Monday, April 30, 2012

'W.E.'

Madonna’s elegant ballad “Masterpiece” plays over the closing credits of W.E., and hearing it after watching the singer’s second effort at directing and co-writing a feature film (following 2008’s little-seen Filth and Wisdom) makes it quite clear where her talents lie. The Golden Globe-winning “Masterpiece,” which obliquely references the themes of the movie, would probably have made for a very stylish, impressionistic music video briefly exploring the story of Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII of England. The film about that same story, however, takes the superficiality of a three-minute music video and spreads it across an entire feature, focusing entirely on glossy surfaces while failing to provide any meaningful character development or interesting dialogue.

Madonna frames the story of Wallis (Andrea Riseborough) and Edward (James D’Arcy), whose marriage in 1937 was the impetus behind Edward abdicating the throne, with a modern-day story set in 1998, about unhappy housewife Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) and her very slow-moving romance with a Russian security guard (Oscar Isaac) who works at Sotheby’s auction house. That’s where many of Wallis and Edward’s possessions are being auctioned off, providing a chance for Wally to engage in reveries that flash back to moments in the couple’s turbulent courtship.

Wally herself is dealing with an unhappy marriage to a cruel doctor (Richard Coyle), but the reason for her strong feeling of connection to Wallis and Edward is never quite clear. All of the main characters are little more than beautifully dressed pawns to maneuver around the admittedly lovely sets and locations. Madonna relies on showy, distracting camera work and an overbearing score to distract from the terrible, exposition-heavy screenplay (which she co-wrote with Truth or Dare director Alek Keshishian), and the result resembles a magazine fashion spread more than a movie. That could be the perfect approach for a pop music video, but it doesn’t do justice to the sweeping story Madonna’s trying to tell.

Available on DVD May 1.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

'The L.A. Complex'

Summertime generally means two things on broadcast networks: reality shows and Canadian imports. The CW is getting a bit of an early start on the season with tonight's premiere of The L.A. Complex, a Canadian drama about aspiring entertainers who live together in a rundown apartment complex in Los Angeles. Yes, the network went all the way to Canada to find a show about Hollywood, although to be fair at least a portion of it was actually shot in L.A. And really, the level of realism on a show like this is not very important anyway. Chances are most decrepit pay-by-the-week apartments in L.A. aren't populated exclusively by young pretty people and don't have kick-ass pool parties every weekend.

So this is essentially a watered-down version of the recent Melrose Place reboot, except all of the characters are in show business in some way. At least they aren't all actors -- we get a comedian, a hip-hop producer, a dancer and a pair of screenwriters alongside the female lead (Cassie Steele), a fresh-faced aspiring actress, and her occasional love interest (Jonathan Patrick Moore), a hunk who's just landed a lead role on a medical drama. There's also the "older" actress (Jewel Staite of Firefly) who's washed up at 30.

That character is an example of how creator Martin Gero does attempt to tackle some thorny Hollywood issues, although he generally does it in a cheesy, obvious way, and it's usually drowned out by the bland, soapy plotting. There's a scene with Staite's character going to an audition only to find out they've changed the character to a black woman, and her rant about the tokenism of creating a "black best friend" character is spot-on (of course Complex has its own token black character, who is also the token gay character). I also liked that the comedian character really and truly is unfunny -- one of the best moments in the first episode involves cameo-ing Paul F. Tompkins and Mary Lynn Rajskub giving him a harsh dressing-down -- and that the main hunky actor guy is Australian and does an American accent in his TV role.

Gero understands the TV world very well, but anything to do with aspiring hip-hop producer Tariq (Benjamin Charles Watson) is painful to watch, especially after he starts working with a stereotypical gangsta rapper who has an obvious secret. Since it aired on cable in Canada (on MTV clone MuchMusic), there's a bit of edginess (it has one of the few TV strip clubs where dancers actually take their tops off, even if we only get to see it from behind) and some haphazard bleeping ("faggot" is okay but "tits" is not, apparently), which can be distracting. Mostly the show is about hooking up and cutting loose, so it should probably fit perfectly on The CW, marking time until the network's original hot-people-hooking-up shows return in the fall. 

Premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on The CW.

Monday, April 23, 2012

'Pariah'

Although it was a big sensation at Sundance in 2011 (where it won an award for cinematography), Dee Rees' drama Pariah kind of fizzled out by the time it made it to theaters, never expanding beyond a limited release (it never played in here in Las Vegas) and failing to garner any major awards attention. Reviews were positive but relatively muted, and Pariah is a movie that may have suffered from inflated expectations. It's a simple, small-scale story that doesn't break much new ground, although it does set its familiar narrative in a community that isn't often seen in movies, and that proves more compelling than the fairly predictable plot.

It's a coming-out/coming-of-age story, with Adepero Oduye as Alike, an African-American teenager in New York City struggling with her sexual identity. At home, her parents think of her as a tomboy and try to get her to act more feminine, and they don't approve of her extremely butch best friend Laura (Pernell Walker). Laura, in turn, takes Alike out to lesbian nightclubs and tries to pressure her to pick up women. But the shy Alike doesn't fit either of those molds, and finally feels comfortable when she meets the perky Bina (Aasha Davis), who seems completely at ease with her own attraction to women.

Alike's relationship with her disapproving parents (Kim Wayans, Charles Parnell) and tentative romance with Bina follow fairly predictable patterns, and the movie can seem maddeningly slow as it builds up to what is obviously coming next. But writer-director Rees also takes time to develop other characters, giving Laura a subplot of her own and exploring the social isolation that Alike's mother feels at work (without excusing her intolerant behavior). Rees also provides a valuable look at the underrepresented African-American middle class and how it deals with homosexuality. Stories like this have been told before, but not with these kinds of characters, and that intersection is where Pariah succeeds.

Available on DVD April 24.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'Fashions of 1934' (1934)

Bette Davis is in bland glamour-girl mode in the amusing trifle Fashions of 1934, and while she rightly complained about being miscast and wasted in an insubstantial role, the movie itself has a certain charm. William Powell stars as Sherwood Nash, a dashing con artist who sets his sights on the fashion world after his latest investment scheme falls through. To that end he enlists Davis' Lynn Mason, an aspiring fashion designer with a knack for copying the latest couture designs from Paris. Nash starts out by selling knock-off designs to discount stores, and then incurs the wrath of high-end fashion retailers. So he gets them to hire him to spy on Paris couture, and the movie heads to Europe. But Nash's spying business quickly shifts into a scheme to put on a musical revue, which then shifts again to Nash opening up his own fashion house.

At one point Lynn complains that she wishes Nash would just stick to one scheme, and that's the movie's problem as well, constantly shifting focus so that it crams in several movies' worth of plot in its 78-minute running time. When Nash mounts his musical revue, the movie stops dead for several minutes to stage a lovely Busby Berkeley musical number that looks gorgeous but has essentially nothing to do with the rest of the film. Despite the choppy pacing, the movie is still fun to watch, thanks mostly to Powell's entertaining performance as the smooth-talking Nash, who charms his friends and enemies equally, and manages to balance several women while constantly stringing Lynn along.

Playing the ever-faithful girlfriend is not exactly Davis' strong suit, and she does solid but unremarkable work here. Verree Teasdale gets the juicier female part as a fellow con artist who's posing as a European aristocrat and has a very flirtatious relationship with Nash. Davis could have nailed that role (although Teasdale does fine), but instead she just bats her eyelashes and pouts. It's a throwaway part in a throwaway movie, but both the performance and the film are entertaining enough while they last.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter' (1984)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Released 28 years ago today, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter was, of course, not the final chapter in the interminable horror franchise; the next movie came out less than a year later. It doesn't even make much of an effort to wrap up whatever meager ongoing storyline has been weaving through the previous three movies, essentially just recycling the same plot for the fourth time. Once again Jason is on the loose, despite having been killed at the end of the previous movie. And once again a bunch of dopey, horny young people are hanging out at Crystal Lake just waiting to get murdered. You'd think that the extraordinarily high body count would be bad for Crystal Lake's tourism industry, but apparently that's not the case.

This time around there's also a vacationing family that finds itself in Jason's path, including a cute youngster played by Corey Feldman. The other notable cast member in this movie is Crispin Glover, who plays one of the teenagers and is disappointingly normal, aside from performing a sudden spastic dance as the group listens to records in their rented vacation home (of death!). The teenagers and the family have minimal interaction and sometimes seem like they're starring in separate movies, although of course both involve being stalked and mutilated by Jason.

Director Joseph Zito and screenwriter Barney Cohen don't even bother trying to explain why Jason is still alive; he just sits up on his slab at the morgue, murders a doctor and a nurse and heads back to Crystal Lake. Unlike the last two movies, this one at least doesn't start out with the wholesale recycling of footage from the preceding movie, but it does feature clips of the previous three installments as an unnamed camp counselor (whom we never see again) explains what Jason's been up to, like a sort of "Previously on Friday the 13th ..." segment.

The death scenes are pretty unremarkable, and the characters are as interchangeable as always. Even a well-trained Jason-hunter, the brother of one of the victims from one of the previous movies, turns out to just be more boring fodder for Jason's machete. The Final Chapter improves on the last movie mainly just by not being crafted for 3D, so there are no more awkward shots of objects pointing at the camera. The characters are slightly less annoying, but certainly not interesting until the very end, when Feldman's Tommy, a fairly generic kid whose one personality trait is his affinity for monster masks, kind of goes off the deep end and mimics a young Jason in order to defeat him. For the alleged final chapter, the movie doesn't kill Jason any more thoroughly than the previous installments did, and it ends on an unresolved note suggesting that Tommy may have inherited Jason's propensity for serial killing. Luckily no one paid attention to the promise of ending the series, so the lack of closure turns out to be irrelevant, much like most of the rest of the movie.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

'The Client List'

The way that Lifetime has been promoting The Client List, with sexy trailers featuring a half-naked Jennifer Love Hewitt surrounded by scantily clad beefcake, suggests a show a lot more salacious and campy and fun than what the creators have actually come up with. Based on the 2010 Lifetime TV movie of the same name (which I haven't seen), List follows suburban Texas housewife Riley Parks (Hewitt) as she enters the illicit world of happy-endings massages in the name of providing for her two kids after her husband unexpectedly takes off.

Yes, this is a show about Jennifer Love Hewitt giving dudes handjobs, and yet it's maddeningly prudish about the whole thing. The original TV movie involved Hewitt's character (who had a different name) becoming a full-on prostitute and drug addict before getting arrested, and while I understand that the main character of an ongoing series probably can't go all the way down that route, toning her activities down to a few rub-and-tugs (it's made clear that the women at the massage parlor engage overwhelmingly in legitimate business) feels like a cheat. Plus, while the pilot provides plenty of moments featuring Hewitt in sexy, barely there outfits (and the second episode offers up a few more), what Riley does best for her clients is listen to their problems, giving them a more satisfying emotional release along with the manual release they're paying for.

There's so much camp potential here that seeing it squandered is just sad. Beyond Hewitt, who's still very sexy, the cast includes Cybill Shepherd (as Riley's very Southern mama), Loretta Devine (as the owner of the massage parlor) and Desi Lydic (who stole every scene she was in as the clueless guidance counselor on MTV's Awkward), plus veterans of the Melrose Place remake, The O.C. and The Playboy Club, all shows with varying levels of camp appeal. And yet creator Jordan Budde plays things disappointingly straight, focusing more on Riley's domestic drama (her missing husband, her needy kids, her financial problems) than on the inner workings of the massage parlor or how exactly Riley deals with her clients' needs.

Budde has worked on the original Melrose Place, both versions of 90210 and ABC's GCB, so he should know his campy melodrama, and List has the potential to be the sexy sleaze-fest that GCB promised but never delivered. There's no reason why Lifetime couldn't follow AMC and FX into the realm of adult-oriented drama (the model for List could be something like HBO's Hung, which in its best moments had a sense of playfulness about sex work while retaining a dark, morally ambiguous edge), or at least follow USA into the realm of goofy, sexy escapism. But the network seems to want to build its sex appeal while retaining its core audience of timid housewives, and so List is just a bland domestic drama instead of something more rewarding.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on Lifetime.