Friday, September 23, 2011

I'm good at blog.

I'm sure the only thing better than my infrequent blogging would be a completely unorganized account of new television shows, halfway through the premiere block, and while I'm not fully caught up!  But whatever.  I don't have TV anymore (resolving this soon) so I've only been able to catch whatever's on Hulu, or whatever I see at my parents' house on the weekends.  Deal with it!  If a show doesn't appear on the list below, either I don't care enough to bother with it (Pan Am, Charlie's Angels, The Playboy Club), it's finished its summer run (The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Switched at Birth, True Blood), or it won't be back (or premiering) for a few months or longer (30 Rock, Apartment 23, Mad Men).

The Amazing Race (8pm on CBS, premieres 9/25)
          Year after year, I remain super pumped about this show.  It is always fun to watch with my family, and it's such an amazingly produced reality competition.  Hoping to audition for it eventually! 
Once Upon a Time (8pm on ABC, premieres 10/23)
           I saw the pilot for this a few months ago, and it was a little weird, but seemed promising if you're into darker network dramas.  I'll probably watch a couple of episodes but it's not really my style. 
Boardwalk Empire (9pm on HBO, premieres 9/25)
          The first season took ages to finally get exciting, but it ended up being wonderful.  It's not my favorite "high art" show but I'm excited to watch it during the desert between Breaking Bad and Mad Men. 
Dexter (9pm on Showtime, premieres 10/2)
          This show goes up and down in quality, but it's still mega awesome and better than a lot of other stuff I watch.  I think Colin Hanks will actually be a really creepy baddie so I'm looking forward to this season. 
The Walking Dead (9pm on AMC, premieres 10/16)
          I thought the first season was super boring, but it's a high production value show about zombies, so. 
Breaking Bad (10pm on AMC)
          There are only three episodes left in what has been an incredible season of what is currently the best show on TV.  How Vince Gilligan and the actors manage to manipulate the audience so thoroughly is just incredible.  I am obsessed with this show and will post more in-depth thoughts when the season's done. 

How I Met Your Mother (8pm on CBS)
          One of the most affecting shows about twenty-somethings dating and dealing with relationships and growing up is reaching its breaking point.  I'm hoping that this is the second-to-last season and that we can start letting it wind down.  This week's reveal of Victoria was exciting because I really liked her with Ted, but I know she won't be the 'mom.'  Also, I am personally more interested in Marshall and Lily's journey at this point than Barney or Robin's, and I hope they work on leveling that out.
2 Broke Girls (8:30pm on CBS)
          The pilot had funnier jokes than I expected, so I will give this one at least a few more episodes to really win me over.  I didn't find Kat Dennings to be particularly funny, though her character is meant to be pretty just felt like she had taken a crash course in comedic timing and was acting a bit too robotically. 

Glee (8pm on Fox)
          Fox is annoyingly making us wait eight days before watching its content on hulu, so I haven't watched the season premiere yet.  Luckily, I remember how awful the show became last season, so I'm happy to wait.
New Girl (9pm on Fox)
          It's been a little while since I watched this pilot, which I found to be instantly grating.  However I love Deputy Leo from Veronica Mars, and I'd be betraying my fellow twee hipsters if I didn't love Death Cab for Cutie's first lady, so you know I'll keep watching.
Raising Hope (9:30pm on Fox)
          I'm also waiting until next week for this to go up on hulu, but I was charmed by this show's first season and look forward to having it back.
Sons of Anarchy (10pm on FX)
          Ugh I haven't seen any of this season's first three episodes!  I freaking love this show but they don't stream or put the episodes on demand so I'm at a standstill for now.
Awkward (11pm on MTV)
          One of my favorite new shows.  I was initially drawn to it because creator and showrunner Lauren Iungerich is an alumna of my college, but it's really wonderful.  It's a bit of a hybrid between My So-Called Life, Daria, and Juno, so I don't see why it wouldn't be awesome.  Also, the lady who plays the protagonist's mom used to date JC Chasez. #funfact

Up All Night (8pm on NBC)
          I didn't find the pilot to be that great, but the second episode was a bit funnier.  I think the actors have good chemistry, I'm just not convinced that the premise has anything to offer.  I'm sure you could say the same thing about NBC's Thursday night comedy block though, so prove me wrong, show!
Free Agents (8:30pm on NBC) 
          This show is going to get canceled really soon. Let's face it.  It's funny and charming though, and I love seeing Kathryn Hahn given some breathing room.  She's got a bit of the Judy Greer thing going - always the friend, never the star - and that's got to change soon.
Modern Family (9pm on ABC)
          Everyone loves this show and so do I, but I thought the Wyoming-set season premiere was chock full of offensive sexist and homophobic "jokes."  The show has tilted at this in the past but really let loose in the premiere.  Let's hope it's not a trend.  I am not as mad about new Lily as others are, but I do miss those babies!
Happy Endings (9:30pm on ABC, premieres 9/28)
          This show rules and I'm worried that mistreatment by the network will result in a premature cancellation.  I can't wait for it to come back!

Community (8pm on NBC)
          I am going to watch this tonight!  I'm not the biggest fangirl of this show, but it is always clever and very funny, so I'm glad it's back, especially since we'll have to wait a while on 30 Rock.
Parks and Recreation (8:30pm on NBC)
          The best show on NBC is back!  So far I feel like they'll allow us to miss the Ben and Leslie relationship without hating the change too much.  I hope so, because I love Adam Scott and his character.
Whitney (9:30pm on NBC)
          I haven't seen this one yet but it looks so awful.  Absolutely nothing about it appeals to me.
The Office (9pm on NBC)
          Last night's season premiere was so bad that during the cold open, I thought they were joking.  I've long felt that this show is a husk of its former self, so hard not to feel when one remembers how wonderful its brief predecessor was.  That said, I think there's been a steep drop-off in quality this season, not entirely thanks to Steve Carell's departure.  I just don't think the writers know what they're supposed to be doing at this point. 
Grey's Anatomy (9pm on ABC)
          My unhealthy relationship with this show continues.  I'll be catching up on this one tonight, but I mean, it'll be the same soap it's been.  No big deal.
Jersey Shore (10pm on MTV)
          I'll never stop watching; this show rules.
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (10pm on FX)
          I'm a week behind but thought the season premiere was a little weak.  I think they could have played more with physical comedy, but whatever, it's still one of the most shockingly funny things out there, so I'm happy it's back.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sweet 25...

It's Back to School week over at A Bright Wall in a Dark Room!  Click over there to read my essay about Never Been Kissed...

School Week: Never Been Kissed (1999)


by Katherine Spada


I don't like to go too in-depth when reviewing movies released by my own studio, but I do want to just share a couple of thoughts on Moneyball which I saw last night.  We all know I love inspirational sports movies about sports that I don't like, and Moneyball isn't really an inspirational sports movie, but damn if it isn't about baseball.  Here's how little I know about baseball.  Freshman year of college I bought a cute green shirt at a thrift store that said "Athletics" and had a baseball on it.  I was rather emo at the time and had a penchant for ironic t-shirts from the boys' section of the Goodwill.  When people kept asking me if I was from Oakland, I couldn't understand why (I thought it was just like an elementary school's P.E. department shirt).  While Moneyball is largely about how statistics factor in to major league baseball, which I didn't quite follow, I still really enjoyed watching the movie.  Brad Pitt was excellent in it, the writing was very impressive, and I can't wait to see more and more of Chris Pratt.  I'll admit that a movie about baseball being over two hours long doesn't help you forget that baseball is super boring, but even what seemed like superfluous scenes were great.

Now onto something superficial: Philip Seymour Hoffman is four years younger than Brad Pitt but looks about twenty years older. I continue to love him more than Pitt, but man were their scenes together jarring.

Come learn from my vast wisdom!

Attention Los Angeles area readers: Tonight I will be speaking at an event in West L.A. called "Moving On Up! The Young Alum Panel on Getting Hired in Hollywood."  This is a 21+ event hosted by the Claremont Entertainment Mafia, an alumni resource for graduates of the Claremont Colleges working in the entertainment industry.  Claremont students who are 18+ are welcome, just let the CEM members at the door know you're a student.

So Claremont alumni, and interested friends, join me tonight at 7pm at The Joint for this panel and some mingling.

The Joint
8771 W. Pico Blvd. at Robertson

Event description:
A successful career in Hollywood is exciting and lucrative, but how exactly does one begin?

Claremont Entertainment Mafia has assembled a panel of three of our most promising young alums - future movers and shakers - to discuss their own experiences on getting hired and getting promoted in the industry.

Join us for an evening where we will share anecdotes, advice, and take your questions regarding all aspects of the Hollywood ...hiring and promotion process, as well as the day-to-day grind.

DEVIN RAPSON (PO '09) got his first taste of the industry as a PA on Scooby Doo 4, in addition to interning with Oscar-winning Pomona alum Jim Taylor. He ran the feature department as coordinator at Landscape Entertainment with Bob Cooper, and recently has been hired to the prestigious Paradigm Talent Agency.

KATHERINE SPADA (CMC '08) began her career as assistant to Universal EVP Peter Cramer. After traveling the world, she currently works at Columbia as assistant to EVP of production Elizabeth Cantillon, working on such projects as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the next film in the James Bond franchise.

JAVAN TAHERKHANI (CMC '08) moved up the cutthroat CAA ladder, from mailroom to floater to assistant, where he worked with powerhouse packaging agent Rob Kenneally. Now at Media Rights Capital, he works closely with the leadership of the television division to identify, develop, produce and sell premium content.

The panel will be moderated by Justin Huang, PO '09.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

This... Is... Sparta!

This weekend I went with a couple of my martial arts teammates to a late-night showing of Gavin O'Connor's sports drama Warrior.  I've long held that inspirational sports movies are the highest art of storytelling, even when they are about sports I don't like or care about (inspirational movies and TV shows about football probably offer the highest ratio of satisfaction to level of disinterest about the sport).  Given that I train six days a week in Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and regularly head to my neighborhood bar for UFC matches, I was excited to finally have one of these movies about mixed martial arts, a sport I actually care about.  O'Connor directed the well-loved Miracle, about the U.S. Olympic hockey victory against the Soviet Union in 1980.  I found Miracle to be boring, but hoped that wouldn't be the case with Warrior.  Luckily, it wasn't.

In Pittsburgh, former trainer and recovering alcoholic Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte) returns home from church to find his younger son Tommy (Tom Hardy), drunk and self-medicated, sitting on his front stoop.  It's been over a decade since escaping his abusive father, and Tommy's lost years remain a mystery he does not wish to discuss.  Whatever his sorrows are, it's off to the gym for former Marine and wrestling champ Tommy to work out his anger.  Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Paddy's older son, ex-UFC fighter Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is a family man, teaching high school physics and struggling to pay the bills after his daughter had suffered from a heart problem.  It's back to prize fighting for him, beating up hillbillies in parking lots to earn some extra cash, but he can't bring himself to tell his wife (Jennifer Morrison).

Both brothers are in need of money fast, so they independently find themselves training for Sparta, a single-elimination MMA competition with a five million dollar purse.  It isn't until the final third of the movie that the leads even have a scene together, and this is part of what I liked so much about it.  The audience is given just enough backstory about Tommy and Brendan's lives to know that they have been estranged since adolescence.  We aren't spoon fed erroneous details about what happened after one brother left and one stayed behind, nor asked to care, really.  What matters is the present, two brothers fighting for the money they need to start over, and approaching catharsis in the process.  After watching two separate stories unfold, one about Brendan and his wife, and one about Tommy and his father, when they finally collide, all of the pent-up emotion has been saved for the octagon.

The fight scenes were excellently choreographed and shot.  Edgerton and Hardy clearly got into shape by training with real fighters, and whenever they were in combat I winced at each round kick and submission as if I were watching a live match.  [RIP Tom Hardy's neck, you will be missed.]  This is not to say that the movie didn't have flaws, particularly with its performances.  For a large chunk of the movie, Edgerton just speaks in a full-on Australian accent, and Hardy's take on emoting seems to consist primarily of pouting while growling, but I don't actually think the role required much more from him on that count.  There are a few glaring logic problems, but they're worth overlooking.  However, the emotional payoff in the final scenes of the movie is, well, cheesy.  Even cheesier than I would usually expect or tolerate from a sports movie like this one, and I wasn't the only one in the theater laughing.

If you're a fan of martial arts, I assure you that Warrior leans more toward The Fighter than toward Never Back Down.  It's not all the way at The Fighter's end of the spectrum, but it's still a very good movie.  I'd definitely classify it as more of a family drama with sports than the reverse.  Now, if you're not interested in martial arts, I think it's still a movie worth watching, which I say as someone who was obsessed with Friday Night Lights but would find watching football to be like having teeth pulled.  But, for those made squeamish by fight sports, those scenes are definitely brutal.  Finally, and most importantly, the movie is full of juicehead gorillas with their shirts off, so if that tickles your fancy, you're good to go.

Don't Think About It

Over at A Bright Wall in a Dark Room, you can find a very personal essay I've contributed on the subject of Drake Doremus' Like Crazy.  Click through to visit the site; full text reposted below.


by Katherine Spada
I was twenty, and had just graduated from college a few months prior. My internship had yielded an unbelievable job offer that everyone told me was foolish to pass up. However, I’d already planned a gap year to travel, and that was not something I wanted to turn down. So off I went to Australia for six months, and that’s where I met him.

In Drake Doremus’ festival favorite Like Crazy, Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones meet cute as college students in Los Angeles, and struggle to figure out what they should do after graduation when it’s time for her to move back to England. Before she’s due to leave, they have a romantic mini-getaway until, foregoing reason, she decides to outstay her visa. This decision changes the course of their love and their lives for the coming years.

He was sitting across my tiny table, having cooked us a pumpkin and roasted garlic risotto. We drank wine, there was a candle lit, and the air was cool outside my high-rise apartment. We spoke of traveling, and how we viewed the world. I felt a catch in my throat and excused myself to the bathroom. You’re in trouble, I told my reflection. Weeks later he was using my laptop and I worried he’d see in my search history, “how to make long distance relationships work.”

Yelchin’s Jacob knows it’s a bad idea for Jones’ Anna to stay in Los Angeles the summer after graduating. Perhaps neither truly realizes how serious the blowback will be from her decision to stay through the summer. More likely, they both realize there could be consequences too scary to face, but given the option to continue wallowing in each other for just a few more months, they are powerless to turn it down.

Anna and Jacob make plans for him to visit her, but they have ongoing lives that can’t be put on hold in between visits. Jacob is a carpenter with a growing furniture business; early in their relationship he gives Anna a lovingly made desk chair where she can write comfortably, the film’s title etched into the wood. In England, Anna pursues a job writing for a publication where she’ll have to plug away for a few years before she gets to where she wants to be. Phone calls never occur quite at convenient times for either of them, and they’re incurably out of sync with each other’s schedules.

One of us waits at the airport with flowers in hand, dressed up and well-groomed, eagerly scanning the faces of each haggard traveler coming off a long international flight. The other spends over an hour deplaning, lugging bags through customs and immigration, and then hastily trying to wash off the stench of travel in an airport bathroom before coming through the arrivals gate. In the span of a couple of weeks (all the time we could manage to get off work), we’d pack in visits with friends and family, sightseeing, fancy white tablecloth dinners, romantic mini-getaways, and lots and lots of serious talks about the future. More tears spilled in airports and on airplanes, and in cars driving away from them, than seems physically possible.

Anna’s parents can see how happy Jacob makes their daughter and are very supportive of their relationship, in whatever way they choose to pursue it. Of course, the suggestion of marriage comes up very early. Just like staying through the summer instead of leaving right after graduation, getting married seems like a very good idea.

“So, are you planning on moving to Australia?” “What would he do if he moved here?” “Wouldn’t it be easier if you just got married?” I can’t, I’m too young. I don’t want to get married for convenience. What about money; how would we make it work?

Jacob and Anna carry on with their lives. It’s so hard to miss each other, but they try their best to share in each other’s personal triumphs. Promotions, settling in to the fun activities of hanging out with their cultivated groups of friends, generally growing up. They begin to move on to new relationships, but they stay in each other’s thoughts, Anna’s chair and bracelet (engraved fittingly with “Patience”) remaining tokens of Jacob’s love that she can’t leave behind.

I remember being bitterly jealous of couples I saw holding hands at farmer’s markets or watching TV shows together over delivered pizza. We are so much better than they are, why don’t we get to be together, but they do? Maybe marriage is the answer… There is always value in thinking reasonably and thoroughly about major decisions like that.

“Don’t think about it,” Anna tells Jacob when he voices concern about their future.

My long-distance relationship didn’t follow the same trajectory that Anna and Jacob’s did. The film peeks in on their lives, leaving them abruptly and ambiguously, but it’s easy for a romantic to infer that the struggles in the film paved the way for a happy future. I imagine that Like Crazy is to a long-distance relationship what Blue Valentine is to divorce - realistic to the point of being difficult to watch if you’ve lived through it. There are so many major threads that weave together a long-distance love: devotion, trust, emptiness, wist, heightened romanticism. Like Crazy captures all of these so well, but it especially reminded me of the willful ignorance of it all. The struggle to pretend that very real hurdles don’t exist because it’s just not fair for them to hold us back. The naive desire to believe that, should those hurdles be overcome, everything will carry on harmoniously.

I was twenty-three, riding in the passenger seat of his car on the way to the airport, heading back home after my last visit to Australia. I broke the silence with verbalized fantasies of all the things I couldn’t wait for us to do together when we were finally living together in the same city. At the airport I cried, as usual. Two years prior I’d made the same trip from Sydney, then only on the starting line of this long-distance marathon. That time, I’d sat against the window, embarrassed to be seen by flight attendants as I wept into the sleeve of my sweatshirt. Mercifully, a girl finally rushed down the aisle to be seated next to me. Her face was splotchy and she carried a bouquet of flowers as she left her Australian boyfriend behind to return home to South America. We cried together. I shared with her some of the Chupa Chups I’d packed for the flight. This time, I traveled alone.

Katherine Spada is a Hollywood assistant and sometimes writer. When she’s not working, she trains in Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. When the mood strikes, she contributes to MediaBlvd Magazine, and blogs at Kat Ex Machina.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Resisting the urge to write Erik/Charles slash fanfic...

Just a quick review because there's no way I can be impartial or really tell you anything you don't already know about Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class.  I really like The X-Men and I will be excited to go see any movie made about them.  I even liked X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine more than a lot of people did.  I didn't grow up reading comics but my sister did and she taught me about the world of mutants, and X-Men: The Animated Series was probably my favorite TV show when I was a kid.  I wanted to grow up to be Wolverine!

So anyway, getting to see a side of Professor Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr that I had not given much thought to, was really exciting for me.  As always, it is cool to see the mutants use their powers, I got a chance to learn more about some characters I never knew that much about (Beast, Darwin, Banshee), and the 1960s setting added an interesting element.  That said...this so did not go far enough.

The story of a younger Magneto and Professor X could/should have been a 2-3 film arc.  The theme of discrimination against the mutants during the 1960s could have been used to tell a story against the backdrop of Civil Rights for African-Americans, which was a missed opportunity.  And for a movie where I felt everything was resolved far too suddenly, parts seemed to drag on for ages.

This movie was incredibly cheesy, but not quite in a way that felt like they were trying to kitschily establish our beloved mutants in the swingin' '60s.  Beast's post-transformation makeup was simply unimpressive, and the writers seemed to change their minds about characters' personalities every few pages.  There were, obviously, massive logic holes, but this is a universe where a blue scaly woman can transform into anything she wants so, you know, I'll just let them be.

To paraphrase my friend, I am desperate for them to make a Young Magneto: Nazi Hunter movie.  Michael Fassbender was easily the best part of the movie, and I wish Magneto's relationship with James McAvoy's Charles Xavier could have been given more time to grow.  Also, if this story were expanded into multiple films, I feel like the relationship Raven/Mystique has with both Charles and Erik would have become a compelling storyline.  Her brief scenes with Magneto were (oh man I was about to say "magnetic," what's wrong with me?) intriguing.

In any event, it got me pumped again about X-Men, and I fully intend to go back and watch last decade's trilogy again.  Then every movie Michael Fassbender has ever been in, because damn.

Well, everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is, maybe he didn't?

Okay, so I should state upfront that I'm a Woody Allen neophyte.  Of his films, I've seen What's Up Tiger Lily, Bananas, Sleeper, Match Point, and now, Midnight in Paris.  So yeah, I missed all the good ones, I guess, except Match Point.  I've been told that I struggle more than others with separating the artist from the art, and I admit that to be true.  I do try, though.  I mean, let's take Roman Polanski.  Rosemary's Baby is incredible, then his pregnant wife gets murdered by the Manson family, then he makes this amazing and twisted adaptation of Macbeth, and I also love Chinatown and The Pianist, but the man is a confessed child rapist and I can never forget about that even when I'm watching and loving his films.  So you'll have to forgive me when I say that I don't ever really seek out Woody Allen movies because he totally creeps me out.

Anyway, I was told Midnight in Paris was "delightful," and many of my friends "loved it" and saw it multiple times.  I was pleasantly charmed by it, and found it a quick, whimsical journey through Paris across time (the film is only 100 minutes long, including credits).  The story is sweet and has a clever conceit involving time travel that is forgiven any logic questions because that's not the point of the movie.  Owen Wilson continues to surprise me as a pretty one-note actor who nonetheless brings a sort of honesty to his roles that really draws me in (he was the best part of How Do You Know, fwiw).  All of the acting in the movie is really charming, with pitch-perfect roles played by Rachel McAdams as Wilson's fiancée, Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, Alison Pill as Zelda Fitzgerald, and Marion Cotillard as MPDG ingenue Adriana.  My favorite cameo was probably Adrien Brody as Salvador Dalí.  Allen gives us a sparkling, spotless Paris that is most beautiful in the rain, where a lost-in-his-thoughts wealthy American can wander the streets at midnight without encountering a single vagrant or having his wallet stolen.

The film is about nostalgia, and treats the subject in a cute, reflexive way.  Owen's modern-day screenwriter is nostalgic for the golden age of writers and artists gallivanting around Paris in the 1920s.  1920s-era Adriana is nostalgic for her city's Belle Époque, whose denizens Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec (sidebar: the casting director couldn't find one LP actor in France?) wax romantic about the Renaissance.  It's a good theme, because who among us hasn't sat and listened to a haunting Gershwin tune and wanted to wake up in the Jazz Age, or gotten transfixed by Seurat's Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte - 1884 and wanted to just melt into it?  I've spoken with some of my friends about our Austen-inspired idealization of Regency Era England, which lasts for about five minutes before we realize that as ethnic minorities and women, our lives would actually be pretty terrible were we to be transplanted to Pemberley by magic.

Wilson's character does make a brief concession to the fact that life is better in a world with antibiotics in it, and overall, I believe he realizes that one must learn to feel positively about the modern age, because nostalgia is fantasy.  Surely Paris' 1920s beauty is tempered by the hindsight of knowing what horrors would befall Europe a decade and a half later.  And here's where my thoughts on separating the artist from the art come back in.  Our protagonist idolizes Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, Degas, and others.  Misogynist, misogynist, womanizer, sadist, etc.  And all mindblowing artists representative of their time.  Obviously their portrayals are not realistic; they are conjured by Wilson's character as manifestations of what he knows he needs to remember in order to write a great novel.

Let me know what you think about Midnight in Paris.  What historical era or work of fiction do you wish you could be transported to?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Ugly Carrot

Okay, so I've been in a haze of Tylenol and Sudafed for the past three and a half days, so I only have the energy and mental stamina for a very brief review.  This weekend I saw Bridesmaids, directed by Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig, and written by star Kristen Wiig and her writing partner Annie Mumolo.  Even though I found the trailers and commercials to be less than promising, Bridesmaids was eagerly awaited by myself and most of my friends, hoping to prove to observers that not only do women watch comedies, but they can carry them too.

While I enjoyed Bridesmaids, it was not as funny as comedies such as Dodgeball or Zoolander, but it was sweeter and smarter than both.  My mom called it "deeper" than she expected, as the story was certainly more about a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and about female friendships, than it was a broad hijinks-vehicle.  Jon Hamm was excellent in a small role as a douchebag, basically a modern Don Draper if he were honest about being a jerk.  Chris O'Dowd as Wiig's love interest was very sweet and likeable, and he and Wiig played against each other well.  Melissa McCarthy was the highlight of the movie, playing both the bawdy scenes and the endearing scenes with a loveable honesty.  Her olive branch of friendship to Annie (Wiig) was more touching than any history between Wiig and Rudolph's characters.  Also, her flirtation with a character played by her real-life husband Ben Falcone was funnier to me than many of the other comedic set pieces.  Ellie Kemper and Wendi McLendon-Covey were underused.

You should see Bridesmaids.  It's a little too long but it's definitely worth watching.  I don't think it will crush institutionalized sexism in Hollywood.  The First Wives Club made nearly $200K in 1996, and here we are 15 years later hoping that another rare female comedy will change everything, while reviewers are criticizing the movie based on the attractiveness of its stars.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Trailer Tuesday

Non-shocker: there are a ton of movies coming out that I am excited to see.  I'm not talking about "I'll Netflix that one," but actually ones I am looking forward to seeing in theaters!  It's going to be a good summer, I think!

X-Men: First Class (June 3)
It's the X-Men, so...

Super 8 (June 10)
J.J. Abrams, Coach Taylor, Steven Spielberg, aliens and explosions?  I'm there.

Captain America (July 22)
To be honest, my favorite thing about this trailer is how funny tiny Chris Evans looks.  But also I love America and superheroes and WWII movies so this will hopefully be awesome.

Cowboys and Aliens (July 29)
They had me at Harrison Ford, but Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig fighting aliens in the Old West?  Thank you, I'll take two!

The Help (August 12)
I'm reading the book right now and while I am enjoying it, and the movie looks dandy, I am a little fatigued by how POC stories always have to be told by white people.  Also, Viola Davis is amazing.

The Debt (August 31)
While watching the trailer for this in theaters my dad and I simultaneously gave each other a 'thumbs up.'  I am hungry for this movie.

Colombiana (September 2)
Well, I strongly disliked Taken, which was written by the same people as wrote this, but a hot spy + Michael Vartan is a pretty good formula, so I'll check it out.

Warrior (September 9)
Inspirational sports movies are my favorite, and this time it's about MMA, a sport I actually watch and enjoy, unlike football, which every other inspirational sports movie is about. 

Anonymous (September 30)
I was a lit major and also this looks gorgeous.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Do not mistake my appetite for apathy!

First of all, Wikipedia, Thor cannot be classified as a superhero because Thor is a god, not a superhero.  I don't know why stuff like that bugs me so much.  Anyway, the whole cast and premise of this movie seemed very weird to me until I realized that Kenneth Branagh was the director, which is also weird, but impressive.  At first it seemed like this movie was actually taking itself completely seriously, and during an interminable scene of Asgardian warriors visiting the realm of the Frost Giants, I considered taking an extended break to visit the snack bar.  Things pick up once Thor is exiled to Earth, where Chris Hemsworth and occasionally Kat Dennings bring charm and humor.  Natalie Portman's acting and her character were both weird and out of place, though it was a nice surprise to have the female love interest completely clothed throughout while the man spends some time shirtless.  Not enough time, though.  Hemsworth is best when playing the charmer, not the angry fighter.  Winking at Sir Anthony Hopkins, demanding a horse from a pet store, and smashing his coffee mug against the ground.  The movie is basically constructed using plot holes as a building material, but it was enjoyably fun overall.  The visuals of Asgard were impressive, drawing into stark contrast how crappy the effects in The Green Lantern's trailer look.  I'd worried that Hemsworth would be a graduate of the Sam Worthington school of covering up one's Australian accent (school motto: "Don't."), but was relieved to see that he stuck to the "ancient people have English accents except for that one Asian guy" rule instead.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Friday, May 6, 2011

Visible Minorities

This weekend I attended a screening at the 27th Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, where I saw Jeff Chiba Stearns' documentary One Big Hapa Family and Patricio Ginelsa's short The Journey.  Issues of multicultural identification have always been very compelling to me, and especially after seeing Kip Fulbeck's exhibits on the issue at the Japanese American National Museum, I was eager to see what looked like a warmhearted look at one Japanese-Canadian family's history with intermarriage.

Chiba Stearns looked around at his family reunion and realized that after his grandparents' generation, no one had married within the same race.  Consequently, all of his siblings, cousins, and their children, are of mixed Japanese and Caucasian heritage.  His documentary explores the questions of why his parents' generation married outside their race, what impact that had, and what his hapa relatives have to say about identity.  At the screening, we only saw the abbreviated 45 minute cut, but the DVD includes the full-length feature, which goes further with interviewing his young cousins about their hapa identity.

One Big Hapa Family does not cover any new ground that Kip Fulbeck hasn't explored before, but his documentary could be a good introduction for people curious about issues of multiethnic identity.  It's appropriate for all ages, and its innovative uses of animation integrated with footage would entertain children as well as adults.  It also taught me about parallels between Japanese-Canadian and Japanese-American history, which was interesting.  For those interested, you can find more information at Chiba Stearns' website, where DVDs are on sale for $20.  Proceeds go to fund the documentary he is currently making about the need for multiracial bone marrow donors.

My personal thoughts on multiethnic identity as an American with multiple cultural identifiers are...numerous.  For now I'll just shill One Big Hapa Family.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Who's the woman in a gay relationship?

Last night's episode of Modern Family addressed the fact that in a homosexual relationship, heteronormative society still expects one partner to fill the masculine role and the other to fill the feminine one.  Cam felt hurt, offended, and marginalized when he was treated as an "honorary mom" on Mother's Day.  Because Mitchell goes to work while Cam stays home with their daughter Lily, he is regarded as the "mother."  When Mitchell brings him breakfast in bed, it's hurtful enough for Cam that his partner views him "as the woman" in their relationship.  Later at Lily's play group's Mother's Day picnic, all the other childrens' parents refer to him in the same way.

Modern Family may include a gay partnership and an inter-ethnic/trans-generational second marriage among its characters, but in all three of the nuclear families portrayed, one partner stays home to parent full-time while the other works outside the home.  In the two straight partnerships portrayed, the stay-at-home parents are women.  This episode did very little to challenge the strictly enforced rules that women are the nurturers, the ones who parent instead of working, the ones who like the color pink.  None of the other families at Lily's play group seemed to have a stay-at-home dad, two parents who share work/home duties, or outside child care help while both parents work.  Being a stay-at-home dad made Cam "the woman," and it was roundly accepted by all but him.

These rules are so hard-wired into our society that people expect for homosexual couples to adhere to the same binary.  I'll tell you right now: when two men are in a relationship, neither one of them is the woman.  And when two women are in a relationship, both are!  When a man and a woman are in a relationship, and the woman works while the father stays home to look after the children, the woman is still the woman and the man is still the man.  I'm reminded of a blog entry I once read by a new mother who was tired of constantly being asked, "Who's watching the baby?" or, "Is your husband babysitting tonight?" whenever she was out somewhere alone.  It was presumed that the mother and the baby would never be apart, and when the father was caring for their child, it was referred to as "babysitting."  This is demeaning both to women who cannot be allowed to carry on with their daily lives without being harangued as to why they are not with their kids, and to men who are viewed as incapable oafs unable to keep their children alive.

This is all part of a bigger problem (isn't it always?).  Being viewed as feminine or womanly is a bad thing.  While it is fair for Cam to be incensed that he is being incorrectly defined against his will, it is made very clear that to be "the woman" in the relationship is to be inferior, to be weaker.  He even directly tries to counter this assertion by stating how physically he is much bigger and stronger than Mitchell.  When women dress in men's clothing, it is acceptable, fashionable, even sexy.  When men dress in women's clothing, it is laughable, or demeaning.  If a man throws "like a girl," it implies that he is weak.  "Be a man," they are told, meaning, "be big, be strong, be better."  Women are the "fairer, gentler, weaker" sex.  Society continues to reinforce the binary, that a couple must have a man and a woman, and the man is superior over the woman.  The sooner we can equalize our expectations of both genders, the better off we'll all be.

(For the record, I believe gender performance is partially socially constructed, but that there are inherent gender traits we all have.  Some men are more masculine/feminine, and the same with some women.  I don't think we should all forgo gender definition and live in some sort of Barbie-crotched world of neutrals.  But I think if we let people define their own identities a little more freely instead of immediately putting our babies in worlds of pink OR blue - never both! - we'd stop judging people so harshly when they don't conform.  Next thing you know, they'll be giving women the vote!)

'Hanna Rennt' at MediaBlvd

My review about Joe Wright's Hanna has been posted online at MediaBlvd Magazine. Check it out!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

While Kirby Dick rolls his eyes...

This post also appears online at MediaBlvd Magazine.

Somehow I had managed not to see anything by Morgan Spurlock until last week when I went to a screening of his latest documentary, POM Wonderful presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, a look into the world of product placement (a.k.a. "embedded marketing") in film and television.  Even having missed his debut, Super Size Me, I think I can understand critics who say that the premise negates the necessity of the movie in this new documentary as in that one.  Of course eating at McDonalds for every meal for a month will take its toll, and of course using sponsors to finance a film about embedded marketing will shed light on the not-secret fact that advertising is used to offset the cost of filmmaking in a time when revenue is way, way down for the movie business.  While Greatest Movie does provide a few interesting things to think about, it feels as though Spurlock is going through the motions, holding back from being fully along for the ride that the journey could take him on.

It is funny to see Spurlock wink at the camera for over an hour, pitching product integration ideas to potential investors, then cutting to a scene in which the exact idea is carried out, or saying multiple times, "this scene right now is in the movie."  A few times, he does make mention of the fact that by signing contracts with his sponsors, he is not sure he can remain an objective documentarian.  I wish he had investigated this further.  What does "selling out" do to the integrity of the filmmaker?  How would this process impact any future films he makes?  I couldn't help but think of Kirby Dick's wonderfully meta look into the MPAA, This Film is Not Yet Rated, which provides layer upon layer of insight into what goes into rating and releasing a movie, illustrating the process itself.  Compared to that favorite of mine, Greatest Movie comes up short.

There are a few attempts to show how product placement has gone farther than we all realize, such as when Spurlock discovers that public schools are selling advertising space on athletic fields, CCTV, and school buses.  He even goes to Sao Paolo, Brazil, a city that has banned advertising on public buildings, but neither vignette goes far enough.  He interviews Sao Paoloan business owners to see how the advertising ban has affected business, but I did not get a sense of the real toll it has taken on the economy.  The representatives of the Florida school district where Spurlock buys advertisements for his movie talk about their schools' need for money, but do not really say what impact they think the advertising has on the students.

Though I'm being critical, because I think that Spurlock could have provided us with a more well-rounded look at the long-term impact of sponsorship, I did enjoy watching Greatest Movie.  When he interviews members of OK Go to ask them if they'll participate by writing the movie's theme song, I could not stop laughing at the OK Go product placement so blatantly shown onscreen.  It was amusing to see how Spurlock had to stay true to his promises to the sponsors by conducting interviews at Sheetz convenience stores, or by including full 30-second commercials in the film.  Nothing will top what he does to shill Mane 'n Tail shampoo.

But when all is said and done, I felt I had learned very little.  I learned what it was like for a documentarian to secure corporate sponsorship to finance his movie.  But I wish I'd learned a bit more about how product placement in movies and television shows has affected the economy of the industry.  What was the outcome of Spurlock's experiment - could he consider himself an objective documentarian, or has he just gone through the motions of financing his film?  Altogether, it's an enjoyable movie to watch, but I didn't feel that it really served its intended purpose.

Hanna Rennt

This post also appears online at MediaBlvd Magazine.

This weekend I finally saw Joe Wright's thriller Hanna, starring Saoirse Ronan in the title role, and reuniting her with her director from Atonement.  Hanna is a girl raised deep in the forest by her father Erik Heller (Eric Bana), who has trained her to be an intelligent, skilled, fighter and survivalist.  He has raised her with the knowledge that they have one true enemy, Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), who killed her mother and who will stop at nothing to end Hanna's life.  At sixteen, Hanna has learned all that Erik can teach her, and is ready to go out into civilization.  She wants to hear music, see the world, and make a friend.  With this, she knows the battle with Wiegler will come.

Whether or not Erik has been telling Hanna the truth her whole life is very slowly revealed over the course of the film, as is the reasoning behind why Marissa Wiegler could be viewed as a threat.  I didn't know whether to be impressed by Hanna or feel bad for her, or whether she was actually fighting for a good cause or not.  Wright, cinematographer Alwin Kuchler, and editor Paul Tothill do a good job of contributing to the cloaked mysteries by obscuring the high-energy action scenes with usage of handheld camera, optical illusion editing, and some mind-bending camera angles.  In particular, the scene where Hanna is being held in a CIA compound takes on a surreal vibe, when 360-degree camera tracking combines with a motif of circular cameras, tunnels, and windows.

This unsettling feeling of never quite knowing what's what is accompanied by The Chemical Brothers' frenetic score.  I don't know whether it was the music, the augmented reality, or the hyperactive storytelling flourishes, but I got a very 1990s vibe throughout the film.  Unlike Wright's Atonement and Pride and Prejudice (both adaptations), Hanna displays more of his background in music videos, feeling at home alongside films by David Fincher, Danny Boyle, Baz Luhrmann, or Michel Gondry.  Scenes when Hanna struggles to understand the sensory overload of unfamiliar technology in a Moroccan hotel room, or when she later visits a demented storybook house complete with cartoon statuary, contribute to the otherworldliness of the story.  Sometimes it feels a bit over-the-top, such as when Wiegler visits an associate at a German sex club, and the dialogue is written to provoke without contributing in any way to the plot or characters.  Wright does keep his signature tracking shots in top form, but they don't beat the one from Atonement.

Bana's performance is merely fine, but he doesn't really have that much to do, compared to Ronan and Blanchett.  The young star's performance is physically demanding, and she does a good job punctuating her warrior coldness with a love of learning and a genuine fondness for the new friend she makes in English tourist Sophie (Jessica Barden).  Barden was a pleasant surprise, turning what at first seems like a caricature of an annoying teenage brat into a surprisingly multifaceted girl longing to be interesting.  Blanchett plays a villain straight from the pages of a comic strip, with her severe hairstyle, heavy Southern accent, and fixation on dental hygiene.  Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng contribute enjoyable performances as Sophie's hippie parents.

I considered Hanna to be an art film from its first, atypical hunting sequence, which helped me to overlook flawed story elements that would have been more bothersome if the form of the movie weren't so compelling.  We are, eventually, given just enough backstory to tie up most of the loose ends the story introduces, and the action satisfies enough that the "Why?" is unimportant.  That said, it is never explained how Heller manages to swim across the Baltic Sea in wintertime in a pair of capri pants, but that is a point of contention best left for my dad and I to joke about, as it doesn't really have any bearing on the story.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Movie Club: Week 2

A couple of weeks ago I decided to start a movie club at work.  I figured that the other assistants must feel the same way I sometimes do, which is that we elected to work in the movie business for a reason, and that reason probably wasn't to answer phones and handle correspondence and filing for the rest of our lives.  Most of us have graduate or post-graduate degrees in film and/or critical theory, so why not take a few hours every couple of weeks to flex those muscles?  We decided that we should all watch the AFI top 100 films, discussing one every two weeks at lunch time.

So far, it's a slow burn.  I'm hoping more people want to participate, but I'm not sure how to really foster participation.  Two weeks ago, two of my coworkers and I met up to discuss Citizen Kane.  We struggled a bit because when we'd watched it as film students, we had tons to talk about, but when watching it for a second time in a more casual environment, it seemed awkward to sit around the lunch table discussing deep focus.  Also, with a movie like Citizen Kane (and indeed, like many movies on the list), it can be difficult to discuss the film with fresh eyes, since everything has been referenced so many times since in pop culture.  I pulled a few discussion questions off the internet, but mostly we talked about how what we liked about the movie the first time around differed from what we liked about it - or how much we liked it - a few years later.

Today, two different coworkers and I discussed The Godfather.  We had toyed with the idea of discussing it along with The Godfather Part II, which is #32 on the list.  In the end, I didn't make enough time to rewatch the second installment.  The Godfather was easier to discuss, but still, three people working on a freeform "So...what did you think about The Godfather?" type of discussion can be a bit awkward.  I love The Godfather so much, but I haven't discovered whether the tone of these discussions should be like "Oh man that scene is so cool!" or "The lensing techniques used are really reminiscent of blah blah film scholar doucheyness."

Has anyone ever started or participated in a book/movie club, and if so, do you have any tips?  In two weeks, I'd love for some of my coworkers and I to discuss Casablanca, but it seems difficult to drum up interest.  It's for our own personal edification that we should watch these movies, but until I figure out how to be a more competent discussion leader, maybe this is an exercise more in watching great movies than talking about them.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

James Gunn's "Super"

This post originally appeared online at MediaBlvd Magazine.

In James Gunn’s twisted take on the superhero genre, Super, Dwight Schrute repeatedly bludgeons strangers in the head with a pipe wrench, Juno commits rape, and Kevin Bacon has a gold tooth.  Inevitably drawing comparisons to last year’s Kick Ass, Gunn’s film tackles the genre with an unrelentingly brutal take on how tragic it would actually be if normal people decided to fight crime as costumed avengers.  Rainn Wilson takes a completely different approach to sadsackery than what we’ve seen from him on The Office or Six Feet Under, and the results are confronting, outrageous, and hilarious if you’ve got the stomach for hyperreal violence.
After a lifetime of never being respected, Frank ( Wilson) reaches his breaking point when his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) leaves him for the seedy leader of a small crime ring, Jock (Bacon).  Desperate and alone, Frank has a vision of God telling him to become a vigilante and stand up against the evil in society.  While researching how to do this, Frank meets comic book salesgirl Libby (Ellen Page), who becomes his only ally, and eventually his sidekick Boltie, in his journey as The Crimson Bolt.  After viciously beating a number of random criminals – drug dealers, pedophiles, and even someone who butts in line at the movies – The Crimson Bolt and Boltie eventually prepare themselves for a showdown at Jock’s crime headquarters to try to save Sarah, who has backslid into drug addiction and become victimized by Jock and his associates.
Wilson’s portrayal of a man so trod upon by life lacks all vanity, and it is simultaneously relatable, depressing, and hilarious when Frank watches himself weep in front of a mirror, while his voice over explains how stupid people look when they cry.  Where Frank is a gentle, well-meaning man, The Crimson Bolt is arguably insane, with a tenuous grasp of what can be considered appropriate justice.  Wilson believably embodies both in a way that makes sense in the not-too-unrealistic world of the film.  Page also does an excellent job of portraying mental instability in a context that could blend in to society, with her obsessions and manic tendencies leading her to find ecstasy as Boltie, after a lifetime of boredom as Libby.  Even as a masked ‘kid sidekick,’ this character is definitely more Hayley from Hard Candy than Kitty Pryde from X-Men: The Last Stand.  Bacon’s role is small, but he is a pleasant surprise cast in a role that could have gone to an unknown.  The same goes for Liv Tyler, whose sad face as a relapsed addict is heartbreaking.  Nathan Fillion channels Captain Hammer in a small cameo as The Holy Avenger, a character from Christian local television.

The film has a very low budget, which it rations for a few impressive effects, from some very James Gunn-signature hallucinations, to a spectacularly violent climactic showdown.  The pared-down directing and technical work is complemented by the well-chosen sets, which keep everything feeling so real that when the less believable story elements come out, it’s not offensively jarring.  Kudos to Gunn for writing enough backstory to give Frank sufficient motivation for the actions of The Crimson Bolt, especially in regards to understanding the gravity of Sarah’s situation.  He also keeps Frank rooted in a world that does not blithely accept The Crimson Bolt’s vigilantism, and metes out some consequences.  Mary Matthews’ costume design also effectively grounds the movie in the real world, with amateur stitching and an awkward fit being such glaring missing elements from most superhero origin stories.

The film’s biggest structural flaw is that it tries very hard to have the best of both worlds, often aspiring to be so grittily realistic that it is startling how unlike any other movie Super is, but also leaving too many questions unanswered or providing no resolution for certain story beats in an effort to allow for the fantastical elements of the plot.  In the end, this is an unsatisfying turn for a film that doesn’t seem to be able to commit fully to the outcomes that it sets up.  It could have really raised the stakes and demanded more of the audience, which could have made for a more impressively told story, but instead it comes off more as the low-budget superhero movie answer to Enchanted.  There are also some very uncomfortable scenes revolving around Libby/Boltie’s sexuality, and it is important to warn viewers that a (potentially debatable) rape scene takes place.  I have a hard-line about sexual assault played gratuitously for comedy, but in Super, I believe that it is used with purpose in the context of the characters’ personalities.  Most importantly, it is not glorified, though some viewers may be uncomfortable with how the action is excused.

Super is frequently very funny, but is smart enough to rise above broad comedy, even when bloody violence accounts for most of the laughs.  This is a movie that may have a hard time finding the right audience, as it will likely be too offensive for moviegoers who know only who’s cast and that it’s a superhero movie.  It’s also critical enough of the pathology of superheroism that it will probably alienate some comic book fans while delighting others.  Fans of Kick Ass, Shoot ‘Em Up, and Bad Santa will likely find this movie to hit the right combination of violence and dark comedy.  While I consider myself in that category, I’d say I appreciated the actors’ talents and the film’s fresh elements more than the sum of its parts.  If only Super had been able to reconcile its competing intentions, it could have transcended to a more impressive level.

6.5/10 – Liked, Didn’t Love

Friday, March 11, 2011

Take Me Home Tonight

This post originally appeared online at MediaBlvd Magazine.

This weekend’s underperforming opener, Michael Dowse’s Take Me Home Tonight, is, at the very least, a successful follow-up to That ‘70s Show after the letdown of the short-lived That ‘80s Show.  Where That ‘70s Show succeeded (quite like Freaks and Geeks, another nostalgic series about teenagers) was that it could have been a show about modern high school, just contextualized by historical references to the time.  While That ‘80s Show was mostly a series of old=lol jokes, Take Me Home Tonight much more successfully puts story before conceit.  It is an ‘80s-set romantic comedy made in the style of actual 1980s romantic comedies.  Experiments like this one don’t always work (Down With Love), and even though this time it does, it means is that sometimes the pacing and storytelling feel dated in a bad way.
Take Me Home Tonight follows one night in the life of Matt Franklin (Topher Grace, as Executive Producer and with a writing credit), an ambitionless MIT graduate given the opportunity to reconnect with his high school crush Tori Fredreking (Teresa Palmer, Australia’s answer to Kristen Stewart, but with personality).  Joining him are his twin sister Wendy (Anna Faris) and his best friend Barry Nathan (Dan Fogler, channeling Curtis Armstrong).  In order to impress Tori, Matt hides the fact that he is killing time working at Suncoast video, and spends the evening pretending to be an investment banker at Goldman Sachs.  A high school reunion party, a stolen car, a wild prank, and more than a few hijinks later, Matt inevitably has to confront his lie.

The chemistry between Grace and Palmer is believable, both that he would be the awkward nerd from high school, and that she would give him a chance after all this time.  Together they attend a wild house party, move on to a swanky party for Drexel bankers (before the firm’s collapse into bankruptcy), and find some private time on a trampoline in an empty backyard.  The film manages to speak to the theme of post-graduate ennui present in movies like Less Than Zero or St. Elmo’s Fire, but in an upbeat tone that somewhat answers what might have happened to Brat Pack romances four years after high school.  Topher Grace has that look, too…like John Cusack, good-looking, but probably not the handsomest man in the casting office.  Teresa Palmer has that attainable beauty.  Obviously she’s the most gorgeous woman that the protagonist has ever seen, but she’s real, and you might see that girl at the mall and fall in love with her.  Like a blonde, bubbly Phoebe Cates. 

Dan Fogler’s performance as a just-fired car salesman doing cocaine for the first time is hilarious as he has alternately the best and worst night of his life.  He fulfills the sidekick role of the ‘80s movie perfectly, exposing himself and us to naked MILF breasts, getting into a crazy dance-battle, and building up Matt’s confidence when needed.  Anna Faris plays Matt’s twin sister with enough depth to sell the notion that they love each other enough to tell the other one what they’re doing wrong.  Chris Pratt plays her onscreen boyfriend with all the energy he hadn’t yet been able to manifest on Parks and Recreation (the film was shot in 2007, and Faris and Pratt have since gotten married), and his overacted bawling is an extended high point.  Michael Ian Black and Demetri Martin own the scenes they’re featured in, and Lucy Punch stands out as that drunk girl who keeps popping up in party scenes in teen movies.

Surely an unexpected benefit to the movie being set in the ‘80s is that its shelving for four years didn’t awkwardly date it with references to Anna Nicole Smith and the final book in the Harry Potter series.  The 1980s setting was well played with things like a sushi bar to indicate that a party is fancy (Valley Girl), and Topher Grace’s ill-fitting jeans, and only a few things struck me as off-kilter – mostly that none of the women seemed to be wearing pantyhose.  Most of the recent ‘what a wild night’ comedies seem to be more over-the-top and manic than similar movies were in the ‘80s, and while that may just be my perception, it meant that the John Hughes-y quality of Take Me Home Tonight made the movie feel a little slow-paced at times.  The story’s dramatic high points don’t feel as high-stakes as they could, but I loved the scene where Matt and Barry are confronted by the police and tearfully admit to everything that’s happened in the story until that point.  As the daughter of two law enforcement officers (really), I definitely identified with how that scene would have gone down.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

This post originally appeared online at MediaBlvd Magazine.

George Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau, based on Philip K. Dick’s short story The Adjustment Team, is a bit of an awkward thriller.  At times it veers toward the comic, is occasionally sweepingly romantic, and probably aspires to be a cerebral suspense film, but never quite rallies for any of the various genres it hints at.  In the movie, Matt Damon plays Senate hopeful David Norris, who meets the woman of his dreams, but is kept from her by a mysterious group of metaphysical beings who swear him to secrecy about the whole situation, and demand that he never see this amazing woman again.
The advertising makes it seem as though it is David’s encounters with Elise (Emily Blunt) that steer him off the course of normal life, but instead it is a chance glitch in the Matrix (or whatever this movie wants to call it) that allows him to see the behind-the-scenes machinations of the Adjustment Bureau, dapper men who adjust the course of fate for humans.  Having witnessed the Bureau at work, David is offered an ultimatum: keep their existence a secret, and don’t try to interfere with their plans, or face a de facto lobotomy.  It’s a wild premise that David accepts nearly instantly, perhaps signaling to the audience that we should be quiet and just accept it too, which doesn’t quite do it for me.

When David meets Elise, she initially comes off as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, providing a quirky, romantic counterpart to David’s role as a highly choreographed politician.  Mercifully, the situation reveals itself to be a bit more complicated than that, as David does in fact have a history of acting impulsively (a common trait of the MPDG), and Elise herself is a dancer, and her talents and ambitions become central to the stakes of a decision David must make about whether or not to pursue her.  She comes into his life and offers herself as the chance to define his future, but he plays the same role in hers.  It’s a refreshing change, and I admit that one of the most exciting things about the movie was seeing the roles reversed, where it is the man who must choose between greatness and love.

Matt Damon’s performance makes it clear that no one should be surprised when he decides to run for office in earnest one day.  (On an unrelated note, he looks about 15 years younger than he did in Hereafter.)  Emily Blunt is underused in a role that probably could have been well-served by any number of actresses out there.  I could have sworn that Terence Stamp was Frank Langella for some reason, and Anthony Mackie does well in an against-type role.  John Slattery, on the other hand, should probably talk to his agent about getting typecast as a handsome man who wears a suit well.  Speaking of suits, there is a great moment when a hat flies off in the midst of a chase, and the characters urgently stop to chase the hat before carrying on.  The reasoning for this is explained later in the film, but it made me laugh out loud when it happened.

The Adjustment Bureau deals with seriously heavy philosophy without really giving it enough time to sink in.  The being in charge of the Bureau is called The Chairman, but humans “use many other names,” so we can conclude that this is a universe in which a monotheistic deity rules, and occasionally chooses to let human beings have free will.  But despite all of this control, the deity is often powerless to “pure chance,” and seems to suffer from a lot of institutional flaws getting in the way of things.  I guess I shouldn’t really be expecting a big theology examination from this movie, but a lot of issues are just dropped on us without really being examined, which irked.  The romance between David and Elise is enjoyable to watch, and the rainy scenery of New York is beautiful, but otherwise the movie awkwardly struggles to balance plot points and genres, which is a bit of a letdown.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Barney's Version

Last week I saw Barney's Version, Richard J. Lewis' adaptation of Mordecai Richler's novel of the same name.  Perhaps it should tell you a little bit about my enthusiasm for the movie that it took me a week to write about it.  I definitely was expecting more of a dark comedy, but instead discovered it to be a rather dreary story about a pretty miserable guy.

At first, even the usually wonderful Paul Giamatti comes off like a caricature, but I think that may have been the fault of a couple of poorly directed scenes.  By the time his character meets Miriam, his third wife-to-be (at his wedding to his second wife, no less), Giamatti has settled into the role of middle-aged Barney comfortably enough for me to want to hate the actor himself.

This is a story that suffers from the all-too-common trope of the complete loser of a guy who can't help but draw numerous amazing women to himself, whom he could take or leave.  Barney's first wife Clara (Rachelle Lefevre) openly hates him while she struggles with her own serious mental health issues, but his second wife (played by Minnie Driver) seems to start off with actually almost as much affection for Barney as for his decent position as a TV producer.  When he meets Miriam (Rosamund Pike), he is transfixed by her (and who wouldn't be?), and spends years pursuing her.  She, inexplicably, relents to his affections in a scene that is so difficult to believe that it sets the entire film off-kilter.  I ask you, would you say yes to a man who spent his entire marriage pursuing you, was recently a suspect in his best friend's suspicious disappearance, and who showed up for your date completely wasted?

Barney and Miriam remain married for decades, producing two children.  Barney's debilitating alcoholism, which has surprisingly few negative consequences except for the way it burdens those who love him, his anger issues, and his slovenly behavior seem to be no barrier to affection from Miriam over the years.  She gets upset when he marginalizes her interests or friends, but otherwise remains ever faithful.  Not so for Barney.  After their divorce, Barney begins suffering from the effects of early-onset Alzheimer's, and Miriam, now remarried, along with their adult children, must care for him.  The final scenes of the film definitely make it clear that Barney is a character to be pitied and cheered for, which was just too much to ask after watching the decades of his adult life unfold.

The acting was wonderful, and Rosamund Pike did a lot with very small gestures and expressions to really make me fall in love with her.  Dustin Hoffman, as Barney's incorrigible father, was vibrant and funny, and his son Jake did well playing Barney's son Michael.  The Academy Award nominated makeup was absolutely impressive, especially given what I've read was a rather small makeup budget.  Characters age believably over the course of about thirty years, so the movie does boast an impressive collaboration between performances, makeup, costume, and set design.

Finally, there is the conceit of the title, which is that events may not have happened quite as depicted, but that this is Barney's version of things, colored both by his arrogance, lies of omission, and the effects of the Alzheimer's.  I thought this was interesting, but I suspect that it was more successful in the novel than in the film.  There was also a real eye-roller of a plot point regarding the disappearance of Barney's best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman, hot even when playing a junkie), which was ripped unimaginatively from urban legends of years past.  Somehow it worked in Magnolia, but certainly not in Barney's Version.

Of Gods and Men

Last night I saw Of Gods and Men, or Des Hommes et des Dieux, Xavier Beauvois' film about the monks of Tibhirine which recently won the French César Award for Best Film.  The film relays events surrounding the true story of French Trappist monks in 1996 during the Algerian Civil War.  After coexisting peacefully for years with their Muslim neighbors, the monks find themselves in the crossfire between the Algerian army and groups of Islamic extremists.  I am never sure what my policy should be on spoiling true events, but you can check out the Wikipedia entry of the real-life monks here.

The film begins with a very sweet and rather lighthearted look into the role of the monastery in its neighboring Muslim village.  Brother Luc is a kindly doctor, seeing 100 patients a day for illnesses and life advice.  The monastery's leader, Brother Christian, helps villagers with paperwork, brings wares to the marketplace, and oversees Mass for his brothers.  Neighbors help them with gardening and other assistance, and it's made clear that over the years, the monastery has acted as a backbone to the community.

Once the terrorist threat is established, after a nearby group of Croatian workers is killed by the Armed Islamic Group and the monks are asked to leave the region for their own safety, the main drama among the characters is whether or not the monks should abandon their post.  The brothers explore fear, discuss martyrdom, kinship to their community, and faith in times of crisis.  While there are a number of scenes that do drag on, without providing much benefit to the story, there is a wonderful sequence in which the monks listen to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, enjoy some wine, and wordlessly express fear, contentedness, and love in their wonderful (and wonderfully framed) facial expressions.

Faith and brotherhood are the most important themes to the characters, and it is often beautiful how much love is shown among them.  When Brother Christophe struggles with fear and a shaken resolve, tender old Brother Amédée rubs his shoulders.  Asthmatic and aged Brother Luc is helped by Brother Christian, who turns his light off as he snores, and Brother Célestin who reads the newspaper to him when he is ill.  The actors' performances were very impressive, mimicking years of love for each other, and rivaling any impressive portrayal of family.

Brother Christian is, like many monks, an academic, and his study of the Koran both enriches his spiritual knowledge and helps him connect with his neighbors. Even one of the terrorist leaders acknowledges some respect for the monks when he realizes they revere Jesus, who is honored as a prophet in Islam. I don't really know enough about Algerian political history to discuss the context of this film, so I was left with some questions at the end. Given the well-known French Islamophobia and the long-standing antagonism between France and Algeria, I am curious what better educated viewers' reactions were to the film.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What about Crick?

Last night was the first of three consecutive episodes of Jeopardy! in which the two most successful contestants in the show's history, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, play against the IBM supercomputer Watson in a friendly match to show how impressively the computer can comprehend human speech patterns, and mimic human memory skills.

One of my nerdier confessions is that I have been a follower of Ken Jennings' blog since his record-setting run on Jeopardy!, where he won 74 games and 2.52 million dollars.  Brad Rutter has won the biggest dollar amount on the show, topping out at over $3.2 million.  Watson is an artificial intelligence program which can parse natural language patterns to mine its memory for the most appropriate answer.  It is not connected to the internet, it does have to physically press the buzzer with a robotic "finger," and it is fed the questions electronically, not by picking up Alex Trebek's vocal cues.

Last night's episode was surprisingly compelling, and proved that observing the skills of this computer is surely enough more than a gimmick to warrant three episodes' worth of gaining an insight into what will be in charge after the coming robot uprising.  Watson parses the question for key words, figures out how the structure of the sentence influences the type of answer to look for, and comes up with its top three options.  Then, if its "confidence algorithm" intuits that the top guess is likely enough to be right, Watson pushes the buzzer.  One major advantage Watson has over its human opponents is that it is prompted as to when the buzzer-clicking time has come, whereas humans may click too early, and not be called upon.  One disadvantage which Watson fell prey to in last night's episode is that the robot is "deaf," and cannot hear when its opponent has guessed an incorrect answer, which it may then repeat.

The second installment airs tonight at 7pm on ABC, and the three-episode run ends tomorrow.  Tune in for an interesting look at what the really interesting strides in robotics have been - AIBO, this ain't.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Mama who bored me


After desperately wanting to see Spring Awakening for the past few years, I have to say that I was rather underwhelmed by it when I finally made it to the Los Angeles leg of the tour this weekend, where it was playing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.  It wasn't the fault of the actors, whose youth and vigor were well-suited to the specifications of the play.  Certainly, my expectations were quite high, but when it came to the storytelling, I found the show to be rather uneven, which along with the distracting set design, detracted from what could have been a solid, focused morality tale.

I'll start with the aesthetic.  If you have any familiarity with the play, you know going into it that it's a modern alt-rock musical set in 1891 Germany, where adolescents struggle with the same imbalance of education and sexual urges that plagues the world today.  So it's cool to see these extremely childlike-looking actors with cartoonish hairstyles, dancing to modern music while dressed in 19th Century school uniforms.  Even as far as the band members in plainclothes seated upstage, this all contributes to an easy-to-understand juxtaposition of the old and the new.  But add to that the onstage audience members, complete with unnecessary plainclothes audience plants, and the busy flair all over the walls, and the result is a jumbled hodge-podge when the story would best be served by a black box setting - a Sisyphean transformation for the Pantages, I know.

The music, which is the play's greatest asset, starts out very strong with well-crafted hits "Mama Who Bore Me," "The Bitch of Living," and "All That's Known," but other than a second act standout with "Our Bodies Are the Guilty Ones," the songs feel forced, or sometimes completely at odds with the emotional temperature of the story beats.  Just like R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet (hear me out), the grandeur of the music didn't often match the mood of the concurrent scenes.  Courtney Markowitz, as Ilse, sang beautifully on "The Song of Purple Summer," though.

These criticisms are especially deserved when it comes to the story itself, though.  The tragic romance of Melchior and Wendla (roles originated by Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele) could be a great archetype for the dangers of withholding critical knowledge from people, and conversing with young people in an open and honest way.  Terrible things happen when ignorance is king, and the central coupling of the show could have been a new, unconventional version of star-crossed lovers suffering from the same lesson.  But the imbalanced additions of secondary characters whose storylines seemed included to confront the audience without sufficiently contributing to the message.

The standout performer, for me, was Sarah Kleeman, who took on all roles of Adult Women in the show, and perfectly transitioned from persona to persona with subtle vocal trills that gave depth to seemingly minor characters.  I know my negative opinion about the show is an unpopular one, but to me, Spring Awakening was a victim of its own hype.  I had heard it compared to the quality of recent breakout hits In the Heights and Wicked, and this praise was, as I saw it, off the mark.

In Soviet Russia, Iron Invades You!

This post originally appeared online at MediaBlvd Magazine.

This weekend, the SyFy network gave us an early Valentine’s gift of their new original movie Iron Invader, directed by Paul Ziller (Android Apocalypse, Stonehenge Apocalypse).  I have a love for made-for-TV movies, and while I’m partial to the “your baby will be kidnapped by a conspiracy” brand more common to the Lifetime network, there is a wholly different type of fun to be had with the B-horror revival on the SyFy network.
In Iron Invader, a pair of brothers living in the small farm town of Redeemer (a poignant name never to be used poetically) are startled when a mass of old car parts covered in Nickelodeon-brand Slime falls from the sky onto their land.  At first it seems that the mass itself is the titular iron invader, making me think how unlucky these guys are that a deformed Cylon from the 1970s crash-landed there instead of Superman.  Especially given that these guys are kind of good-looking, and if this movie were on deeper cable, I think the story would get a lot sexier from here on out.

The brothers, discovering that the twisted metal is a damaged Russian satellite, take it to old Earl’s scrapyard, believing they can sell it for some quick cash.  There they see a giant metal sculpture, where they come to the obvious conclusion that it is the skeleton of one of the gorillas often used to draw customers to used car lots. Shockingly, they are wrong, and the sculpture is revealed to be proud Earl’s handiwork.  He has created a golem out of scrap metal and plans to display it at the county fair.  It’s unclear to me if Earl is Jewish, but I have to wonder if his not-Wicker Man would bring up any anti-Semitic feelings in this extremely tiny rural town.

The green slime begins “activating,” causing its metal hosts to move on their own accord towards the golem, where the slime grows, infecting the metal makeup of the entire sculpture.  Now self-propelled, the golem wanders the night, looking for human victims for a reason yet to be defined.  It finds the perfect first victim in an alternate universe version of David Crosby if he were a contestant on Gay Rock of Love, and leaves his corpse distended with swollen veins and arteries.

Making its way through the town, the infected golem strikes back at the farm of the two brothers, killing the younger one, Ethan.  When his brother Jake finds his body, he reacts with a gentle “Aw, no no no no,” which is likely not how I would respond, but what do I know – I’ve never been involved in an attack by alien goop (plus robots).  Meanwhile, Jake’s high school sweetheart Amanda is back in town with her teenage daughter, and Jake, being a regular Mystery the Pick Up Artist, asks Amanda out within literally one minute of hearing about her divorce.

The robot kills some more people, so everyone decides to take refuge in the local bar, and Amanda, being a high school biology teacher, figures out that the green goo is a space age bacteria that feeds on metal, so the reason it is draining people is because of the iron in human blood.  Earl is getting blame from all sides for creating a killer robot, but his defense of, “I couldn’t build a machine; I don’t even have a high school diploma,” is pretty solid, except that it’s actually the most ridiculous thing ever.  Basically everyone is clueless except for Amanda.  Even the coroner, who’s a regular House, M.D., thinks that the dead people all died of E. Coli, even though there’s all these destroyed buildings and a giant living robot wandering the streets.  (Maybe it’s lupus?)

The bartender’s got some pretty serious mutton chops, which alone is a pretty good indicator that he’s going to die, but when he jokes to Earl’s grandson, “your grandfather’s in the monster-making business now, is he?” he seals his fate.  Eventually he is killed by an infected axe head that literally flies off the handle and stabs him in the foot.  There’s a lot of ridiculous stuff going on at this point, with bar patrons trying to kill the alien bacteria using hand soap (“It says it’s antibacterial!”), Amanda slicing her arm all to hell with a knife to lure the robot away from her daughter, the robot sparing said daughter (“Thank God you’re anemic!”  Really.), and then Jake blowing up the golem for some reason even though that doesn’t kill the bacteria.  Of course, in the end , the bacteria can be killed by alcohol, so they pour beer and whiskey all over the shrapnel to save themselves.  Of course, because the satellite was Russian, there is a comment about “Commie sonsabitches,” but surprisingly no link is drawn between this and the alcohol being what saves the day.

I admit, I would have liked a little more from Iron Invader.  I was curious why the bacteria could take over a golem and make it walk, but it wouldn’t do the same to the humans it attacked, commandeering their bodies like Vincent D’Onofrio in Men in Black, giving the movie a bit more of a zombie edge.  And the movie lacked a memorable catchphrase, such as “Release the Kraken,” or “Damn you, Sharktopus!”  As to why the falling satellite was not noticed by any astronomers, or why the bits of infected shrapnel could float of their own accord, but the golem had to walk like a biped, instead of hovering or whatever, I choose ignorance.  Join me in two weeks for a recap of the next SyFy original movie, Area 51, which premieres on Saturday, February 26 at 9/8c.