Saturday, February 6, 2010

On DVD: "The Life and Times of Tim- The Complete First Season"

HBO seems like an appropriate place for the animated comedy series The Life and Times of Tim, since it seems most closely influenced not by the rapid-fire absurdism of The Simpsons, nor the scattershot pop-culture shitshow that is Family Guy (sorry, not a fan), but by its network cousin Curb Your Enthusiasm. Like Larry David, our hero Tim is not a perfect protagonist—indeed, he is frequently rude, insensitive, or unfeeling. But he is also often a victim of circumstance, a guy who finds himself in the wrong place and the wrong time and reacts candidly and honestly, and must deal with the consequences—often to hilarious effect.

The set-up is all about simplicity. Tim (voiced by series creator Steve Dildarian) is an average, soft-spoken twenty-something New Yorker; he has a steady, long-suffering girlfriend named Amy (Mary Jane Otto) and has a cubicle job at the faceless Omnicorp, where he works with his best buddy Stu (Nick Kroll) and often suffers at the hands of his boss (Peter Giles).

That’s pretty much all there is to it—each episode consists of two stories running ten to fifteen minutes each, finding Tim embroiled in an awkward or embarrassing situation which he tries (often fruitlessly) to slither out of. Aside from its loose character strokes, The Life and Times of Tim also shares Curb Your Enthusiasm’s loose, shambling lack of storytelling discipline; it’s a laid-back show where the humor is based not on punch lines but on characterization and timing. Here, for example, are a few the funniest lines from the show:

- “Let’s not lock that down.”
- “That story took a weird turn.”
- “Don’t bother Marie.”
- “That’s not a genre of humor.”
- “I think that story could really catch on.”
- “I feel like I should interject at this point…”
- “That plan was not well-executed.”
- “I don’t like where this is going.”

And so on. On paper, those are not laugh-out-loud lines—they’re not much of anything at all. But the show has a dry, unassuming comic style, given extra zip by Dildarian’s languid, Ray Romano-esque delivery, and there’s just something inexplicably funny about the way that Dildarian (who is also credited as the show’s writer/director) and his cast build their comic situations. If the series bears a resemblance to any other animated shows, it is occasionally reminiscent of the overlapping dialogue and improvisational vibe of the late, great Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, or the early years of Home Movies.

The first segment is one of the show’s best, and for good reason; as a stand-alone animated short, “Angry Unpaid Hooker” won the Best Animated Short award at the 2006 Comedy Arts Festival. It certainly gives us a warts-and-all impression of our protagonist right from the jump-off; in it, Amy and her parents return from a cruise, only to find Tim lounging in their apartment with Debbie (voiced by Bob Morrow), the title character. This is, to top of it off, the first time Tim has met his girlfriend’s parents. “Wow, that was not a good first impression,” Tim remarks afterwards. “Was it because I mentioned the back-door action?” Debbie asks, to which he quickly replies, “It didn’t help!”

Other strong episodes include “Monday Night Confessions,” in which a freewheeling priest invites Tim and Stu over to his loft apartment, to drink beers with his girlfriend, watch “Monday Night Football,” and do quickie confessions at halftime (when the priest gives himself eight Hail Marys for an unpaid handjob, Tim notes, “That’s not a lot,” to which the cheerful priest replies, “It’s more than seven!”); “Tim, Stu, and Marie,” in which Tim tags along on Stu’s date with HR head Marie, which she interprets as an invitation for a threesome (when she puts on Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind,” Tim objects: “That is not good threesome music!”); “Suck it Philly,” featuring the wonderful Jeff Garlin as Stu’s dad; and “Insurmountable High Score,” in which Tim fails badly at making amends with the mail guy (Him: “You’re not very good at cheering people up, are you?” Tim: “It’s not my specialty!”)

The show’s eagerness to shock sometimes results in gags that aim lower than its considerable intelligence, and some episodes (like “Theo Strikes Back” or “Tim vs. The Baby”) seem to just end because they’ve either run out of time, or run out of ideas. Those complaints aside, The Life and Times of Tim is a smart, funny show, and its long-awaited second season (beginning this month on HBO) will hopefully maintain its high standard of low-key hilarity. It’s very specific style and sense of humor (as well as its lack of taboos) may not appeal to all audiences, but for those tuned in to its quirky, character-based wavelength, The Life and Times of Tim is a real treat.

"The Life and Times of Tim- The Complete First Season" hits DVD on Tuesday, February 9th.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Today's New in Theaters- 2/5/10

Dear John: As if what I think of this movie would deter one member of its target audience. But if it would: It stinks.

From Paris With Love: I gotta be honest with you, I'd normally find myself interested in a John Travolta action movie directed by the guy who did Taken, but that cutesy shout-out to Pulp Fiction in the commercials really gets under my skin. As Roger Ebert notes, "the last thing you should do is remind the audience of a movie they'd rather be home watching."

District 13: Ultimatum: Just because something has subtitles doesn't mean it's artsy, and just because it sounds like it's the sequel to District 9 doesn't make it so.

Terribly Happy: This week's best new release is the one you're least likely to see (not to cast aspersions on your tolerance for Danish noir). But it's a screwily entertaining little gem, with some good shocks and laughs and a genuinely unpredictable sense of storytelling.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

In Theaters: "Dear John"

Dear John is not a movie that was made for me. It’s a dewey-eyed tale of perfect young love, based on novel by Nichols Sparks, and is being marketed as a de facto sequel to The Notebook. I’m fairly confident that when the folks who made this one were contemplating their target audience, they weren’t saying, “Let’s make this one for the married male 34-year-old New York cynic.”

So I’m not sure entirely how to respond to a film like this one. Yes, it’s trite and manipulative and loaded (I mean loaded) with clichés. But does its audience care? Am I just being a party pooper by registering complaints that will fall on deaf ears? Is this the kind of film where critical response has anything whatsoever to do with how it is received? Who knows. Look, I’m not immune to the pleasures of a good weepy romance—hell, I’m one of the five people in America who saw and enjoyed Meet Joe Black. This kind of thing can be done well. But it’s not done particularly well here.

John (Channing Tatum), a Special Forces soldier on leave, and Savannah (Amanda Seyfried), a college student on spring break, Meet Cute on the beach. They’re attractive people—he’s buff and handsome, she’s got huge green eyes and a nice crooked smile—so we understand why they’re drawn to each other, at least initially. But they’re not terribly interesting; Jamie Linden’s screenplay seems to want to get their initial conversations out of the way as quickly as possible, so as to move on to a less taxing method of storytelling (music montages, lots of music montages), but there’s no particular spark or energy to their dialogue; they mostly communicate in pleasantries and insipid platitudes.

Anyway, they spend this, like, amazing two weeks together (that’s what we’re told, anyway, though we see most of it in the form of, um, music montages), but towards the end we have the inevitable (and frankly, contrived) conflict and predictable fall-out. But they kiss and make up before she goes back to school and he goes back overseas, and they decide to write each other all the time, to write down everything, so as to make his year-long tour more tolerable. She’ll finish school, he’ll finish his tour, they live happily ever after.

There’s no question that Dear John is involving in spite of itself; whatever its flaws, these two are charismatic and director Lasse Hallström is pulling some pretty basic strings effectively. But the writing is just atrocious—particularly in this section, in which the film turns into, basically, a series of voice-overs, so we can put their plodding prose front and center (accompanied by such ingenious visual accompaniment as, no kidding, a sequence that illustrates how the mail system works). They write and write, and there’s another music montage, and then… well, then 9/11 happens.

Hey, that caught you off guard, didn’t it? You wouldn’t think a lightweight romance like this one would exploit 9/11, would ya? Surprise! In all fairness, I did, in fact, see it coming—there’s an awkward title card at the beginning of the film to inform us that it begins in “Spring 2001,” and since he’s in the army and there’s absolutely no other reason for a story like this to take place nine years in the past, yeah, I kinda put it together. At any rate, John flies home on a two-day pass the weekend after, and Savannah slips under the airport security barriers so she can run to greet and kiss him, and then Hallström gives us awkward cutaways of people going through the security lines chuckling happily at young love. Um, I flew the weekend after 9/11, and that would not have been the response to someone, blonde white girl or not, breaching airport security. Savannah woulda got shot!

At any rate, apparently the 9/11 hijackers are not only responsible for thousands of deaths—they also provide a handy plot point to break up John and Savannah, since he’s pressured by his unit to re-enlist and the pair drift apart (sorry if that’s a spoiler, but Jesus, you didn’t think the title was coincidental, did you?). It’s here that Linden creates a major structural mistake, staying entirely with John for a long stretch of the third act, presuming we only care about him, since our only hint of her state of mind is a single shot of her crying at the beach. When their reunion occurs, the scene is marred by an unfortunate moment of bad acting from Seyfried (it’s the only one, but it’s a doozy) and some goofy business with her farm, and then we realize that they kept us in the dark about her solely to set up a lame “surprise” twist and to pile on some sickness and death.

The primary problem with Dear John is that you’ve seen it all so many times before—the romance between the soft guy with the dark past and the rich good girl, the kissing-in-the-rain courtship, the artfully lit tasteful sex scene, the inevitable strain of the long-distance relationship, etc. There’s nothing wrong with returning to well-trod ground, but Linden’s screenplay is simply tearjerker Mad-Libs, and Hallström’s direction is expectedly flavorless (his filmography includes the similarly bland The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, and Casanova). There are individual moments and specific performances that work—Henry Thomas is quite good, and Richard Jenkins is wonderful, but then Richard Jenkins is always wonderful. His final scene with Tatum wants to move us, and we want it to, but Linden inexplicably recycles the same voice-over that Tatum opened the movie with, so we’re not thinking about the scene, we’re thinking, “Jesus, are they really gonna have him do that whole speech again?”

Again, Dear John is not pitched at me. There are, I’m sure, vast swaths of the movie-going public who like Nicholas Sparks books, and like the movies based on them, and will eat this one up with a spoon. If you like this kind of movie, well then, you’re going to like this movie. That’s the best I can do for you.

"Dear John" opens Friday, February 5th in wide release.

In Theaters: "Terribly Happy"

Henrik Ruben Ganz’s Terribly Happy begins with a horrible story of a two-headed cow, and how it drove a small village insane before they took it down to the bog. Turns out they take a lot of their problems to the bog in this town. “This story is based on true events,” ends the opening voice-over. God I hope they’re kidding.

One of the dangers of taking in as many movies as I do is that you become so immune to the formulas and structures, you can figure out the general direction that most films are going. If you give Terribly Happy nothing else, you must give it this: you do not know what’s coming next. It begins as something like Hot Fuzz, but played straight—Copenhagen cop Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) has been reassigned to the sleepy hamlet after an accident on the job (“I did something terrible,” is about all he’ll say on it), and fails immediately at fitting in. In those early scenes, Ganz exhibits a squirrely sense of pace and place, scoring a few easy laughs while simultaneously building a Lynchian atmosphere of intangible dread. Hansen visits a shop but finds that the shopkeeper has disappeared; “The way people disappear here,” a passing woman begins to stay, and then stops herself. “I’d better not say more.”

When the woman begins popping up more often, we slowly realize that she’s this backwater’s femme fatale, and that Ganz is conjuring up a noir story in a particularly non-noir setting. Her name is Ingerlise, and she’s played by Lene Maria Christensen with a potent mix of earthy sensuality, good humor, stark victimization, and bad-girl cajones. She takes utter delight in making Robert uncomfortable, but she’s hooking the bait for her real pitch: “It’s all mud, cows, and rubber boots… take me away from here.”

The trouble, of course, is that she’s married—to a fierce, violent, abusive drunk named Jørgen (a truly chilling actor named Kim Bodnia). When they fight, their daughter takes her dolls out for a walk in a squeaky baby carriage, and the piercing sound of those wheels alerts the town: they’re at it again. But once Robert is hooked, he can’t ignore those sounds like everyone else. He heads over to stop it.

What happens when he arrives, I shall not reveal. I will note that, at the screening I attended, one of my fellow critics couldn’t stop complaining that what followed was “unrealistic,” and that she was stunned by the policeman’s “lack of morality.” She’s throwing around jargon that’s clearly not part of the table set by the picture; by this point we’re deep into a noir-styled darkly comic thriller, and ma’am, realism and morality don’t enter into it.

What happens next is tensely staged and undeniably compelling, and the rest of the picture unwinds with precision and smooth, unfaltering logic. The unfamiliar locations and foreign tongues discombobulate us at first, but Ganz is clearly riffing on modern dusty thrillers like Red Rock West; indeed, in its stylish photography and clockwork storytelling, it’s like a Danish Blood Simple, but with enough dark humor and well-earned thrills that, yes, it did remind me of Hitchcock (particularly in one unforgivably frightening moment on a staircase).

The screenplay (by Genz and Dunja Gry Jensen) brings the tightly-wound story to a good, bloody, sinister climax, even if the wrap-up is a touch too tidy. There will, no doubt, be plenty of viewers like my screening colleague who find the picture ridiculous, who find its storytelling implausible, who miss its allusions to other works of cinema, or don’t care about them. Those folks know who they are, and will surely stay away. For the rest of us, Terribly Happy is a taut, well-made thriller, and a good time to boot.

"Terribly Happy" opens Friday, February 5th in limited release.

In Theaters: "District 13: Ultimatum"

Back in 1990, French filmmaker Luc Besson wrote and directed La Femme Nikita, a hyperactive shoot-‘em-up with enough real dimensions and pathos to put its American counterparts to shame. In 1994, he made his first American film, Leon (aka The Professional), and proved again that with the application of intelligence and a touch of heart, the action movie could be more than just shit blowing up. But in the years since, he’s spent a considerable amount of time (primarily as a writer/producer) rolling those notions back, seemingly attempting to show that, whether in America or back home in France, he can spit out as many mindless action vehicles as any no-talent music video director. They may come to us from abroad and have subtitles on them, but there’s no mistaking his recent efforts for art.

District 13: Ultimatum is written and produced by Besson and directed by Patrick Alessadrin, and is a sequel to the 2004 effort District B13; this one’s getting a much wider release than it’s predecessor, and a slightly different title, presumably to fool a few poor saps into thinking it’s a sequel to Neill Blomkamp’s District 9. The original film (unseen by me) was the story of an undercover cop and a good-hearted crook infiltrating a gang within the government-imposed walled ghettos of 2010 Paris. This one jumps ahead a few years (so it’s still in the future!), as the duo reteams to stop a nefarious plot by government officials to wipe District B13 out for good.

That’s about all you need to know about the plot, which functions primarily as a clothesline on which to hang the picture’s succession of action and martial arts sequences. The story is simultaneously compelling and utter nonsense—maybe I’m thick, but why does Leito go to all that trouble to elude the police if he’s going to turn himself in during the very next scene? (Is it a question of logistics?) You don’t buy it for a second, but you certainly don’t lose interest either. The movie does get off to a bit of a rough start—the tone of the early scenes has the kind of ugly joylessness of an early 90s Tony Scott movie, all full of empty thrills and nasty people, but it recovers from that fairly quickly (thanks mainly to a clever extended bit in which the undercover cop uses an original Van Gogh painting as a fight prop).

The big action beats are well-executed (Leito’s chase across the project rooftops is thrilling), though Alessadrin is particularly egregious about staging densely populated fight scenes where everyone is polite enough to wait their turn. I’m sure it’s more dramatic to have Damien take on a dozen of his fellow officers and pick them off one by one because they’re such good sports about it, but it’s a little more likely that they’d clobber him all at once and then tase the shit out of him. Some of the confrontations are just empty style, like the scene where the half-dressed female Asian crime lord stops to but in her earbuds so she can have the proper music while she dispatches a slew of guards utilizing the knife in her swinging ponytail. That’s not, as they seem to think, winking fun; it’s just self-conscious silliness (and yet another scene nearly ruined by the obnoxious, unlistenable techno score).

Though some may be lost in translation, the dialogue is universally terrible (I’m thinking particularly of the part where the heads of the D13 gangs, a kind of United Nations of thugs, solemnly explain to the French president that they’re all a family), and the lack of big explosions to match the turn of the final scene is a bit of tease, to put it politely. There’s no questioning the energy and momentum of District 13: Ultimatum; it hurls itself from one breathless action scene to the next with reckless abandon, and many of them do land. It’s as big and loud as any Michael Bay film, though certainly with a modicum of additional wit and storytelling acumen.

"District 13: Ultimatum" opens in limited release on Friday, February 5th.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Commentary: OK, fine. Let's talk Oscar nominations.

When I was in my 20s, I genuinely treated the Oscars like the Super Bowl for nerds; I’d set my alarm to get up early on nomination day, jotting down the nominations as they were announced, and talk ‘em over all day with my drama geek friends. But I soured on the awards a few years back (“And the Oscar for Best Picture goes to… Crash!”) and I’ve now taken a more casual view of the big ceremony. It’s a thing, it happens, I’ll watch if it’s on, whatever.

But here’s some thoughts on today’s nominations, since it’s in the official Film Blogger bylaws that you have to at least comment on them:

BEST PICTURE: Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up, Up in the Air

Hey, look it’s the big change to this year’s ceremony—ten nominees for Best Picture! So that we can sit through twice as many too-brief, nonsensically out-of-context clips on Oscar night! Yaaaaay!

Seriously though, I could slash this down to the usual five in about a second and a half. But it is cool that District 9 got a nomination for Best Picture, and that Up isn’t just relegated to the ghetto of Best Animated Film. Maybe that’s where Avatar should be—but I kid our new all-time box office champ. (Sigh.) Of course, that dull piece of boilerplate shouldn’t be in the list; neither should A Serious Man, as much as I love me some Coens.

Though Up in the Air is the best of this bunch, everyone seems to agree (based on previous awards and that always-telling total number of nominations), that this is a two-horse race, between the 3-D cat smurfs and The Hurt Locker. Team Bigelow for me, but money talks in that town.

BEST DIRECTOR: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker; James Cameron, Avatar; Lee Daniels, Precious; Jason Reitman, Up in the Air; Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

Bigelow seems to be the odds-on favorite here, and I’m actually fine with that;
Hurt Locker
isn’t my favorite of these films, but her tight-fisted direction was a considerable achievement. Especially for a girl! (C’mon, that’s the subtext of a lot of what’s out there today.)

BEST ACTRESS: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side; Helen Mirren, The Last Station; Carey Mulligan, An Education; Gabourey Sidibe, Precious; Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia

I haven’t seen The Blind Side yet, and I promise I’ll get over my “Good God that looks like Radio” complex and do so. But I don’t think that really matters in terms of prognosticating; Bullock’s gonna win this one, since everyone’s decided it’s her Julia Roberts/Erin Brokovich moment, Hollywood’s chance to reward a likable actress for all the crazy money she’s made for them. I was pulling for Gabby, if for no other reason than I doubt she’ll ever have the opportunity to turn in this good a performance again; the same probably can’t be said for Carey Mulligan, but Jesus is she great in An Education. Also: would have liked to have seen Emily Blunt get nominated for The Young Victoria over Helen Mirren, who doesn’t do much of anything new or terribly interesting in The Last Station.

BEST ACTOR: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart; George Clooney, Up in the Air; Colin Firth, A Single Man; Morgan Freeman, Invictus; Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

I know the last person in this world I should feel bad for is George Clooney, but I kinda do. Back in 2006, he turned in a downright brilliant performance in Michael Clayton, only to watch Daniel Day-Lewis swoop in with his iconic turn in There Will Be Blood and win every award in sight; it feels like the same thing happened this year. He’s wonderful in Up in the Air, but Crazy Heart is yet another terrific performance from one of our most underappreciated actors. Bridges wins this, in a walk.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Penelope Cruz, Nine; Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart; Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air; Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air; Mo’nique, Precious

No one’s even bothering to talk about anyone other than Mo’nique winning this one, and I’m just fine with that—she’s powerful good. But this may very well be the strongest of the acting category; every damn one of these performances is memorable and effective, in its own way. Frankly, my favorite is Kendrick, who deftly maneuvers a finely-tuned performance out of what could have been a very standard role.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Matt Damon, Invictus; Woody Harrelson, The Messenger; Christopher Plummer, The Last Station; Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones; Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

I like Stanley Tucci and all, but it pains me to see a pile of suck like The Lovely Bones get anything resembling a nomination. My favorite performance of this bunch is probably Woody Harrelson’s, but there’s no denying the power of Waltz’s baroque turn. His award season winning streak will continue right on through Oscar night.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Neil Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, District 9; Nick Hornby, An Education; Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Armando Iannucci, In the Loop; Geoffrey Fletcher, Precious; Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air

The nomination for the wonderful, scathing In The Loop was the nicest surprise on this list; it hasn’t got a chance in hell of winning, but hopefully its appearance on this list will get more people to check it out on DVD and Blu-ray. There’s also something wonderful about now being able to say “Oscar nominee Nick Hornby.” But Oscar voters will see this as their chance to reward Up in the Air, and it is, indeed, the best script of this bunch.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker; Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, A Serious Man; Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, Up; Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman, The Messenger; Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

Another good batch of scripts. My gut tells me this is where they give Quentin his prize, but a Hurt Locker sweep could end up shutting him out.

A few other random thoughts:

  • I realize that Where the Wild Things Are is an acquired taste, and most of those who saw it either love it passionately or shrugged it off immediately. But Dave Eggars and Spike Jonze’s terrifically expansive screenplay certainly deserved a nod—and no technical nominations? WTF?
  • Make sure you see A Prophet in the week between its release and the Oscars, so you can scream angrily with me when the dull, empty White Ribbon steals its Best Foreign Film Oscar.
  • Kind of a mixed back of Documentary Feature nominees—yes, I liked the Ellsberg movie and Food, Inc., and I hear great things about The Cove, but nothing for Pressure Cooker? Capitalism: A Love Story? Outrage? It Might Get Loud?
  • Most of the nominees for Original Score are wonderful—and then there’s James Horner, recycling his same old shit for Avatar. Most of the nominees for Original Song are terrific—and then there’s Randy Newman, recylcing his same old shit for The Princess and the Frog. Can we get a moratorium on nominations for these hacks?
  • Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin will host. Which reminds me—thank God that talk of nominations for the repugnant It’s Complicated were just wishful thinking by Nancy Meyers’ agent.

·

The Oscars are in a month or so. I’ll probably have it on while I’m doing other stuff.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Today's New DVDs- 2/2/09

Zombieland: It can't quite match the high bar it sets for itself by working so clearly in the mold of Shaun of the Dead, Ghostbusters, and the Evil Dead movies, but Ruben Fleischer's zombie action comedy is a pretty good time all the same.

New York, I Love You: Anthology films, by their nature, can tend to be a little hit and miss (how ya doin, Four Rooms); this follow-up to the lovely Paris Je T'aime boasts a less impressive crew of directors, and its lulls stop the film from time to time in a way its predecessor's never did. But there's some really good stuff here, particularly the segments by Allen Hughes, Natalie Portman, and Joshua Mastron.

TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection- The Marx Brothers: The Brothers Marx are the greatest of all comedy teams, but these are not their best films; A Day at the Races is the best of the bunch, but At the Circus is a real dog and Room Service and A Night in Casablanca, thogh better than their reputations, are still problematic. It's a bargain set, but I'm still not quite sure who it's for.

The Godfather (Blu-ray), The Godfather Part II (Blu-ray): I'm not sure what I can say to sell you on two of the greatest films ever made, but I did my best in these reviews. The bottom line on these new stand-alone Blu-ray releases, however, is that you're better off going with the full box set that came out a year and change ago.

Mystic River (Blu-ray): Clint Eastwood's outstanding 2003 crime drama (from the novel by Dennis Lahane) retains its considerable quiet power; this was the beginning of his most recent hot streak, and it's still a killer.

Wanda Sykes: I'ma Be Me: It runs out of steam towards the end of its too-heavy 90 minute running time, but Wanda Sykes' most recent special is still one of the funnier stand-up shows in recent memory.

Amelia: I was actually kind of looking forward to this-- Hillary Swank in an Amelia Earhart biopic, directed by Mira Nair? Alrighty, sure, sign me up. Then the reviews came in. Good heavens.

Love Happens: The kind of movie that should be advertised with a yellow "always save" package and the title GENERIC VANILLA ROMANCE.

Monday, February 1, 2010

On DVD: "Zombieland"

You won't often find a movie as honestly advertised as Zombieland. If you've seen the trailers, you know exactly what you're in for; the picture knows why you're there, and delivers. It's gory, goofy fun, filled to the brim with shotgun blasts and exploding zombie heads and wry laughs and badass posturing, and that's all some folks ask for in a movie. You know who you are.

The trouble is that it never really finds its own unique comic voice, but it also can't quite match up to the films it draws from and pays homage to. It quotes liberally (and sometimes ingeniously) from Ghostbusters and Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy, as well as the films of Edgar Wright (director Ruben Fleischer is clearly a Wright fan, and this--his studio debut--mixes the cheeky horror humor Shaun of the Dead with the hyperkinetic stylization of Hot Fuzz). The problem is, a film so open with its influences sets the bar pretty high for itself. Zombieland can't quite clear that bar, but it has a helluva lot of fun trying.

The picture takes place in a not-too-distant future where a virus has turned the bulk of humanity into fast-moving, flesh-eating zombies of the 28 Days Later variety. Jesse Eisenberg stars and narrates as Columbus (no one is referred to by their proper name, but by their eventual destination), the unlikely hero who has managed to survive by living by a set of stringent rules ("Always check the back seat," "Don't be a hero," etc). The idea of the meek, nebbish anti-hero dropped into a man of action situation is a good one, and Eisenberg is a nice fit for the role. While roaming the land, he joins up with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a shotgun-wielding badass; they end up losing their ammo and transportation to Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), a pair of young con artists, but the quartet eventually joins up in the interest of mutual survival.

The opening scenes, in which we meet Columbus and Tallahassee, learn Columbus' rules, and take in the world gone mad, have a lunatic genius to them; Fleisher's direction (and the script, by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) is cranked up to 11, filling the screen with gallons of fake blood, zippy camerawork, and clever on-screen text. You're not sure if they can sustain that energy, and turns out, they can't--though I'm not sure that they'd want to (pounding away in the same style and at the same pace is part of what makes Michael Bay's movies so insufferable). But there's no question that it hits a bit of a lull; the dynamic of the two female characters isn't as well-developed as that of the men, though there are still some funny bits here and there.

Things perk up with the crew lands in Hollywood and pays a visit to the seemingly abandoned mansion of Tallahassee's favorite movie star (I wouldn't dream of revealing who it is, though the beans have been spilled in some early reviews and on the movie's imdb page). Before you know it, they've already arrived at the climax (the picture is not a moment too long at 82 minutes), a crowd-pleasing zombie battle at an amusement park, full of smart action and good gags (bonus points for the Black Keys cue).

Eisenberg is carving out a nice niche as a comic lead--he's often compared to Michael Cera, and indeed they play some similar roles, but Eisenberg brings a different kind of comic timing to his work (to a degree that Drew McWeeny's comparison to a young Woody Allen is fairly accurate). Harrelson is brash and badass, but with a grin; it's the most entertaining work he's done in years. Breslin (from Little Miss Sunshine) has some nice moments, and Stone (most memorable as the object of Jonah Hill's desire in Superbad) is tough and sexy as hell--her relationship with Eisenberg is sweet and charming.

Zombieland sputters on occasion, and threatens to run out of gas in that middle stretch. But when it works, it really works--it's a knowing, witty, winky movie, cheerfully bloody, subversively smart, and slyly droll. It's a rare movie that gives you what you paid for--and, in places, might even give you a little more.

"Zombieland" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, February 2nd.

On DVD: "New York, I Love You"

You don't see a lot of sequels in the world of independent cinema, but when the star-studded, multi-director anthology film Paris Je T'Aime was a sleeper art-house hit in 2007, the wheels were quickly put into motion for a follow-up. That film's premise--multiple stories of love in the city of light--could easily be transposed to other urban centers, stocked with new actors and directors, and presumably replicated with ease. So now we have New York, I Love You, a compilation of eleven love stories (plus transitions) from Gotham. As with most sequels, it's not as strong as its predecessor, and the slate of filmmakers is considerably less impressive. But it has its moments.

Things get off to a rough start with the Chinatown segment, directed by Chinese actor-turned-director Jiang Wen. It's not entirely his fault; the concept is clever and the story has some fine dialogue. The trouble is the casting. "Ugh," I jotted down in my notes, "Hayden Christensen is going to 'play a character'." I've never been a member of the Hayden-haters club; he's good in Shattered Glass, and I'll bet DeNiro couldn't even do anything with that Lucas dialogue. But he's just awful here--using a horrible put-on voice for his dull line readings, he's so bad you're embarrassed for him. And then Andy Garcia shows up and just acts circles around the poor schmuck.

Next we go to the Diamond District for Mira Nair's piece, an unlikely intimate connection between an Indian diamond seller (Irrfan Khan) and a Hasidic bride-to-be (Natalie Portman). I'm not quite sure I bought her Yenta voice, and the story turns a bit too quickly and sharply (it may have needed to be a couple of minutes longer). But the two actors have an interesting dynamic, and the story is at least unpredictable. The surprise of the film is found in Japanese director Shunji Iwai's Upper West Side segment, and that is that the usually insufferable Orlando Bloom is actually quite good as a frustrated film composer engaged in a telephone flirtation with his director's assistant (a well-utilized Christina Ricci). It's a sweet and lovely section, with an inspired ending.

Yvan Attal's story comes in two parts (one at this point in the film, one later), each concerning an out-for-a-smoke connection--the first couple played by Ethan Hawke and Maggie Q, the second by Robin Wright Penn and Chris Cooper. Both pairs are very good together, trading their sharp, snappy dialogue with aplomb, though the little twist at the end of the second story is more predictable than in the first. The Central Park story is next; it comes to us from Brett Ratner, and as much as I hoped he might rise to the occasion, it nearly sinks the entire film. Let's go back to my notes: "Is this supposed to be funny or what?" His tale of a young man taking a girl in a wheelchair to prom is absolutely tone-deaf and rather repulsive--it wastes some wonderful actors (James Caan, Anton Yelchin, Olivia Thirlby, Blake Lively) at the service of what amounts to an enactment of an old dirty joke.

Luckily, the Greenwich Village segment (from Menace II Society co-director Allen Hughes and screenwriter Xan Cassavetes) is one of the film's strongest; it's perhaps a touch overwritten in its opening moments, but is quietly stylish and has a great, wordless payoff. The Upper East Side segment was written by Anthony Minghella, who was to direct it before his untimely death; Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) took the reins, and while the story behind the story is compelling, the same can't be said for the piece itself. Kapur makes fine use of his cast (Julie Christie, John Hurt, and Shia LaBeouf), but boy is this one overwrought--and pretentious, what with all the billowing white curtains and sad cello music. It's the first watch-checker of the film.

Next, Natalie Portman returns to the film, this time as a debuting writer/director; her short easily measures up to the more experienced filmmakers, telling the tale of a little girl (Taylor Geare) and the black man caring for her (Carlos Acosta) with an off-the-cuff feel, a tender mood, and a sophisticated trick of construction. German director Fatih Akin's Chinatown story is vividly drawn (Akin's tight close-ups are well-composed), though the story is slight, even by short film standards. After the second part of the Attal film, we arrive at the final section, a Brighton Beach story directed by Joshua Mastron (who did the excellent Maria Full of Grace). As with Paris, Je T'Aime, they end with arguably their strongest piece, which finds Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman as Abe and Mitzie, a longtime couple out for a walk on their anniversary. Their back and forth is wonderful (like a good Neil Simon play), the final beat is just perfect--and then they top it.

There are a couple of new issues with this latest installment. First and most distressingly, these eleven stories from one of the most socially progressive cities in the United States all concern straight couples. It's a bit of a shock; the Paris film at least gave us the Van Sant short (even if it was a bit of a throwaway). I'm not trying to assert some kind of a "homosexual agenda," but seriously, I live in New York, and to pretend like this city isn't teeming with gay romances is just plain crazy.

The other problem is that they can't leave well enough alone; the Marston film is a perfect conclusion (as Alexander Payne's segment was in Paris, Je T'Aime), but they keep going for a couple more minutes, using a video installation by one of the "transition" characters to try and tie everything together, not realizing that they've already passed the ideal ending. Ah, well. New York, I Love You still has much to recommend, and if it's a little bit bumpy, that's rather par for the course.

Anthology films like New York, I Love You can hold up particularly well on disc; reaching for the chapter skip button can allow the viewer to improve the film to their taste, or revisit the sections that hold up the best. It may be an uneven picture, but the good stuff in it makes the bad stuff tolerable, and you'll skip those scenes on a second viewing anyway.

"New York, I Love You" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, February 2nd. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

On DVD: "Desperate Lives"

Good news: if you’re a fan of 1980s TV movies, holy God does Warners Archive have you covered this winter. The January release slate includes several titles that brought back memories of tense teaser spots during commercial breaks for Diff’rent Strokes, including Scruples, I Know My First Name is Steven, Blood & Orchids, Lace, and, of course, Lace II. But I was drawn, like a moth to a flame, to Desperate Lives, the 1982 TV movie that has since grown a quiet reputation as the Reefer Madness of the “Just Say No” years. This, bad TV movie fans, is the movie where a drug-crazed Helen Hunt jumps out of the high school window, a moment that came back to haunt her during a 1994 Saturday Night Live appearance. This was something I had to see.

But if it was, indeed, my generation’s Reefer Madness, it needed to be viewed through the necessary filters. I don’t partake of the substances myself, but I invited over two of my more chemically-inclined buddies, Karl and Bernie (not their real names) to get their take on its view of their bad behavior. Bernie brought a full complement of “stoner food” (pepperoni pizza, macaroni and cheese, grape soda), and off we went.

The film first introduces us to young Scott Cameron (Doug McKeon), a happy-go-lucky high school boy who is given a ride to school in a molester van full of dope-smokin’ kids, including his sister Sandy (Hunt). On their way, they stop at the graveyard for a meet-up with Ken Baynes (Sam Bottoms), the town’s briefcase drug dealer, full of high-octane sales pitches like “I got coke so hot it could be on the highest side of the sun!” The kids do their business with Ken (“Fifty bucks for a half gram?” snorted Bernie. “These kids are getting’ robbed!”), and he, in accordance with the Movie Drug Dealer code, gives Scott a free first hit, so as to get him hooked, ya know.

When the crew arrives at school, they have their run in with the new guidance counselor Miss Phillips, played by Diana Scarwid (fresh off Mommy Dearest) with a terrible haircut and a worse accent (we couldn’t pin down what the hell it was until she says of Scott, “He reminds me of my brother back in Tennessee,” to which Karl cheerily noted, “Mystery solved!”). She is made immediately aware of the proliferation of dope (or, as she says, “dupe”) throughout the school, which is ridiculously lax; kids pass joints at pep rallies, make PCP in the science lab, and shotgun in the girls’ bathroom, while her concerns are met with laughable apathy by the school staff. Soon, of course, she’s on a one woman crusade, taking on the system and trying to save Scott, etc., etc.

Lew Hunter’s script is packed with clichés, from “C’mon, everybody else is doing it!” to “Everybody does it” to “She’s just a dumb doper, Miss Phillips” to “You never think it could happen to your child!” The dialogue style is expectedly turgid and sign-posty; no one actually talks to each other, they just deliver monologues with occasional interruptions. The filmmakers clearly have no idea how people genuinely interact—the guidance counselor and her boyfriend not only take Scott away for a weekend in the country (apparently without encountering his parents, who meet her for the first time near the end of the film), but their drug-free good time appears to consist of wacky, “no hands” and “no feet” bicycle riding (Karl: “That sequence makes you want to do drugs”).

And then there is the film’s most celebrated sequence, the one that put us in front of the TV in the first place. Poor Sandy’s amateur chemist boyfriend has cooked up a little something in the chemistry lab, which he puts on his finger and invites her to try, you know, just as an experiment. “By the way, that’s gonna be the moment that ends our friendship,” Karl told Bernie. “When you say, ‘It’s just an experiment’ and make me snort something off your finger.” When Hunt crashes through the window and starts having seizures on the ground, pawing for broken glass to cut herself, it really is the Reefer Madness moment—not just for the overblown action, but for Scarwid’s thundering “EVERYBODY DOES THIS?” in the aftermath.

McKeon is irritating as hell, though Hunt is likable enough. Sam Bottoms does the best he can as the skeezy drug dealer with the happenin’ bachelor pad (“This guy’s neon art is inspiring,” noted Bernie), but as you watch him here, reflect that this was a mere three years after he co-starred in Apocalypse Now. As we wondered what he was doing in a goofy TV movie, I imagined he probably needed money for drugs—a credible theory, we decided. “This is a feature, made in California, in the early 80s,” Bernie agreed. “I’ll bet a solid nine percent of this budget ended up in drug dealers’ hands.”

Let’s jump to the end, because, let’s face it, you’re never going to see this movie (but if you do, spoiler alert, blah blah blah). Two girls are dead, Sandy is in a cast, Scott is in the “violent ward” at the local mental hospital. Poor Miss Phillips gazes longingly and sadly out her window, listening to the voices in her head, for a long time—so long, in fact, that the replayed dialogue is like a Reader’s Digest Condensed Movie in her head. Then, full of fierce determination, she gets a rolling cart and starts opening up lockers, grabbing the bags and paraphernalia (Karl: “See, these kids don’t know how to hide their stash”) and rolling the whole thing into the middle of the school’s Christmas program (!) where she sets the whole thing on fire (!!) and delivers a big monologue about the evils of drugs (Karl noted, “Oh, this is the one everybody does at Forensics tournaments”). How do the kids respond? By getting up, one by one, and throwing the drugs they have on them into the bonfire—the drug-movie equivalent of a slow-clap. Then there’s a real slow-clap, and then Miss Phillips looks heavenward and raises her arms for a triumphant freeze-frame. Credits, the end.

Most made-for-TV movies have only one specific goal: to fill two hours of airtime. They’re not intended to be high art, or to inspire any specific passion (either by their creators, or by their viewers); it’s just what’s on between the commercials. Perhaps the saddest thing about Desperate Lives is that it seems like it was made by people who did care, and very deeply, about America’s drug problem—it feels as though writer/producer Lew Hunter and director Robert Lewis really thought they were making a difference. But good intentions don’t equal good movie. About midway through, Bernie offered up this comparison: “This movie is like a Journey song—it’s stylistically outdated, it’s overwrought, and it’s just plain awful.” That about sums it up.

Desperate Lives is, by no one’s standards, a particularly good movie. But we certainly had a good time watching it and laughing at it; like its forefathers Reefer Madness or Cocaine Fiends, it is so preposterously over-the-top and out-of-touch that it enters the realm of films that are enjoyable for their earnest badness. The description on the box ends with the following sentence: “Highlighted by a title song written and performed by Rick Springfield and a rare acting performance by famed psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers, Desperate Lives remains as timely today as when it first aired.” There’s a certain kind of person who reads a line like that, and something clicks. I think you know who you are.

"Desperate Lives" is now available on DVD or download from Warners Archive. For full A/V details, read this review at DVD Talk.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

New on Blu: "The Godfather Part II"

Expectations couldn’t have been higher for Francis Ford Coppola when he returned to the story of the Corleone crime family less than two years after The Godfather became a certified phenomenon, a box-office record breaker that earned multiple Oscars and breathless kudos from even the most hardened critics. At first blush, a follow-up film would seem to be a no-win proposition, a set-up for an inevitable failure that would be perceived by most as nothing more than a blatant grab for easy cash. What could Coppola possibly have to gain from trying to trump his magnum opus, apart from a big ass truck of money?

But then, in an act of remarkable artistic aplomb, Coppola (and co-writer Mario Puzo, and his flawless cast and crew) matched their masterpiece—and didn’t do it in anything resembling an easy way. Coppola didn’t merely replicate the formula of the original film and give audiences more of the same; he crafted a complex combination of prequel and sequel, jamming its three-and-one-half hours with a dizzying complicated plot and a character arc that pushed its protagonist from the criminal mastermind of the first film to a soulless monster. It was a brave, bold act of anti-commercial filmmaking, eschewing the clean, classical narrative of the first film for a potentially alienating experimental story structure and daring us to root for a main character stripped of his every last redeeming quality.

In the construction of the screenplay, Puzo and Coppola cleverly mirror specific sequences of the original film, but with noticeably different overtones. We first glimpse Michael and his family, now relocated to 1958 Lake Tahoe, at a communion party for his eldest son that is clearly meant to mirror the extended sequence of Connie’s wedding in the first film. But the contrasts are jarring; it’s a joyless affair, the band doesn’t know any Italian songs, and this time, a Senator will show his face at a Corleone family event. The meeting between Senator Pat Geary (G.D. Spradlin) and Don Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is not a smiling request for a favor—it’s an old-fashioned shakedown by the lawmaker, and Michael is not receptive. “Senator,” he tells him, “you can have my answer now if you’d like. My offer is this: nothing.”

There’s a lot of information in these early scenes, and a lot of new characters to meet (“One by one, our old friends are gone,” notes Johnny Ola, played by Dominic Chianese, who serves as our connecting agent between the worlds of the Coreleones and the Sopranos). But there are also old family members to reacquaint ourselves with: here’s Fredo (John Cazale), still yearning for relevancy and importance, and then there’s Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), as efficient as ever, and there’s Connie (Talia Shire), a shell of her former self, her relationship with her brother even more brittle and strained. Michael still makes promises to his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) that the family will go legitimate, but it is a goal that seems perpetually out of reach—particularly when an attempt is made on his life, a brutal shooting through the windows of his bedroom, which sets off a chain reaction of suspicion, paranoia, double-crosses, and revenge.

Michael’s plotline seems almost deliberately labyrinthine, a complex juggling of his obligations to the New York wing of the family, as represented by Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo), and his new business interests in Cuba, a potentially lucrative partnership with the deceptively warm Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg). Compelling as these machinations are, the most fascinating element of the story is the resulting conflict between Michael and Fredo, a family betrayal that adds a brilliant additional layer to the narrative. “You’re nothing to me now,” Michael tells his older brother. “You’re not a brother, not a friend. I don’t want to know you, or what you do.” That turn of the tale, and its stunning culmination, is personal tragedy of Shakespearean magnitude.

But The Godfather Part II is not only the continuing story of Michael Corleone. In a risky but fruitful move, Coppola intercuts his story with that of the early years of his father Don Vito Corleone, the head of the family played so memorably by Marlon Brando in the first film. We see Vito as a young boy, fleeing his Sicilian village of Corleone for the shores of America; we see him as a young man (exquisitely played by Robert DeNiro), making a way for himself and his family. The design and execution of those scenes is impeccable—these have become the definitive images of early 20th century New York. But they also function as a reprieve from the coldness of Michael and the current incarnation of his family. The petty crimes and just murders of young Vito and Clemenza (played here by Bruno Kirby) are portrayed as the crimes of gentlemen, as opposed to the institutional corruption and faceless money-grabbing of Michael and his ilk. The cinematography is warm, the images (like baby Sonny on that freshly-stolen rug) homey. Hell, even the music is jauntier.

As young Vito, DeNiro manages to capture the spirit of Brando’s iconic performance without ever resorting to anything as craven as mere imitation. He gets at the soul of the man and the journey he takes, seemingly realizing that Don Vito’s character development in Godfather II matches his son’s in the previous film—a good, honest man who is drawn by circumstance to a life of crime, and finds that he has a gift for it. That turn is helped along by the slimy Don Fanucci (Gaston Moschin), perhaps the most truly hateable villain in the entire series; we’ve got a rooting interest in Vito taking him out. The sequence where he does so is truly phenomenal—another of Coppola’s brilliant interminglings of faith and violence (and family, as we go immediately from Vito’s first murder to a tender front stoop scene with his wife and children). And the payoff of the entire young Vito story—his encounter with Don Ciccio—makes for one hell of a satisfying dénouement.

DeNiro deserved the Oscar he won for the film, but again, Pacino’s turn as Michael is the picture’s most riveting. In Cuba, he has one of the great moments of sudden realization this side of Pesci’s last scene in Goodfellas; the quiet, deliberate manner in which he deals with both his brother and his wife turn one’s blood cold. His bursts of anger are frightening—a bottled, distant man losing control—and while he only personally commits one act of violence in the film, it is truly horrifying. We follow him down the well of his own paranoia and ruthlessness, cutting ties with most anyone who cares about him; when Tom Hagen sadly notes, “You’ve won. You wanna wipe everybody out?”, the only reply he can muster is “Just my enemies.”

Cazale is absolutely heartbreaking as poor misguided Fredo, his late scene of frustration and anger at his little brother a mere hint of what we lost when the actor died so long before his time. Duvall remains the unrecognized MVP of these two films; his visit to Frankie Pentangeli is a true testament to the power of underplaying (both his and Gazzo’s). As in the first installment, Shire is somewhat underused, but her two key scenes are tremendous—one brittle and bitter, one longing and forgiving.

The first Godfather picture is, in many ways, a perfect film. There are tiny issues, here and there, with its follow-up. The parallel storytelling, while effective and true, is somewhat problematic in terms of dividing the audience’s attention and slowing down the film’s momentum; for example, after the long Cuba section, we’ve all but forgotten about young Vito. The writing is a bit too on-the-nose in a couple of scenes, particularly when Hyman Roth slices up the cake in Cuba. And as good as Gazzo is as Pentangeli (and he is very, very good), his character is such an obvious quickie substitution for Clemenza (replaced reportedly due to outrageous salary and collaborative demands) that we can’t help but wonder how much better the film would have been had that switch not been necessary (particularly in light of the presence of young, loyal Clemenza in the DeNiro scenes).

But those issues are quickly forgotten in the burn of the film’s remarkable closing sections. The assemblage of violence purposely lacks the charge and thrill of the climax to Godfather I; there is a sadness and inevitability to it, a heavy-heartedness, particularly in that image of Michael standing in the boathouse window, perhaps the most tragic single moment of the series. There is something to be said for Roger Ebert’s argument that The Godfather Part II’s structure gives it an air of “prologues, epilogues, footnotes, and good intentions,” and perhaps that is why it doesn’t have the same sleek classicism of its predecessor. But in the film’s final flashback, Coppola does manage to bring it all together; that callback to happier days isn’t a gimmick (nor an excuse to bring back familiar faces), but a reminder of who these people once were—a reminder that makes that final shot of Michael, all alone, all the more shattering.

"The Godfather Part II," previously available on Blu-ray as part of a box set of the entire trilogy, makes its debut as a stand-alone Blu-ray release on Tuesday, February 2nd.