Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Catching a CATFISH


- Catfish is an interesting little movie that's benefitted from some very slick marketing and hype. Launched under a shroud of secrecy, Catfish is a documentary in which, supposedly, the less you know going in, the better. And I'll admit, not knowing much about the film made the beginning and middle sections that much more intriguing and tense. The mystery surrounding the film's much-rumored "twist' caused my imagination to run wild, and I came up with all sorts of far-flung scenarios of what the movie might ultimately be "about." Without spoiling anything, I think that Catfish, in the end, proves a little underwhelming because the story that unfolds, while interesting and disturbing, is nothing so over-the-top as to be truly shocking. And, at some point, the reality of what we're seeing documented stops being a great story and becomes somewhat hard to watch - more sad than gripping, more exploitative than narratively compelling.

So, what is Catfish? Well, I know that the movie is supposed to be a total secret, but I don't think it's spoiling much to give some of the basic setup of the plot ... (skip if you wish).

Catfish is a documentary about a young guy named Nev Schulman, a freelance photographer and artist who lives in New York. Nev's brother Ariel, a filmmaker, decides to make a short documentary about online romance, using his brother as a subject. As it turns out, Nev has struck up a relationship, via Facebook, with a girl named Megan from Michigan. The story of how Nev and Megan met is somewhat convoluted. Nev had some photos published in a magazine, and ended up getting some pretty crazy fan mail from a young admirer named Abby. Abby, only 8 years old, was a child-prodigy artist, who was inspired by Nev's photos and used them as the basis for her paintings. Abby sent Nev prints of her paintings, and Nev, impressed, and flattered, wrote back to her, expressing admiration of her work. Abby kept sending Nev more and more of her paintings, and Nev kept encouraging her to do more. Eventually, Abby's mother calls Nev and thanks him for supporting her daughter. Soon enough, Nev is Facebook friends with Abby's mother, Abby's brother, and her older sister - Megan. Megan is also, apparently, an artist - a musician - and she begins sending Nev some of her songs to listen to. She and Nev begin exchanging emails, texts, and phone calls, and eventually, Nev is truly smitten with her, to the point where he is motivated to go to Michigan to meet Megan in person.

For the first third of the film, Catfish is an interesting slice-of-life style documentary about a developing online romance. There's a lot of humor as Nev is semi-reluctantly filmed by his brother and co-director / friend Henry Joost. We sense that something is a bit off about Nev's overeager relationship with Megan and her family though, so there's a slight sense of tension in the air as we wait for the other shoe to drop.

The second act of the film is where Catfish really comes alive. Once we know that something doesn't add up about Megan, even as Nev and his friends begin to proactively investigate her ... that's when the movie really takes on the trappings of a classic thriller. The movie gains a really spooky, ominous vibe, and it really does begin to feel like a classic Hitchcock-style thriller, as advertised. It's a lot of fun to speculate on all of the far-out what-if's that come to mind as Nev makes his way towards Michigan.

Finally, the third act of the film is something of a letdown. Again, don't want to give anything away, but I think there's an invitable feeling of being letdown by how things wrap up. The second half of the movie is constructed and edited in a manner to evoke a classical thriller, but all of that build-up seems wasted once we realize that the truth behind Megan is not so much shocking or thrilling as it is slightly creepy, very sad, and just plain pathetic. And it's also at this point in the film that Nev and co's actions and reactions seem less based in reality and more driven by the fact that they're all collectively trying to get a lot of footage for their film. By the film's end, Nev seems more self-satisfied that he got an interesting subject for the film than he is shocked or scared or creeped out or repulsed (ie what any regular person would feel) after discovering the true nature of "Megan." I just think that over the course of the movie, Catfish loses a lot of its original sense of legitimacy and spontaneity. Worse, the filmmakers sacrifice all that for a story that's ultimately, well, just not that great of a story.

Still, Catfish is interesting simply as a reminder of how crazy the online world can be. It's a movie that is sure to provoke a lot of discussions about Facebook and other social networking avenues, and their ability to function as a means of creating a new persona or personas, to mess with ideas of identity, to manipulate the truth and others' perception of the truth. Catfish is also a movie that's about half of a damn good reality-based thriller. When it's in that tension-filled, creepy storytelling mode, it's a really effective movie that you can't take your eyes off of. Later, it just gets weird, but no so weird as to be more than your typical Dateline fodder. To that end, there's ultimately something sort of off-putting about the whole thing - as in, what was the point of the film - what story is it telling and to what end? It's an intriguing film, one you'll want to talk about and debate. But to me, it is less than satisfying as a narrative. Tellingly, it's much more effective as a film when you have no idea what's actually going on.

My Grade: B-

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Danny's SUPER-sized Fall TV Premiere Week Round-Up: Fringe, Smallville, Glee, Wilde, Hope, Lone Star, The Simpsons, and MORE!

Well, it's been quite a week. Of course, right as I am basically overflowing with pop-culture stuff to blog about, I get stuck on jury duty. As of Friday though, the trial concluded and therefore ... I'm back, baby. I will say this though: jury duty had its not-so-fun moments (mostly the insane morning commute between Burbank and downtown LA, which is basically stop-and-go traffic on the 101 for an hour), but, overall, it was a pretty fascinating and even entertaining experience. Being here in LA, you can rest assured that there are going to be some pretty colorful characters in the jury box, and some pretty colorful lawyers to boot. We definitely had that in spades on this case, and it made for some entertaining and memorable moments. So, civic duty is done.

Other than that, I had a fun weekend. On Friday, I kicked off Halloween early with a trip to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood. Despite living minutes from Universal and being an NBC UNI employee for five years now, I've never actually been to the parks' annual Halloween horrorfest before. So, I figured it was about time to check it out, and so I went with some friends on opening night to take in the scene. It was a lot of fun, even if i was dead (bwahaha!) tired from my week at jury duty. Still, I did my best to get a second wind and enjoy attractions like the haunted tram tour, the Saw maze, the House of 1000 Corpses maze, and Bill & Ted's Halloween Adventure show. Interestingly, the Kardashian clan was at the park, taping an episode of their reality show, and their presence often meant that the crowds of people in line had to wait for Kim and Khloe to pass through a maze before they could enter. Only in LA, people. Speaking of which ...

... on to TV.

I'm late in reviewing stuff, so I'm going to run through a number of shows fairly quickly. The fact is, this has been an INSANE week for TV fans. More so than usual, everything premiered during the same weeklong period, and there were a TON of new shows to boot. I usually like to check out several of the new pilots that most interest me, even if I'm ultimately planning to drop at least a couple of them. That means that my DVR was filled to the breaking point this week, and there's a still a lot I need to catch up on as well. So let's get to it, I've got a lot to talk about ...


- I'll be honest - there was a point where I was DVR'ing Chuck and watching Gossip Girl on Mondays. Chuck was okay, but it just had trouble climbing that final rung, going from good and fun and likable to *great*. But last year, Chuck went from being a pretty good show with the occasional great episode to a show that week in and week out was bringing the goods. Chuck became true must-see TV, and last year, I think, really began to hit its stride. But, even when Chuck isn't 100% clicking for me, I still love so much about the show. I love the characters, the humor, the geekiness, the cast. Chuck is a unique thing on television. Not a remake, not a ripoff. It's cool. It's funny. It pays homage to things like Y: The Last Man, Tron, Rocky, and the music of Rush. Do you get what I'm saying here? Even when Chuck isn't great, it's still pretty damn awesome. And that's how I felt about the premiere of Season 4. Not the best episode in the show's history, but, man was it great to see Chuck back, in September, on the air. The episode had all sorts of cool moments, guest stars, etc. Harry Dean Stanton as a repo-man. Olivia Munn as a too-cool-for-school Buy More manager-slash-CIA spook. Dolph freaking Lungdren as a Russian badguy. And Linda "Sarah Connor" Hamilton kicking ass and taking names as Chuck's long-lost mom. That alone is enough to make any Chuck fan smile and cheer. That said, I did think the show moved a little quickly to re-establish the old status quo (what happened to Chuck and Morgan on their own, away from the CIA?). I also thought that some of the humor was a tad overcooked (Morgan's insistence on sexting with Sarah on behalf of Chuck was at times more creepy than funny). And, I missed the Buy More crew of Jeff, Lester, and Big Mike, who have become an integral part of the show and a chief source of comic relief. But hey, this was a very solid ep, and I hope that it's just the build-up to a great season. Watch CHUCK. Seriously.

My Grade: B+


- Look, the fact is, there's a lot that remains to be seen about The Event. We've all heard the cautious warnings comparing the show to the likes of Flashforward, and we've all wondered whether the show has a real narrative plan and vision behind it. I don't know, at least not yet. But, I do think the show had a damn good pilot. It was exciting, riveting, and left me eager to find out more. It was an effective Chapter 1. Very, very curious to see Chapter 2. In the meantime, I would like to see a couple of characters a little better fleshed-out. Lost worked so well out of the gate because, if nothing else, we had the likes of Locke, Sawyer, Jack, Kate, etc. If The Event can give us at least a couple of characters to really get behind, it may just live up to the hype.

My Grade: B+


Man, it's disappointing to me, just as a fan, that this show scored such a low rating after its Monday night debut. To me, Lone Star had an amazing pilot episode. It set up some really compelling storylines, and featured a charismatic cast. The acting was stellar all around. And the premise is something unique for network television - a con man leading two lives, playing each one against the other, working the long con yet wanting to get out of the game altogether. I found the whole thing pretty fascinating, and I was really appreciative of the fact that the main character isn't forced to have a certain set of moral standards. He's unapologetic about some of the more controversial aspects of his lifestyle, and that's refreshing. I hope this show survives. It's got a ton of potential, and it's already operating on a higher level of quality than most shows on television. It's a character-driven drama, something rare on TV, especially nowadays. It's got Jon Voight as a badass oil czar. I think FOX really blew the marketing on this one. Especially given the history of FOX Monday nights - with gritty action dramas like 24 and Prison Break, they really should have pushed Lone Star as a cool, gritty, morally-grey drama with some badass actors in it. But I don't think people were aware of the show, and clearly not many tuned it. Nonetheless, I give this one a big recommendation.

My Grade: A-


- Was not a fan of this one. I liked My Name Is Earl, for a while, but I think a lot of that had to do with great actors like Jason Lee and Ethan Suplee elevating the material. Raising Hope has the same sort of style as Earl - just barely trying to be quirky and wryly humorous in the style of Wes Anderson or the Coen Bros, but never taking it too far in that direction, instead settling for easy jokes and base humor. Worse, the mostly bland cast couldn't bring life to the characters like Lee did for Earl. This one was, to be honest, hard to get through.

My Grade: D+


- Okay, you've got Mitchell Hurvitz, creator of Arrested Development. Will Arnett. David Cross. How could this go wrong? The bad news is that this was an unspectacular pilot, especially given the talent involved and the expecations that go with that. The good news is that there were some rays of hope. A couple of jokes felt spot-on, the basic premise is sound, and there were, overall, enough moments of entertaining comedy that, hey, this might just get better and get good. Still, a number of the supporting characters fell flat, and I wasn't yet sold on Kerri Russell as a legit comedic lead. I also worry that Arnett's character is just a more cartoonish version of Gob. We shall see.

My Grade: B-


- I really enjoyed the Glee S2 premiere, for the most part. The show seemed to pick up right where it left off at the end of S1, and included some great bits of humor. There was some very funny self-referential stuff, as well as the usual hilarity from the great Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester. I always find the music on Glee to be hit or miss, so it's hard for me to really judge the musical numbers in a given episode. That said, the final song just felt very long, boring, and not particularly relevant to the plot. It was just a shame to end the episode with such a thud, after it had been mostly excellent to that point. I really loved everything with the new female football coach though, and her interactions with Will and Sue were really the highlight of the ep.

My Grade: A-


- As usual, Modern Family is pure comfort food. I have to admit, the show's pilot last year made me think that MF might turn into the next Malcolm in the Middle - a sublimely ridiculous comedy of the absurd that still somehow hits on essential truth. But the show eventually became something else - a show that mixed the documentary style of The Office with the homespun sentimentality of an old TGIF comedy. And that's cool - I still get a kick out of it and watch eagerly each week. It's a show that anyone can laugh with an enjoy. I just now know to expect a big aww-shucks group-hug moment at the end of each episode, the kind of thing that would make Danny Tanner proud. But, what I still love about MF is that it's consistently funny, and that the characters are awesome. Those two factors alone were enough to keep me tuned into the show, and also helped make the Season 2 premiere a light but enjoyable slice of TV apple pie. Mitchell and Cameron build a castle for Lilly. Phil is reluctant to get rid of his old beat up station wagon. Manny has a new ladyfriend who makes smothering mom Gloria jealous. All pretty standard stuff, but again, the characters and the phenomenal cast who portray them make it all work.

My Grade: B+


- We're now up to Episode 3 of Terriers, and the show is quickly becoming one of my favorites. In Ep #3, the intensity was really ratcheted up, and some of the overarching character stuff really began to come to a head. I'm really digging this show - and definitely getting that Veronica Mars-like vibe from its mix of weekly mysteries paired with ongoing subplots that slowly peel back the corruption and criminal activities at the heart of a small beach town. Good stuff, highly recommended.

My Grade: A-


- This show has an intriguing premise, and it seems aimed squarely at someone like me. Like the characters in the show, I graduated high school in 2000, and it's interesting to think about what's changed in the ten years since. I was really hoping that this could be a show that accurately captured the Gen Y zeitgeist and that really resonated with people my age. But, instead of feeling real and relatable, My Generation instead came off as cheap and cliched. The characters just felt like broadly-drawn stereotypes straight out of a John Hughes movie, only, you know, without Hughes' wit, humor, or ability to deconstruct those established archetypes and make them into something more. There was a show I really liked a few years back on FOX called Reunion, and that show had a sort of self-aware campiness to it as it flashed through time to different years in the lives of its principle characters. For that show, the device really worked, and the cheesiness of flashing to a given year in the 90's only to hear some Third Eye Blind song playing was part of the fun. But My Generation seems to be just going through the motions, making it feel like an eye-rolling chore each time we flashback to 2000 and hear songs like The Real Slim Shady and The Thong Song, for no good reason except that they were popular in that year. And the moment in the flashbacks in which a character (in high school) talks about mP3's, and the documentarian says "what are those?" and he smiles and says "you'll see" ...? Ugh. Just ugh. Also, the show just felt lazy in how within one episode it already made its universe so insular. These characters have been mostly apart for ten years, but within an hour it felt like they lived in a world with no one else but each other. There was just a lot of clunkiness to this show that made it hard to get through. I wanted to like this one. I like the concept, and I like the idea of a show that is specifically about people my age and the issues we deal with that are unique to our generation. But the show didn't seem to really cover that. It was just a laundry list of cliched characters and news events that most of us are already sick of hearing about in this age of 24 hour news cycles. It's funny, I think that CHUCK, even with all its self-aware humor humor and goofiness, is a better and more definitive show about "my generation," in its own way, than My Generation. As it stands,

My Grade: C-


- Awesome premiere, and Community is really firing on all cylinders right now. If the show keeps this up, I don't think I'd hesitate to call it the best sitcom on TV. The ensemble cast kicks ass, and all of the little in jokes and references to past episodes, near-fourth-wall-breaks, and random pop culture references give this show a depth and texture that can only be compared to something like The Simpsons at the height of its powers. Community is absolutely must-watch TV comedy right now.

My Grade: A-

30 ROCK:

- I know there's been a lot of debate about the relative quality of 30 Rock over the last year or two. There's a whole camp who thinks the show took a considerable dip in its last few seasons, and others who think the show's as sharp and funny as ever. Personally, I do feel like 30 Rock hasn't been quite as amazing and superlative as it was at its height in, say, Season 2. I feel the show got a little too soap-opera-ish and, instead of playing up the fast-paced randomness that made it so great, it started becoming a little less wacky and a little more standard sitcom. But, praised be Liz Lemon, the Season 5 premiere was hilarious, and one of the best episodes of the show in quite a while. Even the relationshippy stuff - between Tina Fey and guest star Matt Damon - was really funny and had some of the episode's best dialogue. And, just about everything Alec Baldwin said, as he faced off with Avery in a Machiavellian battle of wits - was comedic gold. Plus: Kenneth in a CBC Page uniform! So wrong and yet so right. Great start for 30 Rock.

My Grade: A-


- On the other hand, I thought The Office's return was alright, but a little blah considering that this was a much-hyped season premiere. The episode was a pretty inconsequential standalone about Michaels' incompetent nephew getting an assistant gig at Dunder-Mifflin. There was some amusing comedy derived from the premise (I loved the nephew's line about being a film buff - his favorite movies are "Citizen Kane and The Boondock Saints"), but overall this felt like a pretty standard-issue episode that could have aired at any point during the show's run. And, it seemed to give the short shrift to standout supporting cast members like Andy, Erin, and Daryl. Extra points though for the infectiously fun cold open dance number, which was pretty sublimely entertaining. Despite the only-okay premiere, I'm still very much looking forward to seeing where things go from here.

My Grade: B


- Fringe was quite possibly the best TV show on the air last season. By the end of Season 2, FRINGE was kicking ass and taking names, delivering episode after episode that brought the straight-up ownage. John Noble was doing the best acting on TV. The mythology was expanding and becoming increasingly epic, intense, and mind-blowing. The cast, overall, was really beginning to gel - with Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson stepping up and improving leaps and bounds since Season 1. Fringe was THE must-see serialized drama on TV, eclipsing the likes of Lost and 24 as a true TV event. And now, with those shows off the air, and no new heir apparent to take the torch, as of yet, all hail Fringe - the current king of sci-fi television. Now, Fringe is going for something really ambitious in Season 3 - alternating episodes between its two parallel universes. The S3 premiere was almost entirely set in Earth 2, where our Olivia is trapped and trying to find a way home, all the while encountering alt versions of her friends, family, and colleagues.

I really liked the slow build here. Whereas the season finale felt like a blockbuster movie, this opener methodically took its time to establish the stakes of this new season, all the while keeping some key mysteries hidden, at least for now. But this was great stuff, with Anna Torv really carrying the episode and doing a nice job of it, as TV's premiere kick-butt leading lady. The episode played out like an extended chase scene, so there was a lot of action and tension. But, there was also a lot of character and mystery. Most intriguing is what, exactly, was Walternate's intention in implanting the memories of Earth 2 Olivia into the Earth 1 version? And how does he plan to use her dimension-hopping abilities to his advantage in the impending war between worlds? God, John Noble is so freaking badass. His take on the Earth 2 Walter Bishop is brilliant - similar yet highly different from the crazy, shaky Earth 1 version. Walternate is stone-cold, calculating, and rimming with ridiculous amounts of gravitas. Just awesome. And so far, we've only gotten a very brief tease of how things are going over on Earth 1, where "Faux-livia" is currently posing as the real deal, unbeknownst to Walter and Peter. Next week we're back on Earth 1, and it's going to be fascinating to see that new dynamic play out.

Fringe is really swinging for the fences right now, and it's great to see. The S3 premiere didn't have the kind of jaw-dropping moments we got in the S2 finale, but man, it was an ultra-compelling first chapter of this new volume. And you can feel the groundwork being laid for something big and epic, which is what makes this all so absorbing. Unlike certain other shows of this type, you feel with this season of Fringe that there is a plan, an endgame around the bend. So of course, I'm in for the long haul, and psyched to see where this all goes.

My Grade: A-


- Unbelievably, here we are at Season 10 (!) of Smallville. Pretty incredible. I still remember watching the early seasons with my friends in college, wondering when Clark and Lana would finally hook up, or when Lex would finally fully given in to his dark side. For it's first three seasons, Smallville was really a great show - a fresh new take on the Superman mythos that delivered a great mix of adventure, intrigue, and romance. From that point on, things have been up and down, to say the least. There's been a lot of crap in the last several years of Smallville, but there's also been enough good stuff to keep me coming back. I love the legend of Superman, and Smallville always has just enough of those iconic "super" moments to prevent me from pulling the plug on the show, which I've been tempted to do several times. In fact, Smallville has so much potential, so many great stories to draw on, that when the right writer comes along with the right vision, you can easily make something great out of the show's fundamental building blocks. Witness last season's "Absolute Justice" - written by comics scribe Geoff Johns, the extra-length episode was a classic comic book story come to life, and a flat-out great episode of television. It's moments and episodes like that that have ensured that I'm sticking with Smallville to the end.

Now, there was a lot last season that I wasn't enamored with. The overarching Zod storyline was way too dragged out and overcomplicated to have any real dramatic impact. Worse, the show kept bringing Clark to the brink of flull-fledged superherodom, only to keep him in this frustrating purgatory between being an anonymous do-gooder and coming out to the world as Superman. Nobody wants to see Clark Kent as proto-Superman mystery man "The Blur." After ten years, it was time for Clark to stop brooding and start kicking ass in red, blue, and yellow. So here we are, the final season, Season 10, and it's time for Smallville to go all-out and be super. Did it?

Overall, I liked the premiere. There were a number of intriguing plot points - from evil clones of Lex Luthor running around, to the Suicide Squad's interrogation of Oliver Queen, to the many ominious warnings that a "greater evil" (revealed, as has been speculated, as uber-villain Darkseid) was on the way - there was a lot of big, crazy stuff happening here. Perhaps best of all, we got the return of Jon Shneider as Jonathan Kent. Losing Schneider has always been a huge loss for Smallville. Along with the great Jonathan Glover, Shneider helped to class up the show, and was always great as Clark's strong-willed adoptive father. Seeing him appear again - even if it was in the context of a semi-random vision from beyond the grave - was really cool, and he and Tom Welling shared a great scene of father-son bonding. Meanwhile, there were strong hints that Erica Durance's Lois Lane is finally wise to the fact that Clark and The Blur are one and the same. Even if this is veering pretty far from the established Superman continuity, I support Lois finding out everything, because really, how far can you drag out a secret like that on a show like this? Do we really need yet another season of Lois stressing over whether Clark is keeping secrets from her?

And then there are the two big fanboy-friendly moments in this ep ... the first being the reveal of the Superman suit from Superman Returns. I don't love that particular version of the suit (the S-shield is too small and the rubbery texture looks weird), but still, it's the iconic outfit, and I hope that we see Tom Welling in it sooner rather than later (if it's dragged out for the whole season, then seriously, kill me now). But, after all the early talk on this show of how Smallville would have "no tights, no flights" it's nice to see the producers realize that, hey, after ten years, it's time to rethink that. Secondly, we had the reveal of Darkseid as the season's big bad. Now, I am a total geek for the character and for all of Jack Kirby's Fourth World creations, and if Darkseid is NOT the villain in the next Superman movie, it will be a huge shame. Because Darkseid is to me the ultimate Superman villain other than Lex, and certainly the one who makes for the most epic storylines - a near-invincible intergalactic warlord who rules the planet Apokolips with an iron fist, and who seeks to eliminate free will via the mysterious Anti-Life Equation. Hell yeah. If Smallville can pull it off, more power to them. Will they? Can they? In the glimpse of Darkseid we got in the premiere, he at least looked like the comic version as created by the legendary Kirby. But, he also looked very CGI-ish, which was a bit worrisome. Hopefully there will eventually be a happy medium between having Darkseid be a badass alien stone-monster and yet still looking like a guy who could have one hell of a smackdown with Clark.

Now, although there were indeed a lot of intriguing developments in this episode, there was still a lot of stuff that was a little underwhelming. I was turned off, for example, by the fact that so much of the episode was AGAIN about Clark doubting himself and worrying that he could be a danger to humanity. Like I said, enough brooding already. I'm also sort of sick of Tess Mercer. Her character makes no sense at this point, and the most intriguing revelation about her - that she was secretly a spy working for Checkmate - now seems to be all but ignored.

But, we'll see. It's kind of exciting knowing that this is the final season, and, at least in theory, all bets are off. I'm intrigued to see Deadshot pop up next week, and can't wait for the Blue & Gold episode that Geoff Johns is writing for later this season. And hey, there seems to be some big, epic stuff on the horizon. Will Smallville deliver? I hope so.

My Grade: B


- Speaking of long-running series, how about Season 22 of The Simpsons? You know, when people ask me why I'm still watching the show, long after its glory years have faded, I usually say that it's because a.) out of habit / loyalty, and b.) because every so often, the show surprises me and airs a genuinely funny, well-done episode that's close in quality to the old days. The S22 premiere was genuinely very funny and clever, and had a surprising number of laugh out loud moments. It also had one of the more memorable guest appearances in a while, as Brett and Jermaine of Flight of the Conchords showed up as two bohemian artists who show Lisa the good and bad sides of being a penniless musician just trying to express yourself. I enjoyed the fusion of Simpsons-style humor with the Conchord's unique sensibilities. And, honestly, it was just great to see those guys again (even if in animated form) after the end of their awesome HBO series last year. Some Glee cast members also made an appearance, but it was just for a quick musical number, whereas Brett and Jermaine really stole the show. There was also a pretty funny subplot in which Bart and Homer try to prove Krusty's merit in from of the World Court. Honestly, it's hard to remember the last time The Simpsons had such a solid B-plot matched with a funny A-plot. So, I know some people are inclined to just dismiss the show at this point - but I say be open-minded. If you missed last night's premiere, then you missed a pretty darn good episode of The Simpsons.

My Grade: A-

Okay, deep breath! And ... I'm done (for now). So, what'd you think of premiere week? Any hits or misses that I left out? Thoughts on Fringe, Smallville, The Event, etc? I think I am going to have to ease up on writing about a lot of these shows, but I'll definitely check in to cover some of my favorites in the weeks ahead. I've also got some movie reviews coming up, so stay tuned. Until then, happy TV watching.

Monday, September 20, 2010

NEVER LET ME GO - aka: Bleakest. Movie. Ever.


Never Let Me Go is a hard film to assess. It features a fascinating premise and fantastic, memorable performances from its three lead actors. It combines the pacing and attention to character of a classic British coming-of-age drama with the unsettling, ominous feel and grand themes of the great works of dystopian sci-fi. It has the feel of a unique, underdog sort of film that deserves support and praise. And yet, if I'm being honest, the fact is that Never Let Me Go is so unrelentingly bleak and depressing that at times it's just plain hard to watch. I don't have a problem with movies being dark or even bleak, but I do ask that such movies have an ultimate message or purpose to them - something to take away from the story that puts it all in perspective. Walking out of the Arclight theater in Hollywood, I wasn't sure what to make of the film. There were moments of greatness, award-worthy performances ... but what did it all mean? It sounds like a lame question in some ways, but it can be a real problem for certain films (I had a similar complaint recently with The American - what, exactly, was the point?). Especially after the rollercoaster ride that this movie takes us on, I needed some sort of resolution to the movie's depressing plot - some bigger-picture context, some lesson learned. But I left the theater feeling mostly empty.

I know that the film has been marketed under a veil of secrecy, but the structure of the movie (based on the book by acclaimed author Kazuo Ishiguro) doesn't do much to conceal any big twists or mysteries. In fact, the opening text crawl quickly establishes some basics about the world of the film: in the 1950's, scientists found a way to clone humans in order to harvest their organs to eradicate sickness and disease. Cancer, diabetes - all gone, with the price being that there is now a sub-population of clones who will be turned into spare parts by the time they're 30. Never Let Me Go opens in one of the isolated British boarding schools in which the clone children are raised - mostly oblivious as to their true nature and the grisly fate that awaits them. The movie focuses in on a trio of kids who are going through all of the usual pre-adolescent struggles and crushes and uncertainties - Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. Kathy is the shy, reserved girl who harbors a crush on Tommy - the awkward but endearing outcast. Ruth is Kathy's catty friend, who pursues Tommy more as a means of one-upping Kathy than anything else. The movie is divided neatly into three acts - the first follows the trio as boarding school students in the 70's. We then pick up several years later, when the kids, now in their late teens, are shipped off to a camp that gives them, for the first time, limited access to the outside world. Finally, we skip ahead another ten years, and rejoin the characters as they prepare for their seemingly inevitable fates.

To attack the movie from a different perspective, I'll say this: Never Let Me Go is a hard movie to watch for anyone with even a little bit of sci-fi nerd in them. The reason is that us geeks love to know everything. When we are taken to a new version of reality, we want to know all the rules, all the ins and outs, all the ways in which this place is both like and unlike the world that we know. In Never Let Me Go, we're teased with very, very scant bits of information about this alternate version of reality. And I get the reason for it - the movie is trying to place us in the shoes of the main characters, who similarly know very little about the nature of their own existence. But the movie rarely, if ever, shows us the characters actively questioning things. It makes you wonder what, exactly, these kids were taught in their schools. How much did they know about the world around them, and how much did the world know about them? I think some level of ambiguity is good, and adds to the atmosphere of uncertainty, but I also think the movie "cheats" by never concerning itself very much with the how's and why's of the somewhat far-fetched scenario it presents. Not only that, but as it becomes increasingly apparent that the characters are in a very perilous situation, one in which they are in imminent mortal danger, it becomes increasingly frustrating that they don't at least *ponder* options for escape. Everyone in the film seems resigned to accept their bleak fates with barely a rebellious moment between them. And so it makes you wonder - what is the story here? Why tell us about these characters if they are wholly unexceptional within the world that they live? It makes you think - is a story worth telling if it's only real arc is "characters accept their bleak fate and sadness ensues?" Maybe some people can accept that, but for me, it's a frustrating story to see unfold. There has to be some spark of hope, something. Look at a movie like THE ROAD - to me, that was a great example of a dark, bleak film that nonetheless worked because all the darkness led up to something poignant and meaningful. That was a story of survival and perseverance. Never Let Me Go is a story of resignation and inaction.

As mentioned, we're only given the briefest hints as to the larger context that this story takes place in. But again, the lack of curiosity that the main characters have about their own situation is more frustrating than tantalizing. I mean, I love stories where characters find out that everything they thought they knew was a lie. It's why I was so intrigued by this film once I heard sippets about its plot. But Never Let Me Go never has that big Truman Show-style moment of realization and epiphany. It just marches a slow death-march towards oblivion.

Still, there are moments of real power in the movie. I don't want to gloss over the fact that there are some hugely emotional, memorable scenes in the film. And when the movie starts to ramp up the stakes, when it gives its characters a purpose - that's when it really becomes absorbing. In fact, there's a great scene towards the end of the film that's a real eye-opener for the characters, and it's really well done and well-acted and effective. But it felt like a scene that should have happened earlier. It felt like, finally, the characters had some motivation, some hope - but when even that ray of hope is shot down, it's back to the extreme melancholy that colors the rest of the story.

The whole of the movie though is really brought to life by the cast. First of all, the child actors from the movie's first act are all really, really good. Izzy Meikle-Small who plays young Kathy is particularly exceptional. Those young actors really help add to the movie's air of mystery, and make the first act, surprisingly, perhaps the movie's strongest and most satisfying.

Later on, the main trio is portrayed by Carrie Mulligan as Kathy, Kiera Knightly as Ruth, and Andrew Garfield as Tommy. All three do some amazing work. Mulligan is so poised, so steady as Kathy - and yet there's that undercurrent of sadness and longing. Knightly is wild and bitchy as Ruth, and that makes her eventual fate all the more disturbing. Meanwhile, Andrew Garfield is the real deal. He's fantastic in this film (and fanboys can rest assured he'll do well as Spiderman - it should be no problem for him to do justice in that role). Garfield has some of the movie's most heart-wrenching moments of raw emotion, and man, he kills it. All three actors are great, and they give the movie that feeling of award-worthy prestige that makes it stand out and feel like something special. And even as the movie becomes almost unbearably wrenching, it's hard to avert your eyes thanks to the top-notch quality of the performances.

Maybe the unrelenting bleakness of Never Let Me Go will work for some. There's enough to like about the film that I'm sure there are those who will love this one without reservation. But to me, the type of story being told here doesn't mesh with what actually happens. We're shown this disturbing, dystopian society, and introduced to these interesting characters who want, on some level, to escape their grim fates. And then ... nothing. I'm not saying I want the movie to be like every other movie of this type. I don't want paint-by-numbers. I don't want it to be The Island. I like and appreciate that Never Let Me Go is something genuinely different in terms of theme and storytelling style. At the same time, I am a fan of great stories, and this movie only feels like half of one. It's a lot to endure without a lot of payoff.

My Grade: B

Danny Goes to THE TOWN

THE TOWN Review:

- It was clear from Gone Baby Gone that Ben Affleck might have a real knack for directing. But while his first real directorial effort was solid but flawed, The Town easily cranks things up a notch - being much more than merely solid, and instead coming close to being flat-out great.

The Town is set in the roughneck neighborhood of Charlestown, a section of Boston with a uniquely high crime rate, particularly when it comes to armed bank robberies. As depicted in the film, it's a place where crime and vice seems to be encoded in the DNA of longtime residents, where seemingly decent people are drawn to the wrong side of the law - because of circumstance, upbringing, or simply because they don't know any better. The Town follows one such local, Doug MacRay (played by Affleck), who is the leader of a gang of armed robbers known for the outlandish masks they wear on each of their jobs (in the film, they go from creepy looking skeletons to nuns-with-guns). Doug seems to want out of his life of crime, but, even as more and more heat comes down on he and his crew, he keeps getting pulled back in. Doug's lifelong friend, James (Jeremy Renner), for one, has no intentions of going clean. However, Doug's life is severely complicated when he tails a woman who ended up as a hostage on the crew's most recent robbery. The woman (Rebecca Hall), a manager at the bank that Doug's group held up, doesn't realize that the new man she met at the laundromat is one of the same thugs who took her as a hostage - and somehow, the two fall into a relationship. And therein lies the central theme of the film - Doug has met a woman, his gang is being hunted by the cops, and he has every reason and motivation to leave his old life behind and attempt to start over. And yet, part of him is trapped - unable to escape the life of violence and vice that was handed down to him by a father who was a career criminal, by a town that didn't seem to want him to leave.

The bigger existential themes of THE TOWN are, I think, what elevate it beyond the level of the standard heist fare. Sure, the movie in some ways covers well-worn territory. But the film feels deeper and more substantive than others like it. Part of that is due to a punchy script, part due to the gritty realism and measured direction by Affleck. A lot of the credit for why the movie works though has to go to the kickass cast.

Affleck, for one, gives one of the better dramatic performances of his career - up there with his work in movies like Hollywoodland. I don't think Affleck's ever been a bad actor - just in some clunkers - but he's really good here, and I think it's a role that will make some people rethink his ability to be a serious leading man in a deep and dramatic film.

That said, I think it's Jeremy Renner who steals the film. Renner absolutely blew me away in The Hurt Locker, and he's now one of those guys who is so good that he can instantly elevate anything he's in. He is fantastic in The Town as James - the loose-cannon criminal who's both terrified of going back to jail after a nine year sentence, yet unable to see a life for himself away from crime and robbery. It's a dynamite performance from Renner, and, like The Hurt Locker, he's at the center of some gripping, emotional scenes and also some absolutely riveting action to boot.

The rest of the cast is also excellent. I was a big fan of Rebecca Hall in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and she does a nice job here - I think her vulnerability here as Claire goes a long way towards making her eventual romance with Doug more believable than it might have been otherwise. She's an actress who I think is going to get a lot of big parts from here on out. Speaking of which, I think a lot of people questioned how Blake Lively would fit into this cast, but she does a nice job as James' trashy sister, Krista. Lively still comes off as more teen drama queen than potential leading lady, but for this part, it works well. Oddly, The Town has a number of actors known for their parts on hit TV series in prominent roles. In fact, the two main agents chasing down Doug and his crew are played by Jon Hamm (Mad Men) and Titus Welliver (the Man In Black from Lost). Both do a nice job, with Hamm projecting dogged determination in finding his targets, and Welliver lending a world-weary cynicism to the part of Hamm's loyal #2. Meanwhile, the always-great Chris Cooper makes a strong impression as Doug's jailbird dad, who lays down some hard truths for his son. The inclusion of a guy like Cooper is just the kind of instant-gravitas-injection that helps put the film over-the-top on the intensity scale.

Now, if The Town was just a nice, quiet character study with a great cast, it still might not have risen above "solid." But The Town also has some terrific, balls-to-the-wall action sequences that really help take it to another level. Some of the chase scenes in this one are uber-intense, and directed with great flair by Affleck. Seriously, it was actually really refreshing to see fast-paced action that was still easy to follow and told a great story. I never thought I'd tell the likes of Michael Bay to take notes from Ben Affleck, but after The Town, I will say exactly that.

Now, as good as The Town was, I think it had a couple of plot issues that kept it from being a flat-out "A." For one, I just didn't 100% buy into the relationship between Affleck and Hall. Particularly later on in the film, it was a little hard for me to swallow the idea that a connection still existed between them, especially after certain revelations come to light. A couple other plot details just felt a little too sketchy for me - a slightly tighter script might have helped in that regard.

Otherwise, though, The Town definitely rises above the usual popcorn heist movie by putting the focus squarely on character and theme. There's still some badass action and a couple of great, "holy-$%@&" moments, but again, this is a character study more than anything else, and that's to the movie's great credit. It's definitely worth taking a trip to The Town.

My Grade: A-

*And by the way, one sidenote about the movie and its impressive box-office take over the weekend. The Town is a great film, and I'm happy that it did well and made money. But, I'm sick of some of the talk out there about how this movie is a win for "adults" at the movies. The Town is an excellent crime movie, but it's not any better or more worthy of making money than any number of great films that we've seen in the last year. Because Inception has sci-fi elements it's not "adult?" Because Scott Pilgrim employs a hyperreal style of filmmaking it's only for teens? "Adult" movie now means a straight drama in a firmly real-world setting with no fantastical elements or heavy stylization? If that's true, then that's a pretty narrow definition of what is "adult." If you're trying to argue that there's been a dearth of high profile, serious-minded dramas in theaters, and that The Town is a welcome return for the genre - then hey, that's a valid point. I just object to classifying certain movies as adult and certain movies as being something else. No need to backhandedly demean other types of movies for the sake of praising this one.

Friday, September 17, 2010


Well, as I heavily alluded to in my last post (my big Fall TV Preview), the new TV season is upon us. My DVR is already on the verge of exploding. And I've been eyeing my cable bill, twitchily on the cusp of calling the moneygrubbing rip-off artists at Charter and ordering HBO, for the purpose of watching Boardwalk Empire and Eastbound & Down. Mondays and Thursdays though ... man, just too much TV on at one time, and so it becomes essential to narrow down my viewing to only the best of the best. Now, Thursdays in particular are tough - you've got the NBC comedies, maybe my favorite TV drama of the moment in Fringe, and now, Nikita.

NIKITA thoughts:

I wasn't prepared to commit to Nikita, but hey, the pilot genuinely surprised me. It wasn't a home run, per se, but it also didn't feel like some generic, CW-ized take on the Nikita legend. I was impressed that the pilot didn't simply retread what's already come before, instead giving us a new twist on the at-this-point-well-established story. I liked that Nikita was now an experienced operative-gone-rogue - on the run from Division (a different name for the group known as Section in the old series), and out to bring down the corrupt government agency. On the old La Femme Nikita show, we saw a number of storylines that explored the idea that Section was going to far outside the bounds of upholding global peace. Instead, under a corrupt leadership looking to further its own political agenda and power base, Section became a very morally grey institution - one that agents like Nikita were never quite comfortable operating under. In any case, I thought it was cool that the new Nikita jumps right into the midst of this interesting situation - Nikita vs. Division. Plus, to make sure that the show still has a familiar element to it, we see the usual Nikita origin story played out via Alex - a Nikita-esque teen who's a recent Division recruit.


The pilot very cleverly threw us a big curveball at the end. We had been led to believe that the stories of Nikita and Alex were relatively distinct. Perhaps, we might assume, Alex was being groomed to eventually help take down Nikita in a clash of the new model vs. the original. But, as it turns out, Alex is actually working WITH Nikita, planted in Division to spy on the group and act as Nikita's woman on the inside.

This was a damn good twist, I thought, and instantly gave the pilot a new layer of complexity that we didn't quite see at the outset. While watching the pilot, I definitely had some major reservations about the show's potential - the acting was in some cases subpar, there was some iffy writing / dialogue, and while the show looked slick, it lacked the unique style and aesthetic of the old USA series. But, that ending made me think that the show might just have some real juice - if this new Nikita could weave an intricate, layered plot around these iconic archetypes, then maybe, just maybe, it could prove itself a worthy torchbearer of the La Femme Nikita franchise.

So, I was sort of excited for Episode 2, and genuinely starting to wonder where the plot was going. I was coming around to Hong Kong action star Maggie Q in the title role, and was anxious to see if some of the key supporting actors like Xander Berkley as Percy (filling the old role of "Operations) and Melinda Clarke as Amanda (the equivalent of the old series' Madeline) could step up and be as good in this as they were on 24 and The OC respectively. In Episode 2 though, I still don't think either character has much bite, and watching this one really made me miss the old series. Xander Berkley does sleazy cunning well, but so far he doesn't seem truly menacing or dangerous. Similarly, Melinda Clarke has shown she's good with soapy melodrama, but seems a little lightweight here. And maybe that's the problem - while the Nikita pilot seemed surprisingly edgy and action-packed for a CW show, the second ep seemed to revert to what I had feared the show might be. The petty fighting at Division between Alex and rival recruit Jaden, for example, was just plain hard to watch. And although the Birkhoff character had some fun moments, he just comes off like every snarky tech geek in every action show and movie ever made. What made the character so great on La Femme Nikita was that he wasn't snarky or cool, but a genuinely shy, awkward, nerdy guy who had basically never known a life outside of Section. I don't know, I'm just concerned that so far, none of the supporting characters have truly popped.

I'm also concerned with the overall pacing of the show. Whereas the old La Femme Nikita was known for its stylish action sequences and proto-24 sense of sleek, quasi-futuristic cool, the new Nikita seems to have a lot of CW-style montages of emo-ish brooding set to mellow indie rock tunes. Seriously? This is Nikita, not Gossip Girl and hopefully not Smallville. Less brooding, more ass-kicking, please. The style issue is actually important, too. On the old show, Section was a cold, foreboding place filled with sinister-looking operatives and hardened criminals-turned-government-agents. Now, Division is like reform school for troubled teens who walk around wearing ab-revealing tank tops and spend most of their time in high school-style romantic stand-offs.. Again, the pilot hinted that things would be a little more edgy and hardcore than you might have thought, and yet ... Episode 2 felt like a step back.

Indeed, even the segments that were on one level the most intriguing - the flashbacks to Nikita's initial recruitment of Alex - felt pretty by-the-numbers. If these are the kinds of flashbacks that the show has in store for us, then I hope it sticks more to the here and now from this point forward. I think I was also a bit troubled by the "mission" at hand for Alex. Not to beat a dead horse here, but La Femme Nikita, when not airing mythology-driven episodes, had a knack for really badass one-and-done installments, often with pretty memorable villains-of-the-week. In comparison, Alex's first mission was, well, to be a prostitute. Seriously, that was it. It made me wonder if the show might collapse under the weight of its multitiered structure. If each episode is going to feature more of the cat and mouse game between Nikita and Division, PLUS a mission-of-the-week for Alex, PLUS have Nikita somehow end up involved in Alex's mission trying to both help her AND thwart Division's sketchy agenda - that's going to make it hard to focus on anything in particular, and to really churn out some meaty self-contained stories.

I think, with a show like Nikita, that's a remake of a remake of a remake, it really needs a reason to justify its existence. Is it a unique creative vision? A new twist on an old story? A new chapter? The pilot hinted that it might be something interesting, something special. Episode 2 gave me some serious doubts. Now, I'm on the fence. We'll see what the next handful of episodes bring.

My Grade:

Pilot: B+

Episode 2: C+

And, what was I saying about having a fierce internal debate about whether to spring for HBO? Haven't quite settled that yet, but I did manage to catch the pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire, so ... here are my thoughts.


It's funny, because a lot of people - me included - have expressed worry that, after a brief renaissance of sorts, TV could be headed back to a dark age of reality TV crap and other such lowest-common-denominator fare. There is some evidence to support that, but, whereas things looked bleak a year or two ago, networks like FX, AMC, and in particular HBO are fighting to usher in a new golden age. Hugely ambitious projects, big budgets, A-list cast and creative talent. Experiences on television that equal or rival anything at the movies in terms of size and scope. Well, BOARDWALK EMPIRE is exhibit A in this equation - a new HBO series brimming with ambition and loaded with talent. Rarely has a TV show been this prestige right out of the gate.

The Boardwalk Empire pilot, directed by Martin Scorcese, feels like Part 1 of the next Oscar-worthy Martin Scorcese movie. That alone is a pretty huge endorsement. Steve Buscemi stars as Nucky Thompson, the city treasurer of Atlantic City at the dawn of the prohibition era. Even before the new anti-booze laws go into effect, Nucky has plans to keep Atlantic City wet even as other parts of the country go dry. Buscemi has always been the man - one of the best actors of the last couple of decades - and it's a treat to see him star in a show like this. It's definitely a unique role for character actor Buscemi - we're used to seeing him play weaselly, awkward outcasts. But here he's sort of sleazy, sure, but also a leader and a fugire of great authority. I think it's a credit to Buscemi that he pulls it off.

The rest of the cast is already shaping up to be stellar. I can't wait, for example, to see more of the great Michael Shannon as Van Alden, a fed looking to put the early hurt on would-be bootleggers. I think Shannon should be in the Oscar race for his role in this year's The Runaways, and now he may be in the Emmy race for this part as well. The guy is just intense as hell in everything he does. Michael Pitt is probably the early standout though as Jimmy - a young lackey of Nucky's who's still traumatized from his experiences in WWI and feeling reckless and overambitious because of it. It's clear that the building partnership/conflict between Nucky and Jimmy is going to be one of the show's central story arcs, and it's going to be exciting to see that develop over time.

In fact, the pilot is almost overloaded with characters and plot points, and it's one flaw is that it feels so much, structurally, like a movie, that it almost feels like you're getting bits of a great film without the payoff. From what I've read, the show settles into a more conventional, serialized rhythm in the second episode, which is good. But, by that same token, the pilot really feels like something special for that same reason - it's just uber-cinematic and epic. The direction by Scorcese is classic Scorcese - evocative, larger-than-life, and at times filled with quick bursts of brutal and shocking violence. There's a lot of very artful cutting between the main characters and colorful period detail - street parades, comedy shows, ostentatious advertising, etc. - that give a real flavor for the time and place. And all of that detail is pretty amazing - the set design, the locations, the costuming - they're all absolutely top notch.

I'm very, very curious to see some additional episodes of Boardwalk Empire. There's so much setup in the pilot that it's almost difficult to tell where this is all going - which characters are the ones to watch, which plotlines are going to have the big payoffs? But what the pilot pulls off spectacularly is that it creates - well, recreates - this world that you want to go back to. So far, so good.

My Grade: A-
Man, so much TV. Tonight alone, we've got the return of CHUCK, the premiere of THE EVENT, and the premiere of LONE STAR. Stay tuned for more.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Danny's 2010 Fall TV Preview: The New & Returning Shows I'll Be Watching, Downloading, Streaming, DVR'ing, and Beaming Into My Brain!

I both love and hate the Fall TV season. As a kid, new Fall TV was the perfect counterbalance to the doldrums of back-to-school season. We were about to get bombarded with homework and tests, but gosh darn it, new episodes of The X-Files and The Simpsons would be there to ease the pain. Yes, I was one of those kids who poured over the TV Guide Fall Preview issue every year and dutifully determined which of the new Fall shows I'd try out. Oh, how things were simpler back then. If a show was on FOX's Sunday night lineup, I'd give it a look. If a show was sci-fi or bore some similarity to my then-fave X-Files, I'd probably also check it out. Once in a while, I'd get sucked into the odd family drama (hello, Party of Five). Whitebread comedies about priveleged yuppies? Pass (although subversive comedies that *mock* whitebread yuppies, ala Arrested Development? Yes, please). Anything on geriatric CBS? Definitely pass (and with rare exceptions that still holds true today - except for the underrated Swingtown from a few years back, which I still don't think got a fair shake). Today, things are more complicated. Part of me wants to watch anything and everything, but part of me doesn't want to devote the time to all of these shows just for the sake of being in the loop. At the same time, it's so easy to miss some of the good stuff. There's just too much good TV out there for any one person to watch, and it's easy to suddenly realize that there's some apparently-amazing show called Mad Men that everyone seems to be watching except you. F/X now has multiple great shows. AMC as well. HBO seems to be back in top form, and Showtime is getting up there, even Starz (I still need to see Spartacus). There's too much, and no person not named Matt Roush could ever hope to watch it all.

That's why - and I hate to admit it - but I'm often secretly hoping that new TV shows will suck. Nowadays, when a new show has a great pilot, I'm often simultaneously excited and annoyed. Excited that the show was top-notch, annoyed that here is yet another potential time-waster. I just felt that way this past week while watching the pilot of TERRIERS, from F/X. I watched it on a whim, curious because of F/X's great track record of late and because I'm a fan of star Donal Logue. Turns out, the show had a damn good pilot that got me intrigued for episodes to come. And yet, part of me wanted to just ditch the show. It was extremely well done, yes, but was it essential viewing? Hard to say at this point, but I now feel semi-obligated to give it a chance to prove itself. Then again, there are some shows that are just plain no-brainers. In the case of AMC's upcoming WALKING DEAD series, that's true in more ways than one (bwahaha). What I mean is, there's no way in hell that I'm going to miss that one. Frank Darabount adapting the best serialized comic book in existence? I'm onboard, no questions asked.

Part of what's so interesting about AMC's The Walking Dead, however, is that it's truly something we've never seen on TV before. I feel like so many TV shows historically play it safe and basically just recycle elements we've already seen a million times. But, that is starting to change. A couple years ago, I never would have thought that a TV show about the zombie apocalypse would make it to air. And indeed, I don't think many within the industry thought that such a concept was commercially viable. But now, experiment-inclined networks like AMC are taking a chance, and the results should be really, really interesting. And I guess that's why, in comparison, a lot of the same-old, same-old stuff just doesn't tickle my fancy like it used to. Again, so many recycled concepts: Hawaii Five-O - seriously? Who was clamoring for that? The new show is getting good buzz, but I just don't quite get the appeal of a fairly blah concept being dragged out from the dustballs for no apparent reason. And hey, I enjoyed the Nikita pilot, but it's not something that even needed to be called Nikita. Why not be original and create the NEXT great spy franchise, not recycle something that's already been done and done well.
At the same time though, I do think there is a growing sense of ambition in the TV industry, at least in some respects - and maybe it's partly born out of desperation, I don't know. I mean, just this past week, NBC Universal announced a hugely ambitious plan to turn Stephen King's THE DARK TOWER series of books into a multimedia film and TV franchise, with a slew of films accompanied by a TV series that would closely tie-in with the movies, with Ron Howard directing / executive-producing. Now that's raising the bar in terms of scale. At the same time, there are all kinds of similarly-exciting projects in the pipeline, projects that really have no precedent in television. From Steven Spielberg's dinosaur adventure Terra Nova on FOX to HBO's fantasy epic Game of Thrones - both coming in 2011 - there's some really interesting, unprecedented stuff coming to TV in the next year or so. It's encouraging, I think, to know that even though we still have a glut of reality, the networks and HBO and others are putting some substantial cash into big, unique, scripted projects to distinguish themselves from the E!'s and VH1's of the world.

So what we're witnessing now - the relatively safe slate of new Fall TV set to premiere over the next few weeks - may just be the calm before the storm. But I do think there's a lot of give and take going on. Once upon a time, for example, all the networks were looking for the next Lost. But now that Lost is off the air, people seem to have backed off a bit. Maybe that's because of shows like ... Surface, Threshold, Invasion, The Nine, Flashforward, etc. ... whose collective failure may have scared people off of finding the next Lost. But hey, I think NBC is smart to be pushing THE EVENT as hard as they are. Speaking for myself, I am definitely going to have a void that needs filling this year sans 24 and Lost - maybe my two favorite TV shows of the last several years. Yes, FRINGE is the bomb (and I can't wait for the new season), but I may have room for one more blockbuster sci-fi serial.

Still, even as TV programmers plan some ambitious content, they're also, I think, going back to basics a bit. The reason is that the networks in particular are no longer just going after the once-coveted 18-49 demo. As much as us Gen Y-ers may hate to admit it, the nation's largest and most influential demo is still the Baby Boomers, and, guess what - the Baby Boomers are now well into their 50's and older. But, they have the money (unlike us poor twenty-somethings), and they're the ones who still watch TV the old-fashioned way - in primetime, on TV, in real-time. So, I think we're going to continue to see a selection of shows that feature older characters or more old-school elements in general. Guys like Jimmy Smits, Tom Selleck, and William Shatner - who all hold appeal with the AARP crowd, are more prominent than ever on the air, as are reimaginings of Boomer favorites like Hawaii Five-O, The Rockford Files, etc. So ... how long before Matlock gets a remake?

Suffice it to say, it's definitely an interesting time in television. Between new distribution models, new networks that are emerging as primetime players, and new genres that are crossing over from movies and games and comics to TV, change is definitely in the air (even if it's not, necessarilly, evident in the Fall TV schedule just yet).

So what new series am I most looking forward to this Fall? A quick list below:


- Even if this was *just* your run-of-the-mill zombie apocalypse TV show, I'd probably be excited. But, this is not run-of-the-mill by any stretch. It's an adaptation of The Walking Dead comic book - maybe the single best, most riveting comic of the last five years. Creator Robert Kirkman is onboard with the show, even writing some episodes. And the show's driving creative force? Some guy named Frank Darabount. If you've read the graphic novels though, you know that the whole zombie thing is really the backdrop by which Kirkman explores the dark places of the human soul. He examnes the places that people will go when stripped of the comforts of modern society, forced to fight to simply survive. It's potent subject matter, and I have every confidence that AMC won't shy away from the edginess of the comics. Yep, this show is going to freaking rock, and it's my #1 "must-see" series of the Fall.


- I don't know if The Event will have a great fourth episode, or a great fifth episode. And as is always the case with shows of this type, that will ultimately be what makes or breaks it. But I think the show will grab people at the outset, because I can testify that the pilot is pretty darn compelling, and sets up a lot of intriguing questions and mysteries. I'm very curious about a couple of things though. I'm wondering what this show will be like week to week - from the pilot, it's hard to get a sense of that, exactly. I'm also anxious to see if the show becomes mythology-heavy, or keeps things more self-contained. Looking at something like Fringe, I think The Event could benefit from laying its cards on the table fairly quickly and taking things up a notch from there. But the show has an excellent cast and a fun pilot. I'm excited to see how it progresses.


- I currently don't have HBO, but this show is really tempting me to subscribe. From Martin Scorcese, this prohibition-era drama stars the great Steve Buscemi, and yeah, basically looks like it will be amazing. I think just knowing that this show is on HBO, where there's free reign for it to be R-rated and adult, makes it that much more appealling. Plus, it just looks to document a fascinating time in history, and again, it's a story that we've never really seen on TV before. That's become HBO's specialty of late, and this looks to be another crown jewel in their stellar lineup.


- I read the script for this a while back on the recommendation of my friend Abby (one of the biggest TV gurus I know), and as usual her judgement was impeccable - it was a crazy-good read, full of intrigue, double-crosses, and twists. Imagine, if you will, a drama about Sawyer from Lost's life as a con-man, pre-Island, and you might have an idea of what Lonestar is all about. Now, my main question is whether the actual pilot and subsequent episodes can capture the energy of the script's writing, and whether the cast is up to the task of pulling it all off. Also, why do Monday nights have to be so crowded this fall? Still, Lonestar will definitely be a show to sample.


- I was very much prepared to hate this show, but I admit to being pretty impressed with the pilot, which had some cool action, some interesting setup, and a damn good twist at the end that I wasn't expecting. It's still hard for me to accept yet another take on the La Femme Nikita mythos, especially being a huge fan of the 90's USA series. But I at least appreciate that this new version picks up at a later point in the story, rather than just being another retread of the tried-and-true origin story. After the pilot though, I'm definitely in for a while longer.


- Here's another show that I really had zero expectations for. But I was really surprised by the pilot, to the point where I may be onboard for the long haul if the quality keeps up. I feel like it may be premature to invoke the late great Veronica Mars, but I definitely got a VM vibe while watching this show. There was a gritty, semi-noirish feel to the pilot, with some dark humor and quirkiness thrown in as well. And I was intrigued by the mix of standalone cases mixed in with an ongoing plotline of corruption and greed in a SoCal beach town - a formula that worked well for shows like VM and later Justified. Definitely a lot of promise here.


- Random tangent: can we please get a moratorium on show's with titles that incorporate the character's pun-er-ific last name? I mean, how many characters need to have conveniently kewl-sounding names like Hope, Caine, Wilde, etc. just for the sake of an artificially catchy-seeming title? Enough already. Anyways, Arrested Development fans rejoice. There's a new show on FOX called Running Wilde, and it's from AD creator Mitch Hurvitz and it stars Will Arnett! Meanwhile, IFC has a new comedy, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret (whew!), that stars David Cross! And, David Cross is also a recurring guest star on Running Wilde! Now, will either of these shows be any good? We can only hope. Running Wilde seemed like a sure bet, but early reviews have been very, very mixed. So we'll have to wait and see. Todd Margaret looks super quirky but potentially awesome. IFC has no real track record to speak of though, so it's also something of an unknown quantity. Either way, it's hard to imagine that Will Arnett and David Cross on TV will be a bad thing.


- I'm somewhat surprised that ABC has no real heir apparent to Lost on its Fall schedule, but they do have a show that looks like it borrows a lot from Heroes, The Incredibles, and The Fantastic Four - No Ordinary Family. I watched this pilot a while back, and had mixed feelings. On one hand, the show looked and felt top-notch, production-wise. Movie-caliber f/x and a great cast were some of the highlights. But, it also was a little too light and bouncy and cheesy for my tastes, more ABC Family or Disney Channel-ish than anything else. Still, if subsequent episodes give us a little more to sink our teeth into - some meatier plots, villains, etc. - this could really be one to watch.


- Undercovers has a lot going for it. If nothing else, it's the new show from JJ Abrams, and given his track record I think a lot of people will a.) check it out, and b.) be willing to invest some time in it to see how it shapes up. However, I think fans of Alias, Lost, and Fringe will likely have to resign themselves to the fact that Undercovers is not going to be a big, mythology-heavy show like Abrams' other recent projects. At least at first. It's a lot lighter than those shows, and I'm curious if it will stay that way or evolve into something with a bit more bite to it. That said, it's JJ Abrams doing a spy show, so you know you're going to get interesting characters, bigtime action, and plenty of cool visuals.


- I read the pilot script to this one a while back, and enjoyed it - and now I'm very curious to see how it translates to the screen. I can't help but get a kick out of the fact that the show is all about a group of people exactly my age - it chronicles a group of young adults who graduated high school in 2000, and intercuts between their time as seniors and their current lives ten years later. I really hope that the show turns out to be more than just a series of cliches, and that the characters end up feeling authentic. I'll be watching this one closely though, and I do think it could be a sleeper.

And how about returning series? Here are my top picks for Fall:


- Last year, Fringe emerged as *the* must-see show on network TV, expanding its mythology and going full-steam-ahead into the farthest reaches of time and space. I can't wait to see where things pick up in Season 3, and I can't wait to see the too-good-for-the-Emmys John Noble back on TV as the insanely awesome Dr. Walter Bishop.


- I have high hopes for The Office this year, Steve Carell's last on the show. I have a feeling that the show is going to going to make sure that Michael Scott goes out with a bang, and I can't wait to see the buildup towards a post-Michael Scott office. Sometimes, having a definitive endpoint is the best thing for a show creatively, and I think it's going to be exciting to see The Office march to a conclusion, of sorts, this coming year.


- Finally, Chuck is actually coming back in September with a full season of awesome. It warms my heart to know that Chuck is about to, somewhat improbably, begin its fourth season, and I can't wait to see what surprises the show has in store. One thing we do know is that there will be some great stunt casting - people like Linda Hamilton and Dolph Lungdren. Mostly though, I'm just excited to spend more time with the show's great, often hilarious cast of characters. Keep eating your Subway sandwiches, fanboys, and support Chuck!


- I never thought this day would come, but here we are - the tenth and FINAL season of the show that never ends - Smallville. If you've read my blog you know that I've always had very mixed feelings about the show. Its quality veers wildly from great to awful, and it just seems to meander with no signs of actual character progression - making Clark's fateful transition to Superman the slowest march to superherodom in history. But time is almost up, so I hope and pray to the gods of Krypton that this season actually brings us some real Superman-worthy moments. I want the blue, red, and yellow tights, dammit. I want huge action, great villains, and I want Clark to nut-up, and be less emo and more Superman. I've made it this far, so yeah, I'm in it 'til the end. So come on Smallville - kick some ass. I'm rootin' for ya'.


- Community emerged last year as perhaps the funniest show on TV, and I can't wait to see what Season 2 brings now that the show's really found its groove. And hey, Betty White is on the first few episodes. Everyone loves Betty White. And Betty White could help bring even more eyeballs to Community, which is awesome, because man, this show is hilarious. If you need proof, go back and watch the paintball episode from Season 1, and tell me it's not ridiculously funny.

- Hmm, now that I think about it, this might be my #1 pick, except for that pesky no-HBO thing. That said, I am dyin', dyin' I tell you, to see Season 2 of one of the funniest series I've ever seen. All hail Danny McBride as Kenny f'n Powers. I loved Season 1 so much that I almost don't want a Season 2 - it was just so good as a self-contained thing. But at the same time, the idea of more Kenny Powers and co. is too good to say no to. My god, this show is amazing.


- Yes, I am an MF'er. I can't wait to see more Modern Family, which after only one season is already like this crazy TV comedy comfort food. The characters on this show are so great, to the point where just reading descriptions of upcoming plotlines in Entertainment Weekly made me chuckle, as I could so clearly envision how hilarity would ensue in the situations mentioned. Yes to more Modern Family.


- I like Glee, but you never really know what show you're getting with this one. Dark? Light? Funny? Serious? Who knows. But I guess that's what makes the show so watchable - it's completely unpredictable episode to episode. I do feel like there could be some burnout in Season 2, but I'm also curious to see how the show will attempt to continue to keep up its momentum from Season 1. If nothing else, there's Jane Lynch, and Jane Lynch is awesome.

9. 30 ROCK - NBC

- I admit to having lost a little interest in 30 Rock last season, but with a show like this, it's such a perrenial all-star that even after a few off nights, it could still come out swinging. Who am I kidding, I love 30 Rock - it's one of the funniest shows of the last five years. I just want it to reclaim its former randomness - more silly satire and less soapy love triangles, please!


- Don't roll your eyes at me, you cynical bastards. Yes, the show is long in the tooth, and yes, it's not the same show it once was, oh, fifteen years ago. But, who knows. What if this season of The Simpsons is great? What if the return of Futurama, which came back in top form this summer, has lit a fire under the current crop of Simpsons writers and producers? What if the upcoming episode with Brett and Jermaine from Flight of the Conchords as starving artists who mentor Lisa is actually as funny as it sounds? What if can be a dangerous question, but hey, you never know.

- So, what shows are you looking forward to? Anything I left off the list? For now though, happy TV watching.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Danny's Super-Epic Summer 2010 Movie Wrap-Up: The Top 10 Movies Of The Summer!

Within weeks, it was clear that Summer 2010 was not exactly going to be a banner season at the box office. That's not to say there weren't certain films that were highly-anticipated, but overall, the really exciting movies seemed few and far between, and they were outweighed by a glut of pointless-seeming remakes, sequels, and bottom-of-the-barrel mediocrity. It was especially hard not to be disappointed in this summer's crop of movies in comparison to last summer's amazing output. Summer 2009 was jampacked with great movies - in a span of months we had The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, District 9, Moon, Up, Star Trek, Drag Me to Hell, and more. Three Best Picture Oscar nominees, and one eventual winner.

Were there movies of that caliber this summer? Sure, a couple. But the sheer amount of crap was staggering. I mean, there was a Marmaduke movie. Marmaduke!

There was The Karate Kid, The A-Team, Predators - 80's remakes that were okay, sure, but unnecessary and just felt like Hollywood throwing darts at a wall of nostalgia and seeing if anything stuck. Step Up 3D, Vampires Suck, Grown Ups. Prince of Persia - an overhyped mess, along with The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Jonah Hex, which should have been awesome given the source material but was, by all accounts, a disaster. The Last Airbender - need I say more? The thing is, a lot of these were big-budget tentpole movies. The kind of movies that are meant to truly wow us. Very few films lived up to the hype this summer. Even Iron Man 2, probably the most anticipated blockbuster as the summer began, was very good but not great. When even a sure thing like that doesn't quite deliver on expectations, you know you're in trouble. Hell, every guy with an ounce of testosterone in his body was looking forward to The Expendables, but I haven't heard a single person who really loved the movie, which was not, as it turns out, the ultimate action film it was hyped up to be.

The one movie that kicked ass both critically and commercially this summer? Inception. Christopher Nolan delivered, plain and simple. It's an instant-classic film that is going to be talked about and analyzed for a long time, and it's right up there with Memento and The Dark Knight in the Nolan cannon. The other film that just about everyone can agree on: Toy Story 3. The film was another Pixar blockbuster, and it was a fun, exciting, and surprisingly emotional movie that was as good if not better for adults as it was for kids.

Meanwhile, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World *should* have been right up there with Inception as one of the summer's biggest commercial hits. I see why the movie was a hard sell initially, but still, it's one of those great films that has a little something for everyone: action, humor, romance, and heart - plus amazing visuals and style to spare. Scott Pilgrim has been one of the most hotly debated films of the summer - those who like it really like it - me included, while others were quick to dismiss it for whatever reason.

Let me take a second though and make an important point about movies - and this is in response to all the snarky commentators on sites like Deadline Hollywood that think they have all the answers. I can't stand it when people talk about box office gross and *quality* as if they are one and the same. Plenty of terrible movies make money, and plenty of great movies underperform. But what I can't stand is people who say "oh, the movie bombed, clearly it's awful - what were they thinking in greenlighting this film?" But some people are so jaded that they can't seem to separate the movie-going experience from all of the other stuff surrounding the movie industry. I'm sick of seeing reviews and commentaries that talk about a star's likability (based more on their real-life persona than the quality of their work in a film), a movie's box office potential, the politics behind the making of the movie, etc. If you want to specifically analyze how a film was marketed, then fine. But keep that separate from any discussion of a movie's quality - it's irrelevant.

This summer, I felt like the level of discussion around movies often sank to new lows. Scott Pilgrim was a great example. A lot of fans were passionate about the movie, and in response, there was a backlash to the positivity that was often painful to read or listen to. I guess some people saw the film as yet another example of Hollywood misguidedly catering to fanboy sensibilities, supposedly to the exclusion of more mainstream, traditional fare. All of those haters need to get over themselves. It's not some big, new revelation that all movies aren't for everyone. I totally get that something like Scott Pilgrim isn't everyone's cup of tea, just as I get that Eat, Pray, Love probably isn't for me. But to me, it's frustrating to see culture wars play out when discussing movies. And one other pet peeve - I'm sick of people having an opinion on a movie because they arbitrarily like or disklike one of its stars. If you think someone is a bad actor or a great actor, then fine. But I feel like Scott Pilgrim (sorry to keep using it, but it's a fascinating example) discussions often included people saying "I can't stand Michael Cera," "Michael Cera is not a star," etc. Um, what? Okay, let's look at Michael Cera. He was hilarious and beloved on Arrested Development. He went on to be in a series of funny and/or quality movies from there: Superbad, Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, Juno, and Youth In Revolt. Has he played sort-of-similar characters? Sure. But his career is also only a few years old, so give him a break. Then there's all this talk - a lot of it, again, on sites like Deadline - about who is and isn't a star. Look - NOBODY is a "star" anymore. Any actor can be in a huge grossing movie or in a bomb. People say Michael Cera isn't a star - he's appeared in some huge-grossing movies, so on what basis do you say that? People say Jennifer Aniston isn't a star - true, she's been in a lot of duds, but if just about any other actress was in those same crappy movies, you'd get the same crappy result. If Will Smith were to star in a quirky indie arthouse movie, would it make 100 million dollars? No. Look at George Clooney's career - he's a huge tabloid persona, an A-list celeb - but many of his movies have been relatively modest performers at the box office - and that's because he stars in a lot of smaller, quirkier movies (like the recent film The American). My point is that it's ridiculous to slam a movie like Scott Pilgrim by pointing out that Michael Cera isn't a star. If everything was exactly the same, but the movie starred Jesse Eisenberg, would it have done any better or worse? Zach Effron (who starred in the bomb Charlie St. Cloud)? Who? What I'm getting at is that there is the world of tabloid gossip and celebrity and there is the world of movies and entertainment. The correlation between the two is increasingly minimal.

But to apply my point to more of this summer's movies, let me talk about some of the great indie flicks that were released. The Kids Are All Right was one such movie. I don't know what kind of "stars" Annette Benning or Julianne Moore are, but I do know that both of them turn in amazing, Oscar-worthy peformances in the film. While not quite on the same level, you had Jonah Hill, John C. Reilly, and Marissa Tomei all in fine form in indie-comedy Cyrus. Michael Fassbender kicking ass as a member of the Roman army's Ninth Legion in Centurion. And yes, the legendary Michael Caine showing he's still one tough bastard in the revenge thriller Harry Brown. Speaking of tough bastards, how about Danny Trejo as Machete? While a couple of movies like The Expendables and Pirahna 3D tried to recreate old-school B-movie thrills, Machete was the one summer movie that felt like B-movie grindhouse nirvana.

Finally, I'll end my Summer summary on this note: MacGruber was crazy funny. I know there were higher profile comedies like The Other Guys and Get Him to the Greek, but man, I don't think any other movie this summer made me laugh harder than MacGruber. If that makes me insane, then so be it.

And yeah, I'm sure I missed some good ones. I still really want to see Australian crime flick Animal Kingdom, for example.

In any case, I'm looking forward to all of the great-looking films coming our way this fall and winter. And by the way, there are at least a few films from earlier this year that I think should be in the discussion in December when we start talking best-of-the-year. How To Train Your Dragon, for one. The Runaways, for another.

And so, without further ado ...



- Christopher Nolan's mind-bending thriller was a heist movie, an action film, and a metaphysical mind-$%&% all rolled into one. Great performances, riveting direction, and a plot that had us all talking, debating, and comparing notes. Inception was the savior of Summer 2010 - the one blockbuster action film that lived up to all the hype and then some.


- Scott Pilgrim was the most fun I had at the movies this summer. Like some crazed, videogame-inspired fever dream, Scott Pilgrim is a retro rock n' roll adventure that's like nothing you've ever seen before. Edgar Wright is totally on top of his game, delivering a new cult classic that surpasses the likes of Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz for sheer wit, humor, and heart.


- Pixar does it again, eclipsing the first two Toy Story movies in every way, with a third film that is surprisingly dark and moving. Thinking back on this one, what really impresses me is how the movie works as both an intimate story about growing up and moving on, and as a huge adventure film with set piece sequences to rival Indiana Jones. Truly a remarkable achievement.


- This one really surprised me - I expected a run-of-the-mill family drama but got something surprisingly sweet, sharp, and raw. The movie presents a unique sort of family that is nonetheless all too relatable, and it features a cast that is top-to-bottom amazing.


- As much as I enjoyed Grindhouse a few years back, Machete may just be the ultimate postmodern grindhouse flick. Badass, ultra-violent, and oftentimes hilarious, Machete is an ultra-enjoyable homage to old-school exploitation. And was there any better line of deadpan dialogue this summer than "Machete don't text" ...?


- Centurion didn't get a wide release, which is too bad, because it has the same sort of badass, bone-crunching style that made similarly stylized historical epics like Gladiator and 300 pop. Filled with iconic characters and memorable performances, Centurion is a pulpy parable set in ancient Rome that deserves to find an appreciative audience.


- In a summer filled with quite a few rather generic comedies, Cyrus stood out for taking mainstream comedy stars and placing them in a decidedly indie-style film. Cyrus was a movie that went to very weird, very dark places, and was all the funnier for it.


- Even if it didn't quite have the polish of the first film, Iron Man 2 succeeded in being bigger and crazier than the original, and was yet another worthy epic from Marvel Studios. Not many other big studio blockbusters had that must-see feel to them this summer, but Iron Man 2 truly felt like a cinematic event. Not only did it have a great cast and kickass action, but it helped set the stage for the expansion of the Marvel movie universe, and effectively hinted at even bigger and better things to come.


- I know, I know - the comedies in vogue these days are the Judd Apatow-style films that mix vulgarity, wit, and heart and make us feel like we're hanging with the cool kids. But sometimes, you can't beat a good, old-fashioned silly satire, and MacGruber was squarely in that camp - a gag-filled spoof that reminded me of movies I loved as a kid like The Naked Gun and Hot Shots. MacGruber is a pretty damn hilarious parody of 80's action movies, and I laughed my ass off while watching it.


- Harry Brown had its flaws as a movie, but man, did it ever have some kickass moments. A British take on the Gran Turino-style genre of "old man who kicks ass one last time", Harry Brown features a very memorable turn from Michael Caine. If you ever had a moment while watching The Dark Knight where you thought "hmm, I bet Alfred kicked some major league ass in his day," well, Harry Brown is proof that yes, yes he did.

Runners Up:


- Unfairly pummelled by the press, Robin Hood wasn't incredible, but it was solid - with some impressive action scenes and Ridley Scott's usual directorial prowess. While the movie took a while to shift into high gear, by the end I was actually sort of jonesing for a sequel.


- Salt was just a fun, old-fashioned action movie. Not too flashy ... but with a lot of old-school stunt work and crazy-yet-fun twists, this was a solid popcorn movie and a great vehicle for Angelina Jolie.

And that's it for my Summer 2010 wrap-up. What are your thoughts? Any movies that I left out? Any of my top picks you disagree with? Let's hear it.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Danny Gets Real With THE AMERICAN.


- I don't know if The American fully works as a movie, but at the least, I give it props for its unique approach in telling its story. The movie is methodically paced, short on dialogue, and lean on plot or character details. It feels very European, very 70's-ish, very retro overall. I dug the aesthetic, and loved the movie's stunning scenery and exotic locales. There were moments when I was sucked in, when I found myself getting lost in the lush landscapes and atmospheric storytelling. And yet, the movie never really comes together in any meaningful way. For all of its eye-pleasing cinematography, the movie never truly gives you much to sink your teeth into. Not much actually happens. That could be okay in some instances, but I think The American is set up in such a way that its trying to get us invested in its lead character. We're supposed to wonder about him, to wonder what it must be like to live his life. But the movie's sparse style ultimately backfires. It leaves us feeling empty and unsatisfied. Nonetheless, I'd say The American is worth checking out if only because it is, in many ways, a refreshing alternative to the standard spy movie. The pacing, the look, the feel of the film is going to really surprise people who go in expecting a standard-issue George Clooney action thriller. It's going to turn people off, because make no mistake, this is an art film disguised as a Hollywood blockbuster. For that reason, you've got to respect it at least a little. At the same time, artsy doesn't always automatically equal incredible, and The American is proof that attempting to be abstract and experimental doesn't always pay off as the artist intended.

The American stars Clooney as Jack, a veteran weapons-maker who crafts ultra high-precision firearms for use by trained assassins. We don't know much about Jack - we're not sure if he is or was an assassin himself, but we get the sense that he's been a longtime player in this high stakes and dangerous world, and is ready to get out. Jack had been laying low in Europe with a woman, possibly thinking that he could stay off the grid. Of course, Jack was wrong. Soon enough, his past catches up to him, and he's back in the game, doing one last job for his old employer. Working out of a remote mountain village in Italy, Jack tells the locals that he's a nature photographer on assignment, when in fact he spends his days creating a precision sniper rifle for use in some sort of high profile assassination. When he's not meeting with his client - a femme fatale spy type, he's striking up a reluctant friendship with the chatty local priest, or cavorting with a stunning prostitute who has taken a more-than-professional liking to him. All the while, Jack is becoming increasingly paranoid that he'll be found out by people out to get him. He's contstantly on high alert for anyone who might want to find him and kill him, and he's constantly haunted by the horrors of his life as a professional killer.

Again, the setup for the film is very bare bones. The film drops us into the middle of Jack's life-in-progress and never really takes the time to catch us up on what, exactly, has gotten us to this point in the story. It's an interesting concept - letting us observe this character without a lot of context - seeing him operate and seeing how he thinks, but never having a real grasp of the bigger picture. For parts of the film, this storytelling style works in part because we're able to ignore the particulars of the plot and just immerse ourselves in the visuals. Director Anton Corbijn has long, lingering shots of the European countryside - of hills, forests, and streams, of old villages and snow-covered vistas, of quaint cafes and winding cobblestone streets. The American, ironically enough given the title, does a remarkable job of transporting you to these other places. If nothing else, you'll have a hankering to go backpacking through Europe after seeing this film. By the same token, Corbijn seems to transport us to another time as well. On one hand, the presence of cell phones and other modern tech clearly places this film in the present day. And yet, everything from the cinematic stylings to the hairstyles and fashions indicates a bygone era. The movie screams 70's-era cool - you half-expect a young Elliot Gould to pop up and share a cigarette with Clooney in some out-of-the-way cafe.

So yeah, clearly, the movie has a ton of style and sense of place. In a weird way, it almost reminded me a bit of Let The Right One In - if only because that was another movie with a heavily European aesthetic, whose extremely methodical pace allowed for lingering shots of flora and fauna and other quietly reflective atmospherics. Does the pacing mean that The American gets boring at times? I think so, yeah. Whereas Let The Right One In presented us with an increasingly fascinating and disturbing plotline, The American never gives us any great payoffs to all the slowly-building tension. The plot is thin, and yet a lot of time is spent building up a couple of key mysteries - Who is Jack really working for? Who is their target? And ... Who are the mysterious men after Jack, and why? Maybe there's a way to address these questions without spelling everything out, but the movie doesn't find it. Instead, it stumbles towards its conclusion with an ending that's ultimately pretty frustrating in its ambiguity and pointlessness.

The bottom line is that The American is very nice to look at, filled with exotic locales and beautiful women, and anchored by a strong, commanding performance from George Clooney. While the pacing and ambiguity of the plot can occasionally cause boredom and confusion, for a while at least, these qualities help to create an atmospheric, immersive sort of arthouse storytelling that's a nice change of pace. But, the movie ultimately doesn't have much to it aside from its amazing imagery. The muddy plot and half-formed characters make it hard to care all that much about Jack and his standard "one-last-job" scenario. In fact, there aren't really any truly compelling *ideas* in this one, and that's too bad, because the movie very vaguely hints at some attempts to find deeper meaning or subtext in its imagery and characters, but I think it ends up coming up empty. That means you may leave the film with that feeling of "so ... that was it?". The American is worth a look, though. I give it credit for ditching convention and being (at least aesthetically) original. The fact that this somewhat oddball arthouse movie was the #1 movie in America this past weekend is, in fact, kind of cool.

My Grade: B