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

Hairspray

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, clich├ęd 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.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen

Director: Steven Soderburgh
Starring: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Al Pacino, Ellen Barkin, Elliot Gould, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Casey Affleck

Running Time: 122 min.

Rating: PG-13


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

If there's a common thread that links the Ocean's films it's that they all feel like they were more fun to make than watch. That's not to say they're not fun to watch because they are and Ocean's Thirteen, which is a marked improvement over the first sequel, is no exception. Still, I bet they had more fun making it. I just read a book, Rebels on the Backlot, that chronicles how six "maverick" directors stormed Hollywood and changed the face of the film industry. Those directors are Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, Spike Jonze…and Steven Soderbergh. When I finished it I couldn't shake this nagging feeling that one of those names just didn't fit. I'll let you take a wild guess which one.

In recent years it seems no director has been less of a rebel or has gone more "Hollywood" than Soderbergh, foregoing his earlier risk taking projects to make movies like this. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that but there comes a point where enough is enough. I think we've reached that point with Soderbergh and while this Ocean's franchise may have been mildly enjoyable an overall aura surrounds them that Soderbergh has been wasting his considerable talent and should move on to something more ambitious. Not necessarily over-ambitious (like Traffic), but something with more substance.

Ocean's Thirteen
is an enjoyable and entertaining flick that carries with it a "been there, done that" vibe it can't seem shake no matter how fun it is at times so I can't fully get behind it and give it a strong recommendation. Fans of the series will enjoy it though and for everybody else there is at least a bravura supporting performance from one of our greatest actors to keep you engaged.

The gang is all back again and the list of names is simply too long to get into, but as usual the major players are Danny Ocean (George Clooney), Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), and Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon). Part of me was hoping they'd just skip the formalities this time and call them George, Brad and Matt. It really doesn't make much of a difference. This time they're out to destroy the obnoxious and arrogant Willie Bank (Al Pacino) who screwed Reuben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould) out of a partnership in his new Vegas casino, "The Bank," the stress of which sent him to the hospital with a heart attack.

The plan is for the group to $250 million dollars in diamonds, which is more difficult than ever considering Bank's casino has the most state of the art security system in history. It'll take time and money. They seem to have the former, but for the latter they go visit their old nemesis casino kingpin Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), who has an ax to grind with Bank, but could also have some devious tricks up his sleeve.

After re-introducing the characters and introducing us to Bank the rest of the film, just like the rest, is spent exploring every single detail of the complicated heist. And also, like the previous two films, despite it being laughably implausible, it's undeniably fascinating to watch. For anyone who's ever been to Vegas or is intimately familiar with gambling it'll be even more fun. The movie is a procedural through and through, but the material is lifted to a slightly higher level because the actors look like they're having fun with the breezy, witty dialogue and Soderburgh has a great eye for visuals.

It does help when you have a great director behind the camera of a creatively modest picture like this one. If you didn't already want to go to Vegas (and who doesn't?), by the time this film's over you'll have probably booked yourself a flight. Upping the energy quotient is Pacino, who chews and spits out scenery as this prickly egomaniac. Without his commanding and oversized presence in that role we probably wouldn't care one way or another if the guys pulled this off and this popcorn movie would be even fluffier than it already is. As per the norm with the Ocean's movies, it ends exactly how you'd expect: With a whimper, not a bang.

The movie does have two sub-plots that were hilarious. One involves David Paymer as the V.U.P. staying at Bank's hotel, while the other follows Damon's character's attempts to seduce and manipulate Bank's assistant (played by Ellen Barkin) while donning a prosthetic nose. Outside of Barkin this is the first of the three films that doesn't seem to have much of a female presence at all as Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones decided to sit this final round out. I can't say I blame them. It would just be a paycheck role with no sustaining value to their career.

As funny as the interplay between Damon and Barkin is it's clear Barkin isn't given anything that resembles a character and was just thrown in so everyone can compliment her on what a "cougar" she is and how she looks so great for her age. Hollywood loves a comeback so Soderburgh probably made it a special point to cast her. After all, what are any of these Ocean's films except the self-congratulatory spectacle of Hollywood translated to the silver screen? If we walked around the soundstage with a camcorder we probably wouldn't see anything that isn't already onscreen and anyone who enjoys watching Clooney and Pitt (who's given ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do here) massage one another's egos for two hours will probably enjoy in this. Even if you don't you'll still probably find something else to enjoy because, admittedly, the whole thing is fluffy, but kind of fun.

There's a real old-fashioned "Rat Pack" feel to the picture that starts with the retro opening credit sequence and continues right until the finale. As I watched this I couldn't help but picture someone sitting next to me on the couch. He'd be about 70 years-old, in a suit, wearing a bowler hat and chomping on a cigar. When the film ends he turns to me and says, "That was SNAZZY!" That's what we're dealing with here. If you're into that kind of thing you'll have a great time. If you're like me and never really understood the appeal of these films you'll still be serviceably entertained. Anyone who skips this though isn't missing anything. It's the same as the rest, give or take a few plot points.

Soderburgh's had his fun and I do think it's kind of cool and endearing that a maverick indie director wanted to dabble in the mainstream Now it's time to move on and start making real movies again. I wouldn't include Out of Sight, The Limey or Solaris on any list of my favorite films but I at least respected the ambition and creative vision behind them. Ocean's Thirteen is fun, but ultimately very empty. If you've seen one, you've seen them all.

Monday, November 19, 2007

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

Creator: Rob Thomas
Starring: Kristen Bell, Percy Daggs III, Jason Dohring, Francis Capra, Enrico Colantoni, Teddy Dunn, Amanda Seyfried

Original Airdate: 2004

**** (out of ****)

"Why is Veronica Mars so good? It bears no resemblance to life as I know it but I can't take my eyes off the damn thing."
-Stephen King

"Best. Show. Ever." -Joss Whedon

"Some of the best TV ever produced." -Kevin Smith

When you have those people saying things like that about a television show you know we're dealing with something special. Unfortunately I wasn't smart enough to listen to them when Veronica Mars first aired on the now defunct UPN network in Fall 2004 and later concluded in 2007 on the CW.

No, it's not that I sampled the show and decided it wasn't for me, but rather I didn't even give it a chance and refused to watch a "teen drama" about a high school sleuth. "You have to see Veronica Mars!" everyone told me with such fervor you'd think that my life was somehow incomplete having not viewed it. They said the same thing about Arrested Development and I ended up cursing myself for not listening originally. The same mistake will never be made again. When people whose opinions I hold at a high regard and genuinely respect tell me to watch something I'm going to watch it. I've learned my lesson.

As a critic I feel it's my duty in every review to share with people why something does or doesn't work and why. That should really be the job of every critic. What then do you do in the case of something like Veronica Mars, a show so original and unlike anything before it or since on television that it has to actually be experienced to fully understand how it's so special? It doesn't present itself as obviously brilliant right away, but it sneaks up on you slowly and I think what makes it so is tough to pin down and explain its genius.

For the longest time I avoided watching Arrested Development out of the fear that it couldn't possibly live up to the incredible expectations that surrounded it. Those fears were unfounded. I had the same fear with Veronica Mars but now after watching it I can officially say it's not as good as everyone has been telling me. It's FAR BETTER.

It's been a year since Veronica Mars (a revelatory Kristen Bell) ran with the in-crowd at Southern California's Neptune High and her best friend Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried) was brutally murdered. Her sheriff father, Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni) wrongfully accused Lilly's billionaire dad of the crime, causing him to lose his job as the real murderer sits on death row. The Mars family's reputation is shattered and they're held up for public ridicule by most of the residents of the posh Neptune zip. Complicating things further for Veronica is her relationship with Lilly's brother, Duncan Kane (Teddy Dunn), which crumbles as result of her father's obsession with the case.

Veronica has a choice: Her father or her friends. She chooses her father and that decision leaves her a social outcast who spends most her spare time assisting her dad at his recently opened "Mars Investigations" detective agency. Her mother made her choice and fled, leaving the family high and dry, although her reasons for doing so may be more complicated than we're led to believe. Keith still holds on to the belief the wrong man is in jail for the crime but has lost hope that any justice will be served. Veronica hasn't and stages her own investigation to find out who really killed Lilly Kane, how it connects to her mother, and most painfully, find the guy who took her innocence one night when she was drugged. Each episode unravels this major story arc while also focusing on the "mystery of the week" where Veronica uses her investigative skills to solve crimes, each of which someway or another involve the students of Neptune High and sometimes involves the help of her new best friend Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III).

What I like most about these cases in every episode is that they're not just throwaways meant to stall time while the writers take their sweet time unveiling the secrets of the big murder and frustrate viewers. This isn't The X-Files Lost, or even Heroes where all of the sudden the creators decide to just take a break from giving us new information out of fear they'll burn through the story too quickly. This show's creator, Rob Thomas, knows better. The main storyline, the murder of Lilly Kane and Veronica's quest for answers, is always in the front of our minds in every single episode and never takes a breather.

In each one we're presented with flashbacks, more clues and new information as Veronica briskly moves closer to the truth and many of those cases directly relate to the big case. And if they don't, they relate directly to Veronica's feelings about it. There were only a few instances (like Episode 4- "The Wrath of Con") where I thought they deviated from that game plan and went out of its comfort zone, suffering a little because of it. Of course that's not to say any episodes are bad because there isn't a single stinker among them.

Some of these cases are so intricately plotted and cleverly written they seem more like something you'd see on the big screen and just the pilot episode alone tied together more loose ends than most shows' entire seasons are capable of. The third episode ("Meet John Smith") has an absolute jaw dropper of a twist in one of Veronica's cases involving a boy looking for his father that I didn't see coming from 10,000 miles away. I nearly hit the floor. Not only was it shocking and made total sense, it exposed an important emotional truth about Veronica's relationship with her own mother. Television shows are not supposed to be this smart. There are surprises on top of surprises and twists on top of twists and as each piece of the puzzle is pieced together something new is learned about every character we previously assumed we knew everything about. How good is this show? Even a cameo appearance from Paris Hilton can't ruin it.

Where it succeeds the most, however, is within the halls of Neptune High and its frank depiction of high school as the worst time of anyone's life, especially Veronica's. There's a villain, Lilly's ex-boyfriend and Duncan's buddy Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), the spoiled son of a famous self-absorbed actor (Harry Hamlin, in what I'm guessing isn't much of a stretch). At first he seems determined to make Veronica's life at Neptune a living hell but as each episode unfolds the layers are slowly peeled away and we realize he may not exactly be who we thought he was. He's a jerk for sure, but there's more to it than that. No character on this show can be put into easily classifiable categories and each one is written with depth and importance. And it's done all in the midst of storylines involving attempted murder, rape, affairs, homeless fight clubs and cults.

The relationship between Veronica and her father is at the heart of the show and how they deal together with their sullied reputations and the absence of their mother. I like how the character of Keith is just a good man who cares about his daughter and believes in doing the right thing. That's not something you see often on television and Colantoni plays him superbly. Music also plays a big role on Veronica Mars, but it isn't used the same way as most other shows featuring teenagers. Rather than blasting the latest hit song of the week in every scene it seems there was a concerted effort for the music to fit what's happening at that moment. It slides right in and feels like an organic extension of the show, not just an add on meant to sell CD's.

Lately there's been a lot of controversy surrounding just how much writers contribute to a television show. I think all these protesters in the Writer's Guild should tape scripts of Veronica Mars to their signs because no show better illustrates the importance of writers than this. Without the writing we'd have nothing, but that's not to overlook the actors who deliver those words. One of which, there would be no show without. There isn't enough space here or enough praise available to properly do justice to the work how Bell does as the title character.

On the surface Veronica seems like a cute, plucky teen girl but the second she opens her mouth the acerbic, sharp-tongued sarcastic wit comes flying out and you realize she's not someone you want to mess with. But she's also hurt. And angry. Bell conveys her as someone who struggles everyday to stay strong in the face of it all, yet manages to get the job done. Every other show on TV now brags about how they have a strong female character as its lead. But do they really?

She's a real heroine and one of the few female characters to ever appear on television (maybe the only one) that could actually qualify as a positive female role model. Even though it explores serious issues and adult themes, parents actually didn't need to hide their kids when this program came on. That's a first. Had anyone but Bell been cast in the lead I'm convinced the show wouldn't have worked. Christina Ricci's a good actress but just thinking that she almost got this role makes me uneasy. Really, the thought of anyone but Bell in it makes me uneasy. Now I understand why every network was fighting over her when this show ended.And I don't believe for a second that I'm not in the target demographic for the show. Every age group and gender is in the target audience, no matter what the ratings may have said. This isn't a drama for teens like The O.C. or Dawson's Creek even if it was narrowly and mistakenly marketed as such. This is a drama for everyone and is operating at a whole other level that those shows couldn't even come close to touching.

It's easy to be upset at its cancellation but it's hard to be TOO UPSET. It's clear Kristen Bell is going to become a huge star and this hurts her as much as the demise of Dark Angel hurt Jessica Alba's career. Except with one key difference: Bell has talent. I have no idea whether this went out at a creative high yet, but as much as I love accentuating the negative I think we should all just be grateful a show this original made it to the air at all. What to make of the fact that neither the show nor Bell was ever nominated for an Emmy?

I don't even remember what I was doing in the Fall of '04 when this premiered but it couldn't have been anything productive and I have no excuse for not watching it. It did appear like UPN and the CW did do everything they could to save it and even aired some episodes on CBS in the summer of '05 hoping it would help ratings, which it did, at least for a little while. I don't know why this didn't do better. Maybe the country just wasn't ready for a show like this. Part of the problem may have been that it's becoming harder for the public to make viewing commitments every week.

A show like this that unfolds a huge story arc over the course of the season with episodes feeding into one makes it hard to truly appreciate unless you were watching since the pilot. Arrested Development had the same issue, but that issue also makes it the perfect viewing experience on DVD. That now nearly every television show is available on DVD is one of the most positive developments to come out of the entertainment industry in recent years and has allowed underappreciated or overlooked shows to find an audience.

Luckily, the grave injustice that surrounds its cancellation hasn't fallen on deaf ears and has been widely acknowledged as a terrible mistake. How this wasn't the number one show on television is a mystery Veronica probably couldn't even solve. As little as it may console its fans, the networks now seem much more likely to give fledgling shows a chance to find an audience. You don't hear the word "cancellation" as much as you used to and the networks are more patient. There's no doubt Veronica Mars played a big role in that, but I must admit it makes my blood boil that a show like Jericho is saved, while this lies in the television graveyard. The networks were just too late coming to their senses.

If you've seen Veronica Mars then you already know how special it is but if you haven't don't watch it based on my recommendation. I don't deserve to recommend it because as a viewer who didn't watch I share in the blame of its cancellation. But if you happen to hear a voice inside your head saying you have no interest in watching it-- make it go away. Fast. Moving on to season 2 will be challenging because this is a tough act to follow, but more challenging will be when I eject the final disc from season three and my time with these characters has ended. Then it's back to what we have (or don't have) on the air now- a frightening prospect. I still haven't figured out how I'm going to handle that.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry

Director: Dennis Dugan
Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Jessica Biel, Dan Aykroyd, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi
Running Time: 110 min.

Rating: PG-13

** (out of ****)


It's okay to be gay! In case you didn't know that, just see I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, a movie that gladly shoves that message down your throat for two hours. It's a shame too, because as far as raunchy comedies go it isn't completely worthless and until it starts patting itself on the back for its message the movie is at least somewhat entertaining. That this isn't the total bomb everyone has claimed it to be is something of a miracle considering the quality of the script and that can be largely attributed to the performance of an actor whose name happens to NOT be Adam Sandler.

Contrary to what you've heard, the film probably wouldn't be offensive to gays, who are more likely to just find the whole thing stupid, which it's supposed to be and is. The movie is too busy offending other groups like New York City firefighters (who are made out to look like complete morons) and Asians, as the film features the worst Asian American stereotype since Mickey Rooney's appearance as a Japanese neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

The film is overlong and predictable, but contains a couple of laughs, most of which are provided by the supporting characters. After a while though it starts to be too much and it feels like we're being hammered over the head repeatedly with a feel-good message. And the message is an odd one considering the type of movie this is. When Lance Bass shows up to sing a George Michael song you know we've officially gone to hell and there's no turning back.

In a predictable set-up, FDNY firefighter and recent widower Larry Valentine (Kevin James) must re-marry so his kids can become the primary beneficiary of his pension. Obviously straight, but still grieving the death of his wife Larry is unwilling to allow another woman into his life and convinces his reluctant womanizing co-worker Chuck Levine (Sandler) to enter a "domestic partnership" with him.

According to Larry, Chuck "owes him" for saving his life in a burned house and their attempts to pull of this blatant scam soon catches the eye of the government. They seek out lawyer Alex McDonough (Jessica Biel), who warns them that a specialist will start tracking their every move, hoping to expose them as frauds. That Steve Buscemi plays this specialist is one of the film's few delights. The others are a sub-plot involving Larry's unease with the behavior of his very effeminate son (played well by Cole Morgen) and an amusing supporting turn by Ving Rhames as a firefighter with a secret. Gee, I wonder what that secret could be.

The script, which occasionally has its moments, is unfortunately plagued with a big problem that's been infecting most Hollywood comedies these days: Trying to milk laughs from topics that just aren't funny. Early in the picture Sandler's Chuck is making jokes about Larry's deceased wife. Are we supposed to laugh? I don't know about you but I don't know how many best friends would light-heartedly joke about something like that, or how many of them I'd consider "best friends" if they did. It seems to writers felt they had to treat Larry's wife's death as a joke since it was the only way the script could believably get Chuck and Larry into this union.

Rob Schneider appears out of nowhere as a Japanese priest, complete with slanted eyes and yellow skin. How funny. Firefighters are treated as being so clueless in this movie that you'd think they've never seen as gay person in their lives. An alien invasion wouldn't cause as much shock for them as homosexuality. Gay characters seem to appear out of the woodwork, including the neighborhood mailman. The stupidity kicks into overdrive heading into the final act as the movie celebrates the joys of being gay, despite spending most of its running time making fun of it. We're also punished with some grandstanding courtroom drama and a really embarrassing speech from Dan Aykroyd (!) as the fire chief.

Sandler is Sandler in this. He's funny sometimes and annoying at others. What saves this film from a descent into the abyss is the chemistry between the two leads, specifically the likeable performance from Kevin James, who proves here that he's capable of carrying a comedy and deserves the opportunity to star in a really good one in the future. That his name will forever be attached to this project is sad because he actually does a terrific job.

As simplistic as the script is, Sandler and James play off one another well and are believable both as best buddies and New York City firefighters. They do look like they're having a good time, which goes a long way and prevents the film from being completely unentertaining. Had it ended twenty minutes earlier and spared us a lesson in gay rights we could have possibly had something.

I was frightened when I heard Jessica Biel would be portraying an attorney, but surprisingly she wasn't too bad. What's amusing though is she's believable in the scenes where she's practicing law and speaking legalese, but when the action shifts outside the office and she has to act like a normal person it comes off all wrong and rings false. Maybe she missed her calling and should have become a lawyer instead of an actress.

The possible romance with her and Sandler's character seems like an afterthought since the film seems much more interested in throwing a gay pride parade than exploring any heterosexual relationship. It may seem like a obvious complaint, but it's impossible to believe Biel's character would even consider these two guys are anything but straight. A smarter script would have had her slyly taking them along for the ride to teach them a lesson.

This is one of those comedies that when it ends you think it wasn't that bad, then about 10 minutes later you realize it really was. It's also a strange curiosity in that it's a gay comedy that appears to be aimed at a straight audience. Whoever it's for, it's a misfire. What the film's marketing team has gone to great lengths to avoid, but I would have plastered on the DVD cover, is that this mess was co-written by Alexander Payne, the Oscar winning scribe who gave us such films as Election, About Schmidt and Sideways.

The studio should have instead trumpeted this fact to give us all inspiration that even the best of us can run into a brick wall creatively every once in while. Since there are two other writers credited we may never know just how guilty Payne is but that he had a hand in it at all is disturbing enough news for me. I have little doubt a documentary exploring that topic would be funnier than most of what we experience in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

License To Wed

Director: Ken Kwapis
Starring: Robin Williams, Mandy Moore, John Krasinki, Eric Christian Olsen, Christine Taylor, Josh Flitter

Running Time: 91 min.

Rating: PG-13


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


The funniest thing about the romantic comedy License To Wed is that seemingly intelligent actors read the script for the film and actually thought it would be a good career move to appear in it. Or at least that would be funny if it wasn't so tragic. A couple of weeks ago while watching Ebert & Roeper At The Movies I remember guest critic Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune remarking that the acting is usually the last thing to go wrong in a motion picture. He's right and that intelligent observation is on full display here. The performances aren't necessarily bad (although they're nothing to write home about) but it really wouldn't make a difference anyway.

In what has to be a first, the movie openly admits its two main characters are bland. They seem almost proud of the fact, bringing it up at various points during the picture. Is that really something you want to brag about? Did they think acknowledging that the main characters are boring would absolve them from the fact they actually are?

There is one exciting character, but he's an insane, demented creep no one could root for. As a priest who makes the one arrested for stalking Conan O' Brien look well adjusted, Robin Williams gives it his all, irritatingly hamming it up and maintaining his reputation of being a great dramatic actor who lowers himself in comedies like this for a fat payday. I'll try to comfort myself by rationalizing all the actors took these roles because of the number of zeros on the paycheck. It's the only possible explanation. This film is a complete disaster and makes me hope screenwriters Kim Barker, Tim Rasmussen and Vince Di Melgio don't suddenly get the urge to cross the picket line.

After a brief and unfunny "meet cute" at a Starbucks Sadie Jones (Mandy Moore) thinks she's found the man of her dreams in Ben Murphy (The Office's John Krasinki). This seems to happen overnight as the movie spends no time letting us get to know them at all and rushes right into a marriage proposal from Ben at Sadie's parents' anniversary party. Sadie has her heart set on them marrying at the family's church, St. Augustine's, whose only open slot is available in three weeks. But before tying the knot the church requires they complete a "prenuptial course" run by the very bizarre Reverend Frank (Williams).

This "course" consists of various exercises designed specifically for Sadie and Ben to get on one another's nerves and test the waters so they're ready for marriage. Unfortunately these exercises do nothing but test the viewers' nerves and patience as we're treated to Reverend Frank's grilling on their sex life, his bugging of their apartment, blindfolded driving, and a gag involving robotic twin babies. Supposedly there were many complaints from various groups concerning the simulated babies, and given how realistic they look and what happens to them and I can't say I blame them.

Call me prudish but I fail to find the humor in a priest stalking a young couple or making off color sexual comments in front of children. Given what's been happening lately with priests this doesn't seem like the best way to mine laughs. What laughs do come are from the sexual conversations, but it doesn't have anything to do with what Reverend Frank says. It's the absurd notion that we're supposed to believe this bland couple was actually having sex, or even know what sex is. They're so boring the thought of them even having sex is virtually implausible. They're probably asexual. Sadie and Ben may as well be called "Jack and Jill" since they're just basically cardboard cutouts standing there delivering dialogue for an hour and a half. By the end of the film we've learned nothing more about them than when we went in.

The supporting characters are written with a little more flare but that's of no help since they're all annoying. Josh Flitter plays Reverend Frank's young apprentice and comes off as the worst possible hybrid of Andy Milonakis and a junior Jonah Hill. After nearly destroying last year's The Last Kiss, Eric Christian Olsen is thankfully relegated to less screen time here as Sadie's loyal best friend. Christine Taylor is the stereotypical older sister with relationship issues even though she's clearly too old for the role. Another Office star, Mindy Kaling, plays a nagging wife friend since it's common knowledge that wives just nag and nag all day long while their husbands don't assert themselves.

At various points during the picture Ben's future father-in-law describes him as "affable" and "vanilla" and we realize these terms could also apply to the actor playing him. Krasinki may turn into a capable leading man down the line but here he's given nothing to work with. No one is. Wikipedia notes that Mandy Moore's role in this film is a "career high." Thankfully, it refers to the box office take because she fails to register at all. She's apologized in the past for early albums she's released so here's hoping when she starts picking better film roles and shows us what we know she's capable of as an actress, we'll get a public apology for this.

The movie was directed by Ken Kwapis, who honed his craft on episodes of The Office (which likely explains Krasinki's leading presence), but that's a smart show with clever writing. Its worst episode has more value than anything here. Kwapis, who's shockingly helming one of 2008's most anticipated romantic comedies, the star-studded He's Just Not That Into You, doesn't impress but I don't think there's a living director who could have done anything with this material. A more appropriate title for this film would have been: How To Lose Laughs and Alienate Viewers.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Spider-Man 3

Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Thomas Hayden Church, Topher Grace, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, James Cromwell

Running Time: 139 min.
Rating: PG-13


*** (out of ****)

Okay, so sue me. I liked it. I guess it's true what they say about the third time being a charm because this was the only Spider-Man movie I actually found myself thoroughly enjoying from beginning to end. That I'm still only giving it 3 stars should give you an idea of how highly I think of this franchise. Are there too many characters and plotlines? Probably. There's enough material jammed in here to stretch over several movies, but I think this is a rare case where more is actually better.

I don't mind if a movie has a lot of characters so long as they all serve an important purpose in the story and I care about them. With the exception of maybe one here, who's just around for window dressing, I can honestly say I did. Considering how much is in here it's balanced very well and this is the first film in the series where I can say I actually cared about the relationship between the two main characters and what happens to them.

They took a risk here taking the Spider-Man/Peter Parker character in a new direction and a lot of audiences were turned off by it. I wasn't. Going in I suspected I'd hate this, but looking back I should have known there was a good chance I wouldn't. I tend to enjoy comic book films where our superheroes are tortured and going through "issues" (remember, I actually liked Hulk) and I'm a huge fan of the three actors they added to this third installment, one of whom plays the coolest villain we've had yet in the series.

I did think in the back of my mind that just the addition of those talents would prevent this third film from going sour. I was right. They also take a character from the first two films and flesh him out better, investing him with a considerably greater amount of depth and allowing the actor playing him a chance to shine. The film also contains one of the funniest scenes I've ever viewed in a superhero movie, a scene that for some reason audiences were put off by.

After disposing of Doc Ock in the second film, Spider-Man is on top of the world and more popular than ever. His alter ego Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is faring just as well, acing college and planning to propose marriage to his longtime girlfriend Mary-Jane (Kirsten Dunst), who's making her Broadway debut. Only about a couple of thousand obstacles stand in the way of potential marital bliss, chief among them the bitter grudge held by Peter's former best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco), over Peter/Spider-Man's responsibility for his father's death. He's out to exact revenge, while another evildoer, escaped convict Flint Marko (2004 Oscar nominee Thomas Hayden Church) is determined to do whatever it takes to get the medication that could help save his dying daughter.

We also find out, much to Peter's horror, that Marko could have a connection to Uncle Ben's murder. He's chased by police into a radioactive testing zone and in one of the best scenes in the film, transformed into a sand creature. Peter must also contend with a cocky new Daily Bugle photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), whose girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) seems to have eyes only for Peter. If that isn't enough (and I know many think it should have been) Peter's Spidey suit is infected by a black, oily parasitic substance that causes him to act out in an irrational way unbecoming of the Spider-Man we know and love from the first two films. This said substance eventually finds another agent of evil through Eddie Brock, who as Venom tries to even the score with arch nemesis Peter.

There's a lot going on in this picture. An awful lot. You could argue way too much. But you know what? I enjoyed most, if not all of it. Could at least one of these villains been saved for another Spider-Man installment? Absolutely, but that's no reason to punish the film for executing what it has in it very well. It's a juggling act for sure but one the movie pulls off impressively considering how much is crammed into its running time. Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent's screenplay actually makes some interesting choices this time around and we're given more than just Spider-Man trying to save the world from a villain from a failed science experiment.

Most comic book movies would be lucky to have even one villain that's somewhat interesting. Here we have four. After being given nothing but nonsense for two straight films, James Franco's Harry Osborn is finally given some depth in the third outing and his amnesia storyline is not only compelling, but very well acted. The transformation that character undergoes during the course of the film is actually believable thanks in no small part to Franco's terrific work. He really shines here and the movie effectively closes the whole Parker/Osborn saga in the best way possible. I was also very relieved he didn't have the same cartoonishly laughable Halloween costume his father did in the first film.

The Sandman breaks the mold of previous Spidey enemies in that he actually has some kind of a purpose and backstory that's interesting. He's not out to just kill people and I like how Church plays him as a real human being who was dealt a bad hand instead of just a villain bent solely on total destruction. Too many actors would have just hammed it up, but he wisely turns the volume down and gives a very effective performance as this troubled man. I've criticized the visual effects in the Spider-Man films in the past but when Marko transforms into the Sandman it's awe-inspiring and you can't take your eyes off it. If I have one complaint, it's that this character wasn't given a stand-alone film because he's by far the best villain they've had in this franchise. Still, I can't say he's given the shaft here at all.

Topher Grace was the perfect casting choice as a foil for Peter Parker since the actor does really seem like a more sarcastic version of Maguire. While I enjoyed the newsroom feud between Parker and Brock, I'll admit the movie did probably bite off a little more than it could chew by transforming Brock into Venom during the last ten minutes of the film in a real stretch of believability, even for a movie like this. It's almost as if they were desperately running out of time and had to try to squeeze it in.

Of all the characters, Gwen Stacy is the only one that could be considered useless and there just really as a plot device. Bryce Dallas Howard is also saddled with the clunkiest dialogue in the film, particularly in the scene where she presents Spider-Man with the key to the city. It's clear Howard was cast just so we can look at her, but seriously, can I really complain about that? This film also does more with even the most minor characters like Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), Peter's flirty next-door neighbor Ursula (Mageina Tovah) and Bruce Campbell, who has his funniest cameo yet in the series.

Many criticisms have been leveled against the scene where EMO Spider-Man struts down the street Saturday Night Fever style but what everyone seems to be missing is that IT'S INTENDED to be funny. And it is. I was laughing with it, not at it. Complaining that this, of all things, seems out of place is especially strange when you look at some of the stuff that unfolded in the first two films. Is it not "serious" enough? Raimi already proved he has no intention of taking any of this seriously before so it's pointless to expect him to now. I was actually relieved he finally embraced just how silly this whole thing truly is. Batman Begins this is not. I thought Maguire pulled off the egotistical transformation well and it was nice to see something different finally being done with the Spidey character that cast his relationship with M.J. in a new light and created an inner conflict for Peter.

It was fascinating to watch Peter's obliviousness to his own self-absorbed behavior and its effect on those around him, specifically M.J. That combined with the developments in Harry's character create an engaging moral center in the film. Fans have bashed Kirsten Dunst for her comments to the press that the Spider-Man franchise couldn't survive without her, but for the first time here I was left wondering whether she may actually be right. I thought this was her most mature, self-assured performance of the series and the first time she looked truly comfortable in the role. Watch the scene on the bridge with Peter or the one in the kitchen with Harry. She's really good. But that doesn't mean I'm not at least a little curious what would happen if Dunst and/or Maguire don't sign on for Spider-Man 4.

This has one of the better endings of any of the Spider-Man films (even if I could have done without a running reporter's commentary describing the action) and all the stories tie together at the end, a small miracle considering how many of them there are. I especially liked the decision Raimi made with the Sandman character in the finale. Some of the complaints against the film are valid, but they're not nearly enough of them for me not to recommend it. A little too much was stuffed into one film, but I don't think it in any way hurt what we're given. It seems a little crazy to criticize a film that should be built on excitement and excess for giving us too much of it. If this was a low budget emotional drama I could understand, but it's a huge event movie. The overkill almost seems appropriate.

This film's 139 minutes flies by and it isn't plagued with the minor pacing problems of this summer's other big action blockbuster, Transformers. I can't imagine how anyone could come out of this feeling short-changed or disappointed. What did you expect? It's just plain fun. I'm no fan of the franchise, but now the only reason I can find not to look forward to a fourth installment is that maybe all the villains and storylines have been used up. I wouldn't be crying if the franchise ended on this note, but at least now I'm not dreading the next film if it does come. Raimi must be doing something right. One thing can be said for sure about Spider-Man 3: There's enough in it that you won't be bored.