Thursday, August 28, 2008
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Friday, August 22, 2008
- So, some big entertainment news today out of Warner Brothers - they intend on rebooting the Superman franchise, Hulk-style, as opposed to doing a sequel to Bryan Singer's SUPERMAN RETURNS. To this I say: thank you lord. Singer's Superman had few qualities worth bringing back for a sequel, and it's overall approach to the character was just frustratingly wrong-headed. That being said, this is still the same WB that greenlit Superman Returns in the first place, and I'm not confident that they know what they're doing when it comes to Superman or in terms of DC Comics in general. People point to the Dark Knight as a positive sign, but remember: Batman Begins also seemed like a positive sign, and then came Superman Returns. The fact is - WB got lucky with Christopher Nolan and Batman. All it takes to realize this is to listen to Zack Snyder talk about how he came to be the director of WATCHMEN. From the way he tells it, it sounds like Warners was primed and ready to give the reigns of the biggest comic book adaptation ever to any number of lesser directors until Snyder stepped in, deciding that if WB was deadset on doing the movie, he might as well make sure it was done as well as humanly possible. Warners got lucky that it found someone in Snyder with that kind of passion and feeling of responsibility towards the movie. Hopefully it can get that lucky again with Superman. I know there are all kinds of pitches out there - Mark Millar made a lot of noise with his proposed take. Apparently Geoff Johns has a treatment out there. All it takes is a look at what Johns has done of late on ACTION COMICS to see that Johns might just be the man for the job to script the definitive Superman film. Granted, he is unproven as a screenwriter, but Johns is more than proven as someone who gets DC's characters better than almost anyone, who knows how to meld the history and mythologies of these characters with a cool and modern take. Whoever does end up handling this movie ... I can only hope they have that same ability. If nothing else, it's high time for a Superman movie that wasn't brooding, meditative, or cute. It's time for a Superman movie that is, for once, a HUGE and EPIC adventure, with universe-spanning storylines, gigantic villains, classic supporting characters ... and YET, the notion at its core that despite the grandeur of his adventures, Clark Kent will always be a Kansas farmboy at heart because of how he was raised. That means no creepy-stalking of Lois, no illegitimate love-children, and that when he's punched, he will by-god punch back. It means that Lex Luthor is EVIL and GENIUS and NOT a smarmy schemer with a real-estate crime-of-the-week. It means that Lois Lane is one of the great female characters, crusading reporter, tough as nails, yet amazing enough that she can win over Superman's heart. Please lord, SOMEBODY get this right. Come 2010, I want Superman battling Darkseid in the heart of Metropolis in an epic movie that redefines the term blockbuster. Make it happen, WB. Make a film worthy of the world's greatest Superhero.
- By the way, great article on WATCHMEN over at The Onion AV Club. Check it out:
- Alright, onto the big movie review of the day:
VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA Review:
- For all the relative acclaim that Woody Allen has received since he began his recent cinematic tour of Europe, there's no doubt that his latest, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is the prolific director's best overall effort in many years. The movie is just a pleasure to watch and get lost in. On one level, it is visually astonishing, capturing the scenic Spanish settings with a real eye for detail and atmosphere, and capturing its leading ladies with the same sort of care. On another level, the script is strong - a meditative examination of the futility of love - and the performances, from Javier Bardem, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, and Penelope Cruz, are all universally great.
The film follows two New York natives, Vicky and Cristina, who travel to Spain to spend a few months living with Vicky's aunt in Barcelona. Vicky, played by newcomer Rebecca Hall, is set to marry an agreeable if not somewhat bland New Yorker. She is a planner and slightly neurotic. You might even say a little bit snobby, a little bit cold. Cristina, meanwhile, played by Johansson in her third Woody Allen flick, is a free spirit and a bit of a lost soul - impulsive, wannabe-artsy, and never quite content. It's that last point that Vicky and Cristina have in common, but while Vicky hides her anxieties under an air of always being in control, Cristina is pretty open about always searching for something more.
Both of their worlds get turned upside down when the pair meets Juan Antonio, played by Javier Bardem. At first, he seems like a run-of-the-mill Spanish ladies man, bluntly and amusingly propositioning Vicky and Cristina. But the more we get to know Juan Antonio, the more we realize he isn't quite what he originally seemed - and yet he remains symbolic of this whole idea of an exotic "other" - a bohemian artist who carries with him the promise of escape from a normal life, a gateway to some idealized, alternative means of life and love. I won't get too into the twists and turns the plot takes beyond that, except to mention Penelope Cruz's great turn as Juan Antonio's crazy ex-wife, Maria Elena. Cruz enters the picture late in the film, but she is a total firecracker from the first moment she's seen on-screen. Her love/hate relationship with Juan Antonio is alternatively hilarious and disturbing, and the eventual three-way relationship the couple enters into with Johansson's Cristina is actually handled by Allen with a lot of interesting and thought-provoking perspective. I don't know if Cruz will be in the running for Supporting Actress come Oscar time, but she is so good in this role in such a relatively short time that I could see it.
But getting back to the film's fatalistic look at relationships and romance, it really is kind of a thought-provoking work by Woody Allen, who of course has always come back to this theme again and again in his films. Here, he kind of looks at how love needs both stability and spontaneity to survive, and since relationships tend to be build on either one or the other, most are doomed to leave all parties ultimately unsatisfied. In this respect, I felt like VCM, for all its aesthetic charms, had more to say than any Allen movie I've seen in recent years.
Now, there are bound to be some complaints about Allen's trademark dialogue quirks infiltrating what is, in most respects, a very non-Allen-tinged movie. Personally, I didn't mind Allen's trademark dialogue, peppered with excessive "you know's" and out-of-place expressions like every character saying "make love" in every other sentance. In its own way, to me, it all fits here. It's not like Anything Else, where there was a clear disconnect between the modern setting and the characters who talked like they were in, well, a 1970's Woody Allen movie. Here, the movie kind of exists in its own little universe, so the Woody-speak didn't bother me, and in a way it almost lends itself to the movie's sense of humor. These characters all exist in this quirky, romance-novel world, so it fits that "making love" would be their go-to euphemism for sex. But this is a well-written movie, unquestionably, with a real wit and charm to it that is trademark Woody. It also helps that the actors pull off the dialogue with just the right amount of winking and nodding at the audience when necessary. Javier Bardem in particular is probably one of the few actors who could pull off the Juan Antonio role without becoming obnoxious or goofy. Scarlett Johannson really does some of her best work in these Woody Allen movies - she absorbs a bit of Allen's fidgety neuroses though the Scarlett-as-Woody-proxy is very much toned down here compared to, say, SCOOP. Instead it's Rebecca Hall who is the uptight, overanalytical one, and she really did a nice job in the role. And like I said, Cruz is just great and steals many a scene.
Are there times when the movie has that somewhat anachronistic feel to it? Sure - there are certain conversations that simply don't feel authentic to characters who are supposed to be New Yorkers in their twenties. But that kind of thing goes with the territory - remember, this is all coming at us through the 70-something Woody Allen filter. But this is the kind of movie that's so refreshing to see, because they don't make a lot of movies like this, and really, few others have ever quite done movies like Allen's. This one was a film that invited you to sit back, relax, immerse yourself in the scenic Spanish setting, and then, in true Allen fashion, to ponder the hopelessness of it all.
My Grade: A-
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
- But hey, in LA it's always warm and sunny, so ... eat it, east coasters! I actually did get in some more tennis this weekend, which hopefully will become more of a regular thing. Although, wow, it's been forever since I've gotten in a good game of basketball. Hope I can do that soon.
- Anyways, on another note, I can't help but channel my "inner fanboy rage" towards the buzz-killers at FOX, who have now been so aggressive in pursing legal action against Warners as relates to WATCHMEN that the entire film could now be in jeopardy. Are you kidding me, FOX? I understand that there is a long and tangled history around the movie rights to Watchmen, but to me it's a sad affair when corporate shenanigans actually stand to *prevent* a work from even being released. At this late stage in the game, that goes beyond just staking claim to one's legal rights and gets into book-burning territory. FOX had their chance to take legal action, and that time ended when the movie began to go into production. To ramp up the pressure only at this late juncture reeks of bad form and deserves a giant finger of shame. Watchmen is a DC Comics property, and it's right and appropriate that DC's parent company is the one to handle the film version. How about if FOX leaves well enough alone, realizes when an opportunity has passed, and focuses on shepharding its own franchises? This is definitely the ugly side of the movie industry, folks, the side that reenforces just how much the world of movies revolves around the almighty dollar.
And it's funny, too. Because up until recently, many fans would just as well never see a Watchmen movie see the light of day (hell, Alan Moore *still* wants nothing to do with the movie). But it goes to show how much good will Zack Snyder and his team have earned - people WANT this movie and can't wait for this movie. At this point, the reality is that any obstacle potentially preventing its release is a very bad thing - not just for Snyder and co, but for fans everywhere who recognize that this might be, finally, a Watchmen movie that all can be proud of.
- On the OLYMPICS ... I have to say I'm still just surprised at how many people in my peer group are 100% into the Olympics. This is definitely a fascinating sociological study in the making, because the interest level is definitely not what I would have predicted. And it's all happenning without even much of an emphasis on "big" sports with well-known participants, like basketball or tennis. But yeah, like everyone else I got a little caught up in the whole Michael Phelps / US Swimming thing, if nothing else just for the historical signifigance and also the hilarious reactions of his mother as he swims. I checked on the web to find out if he was Jewish (he's not) because I was like "wow, now that's a Jewish mother if I ever saw one." (and yes I can say that because I'm Jewish). But yeah, it's hard for me to find the actual races all that exciting because I always forget who is in what lane. And that one announcer sounds like he is a 14 year old girl. It's funny because tonight I watched a little diving, and I just don't get these aesthetic competitions. Like, all these athletes doing these crazy backflips, and the announcer is screeching about how the diver made about 14 different mistakes. And who decides on what the criteria is for a great dive anyways? Like, why not reward the diver who can make the *biggest* splash? It's like demoting a basketball player because he slammed the ball for a dunk rather than a layup. But anyways, that's all I've got to say about the Olympics.
- Dude, the COMEDY CENTRAL ROAST TO BOB SAGET was one of the funniest things I've seen in a long time. All I can say is, if you like good comedy, be sure to check it out by whatever means possible. The lineup of comedians was uniformly hilarious. Gilbert Godfried ruled it, proving once again that he is a master of old-school-style tasteless jokes. Jeff Ross, Greg Geraldo, Jim Norton, and even Jon Lovitz were all pretty consistently funny. Norm MacDonald did a set that was at first bewildering, but soon crossed the line from being completely random and confusing to being side-splittingly hilarious. Some great cameos from Lewis Black, Sarah Silverman ... and John Stamos did a good job of hosting as well. Saget himself was great. And holy lord - Chloris Leachman may be old, but she is still capable of being as profanely dirty as anyone. Yikes! But yeah, talk about must-see TV. These Roasts continue to be comedy gold.
- Meanwhile, I can't say enough about CBS' SWINGTOWN. No, I mean it. It kind of started as a guilty pleasure, but I was a fan of the script and the pilot since I originally saw them way back when. I got into the first few episodes, but man, for the last several weeks or so the show has REALLY kicked into high gear. I can hardly believe it's a CBS show - because, please take note CBS - this is the first time in my 25 year old life that I have EVER regularly watched a show on CBS. But unlike most CBS shows, Swingtown has style, it has great characters, it has that addictive, soapy-yet-smart quality that hooked me on shows like The OC and Gossip Girl. And yes, I realize those are teen shows - but Swingtown is essentially a teen show with adults who act like teens. But to its credit, Swingtown isn't all flash, despite its scandalous premise. The show is surprisingly contemplative, thoughtful, well-paced. And the sexual politics actually come within the larger social and political context of the 1970's setting, which the show does a pretty good job of exploring. Really though, what's made the show pop lately has been the side characters who have really come into their own. Pushover suburban dad Roger has slowly become one of the show's best characters, as has his on-screen wife, Janet, prim, proper, and a hilariously conservative foil to the show's more liberal-leaning characters. Of course, o nthe other end of the spectrum there's Grant Show, who is just endlessly entertaining as a swinging jet pilot who basically is a jet-flyin, kiss-stealin', wheelin', dealin' ... well, you know the rest. Plus he sports a hilarious, 70's-era swinger stache. In any case, the show has gone from an interesting oddity to a legitimately awesome series. It's crazy that CBS randomly moved it to Fridays to die a slow ratings death. Like I said, I NEVER watch CBS shows and I and at least a few friends are dutifully watching / recording Swingtown each week. I know prospects for renewal are bleak, but come on CBS, as the show's theme song says: "give it up" for Swingtown!
- Alright, so onto the movies, it's been one hell of a month for comedies. STEP BROTHERS was hilarious. PINEAPPLE EXPRESS was another great buddy comedy from the Apatow stable. So the question became - could Ben Stiller's TROPIC THUNDER complete the trifecta? Read on to find out ...
TROPIC THUNDER Review:
-Tropic Thunder is a movie that I think will surprise a lot of people who go in with the expectation that the movie is a hilarious, over-the-top spoof on the Hollywood movie-making process. In many ways, that's exactly what the movie is ... but there's no mistaking that Tropic Thunder, like Ben Stiller's previous directorial efforts, is a dark movie. In fact, I'd almost draw the comparison with Stiller's CABLE GUY, in that characters who you might presume to be goofy and inconsquential are actually somewhat disturbing, in terms of just how far Stiller takes them.
Ostensibly a satire of big budget Hollywood movies and the stars who make them, Tropic Thunder contains a lineup of characters who prove instantly recognizable as the usual suspects of Hollywood actor cliches. There's Ben Stiller as an action hero who's gone to the same well one too many times - a cross between Sylvester Stallone and McBane from The Simpsons (although, since the character still looks and talks like, well, Ben Stiller, there's a bit of a disconnect there). Stiller's character has tried unsuccessfully to branch out as an actor, going from action franchises to Oscar-baiting fare like "Simple Jack," in which he plays a mentally-challenged protaganist. There's Jack Black, whose character is kind of a mash-up of every lame comedian stereotype - he's like Chris Farley, Eddie Murphy, and, well ... Jack Black, all rolled into one. And then there's Robert Downey Jr., who kind of parodies pretentious method-actors, poking fun at the likes of a Russell Crowe, Daniel Day Lewis, etc. - he plays an Austrailian actor who wants to immerse himself so much in his new role, where he plays a black soldier, that he has a surgical procedure done to alter his skin pigment.
All three of the leads do a nice job. Robert Downey Jr. in particular tends to steal the movie - his line delivery as "the dude playing the dude who's playing a dude" is just pretty inherently funny, and even if half the time you can't quite 100% understand what he's saying, that's oftentimes what makes his unique brand of jibba-jabba so amusing. Like the character he plays, Downey Jr. really does immerse himself completely into the role, and it's actually a pretty amazing piece of acting. So give credit to RDJ - he's having one hell of a summer at the movies.
As for the other leads ... Stiller and Black are funny, but I guess their performances on further reflection had a little bit of smugness to them that ultimately rubbed me the wrong way. I mean, Stiller has done some great stuff, but he has done his share of clunkers. Same with Black. It seems like in a movie like this, the door is wide open for a Stiller or Jack Black to point the satirical lense at themselves a bit and lampoon their own careers, and the fact that they don't to me did give the movie a slightly holier-than-thou feel to it.
This was also apparent in Tom Cruise's unbilled supporting roles as the mother of all asshole studio execs. It's funny to me that people act so surprised that Cruise is so great in the role - the guy is ALWAYS good and really almost never disappoints in terms of his acting. It's just his personal life that is a little questionable. But yeah, Tom Cruise not only disappears under makeup for this role, but it's true - he is downright hilarious. Seriously, the guy has awesome comedic timing and totally nails the part. And he has THE line of the movie when he screams into a phone and tells a Vietnamese militant to take a step back and $#%$ his own face. Yikes! Still, this is one of those characters that's so darkly satirical in that it's almost depressing to watch Cruise bring to life this complete P.O.S. guy. And that's the thing, it's another instance where an actor in the movie makes fun of some OTHER Hollywood type yet never turns it back on themselves, not even a little - as if to say: "yeah, I may have my problems, but check out THIS guy!" Again, Cruise as the Studio Exec From Hell is a hilarious, memorable bit of acting - don't get me wrong. It's just weird to me that people are looking at this and reacting like "oh wow, who knew Tom Cruise had a sense of humor?" Newsflash: everyone has a sense of humor when it comes to bashing others - I would have been a little more impressed if a bit of self-deprecation was included as well.
And that's why, to me, some of the most memorable and funniest moments of the film came from some of the less well-known actors. For one, it was great to see Apatow favorite Jay Baruchel in a funny turn as the nervous, fledgling teen actor who is trying to fit in with the big boys. Baruchel's more relatable character helps ground the movie a bit and keep the more over the top tendencies of Stiller and co in check. I also loved Steve Coogan here as the movie-within-the-movie's experimental director. Coogan has some great moments and one simply incredible scene that may be the funniest part of the entire film.
Slightly less awesome was Brandon T. Jackson as a Chris Tucker-esque actor / rapper with a secret. His main purposes seemed to be to get annoyed with Robert Downey Jr. Also, after stealing the show in Pineapple Express, it was a bit disappointing to see Danny McBride not do too much here, playing an overeager explosives expert. McBride made the most of what he was given, but what he was given wasn't much. Same goes for Nick Nolte as a faux-badass Vietnam vet whose published account of the war serves as the basis for the Tropic Thunder movie. Nolte was occasionally funny, but ultimately didn't have enough great lines or memorable moments to really stand out.
Now, I know I've been a little harsh on the movie so far, but I want to emphasize that overall I really enjoyed it and it mostly kept me laughing from start to finish. I give Tropic Thunder tons of credit for having the same quality of a Pineapple Express or Hot Fuzz in that, in parodying huge, overblown action movies, the movie itself comes through with a lot of fun action and a more epic feel than your typical comedy. There's actually a really great soundtrack that accompanies the action as well - a pretty nice song selection that evokes the Vietnam era to a "T." And as far as the satire goes - despite my earlier criticisms, Tropic Thunder still stands as a pretty biting look at Hollywood movie-making, from the studio exec's Diet Coke obsession to Robert Downey's dead-on speech about going "full-retard" as being a deterrant to Oscar gold. That scene encapsulated the absurdity of the Oscars in one minute better than the entire film of For Your Consideration could manage, I think. I guess in the end though, the movie just left me with a slightly cold feeling. As I said, the more I thought about the kind of satire that the movie uses, the stranger it seemed that the film seems to poke fun at everyone BUT the actors in the movie - all of whom are big potential targets. Still, this is yet another Summer 2008 comedy that manages to elicit constant laughter, and it's a great way to cap off what's been a pretty amazing summer movie season.
My Grade: B+
- Alright, that's all for now. On a final note, I just FINALLY watched the series finale of EXTRAS, which I'd only been meaning to do for, oh, the last six months or so. Amazing is all I can say. So, until next time ...
Monday, August 18, 2008
So I have like 50 things to talk about, but I think I'll save those for another entry. What I want to do now is to talk for a minute about THE DARK KNIGHT. As avid readers know, I've been promising for a while now to do an epilogue entry of sorts to my Dark Knight Week series that preceeded the movie's release up and until my big review of the movie itself. Now, here we are, about one month after the movie's release, with TDK already ranked as one of the top grossing movies of all-time, and a bonafide box office sensation. So of course the question becomes: what's next? Even under normal circumstances, a third movie in Christopher Nolan's Bat-franchise would be a hot topic, but given the tragic curcumstances surrounding Heath Ledger's death, the question of what shape a third movie could take becomes even more complex.
The first question is, of course - what villains should be used in a new Bat-movie? TDK seems to set things up for the return of the Joker - so with that in mind, the question is - should somebody ELSE take on the role that Heath Leger so skillfully redefined? The same names come up over and over again in these conversations - Johnny Depp, for one - and I'm sure that there are at least a few actors out there who could do an amazing job as the Clown Prince of Crime.
Personally though, the move I've thought about it, the more I think that The Joker SHOULD be a presence in a Part 3, but that - especially given the circumstance of Heath Ledger's death - it might be just as effective if he's never actually seen. One of the main threads of a Part 3 could be that the Joker's theatrical presence has inspired a string of similarly outlandish villains, slowly beginning to fill up the corridors of Arkham Asylum. The mere fact the the Joker is still out there, still in effect "winning" his war on Gotham and against Batman, could be an overarching theme of the film - even if we never actually see the Joker himself. I mean, what better way to cap off Nolan's trilogy then by replaying the ending of Begins - with Batman seemingly victorious, only to be presented with a reminder that The Joker, his most dangerous nemesis, is still out there and might well be for years and years to come? I can't think of a cooler way to close the trilogy than with a Joker playing card, a maniacal laugh, and the lasting image of Batman rushing off into the darkness to once again do battle with his arch-enemy.
But this begs the question - if not the Joker, then what villains SHOULD play a primary part in a third Batman film? First off, I think you've got to have TWO FACE in the mix. More so than even the Joker, there is an urgency to the story of Harvey Dent that begs for some finality in a future film.
Here's an idea: fans of the comics know that the villain of BATMAN BEGINS, Ra's Al Ghul, is famous for his use of the mystical "Lazarus Pits," strange pools that heal anyone who bathes in them of all injury, and act as a fountain of youth of sorts. Perhaps Liam Neeson could return as Ra's in a Part 3, working in the shadows to organize Gotham's costumed villains to wage war on the city. His chief lieutenant? Two Face - who has been promised a dip in the Lazarus Pits in exchange for his services. This plotline would also allow Nolan to take a stab at bringing to life a few more members of Batman's famous rogues gallery - everyone from Killer Croc to Poison Ivy to Mr. Freeze to Harley Quinn could potentially make a cameo - each enticed by a particularly irrestible offer from Ra's. The saga of Two Face would remain front and center though - as his fall from grace is rendered complete and irreversable by his deal with the devil.
If, however, I had to pick only one villain, other than Two Face, who SHOULD, and probably WILL, be in the next Batman film ... I would definitely say CATWOMAN. While I realize that my slightly ambitious idea above is a longshot for a gritty Nolan-directed Batman film, I think Catwoman, more so than any other Batman rogue, would fit perfectly into the world that Nolan has crafted thus far. All one needs to do is read Batman: Year One (which was already a lot of the inspiration for "Begins") or any of Ed Brubaker's street-level run on Catwoman, and it's clear that it's only natural that the character reappear on the bigscreen. Not only would she provide a much-needed female presence and quasi-love interest in the film, but including Catwoman would be doing fans a service, in that it would erase and negate the atrocious Halle Berry vehicle from a few years back in one fell swoop. Not to mention, at the end of TDK, we left off with a Batman who was on the wrong side of the law despite his good intentions, who was trying to preserve his moral highground despite increasingly psychotic and violent enemies plaguing Gotham. This overarching theme is a perfect fit for Catwoman, a morally-ambiguous character who steals for the thrill of it, but who ultimately uses here talents to help others. At first, Batman could find himself at odds with Gotham's mysterious new cat burglar, but eventually, the two could form an uneasy alliance in order to take down a larger threat. Keeping with Nolan's grittier take on things, this version of Catwoman could adapt Frank Miller's darker version - a poor former callgirl from Gotham's East End who, inspired by Batman, dons her catlike costume in order to protect those who fall under the radar of the police and even Batman himself.
Now, as for who should play Catwoman ... I know it's almost too obvious and for some it's an unappealling choice ... But man, I can't help but think that Angelina Jolie was simply born to play Selina Kyle. Sure there are some other choices out there - anyone from Eva Green to Katee Sackhoff - but I can't help but think that Jolie, despite her status as a tabloid star, could really knock it out of the park if given the chance to play Catwoman as directed by Christopher Nolan.
So I think it's pretty realistic to look at Catwoman as a strong possibility for Batman 3. And I think a return appearance by Two Face is probably a given. Ra's Al Ghul? Maybe. And we've still yet to see Ra's femme fatale daughter Talia surface in these films - might she be in the cards?
For some reason though, everyone keeps mentioning The Riddler as a possibility for Batman 3. And all I can ask is: why? The Riddler is a fun villain, no doubt, and in the comics his appearances often make for a fun diversion between more serious storylines. Right now, in fact, Paul Dini is doing a great job of painting Edward Nigma as a cool supporting character in Detective Comics - where Nigma is now a villain gone straight (kind of). Having dumped his criminal ways, Nigma has reinvented himself as a rival detective to the Batman, hiring out his services to the highest bidder. I like the Riddler - the great Frank Gorshin did an awesome job of portraying him back in the day on the old Adam West show, and Paul Dini and Bruce Timm did some cool stuff with him years later on The Animated Series. But Riddler is a villain that to me doesn't quite fit in with what Nolan's been doing with the franchise. That is, unless you alter the character to become some kind of clue-obsessed serial killer or something, as a few have suggested. To me though, that's just an unnecessary warping of the character, a villain who is a lot of fun but mostly representative of a different, more light-hearted brand of Batman adventure.
The same goes for The Penguin. I like Penguin as a supporting character - a highbrow freak who considers himself above most other criminals. He runs the Iceberg Lounge and uses it as a front for his dealings with the Gotham Underground. But like The Riddler, the Penguin is by no means an appropriate or worthy followup to the Joker as a primary villain in a third movie. I'd love to see him pop up as a side character, but why anyone would want him as a main villain is beyond me.
Of course, I recognize that even the seemingly-goofiest of Batman villains can be dark and kickass in the right hands. Case in point: the thought of Ah-nold as Mr. Freeze still makes me shudder, but man, sign up Patrick Stewart to the role, and follow the storyline set forth by the Animated Series ...? That's a badass movie right there.
I've also heard some say that a third Batman film would be a good time to bring in BANE and do an adaptation of the popular Knightfall storyline of the mid-90's. While I'd love to see Bane done right (yet another thing that Joel Schumaker f'd up ...), I think that character and that storyline only really works when there's been a long history established in terms of Batman's crimefighting career. The whole point of Bane was that he came into the picture and after years of criminals trying to off the Bat - he finally did it. The Batman of Nolan's movieverse is still a relative rookie, so given that, it'd be hard to do a Knightfall-like, "Batman's Last Stand"-style storyline. Still, if there was some way to bring in Bane as a villain, it would certainly be interesting to see what Nolan's take on him would be.
One other idea that's been floating around - the concept of simply flashing into the future and doing something radical with a third movie: adapting Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Look, I think everyone wants to see this in some form. Not only is DKR one of the best Batman stories of all time, it's one of the best graphic novels ever written, period. And after Sin City and 300, who wouldn't love to see a similarly stylized take on Batman, and specifically, on DKR? It could be a kickass movie, but to me that's something entirely separate from Nolan's Bat franchise. His world is realistic. The world of DKR is hyper-stylized. One of its most famous scenes is an epic fight to the death between an armored Batman and a government-controlled Superman. I can't see that at all fitting into Nolan's world. Now, you COULD say that Nolan would take some of the basic elements of DKR and use them as a basis for a third movie. Okay, that I could see. But I'd much rather Nolan just make a third Batman film that fits into what he's done so far, and let Zack Snyder or Frank Miller make their own version of DKR sometime down the line, in a manner that captures all the craziness and extreme stylization of the book.
Okay, now here's the big issue that needs to be tackled for a third Batman movie, and no, it's not whether or not Alfred will finally be sportin' the 'stache. The issue in question is this: should a third film include one of the most well-known and longest-standing members of Batman's supporting cast - that being: ROBIN ...?!?! It's a tough question, because many people view Robin as a somewhat silly, lighthearted character who doesn't fit into the dark world that Nolan has established. It doesn't help that, the last time that Robin was brought to the bigscreen, it was in the godawful Schumacher-directed Bat flicks, where Chris O'Donnell's portrayal became one giant joke.
But think about it - in comics like DARK VICTORY, A DEATH IN THE FAMILY, and ROBIN: YEAR ONE, we've seen Robin stories that are dark, serious in tone, and really do add to the Batman mythology. I think that one key element that's been missing from most non-comics versions of Robin is the idea that Robin is essentially a foster-son to Bruce Wayne. This is why you need a young Robin who is clearly in the age range where he could be like a son to Bruce. And, if you think about it, a young Dick Grayson being adopted by Bruce Wayne fits perfectly into the arc that Nolan has set in motion. The Dark Knight took Batman and Gotham to the edge of the abyss, and ended on a solemn note of hopelessness. Batman himself became an outlaw, after seeing his friend Harvey Dent turned to the dark side and The Joker call into question Batman's own shaky moral high ground. Any third Batman film would necessarilly begin on a note of relative hopelessness, so what better time to bring in Robin, who is the one symbol of Hope in Batman's otherwise bleak world. As has been said in the comics, for all his failings, raising Dick Grayson was the one thing Bruce Wayne can always point to as an area where he unquestionably succeeded. Now, sure, having a young 13 year old kid swinging around in green and red tights and fighting crime might be a little much for Nolan's Bat-verse. But there is surely a way to do the Robin story in a more toned-down, realistic manner. Have Robin be more a behind-the-scenes aid than a crimefighter - maybe only hint that down the line he could become a hero equal to Batman. Have him train, sure, but maybe keep him in the shadows until the movie's end, when perhaps he is forced into battle to save his mentor. Give him a more modern costume, equivalent to the one Robin currently wears in the comics. And make his origin tragic and tell it on the same high level as Dini and timm did in their classic Animated Series episodes, "Robin's Reckoning." I know Nolan has said that he'd be against doing Robin in a movie, but I hope he reconsiders and sees how the concept could be done right, and fit perfectly into the themes that have been building throughout the first two films.
All that's left is the question of what the third film should be called. I've heard some say "The Caped Crusader," but to me that sounds totally off from the tone of the franchise under Nolan. No, to me the best title is that which was used by a comic series that launched back in '89 to coincide with Tim Burton's Batman. The title was "Shadow of the Bat," and given the direction Nolan has taken the franchise, I can't think of any title more appropriate for a potential Part 3.
So I'm sure there will be much rumor and speculation about a third Nolan-helmed Batman film in the coming months, and I have enough faith in the cast and crew to assume that whatever happens, we'll get a quality third film if the same principles are involved. But it's worth taking a minute and simply absorbing the fact that the second highest-grossing movie ever is now a dark, violent, disturbing, nearly R-rated take on Batman vs. The Joker. Wow, that sort of kicks ass.
Monday, August 11, 2008
- So, okay, first of all, I opened my last entry with some thoughts about the then-upcoming Olympic games. I questioned whether I and others of my generation would tune in to the games, and whether all the efforts to market the games online, on-demand, etc would succeed in attracting Gen Y, or if it was all just one more sign that, here in 2008, the Olympics lacked the sense of specialness they once had. Well, after all the reports of record ratings, both on air and online, it seems pretty clear that there is still a huge audience out there for the Games. I know for me, watching the Opening Ceremonies on Saturday morning after recording them on Friday was a wake-up call of sorts. The lavish and artistically amazing event, from the mind who brought us the likes of HERO and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, was surely one of the best and most awe-inspiring in the history of the Olympics. It definitely got me excited for the events to come, and also set the stage for an Olympics that does in fact come at a pretty interesting time in world history, particularly for China, who is clearly using the games as a showcase for their country. Watching the USA Basketball team take on China, with the President in attendance, you couldn't help but buy into that "big-event" feel. Even though the US decimated China, the crowd still hung on every shot attempt, and displayed immense pride in Yao Ming and co. Meanwhile, there's no doubt that the swimming events and Michael Phelps in particular have been causig a sensation. It's amazing how in a few days' time these athletes' names can enter our popular conciousness. Sure, some of us remembered who Michael Phelps was, but now everyone knows and is eagerly following his race for gold. And will any of us remember him again in two years? I don't know, but I guess that's how the Olympics work. Somehow, every four years, for some reason, we care about who wins a swimming race. It's just the way it works. And yeah, I guess I underestimated how many Gen Y'ers were ready to catch some Olympic fever. Judging from how many Facebook status changes I've seen relating to the Olympics, the TV nets who live or die by broadcasting these games may not have as much to worry about as I thought. Or, it might just be that I know a disproportionately large number of people who work at NBC. You be the judge.
- Now, just after I wrote my last post, the story broke about JOHN EDWARDS' extramarital affair. I don't have too much to say about it at this point, other than: what a $#%#. Edwards has always rubbed me the wrong way, and articles I've read about him often seemed to paint a picture of a guy with some issues laying beneath his artificially smooth-talking exterior. I just don't understan what is with these guys ... how do they think that in this day and age they have any shot of getting away with this stuff? Look, everyone should know by now: NOTHING IS SECRET in 2008. If you are a public figure, everything you do is on the record. Period. So to hear the clips of Edwards denying the affair so vehemently is honestly pretty disgusting. I don't think I even need to go into the fact that, given his wife's circumstances, the whole thing is just extra sleazy.
Now, many will look at Bill Clinton and say, hey, he survived his indiscretions when all was said and done, and is still a key figure in the Democratic party, etc. Well, the sad fact is that deciding who you like and who you don't like is not always objective. Clinton was a likable guy, and a two-term president who many respected for his leadership in office. Edwards - I don't know if he has that same kind of likability cushion, and I don't know to what extent his political career will survive this. Personally, I hate to see this kind of thing happen, but if it does, I wish that a.) all parties involved would just be upfront - you're a public figure, the truth will come out, so why hide it? - and, b.) for once, would the wife just dump their sleazeball cheating husband? No one, certainly, would think any less of them for doing so.
- Another newsworthy series of events from this weekend: the unfortunate passing of two big figures in entertainment. The first is comedian BERNIE MAC, who tragically died at only 50 years old. Mac always seemed like a cool guy, and his sitcom was always, in my mind, a nice, family-friendly thowback that never got the attention it deserved. And then, there was the death of music and showbiz legend ISAAC HAYES. Best known for his classic "Shaft" theme song, and then for his vocal talents used to give life to Chef on South Park, my favorite Hayes role was his cult-classic turn as The Duke in Escape From New York. Rarely has the villain in an action film been so badass and menacing and yet so effortlessly cool. The Duke's grandiose entrance and his subsequent faceoff with Snake Plisken are to me the stuff of action-movie legend. And yeah, there's a lot of controversy about Hayes' latter years and the whole Scientology involvement, but I won't get into that now out of respect for what the guy achieved as an entertainer. So farewell to Isaac Hayes, he will be missed, and if you disagree, then, well -- shut yo' mouth (Shaft!).
- I do want to take a quick second and comment on the recent craziness concerning STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS. If you haven't heard, Warners / Lucas have been enforcing a review embargo on the movie. Despite many critics and bloggers having seen the film, the powers that be seem to be going around and selectively asking various reviewers to pull down their reviews, depending on what screening they happened to attend. So, today's Variety has a lengthy review, whereas Harry Knowle's scathing Ain't It Cool review was unceremoniously yanked. The fact that Harry's review wa so uncharacteristically negative and brutal makes Warners' censorship that much more suspicious. I mean - the way I see it - if you don't want your movie reviewed, then DON'T SCREEN IT. To allow fans to see a film and then forbid them from talking about is to me a complete sham. Especially if no papers were signed, etc. I'm sure Warners has their reasons, but the fact is doing this only makes them look like a company desperately trying to block any negative reviews of their big-money Star Wars movie. Look, personally I had pretty low expectations for the film in the first place. It's basically a theatrical release of an animated TV pilot aimed at kids. I don't think many though this was going to be the second-coming of Empire Strikes Back or anything. But you know what, I was still at least a little excited to see it, because, hey, it was new Star Wars in the theater. At least that's something. Even with bad reviews, I still would have been curious. But now, with all of this corporate strong-arming, I seriously don't care about seeing the movie anymore. So thanks, Warners and Lucas, for seemingly doing everything possible to make me NOT want to see your movie.
- Anyways, I guess that wraps up all of this weekend's news. So without further ado ... it's time for the big review of Pinapple Express.
PINEAPPLE EXPRESS Review:
- Several years ago, a show called FREAKS AND GEEKS, in one cut-short but brilliant season, established itself as one of the greatest television series ever made - a hilarious, dramatic, and smart look at high school life that introduced us to a collection of characters who you couldn't help but root for. And even though the show was cut short after a single season, it's been a great joy to see its talented cast members and creative team go on to become some of the most up-and-coming stars in Hollywood. Judd Apatow, for a few years now, has been one of the most high-profile and prolific comedy producers, directors, and writers in the business. With KNOCKED Up, Seth Rogen became an unlikely star. With FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, Jason Segal could be well on his way. And while the show's "geeks," from Martin Starr to Samm Levine, have seen various degrees of success, the last of the "freaks" to really take that next step has been James Franco.
Yep, James Franco. I know, he's been in bigtime movies like Spiderman and its sequels, but that never seemed like the same James Franco who first made his mark as Daniel Desario, who wasn't a conventional leading man, but an actor who was an outsider, a comedian, anyting BUT conventional. Well, that James Franco is back in Pineapple Express, teaming up with his old FnG pal Seth Rogen, and it's a return to form that's been a long time coming. In Pinapple Express, the story of an aimless stoner and his dealer getting caught up in a world of crime and mayhem. Franco and Rogen are a natural team, and make for an instant-classic buddy duo. Cheech and Chong, Dude and Walter, Harold and Kumar ... say hello to Dale and Saul. The two have the same kind of effortless yet hilarious interaction, similar to Michael Cera and Jonah Hill in Superbad ... and you can tell that once again, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have brought a lot of those same themes from Superbad into play. This is yet another movie about male bonding, and it could have been annoying in the wrong hands, but the script and cast are just too likable for that to happen. Rogen does a great job of playing the stoner everyman, and Franco has that unique ability to play a perpetually high drug dealer and yet still be amiable and empathetic all the while.
The slightly weird thing about Pineapple Express is that, to some extent, it's a tale of two movies. What starts out as a very conversational observational comedy - a more stoned-out version of a Knocked Up or Superbad - eventually becomes and all-out, ultra-violent action parody along the lines of HOT FUZZ. Now, I really enjoyed the movie as a whole, and enjoyed both sides of it pretty much equally. But then, I love action-movie parodies when done right - anything from Hot Fuzz to Army of Darkness to the fake trailers found in the theatrical release of GRINDHOUSE. That being said, I can see someone going into this movie expecting a lightweight stoner flick and being somewhat shocked that the movie becomes dominated by so much action and violence. Still, to me that's what makes this movie that rare comedy that is both really funny and sort of epic in its ambitions. When the movie is taking things slow, the dialogue, the characters, the relationship between Dale and Saul - it all comes together really well. And then, when the movie begins to kick into overdrive, with crazy action and hilariously over the top choreography, well, that also comes together really well.
It helps that, in addition to Rogen and Franco each doing a great job and making a great comedy duo, there are a ton of great supporting cast members here as well. Danny McBride is pretty memorable here as Red, a skeezy midlevel drug dealer who absorbs an ungodly amount of physical pain and yet keeps popping back up as dimwitted and hilariously oblivious as ever. McBride slightly channels his trapped-in-his-own-mind character from THE FOOT FIST WAY, and in doing so gets some of the movie's biggest laughs. Gary Cole is awesome as a villainous crime boss - if you want an actor who the audience will love to hate and cheer when he's punched in the face ... you can't do much better than Cole. Amber Heard is pretty good as Rogen's still-in-high school girlfriend ... it's one of the film's more out-of-left-field subplots, but also one of its most interesting, and the source of some of its biggest laughs. Especially true in that it results in a great cameo-sized role for Ed Begley Jr. as the girl's pissed-off father. Meanwhile, Craig Robinson and Kevin Corrigan are great as a pair of thugs who work for Gary Cole's character. Robinson, best known as Daryl from THE OFFICE, just has natural comedic timing and delivery, and gets off some classic lines. I've been a big fan of Corrigan since the underrated GROUNDED FOR LIFE. Sure, he has that quintissential sleazy gangster-type look, but he's also hilarious when he does comedy. Great casting for both of these roles, and same goes for Rosie Perez as a tough-as-nails corrupt cop who's in on Cole's schemes. A few reliable comedic players like Joe Lo Truglio (The State), Ken Jeong (tons of Apatow movies), and Bill Hader (SNL) also show up for brief but memorable cameos. Hader actually shows up during the film's wacked-out opening scene, which flashes back to the 30's and the goverment's original experiments with pot and its effects. Strange, random, funny, but oddly appropriate in setting the stage for the rest of the movie.
But again, the heart of the movie is really the central buddy-comedy duo of Rogen and Franco. This is yet another Apatow-produced film that takes characters who would usually be portrayed as one-dimensional and makes them into living, breathing creations. At the same time, director David Gordon Green gives the movie a unique and energetic look and feel that elevates it into a fun and wild action movie in its own right. That same multi-dimensional, multiple-genre feel of Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz permeates Pinapple Express. Most of all though, the movie is funny from start to finish. At first the laughs are smaller and more subtle, and then bigger and crazier as the action and violence escalate. It's an odd mix at times, and even jarring. It's strange to see what starts as an oddball buddy comedy morph into something so different as it goes on, and at times its hard not to feel that the movie is overblown, that it goes on for too long, or that its fallen in love with topping itself in terms of action when it should be reigning itself in a bit more. But to me, it worked. And that unique blend of genre and scale is what elevates Pinapple Express to one of the summer's best and funniest.
My Grade: A -
- Okay, made it through another Monday. Onward, folks.
Friday, August 08, 2008
I don't know, here at work the Olympics are obviously a huge focus, and yet I've yet to talk to anyone of my generation who is actually excited for the games. Is it just because we no longer come together around these big, shared events? Is it because we are so used to watching what we want, when we want, that an event that seems to demand such appointment-style viewing loses its appeal? Maybe it's that the games have just lost their luster -- in a world that's so small now, everyone interconnected via technology and communications - is it really that special or novel in 2008 to see athletes assemble to compete while representing their country? All one has to do is watch an NBA or MLB game to see teams made up of multicultural and multinational players. Without that aura of specialness, the Olympics is really just a lot of sports that few of us pay attention to in Non-Olympic times. Swimming, diving, track ... soccer? How many of us would watch these outside of the Olympics? And I guess that's why all this effort is being put into making sure that the games are available in all media - online, on-demand, etc. So, it will be extremely interesting to see if these efforts to bring the Games to the digital age pay off. I'm really curious to see what the TV ratings will be for the games, and I'm curious to see if, personally, I'll begin to get caught up in the Olympic excitement, or just tune out. I have to admit though ... I'm curious to see how the events look in glorious HD.
- On a political note, I know I'm not alone in thinking that John McCain's recent wave of ads on Obama are just ridiculous, not clever or funny, and disturbing in the way in which they try to associate Obama with so much negative and pretty random imagery.
I mean, come on - is anyone buying the idea that Obama is a hollow celebrity in the same vein as Paris Hilton or Britney Spears? That ad comes off as a total act of desperation by McCain. I mean, what is he trying to say - that Obama should be chastized for being popular? I mean, since when did Americans ever dislike someone for being larger-than-life?
And then, the other recent ad that intercuts footage of Obama with Charlton Heston as Moses from the Ten Commandments ... This ad is just plain weird on a number of levels. First, is comparing someone to Moses supposed to be a huge attack on someone? Last I checked Moses was a great biblical hero. Hmmm. But okay, the reality is that the ad tries to paint Obama as a self-appointed savior who is actually much more sinister than he appears. Personally, I find that message pretty disturbing. I mean, it's a completely hollow accusation / implication. Since the guy is popular and charismatic, by definition he must also have a messiah complex and be hiding some dark and secret agenda? I hope anyone with half a brain will join me in calling BS on these ridiculous John McCain ads.
Personally, I can't wait to see the first debate between Obama and McCain. I can only imagine that McCain is going to get eviscerated, because the fact is he's simply on the wrong side of too many issues. Well, except for the issues that he's changed his mind on, depending on whether he's pandering to the Conservative base or trying to reestablish his rep as a straight-talking maverick. I do agree with one shared observation though - the election will certainly provide some of this Fall's most compelling new TV.
- At the movies this weekend: I am definitely excited for PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. Mostly, it's just cool to see Seth Rogan and James Franco team up again. If only Jason Segal could join them, it'd be a full-on Freaks and Geeks reunion. As I've talked about every so often here on the blog, over the last few (well, several?) months I've been slowly but surely re-watching every Freaks and Geeks episode, and with each episode I am continually blown way by just how good the show was. I believe I only have one or two eps left before I'm done with the series, but man, it really is one of those shows that's eternally rewatchable. In any case ... if Pinapple Express can capture even a fraction of that old Freeks n' Geeks magic, it should be pretty great.
- Anyways, I do have a movie review for ya' - so if you are curious to know what I thought about STEP BROTHERS, read on ...
STEP BROTHERS Review:
- There was a time when I definitely conisdered myself a Will Ferrell hater of sorts. I think the problem wasn't that I had any particular dislike for Will Ferell, it was that the guy seemed to be all over the map when it came to comedy. And the problem was that the stuff that people seemed to respond the most to ... to me, that was often his weakest material. To me, I love when Will Ferrell gets weird, random, and out-there. I don't like him as a crazy overgrown fratboy or as an effeminate cheerleader. To me, Will Ferrell is at his best when he digs in deep, pushes his comedy to the extremes, and doesn't pander to anyone.
So to me, Will Ferell has never been better than in his collaborations with writer Adam McKay. In Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and now Step Brothers, McKay has written scripts that have that special kind of insane stupidity that comes from a real sort of comedic genius. The characters Ferrell plays in McKays scripts are uniformly morons, but their idiocy is always written with a touch of brilliance.
So, I'm happy to report that STEP BROTHERS is an inspired bit of so-dumb-its-genius filmmaking in the grand tradition of comedy classics like Dumb & Dumber.
The movie is just freaking funny, for one thing. It's a hard R movie, and it goes all-out in terms of pushing the envelope. I don't like profanity used just for the sake of profanity, but there's a hilarity here because the whole point is that the step brothers, played with total commitment by Ferrell and John C. Reilly, are 40-year-old losers who never matured past the age of 14. It's a premise that could have been pretty lame if handled poorly, but the movie never holds back - it creates these crazy and absurd characters and runs with them. Somehow, it works.
Again, a lot of that is due to Ferrell and Reilly. The brilliant and underrated WALK HARD cemented John C. Reilly to me as a hilarious comedic actor, and he's similarly great in this one. Him and Ferrell are plain and simply a great comedic duo - you can tell that they are in every way on the same page, and you get the sense that each is trying to top the other throughout the movie. It gives the comedy a real energy.
To mention the premise for a minute - the basic setup is that Ferrell and Reilly are two 40 year old guys who somehow never matured past adolescence. Ferrell still lives with his overprotective mom, played by Mary Steenburgen, and Reilly still lives with his stern dad, played by Richard Jenkins, who has kind of taken the "oh well, I tried and failed" attitude towards his good-for-nothing son. When Jenkins' and Steenburgen's characters have a whirlwind romance and marry, they move in together and each brings along their still-at-home 40 year old sons. Of course, the two step brothers start out as instant rivals, but since they are basically two sides of the same coin, they eventually bond and become fast and inseparable friends. But of course, just as they are happy and content to share a life of daytime TV, bunk beds, and karate fights, their parents finally demand that the two grow up and get out into the real world.
It's worth noting that Richard Jenkins is awesome here. Similar to DeNiro's unexpectedly great performance back in Meet the Parents, the gruff-looking Jenkins is fearless here and just has a ton of great moments of inspired lunacy.
There's also a really excellent suporting cast in general - a lot of the actors weren't very familiar to me prior to this film, but they're actors who will now definitely be on my comedy radar. Chief among them is Adam Scott, who plays Ferrell's accomplished and uber-slick yet ultra obnoxious older brother. He's one of those actors who looks familar, and maybe it's because here he seems to be channelling Tom Cruise, but he really is hilariously hateable. There's a great scene that introduces him and his seemingly perfect family, as they drive together while Scott forces them to sing an acapella version of "Sweet Child of Mine." Kathryn Hahn is also really funny as his sex-starved wife. There's a lot of other funny people who pop as well, from Rob Riggle as an overeager businessman to a great Seth Rogan cameo.
Mostly, the movie is just bursting with insanity, and it's pretty consistently funny throughout. There are a few times when it tries to get a little life-lesson-y where it begins to fall flat. And there are times when Ferrell and Reilly's gags go on a little long and get a little repetitive. But while Step Brothers doesn't break new comedic ground, it's certainly one of the out and out funniest movies I've seen this year. Definitely put this in the "good Will Ferell" category. Check it out if you want to laugh or if you just want to replenish your repertoire of crazy-sounding taunts. Avoid only if you're hyper-sensitive to rampant vulgarity and excessive shots of the male anatomy.
MY GRADE: B+
- And I'm out for the weekend. Hope to have several bigtime blogs next week, so stay tuned.
Monday, August 04, 2008
- On another note, I hope everyone checked out my last two entries, which were both uber-long MEGA-POSTS. The first detailed all the highs and lows of last weekend's San Diego Comic-Con adventures, and the second featured my long-awaited review of The X-Files: I Want to Believe. Each is practically required reading ... take my word for it.
- And while I'm getting back into the realm of geek-talk for a sec, let me just be a complete nerd for one more minute and say that I purchased Soul Calibur IV for the PS3 this weekend, and man, does it rock so far. I've loved the Soul Calibur series since it debuted as Soul Edge / Soul Blade on the PS1, and always get a kick from playing as one of the series' many over-the-top fighters. The icing on the cake is that, in this latest iteration, you can play as freaking Darth Vader as a bonus character, as well as his secret apprentice from the upcoming Force Unleashed game. To whup all kinds of ass as Darth Vader is truly a blast, and the game as a whole, while not too big a departure from previous entries, is still one heck of a fighter for the PS3. I can't wait to have some friends over for a little Soul Calibur session.
- Anyways, saw a few movies this weekend, one of them being DARK KNIGHT for the second time. I actually have a few DK-related blogs I still want to write, including my ideas for the inevitable Part 3. Stay tuned for those later on in the week ... and, oh, in the meantime, want to say a "get-well soon!" to MORGAN FREEMAN. It goes without saying that Freeman is one of the greatest actors out there, and a presence who elevates any movie he's in. Shocking to hear that he was in a pretty serious car wreck today - I join all of his fans in hoping that it's not too serious and that he's back on his feet and back making movies ASAP.
- But the second film I took in this weekend, American Teen, is the one I'm going to focus on here - it's a really cool documentary that deserves a big audience, so here's my review:
AMERICAN TEEN Review:
- When done right, I love stories about teens and about life in high school. I'm not talking the glossy reality shows that MTV has in abundance - I'm talking stories that have a little grit, a little darkness, a little hint of ... reality. I love movies and TV shows that, through humor and drama and wry observation can cut to the core of the high school experience - works that can do that have the potential to be especially powerful, as they dramatize a point in life where emotions and experiences are naturally heightened. The Breakfast Club, Freaks & Geeks, My So-Called Life, Dazed and Confuzed, Superbad - to me, these are some of the best films and TV shows because they each really capture something real and authentic about the teenage experience. Now comes AMERICAN TEEN - a documentary (as opposed to "reality"), that takes the basic high school class types from movies like The Breakfast Club - freak, geek, jock, and queen bee - and follows four actual high schoolers who at first glance, seem to fit neatly into these stereotypes. But what's so brilliantly done here is that, very quickly, the layers on these characters are peeled back. As we examine these small-town Indiana teens, we start to realize that our principle subjects are anything but two-dimensional, and that they are, in fact, complex, multi-faceted, and not-so-easily categorized.
Director Nanette Burstein does a really artful job of introducing the main teens and of presenting their stories in a heartfelt and often hilarious way. There's Colin - the popular basketball star who faces pressure to play well in order to get an athletic scholarship. There's Megan - the moody queen bee with a posse of hanger-ons and a tendency to hold a grudge against anyone who dares cross her. There's Jake - an acne-riddled geek who, despite his lack of self-confidence, often puts himself out there in his quest to find a girlfriend.
However, I have to say the real star of the movie is Hannah. Especially watching the film here in LA, I think a lot of us in the audience saw at least a little of ourselves in her. Hannah is the artsy girl who doesn't fit into her small midwestern town or her clique-y high school. She likes art and film and wants to go to college in California, but is met with resistance by her hesistant parents. Her situation is made all the more difficult in that her dad is only occasionally in her life after having moved out of state, and her mom suffers from a mental disorder, meaning Hannah lives alone with her elderly grandmother. Given all that, you can't help but root for her - she's one of those girls who's had to suffer through high school, but you just know that once she gets out of there, big things will be in store.
Jake is often just pretty hilarious. He's kind of a strange one because despite his low self-esteem, the truth is he ends up dating about three different girls during the movie, whereas the jock, Colin, is never really seen with any ladies. But there's a great scene where Jake goes on a trip to Mexico with his older brother, and has all kinds of crazy adventures that would make the cool kids in school very jealous. It's this eye-opening moment both for Jake and for us, because suddenly the lens is pulled back and we all see that, yes, there is life outside of high school. And Jake just got a taste of it.
Colin and Megan are both kind of interesting in their own right. What's fascinating is that both are initially presented as the typical "popular" types, and yet it's a very un-glamorized version of popular. Colin has zits, an oversized chin, and a prematurely receding hairline. He can't seem to find a girl, and his typically overbearing dad also happens to be an embarringly flamboyant part-time Elvis impersonator. Megan's a bit plump, has a crush on her guy friend who clearly doesn't like her back, and has some pretty horrific personal tragedies in her recent history that have obviously left her traumatized to some extent. It's just a bit jarring to see how different these so-called popular kids are as compared to the fantasy Hollywood versions.
There's also a really interesting cast of supporting players, which the film doesn't do the deep dive on but who prove really interesting in their own right. There's the ditzy blonde who serves as Megan's head lackey / chief rival. The gay best friend to Megan who is always there to comfort her when she's down. The new girl in school who Jake quickly tries to befriend and ask out on a date, before she realizes just how uncool he is. And she actually goes out with him, too, and they seem to have an okay thing going - that is, until she is caught making out with one of Jake's friends from the school marching band.
And yeah, there are moments like the aforementioned "gotcha" that do feel slightly staged and/or contrived. There's certain moments that seem a bit too convenient (like Jake's last-minute date for the prom, a hastily-introduced friend from San Diego), and others that make you wonder how exactly the filmmakers captured on camera (why would Megan vandalize another girl's house with full knowledge that the cameras were watching her every move?).
But ultimately, there is a huge difference between American Teen and the glut of semi-scripted and very-much-staged teen TV fare that's out there right now. Sure, there are some scenes that feel contrived, but for the most part the narrative is so engrossing, so authentic-seeming, that the movie becomes much, much more than just another high school melodrama. Take for instance the series of scenes in which Hannah begins dating Mitch - a clean-cut, Abercrombie-wearing basketball star. The two of them seem to have a real connection, but just as you begin to feel happy for both of them, the sinking reality of the high school caste system begins to surface, as Mitch becomes more and more concious that his jock friends are teasing him about Hannah. When he unceremoniously dumps her, giving in to the peer pressure, it's unexpectedly heartbreaking and real.
It's moments like that that really make American Teen, and its the strength of the main chast of real-life characters that carry the narrative. This is a really great documentary, and definitely worth seeing. It made me laugh a lot, and though there are sad moments, it left me feeling strangely optimistic. Because it's a movie that brings you back to that magical moment of high school graduation, when the old shackles are left behind and anything seems possible.
My Grade: A-
- Okay, that's all I've got for now. Stay tuned for a review of STEP BROTHERS!
Sunday, August 03, 2008
But before I get into the review, I just want to take a minute and say that, whatever one's opinion of this movie or this franchise happens to be, there's no denying the obvious: the marketing folks at FOX royally screwed this one up. The marketing for the latest X-Files flick, sadly, turned out to be a textbook example of how NOT to promote a movie. The television spots were barely there, and only ramped up a week or two prior to the movie's premiere. The movie's trailer was poorly cut ... but that was undermined by the fact that the trailer was barely even SEEN anywhere other than online. Personally, I've seen almost every major summer movie in the theater, and did not see the X-Files trailer even ONCE. That is inexcusable. And finally, the promotion around this film was ridiculous in that almost nothing was revealed about the film under the guise of secrecy. Please. Nobody was demanding plot details, but what was the harm in talking about the time period in which the movie was set, about the state of the central relationship between Mulder and Scully? There was no reason to be so secretive about a movie like this, which, if anything, needed all the hype it could get. The bottom line is, FOX treated the movie's launch with zero respect. Even if they lacked confidence in it, they should have a little bit of respect for the franchise as a whole. This is, afterall, a movie that spins off of one of the greatest television series ever made, a series that helped put the FOX network on the map in the 90's and which elevated the medium of television to new creative heights. If the marketing had been there and the movie still failed at the box office, well, then at least FOX could be proud that it gave the film the best push it could. But as it stands, it's just pretty awful that a new X-Files film, something that should have been a HUGE deal, was treated by its own company like a non-event. If nobody at FOX seemed excited about it, then why should any of us be?
But the fact is - I was excited. The X-Files is by far my favorite TV drama of all time, and was a gigantic influence on me. When the show debuted during my middle school years, I was obsessed with all things alien-related, as were many at the time for some reason. I don't know what it was, but there was just something in the zeitgeist of the 90's that lent itself to a strange national obsession with government conspiracy's, big-eyed E.T.'s, and alien autopsies that may or may not have been elaborate hoaxes. From the time I was a pre-teen up until the time I was halfway through college, sitting down and turning off the lights to watch a new episode of The X-Files was one of my most treasured weekly traditions. At first, the show aired on Fridays, and as a kid I'd eagerly watch and discuss each new episode with my grandma, hunkered down on her couch and just getting totally wrapped up in the stories of aliens, vampires, monsters, and all manner of strange phenomena. Later, the show moved to Sundays and I'd watch with my dad, and then with friends when I went off to college. I remember fondly sitting around our small dorm-room TV at BU, carefully adjusting the rabbit ears to get the best possible reception. But it wasn't all bad if it came in a bit fuzzy ... The X-Files was a show that almost seemed to work better when it came in via a small and grainy transmission. And of course, watching it in silence, with the lights out, was an absolute must. I actually bonded with many friends over a shared enthusiasm for the adventures of Mulder and Scully, and there's no better TV marathon to have than a multi-episode X-Files extravaganza. In college, I wrote an X-Files spec script for a writing class - I tried to do my own spin on one of the show's trademark "quirky" episodes, like Jose Chung's From Outer Space or Clive Bruckman's Final Repose. I later wrote an op-ed for BU's Daily Free Press, titled "Closing The X-Files," to comemorate the show's final episode in 2002. As I sit here now at my desk, an X-Files poster that I've had since college looms behind me, and somewhere in my closet lies a rolled up reproduction of Mulder's famous office poster - that iconic image of a blurry photo of a UFO, with bold letters simply stating: "I Want to Believe."
So the truth is ... it was hard to explain this to people who weren't lifelong fans of the show, but even as my friends got excited about movies like Indiana Jones and Iron Man, I was semi-secretly even more excited about the new X-Files movie. To me, other than The Dark Knight, it was the most anticipated of any of the big summer movies. And that isn't really because I thought it'd be a giant blockbuster, or even that I had confidence it'd be a great movie, per se. It was simply because the show was such a tradition for me for 9 years, such an influence on me creatively, that I simply couldn't wait to step back into that world, to see those characters again. And on that level, there was probably little that the movie could do or not do to dampen that excitement.
But what did I actually think of the movie, as a movie? Well, Truth Seekers, read on ...
THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE Review:
- The X-Files: I Want to Believe, is not exactly what I'd call anyone's idea of an ideal X-Files film. It features a strangely uninspired plot, a distinct lack of real paranormal intrigue, and a limited sense of scope and continuity that makes one wonder why this particular story was the one that Chris Carter and co chose to bring The X-Files back to the big screen. That being said, to me there was a lot to like about the movie in spite of its flaws. And it's for that reason that I've been slightly surprised by some of the scathing reviews I've seen - it's as if they are working harder to justify the movie's poor box office returns than they are to actually analyze the movie itself. Because the fact is, while I Want To Believe ultimately lacks the punch that it should have had, it retains many of the things that made The X-Files, the TV series, one of the greatest in the history of television.
Despite the movie's flaws, I think that those of us who get what The X-Files has always been about will come away at least partially satisfied. Because this is one more Mulder and Scully adventure, and it's a story that revives two of the most compelling fictional characters of the last few decades, and tells a story that reminds us why we loved them, yet at the same time allows them to grow and evolve to the extent that they should. One of the things I always loved about The X-Files is that it was never afraid to be INTELLIGENT. It's characters were complex, smart, and adult, as were its storylines. It was a show that was oftentimes less about the details of a particular plot, and more about the underlying ideas. I've always loved the style of dialogue that The X-Files uses as well - it never tried to be "realistic," - instead, I always found the dialogue to be very literary - full of meaty words and colorful prose - and personally I love that. There's a place for realism, but personally I love writing, when appropriate, where you can feel the writer's hand in the words chosen, where the spoken dialogue has a unique rhythm and art to it.
All of that is here in I Want to Believe. Mulder and Scully engage in their typical witty banter, and the same unique chemistry they've always had is on display here. If anything, the movie is at its strongest when its focusing on each character's personal journey. Mulder is the eternal truth-seeker. When we first see him again here he's holed up somewhere out of the public eye, still technically on the run from the government and only coming out of hiding to tackle the occasional paranormal investigation. All of his old quirks have only become magnified, and his obsessions have only become more pronounced now that he doesn't have the outlet he once did at the FBI to tackle them head-on. And of course, he still has that trademark "I Want to Believe" poster tacked up on his wall. Scully, meanwhile, has left the FBI and is now back working in medicine, helping terminally-ill patients in an environment that continually seems to test her always-conflicted beliefs in faith and science. As for the relationship between the two, at first it's a it jarring to realize that they aren't quite a couple anymore. The show ended with them seemingly being romantically involved after years and years of buildup, in a sort of fairy tale ending, a kind of "love is the only real answer" finale. But here, the two have a strained, somewhat ambigous relationship - still calling each other by last-names only, still seeming to have a romantic connection of sorts but certainly not an actual couple. It's a state of affairs that does somewhat make sense given the characters, I will say that - but it is stil la bit strange trying to decipher where exactly Mulder and Scully stand at this stage of their lives.
But getting back to what's good about the movie that carried over from the TV show - again, I give I Want to Believe credit for having that trademark sense of intelligence about it, for having that back-and-forth dialogue, for having those Big Ideas at the core of the movie. And, even though the movie never quite comes together like it should, there is that great, creepy atmosphere of foreboding that is there for much of the film. This is by no means a blockbuster-style film. It's a smaller movie, as a film it almost feels like a throwback to a certain type of small-time crime drama that you don't see a lot of anymore. And I realize that that's not what many were looking for here, but given tight budget constraints and such, I do admire the movie for sticking to that slower, methodical pace, for laying the atmosphere on thick, for not trying to be something it's not. So be warned: those with movie ADD will probably find themselves a bit bored with this one, but those who like the feeling of being immersed in a slower-paced but atmospheric thriller will appreciate the style that X-Files goes for - if anything, it is a bit reminiscient of the early episodes of the TV series.
And one more note of praise before I get into some of the movie's flaws - I really think that both Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny do a great job in this one. I haven't heard many critics give them much credit, but the fact is, both of these actors fully inhabit these iconic characters, and some of the scenes between them really have that old magic. You really get that sense of shared history, and Anderson especially knocks many a scene out of the park. I feel both of the leads are pretty underrated in general as actors, but the smaller scale of this movie really lets both showcase what they've got.
That being said ... I do share in some of the general sense of disappointment about this movie. I feel it's been grossly underrated and unfairly criticized, but I think a lot of that comes from the fact that it never quite delivers anything truly special when looked at in terms of a standalone movie. By far, the best bits are those that play off of the shared history between the characters. But what's new here never really clicks. And it's particularly baffling, because if the producers intended this movie as a restart of sorts to the franchise, they really missed the boat. If anything, it feels more like an epilogue to the series than a new beginning. And what's worse, in many areas where tribute COULD have been paid to the series, we never get the shout-outs that we as fans are looking for.
Case in point: A pair of new FBI agents who figure prominently into the movie, played by Amanda Peet and rapper Xzibit, are pretty much useless. It could have been a great opportunity to introduce fresh new characters into the franchise, but instead we get two bland-as-can-be agents who most will care less if we ever see again. And it makes you wonder: why wouldn't their roles have instead been filled by Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish? Patrick in particular managed to be a fan favorite on the show despite the strained circumstances under which his character, John Doggett, was introduced. I know I would have loved to have seen him back in action in this movie, and certainly he would have been leaps and bounds a better choice to bring in than the lifeless Xzibit and the generic character that he plays.
Speaking of continuity with the show - I realize that they were going for a somewhat clean slate here, but it was a bit insulting that so many important and very relevant lingering plot threads were glossed over or ignored. I mean, the fate of Scully's baby, William - that's a pretty big deal. And yet his death is almost offhandedly mentioned with unbelievable nonchalance. Similar treatment is given to the status of Mulder and Scully as quasi-fugitives from the law following the series finale. And one last gripe (and SPOILER alert ...!) ... it was AWESOME to see AD Walter Skinner make a kickass extended-cameo appearance, but seeing him only made me pine to see a few more of the show's great supporting characters. Doggett, The Lone Gunmen (surely they can't REALLY be dead?), etc. I will give the movie credit for a few nice little fan-service shout-outs though, from name dropping Clive Bruckman and other psychics that the show had dealt with, to highlighting Mulder's penchant for sunflower seeds and stabbing pencils into the ceiling. Still, a LITTLE bit more continuity acknowldgement would have been nice.
Now, onto the actual plot / mystery of the movie. I'm sad to report that this will not go down as one of the great X-Files tasked to Mulder and Scully. In fact, the way it was written almost seemed off considering the usual style of the show. Typically on the show's standalone, monster-of-the-week episodes, we'd be presented with a mystery that would leave us scratching our heads - but then, we could always count on Mulder to have one of his usual "Mulder-leaps," where he'd use his vast knowledge of the paranormal to correctly guess at what was really going on. In this movie, nobody, including the audience, seems to know quite what the hell is going on. Everything is vague and seemingly unconnected to the point of frustration. On one hand, we have Billy Connelly as a disgraced priest who has psychic visions. The visions help to lead the FBI to clues regarding victims in a strange series of murders, in which missing limbs are found scattered throughout a white and snowy wilderness. Eventually, the trail leads Mulder, Scully, and the FBI to a secret lab of sorts, in which a dying Russian has dispatched his goons to harvest spare body parts for him, to create him a monstrous new body to replace his own, in a strange, modern-day, Frankenstein-like experiment of science-gone-wrong.
While that second plot point sounds kind of cool on paper, it barely comes into play for much of the movie. Most of the time, we're focused on Billy Connelly's pedophile priest, who Mulder wants to believe and who Scully doesn't want to give the time of day. The conceit is that God has somehow given Connelly this supernatural ability as a means to atone for his past sins - it's an interesting idea, but it just never feels substantial enough to carry a movie, and there's no real intrigue about it. Connelly is good in the role, but he seems more suited as an interesting tangent than as a central plot point of a big X-Files movie. Because the fact is, since the Russian scientists are barely focused on, this movie has no great villain at its disposal. No Cigarette Smoking Man, no Alex Krycek, no Victor Tooms - hell, not even a Fluke Man. I said earlier that I admired the movie's slower and more methodical pace. But I began to resent it once the movie ended and I realized that, plot-wise, all the build-up was anticlimactic and ultimately led nowhere. In the past, you could always count on The X-Files to deliver on the big, final reveal - to deliver that one last turn of the screw that would stick in your mind and haunt you. No such luck here - the main plot is ultimately a muddled, pieced-together mess, that can't compare to any of the great X-Files episodes. In fact, the episode "Post-Modern Prometheus" tackled similar subject matter with much more style and aplomb.
I also have to mention this: while most of the movie is suitably creepy, dark, and atmospheric, there are certain inexplicable moments of stupidity that completely took me out of the movie. Honestly, I was just baffled by a few moments here, which I can only hope will be cut out of an eventual director's cut or DVD release. The worst one by far occurs when Mulder and Scully re-enter the halls of the FBI after an extended absence. They pass twin portraits of J. Edgar Hoover and George W. Bush. They stop, look at the portraits, and then look at each other quizically as all of a sudden, the X-Files theme music plays. It might be the single biggest WTF moment I've ever seen from the franchise. Even it its quirkiest moments, the X-Files I know would never have an overt moment of out-and-out goofiness like that. Plus, the "joke" barely even made sense and certainly wasn't funny or smile-worthy. Just really, really bad.
I guess that's what's strange about I Want to Believe - it has some real crackling moments involving its leads, and a nice overall vibe that felt true to the series - but overall, it just has that stitched-together feel to it (figuratively and literally). It feels rushed and not well thought-through, and it feels like a strange compromise between trying on one hand to do a standalone movie and on the other hand trying to catch us up on the characters and the continuity and mythology of the show. The plot, overall, never comes together in a satisfying manner, and many of the new elements that are introduced (hello Xzibit and Amanda Peet) fall flat. But oddly, the movie has some great moments that are almost all character-driven. Mulder's realization that he is destined to always seek the truth, that he can't ever hide from it, and Scully's struggle over whether to let Mulder pull her back into the darkness. The comraderie and growth and struggles of these character is palpable, and when Skinner finally shows up, it has to make you smile because it's a reminder that these are living breathing characters who have been to hell and back together. That evolution is really played off well here, and Anderson and Duchovny provide the necessary heart and soul. It's a strange movie, a small movie, a personal movie - and certainly not what most envisioned it would be. I know the box-office returns have been pretty abysmal, but I can only hope that the film finds some legs ... because as great as these characters and this world are, I want to see everyone's effort go into blowing out the franchise with the giant alien-invasion movie that we all want to see. It's been set up in the show and well known in X-Files lore - 2012 is the date when all hell breaks loose and the long-foretold colonization begins. The X-Files deserves a chance to tell that one, last, great story, and I hope we get to see it.
My Grade: B
- Alright, that's all for now. Be back this week with the next exciting chapters of my all-new, all-awesome adventures.