Monday, December 24, 2007

The Best Movie Posters of 2007

Well, it's that time of the year again when I visit the Internet Movie Poster Awards site and comb through all the movie posters for films released during the calendar year and honor what I feel is the best. I've been mocked frequently for my movie poster obsession but hey I don't care. This is art. So is film and that's criticized so this can be too. Unlike previous years where there seemed to be some kind of correlation between the quality of the posters and the quality of the film some of the year's worst reviewed films had the best posters. That's kind of depressing when you think about it. It at least proves there was a germ of a good idea behind some of these projects that were marketed well but turned out to be disasters.

They're not ranked or anything but I have saved the big winner for last. I should mention this was not a good year for posters (or really movies for that matter) but the choices here I still believe are top notch and I'd gladly have any of them on my wall (if I had any space left). Three qualities make a great movie poster in my eyes: 1) It's different and interesting 2) It grabs your attention visually 3) It sells the movie effectively and makes you want to see it. Remember I'm judging the poster, NOT THE FILM. If you think I overlooked a really good one feel free to post it or let me know.

Black Snake Moan- It's a good thing I'm not judging the film because I really didn't care for it at all. This comic book style poster on the other hand is awesome and contains an image that not only looks cool, but is unsettling and impossible to shake. I've noticed spoofs of this poster popping up all over the place, which is a sure sign they must have done something right. One of the most memorable of this year.

Good Luck Chuck-You can say what you want about how bad the movie is (I can't because I haven't seen it yet) but you can't tell me this poster doesn't do an effective job selling it. This is a classic example of really knowing your audience and catering to them in the best way possible. Everyone was perplexed how this movie took in so much money but I wasn't. The reason is pictured below and I'm not even that big of an Alba fan. Imagine if she ever radiated just half the sexiness onscreen that she does on this poster. We can dream can't we? The other one-sheets for this comedy (including one of Alba and Dane Cook tastelessly spoofing John Lennon and Yoko Ono) are as bad as the film supposedly was. Accept no imitations. This one's the real deal.

The Number 23-Yeah Jim Carrey as a tattooed serial killer doesn't exactly grab me either but this image does. You have no choice but to look at it. If you don't Jim Carrey will find you and kill you. I love how you can barely read that Joel Schumacher directed the film. Probably a wise move. After all, you do want at least a few people to go see the movie.

Invasion-Talk about old school. Could there possibly be a poster that better fits only the ten millionth take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers? It has a real retro Twilight Zone feel and if I didn't know any better I'd think this came right out of the '60's. It's genuinely scary and makes great use of color. Well done.

Death Sentence-If this poster looks a little familiar it's probably because it so closely resembles the series of posters used for American Gangster that featured Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. While those looked good visually I thought they were just too boring to make the cut. This isn't. The dripping bat. Bacon's look of remorseful resignation. The bright red lettering against the black background. Good stuff.

Captivity-Everybody needs their Elisha Cuthbert fix and here she is getting her Han Solo on in this disturbing, unforgettable poster. I can't say it's the most original poster this year but it is by far the coolest. And this wasn't even the Captivity poster that caused all that controversy over the summer. That one was too tame. This is a foreign one that wasn't even released in the United States. I have no idea why everyone got so worked up over the marketing for this film. If it's a thriller about being held captive what did they expect? This is really clever and I'd imagine it would look even better framed and on someone's wall. Supposedly the movie sucked, but the studio can take solace in the fact that they really did their best in the marketing department.

Premonition-Sandra Bullock may have not made a good movie in years but at least she can claim she starred in the best movie poster of 2007. Don't ruin the perfect image this poster conveyed for you by actually viewing the film. That would be a huge mistake. If you did already, my condolences. Don't worry though we can always just stare at this brilliant poster that offers up the promise of what this psychological thriller could have been.

It isn't too early to start looking ahead. These 2008 posters are better than anything I listed above.

The Dark Knight (Teaser 1)

The Dark Knight (Teaser 2)


Funny Games


Saturday, December 22, 2007

TV on DVD: Veronica Mars (The Complete Third Season)

Creator: Rob Thomas
Starring: Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Enrico Colantoni, Percy Daggs III, Ryan Hansen, Tina Majornino, Micheal Muhney, Chris Lowell, Francis Capra, Julie Gonzalo

Original Airdate: 2006-2007

*** (out of ****)

"Now that we're on the CW, I feel like we're finally on the right network. As long as we hold most of the Gilmore Girls audience, we'll be successful. That's what we need to accomplish this year."
-Veronica Mars Creator Rob Thomas

I wasn't there when Rob Thomas made that statement but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that a CW executive was pointing a loaded gun directly at his head when he did. Anyone who's actually seen Veronica Mars knows that it ISN'T THAT KIND OF SHOW. And as long as network executives tried to shape it into one and gain that coveted teen demographic the more we realize the actual problem and why it really struggled in the ratings. It was on the wrong network…twice. Networks that just didn't deserve the show and had no idea what to do with it.

The audience who would have watched the show don't watch UPN or the CW but rather than try and promote the show for what it was (the best written and acted drama of the decade) they decided the show must have some creative problems that need fixing. It didn't, at least until they stepped in. All this off screen drama concerning the fate of Veronica Mars came to a head in its third and final season, one considered even by the show's most loyal devotees to be a massive disappointment plagued with creative issues.

Fans of the show are probably looking at my rating above, scratching their heads and thinking three and a half stars is excessive. That I'm bias. You're thinking three stars seems more on the mark. But that's the thing. Giving this season three stars would be like some kind of admission that even when this show isn't at its absolute best it can be categorized as "good," "average" or in the slightest bit comparable with anything else on television. What's really scary is despite the network clearly running interference it's still better than anything on television.

While I found some of the changes made to the show this season to be questionable (and there are times when you can almost see the network notes onscreen) I can't say I was angered or offended by any of them or that the overall integrity of the series was compromised. But there was something in this DVD set I was angered by and it had nothing to do with the third season. Instead, it was on a bonus disc of special features, one of which gives us a glimpse of what the show would have become in its fourth season had it been renewed and paints its cancellation in a whole different light for me.

Season 3 should stand as a warning sign against network meddling and what can happen when the wrong element of a show is emphasized. It's a testament to Thomas and his writers that by the end they were able to overcome this intrusion, finish strong and deliver a reasonably satisfying conclusion. It's also worth noting that this final season is nowhere near the disaster everyone has made it out to be and at worst it's merely uneven. A step down only in comparison to the other two. Haters are quick to point out the flaws but may have missed the flashes of brilliance that come in the form of interesting new directions for certain characters, a couple of great guest starring performances, and Thomas' refusal to lose sight of "the big picture," even when we we fear he has.

My first reaction upon popping in Season 3 was that it was a completely different show. Actually that was clear from the second I saw the DVD packaging, which is noticeably different and sleeker than that of the previous two seasons. It's obvious, with the show moving out of high school and into college an effort was made to make it seem more "mature," which is ironic considering there was nothing in the slightest bit immature about it to begin with. This carries over to the new opening, which features an opening title sequence that better emphasizes the noir aspect of the show and a slower, darker re-mix of the contagiously catchy Dandy Warhols theme song, "We Used To be Friends."

At least the change in the title sequence was a good idea and probably overdue, but unfortunately the tone of it is more applicable to the previous seasons than this one, which is the most lightweight of the three. The look of the show itself is even a little different as it appears it was shot on a higher budget this time around with more interesting camera work and in higher definition. My eyes could be playing tricks on me here, but although the same soft colors fans have been accustomed to are used, it appears to have been shot darker. The biggest change this season though has nothing to do with aesthetics, but narrative.

Hearing complaints from viewers that the second season's bus crash mystery was "too complicated" (which at times it was) Thomas takes a different approach to the mysteries this season, doing away with one giant story arc that pays off huge in the finale and instead replacing it with one mystery that wraps up halfway through the season and a second that concludes just before the final episode. The goal of making this season simpler and more accessible to casual viewers is accomplished but it comes at the expense of the forward moving momentum that were trademarks of the first two. It's simple, but at times it feels maybe too simple. It's almost as if the writers thought the audience was too stupid to follow a complex season-long mystery. With the show's future in doubt right up until the very last episode we got 20 episodes instead of the usual 22.
Unsurprisingly (and likely unavoidably) the shift of the setting from high school to college hurts the show some. The value of the high school setting was seeing how Neptune High was a microcosm of the class system in the town and reflected its prejudices and corruption. It hit on a universal truth that's reflected in high schools in wealthy ZIPs across the country. College is different. There isn't as much of a struggle and the dramatic potential is considerably lessened. So here the writers are called upon to do more to create it.

If the second season opened up the town of Neptune the first half of Season 3 closes it off, quarantining us at Hearst College. Anyone who attended college would be thankful if it bared little resemblance to the depressing Hearst, which boasts an entire student population consisting of sleazy frat boys and militant feminists whose extracurricular activities include rape, faking rape, murder, gambling and kidnapping. Good thing one of their incoming freshmen is Veronica Mars.

The season starts off on a note of confusion since when we last left Veronica we were under the impression she'd be attending Stanford. Now all of the sudden she's at Hearst joining her best friend Wallace Fennell (Percy Daggs III), who's there on a basketball scholarship. The lack of explanation is related to the final change Thomas (or more likely "the network") implemented on the show. In the opening episodes of this season the underlying mythology and references to past events are downplayed so not to confuse potential new viewers who have never seen the show.

There's a clearly conscious effort to start with a clean slate on a new network in what was a "do or die" situation for this series. But notice I say "downplayed" and not forgotten as will be evident as the season wears on. There is a quick wrap up to a lingering plot thread and cliffhanger from the second season finale in the first episode (3-1: "Welcome Wagon") and it's interesting in that it's the only time in the series where we see Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni) in a position of real helplessness and weakness. He's bruised, battered, and really has no one to blame but himself. Like Veronica, we've come to view him as completely infallible, a notion that's challenged this season as Keith makes some morally questionable decisions. He even begins an affair with a married woman (guest star Laura San Giacomo), even if that relationship feels independent from everything else plot-wise and a little tacked on.

The shift to college puts the writers in an awkward position of having to come up with a new set of characters to fill the void left by Veronica's graduation from Neptune High. If Principal Clemmons served as Veronica's foil and sometime nemesis in high school, a similar role is assumed at Hearst by Dean Cyrus O' Dell, played by guest star Ed Begley Jr. And fans of Begley's guest starring performance in the other great cancelled show of this decade, Arrested Development, will be pleased to discover that this time around he has all of his hair in place. The character is written as kind of a buffoon but Begely brings so much more to the role, investing him with real depth and making him a likeable guy who always seems to be in on the joke. His lively performance helps save the more problematic portions in the first half of this season.

In an interesting development that carries throughout much of the season, Veronica becomes the star protégé of cocky criminology professor Hank Landry (Patrick Fabian) who has all the connections to hook her up with a summer internship in the FBI, but seems to be struggling more with personal problems of his own. He also has a teaching assistant who just might be the most unintentionally hilarious character in Veronica Mars history. For some reason I just laughed every time he appeared onscreen. Helping some was the actor playing him, who will look eerily familiar to diehard fans of the series.
Unintentional or not, anyone who enjoys this show for its comedy will have the most to laugh at by far in this season. You really do have to wonder how much of it was intended to be taken seriously at all and it's hard to get that upset at any of the flaws precisely because of that reason. When you have Veronica investigating the kidnapping of guest star Patty Hearst and Richard Grieco as a meth head abducted for his bone marrow you can't help but just sit back and have fun. Those who can let go and do that will find a lot to love about the third season, but those who can't probably won't care for it at all.

Michael Muhney and Tina Majornino, who both had big recurring roles in the first two seasons as Sheriff Don Lamb and Veronica's pal Mac, become series regulars, but it's in billing only as neither seem to have any more screen time. You could actually argue Muhney has less than ever. And unfortunately many times during this season the writers seem more preoccupied with Mac's love life than her helping Veronica solve cases. What they do well, however, is subtly address the tragedy that befell both Mac and the irritating Dick Casablancas (Ryan Hansen) at the end of the second season.

Without giving too much away I really liked how they showed how both were impacted differently and handled it in a way befitting their personalities. Casablancas reaches new unlikable heights with his abrasive and the over-the-top behavior but a twist late in the season teases us with the possibility we didn't think could exist: That he may actually have a soul. With so much focus on the newer characters the unfortunate consequence is that two of the most likeable regulars in the series are given very little to do this season.

Wallace is hardly seen or heard from until later episodes while Eli "Weevil" Navarro (Francis Capra) isn't given much more, but unfortunately I have a feeling that had more to do with the actor's health problems than neglect from the writers. That's a shame since Capra's done such tremendous work on the show, but it should be noted that he still has a couple of really strong episodes, including one early on (3-3: "Witchita Linebacker") where we see him in an interesting role we're not accustomed to, interacting and working with a major character he hasn't had any contact with over the course of the series.

There's a theory that's been floating around among fans that the character of Veronica is meaner this season and despite Thomas' denials on the issue I actually do think there's some truth to it. In fact, you could argue there are many instances early on where she comes off as a complete bitch.

Perhaps tired of being let down constantly by those who love her and victimized by the system, this attitude seems to take over her investigation into the first big mystery, the series of on-campus rapes that started last season. Criticisms have been lobbied against this storyline claiming that Veronica lacks the personal connection to this mystery that she had with the two previous cases in the series, which is probably true to an extent. But, really, how much longer can she go with everyone she's close to dying? What they're also forgetting is that Veronica herself is a victim of rape and many of her actions and harsh behavior could justifiably stem from that. She wants to get at the truth at any cost possible since she, of all people, knows what it's like to be dragged through the mud and have no one on your side.

Appropriately, and nicely harkening back to the first two seasons, this investigation once again puts Veronica on the outside looking in and makes her public enemy number to the social factions on campus. The revelation of the rapist isn't a shock, or even much of a surprise, but the episode that reveals it (3-9: "Spit and Eggs," the only episode in the series directed by Rob Thomas) sure is exciting and marks one of the very few times in the show's run when Veronica is put in immediate physical harm.

From there it's off and running with the second mystery, which concerns the potential murder of a prominent faculty member at Hearst. This fares better than the rape storyline largely because we actually grow to care about the victim. Unfortunately, it's REALLY obvious who the killer is and for the first time we're actually a few steps ahead of Veronica and she kind of comes off looking like an idiot for being an episode or two too slow to figure it out. Still, when the reveal comes (3-15: "Papa's Cabin") it makes for one of the most clever and entertaining scenes of the season.

One of the qualities we love most about Veronica is her reckless, rebellious attitude, but now she's called out on it by those closest to her as she continually risks her safety. Her behavior is becomes selfish (especially during the rape case) pushing away the people who love her. The relationship between Veronica and Logan (Jason Dohring) which was invested with such subtle depth the previous two seasons unfortunately turns into a glorified soap opera at times during this one. On again. Off again. On again. Off again. But that didn't bother me as much as the fact that it became the focal point of the show and crime solving was pushed aside to make room for it.

This is especially true of one episode where Logan is left to care for a little girl (3-13: "Postgame Mortem") and the whole universe seems to revolve around his relationship with Veronica. It's really the only major issue I have with the third season and I'm convinced the CW, in a silly attempt to lure in female teenage viewers and gain the "Gilmore Girls audience," are completely responsible for it. There are quite a few episodes toward the middle part of the season spent with Logan hauled up in the Neptune Grand Hotel moping. We should thank our lucky stars though that this material is being handled by two actors with the talent of Bell and Dohring because I can't even begin to think what a disaster this could have turned into without them to carry it.

When I reviewed the second season I said I could pretty much watch these characters do anything. Little did I know that theory would be put to the test.  Dohring deserves special praise here because this is the first time we get to see what he can do with writing that isn't at an "A" level and you could even argue in this season he's saddled with the series' all-time weakest material. But he still comes through. I believed he was a good actor before but after watching Season 3 I realize he was even better than I originally thought. He also has one of his best episodes at the start of the season (3-4: "Charlie Don't Surf"), where Logan's dysfunctional family past starts to rear its ugly head again.

A third wheel is even introduced into Veronica and Logan's relationship in the form of Wallace's roommate and campus D.J., Stosh "Piz" Piznarski (Chris Lowell), as Thomas exploits fans' over-protectiveness of Veronica and unwavering belief that only Logan deserves to be with her. The character of Piz starts off on an annoying foot, but as the season progresses a funny thing happens and he almost becomes likeable in his straightforward nice guy simplicity, at least to the point where we're not completely enraged to see Veronica with him. An attempt to pair off Logan with someone else (played another new addition, Julie Gonzalo) is less effective.

There's a big debate among fans whether Logan and Veronica are better together or apart. While the characters have been through the wringer and certainly earned the right to be a couple I can't say I care all that much. As long as the two of them are onscreen together in any capacity the viewer wins, so long as that storyline doesn't take over the show like it did at times during this season. Their relationship works best when it's subtly worked into the show, but doesn't have enough gas to exist independently outside of the other storylines. That's the one big miscalculation in Season 3. The show's in top form when Veronica is out in the field solving mysteries and the strongest episodes of this third season can match up with any of the strongest ones from the second.

The genius of the series is how it always finds a way to but Veronica in new and fresh situations, and even when the situations aren't new and fresh, they seem like they are because they're played so well and Bell is such a pro. This is true of possibly my favorite episode of this season, 3-11: "Poughkeepsie, Tramps and Thieves," where Veronica helps a geeky student track down a girl he met at Comic-Con. Full of twists, turns, reversals and surprises the mystery showcases everything that's so great about this show. I also got a feeling of déjà vu as I watched because I could swear the episode looked very familiar to me. Then it occurred to me this may have been the one episode I caught a part of when the series originally aired.

With the finish line in sight it's almost as if the writers had a fire lit underneath them as they approached the final episode (3-20: "The Bitch is Back"). A new mystery presents itself that's so compelling it could easily compete with anything from the first two seasons. There's the shocking return of a familiar face from Season 1 and big steps are made to get back to the mythology of the show and the class warfare of Neptune.

Keith Mars takes a very interesting turn as we get to see his character in a different capacity. You could claim a lot of supporting characters are brushed aside this season but you couldn't dare make that comment about Keith, who's given enough emphasis to consider renaming the show, Keith Mars. Certain aspects of the show may have been shortchanged this season but the relationship between Keith and Veronica hasn't.

Toward the end we're also treated to pretty great guest performances, specifically from Paul Rudd as a washed up rock star (3-17: "Debasement Tapes'). Rudd is an actor with many fans and I'm betting he earned some more with his hilarious turn in that episode. Ken Marino pops back in at just the right time as private investigator Vinnie Van Lowe and finally plays the major role I've been hoping he would throughout the entire series. What I like most about this character is even though he acts like a complete moron that's all it is, an act. He's a smart detective and an opportunist who's always playing a game or an angle.

Of all the recurring characters that travel through the revolving door that's Neptune Van Lowe is by far my favorite and if you think about it the only one who's a formidable opponent for Keith and Veronica. He's as smart as they are, except he's playing dumb. Marino is an actor who can shift from comedy to drama at the flip of a switch and we're never quite sure whether he's serious or not, making his presence that much more intriguing. The latter episodes suggest that he was set up to take an even larger role in the next season, which doesn't help to soften the already painful blow of losing this series.

In the final stretch Logan comes out of his self-induced depression and starts shows a spark we haven't seen from him since the first season. It's such a dramatic turnaround it makes me wonder if Thomas really did have a plan and was building him up for this the entire season. Wallace and Weevil who seemed to be in seclusion for much of the season come out of hiding in the final two episodes with the former having a scene in the finale more reminiscent of Saw than Veronica Mars.

There were some criticisms that with the prospect of a Season 4 very much still in the air, Thomas left some things open causing the final episode to feel more like a season finale than a series one. I disagree. I think he knew it was the end and the evidence can be seen in the show's final moments. If you pay attention to the last line of dialogue in the series and who says it we're reminded what this show at its core was REALLY about the whole time, making the fact that it didn't find a wider audience that much sadder.

There were some changes and an obvious tug-of-war with the network but enough of the elements that make this show special were retained, making this DVD set an easy buy for fans. I was overcome with a sense of dread as I neared that final disc knowing I'd never again have the chance to see a first-run episode of my favorite show. As a stand alone series you're not likely find better entertainment than this and I think a casual viewer with no previous knowledge of Veronica Mars would probably find this season more accessible and enjoyable than the second, even if it isn't up to its level creatively.

This is the only DVD set of the three seasons to contain a bonus disc with a variety of special features. It's still not enough for my taste, but it's noteworthy in that it contains something unprecedented for a cancelled television series: a look into what the next season would look like had the show continued...and it isn't pretty. Even those who had big problems with the third season will be crying and begging to run back to Hearst College after watching this horror of a presentation created by Thomas with the intention of selling the CW executives on a fourth season.

It's kind of sad to watch the interview with the defeated Thomas as he attempts to explain why the entire show has to be overhauled and flash-forwarded four years into the future with Veronica as a rookie FBI agent. You get the impression that he really doesn't want to do it but his hand has been forced and it's the only way he can keep the show on the air. He's been trumped by the network and is grasping at straws, attempting to create a new vision of the show that will please them. This is not in any way a criticism of Thomas, as I can't even imagine the pressure he must have been under having created the smartest show on television that no one watched and being told by executives (who had no idea how to market it) that it's not good enough.

Thomas says he was pleased to hear that many fans, while not crazy about the idea, would have remained on board and embraced the show if it meant the character of Veronica could stay on TV. I'm sorry to say I wouldn't have been one of them. To me it's more important that the essence of the series not be compromised and I'm relieved the CW didn't buy the pitch for another season if that was in any way a taste of what we'd get. It just wouldn't be the same Veronica Mars. I can't say I was thrilled about the prospect of a sophomore year at Hearst either, but the final episodes of the third season suggested had we continued down that road the show could have possibly returned to Season 1 form, making this FBI idea even worse.

Other than a great supporting turn from veteran character actor Bob Gunton (who adds his name to the elite list of guest stars) Thomas' FBI "presentation" is the longest 12 minutes in Veronica Mars history. Believe it or not, I actually do see the temptation to move Veronica to the Bureau and have her work on the largest scale possible since she's more than earned her pass out of dead-end Neptune. But it's still a temptation that should be resisted.

If you watch crime shows like CSI or Law and Order it's almost a joke how much smarter the character of Veronica is than all of them and how silly those storylines look in comparison to anything on this show. The case of a missing pet feels more important than a double murder on any of these trite police shows and Veronica could run circles around any supposed "forensics expert." Which is why the show shouldn't go there. She's different, and it's important she stays that way. Without the lawless corruption of Neptune to fight against, there's nothing to drive the character of Veronica anymore. It doesn't seem right that she'd now be on the side of the system she's spent all this time battling.
This new vision would also be a complete betrayal, doing away with all the great supporting characters we've become so attached to over the course of the series and, if this short glimpse was any indication, replaced them with far blander ones. In many ways this short pitch to the network proves just how invaluable the entire cast has been throughout the course of the series. Doing away with Keith, Logan and Wallace would be like driving a stake through the heart of the show. Even while recognizing this was just a rough version of what we'd eventually see, it was more than enough to cause concern. Thomas even boasts that this new show would be shot differently and have a Grey's Anatomy feel to it, mixing "adventure and romance." Ugh.

According to him, the plan all along was to eventually send Veronica to the FBI, but that's something I don't EVER want to see regardless of how far into the future it is. Veronica's true calling is as a P.I. working with her father at Mars Investigations because what goes down in Neptune is far more important than anything that happens on a lame police procedural.

The only big question that remains is whether we really have seen the last of Veronica Mars. As a television series we definitely have but now with the trend of cancelled shows being turned into feature films (Firefly, Sex and the City and The X-Files to name a few) there have been rumblings that Veronica could end up on the big screen at some point. At first I was against the idea, but it actually kind of makes sense. Veronica Mars has always felt like a story wide enough in scope that it almost couldn't be contained on the small screen. And with DVD having given it greater exposure, it's possible it could also find a wider audience in theaters.

This is the kind of show that could have spoken to a large cross-section of audiences if it were just on the right network and marketed properly. That it had to come down to something so simple and correctable is sad, but true. Because of its uniqueness it was perhaps always destined to always remain a cult show, which is maybe the higher compliment. If it was a huge mainstream success, the series would likely feel less like "ours."

The prospect of a movie is largely dependent on whether Thomas wants to write it (which he says he does) and Bell wants to star in it (an iffier prospect since her Hollywood stock is justifiably rising). There's also the issue of finding a balance between pleasing fans of the show by tying up unresolved story threads and attracting the many casual moviegoers who haven't seen it. If this does ever come to pass, I'd very much like the first scene to be Veronica throwing down her FBI badge and returning to Neptune as a giant middle finger to the CW for screwing over this show. But even if we never get a feature film, I can honestly express satisfaction that it ended before we witnessed a deterioration that would have adversly shaped our view of the series.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Balls of Fury

Director: Robert Ben Garant
Starring: Dan Fogler, Christopher Walken, George Lopez, Maggie Q, James Hong, Robert Patrick, Aisha Tyler

Running Time: 90 min.

Rating: PG-13

1/2 * (out of ****)

I've always had this theory that even the worst films have something in them worth recommending. Maybe it's just false optimism but I grant the filmmakers the courtesy they acted with the best intentions and for the most part avoid taking cheap shots. As bad as some films I've seen have been this year and how little value they've contained, I can recall very few that I'd consider totally worthless. That theory is really put to the test with the painfully unfunny and terminally boring Balls of Fury. I pay exactly $1.08 for every movie I rent but this is the only instance I actually felt ripped off and wanted a refund. Perhaps it was a warning sign that the trailer for this movie preceded nearly every theatrical and DVD release I saw this past summer and I could recite lines from the film months before I even watched it.

This may be the first movie where the trailer ACTUALLY IS the movie and this trailer, which barely elicited a few giggles initially, became increasingly less funny with each viewing. When the time arrived to actually see the movie a strange sensation came over me that I had seen it all before. Maybe that's because I have. Only now it felt like it was 170 hours long. It takes a premise with little to no comic potential and somehow finds a way to waste even that and make it seem unfunnier than it already is. Even all the actors in the film look bored and have guilty looks on their faces like they knew how bad this was but just couldn't help themselves. It's time to call it a year because we may have found the worst film of 2007.

Tony Award Winning Actor (!) Dan Fogler is former table tennis phenom Randy Dakota who at the age of 12 suffered an embarrassing defeat in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea. This loss causes the murder of his father (Robert Patrick), who bet on him to win the gold and was unable to pay up. 19 years pass and Randy is relegated to working the Vegas casino circuit with a silly table tennis routine. That is until he's paid an unexpected visit from an FBI agent Rodriguez (George Lopez) who wants him to undercover to take down the man responsible for his father's death, the devious crime lord Feng (Christopher Walken).

To do so he must go back into training in order to receive an invitation to compete in Feng's underground ping-pong tournament. Master Wong (James Hong), an old, wise blind man and his hot niece Maggie (Maggie Q) take him under his wing and train him to once again compete and win at table tennis against the best in the world. However, if you've seen the trailer I'm probably not telling you anything you didn't already know.

I can't recall laughing once during this entire film. There isn't a single joke you don't see coming from miles away, any character that's the slightest bit amusing or interesting, or a single surprise in the clumsily written screenplay. It's amazing how many jokes the film crams into the longest 90 minutes committed to celluloid this year and how none of them work at all. We have a blind man who who's always falling or tripping I into things, jokes about male prostitution, and a parade of misfit table tennis competitors which include an angry Russian, conjoined twins and a bratty little Chinese girl.

We're supposed to laugh at Randy because he's a fat guy with crazy hair playing table tennis. It was almost as if writers Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon thought that just the mere thought of anyone (much less someone like Randy) playing ping pong is so hysterical it would cause audiences to erupt in laughter. Looking over their list of the five sports not yet treated to a feature film slaughtering they must have jumped through the roof when they realized table tennis was still available. Add in a Chinese underground ping-pong crime ring to spoof martial arts films and all the bases are covered. Pathetically, the first 10 minutes of the film are nearly identical than the similarly themed and titled but infinitely superior Will Ferrell skating comedy Blades of Glory from earlier this year.

After watching the performance of Dan Fogler in his starring debut I've gained a new appreciation for Jack Black as an actor. Fogler does his best impersonation of him here but lacks any of the charisma, comic timing or screen presence. I am aware that stage and film acting are radically different but I still don't know what to say about the fact that he was given Broadway's highest honor in the form of a Tony award. Hopefully, it'll be confiscated after this. That he's co-starring in one of the comedies I'm most anticipating in 2008 (Fanboys) is now making me second guess just how much I'm actually looking forward to it.

They'll be those tempted to see this film because of the presence of the great Christopher Walken, maybe our strangest and most interesting supporting actor. Resist that temptation. Going in I was sure that at least just the scenes involving him would hysterical but even those are obvious and fall flat, making this the only Walken role I can ever recall not enjoying. Maggie Q appeared in one of the best films of the year this summer with Live Free or Die Hard and tore up the screen with her performance. She can now claim she's also appeared in one of the worst. She's completely wasted here.

When Aisha Tyler showed up I had to ask myself a question: WHAT'S SHE DOING IN THIS? Anyone who's seen interviews with her knows just how smart she is and this appearance clearly has no bearing on that since everyone has to pay the bills but this is too much. When she sat in as a guest critic on Ebert and Roeper she offered great insight into why certain films worked or didn't. This is exactly the kind of movie she would have bashed on the show. I know it is. The only actor who avoids embarrassment is George Lopez who is mildly amusing at least until the big scene where he gets to scream the most overused movie catchphrase in pop culture history. He also gets to kick Heroes' Masi Oka in the face, something the show's fans are probably jealous of considering that series' sophomore season.

Toward the end of this movie I heard a loud, crashing sound. It was the DVD remote dropping to the floor after slipping out of my hand. I had fallen asleep for about 10 minutes and it wasn't just a little nap either. If not for that I'm convinced I would have been out cold for the duration of the film and probably beyond. This despite the presence of Maggie Q, Aisha Tyler and a large coffee. It's a good thing the remote wasn't damaged or I'd have to send a letter to the offices of director Robert Ben Garant demanding he replace it.

As for those 10 minutes I slept through let's just say that it would have to be an alternate ending to Citizen Kane to convince me that I missed anything worthwhile. Apparently this disc also had some special features as if the traumatic experience of watching the film itself wasn't enough. Needless to say, I didn't bother with any of them.

Balls of Fury
is a complete waste of time and makes the year's other misguided comedy efforts like I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and License To Wed look like worthy candidates for preservation from the American Film Institute. So if anyone really needs their Christopher Walken fix that badly I'd suggest instead of suffering and snoozing through this mess like I did you pop in some DVD's of The Best of Saturday Night Live. At least there you're guaranteed something funny.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Rescue Dawn

Director: Werner Herzog
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, Zach Grenier, Teerawat Mulvilai

Running Time: 126 min.

Rating: PG-13

***1/2 (out of ****)

A documentary style series used to air frequently on The Discovery Channel called I Shouldn't Be Alive, which re-enacted stories of normal people caught in incredible life or death situations. I always found it fascinating to watch not so much because of the physical lengths it would take someone to survive under such circumstances, or even the intelligence or resourcefulness, but rather the determination.

Certain human beings just have the capacity to dig down deep when faced with an unimaginable crisis and somehow against all odds pull through. Others just give up and don't make it. Or don't give up, but end up dying anyway. And luck is always a factor. Sure you could watch it and pick up tips on how to handle certain situations, but I always thought it came down to the person. You either have it or you don't and you never find out until you're put in that situation.

The story of German-born Navy pilot Dieter Dengler in Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn would fit nicely into that series. Instead though it was made into Little Dieter Needs To Fly, a 1997 documentary directed by Herzog, which told the story of this pilot on a top-secret mission during Vietnam shot down over Laos and captured. Along with the other prisoners, he eventually stages an escape. In adapting his own documentary for a feature length movie it's clear Herzog wasn't interested in just recounting the facts and telling the story "as it happened". This is far from a documentary. It has a fast pulse and keeps you guessing what will happen next despite us being fully aware how it ends. This isn't a film about war or survival. It's more a film about the limitless potential of human beings and it features two of the best acting performances this year.

One the most effective aspects of Herzog's picture is its no frills, no nonsense approach as it doesn't waste any time getting right the meat of the story within minutes. There's essentially no build-up or background and we learn very little about Dieter before his plane goes down in the jungle. Everything we do learn about him and what learns about himself comes out of the horrific predicament he finds himself in. That's exactly the way it should be and was a wise decision on Herzog's part; one I'm betting most other filmmakers wouldn't have had the intelligence to make.

They'd instead have us suffer through a long, detailed prologue about the war and force in a sub-plot about Dieter's family. It's not necessary. Everyone's aware of the toll Vietnam took on this country and how difficult it was to watch loved ones go into a battle many believed we had no business fighting. Showing restraint by keeping these issues simmering under the surface instead of exploiting them outright lends a far more disturbing mood to the film. The effects and horrors of the war are obvious in every scene of dialogue spoken and every event that occurs between the prisoners and the North Vietnamese holding them captive.

Immediately upon his arrival to the prison camp, Dieter is tortured and meets a group of other detainees who include Americans Duane Martin (Steve Zahn) and Gene Bruin (Jeremy Davies). Both of their grips on reality are slipping by the second and Dieter seems to be the only one of the group unwilling to accept the fact they all could very well die together if they make one false move. He begins to plot their escape and reasons that if they stay they'll surely die, but trying their luck in the dangerous jungle with no food or water in enemy territory gives them at least the smallest of chances. They wait until the onset of rainy season to make their move, but Dieter's plan doesn't go quite as smoothly as he'd like and he and Duane are faced to brave the elements of the unforgiving jungle and somehow signal for help with Viet Cong lurking everywhere. As far as true survival stories go, they don't get much heavier than this.

I was never one to actively seek out war films because I always thought it was ground that's been covered in every way possible. However, the ones that do leave an indelible impression on me just use war as a backdrop to tell an emotionally compelling human story. Apocalypse Now would fit into that category, and although this story is told with much more simplicity and less scope it does, like that film, examine Vietnam from an angle we haven't seen before.

There's a huge communication barrier between the North Vietnamese and their American captives in the film and it isn't all just about language. Of the group, only Dieter notices this and knows just what and what not to say to keep them all alive as long as possible to escape. It's almost like playing a game and it takes an individual with extreme patience and intelligence to master it.

The bond that forms between the detainees in the camp is based entirely on circumstance but that doesn't make it any less affecting. They learn to depend on one another and become friends whether they want to or not. Davies' Gene is difficult and marches to the beat of his own drum, challenging Dieter's escape plans at every turn. We're never quite sure how much of that attitude is his own or instead the result of the dehydration, malnutrition, extreme heat or enormous psychological stress. It could be all of the above. Whichever it is, it makes an already impossible situation that much more difficult for everyone.

It's tough to pinpoint exactly what makes Christian Bale such a phenomenal actor. He's just right there, aware and present in every moment, never needing so much as even a single line of dialogue to convey the physical and emotional torture Dieter's going through just to survive. While Bale's dramatic weight loss here thankfully doesn't come close to the dangerous level it was for The Machinist it's clear that he physically went through the wringer yet again for this role, as did his co-stars (the skeletal Davies practically looks like he's at death's door). This just further enhances Bale's reputation as one of our most dedicated, talented actors and if his work here isn't remembered come awards season there's a serious problem.

More surprisingly, Steve Zahn, who up until now had primarily been known for his quirky supporting comedy roles, is equally effective as Duane. The quirkiness is still there but this time he exploits it for great dramatic effect when Duane's sanity starts to slowly fade and his grip on reality loosens considerably as the journey wears on. The most dangerous element he must face in the battle for survival is himself.

If the film has one drawback it's that, despite it being a take on Vietnam from another angle, it is a survival story we've seen before and know exactly where it's headed. There are no surprises, but that doesn't rob the story of any tension or suspense because it's so well directed and acted. It was beautifully shot on location in the jungles of Thailand and that comes through in every scene, taking us right in there. We can almost smell it.

Credit should also go to Herzog for not being afraid to go all the way and give us the ending we all want and deserve. A lot of movies like this build to a crescendo and then just chicken out when it comes to time to pull the trigger out of a fear of coming off too sappy or emotional. Herzog knows that there's only one ending scene that's truly appropriate for this story and no one could claim he doesn't earn it.

The film has an unashamed flag waving patriotism about it that's refreshing in these times and that's never clearer than in a scene early on where Dengler is given an opportunity out of this ordeal, but at the expense of selling out his country. When the final credits rolled I was left wondering how proud Dieter Dengler and his family must be that his story was treated with this much respect and that Bale immersed himself into the role like this. When we often see "true stories" being butchered onscreen left and right these days, Rescue Dawn stands as a reminder of what adapted works are supposed to be and what great movies are all about.

Friday, December 7, 2007

TV on DVD: Veronica Mars (The Complete Second Season)

Creator: Rob Thomas
Starring: Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Teddy Dunn, Enrico Colantoni, Percy Daggs III, Francis Capra, Tessa Thompson, Ryan Hansen, Kyle Gallner

Original Airdate: 2005-2006

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

After watching and reviewing the first season of Veronica Mars I told myself it would be a long time before I reviewed another full season of television. Honestly, when it ended I had a tough time even watching television again. After that experience I've discovered that every movie and TV show I watch now looks a little…WORSE. Looking back at my film reviews since then I noticed that I hardly had a positive word to say about anything and I don't think that's a coincidence. I've been spoiled, and as a result, everything's a little less fun now. The worst episode of this show is better than just about any movie I've seen in the past year.

The first season finale of Veronica Mars was one of the very few times I can remember watching a form of entertainment where my pulse was racing, my heart was pounding, my palms were sweating and I felt legitimate fear for the characters. I didn't know what would happen next and I was almost afraid to find out. It contained a twist so shocking I'm surprised I made it through the episode in one piece. But beyond just being shocking it made complete sense and the clues were there all along. Every piece of the puzzle we were given throughout the entire season started to fit into place and the momentum the show built episode by episode exploded like a powder keg. As a result, nothing was held back and, in a rare television anomaly, we weren't left with a frustrating cliffhanger.

Creator Rob Thomas put it all out there in that episode and as I watched I realized something I hadn't the entire season: How attached you become to the character of Veronica. While everything she did was dangerous there wasn't a single time during that first season, outside of the finale, where she was in immediate physical danger, even if in many instances you'd think she would be. She inched closer and closer to it but when it did come the tension was absolutely unbearable. Just the possibility of anything happening to this character that I grew to really care about over the span of 22 episodes was enough to have me screaming at the television. It's a testament to Bell's performance and the A+ quality writing that supports the show.

Everyone I know has grown tired of me ranting and raving like a lunatic about this show for the past month but they'll have to put up with it a while longer. I also have a feeling it didn't go over too well at Thanksgiving dinner when we had to each say what we were thankful for this year and my immediate response was "Veronica Mars." With my addiction in full swing there was no way I could NOT watch the polarizing second season, but the main reason I decided to review it is because it sure makes for an interesting case study: How do you follow-up the greatest season of American television ever produced?

Let's put something in perspective immediately: The second season of Veronica Mars isn't nearly as strong as the first. Now let's put something else in perspective: Neither is any other season of any show that's ever aired. The question now becomes whether you judge its sophomore season on its own terms or in comparison to the towering masterpiece that was season one. Looking at the star rating above you could probably guess which I chose. The second season has been the subject of great debate amongst even the most diehard Mars fans. Some absolutely despise it and see no reason why the show should have continued past Season 1, while I've spoken to others who actually prefer it over the first. After watching it I can understand exactly where both sides are coming from, even if I don't necessarily agree with either.

There is great value to be found in this season but to truly be able to wrap your head around it requires you to readjust your view of the show and examine it from a "big picture" perspective. The second season can't be viewed as a stand-alone entity or even in direct comparison to the first but rather as a chapter in a continuing saga not unlike, say, something like Star Wars. Whereas the first season focused entirely on Veronica and her battle as an outsider, the second opens up the town of Neptune and fleshes out all of the supporting characters, widening the scope of the story.

If someone told me that they thought the heart and soul of the series resided in its second year I'd have a tough time arguing with them. If they also claimed that, while obviously sloppier than the preceding season, it provided more pure fun I'd have trouble shooting them down on that as well. First seasons are called first seasons precisely for that reason: THEY COME FIRST. Second seasons can't be first seasons. The characters have to move on, as much as we may not want them to.

Watching the second season opener ("Normal is the Watchword") can be best described as coming down from a huge high and landing back on Earth. It was a shaky start and my immediate reaction to the first few episodes was bewilderment as they try to cram a lot in as far as introducing new characters and setting up what will become the big story arc of the season.

I could be wrong here but it almost appeared that there was a little pressure by the network to make the show more mainstream and bring in the teen viewers immediately by focusing more on Veronica's romantic entanglements early on rather than actual mystery solving. She even tackles a real part-time job as a barista at a coffee shop at the insistence of her father before we move on to this season's rather convoluted big mystery, a school bus crash that may or may not be related to the now solved Lilly Kane murder case.

Wrapping around that is a secondary storyline involving a fatal stabbing that could also be directly connected to the crash. While this doesn't carry nearly the same emotional weight as the murder case of the previous season and Veronica doesn't have the same immediate connection to it, the closer she gets the more we realize that could change. Really, the entire town of Neptune is deeply connected to it and the underlying theme that was touched on earlier in the series, but fully exploited here is the class struggle between the haves and the have-nots of Neptune. Tensions are higher than they've ever been as a battle rages between the 09ers and the PCHers, with Veronica sandwiched right in the middle as she enters her senior year. After the events that transpired last season Veronica isn't the outsider she once was but it makes little difference because she still feels like one.

This bus crash mystery covers so much ground and is so far-reaching you'd probably need a diagram to chart all the season's characters and their potential involvement in it. It also marks the first time we're introduced to some supporting characters that are unlikable and really take a while to warm up to. But that's the beauty of this show. It has a master plan and characters we rolled are eyes at in early episodes as useless poor additions to the show end up playing a bigger role than anticipated. Everything and everyone is important it just takes a little longer to fully present itself, which may have been the cause of some criticisms labeled against this season when it aired. On DVD however, it's much more obvious how each episode links together and the continuity is pretty much seamless.

After the creative euphoria that was the first season many actors and actresses were probably knocking down the door to just so much as earn a guest spot on the show so it's no surprise this season is fully loaded. There are a ton of cameo appearances from the likes of Kevin Smith, Joss Whedon, Lucy Lawless, Kristin Cavallari, and Arrested Development's Michael Cera and Alia Shawkat. But the two biggest additions this season are Steve Guttenberg as a suspiciously upbeat Mayoral candidate harboring a dark secret and Charisma Carpenter as the scheming trophy stepmother to obnoxious rich boy Dick Casablancas (Ryan Hansen) and his little brother Cassidy a.k.a. "Beaver" (Kyle Gallner). Dick and "Beaver," who both played a small but pivotal role in the first season finale, are given a promotion here to full-fledged supporting characters who get a ton of face time.
Fans of Veronica's sidekick and best friend Wallace Fennell (Percy Daggs III) will be happy to know that he steps out from the sidelines this season and plays a major role in key episodes. He even gets a girlfriend, new student Jackie Cook (Tessa Thompson) and of all the characters it takes a while to warm up to, hers arguably takes the longest. Eli "Weevil" Navarro (Francis Capra), might get the biggest bump as he's a key figure in the two big mysteries while Teddy Dunn's Duncan Kane kind of gets the shaft, as he admittedly isn't given nearly as much to do this season. I don't have much of a problem with that though since his sister's murder was solved and Dunn is easily the weakest actor on the show.

The two most important relationships in Veronica's life are deepened further this season. The first, which has always been the beating heart of the show, is her seemingly unbreakable bond with her father, Keith (Enrico Colantoni). While it's still unbreakable it does suffer some growing pains as Veronica's lies and deception (as well intentioned as they may seem sometimes) put an emotional strain on Keith and in a landmark terrific episode (Episode 11-"Donut Run") she goes too far, basically using him and putting them both in danger.

With everything that goes on in this show as far as plot, without these brilliantly realized characters none of it would hold together and it would seem like a jumbled mess. We're reminded of that every time there's an apartment or office scene with Veronica and Keith. It's those real father-daughter moments, whether it be loud, quiet, or funny ones, that make the human aspect of this show so special. Despite all the craziness that unfolds in Neptune the show is never winking at us and is always has its foot planted firmly in reality when it comes to thoughts and behaviors.

The love-hate relationship between Veronica and 09er bad boy Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), which went through a roller-coaster ride last season, is always still simmering just below the surface in this one. At one point it's described as "epic" and I couldn't possibly think of a more accurate description. Looking back at the series it occurred to me that the episodes that prominently featured Dohring were noticeably stronger than those that didn't. I've already talked about what a travesty it is that Bell was never recognized with an Emmy, but that Colantoni and Dohring never received supporting actor nominations is just as unfair. They're the backbone of this series.

Once this season gets going it really hits the ground running, delivering some episodes that actually do match the first in entertainment value if not writing quality. We're treated to Veronica's investigations into the corporate corruption, the Irish mob, child abuse, rape, adultery, pirate radio and blackmail, many of which intertwine the big story arc and deliver the satisfying, unpredictable twists we've become accustomed to.

One of the coolest things about the show is how rewards diehard viewers by tying up loose ends as details from season's past keep springing up. It barely occurred to me that although Lilly Kane's murder was solved last season, the perpetrator (who I wouldn't dare reveal) still actually has to be convicted of the crime.
Even the most minor characters, who barely stopped in for a cup of coffee in season one return, but are expanded upon and developed so much more this time around that they could star in a spin-off of their own. The smarmy Sheriff Don Lamb (Michael Muhney) is a busy man this season and Ken Marino's goofball private eye Vinnie Van Lowe (whose Hall and Oates serenade to Veronica was one of last season's funniest moments) pops in again in a more important role. Guest star Harry Hamlin, who gave the performance of his life last season as Aaron Echolls is back as is his bitchy, D-level actress daughter Trina (Alyson Hannigan) in one memorable episode.

Not just knowledge, but intricate, detailed knowledge of the first season is mandatory in order to appreciate the second at all, which couldn't have helped the show any in the ratings department. Ironically, the highest rated episode in the series' history (Episode 10-"One Angry Veronica") is the one most reviled by hardcore fans, which probably has a lot to do with the fact that it was the most accessible to casual viewers and didn't require any past knowledge of the show's mythology to appreciate. It also (along with Episode 16-"The Rapes of Graff") helps set up what everyone tells me is the problematic third and final season of the series, where Rob Thomas supposedly buckled under the pressure to gain more viewers and made sacrifices creatively. I'll soon find out if that's really the case.

While Veronica may not be as central a focus as she was in the first season, Kristen Bell's performance is just as important, if not more so since there are a few chinks in the show's armor she has the task of covering up this season with her innate charm and likeability. And does she ever. Her character, as well as all the others, were so well developed initially that I'm convinced everyone could have walked onscreen to just do laundry for Season 2 and it would have still been fascinating. Fortunately, they do a lot more than that.

In a later episode I noticed a small detail that tipped me off as to just smart the writing in this series really is. Two characters were forced to work together and all of the sudden it hit me that they haven't even shared screen time since the pilot episode. This despite the fact they're two of the biggest characters on the show! I can't understand how they could even pull something like that off and it goes to show you just how broad in scope the story arc is. When episodes ended I often found myself scratching my head wondering how anyone could have possibly had the creativity to come up with this stuff. Supposedly Thomas knew exactly where Season 2 was going to go before Season 1 even aired and I believe it. You can really tell that this is a show with a big plan already in place and the writers just work backwords from there.

The season finale (Episode 22-"Not Pictured") contains the most memorable flashback in the show's history as well as a huge twist that, while not quite as shocking or tightly plotted as the previous season's, is still an absolute jaw dropper. It's also a little more far-fetched. I think the key for the viewer to figure out who was behind the "big mystery" each season is to look at ALL THE CLUES sprinkled about in every episode, not just the ones directly related to the case. You have to watch all the characters' behaviors…carefully.
The finale is a stretch but when it ended I could honestly say that it holds up to logical scrutiny and makes sense. It likely plays even better on repeated viewings once you know the resolution. It's a funny thing when you love a show so much that it can almost do no wrong in your eyes and you become blind to any flaws it may have. Or you see those flaws, but simply don't care and embrace them. You're having too good a time to do otherwise. It's strange that I've now become of those geeky hardcore Veronica Mars fans I used to laugh at a couple of years ago when I didn't even want to bother watching a "stupid show" about a teen detective. What the hell was I thinking?

Unlike the Season 1 DVD set that didn't contain a single special feature outside of a few deleted scenes, this does have some, but it's still a shameful, disappointing amount considering the quality of this series. In addition to some deleted scenes there's a short feature entitled "A Day On the Set of Veronica Mars" as Kristen Bell lets us tag along with her during a day of shooting. For anyone who's as taken with Bell as I am, any extra minutes spent with her is nothing to take for granted. After viewing it that fuzzy line separating the character and the actress playing her suddenly becomes even fuzzier. There's also a gag reel full of bloopers and outtakes that's surprisingly quite funny.

We hear the term "sophomore slump" a lot in television and I've found myself earlier in the year defending lackluster second seasons of current TV dramas like Friday Night Lights and Heroes, which in comparison to this look completely incompetent to me now. I've all but stopped watching one and you could probably guess the only reason I still watch Heroes. When she leaves, so do I. Since we've already lost Veronica Mars, I can't think of any future cancellation that could possibly bother me.

It's nearly impossible writing an effective second season when expectations are so high but when it was over I couldn't think of anything that could have been done better and it did seem like a natural progression. The first season established Veronica Mars as one of the best and smartest television dramas around. Season 2 just seals the deal.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


Director: Adrienne Shelly
Starring: Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Cheryl Hines, Jeremy Sisto, Andy Griffith, Adrienne Shelly

Running Time: 108 min.

Rating: PG-13

**1/2 (out of ****)

One word kept popping into my head as I watched Waitress: "Insignificant." If you never saw it you wouldn't miss a thing. It's the kind of movie women drag their boyfriends and husbands to kicking and screaming and will probably end up in regular rotation on Lifetime television in the next couple of years. Yes, it's a "chick flick." And that's fine by me. My tolerance for those is abnormally (and some say embarrassingly) high, as I've been known to shamelessly enjoy feminine tearjerkers such as A Walk to Remember and The Notebook.

is the absolute worst kind though. It tries to pass off a bunch of tired clichés and cartoon characters as a deep story in an effort to prop women up so they feel good about themselves leaving the theater. It hides behind a false indie sensibility to try to make us believe we're watching something that amounts to more than a TV movie of the week. All men are abusive pigs and all women are afraid to leave them because they hate themselves. We know the drill.

You may recognize this movie under the many different titles and incarnations it's gone through over the past 50 years. There's no mistaking that "desperate housewives" are the audience for this one, but what's funny is that both sexes are given equally shallow treatment in this film that boasts an IQ of about 10. What, really, can you say about a movie with a final scene featuring two characters LITERALLY skipping off into the sunset? That Waitress has actually generated Oscar buzz says a whole lot more about the dearth of quality films in 2007 than the movie itself. Yet it's still pretty impossible to hate. It's too sweet and good hearted for that.

Jenna (Russell) is a small-town Southern waitress stuck in an unhappy marriage to her controlling jerk husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto, who's probably earned a masters degree playing characters like this by now) and works as a waitress at Joe's pie diner, where she's regularly yelled at by her abrasive boss. She has a unique gift for creating excellent tasting pies, which she often gives inventive titles to such as "I Don't Want Earl's Baby Pie," in honor of her upcoming pregnancy. She confides to her best friends and co-workers at the diner, Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (writer/director Adrienne Shelly), but they have romantic problems of their own.

Jenna is soon taken aback and thoroughly creeped out after a visit to her new gynecologist, the very nervous and clumsy Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), but that last all of about two visits. Before you know it they're emerged in a passionate affair and the relationship with the doctor strengthens Jenna as a person and marks the first time she could truly be considered "happy." Now if she could only find the courage to accept her pregnancy and free herself from the controlling grip of her husband, which seems to escalate to hilarious heights as each minute of this film wears on. She finds a surprising ally in Joe (Andy Griffith), the cranky old curmudgeon who owns the diner and encourages her to escape this mess she's created for herself.

The waitress with a heart of gold. The jerk husband. The bad boss. The loyal best friend. The cranky old man who dispenses life wisdom. All the characters in this movie, which has earned unjustified worldwide praise, can be described in just a few words. That would be fine and I don't doubt a great film could be made with them in it, but they'd have to transcend those descriptions. They don't here. They're not real people, just broad caricatures going through the necessary, predictable motions of the screenplay.

All the actors give fine performances, but it's unreasonable to expect any of them to invest any real depth into this when it's clear there's none to begin with. All the stereotypes are embarrassing and simple, but the worst has to be Sisto's white trash husband. You could file him under "HOW NOT TO WRITE A MOVIE CHARACTER" in your screenwriting handbook. Will he tell Jenna she's "never been sexy?" Will he get angry and jealous that she's making money? Will he hit her? Maybe before the film's over he could even have one huge public outburst.

By making the character a stereotypical caveman with no thoughts or feelings Shelly stacks the deck and makes Jenna look like an idiot for staying with him. I didn't feel sorry for her. I just thought she was a wimp with no self-respect for herself. It's very tricky to ask your audience to root for a protagonist with no self-esteem who allows themselves to be beaten down psychologically throughout the film. All it does is make it look like you're pulling strings and setting things up, which was exactly what Shelly was doing.

Everything is there just so it can build to the big obligatory happy ending. Will Jenna leave her husband? Will she enter (and win) the pie-making contest? Will she accept her new baby? Are pies a metaphor for finding happiness in life? You've seen this movie before you even press play on the DVD remote. An old re-run of The Facts of Life contains more insight than anything in Shelly's screenplay.

If there's one thing fans of this movie and myself can agree on it's that this is the best performance of Keri Russell's career. I'm not sure what that's saying though considering this is the first time she's ever been asked to really carry a movie. She proves more than capable, investing Jenna with warmth and charm but it isn't an Oscar worthy performance, as some have claimed. Not even by a long shot. Oscar nominated performances come when an actor digs down deep to bring a human being to life with complexity. And it can happen in even the most lightweight romantic comedy like this.

Unfairly though, Russell wasn't given the type of role where she could do that and isn't one of the very few actresses who can create that magic out of thin air. This is a great role for her and a very good performance but it would have been an even better one if Jenna was written with more to her so she'd be able to explore more as an actress. That's a reoccurring problem with every character in the film, except Fillion's "Dr. Feelgood," but only because he's too bland and boring to even qualify as a stereotypical cliché. Probably the best performance comes from Andy Griffith who at least does a great job fooling us into thinking his cranky old man is more substantial than we're giving him credit for. He's not, but it's a good effort nonetheless.

One of the script's only signs of true intelligence is that it touches on an issue that's never brought up in movies about pregnancy. That there are pregnant women out there who aren't the slightest bit happy about it, yet aren't upset enough to have an abortion. They don't want the baby because maybe they're scared they won't be a good mother or can't provide them with the love they deserve. Yet somehow they do the best they can and try to make it work. That's interesting.

Everyone has been rooting really hard for this film and it's not hard to see why. The murder of writer/director Adrienne Shelly shortly following the completion of this film is beyond tragic. It's clear she had a vision and that we'll never see another film from her or see the full extent of her talents is a great loss. But this just isn't very good.

It's a charming, well-intentioned heart warmer with vibrant performances and a terrible screenplay. If you're just looking for a good time it does fit the bill, but I just found it too witless and syrupy to really get behind and support. One page of this script probably contains more sugar than any of Jenna's pies. It's strange Shelly had such a battle getting this picture made because you could categorize it as "independent" in financing only. Ironically, Waitress better qualifies as the most mainstream Hollywood film released this year.

Friday, November 30, 2007

I Know Who Killed Me

Director: Chris Sivertson
Starring: Lindsay Lohan, Julia Ormond, Neal McDonough, Brian Geraghty, Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon, Spencer Garrett

Running Time: 105 min.

Rating: R

**1/2 (out of ****)

Spoiler Warning!!! The following review does contain some spoilers about the film's plot.

Sometimes people ask me what kinds of movies I most look forward to reviewing. Not necessarily watching, but REVIEWING. Talking about great movies can be fun, but often it's not as fun as you'd think. This is partly because there are really only a limited number of ways a film can achive greatness. However, it never ceases to amaze me the new and different ways they can be bad. Upon hearing that this infamous Lindsay Lohan disaster I Know Who Killed was "so bad it's great" I marked my calendar for when it would be released on DVD.

The timing for this couldn't be better as it will keep me occupied while I wait for the check Michael Lohan sent me for favorably reviewing Georgia Rule to clear. But sorry even I have my limits. As tempting as it is to praise this film for its hilarious awfulness (and boy is it tempting) I just can't give in because the movie doesn't seem to be in on the joke. Had the movie truly committed to its entertaining badness and not taken itself so seriously this could have ranked among the greatest bad movies. No one could claim the ingredients weren't all there.

Instead it's in limbo, not sure what it wants to be and teetering between being an unintentional "torture porn" spoof, a character study and a mystery. It's not quite bad enough to be considered great trash yet not nearly good enough to warrant praise. Director Chris Sivertson almost seems to have some ambition here to actually make something of merit, which spoils the fun and makes its lesser qualities appear that much worse. The good news (or bad news depending on your outlook) is this hardly means the end for Lohan's career. She'll survive this. The movie may be howlingly bad, but her performance is as good as it could have been under the insane circumstances.

Lohan is Aubrey Fleming, a bright, promising student with loving parents (Julia Ormond and Neal McDonough) and a devoted boyfriend (Brian Geraghty) who is abducted and tortured by a sadistic serial killer tormenting their small idyllic town. Miraculously, she survives and is found days later on the side of the road, but missing a few limbs. She's taken to the hospital where she eventually regains consciousness, except she not only claims to have no memory of the horrific ordeal, but that she really isn't Aubrey Fleming. Instead she says she's a stripper named "Dakota Moss," a character from one of Aubrey's short fiction pieces. This justifiably frustrates the two F.B.I. agents (Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon and Spencer Garrett) who are on the trail of this killer and need answers desperately to prevent future carnage.

Was Aubrey's ordeal so painful that she had to create another personality just to cope with it? Or is she just playing games? What if she REALLY isn't Aubrey? Then the movie goes all Empire Strikes Back on our asses and fits her with a mechanical robo-hand and leg. Dakota comes home and her parents must deal with the trauma of living with a daughter who insists she has no idea who they are and whose hobbies include swearing, smoking and sleeping around. Meanwhile, this crazed serial killer who gets his kicks from dismembering his victims is still on the loose. As long as Aubrey's alive, she's in danger.

This is a film that must be seen to be believed, with laugh out loud moments galore. There's a scene early on when Julia Ormond's character is holding and petting what appears to be a cat while being questioned by an F.B.I. agent. Except the cat is dead. Or fake. I'm not really sure which and I'm even less sure if it matters. My personal favorite though is a scene where the one-handed, one-legged cyborg Dakota is plowing Aubrey's dumbstruck horny boyfriend in her room to prove she's not Audrey . Her mom just covers her face and hides her head in shame in the kitchen as pots and pans shake around her. If she's so upset by this then she should do something about it. Who does she think she is…Dina Lohan? I'm glad she didn't stop it though or we'd be spared the funniest scene in the film in which Geraghty (who's playing this so seriously you'd think it was Hamlet) rushes out of the house and frantically asks the swarm of F.B.I. agents in the driveway if they have any condoms.

Criticizing this movie for being bad is like criticizing the sky for being blue or the sun rising tomorrow morning. It's almost beside the point. I can understand why some have embraced this film as a guilty pleasure because it does test the waters of awfulness in a groundbreaking way unlike anything you've seen in at least the past few years. Unfortunately with the exception of scenes like those it's often too dreary and depressing to really be considered fun and the pace is too cumbersome. Oh, and it's disgusting also.

A small detail that was noticeably absent from what there was of this movie's advertising campaign is that the film is disturbingly graphic and brutal. When you have a killer who just likes to cut off body parts for fun I guess that's to be expected. It's not quite at the Saw or Hostel level but it's clear that was the inspiration even if this lacks a script anywhere close to being as coherent or competent as those. Sivertson does earn points for style though. He makes some interesting choices with lighting and colors and the soundtrack isn't bad. Had he let go and fully explored its potential to be a B horror movie schlockfest we could have had some real fun bad entertainment on our hands. Unfortunately, he seemed more interested in (yawn) putting an actual emphasis on this absurd story and the characters, which causes the film to drag in the middle portion.

There are a couple of brilliant moments though. One comes when in a great bit of stunt casting paranormal radio personality Art Bell appears to give us what could actually almost qualify as a passable explanation for all the nonsense we're witnessing. The film also benefits from having a killer who, while not particularly original or inventive in his approach, is at least terrifying. That he's stuck in one of the funniest comedies of the year instead of as Jigsaw's successor in Saw V is disappointing. He has just a few scenes but does he ever make the most of them.

The film contains two "big twists." One concerns the identity of the killer and the other involves the Aubrey/Dakota situation. One resolution is satisfactory. The other isn't. Although judging from the alternate ending we're shown on the special features I can't honestly claim any better option was available. Looking back it should seem blatantly obvious who the killer is yet when it was revealed I was surprised for some strange reason. I'm convinced this has nothing to do with any cleverness on the screenwriters' parts but rather the fact I was too distracted by all the silliness to even bother paying attention.

Despite the box office train wrecks of Georgia Rule and now I Know Who Killed Me the one thing that remained constant was that Lohan was the best part of both. Unsurprisingly here she clicks better as trashy stripper Dakota than virginal good girl Aubrey, although she isn't given much chance at tackling the latter since the script doesn't seem interested in fleshing out that character at all. Lohan does have a magnetizing presence on screen and you can see through the cracks what she's capable of with better material. Just that she manages to not give a bad performance in a film this bad is an accomplishment in itself.

I could see I Know Who Killed Me becoming a curious time capsule film of sorts down the line provided Lohan eventually gets her act together and moves on to creatively substantial projects worthy of her time and talent. I'll also say that while I can't in good conscience recommend this film without visiting a church confessional tomorrow morning, I'd much rather see a movie fail like this than go the way of safe, boring, mainstream Hollywood dreck like Ocean's Thirteen and Hairspray which I also recently gave two and a half stars to.

This at least took risks and I'm still laughing at some of the scenes that unfolded in it. The script is terrible, most of the acting is bad, the direction is muddled, yet at times it is entertaining in the worst way. And therein lies the contradiction with entertainingly bad movies like this. At the end of the day no matter how fun they may be, they're still bad.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


Director: Adam Shankman
Starring: Nikki Blonsky, John Travolta, Amanda Bynes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah, James Marsden, Brittany Snow, Zac Efron, Elijah Kelley, Allison Janney

Running Time: 117 min.

Rating: PG

**1/2 (out of ****)

It would be unfair of me to review Hairspray without first mentioning that I'm not that big a fan of musicals. I've seen and enjoyed many Broadway shows and from time to time I'll see a movie musical that I think works. Other than that I've always just thought it was a tough sell on screen that someone would just burst out in song unless the film is filled with unequaled passion and is supported by an incredible story. Otherwise, it just seems like a joke. Even the musical genre's most virulent supporters would admit it tends to work better on stage than on screen. So when I heard they were planning a remake of John Waters' 1988 cult camp classic Hairspray, based largely on its recent Broadway adaptation, I cringed. I was looking forward to this about as much as surgery without anesthesia.

As I suspected Adam Shankman's Hairspray is a spectacularly stupid movie and a pointless remake but it does work for what it is. There are times though where I just can't stand what it is. All the bite from Waters' version is gone and replaced with silliness, but the musical numbers really soar. I should probably recommend it, but I just found it inescapable how obvious and simplistic the story was. Waters' version didn't call attention to that. This does.

When the actors aren't singing they're busy making cartoonish faces at one another and there's hardly a performance of real, sustaining value in the film, with one very notable exception. And it comes from a girl who's never acted before, though you'd never know it. She runs circles around everyone else, carrying this entire enterprise on her backing in the starring role. If you saw the movie just for her performance it would probably be worth it.

It's Baltimore, Maryland in 1962 and "pleasantly plump" teenager Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) runs home form school every day with her best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) to watch The Corny Collins Show, a teen dance program in the vain of American Bandstand hosted by the charismatic Seacrest/Clark clone Collins (James Marsden). Tracy dreams of appearing on the show, something her mother Edna (John Travolta), an obese live-in laundress, discourages but her nerdy father (Christopher Walkin) blindly supports. When the show holds open tryouts Tracy is immediately criticized and dismissed as being too fat by the show's bitchy producer Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) but Collins likes her and she's asked back.

Soon Tracy becomes an overnight sensation, but Velma's death grip on the show tightens as she tries to push her equally obnoxious daughter Amber (Brittany Snow) and her boyfriend Link Larkin (Zac Efron) as stars. Unfortunately for Amber it isn't long before Link only has eyes for Tracy. Velma makes plans to cancel "Negro Day" on the show, hosted by local R&B radio D.J. Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) and featuring her son Seaweed (Elijah Kelley). Here the film takes a sharp left turn into a parable on racism as Tracy organizes a protest march with the goal of integrating the show.

The events in Hairspray are supposed to take place in "1962" but really they don't at all. They take place in "fantasy movie land 1962" where a bunch of actors are singing and dancing on a spotless Hollywood soundstage wearing close approximations of 60's clothing. Musicals are supposed to exist in a kind of faux-reality so that's fine. Or at least it's fine until the very real issue of racism is introduced into the story in a fun, lighthearted way. I'm not in any way implying the film is offensive or tasteless, just that it's somewhat uncomfortable watching actors sing and dance about a topic like that.

The movie clearly wants to have a campy cartoon atmosphere and has its heart in the right place but when that element is introduced it's a clash and a feeling of uneasiness accompanies the rest of the picture. It isn't a major problem, but it is a noticeable, lingering one that hovers over most of the movie. The filmmakers were put in a tough spot here having to incorporate the dark element of racism into a PG-rated musical love fest and weren't entirely successful. In their defense, few would be. Those were the cards they were dealt with this story and they had no choice but to play them. Still, it doesn't come off that well.

The musical numbers are excellently choreographed and loads of fun with many of the actors give impressive vocal performances and those who don't more than make up for it with their charisma. As entertaining as it was though I just couldn't help but look at my watch and count down to exactly when certain events in the film would occur. I was right on cue most of the time. This created a sense of boredom for me even though what was happening onscreen was often far from boring. The screenplay has no surprises and veers very little from the 1988 version from the narrative standpoint. While Waters version made a trite, clichéd story seem surprising this doesn't because the tone is dumbed down for mainstream audiences.

There was a huge media blitz surrounding the film because of John Travolta's presence in drag, which is appropriate because that publicity looks like the only basis for the casting decision. When you look at Edna Turnblad all you see is Travolta dressed like a woman with a prosthetic face. This isn't a character or a performance. It's just a stunt to bring audiences into the theater and Travolta does nothing with the role other than invoke a high-pitched "girly" voice. That this is one his least embarrassing performances in recent years and has garnered high praise reveals more about the direction of his career than I wished to know.

I'm always interested when I hear stories of people plucked from obscurity in open casting calls to star in major motion picture. Nikki Blonsky was working part-time at an ice cream shop when she was discovered for the role of Tracy and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone more suited for it. It's fascinating because casting stories like this suggest that a lot of acting isn't necessarily something that can be taught. Certain actors just have it and others, no matter how long they've been plugging away or how much training they have, don't. They lack charisma, which is probably the single most important factor in becoming a successful performer. Blonsky has it in spades.

She holds the screen with fire and energy from the first second she appears all the way to the closing credits. This proves that sometimes for certain roles (especially ones like this) it helps to hit the street and find a regular person with little experience so they're not bogged down with actorish mannerisms. Plus, we see movies to spend time with characters that are in some ways a reflection of who we are. No one would understand that better than someone who actually is and that her story mirrors Tracy's could have only helped the performance.

Efron and Marsden are suitable in roles that don't demand anything while relative newcomer Elijah Kelley is magnetic in his scenes as Seaweed. Christopher Walken is one of those actors who could show up to read to phone book and it would be interesting. Here he brings his typical zany weirdness to the role of Tracy's father and is particularly hysterical in a scene where Pfeifer's character is trying (unsuccessfully) to seduce him in his gag store.

I had a strange reaction to Pfeifer's Velma. I hated her but I'm not sure it was for the reasons I was supposed to. Of course, she's a racist and we should hate her but this was different. I just didn't want to see her onscreen or in the movie. I didn't like looking at her or listening to her and I'm not entirely sure it had anything to do with Pfeifer's performance which is grotesque, but appropriate. At least it's not the worst performance in the film. That dubious honor goes to Amanda Bynes who somehow manages to be excruciatingly annoying despite having very few lines of dialogue or an important part at all. She just seems to stand there sucking on her lollipop and making goofy faces. I know since this is a musical I'm supposed to praise broad characterizations and exaggerated performances but this time it's difficult. The broad supporting performances work for the material, but at times they're irritating.

In many ways reviewing Hairspray is a conundrum since the film could be considered the very definition of a "mixed bag." I'm not recommending it, but only by the skin of its teeth because I think most people will enjoy it for what it's supposed to be. Anyone looking for a light, fun ride will be satisfied, but despite its energy I felt strangely deflated at the end, almost as if I didn't really experience anything at all. Or at least anything I could get really excited about.

There was just no need for this other than to make money off the name of a superior film. Anyone could just rent the Waters version instead and know they came away with the better deal. And Waters can comfort himself with the fact that he at least has a really funny cameo early in the film. The pieces don't all fit together with this one but it's far from a failure and tough to pinpoint exactly what could have been done differently to make it better. Maybe the question should instead be whether it needed to be done at all.