Thursday, October 14, 2010

In Theaters: "Gerrymandering"

Definitions first: “Gerrymandering” is the process of re-drawing the districts for state and federal legislatures. In the House of Representatives, for example, the census might determine that particular body’s seats have to be redistributed because of population shifts; gerrymandering is the re-drawing of those lines. But it’s done at a state and local level too, and because the United States is basically the only civilized government that lets the politicians themselves re-draw the lines, well, they’re often re-drawn to the advantage of that politician and/or their party. It’s a crooked, dirty process, and early in Jeff Reichert’s documentary Gerrymandering, we see clips of presidents from JFK to Obama decrying the process. But it’s not stopped, because it’s in the best political interests of whoever is in enough of a majority to stop it—and, in many cases, it’s a quick and easy way to rig the process in your favor. Or, as one commentator puts it, “Why stuff ballot boxes when you can draw districts?”

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

On DVD: "How I Met Your Mother: The Complete Fifth Season"

Here’s the most important single fact about How I Met Your Mother: The Complete Fifth Season: there is a big, full-cast, singing-and-dancing musical number. Not to perpetrate a knee-jerk reaction, but anyone with an even passing knowledge of the divisions of “jumping the shark” knows what a bad sign that is. You can justify the scene all you’d like—it’s their 100th episode, it’s exploiting co-star Neil Patrick Harris’s well-known affinity for musical theatre, etc.—but the fact of the matter is, it’s a terrible moment, corny and contrived and cringe-inducing in the way that just about every big musical number that wasn’t on a TV show whose name began with Buffy and ended in Slayer has been. This is one of my favorite sitcoms, and by the time the gang was kicking across the screen in their fancy suits, I wanted to crawl under the couch.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

New on Blu: "The Darjeeling Limited"

Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited catches the filmmaker in transition, and sometimes feels like it. His first three films, the acclaimed Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums, were all penned with co-star Owen Wilson, but Wilson’s subsequent acting success left him little time to write. Anderson’s first film with his new screenwriting partner, filmmaker Noah Baumbach, was 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and critical response was somewhat muted—it wasn’t panned, by any means, but it was certainly seen as a drop after the steady build of excellence in his first three pictures. For Darjeeling, Anderson teamed with Rushmore co-star Jason Schwartzman and filmmaker (and Schwartzman’s cousin) Roman Coppola to write the tale of three estranged brothers on a journey for spiritual enlightenment through India. Light, airy, and somewhat slight, it didn’t quite live up to the hopes of Anderson’s fans. But freed of its release date expectations, and accepted and digested as a “lesser Anderson,” it offers some modest diversion.

On DVD: "Modern Family: The Complete First Season"

Mitchell: "She's going to be all judgmental and condescending."
Cameron: "She's your family. Of course she's going to be all judgmental and condescending."

Steven Leviathan and Christopher Lloyd's Modern Family may not be the most innovative comedy on television, nor (Emmy notwithstanding) the best. But it may very well be the most likable one. And yet, it never sops for easy emotion or sympathy--it's a show with edges, though they're soft ones. It assembles a large cast of charming characters, assembled into nuclear and non-traditional family formations, and lets them bounce off each other, often with explosively funny results. Many episodes end with a little lesson learned, but the show's writers are skillful enough to quietly puncture those moments of solemnity--a slick way to have their cake and eat it too.

Monday, October 11, 2010

On DVD: "How to Train Your Dragon"

Dreamworks Animation tends to get treated like a second-class citizen by connoisseurs of computer animation, and not without reason. While their rivals at Pixar are turning out pictures that transcend the limitations of the form and rank among the best of all recent cinema, Dreamworks has turned out a steady stream of profitable but formulaic efforts like Bee Movie, Shark Tale, and the endless, witless Shrek and Madagascar franchises. But their latest effort, How to Train Your Dragon, is a step in the right direction; there's no mistaking it for Up or Wall-E, but it's a good-natured, low-key charmer.

On DVD: "Leaves of Grass"

Tim Blake Nelson's Leaves of Grass is an honest-to-God American original; I've never seen a film quite like it, with the possible exception of some of the Coen Brothers' more far-out pictures. This is not to say that everything in it works--some of the story threads are half-baked, and the tone is all over the place. But have to admire its gumption; they're going for something off-the-wall and unexpected here, and the resulting product more than fills the bill.