Thursday, July 31, 2008

Shark Week: Dark Waters (Mariano Baino, 1993)

When picking out movies to write about for this project, I didn't just want to feature every stupid B-movie about a killer shark, because there are dozens of those and they're all pretty much the same. In my quest for diversity, I came up with a couple of ideas right away that interested me, and then scoured the Internet for some more possibilities. I came upon numerous lists of shark movies, most of which were not all that helpful, being full of either those generic B-movies or National Geographic specials. However, on one of those lists I found some obscure Italian-Ukrainian horror film called Dark Waters, which seemed like a suitable departure, and was also available to rent from Netflix. I believe the list mentioned some sort of "shark demon" appearing in the movie, but even that tenuous connection turned out to be wrong.

Let me be clear: There are no sharks in this movie. There is an aquatic demon of sorts that shows up at the very end, but to call it a shark demon would be a great stretch - which is to say, entirely inaccurate. But here we are anyway, and having seen it I can say that at least this movie surpassed my general expectations for obscure Italian-Ukrainian horror movies. It was far better than either She Gods of Shark Reef or Shark, and even held my attention for long stretches despite essentially making no sense.

Seemingly the only English-speaking person in a movie that's entirely in English, Louise Salter plays a proper British twentysomething who travels to an unnamed island off the coast of an unnamed Eastern European country to visit the isolated convent where she was born and lived for the first seven years of her life (though she doesn't remember any of it), and to which her father had been donating money regularly until his recent death. She wants to ... investigate ... something? It doesn't really matter. She shacks up in the convent and basically wanders around running into a bunch of really creepy nuns and seeing disturbing visions and occasionally having people try to kill her. Eventually she discovers the secret of the place, which involves the non-shark demon; some gross devouring of raw fish that wash up on the beach; and her long-lost twin sister, who spends almost the entire movie dressed from head to toe in what looks like a potato sack. Also, all the supporting characters speak with such thick accents that it's almost impossible to understand them.

Not that it makes a difference; whatever strengths the movie has are based in atmosphere and imagery rather than plot and dialogue. Baino gets the maximum effect from the inherent creepiness of old churches, continuous rain storms, and Eastern Europe in general. There's a decent James Whale-meets-Dario Argento feel to the production, but that makes it sound cooler than it really is. And the demon, whose presence has been teased throughout the film as unbelievably terrifying, turns out to be the silliest-looking rubber piece of crap you could imagine. A shark would have been much more effective.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Shark Week: Spring Break Shark Attack (Paul Shapiro, 2005)

Okay, so this is a TV movie, not a theatrical release, but it is honestly the first thing I thought of when I came up with the idea of doing this feature. It is one of those movies in which the plot was clearly an afterthought to the awesome title, which by its very nature promises more than it can possibly deliver. Really, the only way for utter schlock like this to redeem itself is to be full of gore and nudity, but since this is a movie made for network TV (and for CBS, no less), we get none of that. Most of the shark attacks are represented by people being sucked under the water, followed by a geyser of fake-looking blood. Lots of girls wear bikinis, but MTV's spring break coverage is far more titillating (and features better dialogue). Even the dudes shooting for "Girls Unleashed" merely get girls to reveal...their bikini tops.

There are a few wan attempts at humor, including an opening jab at Desperate Housewives, which I assume was on opposite this when it first premiered, but nothing connects. The camp factor is disappointingly low, and though the sharks look suitably fake, you barely ever get to see them. I will give credit to the one awesome shot in which some guy windsurfs right into the shark's mouth. Talk about your bad luck.

Shapiro and writer James LaRosa make the mistake of trying to get us to care about these profoundly vapid characters, and the first hour is almost all coma-inducing interpersonal drama. Star Shannon Lucio was actually rather appealing in her stint on The O.C., but no one could possibly sell this material seriously. Kathy Baker and Bryan Brown look dutifully embarrassed to be reduced to paycheck-cashing supporting roles, but Brown can't even give his evil-businessman villain any remotely hateful qualities. Somewhere in here is a halfway interesting metaphor equating predatory date rapists on spring break with sharks who smell blood; too bad no one's interested in exploring it.

Bottom line: Too much spring break, not enough shark attack.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Shark Week: Deep Blue Sea (Renny Harlin, 1999)

Harlin was a go-to guy for big-budget crapterpieces in the '80s and '90s, and still churns out dumb genre films on a fairly regular basis, although his last one, Cleaner, went straight to video. Deep Blue Sea is as stupid and cheesy as anything he's done, but I think it's one of Harlin's finest varieties of cheese; I'm often surprised by how entertaining his films are even in their rampant ridiculousness. I liked this movie when I saw it in the theater in 1999, and I liked it watching it again this week, appreciating its so-obvious-it's-awesome premise (giant, super-intelligent killer sharks run amok!), remarkably decent cast (Samuel L. Jackson, Saffron Burrows, Stellan Skarsgard, Thomas Jane, even LL Cool J as the God-fearing cook with a parrot), and effective moments of suspense. Harlin stages several cool explosions and multiple gruesome shark attacks, and along the way manages to come up with a plot-driven reason for Burrows to strip down to her unmentionables. That takes skill.

He invests the movie with a great deal of energy and a sense of fun; he seems like he's probably a guy who enjoys his work, and indeed a number of the cast members here (Jackson, Skarsgard, LL) have worked with Harlin more than once. Sure, LL's ghetto preacher is a bit of a stereotype, but he plays it off with good humor, and the movie is self-aware enough to have LL note at one point that the black guy never survives in situations like this - only (spoiler alert) to end up surviving after all. Plus, the whole movie is worthwhile just for the infamous sharks-don't-like-inspirational-speeches scene:



There aren't any real sharks in this movie, because, of course, there are no giant, super-intelligent killer sharks in real life (at least as far as I know), and the CGI sometimes looks weak (especially the effects meant to look like torn-up human victims), but the animatronics hold up pretty well. There are moments that are genuinely nasty, but there's also a strong enough strain of camp (as in the scene above, as well as anything involving the parrot) to keep things from getting too serious. This is definitely a movie you can watch with friends and laugh at, and then find yourself getting caught up in the action almost without realizing it. That's the Harlin touch.

(Watch the video for LL's awesomely horrible plot song "Deepest Bluest (Shark's Fin)," including LL turning into a shark, below. You'll be glad you did.)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Crossed out and exterminated

Vertigo seems to be having trouble keeping titles afloat these days, and two of my favorite Vertigo books recently limped to their conclusions after being largely ignored during brief runs. Both had their problems, primarily in terms of focus and consistency, but each was resolutely unique, and it's unfortunate to see them founder while the company falls back on goth-style reinventions of neglected DC properties (House of Mystery, Madame Xanadu) over truly original creations.

Still, we got 30 issues of Simon Oliver and Tony Moore's The Exterminators, which is not a bad run at all, and Oliver now gets to take over Vertigo warhorse Hellblazer. I wrote a number of times when The Exterminators first launched that I couldn't quite tell what it was about or whether I liked it, and I made it all the way to the end still somewhat uncertain. The big finale turned out to involve the resurrection of some ancient Egyptian insect god and an army of near-indestructible cockroaches, so it turned out that the supernatural won out in the end, but the book worked best when it was just a quirky character study about an ex-con exterminator and his weird family and friends. I think if I went back and read the series over again, it's those character stories that would stand out more than the mythological hoo-ha. It does seem like Oliver got to tell the story he set out to create, though, so that's worth something.

Mike Carey and Jim Fern's Crossing Midnight ended a few weeks ago with its 19th issue on a far less final note, leaving the door open for further stories about its twin Japanese teen protagonists. This is a book that I liked almost right away but that seemed to lose focus as it went along, delving deeply into Japanese mythology at the expense of the human characters at the core. At the same time, some of the horror elements were very effective, and the way that Carey pitted the main brother and sister against each other without their knowledge was often heartbreaking (and came to a devastating climax in the last issue). Fern's art also seemed to falter once they switched to having Jose Villarrubia digitally ink it, making it more sketchy and sloppy-looking. Even with those problems, this book had a lot of potential that it won't get to realize, and my guess is that Carey had plenty more story to tell. I'm disappointed that I won't have the chance to read it.

Shark Week: She Gods of Shark Reef (Roger Corman, 1958)

This early film from B-movie icon Corman is rather tame by his standards; although it's set on an island inhabited solely by beautiful women (okay, some of them aren't that beautiful), they stay disappointingly clothed throughout the film, and despite the menacing title, there aren't any ridiculous monsters to be found anywhere. The two male protagonists, a wanted criminal and his brother, actually end up wearing far less than the women do, once their ship is wrecked on the titular reef and they end up stranded. The island full of Polynesian-looking women (who speak mildly offensive "primitive" English) is owned by "the Company," like something out of Alien, but it all turns out to be less sinister than it sounds.

There are no She Gods, per se, although the women do appear to worship some vaguely defined shark deity, which leads to some uninspiring shark footage and a really fake-looking attack at what passes for the movie's climax. The square-jawed pretty boys spend pretty much the entire movie wearing what look like festive island skorts, and somehow invoke an ancient curse by, er, breaking a lei during a silly dance sequence. Not that anything supernatural is really going on here - the sharks are just normal sharks, and not very menacing at that, and the stern old lady who runs the island ends up pretty powerless. The bad brother, who kills a man in the confusing opening sequence, gets what's coming to him, and the nice brother gets the girl who constantly refers to herself in the third person.

At 63 minutes, it barely qualifies as a feature film, and while shot on location in Hawaii, doesn't look particularly impressive (not that there's a decent-looking print available anywhere anyway). It's a somewhat interesting contrast to the lovingly restored DVD I got at work a few months ago of Corman's 1962 The Intruder, a surprisingly serious melodrama starring William Shatner as a race-baiting weasel stirring up trouble in the deep South. That one was a lot better, in terms of both subject matter and filmmaking, although it did lack the crucial shark element.

(Like Shark, this one is available to watch or download online, although for some reason only in black and white. Check it out here.)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Shark Week: Shark (Samuel Fuller, 1969)

As lame as it is that I had never seen any of legendary genre director Samuel Fuller's movies, it's even lamer that the first one I saw is this shitty Burt Reynolds vehicle that Fuller tried (unsuccessfully) to have his name removed from. It's less about shark attacks than it is about Reynolds brooding and kicking ass as a gunrunner named Caine, who gets stuck in a backwoods town in the Sudan. He schemes to get himself hired as an assistant to an American marine biologist so that he can hijack a boat and get out of the country, but ends up discovering that the scientific mission is a cover for an effort to salvage gold from a sunken ship in shark-infested waters.

At least, I think that's what the plot is. The DVD I watched (released by Troma!) uses a horribly scratched, washed-out print with dismal sound, so that half the time I didn't know what was going on because I couldn't hear what the characters were saying. I don't think I really missed much - this is a half-baked thriller that only gets mildly exciting when the sharks show up (a stuntman was killed by sharks during filming, making the opening dedication to stunt players, which doesn't mention a death, rather disingenuous).

There are only a handful of shark scenes in the movie, though, with the rest of it dedicated to Reynolds being manly, doing stuff like lighting a stick of dynamite with his cigarette, getting slapped and then kissed by the sultry femme fatale, and engaging in sloppy brawls in which he knocks over everything in sight. He gets a proto-Short Round sort of sidekick he calls Runt, and makes vaguely condescending remarks about Arabs. The sets look flimsy and fake and give no sense of place or circumstance, and the action is pretty much incoherent. Plus, it's all covered with a noxious, almost smooth jazz-style score. Reynolds seems to be trying too hard to channel Marlon Brando, but he has a bit of tough-guy charm. That, and Fuller's reputation, is about all this film has going for it.

(Thanks to the magic of the Internet, you can actually watch the whole thing yourself - with commercials - here.)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Shark Week: Introduction

"Live every week like it's Shark Week."
- Tracy Jordan, 30 Rock



I'm always a little bit jealous of the blog projects launched by various people in which they take on a certain subset of movies over a defined period of time. I wish I had the free time (or better yet, were being paid) to engage in projects like watching all of the IMDb Bottom 100 movies or spending a year analyzing flops or watching a zombie movie a day for the month of October. But I don't, so I wanted to come up with a similar project that would take up less time - like, say, just a week. So here it is: Over the course of the next week, in honor of the Discovery Channel's venerable Shark Week, I'll be posting about a different shark movie each day. Check back starting tomorrow and running through August 2 (just like on Discovery) for thoughts on movies about sharks or featuring sharks or perhaps simply with the word "shark" in the title, culminating, obviously, in the king of all shark movies, Jaws, which I haven't seen since I was a kid. If all goes well, perhaps more theme projects will be forthcoming.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Movies opening this week

Bigger, Stronger, Faster (documentary, dir. Christopher Bell)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
As much as the snarky, Michael Moore-style documentary has probably run its course, this movie works fairly well, and Bell gets a lot of mileage out of being very revealing about his own family's struggles with steroid use. He sometimes falls into the trap of being overly cutesy or not thinking through his gimmicks, but overall he presents an argument that makes sense and is about an issue that a lot of people haven't given much thought, so it might even change some minds. Opened limited May 30; in Las Vegas this week

Step Brothers (Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Mary Steenburgen, Richard Jenkins, dir. Adam McKay)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I really thought I liked Will Ferrell; I thoroughly enjoyed Anchorman, and I liked Talladega Nights well enough. But I have been finding him less and less amusing in each recent movie, and even here, with the collaborators from his best work, he's just running through the same kinds of jokes again and again, not even bothering with an interesting story or characters who make sense. Of course, this is one of those movies where everyone in the theater was laughing but me, so obviously there is still a market for Ferrell's brand of idiocy. But to me what was once hilarious has quickly grown tiresome. Wide release

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Billy Connolly, Amanda Peet, dir. Chris Carter)
I was a big fan of the X-Files TV show, although I gave up on it a couple of seasons before it ended, and I don't think I've seen an episode all the way through since the finale in 2002. Still, I was excited for this movie, especially since it promised a standalone story and not an extension of the series' confusing and annoying alien-conspiracy mythology. But this disappointment almost makes me wish they would have gone for a mythology story, because at least that would have felt important. As many reviews have pointed out, this is like a long version of a mediocre episode, with a villain who barely gets any screen time and a mystery that turns out to be more silly than scary. Plus, Mulder and Scully as an actual couple just doesn't work at all; their mostly unspoken romantic chemistry has turned into dull bickering, and Duchovny and Anderson seem uncomfortable with the intimacy. Carter tries too hard to graft the series' big themes onto this small story, as if to justify its existence. Virtually none of the show's supporting characters show up (only Mitch Pileggi's Skinner, for about five minutes), and rapper Xzibit is terrible as one of the agents who call Mulder and Scully back into action (Peet is a little better as the other one, and has more chemistry with Duchovny than Anderson does). Dedicated fans will get a bit of a thrill from simply seeing these characters again, but I have to acknowledge that like the Sex and the City movie (which was made from a show I never watched), this has no reason to exist other than to milk the show's dedicated followers. Wide release

Friday, July 18, 2008

Movies opening this week

The Dark Knight (Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, dir. Christopher Nolan)
I am on record as having been disappointed in Batman Begins, and the vast majority of critics seem to have loved this movie an extraordinary amount. So my disappointment may be irrelevant to some, and really, people are seeing this in record numbers regardless of what anyone says. Plus, I wouldn't even say that I don't recommend seeing this movie, unless you really hated Batman Begins. It's definitely worth checking out in theaters, as much to be part of the cultural moment as anything else. It's a solid, well-acted and often entertaining summer movie, but it has a number of flaws that for me kept it from being entirely successful. It's been praised extensively for its scope and complexity, but is far too long and meandering, with a number of tangents and plot points that could easily have been trimmed. Nolan is so obsessed with seriousness and heft that he loses economy of narrative in the process.

He gets good performances out of all his actors, although the talk of Ledger deserving an Oscar is, all respect to the deceased, way overblown. Ledger's Joker is a one-note menace by design; Nolan gives the character no origin and no backstory as a way to make him seem more like a dangerous force of nature, and Ledger embodies that successfully. He's a much better villain than those in Begins, but he there's no diversity or shading to the character. Eckhart, who as DA Harvey Dent has a much more complex and varied role, does equally good work (not that he deserves an Oscar either, though). Both of them are more interesting to watch than Cillian Murphy (who shows up in a brief, pointless cameo), Ken Watanabe and Liam Neeson were in Begins.

I complained about Begins that it was too grim, but that was nothing compared to the utter bleakness of this movie. There isn't a single moment of levity, not a single smile that isn't the Joker's sinister one, not one moment of hope or light. I am not against dark movies, but Nolan piles on the punishment to such a degree that the movie eventually stops being fun to watch, and the ending offers very little in the way of redemption. The fact that Nolan is so ambitious is the film's biggest strength and greatest weakness; in trying to create a serious, meaningful epic, he loses sight of the excitement and wonder that make superhero stories appealing in the first place. Wide release

Mamma Mia! (Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, dir. Phyllida Lloyd)
Despite living in Las Vegas, I haven't seen the long-running Mamma Mia! stage show, about which I've heard mixed things. Although I didn't much care for this movie version, it left me with the impression that the production must be much more enjoyable onstage. For starters, this movie is packed with recognizable actors who either can't sing (Brosnan, oh lord) or can just passably carry a tune (Streep), and only one who seems to actually be much of a vocalist (not surprisingly, the least famous of them, Seyfried). No one here is what you would call professional-quality, though, or in any way suitable to sing onstage. Without decent singing, even though the ABBA songs are fun and catchy, you're forced to focus on the lame, contrived story, and that's not a good thing. If this were a movie about music, it would need better singers; if it were about character and story, it would need a better script. Instead, it ends up with neither, and Lloyd, who directed the Broadway version, can't figure out how to shoot the big production numbers to make them look impressive, either. They're all close-ups of faces and hands, as awkward and ill-fitting as the rest of the movie. Wide release

The Singing Revolution (documentary, dir. James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This is another one of those movies that there is absolutely no reason to see on a big screen. It'll probably be on PBS in a few months anyway, when you can pay attention only to the most interesting parts. Opened limited December 7 (!); in Las Vegas this week

Space Chimps (Voices of Andy Samberg, Cheryl Hines, Patrick Warburton, Jeff Daniels, dir. Kirk De Micco)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
It really makes you appreciate movies like WALL-E and even Kung Fu Panda when you come across something as dismal as this movie, a sloppily produced waste of time that offers nothing more for kids than some pretty colors to look at for 80 minutes, and nothing for adults other than stale pop-culture references passing themselves off as jokes. Wide release

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Gilmore Girls, season four

The Gilmore Girls DVDs that my co-worker has been letting me borrow end with season four, which she claims is the point at which the show ceased to be worth watching. This season certainly had its ups and downs, and ended with some unnecessarily melodramatic developments, but it didn't make me want to stop watching the show, and I imagine I'll get to season five as soon as my Netflix queue is a little less crowded (I've grown impatient to start on the next season of The Wire before anything else).

The biggest change and the toughest challenge for this season is Rory's going away to college. Although she doesn't really go very far, and she's back in Stars Hollow with a ridiculous frequency. At the beginning of the season, this development annoyed me, since it meant that Lorelai and Rory, whose relationship forms the core of the show, were apart much of the time, and getting them together required the contrivance of some new made-up town event, or Rory's coming home yet again to do her laundry (she clearly had the dirtiest laundry in all of New Haven). But as time went on, it seemed like the writers got a better handle on how to develop separate storylines for the two characters and make their time together worth more, and things evened out. There's still something lost from the dynamic of the mother and daughter living together and sharing their lives, but I'm now willing to believe that the show can work with them separated.

I also thought that this year's love interest for Lorelai, Chris Eigeman's Jason Stiles, was much better matched than her previous suitors, and they had far more genuine chemistry than she did with Max in prior seasons, or that she continues to have with Luke in their neverending will-they-or-won't-they courtship. I get the impression, though, that he's not going to be around for much longer. I even came around a little on bland Dean this season, with his marital strife and sort of sleazy pursuit of Rory, even if the events at the end of the season finale seemed abrupt and out of place. Rory's love life was a disappointment overall, though; Jess didn't become any more likable, and there weren't any other real candidates to replace him and Dean.

Many of the minor characters had richer storylines this year; Lane's estrangement from her mother and Paris' affair with a professor really deepened their characters and made for involving episodes; the one with Paris and Rory on spring break was one of my favorites. And while the separation of Lorelai's parents seemed abrupt, I'm glad to see them getting their own issues to deal with as well. (Kirk only gets more annoying the more they give him to do, though.) I don't know if Rory and Paris' new roommates ever show up again, but I liked them too, and over time they showed more and more potential to grow beyond the one-note portrayals of their initial introductions (much like Paris has).

I still love Lauren Graham's performance, and the dialogue is still brilliant when it's at its best. I know a lot of fans grew tired of Alexis Bledel by the end of the show, but for now I think she's handling Rory's growing up (and much larger character changes than Graham has to deal with) pretty well. Maybe the fifth season will go downhill quickly (and I could certainly see that happening), but even though the sparkle of the early seasons has faded a bit, I'm still not ready to give up spending time with Lorelai and Rory.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Movies opening this week

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, Luke Goss, dir. Guillermo del Toro)
As I believe I've said before, I tend to like del Toro's movies more in theory than in actuality, and while I thought the first Hellboy movie was fine, it didn't make much of an impression on me. I feel much the same way about the sequel, which again has a fairly forgettable story augmented by some cool and creative creature design and a fun performance from Ron Perlman as the grumpy yet lovable title character. Del Toro indulges in more of his personal style this time around, with some weird and highly imaginative sequences involving monsters and mythical beasts. But there's still not much to grab onto plot-wise, and the stabs at giving Hellboy some inner angst don't quite come off. Still, at least it's got way more ambition and style than The Incredible Hulk. Wide release

Journey to the Center of the Earth (Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, Anita Briem, dir. Eric Brevig)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I remain unconvinced of the likelihood that 3-D represents the future of moviemaking, but even if it does, this completely tame and predictable family adventure story won't be the way to get there. If we're ever to realize the crazy dream of artistic possibilities described by Matt Zoller Seitz, we're going to need to do a lot more with this technology than use it to make it look like dinosaur loogies are coming right at you. Wide release

Meet Dave (Eddie Murphy, Elizabeth Banks, Gabrielle Union, Ed Helms, dir. Brian Robbins)
I was so relieved that this movie wasn't as vulgar or insulting as Norbit that I think at first I was inclined to give it more credit than it deserves. But while it's indeed much less offensive, it's still poorly plotted, sloppily paced and not particularly funny. Murphy seems to be only interested in throwing himself into these weirdly challenging roles in which he plays characters who are not recognizably human (here he's both a spaceship and an alien). There's clearly a lot of effort and skill on display here, but it's all focused in a very misguided way. There's nothing to connect with, the jokes are all obvious variations on the aliens-learning-about-human-culture routine, and Murphy comes off as completely detached from it all. Maybe he needs to slow down his relentless work schedule and find a project actually worthy of his time. Wide release

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A fun time-waster

This meme seemed to be making the rounds on music blogs last week (I saw it on Idolator and the AV Club's blog): Pick a favorite album from each year that you've been alive. They can either be picks made in retrospect, or represent what you would have picked at the time. I thought up the idea of modifying it to apply to movies instead; naturally, the AV Club got there first. So here's my list, created, as always, to avoid working on something far more important and deadline-oriented. It certainly points to my limited exposure to movies made even within my lifetime; I stand by all the picks, but many of them I haven't seen in a looooooong time, and there were a few years where I really only had three or four to choose from. Still, I think it's an interesting exercise. Enjoy.

1979: Alien
1980: Airplane!
1981: Time Bandits
1982: Blade Runner
1983: A Christmas Story
1984: A Nightmare on Elm Street
1985: Pee-Wee's Big Adventure
1986: Hannah and Her Sisters
1987: Robocop
1988: Beetlejuice
1989: Heathers
1990: La Femme Nikita
1991: Terminator 2: Judgment Day
1992: Wayne's World
1993: Matinee
1994: Clerks
1995: Heat
1996: Lone Star
1997: Gattaca
1998: The Big Lebowski
1999: Fight Club
2000: Bring It On
2001: The Man Who Wasn't There
2002: About Schmidt
2003: The Good Thief
2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2005: The New World
2006: Come Early Morning
2007: Zodiac
2008: Funny Games

Monday, July 07, 2008

TV premiering tonight: Elvis Mitchell: Under the Influence

I've never been particularly fond of Elvis Mitchell; although he's not really a film critic anymore, he's always seemed to me to be on the wrong side of the line between analyst and insider. I don't have any strong memories of reading any of his reviews in the New York Times (admittedly, I probably read very few), but I do remember this sort of nauseatingly self-serving and sycophantic Q&A with Javier Bardem from Interview Magazine, which immediately put me off reading anything else by him. Rumors were that he left the NYT in a huff over being passed over for the chief film critic's job in favor of A.O. Scott (here's an interesting New York Magazine piece about that, which also details his many, many conflicts of interest). I also seem to remember Gawker passing along gossip that he spent as much time at Harvard hitting on female students as he did teaching class, although I can't find any evidence of that anymore.

The point is, going into Mitchell's new TCM interview series, Under the Influence, I already had an innate dislike of the guy to overcome. And he certainly lived up to my impression, fawning all over his guests, laughing uproariously at anything mildly funny and basically positioning himself as the next James Lipton. But Influence is no Inside the Actors Studio; it has an unclear focus that finds Mitchell half the time grilling the guests on their cinematic influences, as the title implies, and half the time talking instead about their own careers. The half-hour format, even without commercials, is not nearly enough time to sufficiently cover the oeuvres of figures like Sydney Pollack (in what may be his last taped interview) and Bill Murray, the subjects of the two episodes I saw. The anecdotes are broken up with movie clips, some illuminating, some useless.

Pollack's episode works almost in spite of Mitchell, since the late actor/director has some fascinating stories about working with Burt Lancaster and studying acting in New York. But Murray seems almost annoyed to be there at all, and Mitchell is not a great interviewer; he's so into appearing chummy with his subjects that he never pushes them to reveal anything insightful. I'm all in favor of exploring modern cinema figures' connections to classic film, or of TCM having its own on-air personality to compete with Lipton, but this show doesn't succeed at doing anything other than proving that Elvis Mitchell has lots of famous friends. Turner Classic Movies, Mondays, 8 p.m.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Movies opening this week

Hancock (Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman, dir. Peter Berg)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This movie went through several different directors in its preproduction stage, suffered from last-minute reshoots and ended up with a truncated running time to achieve a PG-13 rating. So it's not really surprising that it's choppy, inconsistent and disjointed. It is a shame, though, because I like the idea of a superhero movie not based on an existing comic or TV show - really, a blockbuster movie of any kind not based on recycled source material is welcome. But the filmmakers clearly don't know what kind of movie they want to make, and throw all their ideas into one big heap. If they had dropped the lame mythology and played up the sarcastic, dark comedic take on superheroes, this movie might have turned out to be worthwhile. Wide release

When Did You Last See Your Father? (Jim Broadbent, Colin Firth, Matthew Beard, Juliet Stevenson, dir. Anand Tucker)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Maybe Firth has just been typecast so much as the good-hearted but dull guy that all he can play is mopey and awkward, but he really sort of drags this movie down. Not that it's spectacular anyway, but given how much verve Broadbent puts into his performance, a better turn from the ostensible lead might have elevated this beyond mediocre and forgettable, which is where it ended up. Opened limited June 6; in Las Vegas this week

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Summer TV update

Fear Itself (NBC, Thursdays, 10 p.m.)
Really, there is no reason I should be watching this show. It is totally, completely bad, its best moments barely achieving mediocrity. But I am a sucker for the horror anthology, and I would have watched every episode of this show's predecessor, Masters of Horror, if I had Showtime. (I did sit through the entire Nightmares & Dreamscapes series on TNT, as documented here.) Thus I will probably watch every episode of this lame series, hoping each week that the latest combination of mildly well-known horror writer and director (generally not exactly people you would call "masters") will somehow magically churn out a halfway decent (or even halfway scary) piece of entertainment. I have sort of appreciated the stupidly obvious twist endings of some recent episodes, mainly because of how dumb they are (the one in last week's episode, with the bride who thinks her husband-to-be might be a serial killer, was unbelievably nonsensical). And I suppose the acting isn't bad. But none of the episodes has been even remotely well-written, and they're all padded to reach the hourlong length when The Twilight Zone proved years ago that the best format for stories like these is half that. NBC doesn't help by plastering the "scary" show with gaudy promo graphics on the bottom of the screen. If there end up being one or two genuinely decent episodes in the entire run, then I'll probably consider the effort spent watching it a success, sadly.

The Middleman (ABC Family, Mondays, 10 p.m.)
I was a fan of the Middleman comic book, and the show captures the tone and appeal of it very well (not surprising since the comic's writer, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, is also the creator and executive producer of the show). It's goofy and cheesy and clearly done on a minuscule budget, but there's a genuine cleverness to the writing and a clear sense of not taking anything particularly seriously. Natalie Morales is maybe not quite what I would have imagined for Wendy when I was reading the comic, but she seems to be making the role her own. I'm looking forward to seeing what the producers do once they've exhausted the source material (which seems to be happening pretty quickly). I think this is an idea that could generate tons of fun, silly, over-the-top stories, and clearly the limited budget hasn't stopped them from embracing all the high-concept ideas from the comic. There are enough ongoing elements (the mystery of what happened to Wendy's dad, the potential romance between the Middleman and Wendy's roommate, etc.) to keep viewers coming back week after week, but episodes are self-contained enough that anybody can happen across one and enjoy it. It's not brilliant, and sometimes it seems to be trying too hard, but at the very least it's the best thing I've ever seen on ABC Family.

Swingtown (CBS, Thursdays, 10 p.m.)
I was pretty lukewarm on this show in my initial review (based only on watching the pilot), but it's grown on me a little since then. I don't know if I would have given it as generous a shot were it on during the fall against a whole bunch of other stuff, but during the summer it's worth spending the time to see if it improves and to catch the parts of it that do work. I'm totally sold on Lana Parrilla and Grant Show as the swingin'-est couple of the '70s; Parrilla especially does fantastic work as the sexy and manipulative but entirely lovable Trina. And their conflicted neighbors Bruce and Susan, the show's main characters, have a sort of interesting complexity to them. Since there are really only three couples to follow, the show isn't as soapy as I thought it might be, and seems potentially in danger of running out of steam. And the plots about the kids are never as strong as those about the adults. Still, the producers seem to be willing to follow through on their premise and really examine how sexual experimentation affects different sorts of couples, which is a positive consequence of not being able to show too much skin; denied titillation, they're actually resorting to critical thinking.

Credit where it's due

It seems only fair, after my rant against Netflix a couple of weeks ago for planning to do away with their Profiles feature, to note that the company has indeed backed up their reputation for customer-friendliness by listening to complaints and deciding to retain Profiles. They may have seemed sort of hostile and dismissive at first, but this to me shows that they are still concerned with making their service work even for a small but vocal group of subscribers (the Profiles feature is said to be employed by only 1 percent of users). So I want to show my appreciation, especially since it will make my life a lot easier not having to switch anything over. Thanks, Netflix.