Monday, November 22, 2010

DUE DATE Past Its Expiration?

DUE DATE Review:

- Due Date is a reasonably funny movie, but it's also one of those comedies that seems to have no real reason for existing. From moment one, it's clear that the premise of Due Date is simply that some guys sat in a room and thought "hey, wouldn't it be funny if Robert Downey Jr. and Zack Galifianakis were in a wacky comedy together?" Fine, cool, but that's not how great movies are made. That's marketing, not movie-making, and it's not enough to justify a movie's existence. Casting should serve the characters in the script, not the other way around. And that makes Due Date a movie with some funny gags, but not much else. It's mildly entertaining, but ultimately forgettable.

From director Todd Phillips of The Hangover fame, Due Date feels like a stripped down version of that movie - ie, same basic sensibilities, but lacking the density of jokes or the commitment to outrageousness of last year's huge comedy hit. Due Date's plot is basically all there in the trailers - a yuppie asshole type (RDJ) is trying to get home from a business trip in time to be there as his wife gives birth to their first child. RDJ runs into a wacky, stoner, would-be-Hollywood actor (Galafianakis), who through a wacky series of misunderstandings, gets the both of them kicked off of their flight, sans luggage, and put on the no-fly list. Stranded without a wallet or car, RDJ has no choice but to accept a ride from the overzealously friendly yet completely weird Galifianakis. And so the odd couple's road trip trek to California begins.

There are some pretty good jokes to be found in Due Date, and the movie benefits hugely from the natural talents of its two main stars. Both are playing completely to type, which on the plus side, means that both slip quite comfortably into their roles - roles that each could probably pull off in their sleep. Suffice it to say, the movie gets a substantial lift from the fact that its stars are so naturally funny and charismatic - and yes, they do have a pretty good chemistry together.

That said, it's a pairing we've seen countless times before. Ever since the days that Dennis the Menace plagued poor Mr. Wilson, we've seen the reckless troublemaker and uptight jerk as onscreen duo. To that end, a lot of Due Date feels like something you've seen a thousand times before - from The Cable Guy to You, Me, and Dupree (shudder). That's true on the character level, and it's true on the joke level as well. I had to stifle a groan when, early on in the movie, it's revealed that Galifianakis' character is carrying around a coffee can filled with his deceased dad's ashes. As soon as this plot point was introduced, you knew exactly what shananigans would ensue, and the movie goes exactly down the various roads that you'd predict. There are very few surprises, and very few moments that feel genuinely fresh and inspired. It's funny, because the one subplot that promises to take the movie down a pretty dark and surprising path - involving Jamie Foxx as an old boyfriend of RDJ's wife - turns out to be a red herring and basically goes nowhere, instead getting dropped altogether two-thirds of the way through the movie.

Meanwhile, some of the running gags have promise, but never go as far as you'd want them to. A joke about Galifianakis' infatuation with the TV show Two and a Half Men could have served as a scathing satire of the show or its stars. Instead, it's just sort of there, and you're not even sure if the movie is mocking the show when all is said and done. A lot of the jokes seem similarly half-hearted, or else just run out of steam as the movie chugs along. It might have helped if there was any real meat to the two main characters, but again, RDJ is basically playing a jerkier, yet slightly more grounded, version of Tony Stark / RDJ, and Galifianakis is playing less a character and more a walking collection of one-note gags.

Look, at the end of the day - and despite my mostly harsh words to this point - I was entertained by Due Date and chuckled a bunch of times throughout. There are enough jokes that work that it's hard to feel too negative about the movie. There was even a cameo by Danny McBride that saw the awesomely hilarious comedic actor in fine form. And yet, I'd be hard pressed to remember a lot of the film's jokes right now with any specificity. It's all pretty hollow, empty, and paint-by numbers, and I know that these guys can do better.

My Grade: B-

Wrestling with FOUR LIONS - Funniest Movie About Terrorism Ever?


- Four Lions is the type of movie that is sure to court controversy. For some, the premise alone is inherently offensive: a comedy about terrorists - suicide bombers. But if you think about it, pop-culture directly satirizing terrorism has been strangley absent over the last decade. There's a long tradition of comedy poking fun at our nation's enemies - from Hitler to Saddam Hussein. And yet, the threat of terrorism has been built up in recent years as being so horrible, so evil, so gravely serious that attempts to mock terrorists have been kept to a relative minimum. Sure, there's been the odd SNL sketch making fun of Osama Bin Laden, but I think that, overall, the national mood has been so volatile that there is still a real fear of satirizing the war on terror or even the terrorists themselves. So, I guess it's no surprise that a real, biting satire like Four Lions comes to us from Britain, where dark, biting, politically challenging humor has long been part of the pop cultural conversation. Four Lions reminds me a lot of something like the UK Office in terms of tone - there's that awkward, quasi-mockumentary style at play (though this isn't a mockumentary). And there's that very dark, uncompromising look at human nature, a perspective which produces a lot of laughs, but which also creates an undercurrent of tragicomedy and sadness. Obviously, the stakes in Four Lions are a lot higher than those in something like The Office though, and the movie doesn't shy away from that. To me, that's why the movie works so well - it's very funny, but like good satire should, it makes sure to emphasize that it's central characters, while a source of comedy, are also deeply misguided and oftentimes, just plain dumb. It's a tricky balancing act, but I think the movie pulls it off.

Four Lions follows a group of would-be Muslim terrorists in a small town outside of London. There's Omar - the leader of the group and perhaps the most level-headed. There's Waj - the movie's biggest source of comedy and belly laughs, because he's essentially a follower who doesn't quite understand what he's getting into, mostly because he's dumb as a rock. There's Barry, a white convert to Islam who is the most radical of the group - his ideas for terrorism plots are so over-the-top that you have to laugh at how ultimately stupid and preposterous they are. Finally, there's Hassan - a young Muslim radical who raps (yes, raps) about being oppressed and discriminated against, and is sort of like Ali G if Ali G were an Islamic terrorist.

Now, the latter three characters are all broad enough to be very funny. Sure, the rhetoric they espouse is pretty disturbing at times, and Hassan in particular is part of some scenes that are pretty damn dark. But, ultimately, it's Omar who comes off as by far the film's most disturbing - and likely most controversial character. This is because he is, essentially, the film's "hero." He's the leader of the group, the main character. And in a lot of scenes, he doesn't seem like that bad of a guy. It's a strange incongruity. He's got a loving and attractive wife, and a young son who he cares for. He lives in a nice flat, has a decent job as a security guard. And yet ... he is a terrorist who wants to blow himself up in the name of Islam and murder innocent people. It's a jarring contrast, to say the least. Especially when you realize that his wife, while sad at the fact that Omar plans to kill himself, is also supportive of his decision. The other members of the group are loners, outcasts - it makes sense in some twisted way as to why they'd make these choices. But Omar is the one who really scares you because you have to essentially be delusional or completely brainwashed to be willing to sacrifice your family, your life, in the name of becoming a "martyr."
To the credit of FOUR LIONS though, the movie finds some great humor in all of this. It's pretty scathing. There's the fact that all of these guys are pop-culture obsessed despite claiming to hate Western society and all it stands for. The fact that they constantly film themselves delivering Bin Laden style hate messages - which are really just their attempts to seem badass in front of a camera. The movie just finds and mocks all of the inherent stupidity in these sadsack dumbasses trying to become some warped ideal of a badass terrorist, and failing miserably. Again, I think in many ways the movie is a satire of OUR PERCEPTIONS of terrorists and terrorism. We paint these people as cartoon villains - uber-competent, uber-capable master strategists who are inhumanly evil. Four Lions plays with this perception and shows that many of these guys are these brainwashed guys who never quite got over their "angry teenager" phase. And there's the fact that they are easily-manipulated idiots. One of the movie's most clever subplots, for example, involves Omar's brother, who is a pious and essentially peaceful Muslim religious leader. The movie slyly comments that the guys who truly practice what they preach - who study Islam and are serious about it - aren't necessarilly the ones anyone should be worried about. In fact, it's the guys like Omar and Waj and Barry - guys who spend all their time plotting and scheming and trying to be badass - who could actually give a crap about their religion. They are mostly just concered with fighting this perceived neverending battle against the West, of finding some meaning in their lives in which they - ordinary Joes - can somehow become an insta-hero by strapping a bomb to themselves. It's telling that one of the movie's funniest running jokes involves Barry's crazy idea to blow up Mosques, of all places, so that they somehow end up radicalizing all the Muslim moderates and bringing about an all-out war between Islam and the West. Barry's inability to think through his plan with any degree of logic makes for some hilarious moments, but it's also a pretty biting commentary on where some of these guys' true priorities lie.

The great thing is that despite how biting the movie's themes are, despite how dark it goes, it's still damn funny. There's a great mix of slapstick, satire, and absurdist back-and-forth dialogue. This is a highly quotable movie, and there are some very memorable, very amusing exchanges - many of them involving Waj and his total obliviousness to everything. I guess my only critique would be that the lower-key comedy style (and very British comedy style) is the type that I imagine might play better on the smaller screen than it does in a theater. Alot of the humor is dialogue-driven, and very sitcom-ish in execution - not a bad thing, but it does tend to drag a little after a while. As a counter to that, things really pick up in the totally hilarious / intense / tragic / memorable final act, as the Four Lions actually attempt to carry out the attack they've been planning during a busy London marathon. This section of the film is much more cinematic than anything else in the movie, and this is where you really sit up in your seat, bite your nails, and wonder just how the hell far this movie is actually going to go. And again, to its credit, Four Lions takes things to their logical extremes, and is pretty uncompromising in that regard.
I suppose one final question is: how can this movie work if the characters are both semi-likable and also terrorists? Again - I think it's a fine line, but I think that's part of what makes the movie so memorably tragic. It posits that these characters do have a human side to them and, admittedly, they do become oddly endearing over the course of the movie. But again, it works. It makes the fact that they are planning to "martyr" themselves all the more infuriating and mind-boggling. It's easy to make a terrorist character a supervillain - and lord knows our politicians do that all the time in their rhetoric, and pop culture does it all the time as well. But seeing these characters as being at-times likable, as having some good in them, makes their decisions that much more poignantly scary and real-seeming. Not many movies would have the guts to present us with these kinds of characters, and even fewer would have the smarts to make it work.

Writer / Director Christopher Morris has created one of the most topical and thought-provoking films of the last few years with Four Lions. It can drag at times (especially in the middle section), and the humor can occasionally be hit or miss (and maybe too British at times to fully register with American audiences). But I give it credit for being such a ballsy and mostly hilarious satire. And, sadly, it's one of the few real politically-charged comedies we've seen in the last decade. I give this one a big recommendation if you like dark comedy and satire - if it's playing near you, check it out. This is one of the most daring, dark, thought-provoking, and funny movies of the year.

My Grade: A-

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Mega-Review of MEGAMIND ...!

- It's been a pretty memorable year for animated films. Sure, you can always rely on Pixar to produce something great year in and year out, but I think this has been the year that Dreamworks has really stepped up to the plate and narrowed the gap between them and their Disney-owned competition. Earlier this year, How To Train Your Dragon surprised me by being one of the best animated movies I've seen in the last few years - it had all the heart, depth, and breathtaking animation of a Pixar movie, though with its own unique style. It still ranks as one of my favorite movies of the year thus far. Now though, Megamind comes along, and it's yet another win for Dreamworks Animation. Megamind isn't as deep or as heartfelt as Dragon - or Toy Story 3, for that matter - but what it lacks in layers it more than makes up for in sheer fun and whiz-bang excitement. Megamind is funny - I got a real kick out of the humor, and laughed a lot throughout. It's a great riff on Superman and superhero stories, so if you're into that stuff you'll get an extra thrill from all the little references and homages. And the animation and 3D implementation is, in my opinion, awesome. The movie is a thrill ride, and you can't help but get caught up in the roller-coaster-ride-like superhero battles and action scenes. Megamind may not be the best animated movie of the year (Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon will probably have to battle it out for that crown), but man, I really dug it.

From the start, Megamind reveals itself as a subversively funny take on the Superman legend. We all know the story of how baby Kal-El got rocketed to earth from the doomed planent Krypton. But, imagine that alongside the destined-to-be-great future superhero, another baby was also sent to earth from a similarly doomed planet. Except, where the former infant looked human and was blessed with all manner of crowd-pleasing superpowers, the latter was a freakish-looking blue alien who's only gift was a large intellect and a penchant for evil. Thus was born the eternal rivalry between the hero and people's champion, Metro Man, and his archnemesis and supervillain extraordinairre, Megamind. Now, the movie kicks off many years into this storied rivalry, at a point where Megamind's schemes have grown old and tired. His constant kidnappings of spunky TV reporter Roxanne Ritchi have become routine to the point where even Roxanne is bored by them. But then, something happens. Mostly by accident, Megamind actually defeats Metroman, and suddenly finds himself victorious. And this is the main premise of Megamind - what does the villain do when he finds himself without a hero to fight?

The plot proceeds in a fairly predictable manner, and some of the narrative turns come about a little too easily and conveniently. But ... it's hard to get too caught up in all that, if only because most of Megamind is so fun and fast-paced that you don't mind just going along for the ride. Like I said, the movie is really funny as well - and the success of the humor can be attributed to some very snappy and clever writing, extremely expressive and dynamic animation, and of course, the great voice cast.

I know that a lot of people get down on animated movies that have celebrity voice casts, but in Megamind, at least to me, the voice-casting is star-studded, yes, but so natural and well-chosen for each part that it's hard to argue with. Will Farell, for one, is great as Megamind. He gives the villain/hero of the movie a Stephen Colbert-like pomposity that makes for some very funny moments. Tina Fey as the plucky, Lois Lane-like reporter Roxanne? Really great, and I mean come on, who better than Tina Fey to play that part. Bradd Pitt as heroic yet slightly-jaded Metro Man is also a great fit. And Jonah Hill is excellent as Tighten - a warped would-be hero who is basically Jimmy Olsen-gone-bad, as sort of a walking embodiment of the song "Jimmy Olsen's Blues." (Yes, that's a Spin Doctors reference. Deal with it.) One other big standout - David Cross as Megamind's right-hand-alien, Minion. I know that the talented Cross has been in a lot of pretty mediocre kids' / animated fare in recent years, so it's great to see him pop up in a movie like this where he gets to be very funny and a scene-stealer.

All of that voice talent melds with the animation to create some pretty visually-awesome set pieces. The action in the movie is great, and there's also a surprisingly badass classic rock soundtrack throughout that really gets the ol' blood pumping. Let's just say that the fact that one of Megamind's big, climactic scenes is punctuated by Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" makes it that much cooler and fist-pump worthy. And, as with How to Train Your Dragon, the 3D is expertly implemented, giving a natural but unobtrusive sensation of depth and immersion, and making for some really cool flight scenes to boot.

Again, part of me wants to dock Megamind ever so slightly for being a bit too by-the-numbers at times, and for skimping on nuance in favor of a not-quite-earned "aw-shucks" happy ending. But really, those nitpicks aside, I have to take my hat off to the folks at Dreamworks for creating yet another animated winner. Megamind is an absolute blast to watch from start to finish, with plenty of moments that will leave any fanboy or fangirl or fan of fun animation smiling stupidly from ear to ear.

My Grade: A-

Monday, November 15, 2010

Going Extreme With 127 HOURS

127 HOURS Review:

- With 127 HOURS, director Danny Boyle continues his streak of being one of the most visually dynamic, emotionally engaging storytellers working in movies today. 127 Hours is one of the most gripping, intense movies you will see this year. It's expertly directed by Boyle, and features one of actor James Franco's career-best performances. It can be hard to watch at times, no question (the couple sitting next to me in the theater actually got up and left 3/4 through the film - I thought this was a cop out on their part, but hey, I guess they just couldn't deal). There are, of course, certain scenes (and if you know the basic story, I'm sure you can guess which ones) that are guaranteed to have you squirming in your seat. Me, I have a hard time watching any sort of realistic gore, and so I literally had to look away from the screen, or else peer through half-squinted eyes, during those key moments. But, those moments of unflinching brutality are probably necessary to the movie. Boyle is telling a story of survival, and it's a story that works best, and is ultimately most triumphant, if we as an audience are right there with our protaganist. It's the story of Aron Ralston, a guy who's serious about the outdoors, but who nonetheless can be fairly reckless in his various adventures. It's a story about what happens when Aron gets trapped in a narrow canyone enclave and finds that he can't get free, because his arm is pinned by a boulder. But, as told by Boyle and co., it's a story of the human spirit, of the will to survive, of the choices one has to make in the most extreme of circumstances. 127 Hours could easily have become tedious, but Boyle, ever the visual wizard, gives the story so much cinematic flair and thematic depth that it ends up becoming more than the sum of its parts.

The narrative of the film is fairly simple. We meet Aron as he sets out for his hike, but immediately, we see clues as to his hastiness in leaving - unreturned voicemails from his mom, a deliberately vague answer when a coworker asks where he's going for the weekend, and his failure to pack a Swiss army knife in favor of a less-effective multi-tool. From moment one though, Boyle infuses the movie with his trademark visual flair - giving those opening scenes a music video-like quality, as images dart back and forth on the screen as thumping music plays in the background. Later, we get a sense for Aron's hyperactive, friendly, slightly quirky personality, when he runs into a couple of cute girls while on his solo hike. Aron plays the part of trail guide, showing the girls (nice turns from Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara) a cool underground pool, among other things. Again, Boyle uses these scenes not just to establish Aron's outgoing personality, but also as an ominous sort of foreshadowing. Very quickly, we see that Aron is a well-meaning guy, but also pretty flippant when it comes to issues of safety and caution.

Once the film gets the story at its core - Aron trapped with his arm pinned - that's when it really becomes the James Franco show. Ever since his star-making turn on Freaks & Geeks, Franco has been one of the most interesting and versatile actors in Hollywood - one of the few able to seamlessly go from drama to comedy - or, in this case, to meld both with ease. I think Franco pulls it off because he has legit acting chops, but also because he has a unique combination of movie star charisma and regular-Joe believability. Franco plays Aron as smart and uniquely capable of dealing with his precarious circumstances, but he also gives him a funny streak, and has him cope with his predicament with some very amusing black humor. Aron has his handheld camcorder with him throughout his ordeal, and the messages that he records are alternately moving, insightful, and hilarious. It's always going to be difficult for an actor to pull something like this off and to keep an audience engaged, but Franco does it, no question.

Meanwhile, you have Danny Boyle pulling out every trick in the book to make a relatively small-scale story feel dynamic and epic. Crazy POV shots from inside Aron's water bottle, sweeping shots of the canyons where Aron had been hiking, and even sped-up flashes to his car, where we come to the heartbreaking realization that there's a full bottle of Gatorade inside that Aron neglected to take with him. Boyle also uses a number of flashes to Aron's past and present and future (sometimes through the device of Aron's fevered hallucinations) to give parts of the film a dream-like, surrealist edge. But make no mistake, key moments of the film are given to us straight-up, no tricks - and that makes those killer moments all the more brutal, intense, and painful ... and conversely, it means that the big moments of triumph are that much sweeter.

All that being said, I probably wouldn't rank this one at the very top of the Danny Boyle cannon, alongside classics like Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and Slumdog Millionaire. I think that Boyle does a fantastic job with the story he has to work with, but at the end of the day, the story remains pretty simple. The film seems aware of this, and keeps the running time fairly quick. But, you do sometimes feel like Boyle is grasping at straws to make this particular story feel as layered and complex as ones he's told in the past, when ultimately it just isn't. There's nothing wrong with a simple story told well - I just think the limitations of this particular story help keep 127 Hours from going to that next level of greatness.

As is though, this is one of the real must-see films of 2010. I think awards talk for James Franco is definitely warranted, and maybe for Danny Boyle as well. Unquestionably, he remains one of the absolute best filmmakers working today, and this is yet another movie from him that elevates the material to a level that few others could manage. Just remember: don't be afraid to avert your eyes during the really graphic parts - there's no shame in it, says I. And this is a movie, I think, that's well worth getting through all that to experience.

My Grade: A-

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Probing the Depths of SKYLINE ...!


- Ladies and gentleman, I come to you as a movie fan absolutely floored by the complete and utter terribleness that is Skyline. On just about every level, the movie is awful, insulting, and just plain embarassing. The movie's only real redeeming quality is that parts of it are just so shockingly bad, without a single shred of self-awareness of said badness, that the movie is sure to provoke unintentional laughter, howls of disbelief, and at least one or two instances where your jaw is seriously left hanging on the floor as you think to yourself "W.T.F. just happened?"

Watching Skyline is sort of like going to a friend's house and watching them play a sort-of-cool-looking videogame. Sure, you're intrigued, but you quickly get frustrated because you're only getting a fraction of the experience that you would be if you were the one actually playing. Skyline is also like Independence Day, except instead of actually *watching* Independence Day, you're watching other ancillary characters *watching* the events of Independence Day transpire through their apartment window. So right from the get-go, the premise of the movie inherently sort of sucks, because the idea is that intergalactic war is breaking out in LA, complete with giant alien battles and firefights, and yet we're stuck with a group of unlikable douchenozzles as they run around their swanky apartment building and wonder what they should be doing.

Now, there have been plenty of cool genre movies over the years that have worked around low budgets and limited scope by being creative, cool, and giving us great characters. Take the premise of Skyline and put it in the hands of a John Carpenter, and hey, you just might have something there. But Carpenter made awesome, low-budget sci-fi movies that worked because he brought a dark sense of self-aware humor, and he actually had a sense of imagination, fun, and the ability to give us iconic characters that we cared about and rooted for. Who are we supposed to root for in Skyline? Eric Balfour's zero-personality charisma vaccuum of a character who inexplicably ends up as some sort of Neo-like chosen-one savior? When you are rooting for your main character to bite it from Scene 1, hey, not a good sign. Every "character" in Skyline flat-out sucks. You hate all of them. It's crazy, really. I mean - who - WHO - thought that *these* should be our main characters? It's just beyond all reason or logic. They all come off as self-absorbed, whiny, stupid asshats. They don't act like normal people ... at all. Hours after the first signs of freaking ALIEN INVASION, one character suggests they turn on the TV news to find out what's going on, and everyone else congratulates her on this brilliant idea. Are you serious?! Really?!?!

The script in this movie is godawful. Like I said, there is no logic, no sense of realism, no sense of fun, no humor, no plot, no characterization worth a damn. It's mostly just the main characters running up the stairs of their building, then down, then up again.

But really, the acting is just as horrendous. I had no real opinion on Eric Balfour before this movie. He didn't make much of an impression on me when he appeared on 24 a few years back, but ... holy lord ... he is abysmal in Skyline. Not that he's given anything to work with, but the terrible dialogue combined with his wooden acting makes for some absolutely cringe-worthy moments. The rest of the cast is just bad. The actress who plays Balfour's girlfriend, again, I know she didn't have a lot to work with, I get it. But she turns in one of the most annoying performances I've ever seen in an action movie. I mean, really, really bad.

The worst thing is that the movie almost seems to actively punch you in the gut and then rub salt on the wound. You'd think Skyline would have some sense of its own crappiness and thus not try to draw things out too much. Oh, hells no. Skyline practically taunts you with how "epic" of a movie it is, dividing itself into three parts - Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3. When the "Day 2" graphic flashed on screen, a man in our audience just shook his head and said "wow, that was a hell of a long Day 1." And you know what? We all nodded in agreement. Epic *fail* is more like it. Seriously though, Skyline has so many moments that are so jaw-droppingly absurd, yet played straight, as though we are supposed to be watching high-drama on the grandest scale. It's amazing, the complete lack of self-awareness. I mean, a climactic kiss between our two leads - the circumstances surrounding it were so lame, so stupid - that despite the swelling music, the attempt at gravitas and melodrama - all anyone in the audience could do was laugh / groan / commit ritual suicide.

And I will just say this: this movie has one of the WORST, most mind-blowingly bad "shocker" endings I've ever seen in a film. Now hearing this, you're probably thinking it's some big twist like "it's all a dream" or something. Nope, nothing like that. It's more the fact that the movie ends up in such a random, WTF place - a place that has absolutely NOTHING to do with anything that the film's been leading up to up to that point. And then it just ENDS. If we lived in a less civil society, this is the kind of ending that literally makes you want to hurl garbage at the screen for how poorly conceived and absurd it is. I almost want people to see the movie just so they can comprehend how bad this is, but it's not worth it. Ask me or look it up online. It's just so dumb you have to laugh, because it's one of those things where you can tell *someone* thought it was this clever, cool way to end the film, but that person was probably either a trained monkey, or nine years old.

Now, I will give credit to the film's f/x team. There is some pretty cool visual stuff going on here, and some nice design on the aliens and alien ships (even if they do tend to ripoff Independence Day, a lot). But here's the thing - there are a couple of randomly sweet action scenes in the movie, but they have NOTHING TO DO with our main characters or the main action of the film. It's like "Oh hey, check it out, there's an awesome stealth bomber vs. alien spaceship battle going on - cool! Okay, now back to the super lame movie you were watching two minutes ago." It's like a really bad videogame that has a couple of nice-looking cut scenes. And hey, maybe these f/x guys will go on to make a cool videogame or something, I don't know. But my point is - the couple of cool action sequences are total anomalies. Mostly, the direction of the film is stilted, bland, ineffective, and does absolutely nothing to heighten the drama of the story.

I wanted to root for Skyline. We've seen some really great lower-budget sci-fi movies in the last couple of years that have proven that you don't need a blockbuster budget to create something awesome and cool and thought-provoking. I'm thinking of films like District 9 and Moon, films that schooled the big tentpole movies in terms of delivering bang for the buck. Skyline is the antithesis of those films - a quick, dirty, scraped-together cash-in that wants desperately to be badass and cool but is just offensively bad in every way possible. A total trainwreck, through and through.

My Grade: F

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

CONAN The Conqueror!

Finally, Conan hath returned to television!

I don't have a lot to say on the matter, per se, other than that I was and am incredibly excited for Conan freaking O'Brien to be back on TV hosting his own late night talk show once again. At this point, the hype around Conan's rise and fall and rise has become the stuff of legend. Really, there was no possible way that his first night on TBS could possibly meet expectations. Think about it - Conan's been a part of some absolutely historic TV these last few years. He wound down a seventeen year run on Late Night, saying goodbye to many a beloved character and supporting cast member along the way. He then took over as the first new host of The Tonight Show since 1993, and all eyes were on him, eager to see how late-night's mad genius would adapt to the broader audience and established traditions of a show that had long been Jay Leno's domain. And then, just as Conan was settling into a decent groove on Tonight, the now-infamous switcheroo debacle went down. Conan got screwed, but for us, Conan's fans, it made for some absolutely riveting, hilarious, and memorable TV. Those last couple of weeks with Conan hosting The Tonight Show were exciting, anything-goes, downright anarchic. Television will never again see anything quite like it.

So, after all that, it was only natural that seeing Conan back and doing just a plain-old talk show - sans any huge drama, epic stakes, or behind-the-scenes intrigue - well, it was going to feel like something of a come-down.

But that's okay. I'm excited to see Conan settle into a new groove, break out some new material, bring back some old favorites, and do what he does best. I fully expect that Conan, ever the perfectionist, will keep on tweaking and refining until things are just right.

My short-list? Would love to see the new set have a little more depth and detail, and for the camera angles to be structured a bit better. The painted look of the backdrop is also a little too hazy - you want a really bold, solid background for a show like this. Overall, the color scheme is good though - I like the darker colors as compared to the too-bright blues of Conan's Tonight Show set. Also, I hope to see a return to more comedy bits like in the Late Night days. I used to look forward to a quick sketch in between guests, for example. And, I hope there's more of that wacky, stagey type of stuff that makes it feel like Conan is presiding over a weird crazy farm where anything can happen and anyone can show up. The absurdist humor that brought us bits like the Walker, Texas Ranger lever would be more than welcome on the new show. One more nitpick: ditch the "Basic Cable Band" name. Basic cable? Sounds like a term from 1992. Come up with something a little catchier, please (Jummy Vivino and the Funky Pickle Band?)!

But really, there's not much need for Conan to poke fun at his new home on cable, even in his usual self-deprecating manner. After all, we found out today that, even on lowly "basic cable," Conan's new show soundly kicked the asses of Leno and Letterman on its premiere night in terms of ratings! This is a world where late night TV is no longer the sole domain of the broadcast nets, where most people are just as likely to be watching CNN, Comedy Central, ESPN, or yes, TBS in the post-primetime hours.
I do think it's going to take some time for Conan to sort of psych himself up again for the show. From Day 1 with The Tonight Show, there was that feeling in the air that this was a Conan who had won the keys to the kingdom. Sure, Conan had to feel his way through the new limitations of hosting The Tonight Show, but even when the comedy was still a work in progress, Conan himself seemed excited and up for the challenge. Now though, Conan's been in the role of martyr for several months - and he used that to get himself out of a funk, go on a huge live tour, rally his fans, etc. But, I think it's just going to take a little while for Conan to shake that off and go about business as usual.

Otherwise, I'm confident that Conan will continue to bring the funny with his new show. Remember - he was innovative and hilarious for years and years on Late Night without ever engaging in any sort of controversy or scandal. Conan just refined and tweaked night in and night out, and kept pushing the comedy until he hit upon just the right mix of madcap craziness. There's no reason to think he won't do the same here. And for that reason, I say: welcome back Conan!

The Rise of THE WALKING DEAD ...!


There have been some real gems this TV season, and, in terms of drama, there have been some freshman series that have really blown me away with their level of quality and craftsmanship. BOARDWALK EMPIRE on HBO has really developed into a complex, fascinating period drama - filled to the brim with great acting, impeccable period detail, and compelling plotlines. Meanwhile, TERRIERS on FX has quickly become one of the best shows on TV, period, and maybe my favorite show of the moment. Each week, Terriers combines humor, heart, and absolutely awesome writing and acting to make for a kickass hour of neo-noir TV. If you're not watching it, you have to start. Meanwhile, TV's best sci-fi show, FRINGE, continues to be on a tear. It's ambitious, multiverse-spanning storyline this season has upped the ante, and its stellar cast continues to impress (John Noble!).

So to me, it makes it that much more impressive that one more badass drama was able to come to the party late and absolutely tear the roof off the joint. No, it wasn't really a surprise - I did, afterall, list THE WALKING DEAD as my most anticipated new TV show of the Fall. But, I was still pretty floored by just how awesome the pilot episode of the show turned out to be. And I say that already having been a huge fan of the comics, and having already read the pilot script several months ago.

The thing is, even though there'd been a lot of hype and anticipation for The Walking Dead, it didn't fully hit me until I watched the pilot on TV: this was a zombie apocalypse TV show of the highest quality. An A-list cast and creative team, on a creatively daring cable net, were actually delivering a serialized adaptation of the best comic book series of the last five years. Are you kidding me? This is the stuff of fanboy dreams. Until now, this kind of stuff simply did. not. happen. I still can barely believe that this show exists, that it's so well made, and that it turned out to be a huge ratings success for AMC. The times, they are a-changin'.

Focusing in on the pilot, I thought it was an absolutely terrific piece of television, feeling almost like a complete film in terms of its narrative scope and ambition. The mood, the atmosphere, the sense of dread - it was all established perfectly by Frank Darabont and team. Rarely have we seen the zombie apocalypse so fully and realistically realized - on film or TV. The only real comparison is the source material - the superlative comics on which the show is based - and very quickly, the series proved that it would be a faithful adaptation, especially in spirit.

A huge part of that is Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes, the hero of the series. Without a great Rick, there's no way the show would work well. Luckily, Lincoln pulls off the role of leader and voice of reason to a T. He's a cop, meant to keep his cool and his wits in crazy situations, now thrown into the craziest situation imaginable. Lincoln nails the whole dynamic from the get-go.

All in all, the pilot of THE WALKING DEAD was just plain awesome, and very quickly leaped to the top of the list of "Best TV Pilots of 2010." This is how you kick off a show. And, this is how you kick off a new era of bold, take-no-prisoners genre TV. Congrats to all involved - this was epic win through and through.

Pilot grade: A

- Now, the second episode of the show wasn't quite as crisp as the amazing pilot, but it was still damn good. There was a lot to like here. First and foremost was the introduction of Glenn, easily one of the most beloved characters from the comics. Glenn was every bit as cool and fun and likable on the show as he is in the books, and Steven Yeun did a great job of making that happen. I also thought that the episode had some positively kickass setpiece action sequences, with the closing car chase really kicking things up a notch and being a better-than-movie-quality barnburner.

I guess, like many, my main issues with the episode were in the somewhat forced character dynamics. Not-in-the-comics character Merle just struck me as too contrived. It just felt like the whole rascist angle of his character was too forced and cartoonish. Worse, the conflict between Merle and another new character, T-Dog, made for some pretty hamfisted dialogue and cringe-worthy character moments. The whole T-Dog character was pretty bad as well, again just sort of one-note and cartoonish. I'm not sure if T-Dog was meant as an update to Tyrese from the comics, but man, I hope not. Tyrese was one of the books' best characters, so I hope he gets to appear on the show and take part in some of the great moments from Robert Kirkman's original stories.

Still, despite some clunky scenes, the overall awesome-factor of the show was still pretty damn high in episode two. The introduction of Glenn was great, and the action was phenomenally done. And Andrew Lincoln continued to anchor things. I'll be very curious to see some of the other characters get the spotlight now - we got glimpses in this episode of characters like Dale, Andrea, and Rick's wife Lori, but should be interesting to see the melting pot that comprises the camp of survivors start to come together.

Second Episode Grade: B+

In any case, all hail the triumphant debut of THE WALKING DEAD. It's awesome to see the television medium stretching to accomodate new genres and forms of storytelling, and the show is proof that serialized, high-quality TV adaptations are the perfect way to translate comics and graphic novels to the screen. Y: The Last Man, Preacher, and Fables say hello. I say, bring 'em on.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Here there be MONSTERS!


- Monsters was an indie sci-fi thriller that caught my attention earlier this year, thanks to some decent buzz that emanated from various festivals where the low budget film had been playing. Fan sites were enthusiastically posting positive reviews, and the comparisons to movies like District 9 were frequent, and definitely intriguing. So, since I've been holed up at home these last several days, I thought I'd take advantage of the fact that MONSTERS was available as a digital download in addition to its limited-release theatrical run. I fired up my Apple TV and sat down to watch the film, very curious to see if it lived up to the hype.

The fact is, MONSTERS was nowhere close to what I expected, with very little to really set it apart from the pack. The movie is similar to District 9 only in that it mixes a high-concept sci-fi / horror premise with a more grounded, "you-are-there" storytelling approach. But where District 9 was smart, action-packed, and innovative, Monsters feels slow, pretentious, and derivative. It was just a slog to get through at times, and the plot, characters, and premise never really succeed at capturing your full attention. Definitely disappointing.

The premise of Monsters is simple - earth has been invaded by hulking, Lovecraftian aliens - you know, of the giant, tentacled, Cloverfield-esque variety. Somehow though (and this is never really explained), the goverments of the world have managed to quarantine the alien monsters into a number of "infected" zones, inside of which there's all sorts of (presumably awesome) monster vs. military carnage goin' on. A lot of the ins and outs of this post-apocalyptic world are never really fleshed out. In fact, the movie never seems to interested in its own mythology. Instead, it focuses in on our two main characters - Andrew and Samantha - who get stranded outside one of the infected zones in Mexico and are desperately trying to make it back to the US, through the zone.

Immediately, Andrew and Samantha come off as ultra-annoying. Samantha is the daughter of some big media tycoon, and Andrew is a photographer who works for one of her father's publications. For some reason, Andrew's been dispatched to escort Sam back to the safety of the US. Originally, that was supposed to encompass a simple train ride, but that plan, of course, goes to hell. However, the dynamic between the two leads is just too grating. For whatever reason, MONSTERS seems intent on being the second coming of Before Sunrise, spending scene upon scene with Andrew and Samantha ruminating on their childhoods, on love, loss, family, etc. They have an endless, excruciating flirtation going on (Sam has a boyfriend, but we get a line or two about how he's unavailable to her, so we can root for she and Andrew to hook up). What's worse, both of the leads are wooden and just plain unlikable. Both characters come off as self-possessed douchebags, so you basically just end up hoping that the $%&# hits the fan and the monsters come out to cause some monster mayhem.

And yet, the monsters barely play a role in the movie. Sure, they appear a few times, and they look decent despite the low-budget CGI f/x. But they are basically beside the point of the movie. The film is never driven forward by the idea of "in a world overrun by monsters, how do people react?" Nope, instead it's neverending twentysomething angst in Mexico, and, oh yeah, some tentacle creatures thrown in for good measure.

I was in a very open-minded mood when I fired up Monsters. I was feeling sick and just looking for any sort of post-Halloween entertainment. And sure, I admire the movie for creating some sense of scope and epicness despite its obvious constraints. The creatures, when we do see them, are pretty cool. And yet, I found myself just waiting for Monsters to be over and done with - at some point I was so detached from the characters - and so uninvolved in the plot - that I was ready to simply tune out. District 9 this was not.

My Grade: C-