Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Fall TV update: dramas

Just in time for the midseason stuff to get rolling.

Brothers & Sisters (ABC)
I've been slowly losing interest in this show, which had a real jump-the-shark moment last season when it was revealed that Rebecca wasn't actually the long-lost Walker half-sibling, merely so that she could then get it on with her heretofore assumed half-brother Justin (as absurd as this sounds if you've never watched the show, it was nearly as absurd to longtime viewers). This show has always straddled a line between earnest family drama and lifestyle-porn soap opera, and it seems to be trending further and further in the soap direction. This season has brought a search for a new long-lost half-sibling, a paternity crisis and a little baby in peril. Now rumor has it that Balthazar Getty has been dumped from the show, and while his character is indeed useless, I don't know that I can sit through some drawn-out grieving process if they kill him off. A bunch of returning shows (Lost, Friday Night Lights, Damages, The Closer) that I want to watch are about to come back, and there are a few new ones I want to check out as well, so this may just end up being sacrificed to clear up the schedule a bit.

Chuck (NBC)
Although a lot of people seem to find the current second season of this show a great improvement, I think it's about as amusing and insubstantial as the first, which is to say that I thoroughly enjoy it but rarely get excited about it. That's about right for a show like this - it's pure fun entertainment, with a handful of nice emotional moments. The plots often don't make sense, the character development is minimal, and the dialogue can be hokey, but there is enough in the way of rousing action, funny one-liners, appealing eye-candy and romantic entanglements to hold my attention.

Fringe (Fox)
This is another show that is never quite at the top of my to-watch list, but still has enough going for it that I come back every week. It has yet to transcend its X-Files-meets-Alias origins; virtually every cold open could double as an X-Files teaser, and the vast conspiracy is so vague and all-consuming that I worry it will turn out to be as convoluted and nonsensical as the ones on those other two shows became. Still, a lot of the mysteries are pretty creepy, there are some interesting background nuggets being doled out about the various characters, and John Noble is always entertaining as the addled-yet-mysterious Walter Bishop. I remain hopeful that, with patience, this will turn into a great show rather than just a decent pastiche.

Gossip Girl (The CW)
I think I've been beating the drum for this show pretty incessantly, but every week reminds me of just how good it is. Along with 30 Rock and Pushing Daisies, it's been the thing I most look forward to watching each week, and it's easily surpassed Josh Schwartz's last rich-teens drama, The O.C. There's been no similar second-season decline in quality; if anything, the show's only gotten better, with richer character development, juicier plot twists and stronger dialogue. The interplay between Chuck and Blair is masterful, and Leighton Meester constantly impresses me with her portrayal of Blair. I know for some people the notion of a teen soap is too much to get past, but if you're open to it, this really is one of the best shows on TV.

Pushing Daisies (ABC)
This show is about to depart the airwaves (the final three episodes are currently TBA on ABC's schedule, although they've been produced, so even if the network axes them altogether they'll at least end up on DVD), and I'm really sad to see it go. It took me a while to warm up to Bryan Fuller's quirky, cutesy vision, but this season has been consistently excellent, with nearly as much clever quippery as 30 Rock, plus an intriguing ongoing mystery and engaging standalone stories. In short, it's unique, great TV, which means I probably shouldn't be surprised it got canceled. There's really no point in trying to jump on board now, but this is absolutely something to look for on DVD (and it will end up with only 22 episodes total, making it easy to plow through the whole series quickly).

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Movies opening this week

Bedtime Stories (Adam Sandler, Keri Russell, Guy Pearce, dir. Adam Shankman)
I've never been a Sandler fan, but even people who love his style of humor will probably be bored with this neutered kiddie flick. Sandler sleepwalks through the whole thing like he's just waiting to cash a check, the effects work is lazily uncreative, and there is a disturbing CGI guinea pig with giant eyes who has no reason to exist. At least You Don't Mess With the Zohan had a point, of sorts. Wide release

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, dir. David Fincher)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This one seems to have lost its Oscar-frontrunner status to Slumdog Millionaire, although I think it will probably still end up getting plenty of attention come nomination time. It's also been subject to a bit of a backlash, which I think is interesting in the context of Fincher's career. Last year, Zodiac was neglected by the studios and shunned by audiences, and it was taken up by many critics (myself included) as a rallying point. This year, Fincher's new movie is being derided as a cliched Hollywood product by some (although most reviews have been positive), and thoroughly embraced by the studio system. And while it may be warmer and more accessible, I still think Benjamin Button is very much in line thematically and stylistically with Fincher's other work. Its epic love story is surrounded by the constant spectre of mortality, and Fincher's expert craftsmanship is always on display. I found Zodiac more complex, more challenging and ultimately more rewarding, but I still think this is another triumph for Fincher. Wide release

Doubt (Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, dir. John Patrick Shanley)
I'm sure this works much better on stage, where its boldface allegory can be viewed as symbolism rather than realism. Set in an actual place and an actual time period, this schematic story of a Catholic priest who may or may not have molested a young boy and the nun determined to bring him down comes off as clumsy and artificial. The actors give it their all, and occasionally manage to make the characters seem close to human, but most of the time they speak and act as if they ought to be walking around with big signs labeled "Doubt," "Faith" and "Certainty." Opened limited December 12; in Las Vegas this week

Frost/Nixon (Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell, dir. Ron Howard)
This movie is about 90 minutes of setup for one great 15-minute showdown, when Frost actually engages Nixon seriously about the Watergate crimes, and Nixon responds with anger and regret. In those moments, Langella and Sheen live up to the promise of a monumental face-off, but the rest of the movie is just another bland Ron Howard's Great Moments in American History project, as competent and dull as a book report. Opened limited December 5; in Las Vegas this week

I've Loved You So Long (Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein, Serge Hazanavicius, dir. Philippe Claudel)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Thomas gets as much mileage as she can out of her performance here, but otherwise this is the slightly arty French version of a Lifetime "stalwart mother endures injustice" movie. She'll probably get an Oscar nomination and then not win, and then everyone will deservedly cease caring about this thoroughly mediocre movie. Opened limited October 24; in Las Vegas this week

The Spirit (Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, dir. Frank Miller)
I've never really followed Miller's comics career, although I have of course read The Dark Knight Returns, and I read 300 before seeing the movie. His reputation as a comics creator has taken quite the beating in recent years, and this movie seems to be an extension of that descent into self-parody, with its emphasis on absurd hard-boiled dialogue, bizarre non sequiturs and extreme objectification of women. I liked the Sin City movie, but it featured a style very particular to its subject matter, and slapping that same aesthetic on something else doesn't really work. Miller seems determined to carve out a career as a filmmaker (he's already attached to a proposed Buck Rogers movie), but this is not exactly a promising start. Wide release

Valkyrie (Tom Cruise, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, dir. Bryan Singer)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
The hype on this movie has been so negative for so long that people may be dismissing it before giving it much consideration, but it's actually a pretty good thriller with a surprising amount of suspense. Cruise is miscast, sure, but not egregiously, and Singer's choice to let the actors all use their natural voices is smart. They're not speaking German anyway, so why bother with distracting accents? That always bugs me in movies like this, so I was happy to see at least one director take the pragmatic route. This is well-crafted entertainment; it's not particularly profound despite its subject matter, but it's definitely worth seeing. Wide release

Monday, December 22, 2008

The alternate top 10

I'll have the requisite top 10 list of this year's movies in Las Vegas Weekly this coming week, and will probably do a post here elaborating a bit on it. But in the meantime I thought I'd steal an idea from an AV Club commenter and make an alternate list, of the top 10 movies from other years that I saw for the first time this year.

1. Quiet City (Aaron Katz, 2007) Okay, so this is only from last year, but I didn't get around to it in time to put it on my 2007 top 10, where it certainly would have found a place. I haven't seen that many mumblecore movies (and the Duplass brothers' 2008 effort, Baghead, disappointed me), but this is easily my favorite of the movement, a lovely, touching story of emotional connection in New York City. More thoughts in my original post.
2. The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940) As I noted in my post about this movie, I sometimes have a tough time with the ingrained sexism of old screwball comedies, even more so than melodramas or musicals or various other genres. I think it's easier to view outdated moral codes as interesting curiosities when you're not meant to be laughing along with them. It didn't bother me much in this film, or at least it was greatly outweighed by the wonderful writing and acting, which make things go down much easier.
3. Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi, 2007) Yes, another one from last year, but damn there were so many good movies last year, and I just didn't get to all of them in time. This is such a lovely coming-of-age story, a beautifully animated film that preserves the look of the graphic novel it's based on while also carving out its own identity. I love seeing a story about conflicts in the Middle East filtered through one person's specific experiences, which somehow makes it all seem more real than a meticulously researched journalistic documentary.
4. Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941) This is the rare movie that almost constantly surprised me from start to finish; even though it was fairly obvious where it was all going to end up, the road getting there was not at all what I expected. It's sort of amazing that Sturges was able to get this kind of multi-level satire into a Hollywood movie in the 1940s. He brilliantly has it both ways by making a movie about how social realism is worthless, and filmmakers should just make comedies instead, and then filling the movie with plenty of unflinching social realism amidst the comedy. Veronica Lake is mesmerizing as the love interest/sidekick, and the writing is constantly razor-sharp. It's no surprise that the Coen brothers used an allusion to this movie as the title to O Brother, Where Art Thou?; it's exactly the kind of audacious genre mash-up that they're known for making.

5. Original Sin (Michael Cristofer, 2001) "The Wild Things of 19th-century Cuba," I called this movie when I posted about it, and you should know that Wild Things is one of my very favorite movies. Angelina Jolie tried for sexy and dangerous again this year in Wanted (before going back to dour and serious for Changeling), but she lacked the verve and abandon she exhibits in this movie, a luxuriously lurid and campy tale of sex and betrayal. It's gloriously over-the-top and start-to-finish entertaining, and seriously deserves to build a cult following.
6. I Walked With a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943) I watched this just after writing up my post on the two versions of Cat People for the Val Lewton blogathon; this is another Lewton movie directed by Jacques Tourneur, who made Cat People, and like Cat People, it's a subtle, atmospheric take on a familiar horror idea. What we think of as zombies are not exactly what show up in this movie; this is more about voodoo priests taking control of people, as in the underrated Wes Craven movie The Serpent and the Rainbow. Tourneur uses zombification as a way to explore colonialism and white guilt, and manages a number of understated and unsettling moments along the way.
7. Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minelli, 1944) I'm working on gaining a better appreciation of old musicals, and I think Judy Garland may just singlehandedly bring me around. I watched the entirely superfluous Garland musical The Harvey Girls a year or two ago, and had plenty of fun with it even though it was consistently mediocre, thanks to Garland's radiant charisma and lovely singing (also Angela Lansbury as an evil showgirl). And I liked the spectacle of Minnelli's Gigi, even if I didn't really connect with it. But this one works on all levels, as a colorful spectacle and as a showcase for Garland's singing and as a melancholy story of growing up and apart. It's a movie that envelops you and sometimes even overwhelms you, and I imagine it's a magical experience on a big screen.

8. Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955) A sort of anti-Western, with Spencer Tracy as the lone-gunman hero, only he's past middle age and crippled and more interested in legal documents than gunfights. He walks into a typically corrupt frontier town and for most of the movie just has a lot of tense conversations with people. Sturges builds suspense over these exchanges and the mystery of what horrible secret the townspeople are hiding, and even though the reveal hinges on a bit of clumsy social commentary, the final showdown manages to be both exciting and a bit hollow, leaving you with as much bitterness as hope.
9. Pride & Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005) I had this sitting around for months and finally got up the motivation to watch it after seeing Wright's Atonement, a marvelously directed, visually stunning movie whose parts don't necessarily add up to a satisfying whole. Pride is less visually showy than Atonement, but it still looks wonderful, and it's not as gauzy and fluttery as some Jane Austen adaptations. A former college classmate of mine who is an Austen scholar absolutely hates this movie, I think partially for the way it adds excessive "grit" to the novel's story, but it's been so long since I read the book that I doubt I noticed the differences or the similarities. I can only compare it to other movies that come from similar source material, and in that sense I appreciated the bit of grit, the way that the story is about country life during that time period and not just about romance. Romance is key, too, but it's the intersection of love and the practical demands of life that this movie really highlights.

10. The Divorcee (Robert Z. Leonard, 1930) I did a freelance project that required me to watch a bunch of pre-Hays Code melodramas, and this was the best of the lot, a vehicle for the underrated Norma Shearer (of whom Dan Callahan wrote an excellent appreciation). Shearer plays a refreshingly independent (y'know, for the 1930s) woman who divorces her cheating husband and then goes on to live it up on her own terms. There's quite a bit of racy material here (which of course seems pretty tame from our perspective), and Shearer gives an assured, saucy performance, radiating confidence both socially and sexually. Of course, even a pre-Code movie puts the independent woman back in her place by the end, but until then this movie is progressive and exciting.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Movies opening this week

Hear me chat about these movies (as well as a number of upcoming Christmas releases, since next week's show will be a year-end wrap-up) with Jeffrey K. Howard of Vegas Film Critic in this week's Josh Bell Hates Everything podcast.

Seven Pounds (Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Michael Ealy, dir. Gabriele Muccino)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This is one of those movies that about 10 minutes in I knew I was going to absolutely hate. It's so insufferably self-important and phony, and makes use of the intolerable device of holding back information for no reason other than to fuck with the audience. If you laid all the events in this movie out end to end, it would be so laughable that no one could take it seriously. But shrouded in mystery and bathed with that low, ominous score, it takes on all sorts of false importance. I overheard someone at a screening recently say that a friend of theirs found this movie life-changing, but I feel sorry for anyone whose life is so empty that this movie could give it meaning (although obviously the movie has its passionate fans, several of whom have left nasty comments on my review). Wide release

Slumdog Millionaire (Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Irfan Khan, Anil Kapoor, dir. Danny Boyle)
I liked this movie, although not as much as a lot of people did (it's getting plenty of Best Picture awards from critics' groups), but certain things about it did nag me a little and strike me as false. Boyle keeps the movie visually inventive and fast-paced, and the depictions of poverty in Mumbai often feel quite authentic. But I don't know if they jibe with the grandiose movie-movie story, which is unrealistic and corny and even a little repetitive at times. Patel is kind of bland as the older Jamal, but the kid actors are great, and the flashbacks work well, especially if you block out some of the cheesier contrivances in the game-show stuff. It's a flawed movie, but overall I think it got to me, and while it won't be on my list of the best movies of the year, I wouldn't be upset to see it win big at the Oscars. Opened limited November 12; in Las Vegas this week

Yes Man (Jim Carrey, Zooey Deschanel, Bradley Cooper, dir. Peyton Reed)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I root for Jim Carrey, I really do. I think he can be an excellent dramatic actor - The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are two of my favorite movies. And I also think he can be quite funny at times. But like Mike Myers, he seems to be desperately holding on to the same old schtick, which is no longer nearly as funny as it once was (and seems sort of hollow the more he trots it out). There's only a minimum of mugging Carrey in this movie, though, and it's less grating than I would have expected. The laughs are only occasional, but if you have a soft spot for old Carrey comedies like Liar, Liar (which has a similar premise), then you might get some enjoyment out of this one. Wide release

Friday, December 12, 2008

Movies opening this week

The LVW web people have the day off, so the podcast, with Roger Erik Tinch of CineVegas, should be up on Monday.

Dark Streets (Gabriel Mann, Bijou Phillips, Izabella Miko, dir. Rachel Samuels)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I saw this movie almost six months ago, back at CineVegas, and to be honest I was very tired at the time. I may have briefly dozed off at certain points during the movie. However, it probably didn't hurt, since the best you can say about this movie is that it has a pleasing dreamlike quality. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense as a narrative, but I did like the visual style, the music, the costumes and the set design, enough at least to make it stand out from the deluge of poorly made films that one encounters at a festival. Critics have been pretty brutal, and maybe I would have been less forgiving had I not seen it at a festival, but I think this movie deserves a little better. Limited release

The Day the Earth Stood Still (Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Jaden Smith, dir. Scott Derrickson)
I actually liked Derrickson's last movie, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, quite a lot, even though most critics didn't, but this one is a complete failure. It loses the intelligence of the original (whose subject of nuclear disarmament was timely in 1951 but wouldn't really be so now) and replaces it with some so-so special effects and lots of pointless explosions. The message about the environment is vague and noncommittal, and Klaatu's reversal on the point of whether humanity ought to be exterminated is seriously undermotivated. The movie's emotional core ought to come from the connection between Connelly's scientist character and her stepson (Smith), but he comes off mostly as a brat, and I never cared about what happened to them. Connelly gave an excellent and underrated performance in an effects-heavy blockbuster (Ang Lee's Hulk) a few years ago, but here she just coasts (Reeves does play to his strengths as an alien who doesn't understand human behavior, though). Wide release

JCVD (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Francois Damiens, Zinedine Soualem, dir. Mabrouk El Mechri)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I was a huge Van Damme fan back in middle school, although it's probably been close to 15 years since I actually watched one of his movies. Still, I was looking forward to this being a great movie that perpetrates his redemption, and it's only about half that. Sure, Van Damme does a pretty good job, helped mostly, I think, by the chance to act in his native language for once (after 20 years he still doesn't quite have a grasp on English). And the moments where he talks openly about the things he has to deal with in his life are fascinating. But they're all wrapped up in this thoroughly uninteresting hostage thriller, which is just like the plot of a lame Van Damme movie, and not in a clever way. Watching Van Damme's much-hyped fourth-wall-breaking monologue, I couldn't help think that a documentary about the guy would have been more interesting than this pretentious, hit-and-miss movie. Opened limited November 7; in Las Vegas this week

Sunday, December 07, 2008

TV premiering tonight: Leverage

TNT's quest to compete with the broadcast networks in volume of original programming has led to plenty of generic crap over the last few years, but Leverage ends up being a cut above. Some reviews have compared it to USA's Burn Notice, and that's a good benchmark, although Burn Notice is much more entertaining. This show likewise has a group of slightly shady characters doing good deeds via nefarious means, although it's more of an ensemble show than Burn Notice is, and it doesn't have that added conspiracy element. Timothy Hutton plays an ex-insurance investigator with a boo-hoo back story (the company he worked for denied his son an experimental medical treatment, and his son died) who now has it out for evil corporations and anyone exploiting the little people. He and his team of thieves, con artists and thugs do good by doing bad.

The show has a zippy tone and an occasionally overbearing score that screams "this is whimsical," and its plots are pretty well divorced from reality. But I had fun watching the first two episodes in a sort of turn-off-your-brain kind of way, which is exactly how I felt about Burn Notice at first. That show has done some pretty impressive character development and put together an interesting overarching plot, so maybe this show will get there as well. Even with the crowded schedule at the moment (it'd be much easier watching this during the summer), I'll probably continue to give it a chance. TNT, Tuesdays, 10 p.m.; special premiere tonight at 10 p.m.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Movies opening this week

Hear me chat about these movies with my good friend Jason Harris of the Frat Boys of Comedy in the triumphant return of the Josh Bell Hates Everything podcast. (Actually, maybe not so triumphant - the second half appears to be missing. Should be fixed by Monday.)

Cadillac Records (Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Columbus Short, Beyoncé Knowles, dir. Darnell Martin)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Not knowing a whole lot (read: knowing nothing) about pioneering R&B record label Chess, I came into this movie hoping to learn something and gain a little insight. But the film is perfunctory and apparently not very historically accurate, so all I really got out of it was the chance to hear some decent music, albeit not sung by the original performers. I'm not sure what the best way would be for filmmakers to make movies about real-life people without falling into biopic formula, but combining several movies' worth of the same clichés into one certainly isn't the answer. Wide release

Milk (Sean Penn, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, dir. Gus Van Sant)
And speaking of biopic formula, here's our requisite critically overpraised Important Biopic just in time for Oscar season. This is a better movie than Cadillac Records, certainly, generally well-acted and solidly constructed, but it still hits all the expected beats in a pretty generic way. Van Sant has spent the last several years making ponderous, arty, sometimes interesting movies in a style that embraces long takes and minimal dialogue, but here he's in full-on mainstream mode, and aside from a handful of stylistic flourishes, this is a pretty anonymous Hollywood product. Unlike Cadillac Records, this movie does actually provide some interesting historical insight, although certain moments are clearly engineered for filmic convenience. I wouldn't object to seeing Penn get an Oscar nomination for this, but I wouldn't call it anything close to one of the best movies of the year. Opened limited November 26; in Las Vegas this week

Punisher: War Zone (Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Julie Benz, dir. Lexi Alexander)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Under no circumstances would I call this a good movie, but I did laugh several times at the absurd, campy violence. I am the kind of person who can definitely find the humor in someone getting their face punched off, so your mileage may vary. But as far as dumb, heavily stylized action goes, this was in fact sort of entertaining at times. Wide release