One blogger's take on movies, television shows, books, and music -- the good, the bad, and the bottom line

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

I was reading Eric Muller's post on discovering his Uncle Leo's identity card 65 years after the Germans sent him to the gas in Poland. One commenter speaks of the pure evil operating in Nazi Germany. While I don't quibble with the term, I think that many people miss the point when trying to apply the historical significance of the German "Final Solution" to our contemporary lives.

The point here is not that "monsters" perpetrated these acts. The point is that regular, everyday Germans did so, while going about their regular everyday business. It bears thinking about that the clerks and bureaucratic functionaries who signed the orders, made the entries, ensured the trains were full, and dropped the poison zyklon pellets were all regular people, doing what they were told to do because their government told them the subhuman Jews were the enemy. Apparently for the Germans, their government's denunciation was enough; without a flicker of remorse or second-guessing [collectively, at least], regular Germans as "normal" as any average American accepted unquestioningly the twisted ravings of a few, and translated it into a horrifyingly efficient and bureaucratically well-documented genocide.

For those interested in the best and most-readable exposition of the German-perpetrated genocide, as well as the typical German efficiency with which it was carried out, read Herman Wouk's War and Remembrance. The made for TV miniseries of War & Remembrance is flawed, but the episodes dealing with the Holocaust-related aspects of World War II are strikingly well done. In fact, the Auschwitz scenes were actually filmed there.

It is naive to think another such holocaust could never happen here. Without constant vigilance, it could happen anywhere.

Monday, April 16, 2007

After using up all my excuses, I finally watched the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth. This Oscar-winning documentary makes the case that global warming is a reality, and is a call to action on this "moral, not political" issue.

Now, I have some history with Al Gore, albeit tangential. I interned in his Senate office as a third year law student. While I had very limited exposure to the Senator at the time, it was apparent that he was extremely hard-working, thoughtful, and well-meaning. It was also clear to all that this guy was going to be president one day. With me personally, he amused me greatly when he met my parents who came in for a courtesy call during my law school graduation. Gore sat there and, with a straight face, told them I was the best intern he had ever had. I practically guffawed, because I was sure that he didn't even know my name. Good staff work, I guess. Oh, he was even then a techno-geek; he was one of the first legislators to have a computer at his desk.

Those irerelevancies aside, my thoughts on the documentary:

The Good: It's hard to take the relatively dry subject matter of global warming, presented essentially in a powerpoint-type presentation, and make it interesting. Gore and the filmmakers succeeded for the most part. Substantively they make a compelling case for the increasing dangers of global warming, and for the reality of its existence. The filmmakers use an effective device in telling their "story;" they make Gore the "protagonist," interspersing into his presentation a summary of his life and career, and how it informed his commitment to this issue. As Gore is the "good guy," it follows that those who oppose the clarion call are perceived as the "bad guys." Those who oppose his position here may or may not be bad, but you have to admit, it's an effective storytelling device. Even Ann Althouse thought so, more or less ("And dammit, it works. I do feel good about Al Gore!"). The statistic that stays with me over a week after viewing the movie is that there have been close to 1,000 peer-reviewed scientific articles demonstraitng the reality of global warming, and zero such papers refuting its existence. He then contrasted that statstic with the countervailing statistic that in popular publications there are over 50% that dispute the reality of global warming. I found the production values good -- sharp, pleasant photography, and enough cutting to keep it interesting without giving me a headache. I thought the movie presented a compelling argument.

The Bad: Well, I did fall asleep twice trying to get through it. That's why God invented "rewind."

The Bottom Line: Four Flicks. I didn't think this was a Gore for President info-mercial; I think they used him to tell their story and make their point. For a documentary, it was solid work.

Those who decry Gore for using more energy than the average joe miss the point, I think. Don't shoot the messenger; Gore's personal habits don't negatively affect the credibility of his message. Lambasting him simply muddies the waters, which is the goal of the nay-sayers anyway. While this documentary may have oversimplified some points, the broad theme seems valid. And as I have said for some time, even if they're wrong about global warming, we ought to hedge our bets and start reducing our emissions. Now if I could only afford a hybrid car....

I just glanced at all the comments of my review of Little Miss Sunshine. Thanks for looking in, everybody! I agree with one of them that I did not sense some sort of liberal political agenda in the plotting of or approach to the film. If anything, this movie is indicative of middle class desperation, and the crazy ways we cope with day to day stresses of just getting through.

I did perceive the metaphor of family in everyone having to push the van to get it started. I just didn't think to mention it, not only to avoid a spoiler, but also because it just seemed to be lost in the rest of the background noise.

A commenter correctly noted that I did not mention Paul Dano, who played the angst-ridden teenage brother. Well, it was 1:30 a.m. when I wrote it, so give me a break, huh? Also, I led the review with HIS quote, so don't I get props for that?

The reason the majority of commenters were as dissatisfied with the picture as I was is that the distributor and MSM touted this movie as something that it was not. It was not a warm family comedy; it was a dark, bittersweet [emphasis on bitter] examination of dysfunctional family mechanics. Maybe the problem was that it tried to be all things to all people, but failed [all due respect to those who did find it amusing]. Sometimes you can't take your eyes off a train wreck, no matter how distasteful it is. This movie was not one of those occasions.

Finally, I do want to acknowledge what I have said for years: I'm just one critic. I may like the movie, but that doesn't mean anything if you don't. You know, different strokes and all that.

Keep watching!

UPDATE: Apparently, I'm "some sort of a clown." Well, clowns are entertaining, so I guess that means I am, too. I'll take that as a compliment. Yeah, that's the ticket.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Well, the hits just keep on comin'! I'm also "The most banal fim critic ever." At least someone's reading....

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: From a pithy commenter, my quote of the day: "parade of human ugliness." Indeed.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

One of the characters in Little Miss Sunshineadroitly sums up this movie for any potential viewers: "welcome to hell." What is billed as a charming and quirky comedy is actually a painful exercise in "let's make fun of the dysfunctional family." If you get the impression I didn't much like the picture, you may be right.

This one hour and 43 minute study in misery and seat squirming is the story of a truly sad family and their odyssey to make it to the youngest daughter's "Little Miss Sunshine" beauty pageant. "Sunshine" is actually reminiscent of funnier movies, like National Lampoon's Vacation,even down to certain plot points that I won't give away here. But while the latter actually amused, Little Miss Sunshine simply made me want to hide my face in my hands and pray for the end credits.

The Good: Not much actually. The best part of the movie is the young pageant contestant's talent performance, as choreographed by her grandfather. That amused for about 2 minutes. Of course, I had to figure out a way to deal with the remaining 11 minutes.

Dustin Hoffmancalled young newcomer Abigail Breslin's work the best child actress performance he ever saw. While this young girl is reasonably engaging, she can't make up for this sad excuse for a story/script. Personally, I think Dustin should have seen, say, Tatum O'Neal's tour de force in Paper Moon. Alan Arkinwon an Oscar for his part as the heroin snorting, foul-mouthed grandfather. I can't figure out why, unless the award was more for his body of work than for this particular part. Greg Kinnearis appropriately smarmy as the motivational expert who can't get anyone motivated. However, he's effective enough that one can't really like -- or root for -- his character. Toni Colletteis the one relatively normal member of this family, and her role is essentially straight man to the rest of them. She's wasted in the part; anyone with any acting ability could have played it. Steve Carrell,who's hot as a firecracker as a comedy performer these days, is maybe the most effective actor in this piece, with his understated delivery of the gay, suicidal, Proust expert along for the ride. On the other hand, all he's got to do is look sad and play it straight.

The Bad: I get enough dysfunctional unhappiness in my own life; why would I consider it entertainment to watch it on a movie screen? as alluded to above, some of the movie was deriviative of other road movies. While I understood the theme that the filmmakers were going for [family, for better or worse], I was expectng some humor, and what I got was almost painful to watch.

The Bottom Line: One Flick. This picture would have gotten zero flicks, but the talent competition sequence did amuse, however briefly. Why so many others have raved about this waste of time is beyond me.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

In The Sentinel, Michael Douglas is a well-liked, veteran Secret Service agent who, years previously, took a bullet for Ronald Reagan. He also has a secret -- he's schtupping the current First Lady. He starts having a really bad day when an assasination plot against the president is uncovered, pointing at him as the secret service mole setting up his boss, the leader of the free world. From there, mayhem, chase scenes and high body count ensue. Here's what I thought of it:

The Good: This movie is a nicely paced, reasonably taut thriller. Douglas, typically, gives a strong performance, and largely erases my image of him as The President in The American President. Kiefer Sutherland is not bad as the investigating agent who is out to crucify his former mentor and friend. For a while, I was left guessing where the story would go. Although I eventually figured out the whodunnit part, the picture nevertheless kept my interest.

The Bad: The filmmakers left a lot of this story untold, for whatever reason. An agent is murdered early on in the action, and while it's implied that he dies because he has learned something about the assasination attempt, we never find out what he knew. When we find out who the assasins are, we get precious little exposition on why they're gunning for the president. I suspect we were supposed to be carried along with the story at such a rate that we would forget for those niggling details. Eva Longoria and Kim Basinger are basically wasted in their supporting roles as the newbie Secret Service Agent and cheatin' First Lady, respectively.

The Bottom Line: Three flicks. Kept my interest, but predictable in the end.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

And now, a brief foray into music, one of my other passions.

One of my early drummer heroes was Danny Seraphine from Chicago. For reasons never disseminated to the public, Danny was unceremoniously canned by the band in 1990, and he fell off the radar screen. Well, he's re-emerged with a great new interview. This interview, for the first time, gives us some explanation for his unfortunate departure from one of the most successful bands in rock history.

More interestingly, he's put together a new band, called -- slyly -- CTA (California Transit Authority). The web site has an audio montage of some of his work with this new band, and it sounds really good. I can't wait for an album, which apparently is in the works. Now what's cool is that part of that montage is a cover of Chicago's Mississippi Delta City Blues from Chicago XI, maybe my all-time fave Chicago tune.

This guy's a monster drummer, who has been an inspiration to a whole generation of drummers. Stay tuned for his next move.

Cameron Crowe is the luckiest guy in the world. At fifteen or thereabouts, he was touring and writing about the biggest bands on the rock scene. See Almost Famous - The Director's Cut (Two-Disc Special Edition). And getting paid for it! But, "what I really want to do is direct." So he gets to direct, and he does so well. See Jerry Maguire, Say Anything, Vanilla Sky. On top of everything else, he's married to Nancy Wilson from Heart. He gives hope to geeks everywhere.

So it was with great interest that I watched Elizabethtown, Crowe's latest. He's got a strong cast, including Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, and Susan Sarandon, and he's got a penchant for telling effective character-based stories. So did he pull it off again? Let's see:

The Good: Drew (Bloom) is having the bad day of bad days. The shoe he has developed has laid an elephant-sized egg, to the tune of about a billion dollars. His craven boss (Alec Baldwin, in a throwaway part) wants Bloom to take the heat for the fiasco. To make his day perfect, he learns that his father has died in rural Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and he's been drafted to schlep cross-country to the hinterlands to collect the body and deal with the (to his mother and sister) annoying locals. As he sits on the plane, basically suicidal, he encounters the most proactive filght attendant I ever saw. And what happens to Drew as he moves physically and spiritually through Elizabethtown and beyond is the real story here.

Bloom, who is English, affects a flawless -- if regionally neutral -- American accent, and is engaging as the beset-upon Drew. Kirsten Dunst, as usual, lights up the screen. The movie basically is Drew's voyage of discovery and redemption, as he comes to terms with the death of his father, the collective love of dad's native Elizabethtown friends and family, his own professional failures, and and his own disconnect with all of the above. Crowe is an engaging writer, and has good chops in telling a story as a director. I figured out fairly quickly that this movie was informed by Crowe's loss of his own father, many years ago. While I applaud Crowe for giving it the old college try, the movie just doesn't hold together in the end.

The Bad: As alluded to earlier, Kirsten is the most in-your-face flight attendant in history. Why don't I get stewardesses like that [you really want me to answer that? -- ed.]? As my wife the retailer said while watching the movie, it's just not realistic that the shoe that Drew developed would have ever gone to market before exhaustive testing to ensure it didn't lay the egg described in the story. Certainly, the designer is not going to be the only one in the chain to take the heat for the failure.

I was annoyed at what I perceived to be the stereotyping of small southern communities portrayed by Californian cum Washingtonian Crowe. Although he did appear to soft peddle it, the Elizabethtown residents were the usual suspects: the frosted-hair aunts, the redneck local businessmen, the redneck single father cousin. Maybe I'm just hypersensitive here, but I don't see that kind of thing here in Knoxville, at least.

Ultimately, I didn't think the action while in the town scanned. Why didn't Sarandon, as Drew's mother and new widow, go to Elizabethtown to deal with arrangements concerning her own dead husband? If she had such a good relationship with her husband, why then was she taking cooking and tap dancing classes instead of burying her beloved? If it was because she couldn't stand the townspeople, or her family in-laws, then why did she show up at the end of the picture for the memorial service they held? She was basically wasted in this role.

Come to think of it, we never learned why dad was in his native Elizabethtown in the first place. If he and his family were as estranged with his local family as implied, then why was he there? Why was dad so revered by local family and friends? Let's face it: out of sight means out of mind. If he had been gone from his home town for decades, as implied, then it is likely that the town was not going to be as collectively prostrate with grief as portrayed.

I also couldn't suspend disbelief long enough to believe in the crucial and central relationship between Bloom and Dunst. Don't get me wrong; I rooted for them, but I just didn't believe it. And Bloom's questing drive cross-country to cap off the film is supposed to be quixotically romantic, I suppose. It just comes off as silly to me.

The Bottom Line: Two Flicks. I really wanted to like this movie better, but it just didn't stack up well compared to Crowe's very solid previous work. To use a sports metaphor, sometimes, you've got the right play called, the right players on the field, and the touchdown pass just falls short. That's "Elizabethtown" to me.

Friday, April 06, 2007

I always got a kick out of the 1976 Walter Matthau/Tatum O'Neal vehicle The Bad News Bears,and I've watched it many times over the years. The picture got a lot of attention in the day for the raw language and situations the child characters found themselves in. But the interplay between Matthau and O'Neal, Matthau and the kids, Matthau and the adults [detect a trend there?] creates a sort of whimsical atmosphere. That, with a clear love of thegame of baseball, made the original work notable andentertaining.

So it was with some trepidation that I sat down with the remake of it -- 2005's Bad News Bears,this one with Billy Bob Thornton apparently trying to channel the late Matthau. Here's my take:

The Good: Not much, frankly. Billy Bob is serviceable as Buttermaker, but viewed -- inevitably -- through the patina of Matthaus's bravura performance almost 30 years previously, it comes off as a pale imitation of the original. There are a couple of decent gags, but I found myself amused really only two or three times.

The Bad: Richard Linklater, the director, clearly couldn't figure out how to handle this remake. Retell the story, or change it up enough to make it independent of the original? What results is a mish mash of attempts at originality, interpsersed with distracting thefts from the original. For example, Linklater steals almost verbatim the gag involving Tanner in the Bears's first game. They can't stop the Yankees from running the bases, so in frustration Tanner starts throwing his glove at the opposing base runners. The only change is that Linklater has the Tanner character go an additional step. He jumps on the base runners as well. Big deal. In another example, Buttermaker is pitching to his team in practice, all the while getting crocked. The scene culminates with a cut to a prostrate Buttermaker, completely passed out over the pitcher's mound. Linklater does the same thing, with the only extension being the kids actually picking his pocket and stealing his money. Hilarious. These retreads of the original's scenes continue throughout, even down to using the same camera angle as the original on one scene, when Timmy Lupus finally gets a chance to catch a fly ball. Here, the sublime finally becomes the ridiculous. Lupus gets his glove on the ball, but he doesn't get the catch; instead, it's bounces off to be caught by Hooper, a paraplegic [yeah, you read that right], who gets to play in the outfield. Uh, how does this kid bat out of a powered wheelchair? Well, we don't have to figure that one out, because Linklater conveniently never puts him up at bat.

The worst failing is the Tatum O'Neal character, Amanda. The young actress is sadly miscast, and has no chemistry with Billy Bob at all. The key to the original was the implicit, bittersweet interplay between Matthau and O'Neal. That interplay is wholly nonexistent in the new movie. This movie just never captures any of the whimsy that made the original so special.

The Bottom Line: One Flick. Watch the original. You'll see the same gags, and much better executed.

UPDATE: I watched the original Bad News Bears yesterday, and realized that I was flat wrong with my reference to the camera angle on the penultimate Lupus catch toward the end of the picture. The 2005 shot was a point of view shot from the ball, in the air. In the 1976 movie, the shot is from the ground level. Sorry about the mistake, but I still stand by my take on the two fims. The first one just hangs together better, and is sweeter than the new one, language notwithstanding.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Once every so often, you find a TV show that transcends the standard fare, and that achieves the extraordinary. For me and many others the first four seasons of The West Wing did just that. I remember one commentator being astounded that policy wonk issues could form the basis of a successful hour-long drama. But that observation misses the point. It wasn't so much the stories that grabbed the viewer, it was the incredible pacing and dialogue. Watching a West Wing episode was not only a pleasure for those who thrive on snappy repartee, it was also a challenge. Creator-writer Aaron Sorkin paces his stories along so fast, you better pay close attention, or you'll miss something good. He's also not afraid of poking fun at his own [political] side. My favorite line, from season 2, episode 1:

Josh Lyman: Mr. Secretary, the Democrats aren't going to nominate another liberal academic former governor from New England. I mean, we're dumb, but we're not that dumb.

Former Secretary Leo McGarry: Nah. I think we're exactly that dumb.

Anticlimactic though it may be, here's my take on the series:

The Good: Seasons 1 through 4 -- everything. Many of the actors in the show are Sorkin regulars. For instance, Martin Sheen [President Bartlet], played Chief of Staff McInerney in the Sorkin-penned The American President, while Joshua Malina was not only in the former, but also was a featured player in another Sorkin TV show, the interesting but ill-fated Sports Night. This show was one of the few -- if not the only -- that actually stopped regular production after 9/11, retooled with a script Sorkin had dashed off in, like 48 hours, filemd an entirely new episode dealing with incipient anti-arab fears rumbling since the attack, and had the show on the air within, like two or three weeks after 9/11. Thus, instead of blithely carrying on with their story arc, they simply pushed it back a week, stopped, and presented their own ode to the world as of September 2001. I don't know that I've ever seen such a thing coming out of series TV before, and certainly not since.

Overall, the casting, using many actors you've seen before in supporting or character roles, is uncannily perfect, from Sheen as the president, to Brad Whitford, as Deputy Chief of Staff Lyman, to Richard Schiff, who often steals the show as curmudgeonly Toby Ziegler. I could highlight just about any cast member; they all work in their roles. And, as it should be, The west Wing has made them stars in their own right.

The stories are, well, riveting. As alluded to above, the genius of Aaron Sorkin is his ability to do it with lines like, "I need Section 202 of the National Securities Act of 1947." The West Wing is the perfect example of "getting there is
all the fun. Or, it's not the result; it's the process.
Now, while I freely admit I'm a Democrat, and the show is about a Democratic administration, I posit that viewers of any political bent would enjoy this show, by simply ignoring the substance they don't agree with. That's what I did in various episodes where I disagreed with the obvious political or ideological point the writers were making. It's the process, not the result, after all.

The Bad: Well, maybe not bad, per se, but certainly not as good as years one through four, are the five through seventh seasons. Apparently, Sorkin was turning out genius writing by holing up in a hotel, loading up on crack, and churning, baby, churning. Apparently NBC got tired of this relatively uncertain way of getting scripts, severed its relationship with Sorkin, and placed ER's John Wells in charge of the shooting match. Seasons 5 through 7 are OK, but just don't hold up well to the first four. I thought the writing became a little more preachy in seasons 5 and 6; I don't see that Sorkin would have taken the same tone or direction. Nevertheless, it was still damn good TV. The seventh season was largely taken up with the faux presidential campaign to replace the outgoing Bartlet, and the show returned to almost-Sorkin form. Again, we really didn't know whether the Democrat [Jimmy Smits] was going to win, or the Republican [Alan Alda] would take the presidential prize. The writers cannily made you like both the candidates, and left the result up in the air just about as long as the Bush-Gore result was undecided. Frankly, I still was sorry to see the series end, just when it was getting interesting again.

The Bottom Line:Seasons 1-4: Five Flicks. Perhaps the best series television [drama] ever made.

Seasons 5-7: three Flicks. Still good, but still a pale shadow of the sartorial glory that was the first four years of The West Wing.

Well, the Tennessee Lady Vols have done it again, winning their seventh national basketball championship against Rutgers, 59-46. It puts me in mind of perhaps the Lady Vols's longest shot championship, after the 1996-97 season, chronicled in A Cinderella Season: The Lady Vols Fight Back. I thought it would be timely to review this absorbing HBO documentary.

The Good: Want to know what it's like to play for Pat Summitt? To be a part of a championship team that is underachieving? A Cinderella Season: The Lady Vols Fight Back takes the viewer into the locker room, the weight room, and right onto the court. The documentary filmmakers had almost unprecedented access to Summitt, her staff, and her players. Unless you are a fan of the program, you really don't know what's going to happen next. And more characteristic of a fictional drama, the twists and turns of this most unlikely of seasons will keep you on the edge of your seat.

The film works on another level, too. By delving into the backgrounds of Summitt and recalcitrant senior forward Abby Conklin, the filmmakers set up a quasi-dramatic adversarial tension between the two that further informs the piece. I tend to watch it again every year at tournament time, because it gets me fired up. Poignant, exciting, and eminently entertaining.

The Bad: I wish it had run longer. I felt like the fimmakers had to cut the piece too much, probably to fit time limitations imposed by HBO. Other than that, no down side at all.

The Bottom line: Four Flicks. A director's cut would probably get five flicks in my book.