Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Last Post of the Year

Happy New Year's Eve everyone! On my last post of 2008, I thought I should do some kind of reflection on the year. I have to see a few more movies and catch up on a few more shows before I can do my top 10 lists, but they are coming. As for what else is coming up: tomorrow is blog resolutions, Friday is a midseason TV preview, and next week will be season premiere recaps. Now back to 2008:

It's a really good thing Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, since that's about the only thing that kept it from being The Year That Sucked. Just look at today's news stories. In real news, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has come back full force, and controversy over disgraced Governor Rod Blagojevich's senate pick will spill far into 2009. In entertainment news, a Viacom/Time Warner dispute could mean no Daily Show for the forseeable future, while a SAG strike is still a possibility. And that's just this week.

Here's just a few things we've dealt with this year: the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the fall of Wall Street, the beginnings of the fall of Detroit, record-high gas prices, terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Russia's invasion of Georgia, the Eliot Spitzer scandal, the Rod Blagojevich scandal, a writer's strike that led to one of the worst TV seasons in memory, and a very weak year for movies.

But there were some bright spots, mostly in the election. From the epic Hillary/Obama primary battle to the conventions, debates, and Sarah Palin, the 2008 election was THE entertainment event of the year. People who never voted in their lives were suddenly political junkies, checking daily poll results and tracking debates like play-offs for the World Series. The election even spilled over to real entertainment, giving The Daily Show and The Colbert Report tons of material, and revitalizing Saturday Night Live with Tina Fey's instant-classic impersonation of Sarah Palin. And best of all, it had a happy ending.

While the overall field of movies and TV shows this year may have been weak, the best were comparable with any other year. The Dark Knight was the best superhero movie ever, one of the best crime epics ever, and featured one of the best movie villains ever. Wall-E was so much more than Pixar's best film, being as well a definitive look at our era. Slumdog Millionaire's frontrunner status for best picture may come out of lack of competition, but it would be at the top in any other year too. I'd put these three above my top three movies from last year, easily.

As for TV, I may not have added any new shows to my dvr in 2008, and a lot of my old favorites may have disappointed, but that didn't stop shows from continuing to wow. Lost, already the best tv show ever, proved it more by changing up the formula with flashforwards. Mad Men avoided a sophomore slump by going even deeper into its characters in year 2. And Dexter showed it could still be suspenseful without as compelling a central device as the Ice Truck Killer or the Bay Harbor Butcher.

So 2008 wasn't ALL bad, just mostly bad. On January 20th, 2009, Barack Obama gets sworn in as president. I certainly hope that means my final post for 2009 will be very different from this one.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Movie Review: Doubt

Grade: B-



Film people like to hate on adaptations of plays. After all, plays have lots of dialogue, few characters, and little action. Who wants to watch a couple of people sit around a room and talk? Well, plenty of great films that do just that, from Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men to Richard Linklater's Tape. More recently, Ron Howard very successfully adapted Frost/Nixon to the screen. With his understanding of the way film works, Howard made the film barely feel like it once was a play. But John Patrick Shanley - playwright, adaptor, and director of the film version of Doubt - is no Ron Howard.

In Doubt, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), an old-fashioned nun running a Bronx Catholic School in 1964, suspects Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of molesting the school's first black student, Donald. As each struggles to convince young naive nun Sister James (Amy Adams) of their side, their battle questions who will last at the school and whether certainty is possible. With only four original characters, Doubt is a tough play to bring to film. But Shanley's attempts to spice it up don't help. First there's his distracting shot choices. He uses many canted angles to show doubt in the curved hallways. But the symbolism is too blatant to be effective. He also cuts a lot, often on every line, which seriously hurts the flow. Then there's the way Aloysius is always busy when she speaks. In one scene, she seems to be digging through a woodshed. It's common knowledge to give actors something to do in a scene, but Shanley takes it about ten steps too far.

The movie also suffers from pacing issues. Until the final half hour, the movie moves at a snail's pace with long pauses between lines for no reason. I almost fell asleep in the middle. Part of the problem is Shanley's decision to include characters not in the play, like the children and the other nuns. As they are given little to do, we have to repeatedly watch them in montage. Howard Shore's score doesn't help to set the tone, alternating erratically between horror and melodrama. If Shanley and Shore don't know what kind of movie they're making, then we certainly don't.

As much as Shanley may bungle his own adaptation, Doubt is worth seeing for the cast. The strangest performance comes from Streep, whose Aloysius has a heavy Bronx accent and stalks around like a spider from Lord of the Rings. This can be funny when she's terrorizing the kids, but mostly her performance seems campy. Adams may follow the text by playing a variation on her Enchanted character, but she still feels like a cartoon. Hoffman, great as always, subtly creates ambivalence in his character so the audience can feel the doubt. But the real stand-out is Viola Davis as Donald's mother. She only has one major scene, but she knocks it out of the park. Her pain and intensity is entirely untheatrical, but you hang on her every word. Her scene brings the movie out of its lull and kickstarts it towards the climax.

Starting with Davis' scene, Shanley finally realizes what Ron Howard knew was the trick to a successful adaptation: trust the actors. By the time Hoffman and Streep meet for their final confrontation, all the overdirecting is gone. Streep is no longer digging through woodsheds and the camera is no longer showing off. Instead, it's a simple scene of two people talking that feels as tense as any action scene. The material and the actors are strong enough to fully hold our attention without any directorial interference. The movie may not work as a whole, but a Hoffman/Streep battle is well worth paying to see.

Movie Review: Valkyrie

Grade: C+



First there were the reports of problems onset. Then there were the rapidly shifting release dates. Then finally a trailer emphasizing Tom Cruise in an eyepatch and bad dialogue. Throw in popular anti-Cruise sentiment, and soon everyone was asking, "How much is Valkyrie going to suck?"

Well, it doesn't suck, but it's no triumph of cinema either. Any salvation lies in the fairly interesting story. Germans made fiften assassination attempts on Hitler, according to the movie's post-script. But in this attempt, the conspirators tried not only to kill Hitler, but to stage a coup using the Nazi reserve force, known as Valkyries. We all know the plan fails, remembering from history that Hitler kills himself. But what's amazing about the story is how close the conspirators really came. This wasn't some lone gunman attempt but a massive conspiracy involving top Nazi generals and colonels. When the plan is set in motion and the radio tower tries to figure out who is in charge, it's clear the plan could easily have worked.

Unfortunately, the movie does not do the story justice. With a step-by-step look at how the plan went down, the movie could been a type of heist movie - Ocean's Eleven with Nazis. Paul Verhoeven's film Black Book (from which Valkyrie borrows actors) proved Nazi movies could still be fun. But instead, director Bryan Singer treats his subject dead seriously, eye patch and all. There's too many characters and too little drama for the seriousness to pay off. So instead, the tone is an unfortunate middleground that plays more like a history lesson. Since Cruise tells anyone who will listen about the plan, we don't even get to see the double life of the conspirators pretending to be good Nazis. What should be a fun suspense movie has zero suspense until the plan begins.

If I fail to mention the name of Cruise's character, that's because this isn't the kind of movie where you remember people's names. In fact, I spent half the movie saying, "Who the fuck is that guy?" You see, the downside to showing a realistic conspiracy with lots of people involved...is there are a lot of people involved. But if you have trouble telling the good guys from the bad guys, the accents are there to help you out. Being an American movie set in Germany, most of the characters have British accents (of course!). But only the good Nazis. The bad Nazis (like Hitler) still get to have German accents. But the best Nazi of all, the heroic one to lead the day, can only be played by an American, Tom Cruise.

Cruise seems miscast here not just because he is the sole American, but because he plays the quintessential American. He plays not a character but a movie star, delivering ridiculous lines with the bravado of stars from the 1940s. There's no getting inside his character's head, and scenes with his family do little to humanize him. Like Wall-E's EVE, his focus is only on his directive. It's possible Cruise's performance was meant to match the kind of campy throwback the movie could have been. But since he seems to be acting in a different movie from everyone else, he's just one more distraction in this mediocre effort.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Movie Review: Marley & Me

Grade: B



Everyone's had it happen to them: the movie you wanted to see was sold out so you settled for whatever else was playing. Sometimes you luck out, like when The Departed's lack of tickets led me to The Prestige. Usually though, it's more like when I saw A Guy Thing instead of Chicago. With those expectations, Marley & Me proved a pleasant surprise.

Based on a bestselling memoir by John Grogan I haven't read, Marley & Me tells about how John Grogan (Owen Wilson) and his new wife Jenny (Jennifer Aniston) adopt an ill-behaved dog named Marley. Marley lets them practice being parents before having their own kids, and gives John plenty to write about in his column.

Basically, the movie is a big chunk of John's life, and it coasts by enjoyably enough. Marley's bad behavior provides plenty of laughs, and the dogs that play him are very cute. Other than getting all their furniture chewed, the Grogans don't face any major problems. Sure, John deals with some career dissatisfaction and Jenny has to deal with post-partum depression, but this isn't Revolutionary Road, it's a family movie. The tone is warm and friendly throughout.

The cast likably fills roles they're familiar with. Wilson plays John as a slightly more mature version of the laid-back man-child he typically plays. Aniston stretches beyond Rachel, but her Jenny never feels like more than a typical wife/mother role. Eric Dane stands out by entertainingly repeating his McSteamy role on Grey's Anatomy. Alan Arkin enjoyably acts as a mentor to John. They're all easy to watch, as you've seen them all do it before.

They are all upstaged by the movie's title canine, whose overexcited energy powers the first half of the movie. The dog provides plenty of laughs, from terrifying a housesitter to jumping out of a moving car. Any pet owner is bound to relate. But the gag of a misbehaved dog can only go so far, and eventually the focus shifts to the kids. Once that happens, there's not much for Marley to do. He breaks something every now and then, but it feels like just for memory's sake. Despite some serious talks with Marley, John's connection to him never feels like it spills over to the family stuff. So the second half of the movie is made of fairly ordinary arguments and life events.

Still, these are minor quibbles that can be easily fixed by cute kids and cuter dogs. And there's plenty of both to be had. The ending left most of my theater crying, but does so without overdoing the sappiness. There's nothing particularly objectionable and nothing you haven't seen before. But it's a perfectly enjoyable two hours at the movies.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas TV!

I covered movies on Monday, so for Christmas I'm listing my five favorite Christmas-themed TV episodes. Now, I've never seen the Festivus episode of Seinfeld or the West Wing episode where Toby plans a funeral for a homeless veteran. So I may not know the classics, but here are some new classics for you.

5. "How Lily Stole Christmas," How I Met Your Mother

It can't hold up to the Thanksgiving episodes, but this Christmas episode has plenty of holiday gold. There's the Christmas miracle of Marshall delivering all the packaged presents. Ted's trip to his religious cousins' presents-free celebration. And the many uses of "grinch" as a euphism. Plus, who can't get behind beer as a unifier?

4. "An Echolls Family Christmas," Veronica Mars

The main plot involves a poker game gone wrong, but the B-plot is all Christmas. As Keith investigates a death threat on A-list movie star Aaron Echolls, we get to see what the Echolls' Christmas party looks like. With murderous Christmas cards, deranged pumpkins, and a vengeful server, this darker Christmas tale is a nice balance for all the cheesy Lifetime specials.

3. "Afternoon Delight," Arrested Development

Arrested Development took a trip to The Office as GOB used his role as Bluth Co. president to insult all of his employees. But this episode's best remembered for teaching all of us what the song "Afternoon Delight' is really about. The moment when Michael/Maeby and Lindsay/George-Michael realize what they're dueting about? Hilarious.

2. "The Best Chrismukkah Ever," The OC

It's a tough call between this and season 2's "The Chrismukkah That Almost Wasn't," but I have to go with the episode that coined the word. No "yamaclauses," but a simple explanation of Seth Cohen's Christmas/Chanukah hybrid. Also, Seth's identical gift packs to Summer and Anna, leaving him with neither by the end, helped bring out the show's best love triangle.

1. "A Benihana Christmas," The Office

This hour-long episode was The Office at its best. Michael's cluelessly creepy Christmas card to Carol inserting himself into her family. Jim and Pam's CIA prank on Dwight. Dwight and Andy fighting over Michael while drinking at Benihana. Michael marking his date with a marker to remember which one she is. The date riding off on Michael's bike. And the beginning of Michael and Jan. The holiday brought out the best in every character, creating the perfect blend of awkward and hilarious.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

What to See on Jewish Christmas

Happy Christmas Eve everyone! TBS will be airing its yearly 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story at 8 PM tonight. I've actually never seen it, so maybe I'll check it out this year. But today I'd like to talk about one of my favorite holidays: Jewish Christmas. For those of you unfamiliar with Jewish Christmas, you celebrate it by eating Chinese food and seeing a movie. Now, you might ask, "Mah nishtah nah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot?" [Why is this night different from any other night?] After all, my family eats Chinese food and sees movies all the time. But Jewish Christmas makes that a holiday, and that's special.

Now, as I did on Thanksgiving, I've got some advice on what movie to see. Once again, the movie selection is pretty weak, with most mainstream movies looking like the cinematic equivalent of a lump of coal. Yes Man and Bedtime Stories do nothing for me, while Seven Pounds and The Spirit have gotten reviews terrible enough to curdle your egg nog. So while I can't vouch for (or even recommend) some of the movies on this list, they're at least worth considering.

Slumdog Millionaire

It was my #1 pick for Thanksgiving, and it's still my #1 pick for Christmas. But unlike a month ago, Slumdog has now expanded to the point where I was able to see it again in Virginia yesterday. If you haven't seen it, you'll have fun and feel good. Even if you have, a rewatching is more worthwhile than Yes Man.

Marley & Me

A PG-rated movie with Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston, and a dog? That's a big no thanks for me, but it's a logical choice. It's based on a super popular book, has two likable stars, and looks the most tolerable of the family movies. The reviews may be mixed, but they're certainly not terrible. If you can stand the trailer, you might want to check it out.

Valkyrie

The image of a one-eyed Tom Cruise leading a team to go kill Hitler is definitely silly. But silly might be preferable to all the super serious Oscarbait in theaters. Its solid Rotten Tomatoes score of 60% means it isn't the bomb we feared (that would be The Spirit at 14%). If your hatred of Tom Cruise doesn't turn you off, this could be a fun way to spend the holiday.

Frost/Nixon

Usually, the last thing you want during the holiday is politics. But this is surprisingly entertaining, filled with humor and wit. Yes, it's Oscarbait, but it's on a different level from the dour seriousness of Benjamin Button and Doubt. With such weak mainstream movies this year, Frost/Nixon may be a nice compromise.

Milk

This was also on my Thanksgiving list, and like Slumdog has since expanded further. It's still in pretty limited release (not playing in Virginia), but I've heard it's amazing. Still, a political movie about civil rights that ends with a death might not be the holiday cheer you were looking for.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Releasing wide on Christmas day, this epic tale of a backwards-aging man (Brad Pitt) will get a lot of attention. A big, epic tearjerker brings together the whole family, and women can enjoy Brad Pitt. But consider: It's nearly three hours long, it's incredibly slow, and it's really not that good. Still, the movie's Rotten Tomatoes score of 77% shows I may be alone on my opinion, so you may want to see for yourselves.

Doubt

Another very serious movie I didn't love (review coming soon), Doubt doesn't make for a fun trip to the movies. It may be well short of Benjamin Button's running time, but its slow pace nearly put me to sleep. Still, its great performances will get Oscar attention. And Meryl Streep vs. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a battle worth paying to see. It will expand enough tomorrow to find easily enough. It's not my first choice for Oscarbait, but it is an option.

And the Rest...

Yes Man's trailers make me want to bludgeon myself. The Day the Earth Stood Still may induce an Independence Day marathon to remember what a good alien movie looks like. Seven Pounds, well, I've covered that. The Tale of Despereaux and Bedtime Stories seem like they're just for kids. Instead of seeing The Spirit, just watch Sin City again. The Wrestler, The Reader, and Gran Torino are all better options, but are all in super limited release.

Whatever you choose, enjoy the holidays!

Monday, December 22, 2008

My Top 5 Holiday Movies

Hey everyone. I'm writing from Virginia, where I"ll be spending the holidays. As for as entertainment goes, I've hit a bit of culture shock. Despite having a to-see list of 12 movies at the moment, I can't find anything here I want to see. Seriously. Every theater plays the same ten recent releases. The Day the Earth Stood Still is everywhere, but I've got no chance at finding Milk. So if I review any odd movies this week, you'll know why (outside of Doubt, which I saw last week). Also, I had to go to eight stores to find the last available menorah. There really are no Jews in the South.

Anyway, just like with Thanksgiving, I'll be doing a series of holiday posts to celebrate the lead-up to Christmas and the continuation of Chanukkah. I'm starting off with my top 5 Christmas movies. As much as I like Miracle on 34th Street and White Christmas, this list is about going beyond the typical fare for the movies I really love.

5. The Hebrew Hammer

Ok, this is a Chanukkah movie, not a Christmas movie. But because we get so few (Eight Crazy Nights does NOT count), I thought I would honor the best. This "Jewsploitation" flick has a plot just as silly as any Christmas special: Adam Goldberg's Hebrew Hammer must stop Andy Dick's evil Santa Clause from destroying Chanukkah. The Jew jokes are fantastic, from passing out copies of Yentl to testing if someone is Jewish by how much they whine. You may have to be Jewish (or anti-Semetic) to appreciate the humor, but it's the perfect antidote to the overwhelming amount of Christmas music.

4. Love Actually

The networks may think Elf is the contemporary Christmas classic, but Love Actually is my pick. The movie may principally be about love, actually, but what Christmas movie isn't? Christmas drives every major plot, even bringing together the three disparate siblings for a children's pageant. Finally, the movie created not one, but two classic Christmas songs in Billy Mack (Bill Nighy)'s "Christmas Is All Around Me" and that little girl's cover of "All I Want for Christmas Is You." Love, family, and music? Sounds like a Christmas classic to me.

3. A Muppet Christmas Carol/Scrooged

Ok, I cheated, but you try picking just one version of A Christmas Carol. I love the story of Scrooge's visits from the three ghosts straight-up, but isn't everything better with Muppets? I think so. Throw in some songs and you've got a fun twist on a classic. Much like Muppets, Bill Murray improves every story. As the Muppet version stays close to the story, Scrooged is my pick for the modern twist. Murray plays a Scrooge-like TV exec visited by three ghosts while putting on a live special of, you guessed it, A Christmas Carol. Bill Murray, TV, and Dickens all together? A winning formula.

2. Die Hard

When people think Christmas, their next thought is not usually Die Hard. But in taking place on Christmas day and heavily using Christmas songs in the soundtrack, this is most definitely a Christmas movie. Besides, what could be more in the Christmas spirit than taking out European terrorist/thieves one-by-one without shoes? Sure, violence may not be on the Christmas checklist, but John and Holly McClane's reconciliation at the end provides the requisite Christmas gooeyness. The fact that it's the greatest action movie ever made is just icing on the cake. You don't need to wait until Christmas to see it, but it's sure a good excuse.

1. It's a Wonderful Life

I tried to think outside the box, but there's no denying It's a Wonderful Life as the greatest Christmas movie ever. It's the only movie I feel like I have to see each year. What's nice about It's a Wonderful Life is how many different levels it works on. When I was younger, I only watched the movie for Clarence showing George what life would be like had he not been born. These days, I'm much more interested in George's life, as he faced continual disappointments to keep Bedford Falls out of Potter's control. This year, the movie's being looked at even harder, both in a recent New York Times article and for its insights into the Depression. But regardless of why you watch, that ending chorus of "Auld Lang Syne" hits just as hard. And that's the mark of a true Christmas movie.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Best Shows You're Not Watching: Winter Break Edition

Most TV shows won't be airing any new episodes until the week of January 5th, leaving two weeks without TV. So whether you've got a month-long winter break from school, a week or two break from work, or you're just missing Top Chef, now's a good time to catch up on those shows you've been meaning to get to. I'll tell you the top 5 shows worth checking out on DVD this month. My criteria are quality, addictiveness, and how recent the show is, so you can catch up quickly. Hence the absence of older shows like Lost.

5. Mad Men

Mad Men has replaced The Wire as the show you are sick of critics telling you to watch. But with only two seasons having aired, it's easy enough to catch up. The show's about Don Draper (Jon Hamm), a tight-lipped ad agency exec in the 1960s. Between the history of 1960s New York, the focus on advertising, the amazing characters, and the excellent acting and writing, there's something for anyone to enjoy. Mad Men moves with the same slow pace as The Sopranos, so it's not the best choice for a winter break marathon. But it is the show of the moment, so best get on the bandwagon now.

4. Dexter

Super-addictive and unlike anything else on TV, Dexter makes perfect TV on DVD. Season 1, in which friendly serial killer Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall, as amazing yet completely different than he was in Six Feet Under) faces off against the Ice Truck Killer, just gets better and better with each episode. Season 2, in which Dexter finds himself the target, is even more exciting. Season 3 won't be on DVD until late summer, and with season 4 a year away there's no rush. But if you want a show that will send you flying through the discs as fast as Lost, this is the one.

3. Pushing Daisies

Yes, it's been canceled, which may seem like a reason not to bother starting now. But since there's only been 19 episodes between the two seasons, it's hardly a big commitment. It's the story of piemaker Ned (Lee Pace), who has the power to bring the dead back to life for 60 seconds, which he uses to solve crimes. There's a lot of fantasy, and the show can get cutesy at times, so it's certainly not for everyone. But the show's wacky mysteries are unlike anything on any procedural, and the top-notch cast makes their quirky characters funny and adorable. Check it out now and you can still catch the last three episodes in 2009.

2. How I Met Your Mother

Regular readers of Zandervision know I'm a big fan by my frequent posts. In its fourth season, HIMYM is the oldest show on this list. But with half hour episodes, the seasons will fly past. If the title doesn't do it for you, don't worry. It's basically just a younger, hipper version of Friends. Except it's also got an obsession with continuity to rival Lost, a knack for coining phrases to rival Seinfeld, and one of the best characters on TV in Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris). It's hardly great TV on the level of Mad Men or Dexter, but the cast is so much fun you'll wish they were your friends. Watch enough of the show, and you might think they are.

1. Damages

Having only had one hyper-suspenseful season, Damages is very easy to catch up on. And with season 2 starting January 7th, now is the time to do it. Don't make the mistake of hearing "lawyer show" and tuning out, because this is unlike any lawyer show you've ever seen. The series begins with an attempted murder on protagonist Ellen (Rose Byrne) and a real murder of her fiance, David. From there, it flashes back six months to when Ellen started working for high-profile New York lawyer Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), in the middle of a lawsuit against corrupt CEO Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson). Close, Danson, and Frobisher's lawyer Ray Fiske (Emmy winner Zeljko Ivanek) are all fantastic, and the constant double crosses and manipulations keep you guessing until the last second. With more time spent on hit men than courtrooms, this is the 24 of lawyer shows. Start watching now before it becomes the cool thing to do.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Movie Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Grade: B-



At the very beginning of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (coming out Christmas Day), an old, dying woman named Daisy (Cate Blanchett) tells her daughter (Julia Ormond) a story about a backwards clock. About midway through the story, you might start to wonder, "Isn't this a Brad Pitt movie? Where is he?" The movie takes its sweet time getting there. Much like an old storyteller, the movie rambles on, tangentially and sometimes enjoyably, but certainly twice as slowly as you would like.

After various false starts, the movie finally starts when Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a nursing home worker, finds Benjamin left at her door. Benjamin's a baby with all the ailments of a man dying in his 80s: arthritis, cataracts, and so on. Benjamin's growing up years, that see him look steadily more like Brad Pitt, play out like the early chapters of a John Irving novel, with the unusual family of the nursing home raising him. Characters come and go, some important, some not. The most important one is Daisy, a young girl Benjamin befriends. But there is a certain enjoyable quality to the section. A lot of that can be attributed to Henson, whose warm turn as Benjamin's adopted mother gives the movie its heart. As long as Benjamin's at home, the movie's slow, rambling style fits the New Orleans setting.

But when Benjamin leaves New Orleans at "18," the movie loses most of its focus. We see many chapters in Benjamin's life, from an affair with Tilda Swinton in Russia to fighting in World War II to seeking out Daisy in New York. But there's no real narrative drive pushing him from one chapter to the next. He just passively stumbles by in life, getting steadily younger. You soon realize the movie has to go until his death, because there is no other plot to resolve.

The screenplay, though based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is written by Eric Roth, most famous for Forrest Gump. This should be no surprise, because Benjamin Button feels at times like a remake of Gump. Benjamin gives the same kind of voiceover that Forrest does, with the same pithy sayings to sum up each chapter. The movie has the same epic quality, going across the decades. It even has the same characters. Benjamin is basically Forrest, Daisy's not too different from Jenny, Captain Mike (of the World War II section) is Lt. Dan, and Queenie is obviously Mama.

But while the movie feels like Gump, it doesn't hold up to it. A lot of the reason is in the character of Benjamin. Forrest was passive as well, letting luck and history guide him. But he also had a certain drive to him, whether in pursuing Jenny or proving he's not stupid. And Tom Hanks was sympathetic and charismatic, making us want to watch him. Benjamin, on the other hand, is only interesting because he ages backwards and looks like Brad Pitt. Benjamin is a hard character to play, going through so many ages and the script giving so little insight into him. But Pitt doesn't do much with it. In the second half especially, his acting consists of "Look how handsome I am." A more astute character actor could anchor the movie, but Pitt just gets carried along in the tide.

The movie is even more plotless for how little it uses the backwards aging device. It's very prominent in the beginning, because we see it in this old man growing taller and younger. And at the end it comes back full force. But in the middle, its importance is relegated to, "Oh Benjamin, look how young you are." At one point Benjamin refers to it as his "condition," as if it were a mild case of Eczema. Forrest's low IQ was a legitimate obstacle for him being with Jenny, and he continually fought against it. But here Benjamin's "condition" just makes him more handsome. It ends up feeling like a wasted opportunity that such an intriguing plotline becomes such a minor component to the movie.

The rambling plot and weak central character might be more forgivable if the movie were not SOOO long. At 2 hours and 40 minutes, it could use to lose at least 45 minutes. It's easy to see what to cut, as Roth's screenplay draws out every detail from every scene. The way the wind blows, a second-by-second lead-up to a car crash, nothing is too minor for Roth's attention. And all of these details are not conveyed visually but through a voiceover far more extensive than in Gump. Benjamin probably has more voiceover than dialogue.

The movie's disappointment is all the greater because it was directed by David Fincher, one of my favorites for helming Fight Club and Se7en. His influence is seen in the visuals, which are absolutely breathtaking. The make-up ages Benjamin, Daisy, and Queenie believably, making it hard to recognize the actors. The visual effects are incredible, creating Brad Pitt's elderly child and a vivid battle scene. The cinematography creates a mood that magically recreates old New Orleans. The costumes and sets as well all bring to life the various time periods. You can expect the movie to sweep all the visual Oscars, and rightly so.

But while Fincher knows picture, he knows nothing about emotion. Se7en, Fight Club, and Zodiac were loved for their cool, detached attitidues. But Benjamin Button, an old-fashioned, epic weepy, could not be more different. Trying to shift gears, Fincher feels like Dexter faking human emotions. Fincher has clearly seen big, cheesy, Oscarbait movies and does everything he can to copy them. Hence Alexandre Desplat's at times unbearable score, which blasts ultra dramatic music constantly. When the music is playing, it feels like a Chappelle's Show sketch making fun of Oscar movies. Every scene feels like it is out of an Oscar reel.

But for all the attempts to fake emotion, it all still feels empty. Benjamin's lack of personality makes it impossible to connect with him, so you don't feel anything he goes through. The end includes some of the strongest moments in the film, meant to leave the audience bawling. But the long, rambling middle so throroughly lost my interest that I felt nothing. The only relatably human character in the movie is Queenie, and when she's onscreen the emotion is there. But otherwise, Fincher has made a very pretty movie with no heart. Maybe he needs to take a trip back to Fight Club.

Does Seven Pounds Suck?

Admittedly, I wasn't wowed by the the vague trailers for Will Smith's new holiday release, Seven Pounds. Not much was revealed, but it looked a lot like Pay It Forward. Still, this is Will Smith we're talking about, the biggest movie star in the world. It can't be that bad, right?

With a Rotten Tomatoes score of 29%, it seems it can be. Entertainment Weekly named it one of the worst movies of the year. And now AO Scott of the New York Times has given it an outright pan. AO Scott is one of my favorite critics for his very reasonable approach to film. Even if I disagree with his overall assessment, I often understand his points. He's certainly my pick over Manohla Dargis, who is far more pretentious and has beyond questionable movie taste. So it's great to see Scott just lash out at a movie. Here's a snippet:
Frankly, though, I don’t see how any review could really spoil what may be among the most transcendently, eye-poppingly, call-your-friend-ranting-in-the-middle-of-the-night-just-to-go-over-it-one-more-time crazily awful motion pictures ever made. I would tell you to go out and see it for yourself, but you might take that as a recommendation rather than a plea for corroboration. Did I really see what I thought I saw?
Ouch. The rest of the review is equally entertaining, so check it out here. With all the negative press, the Will Smith factor and morbid curiosity are the only things making me consider seeing this movie. So what do you think? Will you see Seven Pounds over Christmas, or have all the bad reviews scared you off?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Movie Review: The Wrestler

Grade: A



If you love the '80s like I do, then you'll agree The Wrestler has one of the best opening credit sequences this year. As the camera pans across newspaper articles, ticket stubs, and programs documenting the career of popular pro wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke), the '80s are in full force. The background is colorful, the credits font is comic book cheesy, and the music is such roaring '80s rock ("Bang Your Head" by Quiet Riot) that you can't help but shake your head with it. But after a "twenty years later" placard, it's all gone. The first real shot, in grainy, handheld digital, shows an old, beat-up looking Randy, slumped down on a locker room bench after a match. It's a pretty startling way to show those twenty years did not serve him well.

Randy is, in many ways, the ultimate has-been. He attends "fan fests" to sign '80s relics, give out old action figures, and take pictures with the few fans that still know his name. He invites kids from his New Jersey trailer park over to play an old NES game of his most famous Madison Square Garden match. He's traded MSG for high school gyms, destroying himself for often thin crowds. But as little as he may have, he still loves it. He clings to every fan that praises him and lives off of the roar of the crowd as they chant for him to do his signature move, the "Ram Slam." On top of all that, he's a genuinely nice guy. He's gracious to all of his fans, compliments the younger wrestlers he works with, and is polite to everyone around him.

But if he seems comfortable enough in his has-been lifestyle, that all ends when he's forced into retirement by a heart attack. Suddenly, this "one trick pony" (per Bruce Springsteen's moving credits song) has to figure out life without wrestling. He tries through two women. The first is Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), an aging stripper who wants to make a fresh start. She provides his only real human connection and his best shot at a real life. Usually the part of Cassidy would be a male wish fulfillment role who in real life would have no interest in Randy. But Tomei's terrific performance somehow makes her still feel real. The second is Randy's long-estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), who he left back in his wrestling days. But even at its best, the real world can't compare to the allure of the ring.

The movie rests on the character of Randy, and Mickey Rourke does a quietly phenomenal job. As loud and flashy as the sport of wrestling may be, Rourke's performance is so subtle and sympathetic that you can't help but feel for him. In showing Randy's everyday activities, Rourke's performance seems incredibly natural. Rourke makes getting inside the head of someone who risks his life for others' entertainment seem effortless. And he can break your heart with just a few sad smiles. Of course, it helps that a lot of the details of Randy's life describe Rourke's as well. Rourke was also successful in the '80s then disappeared for twenty years, letting drugs and bad behavior ruin his life. Rather than distract, the real life history makes Randy's story hit twice as hard.

The Wrestler marks somewhat of a comeback for director Darren Aronofsky as well, who returns to the scaled-back production style of his first feature, Pi, after the big budget flop, The Fountain. This "student film" style shooting is used a lot in independent film, but here the style really compliments the story. Not only does it allow for the effect of that first post-credits shot, but it fits the working class New Jersey neighborhoods the film shows. Aronofsky also leaves behind the auteury flourishes that characterized previous film Requiem for a Dream for a much more simple, straightforward approach. But if the directing is simple, it is also unyielding. When there's violence, you can count on Aronofsky to cut to a close-up of the wound. He lingers on Randy's face and body, letting the images and acting show what has happened to him.

The script, by Robert Siegel, is filled with great characters and dialogue, but it comes dangerously close to sentimentality. The father-daughter scenes in particular could fall into schmaltz in the hands of a lesser director. Aronofsky's low-key style keeps these scenes feeling real, so that the emotion always rings true. It also helps that the movie shines a light on a world rarely captured in film, that of working class New Jersey. From the supermarkets to the strip malls to the strip clubs, it's an area that, like Randy, has seen better times. New Jersey usually only comes up as a punching bag for New Yorkers, but here it is treated respectfully. And the '80s nostalgia lives on well beyond those opening credits, with '80s music playing in every bar.

The realistic style stands in contrast to the fakery of wrestling. Wrestling is a very different sport than boxing, so the movie constantly reminds you this is not Rocky or Raging Bull. Instead, every match is preceded by the wrestlers discussing step-by-step how the fight will go. This puts a nice spin on the sports genre, as the winner of the match is never in question. Every match has to end with Randy doing a "Ram Slam" for the win. But if the competition is fake, the pain is still very real. In one scene, Randy uses a razor blade to slice his forehead to give the audience more blood. In a particularly brutal battle, a staple gun is used to alarming effect. These scenes are often hard to watch, but it is violence with a purpose. I myself can't understand the appeal of wrestling, but the movie makes it clear Randy does it to make others happy. His pain gets him in the spotlight and lets him do what he does best. And if that pain causes this "one trick pony" to lose some blood, at least he gets to feel the glory.

A Culinary Christmas Miracle

Before getting into tonight's Christmas-themed episode of Top Chef, I'd like to welcome my friend Kara to the blogosphere. If you like Zandervision but wish it was a little bitchier, used bigger words, and spent more time on reality TV, Film Noix is the blog for you.

Now on to another super-sized edition of Top Chef. What I loved about tonight's episode was how well it followed the formula for a cheesy Christmas special (hey, we Jews love Christmas movies as much as everyone else). Everything was happy in Top Chef Land at Christmastime, complete with celebrities (Martha Stewart) and joyous Christmas music (courtesy of the Harlem Gospel Choir). BUT THEN, something very Grinch-like occurred. Some unnamed person (Top Chef producers?) left Hosea and Radhika a big chunk of coal in the form of an open fridge, spoiling their food. Would Christmas dinner go on?

Just as Radhika was looking over the Bedford Falls bridge, Clarence showed her just how many friends she and Hosea had in that kitchen. No room for bah-humbugs like contestants past (Hung, Marcel), everyone joined in on the Christmas Spirit and lent a hand. Suddenly every chef was cutting duck and washing pork, like a group of hard-working elves set on making up that toy shortage. Not only did their contributions save Christmas, but they got Hosea and Radhika to the final four. With Hosea's victory, it was a true Christmas miracle - achieved through friendship and kindness.

But unlike most Christmas movies, here the miracle required sacrifice. Some of those chefs should have saved time for themselves, causing Tom to declare the dinner a huge disappointment. Indeed, the letdowns extended beyond the bottom three, encompassing Ariane's safe deviled eggs and Fabio's crab cakes. Even Hosea and Jeff seemed to score higher from flirting with the guests than for their actual food. But rather than sending anyone out into the snow, Tom played Santa and handed everyone the gift of another week on the show. Christmas miracles may have a price, but they still need to end happily.

There have been some interesting shifts in how various contestants have been doing. Top contender Jamie nearly lost tonight. By the look of next episode's promo, she has not learned from her scallopy ways. Maybe she's just bitter about her double loss to Ariane, who went from bottom of the list to a massive rebound. Her quickfire this week was to be expected, given that her home-style cooking approach is most similar to that of Martha Stewart. But coming off of two big wins, she can't be ignored. Lastly, comic relief Fabio may need to spend less time monopolizing the confessionals and more time on food. He's a talented chef, but this marks the second week in a row he was called out. My predicted final four are still Stefan, Fabio, Leah, and Jamie. But Hosea, Jeff, Radhika, and Ariane catch up more with each passing week.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Dearly Downplayed Dexter

I'm sure plenty of people were disappointed by Dexter's third season finale. After all, there were no major deaths (unless you count the Skinner), no crazy cliffhangers, and Dexter actually ends the season saying, "Life is good." But those people disappointed need to go back to watching 24, because they missed out on a wholly satisfying conclusion to an immensely enjoyable season. Did it live up to the first two seasons? I can't really see how anything could. It doesn't have to be Dexter's best season to still be the best show currently airing on TV.

Big Bad Miguel Prado may have died last week, but there was still leftover conflict in the form of Ramon Prado and George King. Ramon proved a dangerous foe by ransacking Dexter's apartment, following him while the kids were in the car (a big no no for people wishing to stay alive), and pointing a gun at Dexter during his rehearsal dinner. Threatening murder in a room full of cops? Not a smart idea, Ramon. So I was very surprised Dexter was able to remedy the situation without violence, and with plenty of time left in the episode. His talk with Ramon about ending the Prado cycle of violence showed Ramon had a lot more in him than drunken anger and was an emotional moment for Dexter as well. Having Dexter remove the thorn for once was a welcome change.

As for George King, those who felt last week's bachelor party reveal was a cheat were here rewarded. We finally got to see what Dexter looks like strapped to a table, in another killer's grasp. I was disappointed we never found out exactly what King wanted from Freebo. He had told Anton it wasn't about money, suggesting something more interesting. But it seems Dexter was right; he just wanted an excuse to kill. As far as his purpose on the show, he seemed to just be there as a serial killer for Deb to hunt and Miguel to send after Dexter. That would be bad if he was the A-plot this season, but as a B-plot I can live with it. The capture did allow for Dexter's very badass getaway, as he broke his hand to free himself from the table and managed to snap King's neck while injured. Throwing King under a cop car and jumping out a window was the opposite of Dexter's careful planning, making it all the more fun.

Beyond those two bits of business, the rest was all straight-up feel-goodness. Deb got the detective shield she spent all season trying to earn, AND she got another shot with Anton. Angel got to slide on his secret and kiss his cop at Dexter's wedding. And Dexter discovered he really wanted a family with Rita before saying a vow he felt he could honor. All season long, Dexter's been inching closer to being a family man, letting little things slip away to be there for Rita, so the season had to end with an actual wedding. Even if not super dramatic, the finale appropriately tied up everything set in motion this season. But with the drop of blood on Rita's dress and Laura Mosner's file on Deb's desk, there's plenty of drama left for season 4. It will be a long wait.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Heroes Meets Saw in Finale

A tell-tale sign that a show's writers are sick of the season is when it ends in flames. Think The Hatch in Lost season 2. Or the town of Majestic in Weeds season 3. It means the writers don't even want to imagine that set again. So the Heroes writers must have been even more fed up with their Villains chapter than we were, since they burned down both season 3's Pinehearst and Company headquarters Primatech as well. I wrote last week about Heroes' problems this season: too many characters, too much time jumping, too much bad/good/bad, too little focus. So I'll just stick to the finale this time.

Three main subplots this week: Primatech, Pinehearst, and Matt/Ando/Hiro/Daphne. In the Primatech plot, Sylar became the villain in a slasher film, and suddenly we were watching Saw. Thankfully the gore was kept low (just a severed arm and many slashed necks, nothing out of the ordinary), but Sylar certainly took Saw's little games to get the victims to kill each other. Earlier this season Sylar seemed primed to become Heroes' Benjamin Linus, straddling the line between good and evil. But Heroes' idea of moral ambiguity is having characters rapidly switch between the two, rather than walking a grey line. Despite being left dead in a burning building, the hint about Sylar's parents makes it clear we'll see him again next season. Maybe by then the writers will give him something better to do than make menacing phone calls.

Pinehearst actually housed the season's main conflict, as Peter faced off against Nathan over whether to employ the formula. But it would be easy to forget that given how little happened. Most of it was spent with the busywork of destroying Mohinder's lab. That army Nathan was building, hinting at a giant war? Easily dispatched in about three seconds. Maybe the storyline would have meant more if Peter didn't just look like such a weakling (bring back Future Peter!). And the show once again lost a great opportunity to kill off useless characters by having Mohinder and Tracy magically escape the burning building (like Maya in season 2). As good drama as brother vs. brother should be, it seems all the juice in this story died with Arthur last week.

Finally, the characters left to fill time between these stories. I'm not entirely sure how Hiro escaped to the roof many feet above where he was hanging in the air. Maybe he's stronger than he looks. Ando's supercharger power was kind of cool, but that still doesn't explain how he and Daphne managed to find Hiro's exact point in time on the first try. Also a nice nod to continuity that Hiro's actions caused the split in the formula seen earlier this season. But the storyline just brought out all the more how ill-used these characters were this season.

Then there was the glimpse at next year's fourth season, Fugitives. The tease was better than the brief glimpse given the last two seasons. We actually see the launch of the plot, as Nathan tells the Obama-ish president to round up all the heroes Nathan knows about. As the promo shows everyone back in their normal lives before the capturing begins, it does seem like a promising start. At least it's not just another big threat/band together/argue about right and wrong/save the world plot like the last three. As much of a waste as Villains may have been, I'll still be giving Fugitives a try. Hopefully the fresh start will lead somewhere better.

Free Movies!

Part of the reason I've been able to see as many movies as I have this fall is free movie screenings. As you may or may not know, most major movies hold free screenings before their release as a way of building buzz for the film. If you know where to look (and are willing to wait in the cold), you can catch all the top movies without busting your budget. I'll take you through some of the main sites to find passes.

Curbside Booty
This blog's stated purpose is recycling, but it is hands down the best place to find out about free movie screenings in New York. It doesn't hold its own screenings, but it's a good central resource to find out about other sites' offerings. As it lists two to three movies a week on average, it's one to check regularly.

Fat Wallet Forums
This is a message board where free screening aficionados post codes and locations for screenings. It is not city-specific, so New York screenings are rare. But it's great for providing access to tougher sites like Gofobo and The Screening Exchange. It's also good for giving the links to studios' screenings, especially Fox Searchlight. My link above is to the newest page as of this posting, so you always have to click to the most recent comments.

Film Metro
This is one of the biggest free screening websites, and one of the worst for New York. Every now and then they get a screening, but it always fills up within seconds. If you're outside New York though, you might stand a better chance.

Village Voice
The Village Voice has a ton of great promotions, sometimes including movie screenings. If you sign up for their Movie Club, they'll e-mail you when they have one. It's been awhile since they've done a movie screening, but you can enter contests for dinners, concerts, and other events.

New York Observer

Similarly, if you sign up for the New York Observer's Cinema Club, they will e-mail you whenever they have a movie screening. And they do a lot of screenings.

Time Out New York
They don't hold many screenings, but it's easy enough to get a pass from the site.

Edge New York
This gay-themed New York magazine often lists screenings no one else has. They don't seem to have any at the moment though.

If you check all of these sites regularly, you're bound to catch a free movie a week. As for timing, you're generally let into the theater 45 minutes before start time, so: If it's summer, the movie is high-profile, and the screening is at a big AMC theater, you want to be there over 2 hours early. If it's cold or raining, the movie has no big stars, and it's playing at an art house theater, 45-60 minutes should do it. If the screening fits somewhere in between, use your discretion.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Midseason Finales: The Office and Gossip Girl

This week and next, all the network shows will be airing their last episodes of 2008. Many will be back right away (Gossip Girl returns January 5th), others won't (Heroes comes back in February). But with a ridiculous amount of midseason shows this year (Lost and 24, to name two), all will be trying to keep viewers hooked heading into the new year. This week I'm looking at The Office and Gossip Girl.

The Office


The Office has not had its best year. It came back from the writer's strike with a slew of episodes on the wrong side of the awkward/funny scale, such as the Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf-style dinner party and the excruciating job fair. But that was all forgotten when Amy Ryan joined the cast, leading to one of the show's better finales. She brought new energy to the beginning of this season and brought out new sides of Michael, completely reinvigorating the show.

But since her departure, the show has felt, well, blah. The Business Trip episode showed more of Oscar and Andy, but that's it. Frame Toby and The Surplus were both completely forgettable. It's not that The Office has been bad. It's still perfectly pleasant to watch, and even still gets in a few laughs an episode. But I can't help feeling it might be reaching the point The Simpsons did about ten years ago, where it settled for being reliably watchable but nothing more. The Office seems to have lost interest in being a buzzy, watercooler show.

Which brings us to last night's Christmas episode. The Office has a tradition of excellent Christmas episodes, from season 3's A Benihana Christmas, one of the best episodes period, back to the British version's holiday special. All of which would lead us to expect something a bit more than the fairly typical episode that aired last night.

It certainly starts off well, with Jim gift-wrapping Dwight's desk. The Jim/Dwight dynamic, always hilarious, has been far too lacking the past few seasons. There are also some solid comedic ideas. An intervention for Meredith should have been hilarious. It provides a perfect opportunity for Michael to do what he does: take a cause and make it all about him. It was also very amusing to see Mean Phyllis come out, gleefully bossing Angela around before announcing her secret.

But for all of the good ideas, it didn't seem to work that well. The Meredith intervention was neither as uncomfortable nor as funny as it should have been. Michael may have failed in helping her, but he actually seriously tried instead of making it an opportunity to grandstand. Since no one else cared one way or the other, there was little juice to the plot. Even the Michael/Toby conflict provided nothing more than an acknowledgement of its continuance. As for Dwight and Angela, their romance was amusing enough as a C-storyline but has become far too prominent this season. For all the time it has dragged on, I just really don't care that much.

And why have Jim and Pam had nothing to do all season? I applaud the writers for trying to show a realistic couple instead of using typical TV procedures to keep them apart. This season has shown them struggling with long-distance, heading in different life paths, and getting a house together. But as real as it may be, it's not funny. And since Pam's come back from New York, all she's done is complain about a microwave and petition for new chairs. They're the heart of the show. Use them.

I do have to mention Dwight buying up all the Christmas dolls and selling them off at higher prices. Everything about it was funny, especially Toby's desperation to get one and dismay upon seeing its race. More bits like that and maybe The Office will regain its old buzz.

Gossip Girl



I've suspected for quite awhile that Bart Bass was not long for the Upper East Side. And by suspected I mean was pretty much told. The cast had been teasing a death all season, and it wasn't a leap to realize it would be Bart. Reasons: He's the oldest major character, it removes an obstacle between Rufus and Lily, it creates conflict between Chuck and Lily, and Bart's OC equivalent also died in the second season. Outside of glorified extra Vanessa and not-really-still-on-the-show-anymore The Captain, who else could it be?

But as unsurprising (and vaguely described) as Bart's death may have been, it certainly led to plenty of drama. Chuck's plunge into drunken anger brought him to whole new levels and created quite the dramatic mess for everyone else. Even when she overdoes the "We're Chuck and Blair," Blair's attempts to support Chuck against his rejections were moving. I'm totally ready to see Chuck and Lily go at each other in ways beyond the blame game for Bart's death. Also, an episode with no Vanessa and little Jenny or Nate is always a good thing.

On the other hand, I'm getting a little sick of the Roses. Cyrus gave one (or three) too many "we must be married this second" speeches, which I hope means he has some sort of illicit secret that encouraged his haste. Otherwise he was just being annoying. Aaron continues to get more boring by the episode. Though Dan wasn't much better with his wishy-washiness over Serena. As for Lily's big secret, when it gets hyped up over two episodes and causes a man's death, its revelation is bound to be a letdown. But that all she did was have a secret baby? So what? That's the go-to secret of any soap opera. There better be some extra twist there if it's to be worth all that build-up.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Golden Globe Nominations

This morning, the HFPA announced the nominations for the Golden Globe Awards, the most well known film and TV awards outside of the Oscars and the Emmys. If you want to see the full list of nominations, check their site. Typically, the Globes' movie choices tend to be a bit safer than the Oscars (Atonement and Babel won Best Drama the last two years) with a few oddball choices to pander to celebrities (Nicole Kidman for Birth?). For TV, they tend to keep ahead of the Emmys by honoring fresh new shows over aging veterans. How'd it turn out this year? I'll go movies first, then TV.

Movies

With the exception of Slumdog Millionaire, the best drama selections all seem to give a boost to movies largely ignored by the critics groups, with Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, and Revolutionary Road. The latter two in particular could use it after repeated critical snubs. Since three out of five haven't been released yet, I can't much comment on if they're better picks than snubbed films Milk and The Dark Knight. But those snubs won't mean much for Oscar, as they've been rewarded elsewhere (Milk won the New York Film Critics' prize, The Dark Knight's was LA's runner up).

The musical/comedy category is a bit more interesting, as for the first time in awhile no likely Best Picture nominee will come from this category. Mamma Mia, Vicky Christina Barcelona, and Happy-Go-Lucky were pretty expected, but that still left two slots. Would the Globes actually acknowledge an Apatow film? Not so much. I'm glad to see Burn After Reading in there, which probably got in as much from the Coens' name as for the movie. But then there's In Bruges. If someone can explain why people like this movie I would love to hear it, cause I was bored out of my mind watching it.

In both drama and comedy, the acting nominations were all fairly expected. Everyone in drama is on the Oscar shortlist. The comedy nominees were mainly the leads in the nominated films. The most pleasant surprise was James Franco for Pineapple Express, an excellent performance I'm glad to see acknowledged. Biggest surprise was Tom Cruise's supporting nomination for Tropic Thunder. Awards worthy? Probably not, but it's the kind of wacky pick that keeps the Globes interesting.

TV

The TV categories usually stick with as many new shows as possible. But with the writer's strike and the weakest fall season in recent memory, there weren't many new shows to pick from. That led True Blood to the drama section, as the only new show anyone seemed to like. I'm happy to see Dexter and Mad Men back, and hope one of them wins. Less so In Treatment, which critics love but I couldn't get into. Most confusing pick was House. If the Globes want to reward a show in its 4th season, why not go for the best TV show ever, Lost? Outside of Lost, only notable snubs were The Wire and The Shield, and the Globes tend not to go for swan songs.

The comedy category was far worse, echoing the recent Emmy picks. Here the Globes were perfectly happy to reward aging, past-their-prime shows like Entourage, Weeds, and The Office, none of which had their strongest year. 30 Rock has become a fixture at awards shows, so the only interesting pick is Californication, which didn't quite do it for me. I'm guessing Pushing Daisies is MIA because the Globes don't like to honor canceled shows, but there's still no excuse for snubbing How I Met Your Mother.

Nothing too interesting in the acting categories either. Anna Paquin for True Blood and Debra Messing for The Starter Wife are at least different. I'm happy to see January Jones of Mad Men get some notice after a shut-out for the women of Mad Men at the Emmys. And it's interesting to see the Globes give Kevin Connolley of Entourage some attention in probably his least showy year. Other than that, it's pretty much the same old contenders. But what else can you expect in a pretty weak year?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Movie Review: Slumdog Millionaire

Grade: A



This review marks my 50th blog post here at Zandervision. What better way to celebrate than with a review of one of my favorite movies of the year, Slumdog Millionaire. I'm sure I would have seemed a lot cooler had I written this when I saw it, a month and a half ago, when only serious movie junkies knew what it was. But at this point, you know it's won critics awards and is a strong contender to win Oscar's Best Picture. Plus you've had plenty of friends like me breathlessly tell you how much you need to see it. As it is a movie best experienced, not discussed, they probably just said "amazing." I'll try to do a bit more.

I won't go too heavily into the plot, because part of the fun is seeing how it develops. I can say the movie is about Jamal Malik, an 18-year-old Mumbai orphan who wins big on India's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. When this uneducated "chai wallah" (tea server) gets within one question of the big prize, the police assume he cheated. As he explains his success, each question provides a frame to the story of his life. The answers take us back to Jamal's childhood on the streets with his conniving brother Salim and childhood sweetheart Latika. Their adventures lead them to a Fagin-like orphan-collector, local gangsters, and finally the Millionaire show. In the process, the movie blends together Oliver Twist, City of God, Quiz Show, and Bollywood.

This type of old-fashioned, Dickensian, rags-to-riches love story is usually derided by critics as saccharine and overly sentimental. But every triumph is well-earned, and you never once feel bad about giving in so fully to the story. Partly that's because as much of a fairytale as the movie can be, it always has one leg dipped firmly in reality. The movie does not shy away from the troubles and tragedies of Mumbai street life, sometimes with violence (which somehow inexplicably got the movie an R rating). The movie also does everything it can to balance out 19th century influences with 21st century style. The editing often seems out of director Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, choppy and jarring for effect. The music, by popular Indian composer A. R. Rahman with contributions by MIA, is also ultra-contemporary. MIA's "Paper Planes" even plays during an early montage.

The blending of genres, old and new, can be credited to director Danny Boyle. I've long been a fan of his work for his Kubrickian ability to master disparate genres. He's handled an addiction drama (Trainspotting), a horror movie (28 Days Later), a sci-fi movie (Sunshine), and a kids movie (Millions) with equal success. Here the genre's not so easy to classify. It's a bildungsroman, a love story, a fairytale, a gangster movie, a competition movie, a movie about kids, and so much more. Of Boyle's other films, it's probably most similar to Millions (which, if you're not familiar with it, is also very worthwhile). But here Boyle makes all the genres blend together in a way that really provides something for everyone.

I've focused so far more on the British side, given the director and screenwriter (Simon Beaufoy of The Full Monty). But an undeniable part of the movie's appeal is the glimpse of modern Mumbai it provides. The first third of the movie is in Hindi, as the youngest actors do not know English. During this section, the camera follows Jamal, Salim, and other children on a chase through the streets, with A. R. Rahman's drumbeat leading the way. This scene makes full use of the on-location shooting and brings a real sense of authenticity to the film to help balance out the more fanciful aspects. The casting also aids the authenticity, as all the actors are completely believable. The biggest standout though is Dev Patel as the oldest Jamal. He is low-key and unassuming. An unusual hero, but all the easier to root for.

The movie only really feels like Bollywood during the credits, as the film ends with a joyous Bollywood-style dance sequence. It's an appropriate summation of the happiness the movie inspires. It's easily the most emotionally invested I've felt in a movie since Wall-E. This one's not about obligatory Oscar catch-up or caving into a persistent friend. It's about having exactly the kind of enjoyable viewing experience we go to the movies to find.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Killer Penultimate Episodes

SPOILER ALERT: If you are behind on Dexter or Heroes and intend to catch up, stop reading. If you're behind on only one, I'm going Heroes then Dexter.

Heroes



Oh Heroes. It has become somewhat of a punchline this season as the show everyone stopped watching. But I'm still here, somehow. A good way to tell a season has been sloppy is when it's ending has almost nothing to do with its beginning. That villain break-out from Level 5? The two remainders now just give menacing looks once an episode. Sylar's path to become a hero? He's gone back and forth way too many times for us to care. Even Mohinder's foray into The Fly has been ignored for awhile. I still think there were some good story concepts this season, but the execution has been inarguably awful.

Even with all of that, I actually thought this week's episode was a bit of an improvement. And that's for one reason only: the focus on Hiro and Claire. These were the two breakout characters of Heroes' first season, but since then they've been stuck with a boring boyfriend, a trip to Japan, and acting like a 10 year old. The look at important moments in their pasts was reminiscent of Company Man, the show's best episode. Heroes desperately needs more episodes that focus on select characters, so this seemed like a good first step.

Of course, everything else about the episode was a mess. The whole purpose of Hiro and Claire's journey has to do with The Catalyst, some wacky sci-fi thing that we're led to believe is really important. But even though Hiro's parents hyped it up, in one episode it goes from Claire to Hiro to Arthur to nothing. Much like The Eclipse, which got a two-parter that changed nothing, The Catalyst's story was burned through before you could remember its name. Just goes to show that going through storylines really fast should not necessarily be a source of pride.

In other stories: Matt, Daphne, and Ando do something insignificant (though Daphne's still my fave new character). Sylar follows up his completely pointless killing of Elle with some more pointless killing. And the big news: Big Bad Arthur Petrelli is dead a week before the finale. There's something kind of cool about resolving the big conflict before the finale, hinting at something even bigger to come. But this season has not been leading to a Peter vs. Nathan fight. I don't remember Peter even being onscreen since the third episode, yet now he's reclaimed his role as series lead? While Hiro dangles around in space and does nothing? Well, I guess we can be glad this manic and confusing season will soon be over. Hopefully next year's Fugitives volume will make more sense.

Dexter



Just like Heroes, Dexter killed his Big Bad the week before the finale, Sopranos style. I'm talking about Miguel Prado, Dexter's sociopathic former BFF. From the second Miguel started killing, you knew the season would end up with Miguel on Dexter's kill table. First the Ice Truck Killer, then Lila, then Miguel. Each got to see the real Dexter and gave him the chance for companionship. And each proved too crazy and unstable to live. I will miss Miguel though for keeping Dexter's third season thrilling without a big important case like the Ice Truck Killer. Jimmy Smits did a masterful job making Miguel extremely charismatic while showing the darkness lurking beneath. Even when strapped to the table, I kind of wanted Dexter to set him free. But more so than Heroes, killing Miguel early makes the finale open-ended. Promos show Ramon going crazy at Dexter's wedding, and we all remember how crazy Ramon can get. I can't wait.

Backing up to the beginning for a minute, I will admit Dexter's kidnapping being for his bachelor party is a bit of a cheat. But I'm willing to forgive the writers as it led Dexter to punch Masuka, thinking it was the Skinner. Very funny. I do hope there is still some reveal left in the Skinner case. The Skinner didn't turn out to be any major character, so nothing too juicy has happened yet. But with his motive for finding Freebo still unknown, I have faith it will pay off. I'd like to say the same for Angel and his cop girlfriend, but I'm guessing that's just to give him something to do. Most intriguing B-storyline from this week was Dexter telling Deb about Harry's affair. With Deb looking into records, it's only a matter of time until she finds out about Laura Mosner. What happens if she learns her killer ex-fiance is Dex's brother? That'll probably have to wait until after the wedding, but it could be something good for season 4. The show has yet to disappoint me.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Movie Review: Frost/Nixon

Grade: A-



When Richard Nixon left the presidency, he was on the outs with America. By abusing his power and continuing an unpopular war, Nixon gravely injured the American people's faith in government. Sound familiar? It does seem convenient that Frost/Nixon, a film about interviewing an unpopular president, came out the very week that President Bush began his exit interviews. Although based on a play, the timing of the release makes the film a nice bit of wish fulfillment that Charlie Gibson, Brian Williams, or any of the others may do the same for us.

David Frost, as played by Michael Sheen (Tony Blair in The Queen), is not the 1970s equivalent of our current newsmen. Hosting a low-grade show in Australia when not picking up women on airplanes, Frost seems more the 1970s Russell Brand. Yet despite his unlikely resume and complete lack of political convictions, he scores an interview with Nixon in 1977, three years after Nixon's resignation. With none of the networks biting, Frost has to raise money to put the interviews on air himself. Over the course of four lengthy interviews, Nixon uses Frost as a platform to reclaim his image. Until a final, incredible showdown in which Frost gets a reaction from Nixon that America had been waiting to hear.

I admit I'm at somewhat of a disadvantage reviewing the movie, having not seen the play or the original Frost/Nixon tapes. But as far as I can tell, Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland) has done an excellent job adapting his own play. The writing is clever, witty, and quite funny throughout. With one exception, which I'll get to later, the movie does not show its theatrical roots too deeply. Documentary-style segments, in which characters comment on the events to the camera, do not jive tonally with the rest of the movie. But whenever the action unfolds, the dialogue is uniformly top-notch.

The acting is stellar throughout. Like in The Queen, Sheen has what at first seems a thankless part, underplaying against the flashier, awards-getting role. Yet he does a lot with a little, especially in reaction shots. In the final showdown, each close-up captures his surprise and excitement through his smallest movements. The transition to film has clearly helped him in creating a subtle yet powerful character. The supporting cast features many familiar character actors, including Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, Toby Jones, and Rebecca Hall. They all move the story forward and have their moments, but keep the focus on the two leads.

But the actor you came to see is Frank Langella as Nixon. Langella won a Tony for the role, but the part should not work on film. Nixon speaks almost entirely in monologues and demands the kind of hammy performance that plays well in the balconies. Yet not only does Langella make the part work for film, but he dominates every second he is onscreen. Much like Josh Brolin in W, he does not go for a straight-up impression. Yes, the deep growl and the jowl-shaking are there. But in digging deeper, he makes all those surface tics seem effortless. His Nixon is a talkative, intelligent, and pathetic man who wants people to like him and is frustrated that they won't. With his racist remarks and underhanded insults, you won't want to give him a hug. But even more so than Brolin's George W. Bush, Langella creates enormous sympathy for this largely unsympathetic figure.  

While the writing and acting is strong, I did question the approach Ron Howard took in directing. While the first two thirds of the movie are certainly enjoyable, they come across as rather light. Howard seems afraid to bore his audience with a political film, repeatedly relying on the script's humor and playing up sports metaphors. Not until the final showdown does the movie really have an impact. With a bright color palette and an intense but ever-present Hans Zimmer score, the mood is very much typical Hollywood. Which is a shame, because the story has the makings of a journalism classic like fellow Nixon film All the President's Men or, more recently, Good Night and Good Luck. Like both of those, Frost/Nixon shows a time when journalists made a difference by questioning the powerful. A darker tone and a more hard-hitting, 1970s approach could have made the film's impact all the stronger.

Of course, I'm essentially criticizing Howard for not making an entirely different movie. When judging him solely on the movie he did make, it's clear Frost/Nixon stands up there with Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, and (my personal favorite) Splash as one of his best. He makes the 2 hour, 2 minute running time zoom by. He digs deep into Frost and Nixon's characters by keeping the focus squarely on them. He also avoids the easy mistake of making the movie too theatrical. The one great exception is when Nixon calls Frost late at night to deliver a monologue. You can tell the writing is top-notch. You can tell Langella hits it out of the park. You can tell this scene would kill onstage. But it has zero impact onscreen. Not knowing how to dramatize the monologue, Howard makes some seriously bizarre shot choices, distancing Nixon and making me lose focus. It's the one blatantly theatrical moment of the film.

Howard makes up for it though by utilizing something theater can't do: the close-up. In the final interview, Frost and Nixon are seen almost entirely in close-up, registering every emotion and eye twitch they feel. This is an important advantage for film, as the power of the close-up is a key theme in the movie. In all of his close-ups, Howard puts his faith in his talented actors. He keeps the directing straightforward because the material is strong enough to work without additional flourishes. By letting the actors and script shine, Howard has created a highly entertaining, immensely interesting look at an important but largely forgotten historical event. He just didn't give the movie the added oomph to make it the classic it might have been. 

Thursday, December 4, 2008

And So It Begins...

The National Board of Review named its film awards today, officially kicking off the award season that leads up to the Oscars in February. In the following weeks, the LA Film Critics and NY Film Critics will make their picks and the Globe nominations will be announced. Now, I know you don't know what the National Board of Review is (I don't either). And I know most people could care less about yet another meaningless group of awards. But NBR is, in a way, the Iowa Caucus of Oscar season. Solely by coming first, it can anoint an Obama or distract with a Huckabee. So here's what it came up with this year:

Best Film - Slumdog Millionaire
Best Director - David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Best Actor - Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
Best Actress - Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Best Supporting Actor - Josh Brolin, Milk
Best Supporting Actress - Penelope Cruz, Vicky Christina Barcelona
Best Original Screenplay - Gran Torino
Best Adapted Screenplay - Slumdog Millionaire, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Best Foreign Film - Mongol
Best Animated Film - Wall-E
Best Documentary - Man on Wire
Best Ensemble - Doubt

Top 10 movies after the winner:

Burn After Reading
Changeling
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Defiance
Frost/Nixon
Gran Torino
Milk
Wall-E
The Wrestler

Lessons to take away: Slumdog Millionaire and Benjamin Button are still top contenders. I may have to see Gran Torino after all. Defiance might be decent (but probably isn't). The biggest take-aways are what were left out. Revolutionary Road, The Reader, Doubt, and Australia are all MIA on the top 10 list. There Will Be Blood wasn't on NBR's list last year, so it might not mean anything. But it could signal that these movies aren't so popular with voting groups.

I'm planning to see Frost/Nixon tonight. I'll let you know how it is soon.

Prop 8: The Musical

Ok, I'm stealing this from my friend Doug's blog, Foote Steppes (which has much better political commentary than my weak attempts), as well as just about every other blog I read. But it's worth checking out, because a. Lots of celebrities, including John C. Reilly, Allison Janney, Jack Black, Maya Rudolph, Sarah Chaulke, Craig Robinson, and Andy Richter, b. It's funny, and most of all, c. Neil Patrick Harris sings! Enjoy!

See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Movie Review: Quantum of Solace

Grade: B



Coming off of Casino Royale, a critically praised reinvention of the James Bond series, expectations were high for Daniel Craig's second outing, Quantum of Solace. Would it be like The Dark Knight and improve on its predecessor? Would it hold up to action rival The Bourne Ultimatum? Or, with all the expectations, would it be bound to disappoint? The answer may well be the latter, but at least it disappointed in true Bond-ian fashion.

As irrelvant (and forgettable) as Bond plots are, I'll give it a shot. After the death of true love/betrayor Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, Bond is on the warpath. A big chase scene leads to Bond interrogating Mr. White, a man involved in Vesper's death. When he hints at a powerful organization MI6 has never heard of, Bond's back in the field, getting answers and leaving bodies, much to M (Judi Dench)'s dismay. The plot all leads to Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)'s weak-willed businessman, Dominic Greene, out to exploit countries for oil, or water, or something (who cares). In pursuing Greene, Bond has MI6 and the CIA after him, including American buddy Felix (Jeffrey Wright). But he does have two lovely ladies to help him out: Camille (Olga Kurylenko) and Fields (Gemma Arterton).

More than villains and Bond girls, the biggest staff change here is behind the camera. Rather than employing a veteran action director like Casino Royale's Martin Campbell (Goldeneye), the producers went with Marc Forster, best known for subpar literary films like The Kite Runner, Finding Neverland, and Monster's Ball. To his credit, he handles the action surprisingly well. The chase scenes are fun and frequent, occurring by foot, car, boat, and plane(yes, that's right, plane). He does get too overzealous with the cutting though. In one scene, the movie cuts so rapidly between a shoot-out and an opera that it's hard to tell what's going on. This isn't The Godfather's baptism scene, it's a Bond movie. He needs to learn the difference.

With all of those chase scenes, comparisons with the Bourne movies are inevitable. I for one think they are largely overblown. Bond was doing chase scenes decades before Jason Bourne was hatched from his robot shell. It doesn't help though that two scenes are ripped nearly identically from the Bourne movies. When Bond chases a guy from rooftop to rooftop and kills another within a small apartment, you'll wonder which series you're watching.

The movie's greatest faults are less with copying Bourne and more from being too reliably Bond (beyond an obvious wink to Goldfinger). Amalric's villain fights Bond with the same crazed desperation as the Joker in The Dark Knight, but he seems unlikely to be remembered alongside Oddjob and Jaws. Kurylenko and Arterton are attractive enough, but can't hold up next to Eva Green. Quantum of Solace is even less memorable for being a bit of a middle child. The movie is all about tying up loose ends from Casino Royale and setting up new ones for the film to come. And while Jack White's "Another Way to Die" is hardly the travesty that was Madonna's "Die Another Day," it's a far leap from Chris Cornell's "You Know My Name."

So with all these faults, why do I give Quantum of Solace a B? Because it's a James Bond movie, and unless there's an invisible car I'm going to thoroughly enjoy it. He may not say "Bond. James Bond" or "Shaken, not stirred." There may still be no Q (hopefully they'll fix that for next time). But the action scenes, the witty one-liners, the parental interactions with M, and the amazing theme music are all still there. Like most Bond movies, I'll have forgotten everything about it within a month. But I'll remember having a good time while watching.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Entourage Keeps Coasting By

Coming into this season, Entourage was on probation for me. After the debacle of the Medillin and Billy Walsh focused fourth season, Entourage was low on my to-watch list. Which is why it took a Thanksgiving weekend at home for me to finish the season. Was it an improvement from season 4? Sure, but not by much until the finale.

The joys of Entourage are simple: The vicarious thrills of watching rich Hollywood actors have a good time. In the first few seasons, the biggest worry was that another actor might get Vince's multimillion dollar part. The show aired in the summer and was the perfect wind-down after a day at the pool. It was one of the least substantive shows on TV but a lot of fun.

I'm mentioning all this because the show has slided further and further away from that image. Since season 2's Aquaman, Vince's only movie role has been the straight-to-dvd Medillin. The point of this season was supposed to be a washed-up actor looking for a comeback. But the same could be said about the last few seasons. Then when Vince finally got work with Smoke Jumpers, the show made a cardinal mistake: it brought Vince's acting abilities into focus. The show has wisely kept footage of Vince's movies to a minimum, so we never had to think about whether he had any talent. But when a director calls him out over his poor acting, the show expects us to side with Vince. After all, studio heads, CEOs, and A-list directors all think he's amazing. Only one problem: the director's right. Don't try to convince us Vince is more than just a famous face if you can't deliver on the promise.

Vince wasn't the only character with an off season. Eric, arguably the show's lead in the past, felt more supporting than ever even while expanding his business. Drama went from comically annoying to unwatchably annoying this year with the whole subplot about his French girlfriend. Turtle's sub-plot with Jamie Lynn-Sigler actually wasn't bad, but when that's a highlight you know the show's in trouble. As for Ari and Lloyd, they're always great. Ari's offer of a studio head position could have been a big twist had he accepted it. But the last few episodes focused on him getting his friend a job, the effects of which we won't see until next year.

But although I considered dropping the show throughout the season, the finale was again just good enough to keep me going for season 6. That's because the show finally seems to be heading back to its original purpose. It was nice to see where they all grew up in Queens for the first time. The Gus van Sant and Martin Scorsese cameos were fun. But what really set the stage for next season was the word that Vince got the Nick Carroway part in a Scorsese remake of The Great Gatsby. That signals a definite comeback and promises next year won't be another season of bitching about not getting parts. And best news of all? Next season will once again air in the summer.