Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tell Me Where the Unsecure Nuclear Materials Are!

There's a reason I haven't written about 24 yet this season: I've been consistently behind by at least 2-3 episodes. Starting with four episodes in a row is tough on those of us with lives (however minimal they may be). But tonight, after over a month and 9 episodes, I've finally caught up.

So what's the verdict? Not great. 24 long ago gave away its position as top dog among buzzy, addictive serials to shows like Lost, Dexter, and Damages, but last season it was able to act as fun TV comfort food - not leaving you breathless for the next episode, but usually pretty enjoyable.

This year so far feels closer to the much maligned season 6, in which there's not enough Jack, and way too much lame filler plots. Most guilty among them this time is Dana Walsh (Katee Sackhoff aka Starbuck), whose storyline falls somewhere below Kim's cougar and Terri's amnesia on the list of stupidest 24 plots ever. As a woman with a shady past whose blackmailing ex is threatening to expose it, Dana has done no actual work all season nor performed any logical actions, and each week keeps getting more and more absurd. It seems to be over now that the ex and his psycho friend are dead, but we'll still be subject to the unfortunate "what do we do with the bodies" episode. Hopefully once that's done Dana and Cole can get back to work and stop wasting the show's time.

Also in this category: David Anders as the son of the Russian with the nuclear rods that make up this season's MacGuffin. Anders played one of Alias' most memorable characters and was the only good thing to happen to Heroes after season 1, but somehow 24 made him boring. He mostly just complained about his brother, then became main villain for all of 5 seconds before being killed off this week. For that matter, how many villains have we had? Vladimir, Sark's dad, Sark, Middle Eastern Jason Schwartzman, and now his band of merry terrorists. And none of them are memorable. Who knew we'd so miss the days of Nina and Sherry Palmer?

As far as Presidents Taylor and Hassan.......sorry, I fell asleep. I liked the idea of making the big threat an assassination a la season 1, but that threat was resolved within the first four hours. Now we're back to the same threat as every season: nukes. Whether rods or in a suitcase, it's the same thing. Hassan's turn from benevolent leader to paranoid dictator should be interesting, but it just isn't. And Taylor's trapped scheduling meetings, while her new chief of staff just makes phone calls.

That leaves Jack and Renee in charge of carrying the season, given that Chloe gets three lines per episode, Hastings/Dana/Cole don't really work, and Shia LeBeouf just wants to gossip about Dana. And I admit to usually enjoying Jack's undercover plotlines. But when they drag on too long, that's too long when Jack's not in control. All the worse since Renee's the primary undercover agent here. And I'm not sure Annie Wersching is a good enough actress to pull off psycho Renee. Sure, she's more interesting that way, but it's all a little silly.

Still, if there's one thing that always succeeds, it's the classic "Jack Bauer is awesome" moments. It's no wonder the most talked about scene this season has been when Jack pulled Renee's knife out of his body and threw it in some guy's neck. I also enjoy any occasion in which Jack kills a guy with his feet, or knocks a guard out by karate chopping him in the neck. Next week Jack leads a team to rescue Middle Eastern Jason Schwartzman, so we're bound to get some good action there. And when Jack's onscreen, the show definitely improves.

Problem with 24's method of basically introducing a new cast every season is the show's not all that great at creating characters. The writers seem to hope 2 out of 10 will stick (last year it was Renee and President Taylor), and the rest can just be killed off, as is 24's way. But despite the high number of new characters and the impressive actors playing them, not one of them has made a positive impression so far. Which means it continues to be the Jack Bauer show, and anything else is just running the clock.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Spring Movie Preview

It may not feel like spring with all the snow the East Coast has been hit with the past month, but that's what we're going to call the season from February through April. So if you've already seen Avatar twice and just can't drag yourself to go see The Blind Side, here's ten upcoming movies that may prove worth leaving your apartment to see.

Shutter Island (February 19th)
Yes, this came out yesterday, but since I couldn't put it on my fall preview it's going on now. With reviews calling this Scorsese's The Shining and Dennis Lehane as the source material, I'm excited enough that I've already got my tickets for today.

Cop Out (February 26th)
Admittedly, the trailers don't look that great. It seems like a lame buddy cop comedy is released every spring and I end up checking it out on DVD or not at all. But I've never not seen a Kevin Smith movie (that includes Jersey Girl), and Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan are a fun pairing, so I may give this a shot.

A Prophet (February 26th)
This French film is one of only two Best Foreign Film nominees at the Oscars that anyone's ever heard of (and who really wants to sit through The White Ribbon). An intense gangster/prison movie, I'm not entirely sure what it's about but the trailer's pretty compelling.

Alice in Wonderland (March 5th)
One of the first big event movies of 2010, and the one that will get Avatar kicked off all the 3-D screens. Tim Burton could just mess this up the way he did Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but I'm betting his oddball vision will be just what Lewis Carroll's classic has always needed.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid (March 19th)
You may not have heard of the bestselling YA series this movie is based on, but you should work on fixing that. I tore through the first 3 books in 3 days, and laughed out loud constantly from start to finish. If the movie's even half as funny (and I've heard it's well more than that), we're looking at a movie that could nail the horrors of middle school and make it funny.

Greenberg (March 26th)
Whatever you thought about Margot at the Wedding, there's no denying The Squid and the Whale as one of the greatest movies of the 2000s, so I'm eagerly anticipating Noah Baumbach's next one, in which Ben Stiller seems to play an older version of Jesse Eisenberg's typical character.

Hot Tub Time Machine (March 26th)
Really funny or really, really stupid? Too soon to tell. But with John Cusack, Rob Corddry, and Darryl from The Office in the cast, there's hope for the former.

Clash of the Titans (April 2nd)
Another 3-D experiment that may just give Greek gods the Transformers treatment (not that I can even decipher the trailer). But I'm a sucker for Greek mythology and Liam Neeson, so I may get dragged into it if it's not too awful.

Date Night (April 9th)
Fox and Shawn Levy give America the comic pairing we've dreamed of in Steve Carell and Tina Fey as regular family folk whose night out gets them caught up in all sorts of action shenanigans. The rest of the cast is equally awesome and the trailer looks pretty damn funny.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (April 23rd)
The first Wall Street is a classic that nails the world of 1980s finance. Now's the perfect time for a reboot. The fun trailer's a good sign, and adding Carey Mulligan and Josh Brolin to the cast helps me forgive the inclusion of Shia LaBeouf.

So what are you most excited to see before Iron Man 2 kicks off summer movie season? What future classics did I shamefully leave off (anyone excited for Green Zone? Anyone?)? And which ones are only on here so I could reach the magic number 10 (I'm looking at you, Clash of the Titans)? Let me know in the comments.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Lackluster, Actually

Grade: C

With the utter glee critics have taken in brutally destroying Valentine's Day in print, you'd think it was the second coming of Gigli. Entertainment Weekly gave it an F, Peter Travers called it "the date movie from Hell," and Manohla Dargis said its only saving grace comes from making Love Actually look good in comparison (a rather backhanded compliment for one of the best date movies ever made). Against all of that critical hatred, I find myself in the rather odd position of trying to defend a movie I didn't particularly like. Valentine's Day may be a predictable and painfully cliched romantic comedy, but it's hardly an affront to human decency.

Now, when I first heard of Valentine's Day, I thought what many of you must have: "An American Love Actually! Nice!' And that was certainly the idea, as not only does Valentine's Day take the same format of individual love stories with somewhat connected characters, but it even rips off some of the same plots. When you see a young boy who's recently been separated from his mother seek advice on how to woo a girl from school, it's hard not to think of Liam Neeson and "All I Want for Christmas." But in execution, this version is less a cultural translation and more of a straight-up advertisement for the Valentine's Day holiday.

For all of Love Actually's cutesiness, each and every one of the individual love stories was clever and something different. A prime minister who falls for a servant. An English man who falls for a non-English-speaking Portuguese woman. Porn stars who fall in love during film shoots. A rock star who realizes his closest relationship is with his agent/business manager. All individually interesting stories that, when put together, form a filmic mosaic of all types of love. It's hard to watch that movie and not feel good.

What does Valentine's Day have? A florist (Ashton Kutcher) who realizes he's meant to be with his best friend (Jennifer Garner). Said best friend realizing her boyfriend (Patrick Dempsey) is married. An agency mail room guy (Topher Grace) whose new girlfriend (Anne Hathaway) secretly works at a phone sex hotline. An older man (Hector Elizondo) who learns that his wife (Shirley MacLaine) hid an affair years earlier. A publicist (Jessica Biel) who hates Valentine's Day until she gets the attention of a sports reporter (Jamie Foxx).

Does any one of those storylines seem like something you haven't seen a billion times before? Ok, fine, maybe the phone sex. But otherwise, the individual stories here make up an impressive cross-section of the most obvious romantic plots possible. I think I can say that literally every romantic comedy cliche is utilized to some extent. The very public reunion that leads everyone to clap? Check. The minority best friend who offers sage advice? Check. Talking your way through airport security to stop someone from getting on a plane? Check. And enough nauseating lines about love that I actually left the theater with a headache? Check a hundred times over.

On a rather more specific note, I'd like to point out Taylors Swift and Lautner for carrying the most extraneous subsection of the movie. Unlike everyone else, they actually have no plot of their own. There's one scene where he doesn't love her V-Day gift and you think that's going to be the story, but nope, never brought up again. Instead, they pop up randomly around other characters while sporadically hogging screentime so Lautner can do backflips and Swift can do what seems to be a 40 year old's idea of how high schoolers act. Seriously, she was just there like a year ago, has she forgotten so soon?

Still, despite all of what I've said, I do think the critics miss one important thing: the movie's still pretty watchable. Sure, in the last half hour (which drags on waaaaaaaaay too long) the cheese factor gets too much to bear, but until then the movie is a painlessly mediocre experience. Even when given nothing to do, likable stars do go a long way. Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Garner, Bradley Cooper, Topher Grace - all people I'm willing to watch do otherwise stupid things. Even Ashton Kutcher as the de facto lead didn't bother me as much as usual (and goes the longest you will ever see him away from Twitter).

Obviously Valentine's Day is a movie that hinges on its title and release date, script be damned. But what else was I supposed to take my girlfriend to on Valentine's Day? The Wolfman? No thanks. Nobody else stepped up with a smarter romantic comedy, so Valentine's Day gets to carry the weekend. And I should also point out that I'm hardly the target audience here. My theater was pretty evenly split between couples and large groups of girls, making the male proportion of the theater about 15-20%. Women who enjoy watching these cliches over and over again probably had a perfectly good time. For the rest of us, we'll just enjoy the real Love Actually all the more next time we see it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Serious Jew Movie

Grade: A

Yesterday, A Serious Man came to DVD. Two weeks ago, I paid to see it in theaters. That may seem silly, knowing if I just held off a little longer I could have just Netflixed it, but I stand by my choice. Not only did it allow me to be 9 for 10 on best picture nominees last week, but I was able to see how people reacted in the theater. Instead of the theater laughing all at once, I would find myself laughing alone at some parts, and others laughing alone later. And others probably weren't laughing at all. Which is why this has been one of the more debated movies of 2009. Some people responded to it, and some people didn't.

Jewish physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) seems to be living a good life, but all of a sudden things begin to rapidly unravel for him. His wife (Sari Lennick) announces out of nowhere that she's leaving him for smooth-voiced widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), the titular serious man whose insistence on handling things "like adults" just make him all the more obnoxious. Larry's brother (Richard Kind) shows no signs of looking for an apartment as he spends all his time in Larry's bathroom draining a cyst. A Korean student is bribing him to change a grade. The Columbia record club is hounding him for payments on records he never ordered. Oh, and people keep dying right in front of him.

If all of this doesn't sound quite as bad as what happened to Job, Larry's biblical precedent, it's not. In fact, a lot of what happens to Larry happens less to him and more around him, a maelstrom of ridiculousness to which Larry is forced to observe. But as in the story of Job, the central question is why? The script is structured by Larry's meetings with three rabbis - young, older, and oldest - through whom he tries to seek some guidance. The best visit is the second, in which the rabbi tells an elaborate story that, while amusing, doesn't seem to actually have a lesson, much to Larry's frustration. In fact the story does have a moral, one shared by the movie: sometimes there are no answers. Which may make this one of the most Jewish movies ever made.

It's not just all the rabbis and Hebrew that makes people call this Joel and Ethan Coens' most personal movie yet. Set in a close-knit Jewish community in the 1960s, the characters here live much as the Coens must have growing up in Minnesota. And they truly do nail that world. Looking at the washed-over colors and drab architecture, it's amazing how similar it looks to pictures of the era my parents grew up in.

They also really understand what it was like growing up in that world, often to hilarious effect. Many of the funniest moments surround Larry's son, who listens to Jefferson Airplane on a walkman in Hebrew School while his teacher drones on about Hebrew verb conjugation and goes to his own Bar Mitzvah while stoned. There's the way everyone's answer to Larry's questions is "go ask the rabbi." And the way nobody actually knows the word for a Jewish divorce.

If this is the Book of Job though, it's not God bringing all of this down on Larry so much as the Coen brothers, and I think the movie can best be enjoyed if you view it from their perspective. Some people find the whole thing just depressing, and I imagine if you're really empathizing with the characters then you might think so. But there's so much absurdity that I couldn't imagine taking the movie at face value. I think a better criticism would be that the whole movie is some dark joke amongst the Coens, watching their characters squirm for their amusement. But hey, at least it's a funny one.

Especially if you're a Coen Brothers fan, A Serious Man impresses by being so entirely different from anything else they've made. It's hard to imagine it came from the same minds as No Country for Old Men. If I had to pick a movie it's most similar to, I'd probably land on Barton Fink, another odd one about internal crisis with an unusual ending (A Serious Man's ending won't confuse you like that of No Country for Old Men, but its bleak punchline may leave you just as unsatisfied). I might also go with The Big Lebowski, a completely dissimilar movie that oddly shares a somewhat similar tone.

There's a lot that's potentially off-putting about A Serious Man. It's very Jewish not just in the amount of Hebrew they throw at you early on, but in the entire style of humor they employ, and if you haven't chanted haftarah, you might feel out of the loop. The comedy is so pitch-black that you may not even realize the Coens are joking. But if you enjoy intelligent movies that pose serious questions, making you think hard about the fact that there's no intention of answering them, you'd be missing out not to see it. And while Sy Ableman may be a serious man, the movie itself is more seriously funny.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Welcome to Alterna-Lost

For the number of times it's been said on the show, tonight it became true: it's the beginning of the end. Lost began its 6th and final season with a two-hour premiere both exciting and baffling, filled with tons of mythology, great character moments, and, yes, more questions, despite a promise to end them in ABC's promo. What's with the multiple timelines? Who are the people in the temple? Why after two hours do we still not know the name of the Man in Black/Fake Locke/Smoke Monster? Let's get to it.

Following the season-ending white-out, this season begins with Jack back on Oceanic 815, reliving a scene from the pilot with Cindy the flight attendant. But not everything's the same. The turbulence that originally sent the plane down passes. Desmond pops up next to Jack (though was he really there?). Shannon is definitely MIA, and there's no sign of Michael, Walt, Ana-Lucia, Eko, Libby, or Nikki&Paolo (though that doesn't mean they weren't there). Oh, and the island is now under water.

While it seems like without the island their flight would end in a normal and boring fashion, plenty of people find nasty surprises at LAX. Kate of course is still in the custody of the Marshall. Charlie was trying to hide his drugs at the time of the plane's crash, and without it he is indeed caught (though not before nearly killing himself trying to swallow the bag). Less expected - Christian's coffin didn't make it to LA (so maybe he's still connected to the island somehow?) and Jin gets in trouble for the money he brought over to start a new life with Sun.

I had a feeling the nuke would lead to us seeing the flight land as normal, and was concerned it would cause a retread of season 5 in which everyone had to be found and brought back to the island, just killing time before the real plot could begin. Thankfully, that's not the case. Instead, we get to play the "what if?" game, and enjoy all the interactions between these now-strangers. Especially enjoyable was Boone telling Locke he'd stick with him if the plane ever went down (guess some things never change). But if this parallel world is to last all season, and it seems like it will, it will need to tie in to the real story on the island or it will just feel like a distraction with so few hours remaining.

Heading back to the beginning, we get to watch Juliet hit the bomb for a second time, making us all wonder why the previously clips are repeating. But this time the white-out led not to flight 815 but to Kate's eye, as she wakes up by the site of what was once the Hatch (before Desmond blew it up). At first I wondered if she and Jack landed in different universes, but no, the gang is all there, even Juliet. Some suspense was definitely lost knowing Juliet wouldn't likely be surviving the episode. And her "I have something really really important to tell you" before dying is the kind of frustrating tease Lost is infamous for. Thankfully Miles is onhand to go all Pushing Daisies on her grave. So how does Juliet know about the alternate timeline? Seems like the strongest evidence that the two will indeed merge somehow.

The other ghostly encounter here is Jacob's visit to Hurley, instructing him to bring Sayid to the Temple, that much-discussed but never-seen place that clearly plays a central role in the mythology. And once we saw it, the world of Lost got even more confusing. There's a whole other group of people on the island, run by an Asian guy who knows English but doesn't like its taste on his mouth, so he has a hippie translate for him. Ben had told the Others we know to go to the Temple when he moved the island (if I'm remembering that right), which could explain Cindy and the kids' presence there, but beyond that we don't know if they are the same Others. We just know they're on Team Jacob.

And they have mystical healing water that may be somewhat on the fritz. After noting its different color, they still drown Sayid in it. But the water must do its job, cause rise from the dead he does in the final moments, as they begin fortifying themselves against the Man in Locke. These new Others seem like a big new addition for the final season when so much is already in play, but since they're more likely to have the answers than anyone outside of the island's two deities, I'm sure they have their role. And last bit on this group - just as becoming LaFleur made Sawyer a different and more interesting character last season, Juliet's death seems to be bringing him into a darker side that should be fun to see play out this year.

Finally, third subplot is same universe, other side of the island with Ben, the Man in Locke, and the Ajira-ites. One of the episode's biggest answers comes when we find out the Man in Black is the Smoke Monster. I've figured the Smoke Monster for a shapeshifter ever since Eko was visited by the ghost of his brother immediately before his death-by-monster. However, I can't imagine the ghost of Jacob is also a manifestation of his archrival, so clearly the Monster does not make up all the ghosts on the island. In fact, it seems more likely that the ghosts are Team Jacob, as Christian was willing to speak on Jacob's behalf. This also doesn't explain how the Temple seemed to be the Smoke Monster's home when it attacked the French team, but now clearly the Temple dwellers want nothing to do with him. Maybe they switched sides?

In the same scene, we learn that the Ajira-ites seem to have an even shorter shelf-life than the Tailies did. The Tailies at least got a full season, but Caesar was gunned down by Ben the second he landed on the island, and the other guy whose name we must have known at some point gets stabbed by Smokey this week. That just leaves Ilana, who had very little to do despite being upped to regular status. We still don't know what lies in the shadow of the statue (unless the answer is Jacob), but we do know that this crew came to protect him. Seems like Jacob could do better.

Another reveal came when the Locke Monster confirmed what many of us suspected from last year's finale - that Richard Alpert did indeed arrive on the Black Rock (unless Alpert was in chains for some other reason). More interesting than the confirmation though was that Lockester said that was the last time he saw him. Makes you wonder all the more about what happened that day after Jacob and the Man in Black's fateful talk, and how Jacob made Alpert ageless.

Anyway, that's all I've got for now. From these two hours, it's clear the writers plan to keep going strong until the final frame, finding new and inventive ways to surprise and confuse us. As after Lost's best hours, I don't understand everything I just saw, but I can't wait to see more. So do you think the premiere was worth the wait? What did you think of the alternate reality - fun, intriguing, or time-wasting? What answers do you want to get before the series ends (I still think we're owed an explanation of why Walt is special)? Let me know in the comments, and keep on watching.

And if you want more on the Lost premiere, click here for an interview with Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse.

WTF The Blind Side

This morning I watched Anne Hathaway and Tom Sherak read off the major Oscar nominations while I had breakfast (which I would certainly not be doing if I lived on the West Coast). For the most part, the Oscar bloggers had it right. I was most often wrong in my predictions when I tried to do something bold and different. The Last Station got the two acting nominees it was expected, Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz got in despite the weaknesses in their movies, and Lee Daniels did indeed get in for best director to show what the real best picture nominees were.

That's not to say there weren't some surprises. Maggie Gyllenhaal was able to ride the Jeff Bridges wave to a best supporting actress nod over Julianne Moore and the Inglourious Basterds ladies. Screenplay saw a surprise in each category, with The Messenger beating out (500) Days of Summer and (thankfully) Avatar, and In the Loop getting in for adapted. Perhaps the biggest non-best picture surprise came in animation, in which a movie I've never heard of got the fifth slot over more mainstream fare like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs or Ponyo. Does anyone know what The Secret of Kells is? Is it Irish? Did it actually release in America this year?

But of course, the surprise that most people will be talking about today is the unexpected and unfortunate inclusion of The Blind Side in best picture. Now, to be fair, I haven't seen it, and it's in fact the only best picture nominee I haven't seen. But since everytime I watch the trailers I gag a little, I have a hard time believing it's really best picture material. So now I, like most Oscar-watching men in the country, am left with a dilemma. I haven't not seen a best picture nominee since Erin Brockovitch, and that was ten years ago. So do I suck it up and see The Blind Side, or do I agree to go 9 for 10 this year?

Finally, just saw the unannounced nominees, of which the category I care most about is Best Song. Thankfully "I See You" from Avatar and "Cinema Italiano" from Nine were left out, though the other new song from Nine still made it in. I'm still predicting and rooting for "The Weary Kind" from Crazy Heart for the win.

Now here's the nominees announced this morning:

Best Picture

The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

Best Director

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

Best Actor

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

Best Actress

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

Best Supporting Actor

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

Best Supporting Actress

Penelope Cruz, Nine
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Mo'nique, Precious

Best Original Screenplay

The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
The Messenger
A Serious Man

Best Adapted Screenplay

District 9
An Education
In the Loop
Up in the Air

Best Animated Film

Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Princess and the Frog
The Secret of Kells

Best Foreign Film

Argentinian Movie
Israeli Movie
Peruvian Movie
The Prophet
The White Ribbon