film she's in but she was underused in the 2002 film. Minnie Driver, one of those actresses who was famous some time ago but you can't remember if they're even still alive, has the potential for a great career reinvention here with a solid character role on TV. 

As for Dakota, the object of Will's desire in the first episode, she was only intended as a plot device to get Will and Markus together but it might be interested to see her pop up again. I certainly wouldn't wish to see a romantic relationship blossom between the two but I'd want to see her pop up at some inopportune moment and make his life miserable.

It's hard to say if it's going to be a good show, but the source material is good enough that it's worth sticking around.

*I'm really not a book reader. I just like Nick Hornby novels

Monday, February 10, 2014

Bedazzled and Marathon Man Reviews

This 1967 Stanley Donen comedy pulls off the feat of centering around a truly miserable character without ever feeling like a downer of a film. Stanley Moon (Dudley Moore) is a lonely short-order cook with a crush on a waitress at his diner who he's too shy to approach. The devil (or at least some vague devil incarnate) comes along, introduces himself (his name's George and he's played by Peter Cook) and grants him seven wishes in exchange for his soul.

Stanley promptly uses up one wish after another on Margaret and, because the devil is a trickster who can't be taken at face value, they all backfire. That's OK because Bedazzled isn't really a love story. Instead it's a meandering meditation of love, death, good and evil, and religious dogma that's imbued with an absurdist wry humor that only British comedy can do. In other words, the film feels a little aimless but that's part of the charm: Delving too deeply into romantic comedy territory would make the film feel hackneyed while delving entirely into religious politics would make the film feel preachy.

Marathon Man
Marathon Man is a Dustin Hoffman vehicle that stands as one of the best-known thrillers of the 1970's. Fitting into 1970's conventions to minimize on back story and to emphasize action (Brad Pitt, Bennett Miller, Ben Affleck, and George Clooney were all attracted to this style when they made Moneyball, Argo and Good Night and Good Luck respectively), the film is centered around the evolution of a relatively complex character but is primarily action-driven.
That relatively complex character is graduate student Thomas "Babe" Levy (Hoffman) whose remains haunted by his father's persecution and subsequent suicide as a result of the Red Scare. Seeking to enter into the same field of study as his father, Levy hopes to exonerate his father's work. The title of the film derives from the fact that "Babe" is a long-distance runner but if you assume that this is the "Prefontaine" or "Chariots of Fire" of the 1970's, be warned that this is not a running movie at all and a suspiciously minor plot point. The running scenes are reminiscent of the way French New Wave films juxtapose motifs (I'm thinking specifically of Breathless where the guy is shown looking at a picture and smoking a cigarette like the matinee idol he's trying to emulate) as an avant-garde way of providing characterization.

In the film's first hour, there's a twin narrative occurring alongside a love story between Babe and a fellow grad student that turns out to be nothing more than a red herring. In the other story, Roy Scheider plays "Doc" who turns out to be Babe's brother (apparently, the Levy clan had terrible taste in nicknames) and he's tracking an ex-Nazi dentist played by Laurence Olivier. Olivier's role and the presence he brings to that role (it was the final of his 10 Oscar nominations) provide the film with its most memorable moments. People might not know the plot details of Marathon Man but many are familiar with the dentist's torture scene as well as his "is it safe?" monologue.

Similarly, that's how I felt about the film: I'll remember the film's overall tone (very dark for a Dustin Hoffman film) and a handful of moments such as Olivier's torture scene, the sewer scene, the drag race, and the reveal that Doc is Babe's brother (Scheider's character is a very enigmatic figure and his involvement in the story goes without an explanation for what I'm guessing is an hour). The plot is highly dense and takes a couple of viewings to really grasp and even then there's a feeling of discomfort of blanks left unfilled. You might call them plot holes (i.e. how exactly did a traffic hold-up turn into a drag race filled with murderous rage and what are the odds that a tanker would be there?) but it seems like a certain story convention that's seemingly being emulated by the biggest names in Hollywood today. I felt a similar disconnect from The French Connection which is another film of great praise that I seem to be in the minority on.

Rather than end this review with a conclusive statement on what was wrong or right about the film, I'll ask other people who have seen it to explain the film's appeal.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Don't hail Brooklyn Nine Nine as the future of comedy yet: Straight-Man-Funny Man Dichotomy

Brooklyn Nine Nine is starting to get a little bit of critical steam now that it won the Golden Globe for best comedy.

Erik Adams at the AV Club just posted an article: Brooklyn Nine-Nine isn't TV's best comedy---But It's Getting there. In an effort to stop the  critical Brooklyn Nine Nine train from turning into a massive bandwagon, I'm going to put my foot in the ring and caution other critics to praise it as the next big thing just yet. I previously included Brooklyn Nine Nine on my 2013 list of shows that didn't measure up and I'll expand upon it here.

First, let's talk about the Golden Globes:
Anyone who uses the Golden Globes as a barometer for critical temperature should note that the Hollywood Foreign Press is composed of some 90-odd part-time journalists who only have the illusion of importance. The only reason anyone pays attention to them is because they finangled their way to a TV deal with NBC in the early 1960's (a contract that was dropped from 1968-1972 when the FCC questioned their voting procedures). If they line up with other awards, it's largely coincidence if you look at it statistically and in the case that the Golden Globes does something idiosyncratic, it should be taken as a fluke.

The Golden Globe nominees in the comedy film category have included Patch Adams, There's Something About Mary, The Tourist, Alice in Wonderland (the Tim Burton version), Analyze This and Sydney Pollack's highly forgettable remake of Sabrina. No one else has followed suit in honoring any of those films and I suspect no one has even rented these films from Blockbuster..errr, I mean Netflix

Adams also points out that it's rare for a show to dominate critical buzz early, but it's worth pointing out that 30 Rock (which really was a juggernaut in its first season), Arrested Development, Modern Family all won in their first year of Emmys eligibility, and the Office won in its second season after a first season that was just six episodes.

Now, let's talk about Brooklyn Nine Nine:

The show makes sense from a dollars-and-sense perspective. Andy Samberg is pretty hot coming off a highly visible 7-year SNL run and Mike Schur (Brooklyn Nine Nine's co-creator) was able to custom-cater a hit smash to ex-SNL cast member Amy Poehler's comic persona with "Parks and Recreation."

The problem with trying to do the same for Andy Samberg is that Samberg was never a particularly capable live performer (a decent impressionist at times, I admit) and that capturing lightning in a bottle for Samberg would involve taking over a great deal of Samberg's highly off-beat wackiness with him. To try to  put Samberg into any sort of straight sitcom is problematic from the start.

On top of that, Schur chose to make Samberg a cop, and not just a cop, but a homicide detective. Why they picked the most clich├ęd setting in TV show history as a vehicle for a comic actor who no one would ever picture as a police detective is beyond me.

Samberg is wacky beyond compare here and lacks a straight man to balance him out.

A straight-funny man dichotomy requires someone grounded in reality which is ironic because Greg Daniels and Mike Schur's first two series (The Office and Parks and Recreation) were known for their hyper-reality.

Take the example of 30 Rock:
Liz Lemmon is the straight man to everyone except in episodes where Tina is going a little bit off the rails and then Pete Hornberger acts as her straight man. As evidence of this, in episodes that don't feature Liz's neuroses, Pete has noticeably less screen time.

30 Rock tends to isolate their demented characters (the ubervain Tracy/Jenna duo, the ubermoral country bumpkin Kenneth, and the ubersnob Jack) and play them off the straight man. That doesn't necessarily mean that there aren't plenty of Tracy/Kenneth interactions but it means that the form of bizarreness is happening in isolation. When Tracy and Jenna are being self-centered showbiz type, it's usually countered with a strong balance by Liz or Pete reacting to Tracy and Jenna as if they're behavior is bizarre. Similarly, Liz (especially in Season 1) is highly stressed out by Jack because he's a bizarre boss making bizarre requests (like that episode where he misleads her into thinking he needs a great joke that night because he's wearing a tuxedo) is another example of bizarreness in isolation played against a straight man. In short, the straight-man-funny-man dichotomy on 30 Rock is one of very sharp contrasts (from 3 different sources) which is used to good effect.

Back to Brooklyn Nine Nine:
In Brooklyn Nine Nine, we have one character acting really bizarrely for a police detective rather than having a sharp contrast between him and the rest of the world, various characters like Boyle cheering him on and adding one liners on top of the mix, and characters like Diaz and Santiago who  join in sometimes and are sometimes dismissive of him for being an immature man-child. Boyle, in particular, is troubled, because he occupies an odd middle ground between class clown wannabe, shy guy, and straight man.

In short, there isn't a good distinction between the clowns and the straight men in this cast. Andre Braughter's character, Ray Holt, is a very grave and stern man. He almost works but a straight man isn't about being gravely serious to the point that where your grave seriousness is a comic trait.
A straight man, rather, is about bouncing off the funny in a way that establishes a comic baseline. Even if Holt were a perfect foil, so many of the characters are wacky, that it doesn't work. If we were to take Holt seriously, he'd have fired well over half the staff by the third episode which runs into the problem that we'd no longer have a show. 

On top of that, we'd have Chelsea Peretti who's a brilliant cloud cuckoolander in that she's so bizarre but she doesn't mesh well with the rest of the cast. The upside is that Peretti would kill on any other show with that character and I look forward to seeing that happen if this show gets cancelled.

What's the net effect of this? Som might point out that even if there's not a good straight man, characters are still saying funny things and since we're all still laughing, isn't that the point of a comedy? I'd argue it renders any attempt at pathos or sentimentality ineffective because I'm taken out of the realism completely which keeps it from being a show who's characters I want to follow week in and week out.