Monday, May 31, 2010

Use the Search Function

Off to the right of your screen, you will now see a Search function for this blog.  I haven't been writing the blog with keywords, so you'll have to search by film or actor name, but it's better than paging through the archive titles.  Surprisingly, for a Google function, it's not perfect.   For example, it only finds two of the three times I mentioned Leelee Sobieski in a review, but the price is right.  I just love saying that name.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 suffers from a severe case of sequelitis.  It simply had no reason to be made, so much of the plot and even more of the style make no sense.  In addition, as is the fashion lately, IM2 borrows heavily from the palette of the graphic novel, much to its detriment.  It's a fairly flashy and technically well-done movie, but you could skip it entirely and your life would be just fine.

The movie is a basic established hero being tested by a new villain formula.  We met Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark two years ago - he's the same as before.  The supporting characters are about the same as well, although Gwyneth Paltrow's role was amped up and I don't remember her looking quite as radiant two years ago.

Then there's Mickey Rourke.  I'm sure he's a decent person but his appearance just bugs me.  In case you haven't heard the story, he was a pretty-boy actor a generation ago who took time off for a boxing career.  Not a good idea for an actor.  He needed some reconstructive surgery and it didn't go well.  The guy just looks gross and I may make it a rule to not see movies he's in anymore.

As to the sequelitis, here are a few other things that didn't work.

The bad guy is the son of Stark's father's partner from 40 years ago.  When the old guy dies, his son takes out 40-year-old blueprints and a soldering iron and creates a weapon that can take down Iron Man.  Waitaminute.  If the father had all this information and ability, why did he die penniless and leave the revenge up to the son?  See, a plot that makes sense only because they need it in order to make a movie.  That's sequelitis.

A sequel needs to have twice the chaos of course, so IM2 has two villains.  Sam Rockwell plays a Tony Stark-wannabe and chews up the scenery but doesn't add much to the mix.  He looks like he's trying to channel a smooth Brad Pitt but he comes off mainly like a petulant fifth grader.

Samuel L Jackson plays some sort of Justice League mayor who is in two scenes.  I don't recall him being in the first Iron Man but he drops by and acts like he owns the place.  Very odd.

Jackson's right-hand is played by Scarlett Johansson and it's a totally superfluous character, existing simply to provide a couple more action scenes, as she gets to beat up a passel of henchmen and otherwise be an extra with dialog.  Scarlett also played Jackson's right-hand in 2008's The Spirit, although they weren't good guys in that movie.  She kept her Catwoman suit zipped up in IM2, but her breasts could easily have been given co-starring credit in The Spirit, as they were on display as much as her face.  That's an observation, not a complaint

All-in-all, Iron Man 2 delivers what it promises, but as a sequel to a flash-bang movie, the bar isn't set terribly high.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Catching Up, with an Explanation

It's been a few months since I've done a major movie blog update and that's a long stretch, even for a slacker like me.  Am I just lazy or is there more to it?

More, of course.  Would I ask if there wasn't more to it?

I am admittedly a slacker but I have also cut down on movie viewing a little in order to watch some TV series sets on DVD.  Some have come from Netflix, while others are from my own inventory.  I have a different perspective on old TV after watching all or part of nine series in the past year.  It's also a tremendous timesuck, hence the decline in the number of movies I've blogged about in the recent past.

Veronica Mars (3 seasons, 64 episodes, 2004-2007)

Before starting my Veronica Mars watchathon, I had already seen every episode at least once.  I caught the first season on DVD after hearing critical acclaim, then watched the second and third seasons as they aired on the network.

I loved Veronica Mars the first time it was on.  Veronica is glib, witty and off-the-charts smart.  She is driven to figure out any mystery that appears in front of her, sometimes to her own peril.  And, of course, she's played by uber-babe Kristen Bell.  This run-through, as you might expect, didn't provide the gut-wrenching surprise factor that is key in several episodes but I still consider it to be a wonderful show, holding up on repeat viewings.

Here is the one-paragraph synopsis: Veronica Mars is the daughter of a small-town private eye who inherited the curiosity gene.  In most episodes, she is solving a mystery for a friend, her father or a fellow student.  Underneath all that, however, are season-long life-or-death mysteries for her to solve.  In the first season it was who raped Veronica Mars and who killed her best friend, Lilly Kane?  In season two, it was who sabotaged the school bus and killed seven students?  In season three, Veronica is off to college.  Who is the Hearst College serial rapist and who killed the Dean of Students?  Did I mention that Veronica Mars alternates between comedy and tragedy?  Quality writing all the way through.  I especially like the use of "The Big Bad," a technique perfected by Joss Whedon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.  Every episode, no matter how seemingly unrelated, drives you to the big dust-up at the end of the season.

As I'm watching it the second time, I'm struck by Veronica's behavior.  At first, I considered her to be a heroine, but aside from solving murders and such, she really isn't acting heroic.  She's either doing it for money or to progress her big-picture investigations.  I wanted to call her a noir hero, as bad things are constantly happening to her or people around her (Lilly Kane, et al), but she doesn't neatly fit into the noir definition (The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity) or even a modern interpretation.  No, I think Veronica Mars is an anti-hero.

Why an anti-hero?  Well, she's hardly innocent.  From making fake IDs for her friends to helping a fugitive escape the country, Veronica will follow or ignore the law as it suits her.  People around her die because of choices she makes and despite feeling guilt, she doesn't change her behavior.  Even in her close relationship with her father, she is constantly hiding things from him, lying to him and on several occasions, makes choices that hurt him about as bad as you can hurt someone and still leave them breathing.  By the end of the three-season run, Veronica Mars has used or betrayed every friend she has to some extent.  Yet, the show is about her.  Beloved by viewers and forgiven by the surviving characters, she is the anti-hero.

Despite the tragic undertones, Veronica Mars is a fun and engrossing program.  If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it.

Gilmore Girls (7 seasons, 153 episodes, 2000-2007)

I watched Gilmore Girls on TV starting with episode 1 and never stopped.  I tuned in at first strictly for Lauren Graham.  I had seen her in guest roles on Seinfeld, Caroline in the City and Newsradio.  There was something fetching about her but it was a limited run comedy called MYOB from the Summer of 2000 that really got me interested.  Graham played an uptight high school teacher that takes in her teenage niece.  Katherine Towne played Riley, a misfit and rebel without a cause.  The antagonistic banter between the two was a preview of what Graham would later do in Gilmore Girls, although in a more polite way.

Katherine Towne was a perfect Riley, all attitude and unforgiving.  MYOB was the last lead role she's had but is still working in supporting roles.  She has a lasting place in TV history, though, appearing in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, episode 4-1, and getting dusted so stylishly that they used a clip of it in the opening credits for a couple of years.

So what did I learn from watching Gilmore Girls start to finish?  It holds up rather well.  The quirky, pop culture-driven dialogue is still pretty funny and the relationships of the daughter, mother and grandmother are fairly timeless.  All-in-all, a good use of my recreational time.

Not all was perfect, though.  The seventh season just seemed wrong.  They moved Luke's Diner to a new location.  Do buildings just move?  And they broke up Luke and Lorelai... just because, it seems.  It would have been better to end the show after six seasons or have given it one more season in order to have a more reasoned conclusion.

I had opposite feelings for Rory's main boyfriends, Dean and Logan.  During the network run, I thought Dean was a cool guy next door and that Logan was a spoiled rich brat.  During the DVD marathon, though, I started disliking Dean from the get-go, probably because I knew how his arc would end (jerk).  Logan, whom I hated on the network, I liked this time from his very first scene.  He was a smart, fun, nice guy after all.

Gilmore Girls was a big time investment but overall, a good experience.

Dead Like Me (2 seasons, 30 episodes, 2002-2003)

I keep over 100 movies in my Netflix queue and it takes about a year for a selection to go from just added to top of the list.  It takes so long to get to the top that I often forget why I selected something and what appears in my mailbox is a complete surprise.  And so it was with Dead Like Me.  I still have no idea what inspired me to select it but whatever it was, it was a good idea.

Dead Like Me follows the afterlife of George, a morose 19-year-old woman who was killed by debris that fell from the sky after the re-entry burn up of a Russian space station.  The particular piece of debris was a toilet seat.  That pretty much sets the tone for the whole series.

George's afterlife involves a job, believe it or not.  She has to be a Reaper, someone who takes a person's soul at the time of death.  She hates her new job as much as the temp job she had at the time of her death, so her moroseness continued unabated.

George's situation was worse than for most reapers.  She was stationed in the same town she lived in, making it hard to let go of her family, particularly her little sister, Reggie.  Notice a theme with these names?

I devoured Dead Like Me one after the other and couldn't wait for the next disk to arrive.  It only went two seasons on Showtime and qualifies for associate membership in the too-good-for-TV club.  I suspect that the show would've gone down hill had it gone to a third season but we'll never know.  I highly recommend Dead Like Me if you're looking for well written, mature humor.

Eli Stone (2 seasons, 26 episodes, 2008-2009)

The premise of Eli Stone is that burnt-out mid-30s lawyer Eli starts having visions.  Of George Michael. Yes, THE George Michael of Wham.  These visions tell Eli what cases to take or how to win the ones assigned to him.

The visions also usually happen at very inconvenient moments and sometimes involve elaborate production numbers.  The gimmick might have gotten old had the show gone on longer, but it wasn't on long enough for me to get bored with it.  One episode had the real George Michael appear, which was funny for any number of reasons.

Eli was played by British actor Jonny Lee Miller, although I had no idea he was British until I saw him in a new version of Jane Austen's Emma a few weeks ago.  How is it that Brits can get American accents right, mostly, but American actors who do English accents usually sound ridiculous?

I highly recommend the first season and the second season with reservations.  At the beginning of the second season, they explained the why visions occur, which was inconsistent with the first season and in general, takes some of the fun out of it.

Arrested Development (3 seasons, 53 episodes, 2003-2006)

There aren't too many shows that can truly be described as too good for television, but Arrested Development jumps to the top of the list.  Bounced around from time slot to time slot during its network run and pre-empted for weeks at a time, AD never stood a chance.  I caught about 3/4ths of the episodes on its network run, so several were new to me.  A single camera 30-minute comedy, when it worked, it was wonderful.

If you haven't seen Arrested Development, I highly recommend it.  A few of the episodes in the second and third season went a bit off track, but the first season definitely stands as one of the best runs in television history.  Their use of running gags was amazing, from the mispronunciation of the oldest son's name to the brother-in-law's phobia, which included a joke set up in episode one and sprung about 10 eps later.  And just when you thought the parents couldn't get more insane, they would soon top themselves.

It took me two months to get through the 53 episodes.  I noticed they used a technique that may have made me enjoy the show more.  At the end of every episode, the narrator would say, “On the next Arrested Development,” and they'd show a brief scene, usually based on the episode just aired.  It would be side-splittingly funny and would definitely not be in the next episode.  Beats fading to black.

Arrested Development was produced by Imagine Entertainment.  You'll see their logo on every Ron Howard movie, as well as some other TV shows.  One of those shows was Sports Night, which I will be watching in the near future.  As much as I find fault with Ron Howard's movies, his company really makes great TV.

Sabrina the Teenage Witch (4 seasons, 97 episodes, 1996-2000)

Back in the day, I gave a lot of shows a chance.  Sabrina the Teenage Witch was one I didn't think would hook me but it did.  The first episode was so well written and constructed, I just had to keep watching.  Many of the first season's episodes were unbelievably funny.  I developed a Sabrina habit, looking forward to Fridays, when I could see what new zany misadventures the teenage witch and her aunts would get into.

So, the show has been off the air for a few years.  The first six seasons are available on DVD.  I started a Sabrina watchathon.


When they talk about shows that don't hold up well, Sabrina is now the prime example.  What was cute and funny 14 years ago is now cliched and stale.  There were still some good moments and even good episodes, but most of the episodes were kind of painful.  Ironically, the special effects still look good although you would expect today's CGI to be a quantum level better.  No, it's just that time has passed this show by.

I lost my enthusiasm midway through the second season. After cringing too many times, I made a strategic decision.  Sabrina jumped networks after the fourth season, moving from ABC to WB.  Back in 2000, I noticed a distinct difference in quality but was apparently in denial, trying to recapture the feeling the first episode gave me (I was an addict! They hooked me! The first episode was free).  I decided to stop watching after the end of the fourth season, even though more were available.  I don't think I could take it if the episodes from the 5th, 6th and 7th seasons were as bad as I vaguely remember them.

It's kind of sad, remembering how much I enjoyed Sabrina back in the day and knowing I can't get that feeling back.  I'm told that's sometimes what marriage is like.

Boston Legal (5 seasons, 101 episodes, 2004-2008)

Captain Kirk and the guy from Tuff Turf meet Murphy Brown.  That's pretty much what I expected when I started watching Boston Legal.  It didn't catch my attention on its recent network run but a couple of my friends heartily recommended it so I decided to watch on DVD.

Boston Legal is an amazing show.  The entire cast is top-notch, headed by William Shatner and James Spader.  I kept hearing about Shatner winning Emmies for BL but had no idea he could be so funny.  Every week, there would be some absurd court case, much sturm und drang, and then two guys smoking cigars on the balcony.

I highly recommend Boston Legal for a satisfying series to watch.  It'll take a while to get through but it ends with a Supreme Court bang.  And now, having seen Boston Legal, I understand what it means when my friends say, “We're flamingos.”

Space: 1999 (2 seasons, 48 episodes, 1975-1977)

You are reading the third draft of my comments about Space: 1999.  You don't realize it, but you are very glad I'm able to say, “Let me spare you the details.”

Space: 1999 was a British sci-fi show that ran for two seasons in the 70s.  It was not on a network but was a pioneer in first-run syndication, developing a broadcast model that Star Trek The Next Generation and Xena would later use, and is quite common today.

The plot of Space: 1999 is simple: An explosion pushes the moon out of the Earth's orbit, and it now drifts through the cosmos, coming near a new planet, space ship or space phenomenon every week.

It was stylish and futuristic, with great effects, costumes and interesting stories.  That is, for season one.  They changed things up dramatically (and negatively) in season two, presumably to find a wider audience, but they ended up losing enough of its already small following that the show ended after two seasons.

I started buying the DVDs about ten years ago but hadn't gotten around to watching them all the way through.  Come January last, it became time.

Here's where I'll save you about 1000 words of detail.  If you are a sci-fi person, you owe it to yourself to at least read up on Space: 1999, maybe even watch a few episodes of the first season. I recommend “Breakaway,” “Guardian of Piri,” “The Testament of Arkadia,” and “The Last Enemy.”

If you're really into sci-fi, watch the entire first season sometime.  If you're really into sci-fi and are a bit of a masochist, watch the second season as well.

My Boys (1 season in two parts, 22 episodes, 2006-2007)

I started watching JAG when it premiered in 1995 but dropped it in the middle of the second season.  When it left the air in 2005, I decided to catch the last few episodes.  Three of the last five were a backdoor pilot for a new version of JAG.  They brought in a new guy - we'll call him Harmon Rabb 3.0 - and a new Sara McKenzie.  Mac 2.0 - technically Kaitlin 4.0 - was played by Jordana Spiro.  A cutie, she caught my attention only a little at the time but four months later I would jump on her bandwagon for good.

In Must Love Dogs, Jordana was in all of two scenes.  She's John Cusack's ditsy date, the one who so misunderstands Dr Zhivago, you sort of wonder how she can even speak English.  When you ask people about Must Love Dogs, they'll probably mention the date scene before they say anything about Cusak or co-star Diane Lane.  Jordana was that funny.

In My Boys, which runs during baseball season on TBS, Jordana Spiro plays PJ, a tomboy surrounded by men.  She's a sports reporter covering the Chicago Cubs, plays poker with her male friends several nights every week and her brother stops by every night after work before treking home.  PJ has only one female friend, the ultrafeminine Stephanie.  PJ's world is 99% guys.

My Boys is a single camera, 30 minute comedy with no laugh track.  It doesn't need one, as the humor is fast and furious, usually from the friendly and competitive banter.  As funny as My Boys is, there is also a jazzy theme song and Jordana's amazing cuteness to complete the package.

The first season was aired in two parts and the tenor of the show changed a little during the second half but not enough to worry about.  Seasons two and three have aired but aren't out on DVD yet.  Season four will play on TBS this Summer.  Looking forward to seeing more of PJ and her friends.

Life (2 seasons, 32 episodes, 2007-2009)

I've already written a little about Life.  It was a buddy cop show, with a side of damaged hero.  The first season ran during the strike-shortened 2007-2008 season.  While I remembered the last episodes pretty well, I forgot some of the details from the first season, so I decided to savor the entire 32 episodes in one run.

Life begins with Charlie Crews having been released from maximum security prison, where he spent 12 years after having been convicting of killing a family.  A cop before he went in, Crews took a large cash settlement and a detective's badge when he was exonerated.  Life is what he was sentenced to, and life is what he got back.

Over the arc of the first season, Crews earned the trust of his partner, Detective Reese, and launched an off-the books investigation to find out who really killed his friends.  The second season gave us more weekly murders to solve and a bigger conspiracy to unravel.  The chemistry between Crews and Reese (played by the scrumptious Sarah Shahi) really gelled by the end, with no hint of a romance cliché.  It detoured a bit with odd b-plots in some episodes, but all-in-all, a really good show.  The last three minutes of the last episode truly rank as one of the great scenes in TV cop show history.

It took less than two weeks for me to watch all the episodes of Life.  I stayed up a few hours past my bedtime a couple of times, not wanting the wonderfulness to stop.  I would have liked to have seen another season of the show on NBC or a move to USA, but what can you do?