Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Looking Ahead to the Oscars

Tomorrow Entertainment Weekly will give its predictions for Oscar nominations. Although they won't be announced until February, ten nominees for best picture means even more movies to see, and more time needed to catch up. So I figured now was as good a time as any to suggest what I think the ten nominees will be (while acknowledging a lot can change in a month).

Right now it's looking like there's four movies competing for the win, four movies that look pretty safe for the nomination, and two open slots with little to fill them. I think we can all agree this was a bad year to expand to ten nominees, but it does make it a bit less predictable.

Competing for the Win:

1. Up in the Air
The probable best picture winner. It's timely, it's got top-notch acting, writing, and directing (all of which will likely be nominated), and it's got that old Best Picture feel. It would have less of a chance in a stronger year, but for 2009 it feels like a champ.

2. Avatar
With super strong reviews and huge box office, Avatar will get people to watch the Oscars and stands a legit chance of winning. The Academy's general bias against genre movies combined with some weaknesses in the story may keep this from ultimately winning, but it's certainly a top contender.

3. The Hurt Locker
This may very well be the best movie of the year, and with more viewers it might stand a chance for Best Picture too. But having made only $12 million, a best picture win would be too big an insult to the moviegoing public. Still, a directing win for Kathryn Bigelow seems likely, and it should still manage nominations for picture, actor, and writing, among others.

4. Precious
Once a top contender, Precious has lost a lot of buzz and box office since its limited release surge into theaters. And having just seen it, I don't think people want to vote for the "feel miserable" movie during a recession. Still, Mo'Nique is the probable best supporting actress winner and Gabourey Sidibe should be nominated for best actress.

Likely to be Nominated:

5. Inglourious Basterds
People really love this movie, enough so that despite all its oddities it could probably even make a list of 5. I suppose residual embarrassment over Pulp Fiction's loss could put this into the front category, but I think this will have to stick with nominations for picture, directing, and writing.

6. Up
Anti-animation bias may have kept Wall-E out of the top 5, but with ten nominees Up should be safe.

7. Invictus
I haven't seen it, but it seems like the kind of populist feel-good movie people nominate and forget about. Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon will likely score nods as well.

8. An Education
I thought the problem here would be that people liked it but didn't love it, hence leaving it vulnerable. But since it's actually dividing most of the people I know who have seen it, it may not even be able to count on the "liked it" vote. Still, Carey Mulligan for actress and Nick Hornby for screenplay seem more than safe.

The two open spots:

Originally, these spots would have gone to Nine and The Lovely Bones. But since Nine is inarguably awful, I can't imagine it getting on here unless people vote for it without watching it (which, to be honest, seems plausible). And The Lovely Bones is supposedly so bad they pushed the release date to mid-January. So what's that leave?

9. A Serious Man
This has been seriously dividing audiences, but since fans tend to be really passionate about it, enough #1-3 votes seem likely to give it slot #9.

Beyond that I'm less sure. The last slot could go to some other seriously Oscar-y movie like A Single Man, Crazy Heart, or The Messenger, but my bet is it goes to something a little more commercial. Which seems most likely?

Star Trek or District 9
Both have been mentioned as possible nominees, and both have their serious fanbases. But with Avatar likely to get most of the sci-fi love, and having to compete with each other as well, I'm skeptical either makes it through.

Julie and Julia or It's Complicated
Pretty sure It's Complicated's bad reviews cancel it out, but Julie and Julia seems like a legitimate choice, even if it may be too lightweight for the Oscars.

The Hangover
If people vote for what they love, maybe a group of younger voters could push this through, though I highly doubt it.

Where the Wild Things Are or Fantastic Mr. Fox
Both are huge critics' choices, but the former wasn't equally loved by the public, and the latter will fall into the same anti-animation bias that Up is already trying to overcome.

So what do I think will take the last slot?

10. (500) Days of Summer
Nobody's taking it too seriously as a contender, but in a weak year with ten slots to fill, why not? It mixes the comedy and drama enough that it doesn't feel lightweight, is creative enough with the storytelling to feel original, and those that like it love it.

So those are my picks. What am I leaving out? What am I overvaluing? Let me know in the comments.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Feels Like Nine Hours

Grade: D

It's rare to find a movie with such a high profile and so much talent behind it that manages to fuck so much up that it leaves you feeling embarrassed for everyone involved. This season, that movie is Nine. In every way you can imagine, Nine takes the worst path from stage to screen, managing to simultaneously feel stagy, lifeless, dull, cold, and neverending. If you wanted to kill the movie musical genre, this is a pretty good way to do so.

There's so much wrong with Nine that I don't really know where to start, but it's got to be with the musical numbers. Director Rob Marshall decided to follow up his success with Chicago by utilizing the same method in filming Nine's musical numbers. Namely, instead of having the actors sing to each other within the scene, they magically appear onstage as part of a fantasy sequence. Doing an actual musical where people break into song might throw some people off, so better to have it all in their heads.

The first mistake with this line of reasoning: Nine is not Chicago. Chicago was a musical about theater and performance, so it was natural that people accustomed to spending time onstage would appear onstage in their innermost thoughts. But Nine has NOTHING to do with theater. Based on Fellini's classic 8 1/2, it's the story of Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), Italy's most famous movie director who, after a few flops, finds himself with writer's block ten days before his next film is set to go into production. As he struggles to start page 1, he's pulled in different directions by his wife (Marion Cotillard), mistress (Penelope Cruz), star (Nicole Kidman), producer, costume designer (Judi Dench), mother (Sofia Lauren), and an American fashion journalist who seems to have stepped into this movie by accident (Kate Hudson, and a lot more on her later).

See, it's a movie ABOUT movies, so you might expect some love for cinematic history, maybe some visual references to Fellini, or even some demonstration of the advantages that film has over theater. None of that is there. Because Rob Marshall only knows how to make musicals like Chicago, it's always in theatrical mode. Worse, not only is every musical number on a stage, it's always on the SAME stage, and a highly unappealing one at that. For some unknown reason, everyone only sings inside the indoor studio with Guido's half-built set, and with the lights off. So they're singing on an ugly stage, in the dark, and usually in drab looking costumes. There's no light and no color, leaving the visuals consistently drab and depressing.

I'm still not done with the musical numbers. The decision to show them all onstage doesn't just look bad, it also lessens the dramatic effect. Marshall seems so terrified that people will get bored during the songs that he does everything he can to make you forget there are people singing. That means wild and frantic choreography that's completely out of tone with everything in the movie (also crude and unsexy). That means songs are constantly interrupted by spoken dialogue from another scene. And that means you're encouraged to do everything but listen to the lyrics.

This is especially problematic when half the songs involve characters sharing their feelings. It would make more sense for them to just start singing, but Marshall seems so trapped in his gimmick that they still go into fantasy mode even when really saying those things. It creates a disconnect that lessens the impact when say, the movie star's trying to tell Guido she's more than just a symbol (and as Nicole Kidman plays her, she isn't), or when his wife is saying she's leaving him (while stripping in a nightclub. Yeah, I have no idea who thought that would make for a dramatic message).

Now, ok, filming musical numbers is hard. Every movie musical has struggled to find a way to keep them interesting, and Rent provided like five different not to do it. So let's go a little more basic: what can movies do that theater can't? Show the environment. This is a movie set in 1960s Italy that's supposed to actually be about Italy. Yet you see none of it. There's no sense of Italy, and no sense either of the spa at which most of the movie is set. Guido claims he just stopped there after driving for awhile. So is it a nice spa? A crappy one? Is this Guido's vacation, or just a Motel 6? In the original movie and musical, it's clearly a vacation, but this movie never bothers to say. There's a single gorgeous shot over a cliff, but otherwise it's all claustrophobically indoors.

I think I've pretty well established how visually lacking the movie is, so let's move on to story. In both the original movie and play, Guido hides the fact that he doesn't have a script from his crew, letting them continue onward until the pressure builds to a breaking point at which he considers suicide. Fellini's version visualized it perfectly in this enormous spaceship that just gets bigger and bigger as Guido feels more and more trapped. But in this movie, the set is no more complete at the end than the beginning. The crew knows the entire movie that he hasn't written a page of the script, yet seem to think he'll just make it work. And he never seriously tries to write anything. When the movie collapses, everyone seems to just go "oh well, guess we should have seen that coming." There's not that much plot to begin with, and by eliminating the stakes there's none at all.

Which leaves characters. The relationships are the center of the story, and we're really supposed to care when everyone abandons him at the end. But we don't. The movie doesn't develop a single one of the central relationships, so we never understand what any of the women really mean to Guido. You understand what Guido means to his wife, because Marion Cotillard makes you see it, but Guido seems to treat all the women as interchangeable. When the movie star says she can no longer play the role for him, you don't know what she's talking about because it hadn't previously been addressed. The movie, like Guido, takes its relationships for granted, but if you haven't already seen the play you'd be completely lost.

Finally casting, which has some of the only bright spots in the entire movie. Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, and Judi Dench are the only reasons I didn't just give it an F. Marion Cotillard is at least 15 years too young for the part, and her accent seems at least a continent away from the French/Italian it's supposed to be, but she still gives the best performance in the movie. Her songs are the only ones with any emotional resonance, and she's always just so beautiful. That also helps out Penelope Cruz, who also brings most of the movie's energy. And Judi Dench is always great, even if her thoroughly British character suddenly becomes French in order to sing a COMPLETELY pointless song.

Moving to the other end, one of the weakest links in the cast is, rather shockingly, Daniel Day-Lewis, who previously seemed incapable of delivering a bad performance. But he's so incredibly bland and lifeless that you don't for a second believe that any of these beautiful women would be so in love with him. There's absolutely none of the charm displayed by Antonio Banderas on Broadway (why wasn't he cast?) or Marcello Mastroianni in 8 1/2. Maybe all of his energy went into his accent, but since his vowel elongation made him sound kind of like the Count from Sesame Street, he might have been better off talking like Daniel Plainview.

Still, the award for most incomprehensible character of the year goes to Kate Hudson's Stephanie, an American fashion reporter from Vogue who adds absolutely nothing to the movie. To be clear: I'm not blaming Kate Hudson; the character has absolutely no purpose. I had thought she was an expansion of the critic character (who was definitely missed), but instead she just flirts with Guido in a bar and then sings the worst song I have ever seen put to the screen. I'm not exaggerating. It is laugh out loud terrible. Kate Hudson's made a lot of bad career moves in the decade since she was Penny Lane, but I've never felt so embarrassed for her as I did during that song.

There's so much else that doesn't make sense and doesn't fit together. Everything about Guido's childhood was cut for the movie EXCEPT for his encounter with a prostitute (played by Fergie, who at least does the best singing job), but you never know what the point of the song is because there's nothing else to explain it. And if you tried too hard to think about it, the worst use of Chicago-style choreography yet gives the opposite impression of what the scene is supposed to mean.

The music doesn't match the choreography doesn't match the dialogue doesn't match the visuals doesn't match anything. The relationships don't feel real. There's no dramatic stakes, and there's nothing fun at all. There's even a lengthy epilogue tacked on in which Judi Dench spells out the moral of the movie before an utterly conventional ending and, no joke, a curtain call. But nobody was clapping in my theater. Those that hadn't walked out already rushed to the door the second the credits rolled. So congratulations Nine. You thought you would get Oscar nods this year, but instead you win the first ever Zandervision Award for Worst Movie of the Year.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Top TV Shows of the Decade

Yesterday was movies, today is top TV shows of the decade. In some ways, picking the TV shows of the decade is even harder, as what shows belong to the '00s? Should we count a show like Buffy, that spent half its time in the '00s but had all its best seasons in the '90s (I'm saying no)? Or what about a show like True Blood, which has already made an impression this decade even though most of its seasons will air in the '10s (again, no)?

In most other ways though, picking TV shows is a lot easier. You don't have to sift through previous lists to find the brightest gems; these are shows we've watched for years and spent countless hours obsessing over. So before I begin, I just want to explain a few high-profile omissions: The West Wing may very well deserve to be on this list, but I never regularly watched it, something I'll someday remedy on DVD. While I do love The Wire, the two seasons I've seen aren't enough to beat what's already on here. And finally, I've never seen a single episode of The Shield.

With that out of the way, let's get to it:

11. Freaks and Geeks
Ok, I'm cheating, but I couldn't leave Freaks and Geeks off. In only 17 episodes, Freaks and Geeks became the most believable high school show on TV, with kids that actually looked their age and problems they would actually face. And in one of my favorite storylines, the geek won his dreamgirl...only to immediately realize she's boring! The show would go on to launch the careers of Judd Apatow, James Franco, Jason Segel, and Seth Rogen, to name but a few, but on its own it's a high school show that anyone can relate to, even those of us too young to be there in 1980.

10. Mad Men
Mad Men may still be young in its run, but it's gone through so much in three seasons that it has certainly earned its spot. A historical show so compelling it actually got me to watch (unlike Deadwood and Rome), Mad Men makes 1960s New York come alive while also serving as a great character piece for any age. In every way it earns the title of "the next Sopranos."

9. Battlestar Galactica
It may have been set in a sci-fi universe, but Battlestar Galactica had more to say about our world than anything else on TV, and showed sci-fi can be a powerful way of making a statement. With fascinatingly dark characters and twists out of nowhere, BSG's four seasons stand as a fully realized vision complete with a great ending.

8. Farscape
Keeping up with the sci-fi theme, Farscape may be the least watched and least remembered show on this list, but it's also the first sci-fi show I loved and one of the first shows that showed me what TV can do. With cool plots, great characters, and muppets, Farscape was the kind of cult show you felt unique for watching, which just made its cancellation all the more difficult.

7. The Office (UK)
The American remake may have more viewers and has certainly had more episodes, but I still say the original 12 episodes + Christmas special of the British version accomplished more. Less cartoonish and more heartfelt, the original let Tim be as pitiable as he was likable and made Gareth the kind of rule-following dork you might actually find in your office (as opposed to Dwight's over-the-top buffoon). The second series finale is still one of the most depressing TV endings I have ever seen, and the Christmas special one of the happiest. That's some impressive range.

6. Dexter
Hard to believe a show about a likable serial killer could be one of the best shows of the decade, but with other shows glorifying killers like Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey, Dexter Morgan's killer with a code doesn't seem so bad. More importantly, Dexter started big with the Ice Truck Killer, and every year works to up the ante with the Bay Harbor Butcher and the Trinity Killer. With four great seasons, it's not only one of the most consistent shows on this list, but also the most addictive show to ever air on cable.

5. Six Feet Under
Further proof that Michael C. Hall has had a great decade: that he was equally convincing in the most un-Dexter part imaginable. You didn't always like everyone in the Fisher clan (in fact, I hated everyone for a full season each), but that just made their stories all the more compelling. It may have started as American Beauty: The TV Show, but by the time it reached its unforgettable ending it had evolved into something more.

4. The Sopranos
No show had more of an influence over the '00s than The Sopranos. Not only is it single-handedly responsible for the emergence of cable as a place for quality original programming, but it also led television to be taken seriously as an art form. Without The Sopranos, there would be no Mad Men, no The Shield, and no Dexter. And regardless of what you thought of the still-discussed finale, it had a pretty remarkable run.

3. 24
The Sopranos may have had the biggest influence on TV this decade, but 24 best represented the decade on TV. Premiering right after 9/11 in 2001, 24 brought the War on Terror to TV screens, and cemented terrorists as the new communists as far as action villains go. With its crazy twists and infamous character deaths, 24 is the reason every show goes kill crazy each May. And as much as I like Christian Bale's Batman, Jack Bauer is the real superhero of the decade.

2. Arrested Development
It may have only lasted three low-rated seasons, but Arrested Development is also the smartest and funniest comedy of all time. That's right I said it: Arrested Development is better than Seinfeld. After all, what other show do you need to watch five times just to get most of the jokes? Or features so many recurring gags that real fans always laugh harder than casual ones? With one of the looniest ensembles on TV and the most endlessly quotable lines, Arrested Development is a no-brainer for comedy of the decade.

1. Lost
So many shows have tried to imitate it (cough FlashForward cough), and so many have tried to explain its roots, but the fact is that Lost is a true original, the kind of experience that can only come but once a decade, if ever. A cult show that finds room for oven ten million viewers. A mystery that asks three new questions for every answer it gives. And a character piece that regularly makes even the most minor supporting character seem fascinating after a few well-placed flashbacks. With some of the most iconic characters, images, and storylines currently on TV, Lost is more than a more popular Twin Peaks, a more serialized X-Files, or a more intelligent Gilligan's Island. It's the show of the decade.

So there's my picks. Some shows that just barely missed the cut include The Wire, Veronica Mars, How I Met Your Mother, Scrubs, Alias, The Office (US), and 30 Rock.

Which shows topped your decade? What am I overrating? What am I missing? And what do you think will make this list ten years from now for the 2010s? Let me know in the comments.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Top Movies of the Decade

Trying to cram all the best movies of the past decade into a single top 10 list is a completely futile exercise. After all, we're talking about a decade that comprised the entirety of my high school and college years, when I first began seriously watching movies. If I'm being honest with myself, most of my favorite movies come from the '00s (just click my info for proof). But being the crazed list-maniac that I am, I couldn't help but try anyway after reading so many others. Plus, what else am I supposed to do on a bus ride home for the holidays?

Now, it would seem the easiest way to do this would be to look back on my #1s from the past 10 years. But I quickly realized that some years are just stronger than others. If you're curious, here's what I picked at the time:

2000: Almost Famous
2001: Memento
2002: Punch-Drunk Love
2003: Lost in Translation
2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2005: Munich
2006: Children of Men
2007: There Will Be Blood
2008: The Dark Knight
2009: Still deciding between The Hurt Locker and Up in the Air

Anyway, it was clear I had to go a little deeper. But since I'm too indecisive to stick to 10, I cheated and slipped in 5 more.

15. The Departed
How often do you find a remake of a foreign film that so perfectly Americanizes it that both still stand as independently great movies? More importantly, The Departed was a return to the kind of hugely entertaining crime movies that made Scorsese a name, and deservingly won best picture in one of the '00s strongest years (2006 is well-represented here).

14. The Incredibles
No list of the best of the '00s could be complete without a Pixar movie, and I've got two. With such strong attention to story and character, Pixar's technological achievements are the last thing anyone talks about. But it wasn't until The Incredibles that I realized Pixar was more than kids' stuff. A mid-life crisis movie that borrows from Watchmen and features a joke about drinking games, The Incredibles proved Pixar's audience is well beyond the Happy meal crowd.

13. Punch-Drunk Love
One of P.T. Anderson's shortest movies, and also one of his least appreciated. Yet it features some truly odd and memorable moments (many involving a miniature piano), a career-best performance from Adam Sandler, and a love story that helps ground what could otherwise have just been too out there.

12. Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2
The decision to split the movie in two may have seemed like pure Tarantino hubris at the time, but it's amazing how well they hold up as separate movies. Vol. 1 features quite possibly the best action sequence of the decade and is dripping with Tarantino-trademarked cool, while Vol. 2 ups the ante by giving the Bride a name and a more complicated relationship with her target. Along with Inglourious Basterds, Kill Bill ensured Tarantino would have nearly as much influence on the '00s as he did on the '90s.

11. Pan's Labyrinth
A movie so good I saw it twice in Spanish without subtitles. The visuals are so impressive you can understand why Peter Jackson would trust Guillermo Del Toro with The Hobbit, but it's the juxtaposition of a child's imagination with the horrors of the sadistic Capitan that make the movie so powerful. Plus an ending that even the Brothers Grimm would find dark.

Ok, now for the real top 10:

10. Talk to Her
It's odd that the only Pedro Almodovar movie on my list is one of the least intrinsically Almodovarian movies of his career. But Talk to Her proved he understands lonely men just as well as women on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And if the relationships of the central characters aren't enough for you, how about the cheekiest silent movie never made?

9. Mulholland Drive
Who knew a network passing on a pilot could be such a blessing to cinematic history? The first two hours play like Twin Peaks set in Hollywood, and make for David Lynch at his most accessible. Then the last half hour completely fucks with your mind. The result is one of the decade's most entertaining brain-teasers, and hopefully left ABC kicking itself for the bad call.

8. Memento
There's a lot of trends in '00s filmmaking that Memento has a hand in: stories told out of sequence, anti-heroes, characters with memory problems, and the reemerence of neo-noir. On its own, it's the best kind of cult movie, completely sucking you in while leaving you guessing til the very end (or beginning). To call it The Usual Suspects for the '00s is as appropriate a compliment as I can find.

7. Wall-E
If The Incredibles showed Pixar could make movies equally for kids and adults, Wall-E seems more just for the adults. How else to explain a movie that's largely silent for its first two acts, that heavily uses 1960s musical Hello Dolly, and that contains one of the most unusual and heartwarming romances of the decade? The last act is criticized by some, but it still strikes me as one of the most creative dystopian scenarios that writers have come up with. Who knew a cartoon could make one of the biggest statements of the decade?

6. There Will Be Blood
Daniel Plainview may be one of the most despicable characters of the decade, yet he's also the center of P.T. Anderson's epic. His complex relationship to his son (paternal love or business tool?) keeps us behind him as he ruthlessly buys up land and picks fights with the local preacher just because he can. The oil tower meltdown is a pretty incredible image, but the movie will mainly be remembered for its horrific ending. Don't try to drink his milkshake.

5. The Lord of the Rings
Peter Jackson took the most read and beloved pre-Harry Potter books of all time and turned them into three of the biggest movies ever made. If I had to pick just one it would be The Fellowship of the Ring, as Jackson and his co-writers actually improved on the text by cutting the long forest section and adding on Boromir's death for a better ending. But I'd prefer to honor it as a single achievement, successfully fusing action and character to create a satisfying visualization of what we all imagined as kids.

4. The Dark Knight
One of the most promising trends of the '00s was putting well-respected indie directors in charge of big blockbusters. Sam Raimi got Spider-Man, Bryan Singer got X-Men, and Christopher Nolan got Batman. He did the superhero justice in Batman Begins, but The Dark Knight elevated Batman well beyond his comic book roots and into the category of epic crime classic. And there's no way to deny Heath Ledger's Joker as the villain of the decade.

3. Almost Famous
At the time, this was considered the personal movie Cameron Crowe got to make as a reward for Jerry Maguire. Yet who today doesn't see this as his superior film? Almost Famous may not have the same filmmaking showmanship of There Will Be Blood, but as a celebration of rock's golden age and the best coming of age movie I've seen, Almost Famous is the movie that gets the most play in my DVD player.

2. Children of Men
Alfonso Cuaron was already having a good decade, between Y Tu Mama Tambien (which barely didn't make this list) and the third Harry Potter movie (which is still my favorite). Children of Men is so much more than a sci-fi film or a dystopian movie. Those two one-shot scenes have been studied more than anything else this decade, and great actors like Clive Owen, Michael Caine, and Chiwetel Ejiofor got to do some of their best work. By infusing every shot with the problems of today without the speeches a lesser movie would use, Children of Men proved the ideal model of what a political allegory should look like.

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
I know, I know, it's a totally predictable choice for best of the decade, but there's a reason: cause it is. Charlie Kaufman showed his chops at brainy screenplays in Being John Malkovich and Adaptation (which would have been my #16), but here he went the extra distance by giving it heart. Just try to hold it together when Joel loses Valentine at the end of their first memory, or when they decide to give the relationship another try. Eternal Sunshine brings together many themes of the '00s (ill-fated romances, time-jumping, etc.), but does it so much better than the rest that it's secured as a classic for the decade.

Obviously there's a ton I've left off of here (my first list was 29 movies), and I'd give strong honorable mentions to Adaptation, Garden State, Before Sunrise, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, No Country for Old Men, and The 40 Year Old Virgin.

Now your turn. What am I leaving off? And what were your favorites from the decade?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Aliens Among Us

Grade: A-

Another week, another DVD release for a movie I saw back in August but haven't written about until now. I actually saw District 9 on opening day, back when all I knew about it was aliens and apartheid. I knew nothing about the plot, nothing about who the main character would be, if any, and no idea what to expect. And when watching such an original and innovative movie, that's a good way to enter. District 9 marketing team, well done.

But since by now I think most people know what the movie's about, I won't try to hide what it's about. The movie takes place in a future South Africa in which a group of aliens has landed decades earlier and has been stuck ever since. Given the epithet of "prawns" by the locals for their crustacean-like appearance, they were soon forced into a slum known as District 9 while the humans figured out what to do with them.

At the start of the movie, that answer comes in an order to move the aliens to an even worse slum, District 10. But since the humans must go through the motions of law and order, however ridiculous, a team is sent into District 9 to hand everyone eviction notices, led by weak-willed, son-in-law-of-the-boss Wikus (Sharlto Copley). In the course of his work Wikus ends up sprayed with an alien substance that begins turning him into one of the prawns. And when he discovers how little he can trust his employers to help him, he has no choice but to enter District 9 in search of a cure while on the run from his own people.

The first half hour or so is done entirely documentary-style, giving the history of human/prawn interactions while following the government workers into District 9. The whole section makes this alternate future seem plausible, and makes all the apartheid comparisons readily apparent without pushing it too far. But after so much sci-fi verite, I was relieved when Wikus began his transformation and I realized yes, there would be a Hollywood-style plot coming in, but one totally earned by the grittier opening.

What's not Hollywood is Wikus as a protagonist. In the beginning of the movie, he's a bit of an ass. He's selfish, incompetent, and weak. You think his transformation will force him to grow as a character, and it certainly does in many ways, but even towards the end he's still acting entirely for his own interests. At times he's a hard character to root for, but the combination of his intense need to get rid of the alien arm mixed with Copley's compelling performance make you feel for him anyway.

He's not the only one suffering likability issues. Pretty much the only likable character in the entire movie is Christopher, a prawn who Wikus teams up with in his efforts to become human again. Certainly all of the human characters make Wikus look like a saint, focused as they are solely upon alien weaponry in their efforts to confirm every "big corporations are evil" theories espoused throughout history. It may be a sci-fi action movie, but District 9 is one of the darker and more pessimistic things I've seen this year.

Which is why it's important that the story and the action are so strong, to give something to cut through the darkness. With a number of really cool alien weapons, including a man-piloted robot that outdoes anything in Transformers (though, admittedly, also appears in Avatar), there's a reason everyone was shocked at D9's budget. Especially towards the end, as the movie becomes a Wikus/Christopher buddy action movie as they fight against human and Prawn in their mission, the action sequences continue to amaze.

District 9 is that rare mainstream movie that's as thought-provoking as it is entertaining, and that rare allegory that doesn't gag you on its message. As unsympathetic as Wikus can be at times, he also feels real, which is maybe why we still side with him anyway. After all, who wouldn't do anything to get rid of an alien arm? I wish the movie hadn't been so fuzzy on who could understand whom when, but maybe that's just my preoccupation. And it's certainly hard to watch - both for the thematic darkness and some uncomfortable physical moments (he pulls off his finger nails!). But District 9 is easily one of the most original and affecting movies of the year, and puts an entirely new spin on a genre that could use one.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Welcome to the Future of Cinema

Grade: A

Few movies have had the insane build-up of expectations that Avatar has. The first film from James Cameron in the TWELVE YEARS since Titanic, which you may remember still holds the record for highest grossing movie OF ALL TIME. A movie that Cameron says he wrote the script for over twenty years ago, and has been in development for nearly as long. A movie with a budget so high people estimate in increments of $100 million. And most insane of all, a movie that promises to revolutionize film, ushering in an era where 3-D and computer effects can make the unreal real.

A movie with that high of a build-up has almost no choice but to disappoint, and yet Avatar may just be the most visually stunning movie I've ever seen. The moment when you first set eyes on the jungle of Pandora, the alien moon that Cameron created out of imagination, technology, and time...think of Charlie entering the chocolate room as Gene Wilder sings "Pure Imagination." Or Dorothy first seeing the colors of Oz. In Avatar, 3-D and computer simulation have finally gone that extra step to make you feel like you're there.

Stepping back a moment, I should probably let you know what this thing is about. Set in a future (2154) in which Earth has run out of oil, humans take the 6 year flight out to Pandora, an alien moon with a precious resource they call Unobtainium. The planet is populated by the Na'vi, a species of ten foot tall blue humanoids with feline facial features, who are very much in tune with their environment and not so much with the aliens trying to uproot their sacred tree. To help with that, the humans created the Avatar program: human/Na'vi hybrids each controlled by the individual human providing his DNA. Yeah, there's a lot of exposition early on to get all this out, but somethings there's no way around it.

Into this mix comes Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine whose scientist brother was supposed to pilot an Avatar until he wound up dead. Now Jake has come to take over his brother's job. His first time out, he meets a Na'vi named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who takes him back to the tribe and starts training him to join. His mission is to earn their trust and convince them to move so the humans can get the Uobtainium....or barring that, to give critical intel to help with the military strike. But you don't need me to tell you once he falls for Neytiri, his loyalties shift.

As complicated as all that may be to write out, there's not really anything in the plot we haven't seen before. It's kind of a mix of Dune, Jurassic Park, Fern Gully, The Matrix, and (from what I've been told) Dances with Wolves. The characters aren't all that new either, but the actors sure work hard to make up for that. Instead of a parade of celebrities, Cameron's assembled an eclectic mix that all play their parts well and don't distract. Saldana especially stands out, bringing a particular fierceness to all of her scenes, as does Sigourney Weaver as the head scientist. Cameron sure does like having the women do the most ass-kicking.

What really makes Avatar special though is that unlike any other sci-fi movie before it, Avatar creates an alien world and brings you inside of it. There's really no overstating how incredible Cameron's attention to detail is here. Everything about the planet - from the leaves that rustle below your feet to the flies buzzing in the air - is intended to make the environment as authentic as possible. Despite the fact that all things animal, vegetable, and mineral don't exist in the real world, it doesn't take long to feel real.

Here's where the 3-D plays in as well. You may have seen some other recent 3-D movies that have a few things jump out at you for fun, or make you feel like you're on a roller coast for a second, or provide some nice texture to the scenery. But Avatar is the first movie to use 3-D in a way to make you feel like you're inside the scene. At times I almost wanted to brush the flies out of the way, since they seemed right in front of me. And EVERYTHING seems more immediate, including the explosions and gunfire often aimed right at the audience.

It all takes some getting used to. At first it's almost too much for the eye to take in, and I looked at everything but the person who was talking. But that's just because there is so much there to see. In one scene, Neytiri chastises Jake as being a baby for the way he must touch everything he sees. But can you blame him? When every step lights up the ground and plants shoot up into themselves with a single touch, you'll want to go around and explore as well.

Beyond the beauty of the environment, Cameron's creatures are some of the best put to screen since Jurassic Park. Best of all are a type of pterodactyl-like creatures that the Na'vi ride after each selecting one to bond with in a ritual. All of the flying scenes have such a sense of joy to them that it's clear Cameron knows first and foremost how to entertain. That's even more clear in the phenomenal action sequences, pitting flying creatures and arrows against large machines and ships. The final battle is the exact kind of big, epic battle that a movie of this magnitude deserves.

If you want to, it's easy to poke holes in Avatar. You can call it cheesy, which it is, but it's the kind of cheesy you find in the big Hollywood event movies of yesteryear that Transformers 2 could never hope to be. You can call the dialogue clunky, and it is, or point out the disconnect in having a back-to-nature moral in the most technologically advanced movie of all time. But to me at least it just seems silly to nitpick in the face of such enormous achievement, and even more than that, enormous entertainment. With so much joy in the filmmaking, I preferred to just give in and smile.

In the end, it comes down to this: Avatar will be remembered as a landmark in cinematic innovation. It's a movie that demands to be seen in theaters, and will provide a wholly unique viewing experience. It will be the most talked about movie of the season and the one everyone will eventually accept they have to go see. So instead of laughing at the blue people or mocking the trailer, just suspend disbelief long enough to enter another world. It's worth it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Wild and Crazy Nazis

Grade: A-

Coming to DVD today, Quentin Tarantino's epic World War II comedy action hit Inglourious Basterds, which I saw back in September but am writing about now. Depending on who you ask, it's either Tarantino's greatest work since Pulp Fiction, or a bit of a disappointment. To which I'd say, can't it be both? Thing is, IB is 90% brilliant, and what works is easily the most entertaining and creative stuff I've seen in movies this year. But it continually frustrates for refusing to go that extra 10%.

IB follows a number of different characters who all collide on one (very fictional) operation: a plot to assassinate Hitler and all of his top guys that SPOILER ALERT succeeds. Some of the wacky crew include: the titular basterds, a group of American Jews led by Southern accented Aldo the Apache (Brad Pitt, winning this year's least convincing Jew award) and "the Bear Jew" (horror meister Eli Roth). Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), a French Jew who survived her family's death by Nazi to open a movie house and plot her revenge. Col. Landa (multi-lingual Christoph Waltz), a top Nazi hunter responsible for the previously mentioned family massacre. Plus a British spy (Michael Fassbender), a famous German actress (Diane Kruger), and....Mike Myers.

From Reservoir Dogs to Kill Bill, Tarantino has shown has ability to create iconic characters that great actors would love to play, and he succeeds again here across the board. Pitt leaves the blandness of Benjamin Button far behind as he hams up to hilarious effect as the uber-American Aldo. The women completely steal the movie, especially Laurent, who's so good you don't mind she has more screentime than any of the Americans. And some of the even more minor characters are so instantly fully realized you wish you could spend more time with them.

As for Christoph Waltz, he completely deserves all the praise he gets. He honestly deserves the Oscar just for the fact that he speaks FOUR languages FLUENTLY in the movie. As the Basterds make clear in one of the funniest scenes, most Americans can barely speak one. But on top of the languages, he also gives a completely brilliant performance as a jovial and charismatic Nazi who almost seems too nice to be a killer until he shows the menace hiding inside him. The lengthy opening scene, which seems at first a friendly call until his reason is gradually revealed, feels like a completed short film in itself. With the past two supporting actor Oscars going to villains the Joker and Anton Chigurgh, I think Waltz will cement the pattern.

Moving past the characters, there's a ton of stuff going on in the movie, and amazingly most of it works. Given this is Tarantino, there's a strong theme of movie appreciation, including the most celebrated line, "We respect directors in our country," as said by Shoshanna to her Zac Efron lookalike Nazi hero stalker. There's Tarantino's trademark dialogue, making even the lengthiest scenes zip on by in a very enjoyable fashion. There's a pleasant tone of comic camp, in some ways making this the movie I hoped Valkyrie would have been (but wasn't). And while I'm not usually one to advocate violence, there is something deeply satisfying in watching Nazis be killed. The final sequence where they pull off the operation is some of the finest vengeance porn I've seen.

So with so many great ideas, great scenes, great moments, and great characters, where's that 10% that doesn't quite get there? That it's all sometimes too much. As great as Tarantino's writing is, and I fully admit that it is, his celebrity has gotten big enough that he's become completely self-indulgent about it. The movie is comprised of five very lengthy sequences, despite the epic nature of the story, and single scenes drag on for 45 minutes at a time. Why? because Tarantino wants you to bask in the genius of his writing. In the opening scene, the sheer length builds the suspense and makes the scene better. But when the same technique is used later, it no longer feels fresh. You know from the start the scene will end in violence, so why drag it out for over a half hour to get there?

The over-writing feels like even more of a waste because of everything that was sacrificed to make time. Despite the trailers (and title), the actual Basterds could probably have been cut from the movie and the plot would be the same. We see their recruitment scene (shown in its entirety in the trailers), a single example of their scalping, and then it's on to the big assassination plot, which they play a relatively minor role in. The British spy and the German actress are really in charge, and Shoshanna turns out to be the real protagonist, having the better arc, more screentime, and the largest result on the finale.

The reason that's a problem is the Basterds are a great idea, and I would have liked to have seen a movie about them. There's such a mythology behind them - Aldo the Apache! The Bear Jew! - that it seems like we only see the surface of it. BJ Novak and Samm Levine barely seem to even have speaking parts as background Basterds. And Aldo feels more like a walking punchline than an actual character. With Shoshanna, Bridget, and Col. Landa all such real and interesting people, it's no wonder Tarantino would rather spend time with them, but it's also a shame.

So there you have it. Inglourious Basterds' biggest flaw is that it can't fit everything into a 2 hour, 40 minute running time (feels way shorter than Transformers). And that doesn't mean it needed to be a 6 hour miniseries, it means Tarantino needed to stop kissing his own ass and tell a tighter story. But if he did that, he wouldn't be Tarantino, and his movies invariably wouldn't be as good. Kill Bill probably didn't need to be two movies, but they are two great ones. As maddening as Tarantino can be, he's earned the right to get away with it, and Inglourious Basterds will end up as one of the most memorable movies of the year.

Welcome to Awards Season

I haven't written any Oscar posts yet this year, so what better time than the announcement of the Golden Globe nominations this morning. For those of you who haven't seen them yet, you can find the nominations here.


On the drama side, very happy to see the strong showings for The Hurt Locker and Up in the Air, as completely expected as both may be, with Hurt Locker taking nods in best drama, screenplay, and director, and Up in the Air in drama, actor, screenplay, director, and double dipping in supporting actress (I certainly couldn't pick between them). Also happy to see the strong showing for Avatar, which I haven't yet seen but am more excited for than ever after all the good buzz. But Tobey Maguire in the poorly received Brothers over Jeremy Renner's breakthrough performance in The Hurt Locker? Seriously?

Over on comedy, very excited for the multiple nods to 500 Days of Summer, The Hangover for best comedy, and Matt Damon in The Informant. But it's in this category the HFPA are really showing themselves for the fame whores they are. Double nods for Meryl Streep, even though It's Complicated is currently at 38% on Rotten Tomatoes? And giving it a screenplay nod over such likely better movies as An Education, 500 Days of Summer, and (according to critics) A Serious Man? Also double nods for Sandra Bullock, and a nomination for Julia Roberts essentially just for being Julia Roberts. Still, the Robert Downey Jr. nomination makes me hope Sherlock Holmes lives up to expectations.

Lastly, expect the animation entries to all repeat at the Oscars (and you know it's been a good year for animation when I've already seen 4 out of 5 of the nominees), though it better be Up that takes it (as much as I like Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, and Coraline). Golden Globes usually have more foreign nominees I've heard of than the Oscars, as they don't have the same stupid restrictions, but all that really meant was Broken Embraces gets added on. Since A Prophet and The White Ribbon won't be out in the US until next year, this seems to be yet another off year for foreign films. What happened to the days of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Life Is Beautiful, when people had actually seen some of the movies by Oscar time?


SO happy to see Glee and Modern Family getting nominations in best comedy. That race has gotten so tired with the same shows up there every single year, so it's expected but still satisfying to see the two great new shows being added to the list. But for an awards show so quick to reward the new and fresh (um...Hung?) over the older, established shows (hence Lost's perpetual absence), how is three-years-past-its-prime Entourage still on there? Replace that with How I Met Your Mother and you've got a great category.

Elsewhere in comedy, yay again to Glee for getting acting nods for Matthew Morrison, Lea Michele, and most deserving of all, Jane Lynch. Shame that nobody from Modern Family was recognized, but they'll likely fall into Arrested Development syndrome where the cast is so strong as an ensemble that voters will never be able to choose just one of them, especially with no real lead characters. And since the Globes combine comedy with drama, it's all the harder. But still glad NPH managed to find a spot even if his show didn't.

On to drama, where I was happy to see lots of love for Dexter, Mad Men, and True Blood. I've only seen two episodes of Dexter so far, but it's enough to convince me John Lithgow will be tough to beat in supporting, though I'd of course be very happy to see NPH (or Michael Emerson, for that matter) take it. Yay to January Jones and Jon Hamm, but that still of course leaves out a lot of the super talented cast. And if Lost isn't on here cause it's too old, then how is equally old but more played-out House still racking up the nominees?

Overall, a few WTF moments (Tobey Maguire and It's Complicated chief among them), but very few compared to years past. On the movie side, they're justifying the consensus that Up in the Air, The Hurt Locker, and Precious are the three to beat this year, while giving support to the idea that Avatar may soon join their company. On TV, they again proved cooler than the Emmys by going after the new instead of the same old. Let's hope Glee and Modern Family continue that streak this summer. And you'll be seeing more Oscar posts from me soon enough.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dollhouse Tries to Be Its Best

Dollhouse came back with a bang last week, traveling to the DC Dollhouse for a two-parter bound to make any Dollhouse fan feel even sadder about its cancellation. Then this past week saw the return of Alan Tudyk's Alpha, whose "splash of color" cemented his place as one of the most memorable villains of the Whedonverse. Things are looking good for a strong end to the final season, but it does make me wish they had started with THESE four episodes instead of the ones they did.

First up, the DC two-parter, which was jampacked with twists. The anti-Dollhouse senator is a doll! His wife is really his handler! And he can fight better than Wesley Windham-Price ever could! But the real highlight of the DC episodes was Summer Glau's Bennett, a female Topher with a grudge against Caroline. Her awkward tech talk (and one-handed, no less) made her the perfect counterpoint to Topher, and every one of their scenes was hilarious. Well, until he discovered she's a bit psycho and used him to have the Senator whack Echo.

As excellent as the Topher/Bennett scenes were, the person even better matched for Topher was...Topher, as played by Victor. Turns out Victor does a mean Topher impression, nailing every twitch and high-pitched whine. It's in moments like these when Dollhouse reaches Buffy levels, and makes it clear the great potential that's here. It's also interesting how Topher has gone from my absolute least favorite character to one of the best on the show. He and De Witt have really shined this season. But more on her later. Toss in an appearance from Ray Wise of Twin Peaks fame, and I can safely say the DC mission was a success.

On to this past Friday's two-fer, which was a little more uneven but still with just as much awesome. Left out in the world after the DC escape, Echo spends the next three months training with Ballard to be ready to take out the Dollhouse from the inside. I found the time progression a bit confusing - how did she go from doll trance state in the store to fully integrated Echo in just one scene? But the end result is Echo is no longer her character-of-the-week, nor Caroline, but an actual character who may be capable of taking on a protagonist role she never could before. So dramatic faults or not, the episode at least seems necessary.

And the dramatic faults extended beyond the brief transition from "did I fall asleep?" to "let me access that personality for you." Using the immigrant she got locked up while in doll-mode as a test subject, the rest of the episode saw Echo trying to arrange her own prison break so she'd be ready to do it under De Witt's nose. The question throughout was what was so important about that one person, which was never answered outside of Echo felt like she owed her and needed to learn to break people out. And the guards were somewhat over-the-top, even when played by Secret Service Agent Aaron Pierce (24 alums two weeks in a row!).

If the Echo/Ballard lovefest wasn't one of the show's finest stories, the De Witt/Harding battle back on the homefront was. As I said above, De Witt has gone from the cold, uncaring Brit boss lady to being one of the most compelling and sympathetic characters on the show this season. Which is why she needed to return to her bitch roots, stealing the (world-destroying) tech from Topher to get back her house from Keith Carradine's smug superior. A good two hours for De Witt, even if not for those in her employ.

On to the second hour, which saw the hotly anticipated return of Alpha. Dashing in his fancy suit and purple tie, he made like Sweeney Todd and went around slashing the throats of all of Echo's most significant clients. It all played like a super suspenseful serial killer movie, and even included a guy blowing up! But things just got crazier as Alpha entered the Dollhouse, using his (potentially world-destroying) tech to turn all dolls into angry warriors as he cornered Ballard in the chair. Ballard may have been left brain-dead, but I'm not too worried for him. With Ballard imprinted within Alpha, it just means Alpha will be coming back shortly.

These past two weeks may give the suggestion that the show can only thrive with high-profile recurring characters like Alpha and Bennett, but it was in the Alpha episode that I really felt the main cast bonding together stronger than ever before. Boyd and Ballard now have the buddy-cop dynamic that works best for their characters and thankfully puts Boyd back onscreen. Echo has a real character and her place in their plotting, and now Topher's in on it too while De Witt stands guard as the capable adversary-who's-sometimes-good. The only missing piece now is Dr. Saunders, who felt more missing than ever as Whiskey's name was mentioned. Biggest mistake the producers did was letting Amy Acker leave.

What's been clear these past few weeks is the Dollhouse writers are determined to get in as much of their story as possible in these final episodes, something we all doubted in the unfortunate crazy mommy episode earlier this season. The dystopian future foretold in Epitaph One seems closer than ever, now that Topher, De Witt, Harding, and Alpha all have the tech that can implant personalities remotely. Next week will go inside the attic, something that wouldn't have happened until season 3 or 4 on a longer runner show. And Echo is now completely past the doll stage and ready to kick ass. There may not be many of us still watching, but we are being rewarded.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Battle of the Best, A Sort-of Spin-off, and A Second Look

This week saw the crowning of a new Top Chef, the third episode in Scrubs' awkwardly half spin-off half-same show attempt at survival, and the return of low-rated critical gem Better Off Ted. Let's take a look (and obviously, stop reading if you don't want to know who won Top Chef).

This season of Top Chef was unique in that from day 1, it was pretty clear who the final four were going to be and it was just a matter of killing time until we got there. But what wasn't clear was who would come out on top. Jennifer was kicked off last, but any one of the final three seemed capable and deserving of the win.

Yet despite that, I certainly felt Kevin was the favorite all along. Maybe it's because he won the first challenge, as in all previous seasons but two the first challenge winner went on to win it all. Maybe I thought the Voltaggios would cancel each other out. Or maybe he was just that darn likable. Which is why it was kind of sad to watch him have an off night, leading to a 3rd place finish behind the brothers.

It was a little like season 4, when Richard went in as a possible favorite only to infamously declare that he choked. Kevin's night wasn't nearly as bad as Blais', but when the master of pork fails to wow with the dish, it's clear he's fared better. So once it became clear the judges had enough issues with his food to rank him lower, it was battle of the brothers.

And just as Kevin was who I would have predicted to win going into the night, Michael was probably the one I least expected to win. Not that I think he didn't deserve it - this is no Hosea situation - but Bryan generally seemed to be the judges' favorites of the two. All the more credit to Michael for doing so well, not only winning the battle of the mystery boxes but the chef's choice too.

So cheers to Michael Voltaggio for winning the season, and to season six for redeeming Top Chef after the relatively weaker fifth season. I'm sure all three of the finalists will soon prove themselves worthy of sitting on the other side of the judging table soon.

Usually when a low-rated show expected to be cancelled is renewed at the last minute, its fans are ecstatic. When Scrubs was given a 9th season order after its series finale, that wasn't the case. By its eighth season, it had not only survived a network change, but was well past the respectable point of retirement. Yet, perhaps due to a dearth of comedy on ABC's schedule, it has been brought into a season that is not quite a spin-off and not quite a continuation of the show, instead resting in some kind of unfortunate in between.

The idea behind Scrubs [Med School] was that it would follow a new group of med students through med school, with Drs. Turk and Cox as teachers to provide some stability, while other Scrubs stars maybe guest star once in awhile. And that idea is a spin-off. But it's not what the show is. JD doesn't just pop in as a familiar face; he's still the main character. And with Elliot, Carla, and Jordan all gone, it's kind of just Scrubs without the women. Which means despite 8 seasons worth of growth, JD is now less mature than he ever was. Instead of last spring's send-off of moving on and growing up, we'll last see JD whining about Cox giving a med student more attention.

Yet while it seems like the better move would be to shift the focus to the med students, there's one fatal problem with that plan: two out of the three are really, really annoying. Now, to be fair, Cole seems like he can improve. The obnoxious legacy douche played by James Franco's brother has already shown signs that when he moves behind his one-joke character description he could be worth watching. But it worries me that narration will soon fall solely to Lucy, who's trying to be a JD/Elliot type but mostly just comes off as shrill.

So why will I still probably keep watching it until the day ABC finally pulls the plug? Three reasons:

1. Dr. Cox. He was always one of the brightest spots of original Scrubs, and the med school setting has given him a chance to shine. With new targets for his insults and new ways to deliver them, Cox is clearly the real star of this show.

2. Denise. As the only one of last season's new crop of interns worth watching, Denise's increased screen time in the "spin-off" has led to an even better character. She not only gets a lot of the funniest lines, but also the most effective drama.

3. Drew. The older med student who Cox placed at the top of the class is easily the best of the new characters, and should really be the new lead. Not only does he interact with all the other characters far more than Lucy does, but he actually seems capable of carrying a show.

So with these three strengths behind it, I think there's still a way to make new Scrubs work. Center the show on Drew, find some other, more interesting med students to support him (as well as some other good supporting/recurring characters to replace the Janitor/Ted/, and give Cox and Denise as much screen time as possible.

Truth is, now that ABC has comedy hits in Modern Family, Cougar Town, and to a lesser extent The Middle, it is nowhere near the comedy-desperate situation it was in when it brought Scrubs back from the dead, so a second (or tenth) season seems very unlikely. Which is probably for the best. But although Scrubs' legacy would have been better had Med School never happened, it's still watchable enough to keep me going.

Following Scrubs on Tuesday night is Better Off Ted, a show that I've tried out numerous times and still can't decide whether to watch it or not. When I first saw the pilot, I liked the characters and actors, liked the idea, but just thought it was a little too earnest. Then I watched some of the summer episodes and liked it, but didn't love it. But this second season premiere seemed better than what I remembered, so maybe it's now time to commit.

With some time to work out kinks, the show no longer feels as earnest and cutesy as it once did, no longer making me wish I was watching Pushing Daisies instead. And the chemistry has had time to gel among the strong cast, headed by a charismatic Jay Harrington and a hilarious Portia de Rossi.

Better Off Ted also didn't make Dollhouse's mistake and chose a strong episode as the premiere. Not only did it have a great central gimmick - that super corporate Veridian Dynamics told all its employees their perfect genetic partners - but a good guest star in Taye Diggs and a number of funny bits, such as Ted having to pretend to be Native American (although his premature "I love you" seems cribbed from TV's better known Ted. Way to pull a Mosby).

If you've been thinking of giving the show a try - and it could certainly use viewers - this would be a good one to start on, showcasing many of its most appealing aspects. It convinced me to keep the season pass on my DVR. And with all its clever ideas, who knows, maybe someday it will grow from enjoyable to must-see TV.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

My Life Would Suck Without Glee

Apparently, Glee now thinks it's a cable show. Not only is it splitting its season in two and releasing just the first half on DVD post-Christmas, but tonight it had a season finale-caliber episode to hold us over until the obscene return date of April. Filled to the brim with great musical numbers, classic Sue Sylvester moments, and big plot progressions, it was pretty much everything you could want in a Glee episode.

First off, the music. When I saw on the second soundtrack (which, btw, is now available on iTunes and I'm listening to it right now) that the finale would feature both "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" and "Don't Rain on My Parade," I thought, "Well, I guess we know who are singing those songs." Hard to think of more obvious/perfect choices for Mercedes and Rachel, respectively, and each of them nailed it.

Smart move as well showing New Directions' Sectionals performance straight through (minus "Somebody to Love") rather than finding a way to cut it down, as not only did we get Rachel's Streisand, but the perfect song to juxtapose with Mr. Schu listening in by phone in "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Finally, after everything Will's gone through the past few episodes, "My Life Would Suck Without You" was exactly the right positive note to end on.

Next, Sue Sylvester. Top 3 moments:
1. "You can soon put revenge on the list of things you're not good at, next to marriage, leading a high school glee club, and having a hairstyle that doesn't make you look like a lesbian."
2. "You are about to board the Sue Sylvester express. Destination: horror."
3. Shoving kids out of her path in the hallway out of anger.

Finally, most of the major sources of drama from the first half of the season came to a head. Finn found out that Puck's the father of Quinn's baby. Will left Terri. Emma chose Will over Coach Ken. Sue was taken off the Cheerios and suspended from the school. And best of all, Will was re-instated as head of New Directions. Between Sue's vow to take glee club down even harder, Will and Emma's new direction, and the road to regionals (paved with Jonathan Groff and Idina Menzel!) the second half of the season's looking to be just as satisfying as the first. The countdown to April begins now.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Food Porn: The Movie

Grade: B+

Julie & Julia is one of three movies I saw in August that I have yet to write about, and they're all conveniently being released on DVD over the course of three weeks beginning today. So if you want a movie that will make you feel good and feel hungry, add this one to your netflix queue.

Julie and Julia follows two parallel stories: in the past, Julia Child (Meryl Streep) works to write and publish her famous cookbook while living in Paris with her husband (Stanley Tucci), and in the present, Julie Powell (Amy Adams) sets out to blog her experience cooking every recipe in said famous cookbook over the course of a year.

Most reviews at the time said something to the effect of "the Meryl Streep sections are amazing because I love her, but the Amy Adams sections are a drag." I think that gives Adams too little credit. A lot of the best food scenes come from Powell's year of living deliciously, and if there's one thing this movie succeeds most in, it's food. Nora Ephron hired all sorts of food specialists to make all the food look amazing onscreen, and mission accomplished. If you aren't starving by the time the movie's done, you must have slept through it.

There's still plenty of worthwhile things to watch of the living variety as well. Meryl Streep, being Meryl Streep, manages to perfectly capture the joy and eccentricity of Julia Child, making the whole movie more fun for the energy of her performance. Stanley Tucci takes the thankless role of the supportive husband and gives it such a warmth that people are still talking about him for it. And Adams, continuing her string of cute and likable roles, takes the less exciting story of a blogger living in a small apartment and holds her own.

By the end of the movie, you'll probably want to get Julia Child's book and make some boeuf bourguignon. And even if you never do, it's nice to have a movie to get people excited to cook again. Or at least eat.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Where the Sad Things Are

Grade: B

Keeping with the theme of movies based on classic kids' books following Fantastic Mr. Fox, it seems time to review Where the Wild Things Are, which I saw a month ago. Now, they've been trying to turn this picture book into a movie for decades. It's probably gone through countless scripts, directors, and concepts. So for all of the movie's accomplishments, and there are many, I can't help but asking: why, of all the possible ways to adapt this book, did Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers choose to do a movie about depressed monsters?

Seriously, that's what it's about. Like the heroes of many children's movies, Max (Max Records) is an imaginative young lad who doesn't get enough attention from his family, specifically his overworked mother (Catherine Keener). After getting into a fight with his mom while her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo, in an odd cameo) is over, Max runs away, eventually making it to the island of monsters. But once there, he realizes they feel even worse than he does. They soon elect him king under the promise that he can make the sadness go away. But no amount of giant forts or mudball fights can keep the depression at bay for long.

That's pretty much it for plot. The biggest conflict is that KW (Lauren Ambrose), formerly dating or bffs (it's unclear) with Carol (James Gandolfini), has found new friends (who cause the strangest scene in the movie), making Carol angry. There's a lot of emotion, a lot of mood, and a lot of cool visuals, but story's not a major component. And since the monsters spend most of their time moping around feeling sad, it's hard to see many children enjoying themselves.

Still, if you accept that this is a movie about depressed monsters, the idea is incredibly well-executed. The visual technique of using CGI for the faces but real bodies, or however they do it, works completely. The monsters are completely distinct from any other movie creations beforehand. And many of the other visuals are stunning, especially the enormous fort they build under Max's command. It may be what we expect from Spike Jonze, but good to see him deliver.

As odd as some of the emotions in the film may seem, they're also very effective. More than any other recent movie I can think of, Where the Wild Things Are really makes you remember what it feels like to be a kid, the highs and the lows. The joys of how wonderful a snowball fight at the first snow of the season can be, and how lonely it can feel to have no one to share it with. For anyone over a certain age, the movie seems guaranteed to bring on nostalgia.

I will say that Where the Wild Things Are is very original - from the visuals to the tone - and an impressive feat for Jonze and co. But I also wonder if fans of the book - or even the Arcade Fire-scored trailer - can really be satisfied by it. The movie is absolutely the logical extension of its creators' vision; it just isn't the vision most of us hoped for.