Sunday, October 25, 2009


We've been in the new television season for over a month now and I've been somewhat underwhelmed. Oh, there's some good new stuff and some good returning shows, but today I'm going to take issue with the cancellation of a show from last season.

Life was an hour-long cop drama that aired on NBC for two seasons, the first being the strike-shortened 2007-2008, then a full 22-episode second year in 2008-2009. Life was about LA cop Charlie Crews, who spent 12 years in a maximum security prison after being convicted of killing his best friend and the friend's wife and daughter. Being a bad cop, Crews was constantly being beaten in stir by convicts and guards alike.

After getting exonerated, he was given an eight figure settlement and a detective's badge. Not really wanted by the police department, he was assigned a partner, Dani Reese, who was the lowest detective on the depth chart, a non-dry alcoholic who was on probation for partaking of the evidence during a narcotics deep cover assignment.

Crews had all kinds of idiosyncrasies. Suddenly free from incarceration, he enjoyed the outdoors, fast cars, fresh fruit and hookers. While in the big house he also adopted the principles of Zen, which he would trot out at what his partner would consider the least convenient times. He sounds odd but he was very endearing.

And hardly a successful practitioner of Zen. One of the reasons he negotiated for the gold shield was to be able to use department resources to investigate - covertly - the murders for which he was framed. And investigate he does. Over the course of the two seasons, he finds first the hit man, then the people behind the hit, all the while earning the respect of cops who thought he was dirty for 12 years.

Why am I waxing nostalgic today? Because I just saw a promo on the USA network. Their tag line is “Characters Welcome.” Charlie Crews was definitely a character. Maybe not Monk, but the equal (or better) of Mary Shannon on In Plain Sight, or the guy from Burn Notice, or the doctor of the rich and famous on Royal Pains and certainly better than the guys on Psych or the immediately forgettable White Collar.

Why pick on USA? Follow this:

Life aired on NBC.
Life was produced by Universal Studios.
USA Network is owned by NBC-Universal.
Life was a good show with great characters.
USA Network says “Characters Welcome.

Since they had the producers and cast under contract, couldn't they just have moved the show - and 4.5-5 million regular viewers - over to USA for the third season? It would certainly beat some of the lame shows or reruns USA has on now. Alas.

The Invention of Lying

It's been 11 days since I saw The Invention of Lying and only now do I feel removed from it enough to write a review. The short version is that as a critique of religion and pop culture, it's pretty good but as a funny movie - which it is supposed to be - it's not so good.

All movies, except maybe for newsreels, exist in a fictional universe. That universe may look and feel much like the one you and I reside in but no movie can exist inside the universe in which it takes place. Much to my pleasure, The Invention of Lying starts out by saying it exists in a universe where lying doesn't exist, which most definitively isn't the one I live in. There are some genuinely funny moments at first when we hear people speak their minds, which they frequently do because if there is no dishonesty, there can be no shame. Then, the movie flips gears.

The Invention of Lying turns from a decent comedy to a - what - satire, parody, expose of religion, faith and celebrity? Hardly the gut-busting funnyness we expect from Ricky Gervais. I'm usually up for a good discussion of creation mythology and religion but I just plopped down $6.50 for a comedy, so let's see something with some laughs. Please.


Whip It!

If movies have a genre for the equivalent of comfort food, Whip It! is some tasty barbeque. A cute little movie about roller derby, Whip It! gets pretty much everything right without trying to be too flashy.

Whip It! follows the exploits of a teenager who is pushed by her mother to be a beauty contestant. The youngster, played by Juno's Ellen Page, discovers roller derby and begins a double-life as a high school senior and rising star. It's a familiar formula, seen recently in Bend It Like Beckham, among others. There are more parallels but Whip It! doesn't really feel derivative.

The presentation of roller derby is pretty novel as well, with explanations of the sport that don't seem like exposition. And the sport itself seems pretty exciting, since the matches are compressed to about 30 seconds. Bend It Like Beckham's futbol matches seemed exciting using the same technique.

If you're looking for a feel-good movie, Whip It! is the one to see.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Armored Amelia Brothers

Three movies, three dogs, probably. Let me tell you why.

Armored opens in December. I've seen the preview at least 10 times since August; two versions, actually. They give away the entire movie in the preview - armored car drivers plan to hijack their own cargo, a newbie driver develops a conscience, something goes wrong, then there's a car chase using armored cars. Much like my complaints about 12 Rounds, it's tough to maintain suspense when they show you the resolution. In addition, they have Matt Dillon at his smarmiest and Laurence Fishburne as the opposite of Morpheus. Armored may well be a good action movie but given how early they started pumping it and how much they are giving away in the preview, I'm expecting it to bomb.

Amelia is a bio-pic about Amelia Earhart, opening tomorrow. The preview looks fine. What makes me doubt this movie is an interview Hilary Swank gave to promote the movie. In it she talked about what she wears to bed (nothing) and how she doesn't cover up in front of her boyfriend's six-year-old son. It's all probably innocent but given that most Americans have a fairly prudish regard to nudity and that even a nudist will do a double-take after hearing about an adult and an unrelated six-year-old, I can only conclude that two-time Academy Award (r) winner Swank is playing the controversy card because the movie is a dog.  I'll follow up after we see some numbers.

Brothers is a whole different kettle of fish. With Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire, Brothers is probably pretty good. Problem is, the preview gives away everything - Portman is a war widow, gets involved with her husband's brother, oops - husband isn't dead after all. Good luck getting people into the theater with a downer of a story like that.

Brothers may well be a good movie and I may go see it, but I'm skeptical about its chances.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Couples Retreat

This may have been a great concept but as an actual movie, it falls flat. Four couples go to a Caribbean resort, three of the couples think it's a vacation but it's actually a week of couples therapy.

Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau wrote the movie as well as starred in it. They may be bankable stars but Couples Retreat must have been a vanity project for them and they really could have benefited from having someone around to tell them “no,” as in “Dude, that ain't funny.” There were a few laughs but there were more groaners, so I'd skip this even on home video.

What really got me were these middle-aged, schlubby guys married to hot, buff, gorgeous women. Now, I'm a middle-aged, schlubby guy so if it seemed disturbing to me, what must it seem to normal people's sensibilities? Here's how the couples line up:

Jason Bateman (40) → Kristen Bell (29)
Vince Vaughn (39) → Malin Akerman (31)

There's nothing wrong with older men, younger women, but did I mention these guys are schlubs? The other couple matches up better on paper:

Jon Favreau (43) → Kristen Davis (44)

But Favreau is not much to look at while Davis is so toned she could pass for someone in her 20s. Did I mention it was disturbing? I've never seen Kristen Davis in anything else before but she certainly has my attention now and she more than gave Bell and Akerman a run for their money.

Final note: Couples Retreat was directed by Favreau's buddy Peter Billingsley. Yes, the kid who almost shot his eye out in The Christmas Story. Looks like little Ralphie grew up to be a yes man.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Law Abiding Citizen

Law Abiding Citizen is an intellectually challenging movie. No, don't go running away, it's not THAT intellectual, but it poses a dilemma almost from the beginning. Do you root for the man whose family was slaughtered and is out for a little vengeance/justice or for the cops & prosecutors who, despite making the occasional compromise, are representing the foundations of our society?

Gerard Butler, whose American accent still isn't, plays the guy who is offing the people involved with his family's murder from inside a jail cell. Jamie Foxx plays the ADA who is at the center of the mayhem. The movie keeps its secrets pretty well and when you get to the reveal, it doesn't feel like a let-down. Law Abiding Citizen is very violent - almost slasher-porn at times - with on-screen killings that aren't for the squeamish.

I'm not sure who I was rooting for, with both sides making a good case. That's kind of nice, as most movies have distinct good-guys and bad-guys, and it's clear who's side you should be on. In the end the movie wraps things up nicely but neither side scores a clear victory. As a modern-day Death Wish, I can stand to see one movie this violent and morally gray per year and this one fit the bill pretty well.  It doesn't aim to be much more than a suspenseful potboiler and in keeping its aim low, hits the target pretty much in the middle.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Catching Up - September Edition

Every time I walk out of a theater, I fully intend to go home, hop on the computer and write a witty, pithy review for your reading enjoyment. Unfortunately, my inner slacker takes control by the time I get home and I end up being distracted by something shiny or feel the need to do something low-effort, like inspecting the inside of my eyelids. So, with all the guilt a slacker can
muster, I present September's catch-up post - on October 10.

500 Days of Summer

The narrator says at the beginning that it's not a love story, it's a story about love. Fine, I'm a guy, so save the subtlety. 500 Days is a good light comedy about a romance. It's not too heavy, has great writing and some really impressive visuals.   Consider it Zooey Deschanel's redemption for The Happening.


All About Steve

I've gushed about Sandra Bullock before and I'm not about to stop now. She's pitch-perfect as a 30ish free spirit who develops an obsession over a journalist and begins following him around the country. It's played for laughs but disturbing on several levels. Steve is generally funny but drags in a few places. The ultimate event will come as no surprise as it was shown ad nauseum in the previews, although the resolution is kind of unexpected. All in all, All About Steve is a decent but not great comedy.


The Time Traveler's Wife

I seem to be in a viewing category all my own: a straight guy who likes chick flicks. The Time Traveler's Wife is definitely a chick flick but a high caliber one, if for no other reason than Rachel McAdams. Rachel is a very natural actor - her presence on-screen tends to make every scene gel. And The Time Traveler's Wife needs a little help gelling. Sci-fi people will giggle at the premise - a guy with a gene for time travel? - and the story bounces around a bit, but in the end, I enjoyed it.


Julie and Julia

I knew about Julie Powell's attempt to cook every recipe in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking years ago - both Powell and Julie and Julia's director Nora Ephron made appearances on Lynne Rosetto Kasper's The Splendid Table, so as a foodie, I'd already bought into the concept. Julie and Julia was executed brilliantly, with Meryl Streep channeling Child and Amy Adams being her adorable self with a side of neurosis. The story is told in parallel style, with Julia in the 50s and Julie in 2002.  I liked it a lot and went back a second time.

Julie and Julia is a decent food movie but it isn't the best food movie ever - that title still belongs to Big Night, a 1996 indy film.  J & J co-star Stanley Tucci was also in Big Night, which featured mouth-watering scenes of cooking and eating that are miles beyond what any other film has done.

In a side note to my telcom readers, Julie and Julia did a wonderful thing with phone numbers. You know how movies and TV shows use numbers like 555-0197 so they won't get blamed for viewers calling real numbers? Do you hate it as much as I do?  Well, Julie and Julia used invalid NPA-NXXs several times. It worked very smoothly - non-telcom people would think they were real numbers.  Kudos to Ephron and company for incorporating a subtle touch that keeps the viewer in the movie rather than using the fingernails-on-chalkboard 555 trick.


The Informant!

Promotion for The Informant! was everywhere so you're probably aware of the movie, with Matt Damon as a buffoonish middle-manager turned whistleblower. The story is told pretty much as you'd expect, except that the story isn't what you think it is. I won't spoil anything here but I will recommend The Informant! for some good character-driven laughs.



What would happen if you could live your life sitting in a chair while you received all the sensory input from a robot that does whatever you want? In Surrogates, everyone gets an attractive robot and lives out fantasy after fantasy. With no actual human contact, there is no crime. One day, a bad guy finds a way to kill people through a feedback loop linked to the robot's person.  Now we've got a story!

At a brisk 83 minutes, Surrogates never drags and the story is fairly involving, although I could quibble on a few points. I can always quibble on a few points, so that's not a criticism. Some of the characters' motivations may leave you scratching your head on occasion but overall, a good ride.

I have a fundamental quibble with Surrogates, however. The film makes a point of saying that there hasn't been a murder in the United States in 15 years, but what about white collar crime? Humans may hide behind robots but human nature isn't going to change any time soon. Only the scale of crime has changed since the time of Hammurabi.  Where once you could only steal what you could carry, today you can plunder a country with a computer terminal. Exploring that is a movie I'd like to see.


Love Happens

Talk about shooting your movie in the foot. Is that possible? When I read the title Love Happens, I thought about Love Actually.  When I saw the poster for Love Happens, I was reminded of Love Actually. I went in thinking the two movies would be similar. They aren't. Love Happens' original title was Brand New Day and that isn't much better.

Love Happens is a character study with a touch of romance. The versatile Aaron Eckhart plays a self-help writer who runs workshops to help people deal with grief, while he has not - wait for it - gotten over the death of his wife. Jennifer Aniston plays the flower shop owner who catches his eye. The guys stands in his own shadow for a while then makes the requisite breakthrough. It's somewhat amusing but not quite a must see.

Interesting product placement for telcom people. Love Happens is set in Seattle, rain and all, and one scene required a telephone truck. Guess who the RBOC in Washington is? Qwest. Later, one of the characters drives past the Seahawks' football stadium. Who paid to put their name on the stadium? Qwest. As I'm employed by one of the anti-Qwests, it was a little weird.



I love a good sci-fi story, whether on screen or in print, and Pandorum is only about 30% good. Set on a deep space mission, two crew members on a space ark wake up from artificial hibernation and find no one else around. They later run into mutants and what's left of the crew. It starts strong but when the survivors begin to figure out what happened, it turns blah.

The film-makers need a lesson in spaceship design. The ship is big and boxy but with sweeping, curving arms. Anyone who has read ANY sci-fi knows that space stations and ships have circular areas - wheels - that allow centrifugal force to imitate gravity as the wheel spins. The ship in Pandorum has artificial gravity so no need for the circular design, yet it has partial circles for some reason. Try again, please.


Thursday, October 1, 2009

Drive Me Crazy 10th Anniversary

On Friday, October 1, 1999, I walked in to Mann's Plymouth Theater, screen 4, at 5:15 pm and watched, on its opening day, Drive Me Crazy. My life hasn't been the same since. Oh, I don't mean earth-shattering epiphany-wise, I mean I've since spent a lot of time with the movie, the soundtrack, the writer and the cast. It's been a lot of fun.

At its core, Drive Me Crazy is a prom movie, or in this case, the big dance. We've all seen variations on the genre - teenagers go through all kinds of hoops and end up at a dance. Other prom movies have been flashier, smoother, or with bigger stars but few have balanced a good story with a good time as well as this.

In a nutshell, Drive Me Crazy is about next-door neighbors Nicole and Chase. They were best friends until middle school and now loathe each other. She's a social climber; he's an outsider with a social conscience. Nicole wants to go to the dance with the captain of the basketball team but he asks a cheerleader from another school. The dance doesn't even register with Chase, but then he is dumped by his uber-cool girlfriend. Nicole needs someone to take her to the dance; Chase needs to make the ex jealous. A plot is hatched and stuff happens - little of it as intended. At Timothy Zonin High School, nicknamed Time Zone, the dance is also the main event at the 100th anniversary of the school, so the gala is known as Centennial.

Going in to the movie for the first time, I knew only a few things. The movie's star, Melissa Joan Hart, was on a roll, having just begun the fourth season of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. I knew the movie began life called Next to You, an adaptation of a novel called Girl Gives Birth to Own Prom Date. I knew the producers changed the title to Drive Me Crazy at the last minute to take advantage of the popularity of a Britney Spears song. I knew the move was filmed in October and November 1998 in Utah, and Hart was a weekend star, having to film Sabrina Monday-Friday at the same time. And I knew the movie was being promoted as a racy high school hijinx movie, which instinct told me was a bit of an oversell.

Sitting there in 1999, in a darkened theater with a few hundred strangers, I was amazed at how good Drive Me Crazy was. Low budget but not cheesy, it dived right in to the story, in the first scenes showing Nicole as a controlling dance committee chair and Chase as an unrepentant prankster. The cast was spot-on, the music perfect (including the Britney Spears song) and the story, while following the genre formula, was balanced between familiar and unexpected. I saw it a total of five times before it left theaters and many, many times on home video, although I mainly pick and choose favorite scenes these days. With DVD's ability to jump around movies, the pick & choose method seems to be how I watch most old faves now.

Here are a few things about Drive Me Crazy that I find exceptional, in no particular order.

The characters were never caricatures. Every kid is smart and aware. None are buffoons and neither are the adults. I like a movie where everyone could be a real person. In too many movies, there are characters that are too stupid to be real so it seems like you're watching a performance rather than discretely watching someone's life. Good movies generally don't let on that they are movies.

The dialog was wonderful and written by Rob Thomas. I didn't realize it at the time, but he created the 1998 ABC series Cupid, starring Jeremy Piven and Paula Marshall. Love or hate Piven, Cupid was wonderfully smart and witty. Some of that rubbed off on Drive Me Crazy. Thomas would later go on to create a little show called Veronica Mars, a program that had smart and funny dialogue, along with great drama and visuals. As one example of the great writing in Drive Me Crazy, Nicole takes Chase to the Gap for a wardrobe upgrade. As uncomfortable as Chase is then, it gets worse later when he tries to say something sincere to his ex, Dulcie, and she cuts him down by saying "I didn't expect you to fall into the Gap." At that moment, nothing could have hurt him worse. Or when Nicole is explaining the rules of high school society. She says "There are rules, you know." "Seniors RULE!" shouts Ray, Chase's stoner bud, which seems awfully stupid until they realize he was only acting stupid, and was therefore very smart. Or when Nicole sums up her cool relationship with her father by calling him, "Mr. Maris" rather than "Dad." Rarely do two words change the mood so quickly.

Early on, we discover that this isn't a movie about spurned teenage love, at least not for Nicole. When Alicia, the vixen, tells Nicole that the captain of the basketball team is taking someone else to Centennial because "He loves her," Alicia rolls her eyes and Nicole replies, "Love? Like I care." Later, Nicole explains the rules to the cager ("Seniors RULE!) and she says, "High school love is for saps, Brad." This is how adults speak and not what you'd expect in a high school movie. Of course, there is a love story angle, but I much prefer how it develops organically in Drive Me Crazy, rather than being its raison d'ĂȘtre.

There were 31 songs used in Drive Me Crazy but no orchestration. Many of the songs were used like you might use an orchestral score, providing emotional cues and transitions between scenes. Interestingly, and probably related to the diminutive budget, several of the songs were by Australian artists and certainly not familiar to an American audience. I've since tracked down all but a few of the songs and keep them in high rotation on my MP3 player. Some of the artists worth noting were Sugar High, Super Grass, Alda, Diesel Boy, Less Than Jake, Montana, and Steps. Plumb's "Stranded" has the distinction of being her only song that doesn't suck. Deadstar's "Run Baby, Run" and Charlotte Grace's "Picture of You" could have and should have been big hits stateside, but who's ever heard of them outside of Australia?

The Donnas appeared both on the soundtrack and on the screen. The Donnas started their career as The Electrocutes but changed their name to The Donnas somewhere around October 1, 1999. In Drive Me Crazy, the change was so fresh, they played The Electrocutes on-screen but were billed as The Donnas. They performed a music video to "Get Rid of that Girl," played on stage in the teen club scene, then were the featured band at Centennial. Very rockin', very fun. I've collected a lot of The Donnas music over the years. Their music is actually a lot better today, but they rocked a little harder ten years ago. Heck, I rocked a little harder ten years ago, too, so it's all good.

While I've been writing this, I've had iTunes randomly playing music in the background. Sure enough, one of the lesser-known songs from Drive Me Crazy popped up. Like I said, I spend a lot of time with this movie, one way or another. On the wall behind me there is a framed poster for the movie. Can't get away.

The cast was pretty good for a low budget flick. In addition to Hart, here's a rundown:
Adrian Grenier- You know him better as Vincent Chase on Entourage. Interesting that his character was "Chase" in both of these shows.
Ali Larter- Five months later, Ali would appear in her big break, Final Destination. Seven years later, she would become a regular on Heroes, an even bigger break.
Jordan Bridges - You may not recognize the name but if you watch TV, you'll probably recognize his face, as he's worked steadily since Drive Me Crazy, including an episode in season one of Dollhouse.
Lourdes Benedicto - Like Bridges, you may not recognize the name but you've seen her in something, maybe ER or 24.
Keri Lynn Pratt - Also a steadily working actress, Keri Lynn is now typecast as a sorority girl due to her porcelain complexion and squeaky-high voice despite being in her 30s. A recurring role on CSI probably didn't hurt her career, nor an appearance on Sabrina.
Susan May Pratt - After playing bad girl Alicia to a fair-thee-well in Drive Me Crazy, Susan had only one role of note for me since - a competitive also-ran in Center Stage, a somewhat-guilty pleasure.
Mark Webber- His resume over the past ten years is packed with indy pictures, few of which I've seen. Webber does, however, have the distinction of being in the worst movie ever made. On Febuary 10, 2000, I saw the Julia Stiles - Freddie Prinze Jr dog Down to You, which immediately jumped to the head of my informal list as worst movie ever. Twenty four hours later, I saw Webber's Snow Day, which unceremoniously unseated Down to You for the dubious honor. This is all pre-Lord of the Rings, so it's best that I don't maintain a worst movie list these days, formally or not.
Kristy Wu - Wu secured her place in TV history as one of the potential slayers in the final season of Buffy.
Natasha Pearce - Not really a busy actress, she appeared as a pixie in the brief American Xuxaseries in 1993. Don't ask me how I know that.
Mark Metcalf- You know him better as Niedermeyer in Animal House. Here he's the principal and only in a couple of scenes but steals them both. You want to hate him but he makes a funny expression at the big dance scene, which moves him into the "Cool" column.
Real life couple Stephen Collins and Faye Grant played Nicole's divorced parents. You know him from 7th Heaven (I guess - I've never even watched an episode) and she will live in TV history forever as Juliet Parrish in V.

Drive Me Crazy had a few great visuals, more than I would expect in a low budget flick. I especially like the one where Chase realizes he's lost Dulcie. He leaves a rambling message on her voice mail, then lays down on his bed and stares at the wall. The moonlight changes to sunlight and we realize he hasn't moved - not even blinked - all night long. Beautiful. Or near the end when he realizes he is caught between Dulcie's world and Nicole's and can't survive in either anymore. He wordlessly tells Dulcie he's dumping her and she grudgingly accepts the blindside. Grenier and Larter's expressions are transcendent. I like a movie with creative visuals.

Like it or not, drug use is a reality in high school. Many a movie will ignore it or treat drugs in a responsible adult way as not to offend anyone. Drive Me Crazy takes a different path. It admits that drugs exist, good kids sometimes take them, and makes a joke about it. When Chase and his buddies get called into the principal's office for a disciplinary action, the principal asks Ray to stand up so he can examine Ray's pupils. "I forget," Principal Niedermeyer asks, "Are they supposed to be bigger or smaller?" Ray answers with a deadpan, "It depends." Now, what movie about teens will admit that a character is a recreational drug user like that? I have a 17-year-old nephew so I don't endorse recreational consumption and neither does Drive Me Crazy, but we can't deny the existence of the drugs or the users, so ignoring it isn't the way to go - in the real world or in the movies - and I like the way this movie handles it.

You've got to like a movie that makes a gag out of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Nicole's father gives her a copy of the book and says it will help her understand him better. She's more than skeptical, and with good reason. I've read the book and if he thinks his 17-year-old daughter will learn anything about him by reading a 500 page story about a cycle riding schizophrenic, he's even more out of touch than he realized. Which might be Rob Thomas' point. And who voluntarily names his alter ego Phaedrus, anyway?

So, that's my 10th anniversary tribute to Drive Me Crazy, a little movie that I liked a lot. It's not for everybody, but I hope you have a movie you enjoy as much. I'll be watching it Thursday afternoon beginning at 5:15, exactly 10 years after the first time, since that's how I roll.