Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Arthur (2011)

Director: Jason Winer
Starring: Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Greta Gerwig, Jennifer Garner, Luis Guzman, Nick Nolte
Running Time: 110 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

When I first heard they were remaking the 1981 Dudley Moore comedy Arthur, my chief concern was  getting a cover of Christopher Cross' so cheesy it's awesome Oscar winning title song "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)" Thankfully, we get it, albeit too briefly over the closing credits (performed by Fitz and The Tantrums). That I considered that a priority should give you an idea how little this remake offends me. Arthur is, at least for its time, a comedy classic and easily the great Dudley Moore's most memorable role but it it's far from a masterpiece and I can't say I reacted with any more than an eye roll at news of a rehash or even that Russell Brand would be starring. More concerning to me was simply that it's a comedy with dramatic undertones and most of those tend to fall flat. Surprisingly, this isn't terrible and of all the criticisms that can be leveled against it, two I refuse to get on board with are any targeted at Brand or co-star Greta Gerwig, both of whom give charming performances that deserved a better film. There are occasions where this is almost that film, hitting the creative bull's eye and giving you a sense what could have been, but it's ultimately sunken by pointless predictability.

Arthur Bach (Brand) is a womanizing party animal stuck in arrested development with an alcohol problem (a detail downplayed somewhat from the original) and a nanny named Mrs. Hobson (Helen Mirren) as his caretaker.  Hitting the town in an '89 Batmobile with his chauffeur Bitterman (Luiz Guzman) in Batman and Robin costumes, Arthur crashes his own party, a dinner thrown by his wealthy mother announcing him as the new chairman of her multi-million dollar corporation, a position he's blackmailed into taking for fear of losing out on his hefty inheritance. It's definitely not a stretch anyone would need to be blackmailed into marrying his mother's assistant, snobby rich debutante Susan Johnson, who plans to take control of the company herself. But that plan's complicated not only by his disdain for Susan but the fact he's falling hard for free-spirited illegal New York City tour guide Naomi Harris (Gerwig) and now risks being with her at the cost of potentially losing all his fortune.

In some strange way, Russell Brand seems like the perfect fit for the title role and the idea to cast him was a good one. Having previously excelled at playing immature screw-up battling his inner demons in Get Him To The Greek, he's proven he can be silly one minute but also handle a dramatic load the next. This part isn't as tailor made for him as rocker Aldous Snow was (Arthur's almost too nice and harmless), but the tone is better controlled here than in that film, which could never make up it's mind up as to whether it was a comedy or drama. This is clearly a very light comedy with soft dramatic undercurrents and everyone involved at least seems to know that, which is a plus. Helen Mirren does a nice job filling the shoes of John Gieglund as Hobson in the original, while still adding enough that the change in gender makes sense, giving Arthur a mother figure. She starts out as a strict, humorless authoritarian but undergoes a well-executed (if predictable) character arc that results in Arthur having to take care of her for a change. It also gives Mirren the chance to talk through a Darth Vader helmet, a moment I'm sure she's dreamed of since winning her Oscar.

Though you'd never know it from the film's advertising, the female lead is actually Greta Gerwig, not Jennifer Garner. In a misleading, money-grubbing stunt that didn't work, the studio basically refused to acknowledge Gerwig and promoted Garner as the star.  However much of a fan base they falsely assumed Garner had, much of it will probably be eroded once they see her annoying, nails-on-a-chalkboard performance as Susan Johnson. Granted her character is unwisely written as over-the-top she makes a bad problem worse with her hysteria and theatrics, hammering home just how ineffective the central storyline is in clashing with the more grounded aspects of the script. Eventually, the ridiculous, almost embarrassingly predictable blackmail plot in which the entire movie revolves around overshadows everything else, even lessening the impact of the movie's small successes. And that's too bad since the scenes Brand shares with Gerwig (specifically a memorable sequence in an empty Grand Central Station) contains an appeal the rest of the film lacks. Following her underrated, Oscar worthy supporting turn in 2009's Greenberg, this is Gerwig's first foray into big mainstream studio fare and it's of little surprise she's good in a low-key way in the type of quirky dream girl who rescues the guy part we're so used to seeing played by Zooey Deschanel. Even though you sense they're only together because the script dictates it, the two actors make the most of what they're given and come off as an odd but surprisingly effective on-screen couple.

Arthur marks the feature debut of Jason Winer, a director known for his television work on ABC's Modern Family and it does kind of feel like a TV movie or extended episode of a sitcom in the sense that there's really nothing that feels cinematic about it. What he does excel at is taking advantage of the New York City setting as it does feel like a movie that takes place there, whether it was actually shot on location or not. While the movie doesn't work, it comes a lot closer than I expected and can easily imagine that with a better script and a more interesting choice of director an Arthur remake starring Brand and Gerwig could have really worked under the right creative guidance. But the best news for Brand is that this is his second noble near-miss in a row, and he's proven he at least has the acting talent to potentially carry a great film if necessary. It just hasn't come his way yet. In an era of pointless remakes, Arthur is at least pointless for reasons other than just being a remake, hinting that it wouldn't have hurt to change more and take a few risks. Maybe in a couple of years when they try to remake this remake they'll get another shot.

Saturday, August 27, 2011


Director: Neil Burger
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Abbie Cornish, Anna Friel, Johnny Whitworth, Robert John Burke, T.V. Carpio, Andrew Howard
Running Time: 105 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

For some reason, when Limitless was released into theaters I kept confusing it with The Adjustment Bureau. There's no logical explanation for this other than that they both came out around the same time and boasted high concept premises that could easily be botched. The latter turned out to be a really intelligent thriller that delivered on its promise, at least until its final few misguided minutes. Limitless isn't nearly as intelligent or serious-minded, and at many points it's spectacularly dumb, but boy is it fun. It's possible that some day a serious think piece will be crafted from a premise this though-provoking, but until then, we have Limitless and I can't say it doesn't at least scratch the surface of its potential. Entertainingly awful in the best way possible, it features a schizophrenic lead performance, an audio book's worth of voice-over narration, seizure-inducing visuals and enough wacky hair styles for its star to make Nic Cage jealous, but at some point I just gave up and went with it. After a really rough start, about halfway through the film wisely embraces its own silliness and becomes a wild ride.

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a struggling writer living New York City in danger of failing to meet the deadline for his latest novel which he hasn't even begun working on. Broke, living in a crappy apartment and recently dumped by longtime girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) he runs into ex-brother-in-law Vernon (Johnny Whitworth) who hooks him up with a new untested drug called NZT. The pill allows humans to access 100% of their brain power as opposed to the normal 20% and the results for Eddie are staggering and immediate. He not only finishes his novel, but uses his new mental prowess to conquer the stock market, attracting the attention of influential power broker Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), who gets Eddie used to living in the fast lane for a change. Despite the drug having turned his life around, he must still contend with the deadly side effects of withdrawal, assassins closing in on his stash and a Russian mafia thug (Andrew Howard) he can't seem to shake. Eddie's a new man, but it comes at a high price.

The opening half hour of this film is so silly I was worried any chance at this story (based on Alan Glynn's 2001 novel, The Dark Fields)  even being reasonably satisfying was compromised right out of the gate, but its silliness ends up being an indispensable asset. Though it is unintentionally hilarious seeing Cooper as a struggling writer (looking more like a homeless hippie) and director Neil Burger's attempts to visually depict the results of the drug on Eddie's psyche via some crazy CGI and mind-numbing special effects is bizarre, once this thing gets going it doesn't stop. The real fun doesn't even necessarily begin when Eddie takes the pill, but rather when he gets off it and must deal with the withdrawal consequences The narrative doesn't exactly travel in the direction you think it will, but that's a relief. I half-expected a mysterious corporation (much like in The Adjustment Bureau) or some kind of pharmaceutical giant to be after him for the medication, culminating in a preachy life lesson on the evils of drug abuse and how we should accept ourselves for who we are. Delightfully though, director Neil Burger instead decides to just remake Crank, only replacing adrenaline with NZT. That approach shouldn't have worked but it does mainly because of Cooper's performance and Burger's commitment to just go all out with special effects, narration, camera angles, fast forwards and quick cuts that convey just how out there this whole thing is. That's a risky proposition but for a story this absurd it strangely seems to fit perfectly, making this feel like a superhero movie meets Wall Street, an ironic comparison considering Shia LeBouf was originally attached to star. We lucked out with Cooper.

If anything, this solidifies Cooper as capable of carrying a movie and likely on his way to becoming a huge star, even if the jury's still out on the full scope of his abilities as an actor. Here he's playing the kind of charismatic action star part Tom Cruise would have taken if this were made in the eighties or early nineties and he does just as efficient a job. If he strains credibility early on as a failed novelist it's of little consequence since he's a natural at playing a slick, cocky businessman and is borderline scary as an addict who desperately needs another fix. Sad as it may be, this is Robert De Niro's best supporting role in ages. Of course, the part's still a joke, but at least this time he seems in on it, squinting and grimacing as only De Niro can. He plays it completely straight, which makes some of the scenes and dialogue exchanges between he and Eddie (especially when he's off his meds) that much more ridiculous. Abbie Cornish's role as the girlfriend isn't as thankless as you'd imagine either, a credit to her and a script that actually gets her involved, culminating in one of the film's better action sequences at a skating rink.

They'll likely be tons of complaints that the film's true potential doesn't fully materialize on screen, and while I appreciate the point, this works well enough for what it is and poses some interesting questions to be pondered when the movie concludes, though not during it. But the biggest relief just may be its refusal to deliver a morality tale or some cliched message that "money doesn't equal happiness" or "power corrupts." Its goal is simply to entertain and if there's any lesson here you could argue it's the exact opposite. The film doesn't just bask in its own arrogant cynicism, but actively promotes it, at least earning points for its brutal honesty. It almost seems to imply we might need a pill like this or we're destined to be failures incapable of ascending to the great heights of Bradley Cooper, and then shames us into feeling guilty about it. That took guts. In pointing the finger at us and our materialistic obsessions, Limitless retains just the right amount of satirical darkness to counter-balance what's otherwise a far funnier, more enjoyable mainstream action movie than expected.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Cedar Rapids

Director: Miguel Arteta
Starring: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr. Kurtwood Smith, Stephen Root, Mike O' Malley, Sigourney Weaver, Alia Shawkat
Running Time: 86 minutes
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 

Cedar Rapids makes for an interesting case study of a how a comedy can be intelligently made and well-acted yet still not measure up because it doesn't bring the laughs. There just isn't much there and when it ended it almost felt as if I'd seen nothing at all. If this were a drama (which at times I wondered) it could almost be chalked up as a success because it's so character driven and the performances hold your interest. But it's a comedy and in director Miguel Arteta's defense I'm not sure a really good one could have even been made about an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The idea in itself doesn't exactly elicit a wealth of comic possibilities, with the action unfolding not disproving that theory. If someone asked me what this were about, I'd tell them just that: an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. There's some other stuff thrown in that's sort of a mess, yet also very predictable. For huge fans of Ed Helms' Hangover character or those clamoring for an Anne Heche comeback this may do the trick, but otherwise it's a skip.

Nerdy and naive Brownstar Insurance agent Tim Lippe (Helms) has lived a very sheltered life, having never left the small town in which he grew up, to the point where he's carrying on an affair with his former junior high teacher Macy (Sigourney Weaver) who seems far less into it than he. His world gets turned upside down when his co-worker dies in an accident and he's called on by his boss Bill (Stephen Root) to represent the company at the regional conference in Cedar Rapids. The pressure's on for him to make sure they take home the prestigious "Two Diamonds" award, which they've won for the past 3 years but takes on an added importance this time as a victory would help keep the small, struggling firm afloat. A fish out of water in his new hotel surroundings, Tim meets wild man Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) and Ronald Wilkes (The Wire's Isiah Whitlock Jr.), notable only for how normal he is and his obsession with The Wire. He also carries on a romantic fling of sorts with the married, free-spirited Joan (Heche) and gets involved with a prostitute named Bree (Alia Shawkat). Having never been exposed to much of anything before, the newly independent Tim is set loose in Cedar Rapids, having the time of his life but possibly compromising his company's award chances in the process.

I get what writer Phil Johnston is going for in attempting kind of a 40-Year-Old Virgin meets Superbad in the midwest but something got lost on the way to the screen and it doesn't exactly come together like it should. Ed Helms is sufficient in the lead but this is just Dr. Stu Price from Hangover. It's almost literally the same character with very few adjustments made, resulting in him giving the exact same performance as in that film. It's possible Helms has more to offer than that but we certainly won't ever find out if he continues being typecast as the uptight, middle-aged geek who has to come out of his shell. At this rate, he'll turn into the adult Michael Cera. But besides having a predictable story arc, where the movie ultimately misfires is in overestimating how funny this whole scenario (or lack of one) at the hotel really is, especially when these strange people Tim encounters are actually fairly normal, at least from a cinematic standpoint. The ads and commercials would have you believe John C. Reilly is as out of control here as he was in Walk Hard or Step Brothers but through little fault of his own that guy never shows up here and his supposedly sleazy character is stuck in neutral the entire time, never really contributing much in the way of laughs. They keep telling us he's crazy but considering Reilly's playing the part, it's probably up there with some of the more restrained work he's done, which is fine, just not comical in the slightest.

What's so bizarre is that at many points the dialogue seems to mock how boring Cedar Rapids is (except to the wide-eyed protagonist), but if that's the case, why would you set this there, then openly acknowledge that detail in the script?  In a way, it's a strength that the film was confident enough to not go too over-the-top but even when it tries to aim in that direction with Tim going on a drug bender and picking up a prostitute it just feels like something we've seen before in far too many other comedies and doesn't really mix with the material in this one. What surprisingly does work well is the romance, as 90's legend Anne Heche (don't pretend you don't remember Six Days Seven Nights, Volcano, Wag The Dog and Return to Paradise) ends up giving the most charming performance in the film as the loopy, eccentric Joan, reminding us again how she became a star by giving many scenes bite that wouldn't otherwise have any. I also found the Sigourney Weaver sub-plot one of the few laugh-out-loud funny scenarios, but that's unfortunately dispensed with after the opening minutes. Alia Shawkat is pretty much wasted in the thankless hooker role, her screen presence these days serving only to rub salt in the wound that we probably won't get that Arrested Development movie anytime soon, or maybe ever.  

Cedar Rapids is one of those comedies that feature likable, intelligent characters you don't mind spending time with and you're smiling much of the way through, but you end up forgetting you watched it the next day. Or even possibly the next hour. That it comes from the same director as last year's mild creative success Youth in Revolt is ironic considering that film was edgier and had a much sharper script, despite being targeted to a younger age group. This is more of a sophisticated adult comedy, and maybe too much so since most of its laughs come in the first five minutes with the set-up, before resembling a coming-of-middle-age drama for the remainder of its running time. It doesn't misstep much within that framework, but part of the problem could be attributed to so many male-driven comedies revolving around the tired plot point of a man-child having to grow up. Cedar Rapids is a somewhat solid, but needless entry into that genre, proving it's not good enough for a comedy to just be smart when it doesn't bother to also be funny.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Life in Movies (1979-1989)

*This post is part of a continuing series celebrating five years of Jeremy The Critic® 

So, there was this thing going around the net a couple of months ago asking reviewers to name their FAVORITE movie from each year since they were born. Having missed the boat the first time around and thinking it was a great idea, I figured I'd present my version here. Reading other entries I laughed seeing childhood favorites like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sharing space alongside prestigious recent titles like There Will Be Blood until I compiled my list and...the same exact thing happened. Besides making me feel old this experiment proves just how strong a pull nostalgia has, as we tend to unconciously wrap ourselves in the experience we had watching a movie during a particular time in our lives. Of course, that's not discounting the fact that many of these are just that great and have withstood the test of time, some playing even better now than they did then. Restraining myself from a mini-review, I've given my picks (along with the runners-up) for each year and a brief explanation as to why I made those choices. This is the first of three parts.

1979: Apocalypse Now
Wait a minute. I was alive when Apocalypse Now came out? That's gotta be some kind of mistake. Oh, good. I just checked and it came out a week before I was born. What a relief. But I'm counting it anyway because the only two war films worth a damn are this and Full Metal Jacket, mainly because neither at any point FEEL like war movies, but rather horror movies that happen to take place during war. '79 was kind of weak but this would handily win either way. Favorite Brando performance and best use of a Doors' song in a movie ever.
Runners-Up: The Warriors

1980: The Empire Strikes Back
Much stronger year here. For my money, the greatest sequel of all-time wins in a walk-over which is no small feat looking at the competition (The Shining or Superman II would make a great #1 in ANY year). Everything about is perfect and it's the rare sequel that takes everything that worked in the first film and enhances and deepens it, along with giving us one of the most memorable scenes (and lines) in film history (you know the one). The only Star Wars film on here, and deservedly so.

Runners-Up: The Shining, Superman II, Airplane!, Popeye,

1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark
This needs no explanation. We all like to talk smack about Lucas and Spielberg now (myself included) for trying to rape our childhoods with inferior cash-in sequels and prequels, but there was a time when we got THIS. And two others. The less said about the fourth the better. Not even my favorite Indy film (that would be Temple of Doom for mostly nostalgic reasons) but arguably the best and definitively my favorite of '81 by a landslide. Nothing else even comes to mind.

Runners-Up: None

1982: E.T.
Supposedly Spielberg's favorite film to this day and it's easy to see why. In fact, I'd go as far as to say it's the main (only?) reason his name carries such reverence among moviegoers and critics. He'll never be able to do anything like it again, which is both good and bad. No one will. When the bicycles fly we never even stop for a second to consider why they wouldn't or if it's cheesy. That's the expert level of control Spielberg has over the material... and us. A timeless classic.

Runners-Up: Tron, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Annie, Basket Case, The Dark Crystal, Blade Runner 

1983: A Christmas Story
"You'll shoot your eye out." The Soap. The Old Man. The bunny suit. The leg lamp. The Chinese restaurant. It's funny how when I mention to people how much I love A Christmas Story there isn't much of a reaction until I throw those phrases out there and their eyes light up remembering how much fun it all is. It's impossible to believe now that the ultimate holiday classic flopped upon its release in the fall of '83. Really does deserve its 24-hour cable marathon each year. 

Alternates: The Return of the Jedi, National Lampoon's Vacation

1984: The Karate Kid
What a year this was. Really tough choice but the victor is clear for me. What's funny is how I typically despise sports movies and this one contains just about every sports movie cliche there is, yet I don't even care. I think the difference is that this is just so earnest, fun and fully aware of what it's supposed to be, making no apologies in going all the way with it. Just look at how goofy the ending scene is....yet it's somehow still perfect and you wouldn't change a thing. A product of its time in the best possible way and still holds up great. Last year's horrific "remake" has only bolstered my appreciation for it.

Runnenrs-Up: Gremlins, Ghostbusters, The Terminator, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The NeverEnding Story, The Natural, The Muppets Take Manhattan, Police Academy, Amadeus

1985: Back to the Future
Had The Goonies come out in just about any other year it would have a top spot locked up but it came out the same year as my favorite movie of the past 32 years. Talk about a film that's grown staggeringly over time, covering every genre and appealing to all audiences, regardless of age or gender. As universal a movie experience as It's A Wonderful Life but better acted, directed, and written. I've never met anyone who saw it and didn't immediately love it. And only the first chapter cinema's greatest trilogy. Of everything on here, this is the movie that feels totally mine, to the point it's unlikely I'd even be reviewing films today without it. Just read this for 52 reasons why.

Runners-Up: The Goonies, The Breakfast Club, Teen Wolf, Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Clue

1986: Lucas
I've discussed this one before, but yes, I'd even rank it ahead of Ferris Bueller's Day Off so that should tell you all you need to know. The most underrated coming-of-age movie of the 80's and proof that at one point Corey Haim (and yes, even Charlie Sheen) was an enormous talent with a bright acting future ahead of him. Keri Green is also sublime as the girlfriend that wasn't for the achingly relatable title character. While it's a shame how things turned out for the cast (with the exception of a debuting Winona Ryder), that hasn't adversely affected this movie's rewatch value one bit. How many movies perceived teen relationships as wisely as this? And that ending gets me every time. The ultimate high school classic.

Alternates: Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Little Shop of Horrors, Top Gun, Three Amigos!, The Karate Kid Part II

1987: The Princess Bride
Undoubtedly the greatest screen fairy tale of the past three decades. Every once in a while a filmmaker catches lightening in a bottle and every single aspect of the production just clicks in a way you never would have expected. When it starts we're as doubtful as young Fred Savage is at the beginning that it will amount to anything but Rob Reiner does something really special and almost indescribable with what should be a very familiar narrative. On the surface it's just your basic love story and there were no signs it could have worked this well but the performances, comedy and endlessly quotable dialogue make it one of those rare family viewing experiences that actually can be passed down from parents to their children. Fitting this stands out in such a great year for comedies.

Alternates: Full Metal Jacket, Adventures in Babysitting, Spaceballs, Good Morning,Vietnam, La Bamba, Planes, Trains and Automobiles 

1988: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
People forget just how groundbreaking this was. The idea of cartoons appearing side-by-side with human actors onscreen in a feature-length film was practically unheard of in 1988. Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis not only pulled it off, but set it against the backdrop of a terrific story that has some reality-based roots. Roger and Jessica Rabbit are better developed, more interesting characters than 90 percent of the live action ones you see on screen today and Bob Hoskins gives one of the decade's most underrated performances as detective Eddie Valiant. I'd ask for a sequel but Zemeckis would try to ruin it with his CGI/performance capture nonsense. Someone should tie him down to watch this again, hoping he regains his senses. This is how technology should be used in movies, aiding the story rather than overwhelming it.

Runners-Up: Willow, The Naked Gun, Die Hard, Big, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Beetlejuice, Rain Man, Scrooged

1989: Back to the Future Part II
Hoverboards. Mr. Fusion. Gray's Sports Almanac. And of course Biff Tannen's "Pleasure Paradise." (greatest photo I've ever posted by the way) What's the definition of a timeless movie? Just look at how ridiculous the year 2015 (through 1985's eyes) is depicted in this late 80's release, then consider how the film can somehow plays even BETTER today because of it. It's so much funnier, endearing and awesome by getting everything in the future wrong in just the right kind of goofy way, completely in line with the world Zemeckis created in the original. If this movie's vision of the future was even somewhat accurate instead of what the writers insanely thought up, you know the wouldn't have been even half as fun. It's easy to see why many claim it as their favorite in the trilogy. And what a cliffhanger ending that is, perfectly setting up the closing chapter

Runners-Up: Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Wizard, Field of Dreams, Weekend at Bernie's, Say Anything, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Parenthood, Ghostbusters II, UHF 

Coming Soon: A Life in Movies Part 2 (1990-2000)

Friday, August 12, 2011

Friday Night Lights: The Fifth and Final Season

Producers: Peter Berg, Brian Grazer, Jason Katims
Starring: Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton, Michael B. Jordan, Matt Lauria, Aimee Teegarden, Jurnee Smollett, Madison Burge, Grey Damon Taylor Kitsch, Zach Gilford, Adrianne Palicki,
Original Airdate: 2010

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Let's just go ahead and add Friday Night Lights to the list of shows that should have been one of TV's most watched, but for whatever reason, wasn't. Praised to high heaven by critics but ignored by audiences, the big question remains "Why?" It's easy to blame NBC, who dropped the ball with their constant schedule shuffling and lack of promotion, but you could also argue the network saved its life when they struck a deal with DirectTV extending its run for three more seasons, which is three more than anyone thought it would get. FNL may have never amassed the rabid cult following of other ratings-challenged shows that got the axe, but this lasted longer, and those who watched all five seasons still feel like part of an exclusive club. Whether you chalk it up to it being "too real" or not sensationalistic enough (its two best attributes in my mind), the show didn't catch fire nationally like it should have. But it's very difficult to care when you look back at the finished product over five years and consider the creative high it's departing on. And in achieving what no other drama in television's history can by not just surviving, but somehow thriving when most of the cast departed, there's nothing at all for fans to be disappointed about here. In keeping with that trend of final seasons never representing any series' creative pinnacle, season 5 definitely isn't its best, but it sure is great, cementing its status as being head and shoulders above any recent drama on TV.

Coach gives the team a pep talk before State
The series' fourth (and best) season saw a major upheaval for Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), after being replaced as the head football coach of the Dillon Panthers and initially struggling in his new position as coach of the East Dillon High Lions, the school where his wife Tami (Connie Britton) works as guidance counselor. The show's writers have had to literally rebuild the series from the ground up after losing some major players, both on and off the field. Gone over the past two seasons were Minka Kelly's former Panther cheerleader Lyla Garrity, Adrianne Palicki's bad girl Tyra Collette, Scott Porter's paralyzed Jason Street, Zach Gilford's star QB Matt Saracen, Jesse Plemons' geeky Landry Clarke and Taylor Kitsch's troubled ex-Panther running back Tim Riggins. While the last three stuck around for much of the fourth season before departing as series regulars, these blows were enormous and would have killed any other show outright. Instead, the writers were brilliant in how they maneuvered around it using the big three characters that were left last season to gradually get us to warm up to the new faces who would now be carrying the show, and succeeding. Before long, I'd forgotten that almost the entire cast was gone. Turning the tables and repositioning the Dillon Panthers (who we'd been conditioned to cheer since the pilot) as the spoiled, dominant villains in a rivalry against Coach Taylor's poor, underdog Lions from East Dillon breathed new life into the series and gave every character (with the exception of Brad Leland's underutilized Buddy Garrity) a fresh purpose and direction.

Lions booster Buddy Garrity has a heart-to-heart with troubled son Buddy, Jr.
As the star Lions QB Vince Howard, Michael B. Jordan has been a revelation but this season sees an already troubled home life with his recovering addict mother, Regina (Angela Rawna) complicated by the return of an important figure from his past. With his ego swelling to gigantic proportions, Vince must also adjust to his off again, on again girlfriend Jess Merriweather (Jurnee Smollett) taking a job as the team's equipment manager, while farm boy teammate Luke Cafferty's (Matt Lauria) somewhat controversial relationship with Becky Sproles (Madison Burge) moves to the next level despite her shocking abortion last season. The relatively new cast have no problems carrying a full season on their own for the first time without the help of any of the originals and any problems are relegated to the first half of the season and have little to do with them. Half-hearted attempts to add more new supporting characters to an already seamless cast results in failure as there just isn't enough room to define them. The arrival of Buddy Garrity's son, Buddy, Jr. (Jeff Rosick) is a bust since he spends the whole season on the sidelines doing nothing, while a new addition to the Lions' squad, former basketball player Hastings Ruckle (Grey Damon), is forgotten about as quickly as he's introduced. Tami's sub-plot involving her attempts to rescue a troubled student named Epyck (Emily Rios) feels more like an after-school special than a development befitting one of TV's most restrained dramas. 

Julie Taylor reunites with Matt Saracen in Chicago.
The season's worst storyline revolves around Julie Taylor (Aimee Teegarden), the weakest character on the series who's always been borderline intolerable whenever separated from soulmate Matt Saracen. Topping previous hall of shame Julie moments like drunkenly coming on to Tim Riggins in season 1 or hooking up with the "Swede" in season 2, the writers take it to a whole new level of embarrassment this time as we actually follow Julie to college, where she has an affair with a sleaze bag teaching assistant. Tonally inconsistent enough to conjure up bad memories of Landry the murderer from season 2, FNL was always so strong because it avoided over-the-top, teen soap histrionics in favor of subtle, more realistic storytelling. I understand the need to get Julie back to Dillon and reunited with Matt but the same thing could have been accomplished without us having to follow Julie to college, watch her struggle to fit in on campus, then endure a cringe-worthy spectacle that has nothing to do with the show, even if it was only for a few episodes. Then again, if they did that, I wouldn't have anything to complain about, and whining at length about this silly storyline is probably more fun than I'd want to admit. Luckily, Julie is mostly redeemed in the second half of the season when she does reunite with the returning Matt twice. And therein lies the conundrum with Julie Taylor. Teegarden's always been handed the worst material on the show so it's nearly impossible to judge her worth as an actress, yet whatever craptastic storyline gets thrown the character's way, you still can't bring yourself to actively dislike her. A big part of that just might be she's Coach Taylor and Tami's daughter, and since they're the heart and soul of the show, we view her as we would an annoying little sister, at times empathizing with her growing pains. So in a strange way, there is some real truth in the character.

Vince's recently paroled father, Ornette plots his son's future.
The possibility that Coach Taylor could leave Dillon, Texas at some point has always loomed large so it's fitting that this final season presents the biggest chance yet of that happening as he fields offers from interested universities, while deeply considering what such a move would mean for not only for him, but his marriage, family and players. This is juxtaposed against Vince dealing with the return of his recently paroled father, Ornette, played by Cress Williams in a season-stealing guest performance that invokes fright and uncomfortable laughter. An unpredictable loose cannon who helps Vince violate every college recruitment regulation in the book, the character is presented with the subtlety of a sledge hammer but in this case it's completely called for since the storyline itself is so gripping, bringing Vince's inner demons to the surface and tearing his relationship with Coach apart. You're on edge waiting to see what this delusional, but oddly well-intentioned nut job will do next, knowing it can't possibly end well. It's a testament to Williams' work as this villain we love to hate that there's more to Ornette than just his scary side and at times you see shades of the cool dad Vince wants to view him as and please. Vince's worst enemy has always been his past so this was the perfect way to go with him as he has to finally stand up and be the man his father couldn't. Even by the finale, it's clear that battle will be ongoing.

A depressed Tim Riggins is comforted by the returning Tyra.
The final hours rank among the series' best as the writers go all out bringing back  Saracen, Saracen's Grandma, Landry, Tyra, Jason Street and the recently incarcerated Tim Riggins who took the fall for his brother Billy's (Derek Phillips) chop shop last season and now emerges from prison a sad, depressed shell of his former self. That storyline really hogs the spotlight for the last couple of episodes and it's really tough to argue with that decision since the final episodes represent the best acting work Taylor Kitsch has done since the series' inception and the issues with his brother and sister-in-law Mindy (Stacey Oristano), is given the closure we've been hoping for. Sad and defeated in a way he he's never been before, his readjustment the daily life is almost tortuous to watch until you realize he's finally hit rock bottom and emerged with a new outlook and set of morals, obvious when Tim is the only sane person who sees a problem with a 17-year-old girl working as a waitress at a strip club. One of my favorite surprises of the season was the blustery, boisterous Buddy Garrity embroiled again in the town's football politics as he returns to his pushy, annoying Panther roots. Given how vital Brad Leland's work was to the show's success in the first three seasons, it was great to see him back in the forefront for the home stretch.

The Taylors contemplate the decision of their lives.
The show's biggest strengths during its run has always been how the football action on the field helps tell the story of what's happening off it and the amazing music choices, whether it's a slow-burning southern rock anthem after the team's win or lose or the perfect indie song played at just the right time to make a potentially sappy moment (like Matt and Julie in Chicago) connect on the right level. At the end there is a "big game" but for a change it's outcome has never been less relevant. It's all about Coach Taylor and Tami as it's always been and the writers deserve credit for knowing that's where it should leave off. Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton have given us one of the most honest depictions of marriage on television in years. That the decision Coach Taylor makes in the final minutes actually comes as a surprise and feels earned is all due to the Emmy-worthy Chandler, who's been the glue holding this show together for five years, playing the part with an unsentimental blend of toughness and compassion.  

"Clear Eyes, Full hearts, Can't Lose."
Despite giving us as good a closer as it gets, there are still rumors of a movie, as there always seems to be when any critically hailed series with a following leaves the air. But unlike other promised movies based on canceled shows, I'm betting this is the one that'll actually happen since it makes sense. For one, it was already based on a successful novel and feature film directed by series creator Peter Berg. And though Berg's creative output as a feature director has been spotty at best (Hancock, anyone?), there's still no denying his movies made money and he's had success outside of the show. Add to that the fact that many of actors' stocks have risen considerably since leaving the series and the idea starts to make even more sense. Of course, this still isn't a guarantee it needs to happen but I'd give this a much better chance at succeeding than most. For a show that's always seemed like a feature length film each week, it just might work.

Crafting a fully satisfying final season has to be the most difficult challenge any screenwriter or showrunner could possibly face and if you don't believe me you can just ask the Lost creators. Delivering a truly great series finale is even harder. It's near impossible to tie up every loose end, give closure to each character past and present, close the door (but leave it slightly ajar "just in case") and send all the fans home happy. So difficult is it I almost feel funny criticizing anything that goes wrong, since it's a given whatever occurs on screen won't match expectations. A couple of storylines don't work, but what does work is superb and even its minor flaws are kind of absorbing too. Whatever debate lingers about the quality of the season as a whole is tempered by the final 43 minutes, which are unarguably perfect, putting the focus exactly where it needs as the show signs off for good. Series finales are rarely ever as strong or as emotional as this. Coach Taylor's motivational catchphrase over the past five years may have been "clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose" but it's unlikely any loyal fans watching the final few episodes of one of television's best written and acted series will have clear eyes at the end.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

Director: George Nolfi
Starring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Anthony Ruivivar, Michael Kelly, Terence Stamp
Running Time: 106 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Remember that sequence in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button when a series of events line up in such a way that causes Daisy to be hit by a taxi and break her leg? Almost as if it were fate or destiny because if it wasn't then she simply wouldn't have been out on the street at that time for it to happen. Every decision causes a ripple effect. The Adjustment Bureau is that sequence explored and stretched out over an entire film, which isn't such a bad thing since the idea that every action can have life-altering consequences is a popular one in science fiction, specifically in time travel films such as The Butterfly Effect, The Sound of Thunder and Back To The Future. Despite being adapted from Philip K. Dick's short story "Adjustment Team," the film's biggest strength is that it doesn't feel like straight sci-fi through a good portion of its running time. Then when it absolutely needs to, it doesn't, and in the final minutes has problems sticking the landing, favoring a more conventional resolution that undercuts what preceded it. Still, it's a fascinating idea that an adjustment team oversees our destinies, giving us a nudge every once in a while to stay on course, and first-time writer/director George Nolfi (in a really impressive debut) deserves credit for not squandering it, getting this about 80 percent right. Meticulously put together much of the way through and carried by two talented leads, greatness was within this film's reach, but slips away due to a third act that could have benefited from a little adjustment itself.

Bad boy New York Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon) finds himself at the losing end of a Senatorial bid amidst another scandal when he meets the enigmatic Elise (Emily Blunt) while practicing his concession speech in the bathroom. After delivering a dynamic, off-the-cuff speech he meets up with her again on a city bus after a mysterious man named Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) falls asleep on a park bench, failing to spill coffee on him at exactly 7:05 AM. It turns out he's a caseworker for The Adjustment Bureau given orders by his boss, Richardson (Mad Men's John Slattery) to prevent their reunion because it deviates from the "plan," This "plan" is a predetermined chain of events overseen by the "Chairman" who helps steer the course of individuals' lives for the supposed betterment of humanity. Elise wasn't supposed to be part of David's but Harry's screw-up changed that and despite successfully separating them for three years and being threatened with a "re-set" (essentially a lobotomy), David still won't give up on being with her. When all else fails, The Bureau brings in Thompson (Terence Stamp), known as "The Hammer," to take care of business and make sure David's relationship with Elise is terminated by any means necessary.

The first hour of the film is electric, cleverly disguising itself as a political thriller and revealing just enough information at just the right pace to build up a considerable amount of suspense and intrigue. When it revealed why these mysterious men in suits and bowler hats are trailing David and what they want from him, the story gains rather than loses traction as details about the Bureau and their purpose and history spill out.  The most intriguing thing about them is how normal and businesslike they are about altering lives, as if it were just simply a 9 to 5 job. With each caseworker armed with a notebook full of moving coordinates, they make an impact not by reading people's minds but by literally stopping them without their knowledge. Whether it's cutting phone lines, creating an external distraction, or even going as far as to cause a car accident to change the course, they use doors as a portal to travel between locations as quickly as possible. They clearly have supernatural powers but the film is very proficient at making their work look threatening while still being grounded on some level of reality, much like 1998's great Dark City, which shared a similar concept, but an entirely different tone. Only that film had the guts to see its vision to the bitter end without compromise.

It helps to have two characters worth caring about as Matt Damon is completely credible as an up-and-coming politician with a chip on his shoulder, but a strong idealistic desire to do right. At this point, it's tough to imagine Damon not completely nailing any role and this is just the latest in a long line. You'd understand why the Bureau would care about every decision David makes and Emily Blunt makes it easy to understand why he won't let anything stand in the way of him being with Elise. Blunt's an interesting presence as an actress. While not necessarily fitting everyone's textbook definition of beautiful, she has this strangely intriguing look to her and carries herself with a class and grace onscreen that demands full attention whenever she does or says anything, and that quality has never served her better than here. Damon and Blunt are so good together on screen and share such strong chemistry that the film's biggest weakness turns out to be getting carried away with their romance and letting it overcome the more intriguing sci-fi elements in the story. That's difficult to admit, considering how flawlessly everything flows in the early going. By overplaying his hand in the romance department in third act, Nolfi ironically loses grip on the doomed circumstances that made their relationship so riveting.

After cleverly being left in the dark for much of the picture as to why David shouldn't be with Elise (and even doubting whether the Bureau knows themselves) there's a great scene in a parking garage with David and Terence Stamp's villainous Thompson where we get some insight into why it might not be such a great idea for the two of them to be together and paints this organization in a different light. This leads to bigger questions, then even bigger ones, before settling into an unbearably suspenseful, expertly choreographed action finale. It's just too bad the revelations that come in the closing minutes are a letdown. It wouldn't be a stretch at all to say that that it unintentionally makes the finished product feel more like a "date movie" than a mysterious sci-fi action thriller. It's still good, just not great, and certainly not nearly as impactful as it should be considering the circumstances. If ever a story called for a tragic finale it's this. Unfortunately, you're instead left wondering whether this story was really as smart as it seemed to be from the beginning and if concessions were made post-production so it could make more bank at the box office.

There's nothing wrong with aiming to make a crowd pleaser, even if I'm disappointed it didn't reach for a level higher rather than fall back on the more conventional romance aspect. Still, this is one of the better films from the first half of 2011, with a first time director blending two entirely different genres successfully at least three quarters of the way through. Whether it was studio interference due to poor test screenings or an eleventh hour re-write, the last few crucial minutes (and boy are they crucial) don't work, which is a shame considering just how much else does, especially the fleshing out of a gripping premise and the two great performances carrying it. I guess you can blame me for grading on my level of expectation rather than enjoyment, since anyone looking for a well-made romantic adventure could certainly do a lot worse than The Adjustment Bureau