Saturday, October 15, 2005

Hell Is Other People

My theory is that the one thing people hate the most is to be reminded of the existence of other people. And today is just one long, hard reminder.

In case I haven't mentioned it in the past, I live directly across the street from the stadium here at Northern Illinois University, and of course today has to be Homecoming. Which means the Homecoming game is going on right now. Sporting events kind of mystify me, to be honest, and today is the biggest local sporting event of them all. Nine assholes have been standing under my bedroom window with a beer keg since 7:00 this morning. Idiots are out grilling in the parking lot (and a note for all of you college assholes who love to grill, YOU DON'T NEED THE FLAMES UP THAT HIGH. Tailgaters are morons; they just scream, drink, and say loud things that aren't remotely as funny, clever, or interesting as they think. Give me a fucking break here. If you're not playing the game, you're not a part of the game, alright? Players are going to win with or without your oh-so-important support.

And American football? I don't know, it just seems so...queer to me. I mean, a bunch of guys put on tight pants, bend over, and then run around, trying to jump on another guy and wrestle away control of his ball? Jeez, in a perfect world, it would be played without pants, wouldn't it? It's as homoerotic as all of the other things the Maxim American man enjoys; you know, like wrestling, shitty American beer (which tastes like fermented water), and body spray. Much like the urge to war, it's really all about climbing over sweaty guys.

I don't know. I just think that if you wanted to grind up against some dude's ass, you don't need to make excuses for it like football. It is the 21st century, after all.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Film Week

Reviews of the films I've seen over the past week.

It’s called the greatest guy movie of all time, and it turns out that’s true. Man, how is it that Billy Dee Williams was such a great actor throughout the seventies, then he did one fucking space movie and after that no one cared? There’s not much I can add to the praise that’s been laid on this movie over the years, so I’ll just say a deserved **** stars.

Yeah, it was okay. I think the funniest part of the whole Chucky enterprise is that they advertised last year’s Seed of Chucky as though Chucky were a horror icon. They actually said in the marketing push that Chucky had been around for twenty years! Are we allowed to round up on things like that? Anyway, I’ve never seen the first three Child’s Play movies, but I thought Bride of Chucky and Seed of Chucky were hilarious. This movie? Well, there’s no Jennifer Tilly, which makes it a lot less fun. It’s inventive, but it plays just as obvious and overblown as most horror movies from the eighties do. *** stars.

I didn’t quite realize how excited I was about this movie until the theme music started and I got really anxious. I love Wallace & Gromit, and it’s been ten years since A Close Shave, and it’s wonderful to see them in another adventure. This is a rare perfect animated movie, alternately nice and cozy while being hilarious and exciting. Also rare in today’s animation, the humor comes out of the characters rather than the situations, and I defy you to not find the pair endearing. The plot involves a vegetable competition, lycanthropy, and a bunch of rabbits (the little claymation rabbits are incredibly cute, especially Hutch, who becomes more and more like Wallace as he calls for "cheeeeeeese!"), and the background jokes are terribly funny. And, as always, there’s a great chase scene. It’s miles away from DreamWorks’s reliance on crappy, over-familiar animated in-jokes, dated reference humor, and one-note celebrity caricaturing. This is a story, one worthy of **** stars. This is also playing with a short CGI cartoon, The Madagascar Penguins in A Christmas Caper, which is pretty cute. The penguins are funny and the action is fast; I have yet to see Madagascar, but this was pretty good (and was directed by former Disney man Gary Trousdale, who co-directed Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire).

I kind of resent that this movie was sold on Tim Burton’s name, because he didn’t write it and, I’m convinced, didn’t direct it (Mike Johnson directed it, Burton is only listed as co-director for vanity’s sake). He would have been directing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the same time. Anyway, this film continues the 21st century decline of Tim Burton. It’s not that it isn’t good, because it is, but Burton seems to have the kind of quirkiness that everyone suddenly loves down to just a few signature flourishes, and the rest is never quite thought out. His productions are too slick and, well, product-like these days. Some of the character design here is particularly insipid, but Emily, the Corpse Bride, is quite beautiful, and some of the dead characters are neat. The voice cast is alternately great (Johnny Depp, Christopher Lee, Richard E. Grant, Albert Finney, Joanna Lumley), middling (Emily Watson, Tracey Ullman), or it’ll-do-if-there’s-no-one-else-available-but-are-you-sure-we-called-everyone? (Helena Bonham Carter). The songs are total filler, too, with Danny Elfman working at the bottom of his game. Maybe he burned out on Charlie and just wasn’t up to it. Elfman’s score, however, is minimalist and beautiful, some of his best composing. Overall, I’m going to give it ***1/2 stars because it looked great and the design and cinematography were exceptional, but the film did leave me feeling a little hollow.

Someone needs to be shot. I didn’t even know that Mainframe Entertainment (creators of ReBoot were doing a sequel to their wonderful straight-to-DVD 2003 Scary Godmother: Holiday Spooktakular until I stumbled across it actually playing on Cartoon Network on Friday! Way to go on advertising the goddamn thing! Anyway, it was playing a few times on Friday night, so I caught it later that night, and it was better than the first one was. It’s still a little too cute (even moreso than Jill Thompson’s original comic), but the humor is fast, the animation is fun, and the characters are neat. Good voicework, and enough Halloween fun packed into an hour to make it worthwhile for people who love the holiday. Kind of a modern Great Pumpkin. A cute *** stars.

Another collaboration between Allan Dwan and Douglas Fairbanks, and frankly, I’m not any more fond of this one than I was of The Iron Mask last week. Oh, it’s better than The Iron Mask, sure, but it’s just so...ordinary. Fairbanks is good, Alan Hale is a treat, and I loved seeing Wallace Beery as King Richard, but it was impossible to get into and when the Earl of Huntingdon finally became Robin Hood, I really could’ve done without the skipping and flitting about. Frankly, even for a silent actor, Fairbanks can be too hammy for me. Therefore, **1/2 stars suffice.

Now this is epic filmmaking! Douglas Fairbanks produced and stars in this tale of the Arabian Nights, as the thief Ahmed who must find the rarest treasure in the world in order to win a princess. This movie has everything an adventure film should: giant monsters, flying horses, impossible sets, flying carpets, megalithic monuments, exotic sets, magic, swashbuckling swordfights, romance, sexy girls (especially Anna May Wong, one of the ripest peaches I’ve ever seen), prophecies, armies popping out of thin air, invisible cloaks! One of the greatest adventure films ever made, a genuine **** stars. Interesting trivia note: the wonderful sets and the artistic design, honestly among some of the best I’ve ever seen in a film, are by William Cameron Menzies, who would later be a director on the 1940 remake, The Thief of Baghdad, which starred Sabu and added a giant jinn into the mix. Both are essential viewing.

The umpteenth version of Vanity Fair, but I believe the first one directed by an Indian. Mira Nair is a spotty director at best (Kama Sutra and Monsoon Wedding are excellent, Mississippi Massala decidedly less so), but she brings enough flair and emotion to this film to make it interesting viewing. I’m no fan of Reese Witherspoon, but this is one of three times that she gives the performance everything she has (the other two, in my estimation, are Election and Legally Blonde) and, for a change, doesn’t come off as so incredibly smug (as she does in real life). Her Becky Sharp is hard to read, however, because the movie never seems certain whether Becky is a calculating social climber, or if she is genuinely a victim who just gets caught up in some lucky breaks. Is her relationship with her husband (played by Rome’s James Purefoy) played for calculation, or is it genuine? Is she manipulating everyone around her? Sometimes it seems that way, but the movie never makes up its mind, and the story kind of depends on it. That said, though, the film is pretty enjoyable and well-designed, with an excellent cast (including Eileen Atkins, Jim Broadbent, Rhys Ifans, Gabriel Byrne, Bob Hoskins, an oily Jonathan Rhys-Myers, and a woman I’ve never heard of named Romola Garai who played Becky’s tragic best friend Amelia and is very talented and beautiful). And on a side note, Jesus, did Reese look sexy. She was pregnant when she made the film, and for once she was round and curvy rather than angular and jagged, which only helps the character. A real game try that nearly succeeds, *** stars.

Mother of God! And women fall for this shit every single time, too. Predictable, tired, threadbare garbage that subscribes to typical chick movie tenets–that romance only exists when it must overcome impossible odds, that fathers are distant and irresponsible, that girls who recognize their weight problems are "sassy," that people still name their daughters the types of names one gives cats in the 1950s (Tibby, in this case), that four wildly different girls will be friends their whole lives, and that 12-year-old girls on the edge of death will be able to make deep statements of what passes for wisdom these days. The girls themselves barely register as characters; Amber Tamblyn seems talented (I’ve never seen her in anything), but is playing such a caricature of a goth/punk/rebel girl that she’s got nothing real to work with. Blake Lively, whom I’ve never seen before, is extremely cute and not irritating. I’m frankly immune to the so-called charms of Alexis Bledel, and I can’t believe she and her simpering half-mumbled delivery and phony winsomeness get film roles and that obviously talented Lauren Graham does not. I adore America Ferrera, but this movie doesn’t do anything for her. It’s especially disappointing that this sappy pap would come from Ken Kwapis, who has been directing episodes of Malcolm in the Middle and The Office. What a load of shit. I don’t know, * star for the girls (except for Alexis) and some great Greek scenery.

Luc Besson continues to explore odd familial relationships through over-the-top action movies. Actually, I quite enjoyed this movie, with Jet Li playing a man who is kept like a dog from childhood and used by a low-level mob collector (the wonderfully overacting Bob Hoskins) as a weapon–you take off his collar, and he’ll kill everyone in the room. After Hoskins is seemingly killed in a mob hit, Jet Li is taken in by blind piano player Morgan Freeman (doing yet another variation on his wise, magical black man, something you’d get tired of him doing if he weren’t so damn warm all the time) and his stepdaughter, Kerry Condon (from HBO’s Rome). Inevitably, Jet Li will have to defend them when Bob Hoskins comes to get him back. It’s predictable, sure, but very well-shot with some exciting fight scenes (though why Luc Besson thinks bald white guys are the biggest badasses on the planet is beyond me), but the characters really rose this one above the usual action stuff. You spend the whole first act depressed as hell, because Jet Li plays it like a kept, unhappy pet, as if he knows what your caged animals are thinking. There’s a genuine emotional connection here that was missing from other Besson productions like The Transporter (not a bad movie, though), and I’m going to go out on a limb and say this pretty poem written on a crumpled-up cocktail napkin is one of those ***1/2 star pulp films that you can really connect with.

Boring crap that’s easy to dismiss. Can Hollywood please stop making these kinds of movies if they’re not going to do them well? Go back and watch Lawrence of Arabia and Spartacus, see how epics are supposed to be done, and then make your overlong, pretentious piece of crap. That’s the problem with these sword-and-sandal epics nowadays: the first half-hour or so is nothing but rushed set-up that doesn’t get you involved at all, then it slogs on for two hours, and then the last 30 to 40 minutes are rushed garbage that you don’t care about. And, once again, there’s no one to care about, no one who registers as a character. Orlando Bloom is a terrible enough actor on his own, and here he’s got nothing to do but simply scowl and stare at things as though they are imbued with deep meaning. He’s a blank hole on the screen; his roles could be played by literally anyone, because there’s nothing special about him, no personality at all. Actors don’t have personality anymore (for example, Marton Csokas, who plays every role with an archness that Stewart Granger would have laughed at as overblown, and who really needs to stop being in every fucking costume movie now). The potentially excellent cast of Liam Neeson, David Thewlis, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Edward Norton, and Iain Glen is wasted on a movie where, essentially, nothing much really happens and, if it does, nothing much seems to matter. And I love desert adventure movies, but this wasn’t even as good as the much-maligned Heath Ledger remake of The Four Feathers (which at the very least features an excellent Djimon Hounsou performance, which is more than I can say here). And poor, pretty, talented Eva Green (so wonderful in The Dreamers) becomes yet another European actress imported for a shitty movie where she merely stands around and looks sexy. A lot of this misfire hinges on the miscasting of Orlando Bloom; he looks and acts like a 12 year-old girl. Could they please cast someone with a personality, someone with an emotional range, someone who at least looks like they have to shave every day? Kevin McKidd, now playing Lucius Vorenus on HBO’s Rome, appears in the film as "English Sergeant," but he grabs your attention and would have made a much more interesting star, just as an example. But the rest of the blame is squarely on the joke of a screenplay and the awful direction of Ridley Scott, whose motto seems to be: "Hey, if you have nothing to say, you might as well say it really loud!" This fucking hack of a director has gotten lucky with a couple of half-decent scripts, but the guy should be making fucking deodorant commercials by now. A shit, shit, shit, shit, shit movie. No stars. Even Alexander was more watchable, but that’s not really saying very much, is it?

I love Will Ferrell, and while this might not be one of his best, it’s still pretty damn funny. The problem with the movie is the overall tone. They went for a PG rating, assuming that, since there are kids in the movie, kids would want to see it (I don’t know what the logic is there), so they’ve taken all of the guts out of the humor. What child would care about Will Ferrell’s existential crisis and father-issues is beyond me, anyway. But I enjoyed it, and as a Chicagoan, it’s always good to see Iron Mike Ditka. *** stars, but it could have been much, much funnier.

An HBO documentary featuring readings from the slave narratives found in the Library of Congress. Essentially a good idea, but it’s not done very well and it indulges in a lot of the same cliches about slavery (I would question the narrative assertion that "everyone but the slaves" got rich from poverty, but the idea that there’s never been any poor white people in the history of the United States is always taken for granted in these things). And the actors (including Samuel L. Jackson, Vanessa L. Williams, Courtney B. Vance, Robert Guillame and the great Roscoe Lee Browne) read the narratives in a kind of caricatured "Black English" that seems a little over-the-top in some cases (sometimes directly to the camera as themselves), as though we were supposed to consider this as something akin to documentary testimonials. It’s a great idea, and the slave narratives are an important and illuminating part of US history, but this documentary just came across as a little too sanctimonious for its own good. **/12 stars. I should know to be wary of anything Oprah’s involved in.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Animation's Loss

Sadly, the storage building for Aardman Animation Studios burned down this weekend, destroying much (if not nearly all) of the props, sets, storyboards, and archival material from their 30 year history. The proprieters are being very calm and realistic about it, but it's still quite a loss for animation history. Thankfully, no one was hurt. Posted by Picasa

Monday, October 10, 2005

TV Bloodbath: Checking Up on the New Season

Head Cases is the first casualty of the 2005/2006 TV season. Hm, who would have thought that no one would want to watch a TV comedy with Chris O'Donnell and Adam Goldberg as crazy lawyers? Or, in fact, yet another goddamn show about lawyers? Or, really, anything with Chris O'Donnell and Adam Goldberg?

It's always fun to watch the TV seasons when they first start, because it's interesting to see what America just won't watch. Hollywood keeps making the same series over and over again (another medical drama, another legal drama, another "quirky" medical drama, another fourth-rate comic you've never heard of getting his own sitcom, another rip-off of last season's hit--yes, I'm talking about you, Invasion), and yet they wonder why no one will watch the damn things. It's hilarious; apparently no one who went to business school studied the Law of Diminishing Returns, so they expect these things to go on and on forever.

And the strategies get worse and worse. This season, the WB! decided that the best way to nab viewers was to become one giant catch-all, pairing unlike show with unlike show in a way that seems to be completely alienating its audience (why pair the 43rd season of family drama Seventh Heaven with a legal comedy starring Don Johnson that looks like it's aimed at single guys?). And Fox...oh, Jesus, Fox needs to figure its shit out pretty badly. They want to air Major League Baseball and the NFL, but they also want to program content. The problem with this is that right now the playoffs are going on, and the World Series will be coming up, so many of the shows on Fox are being taken off the air for the next six weeks (longtime viewers of The Simpsons, ye know it well--this season's Halloween episode will air on November 6). Well, this causes a problem. Typically, Fox waited until November to begin airing its regular TV season, but those shows always did badly because TV viewing is mostly habitual, and by November people who watch TV have their routines set. They don't care about new shows on Fox, unless of course American Idol is on. But what they've done this season isn't any smarter; they started their shows in September when everyone else started, and now many of those shows will be pre-empted for the next month, so any momentum built by the new series is lost and people who aren't sports fans will just start looking somewhere else. Fox, you have to make up your mind about what's more important to you: programming or sports?

I've actually been watching more television than in years past. It's weird, because I can feel it cutting into my time. On Mondays, Arrested Development has come back to Fox and is as funny as ever. There's so little in the sitcom format that I find hilarious, and this tweaks the format very well (though I notice its been pre-empted tonight; it's bad enough it's on Mondays, but I expect this show to get pre-empted a lot so Fox, who seems to loathe the show, can cancel it).

On Tuesday, I was just watching The Office on NBC, which is a fucking hilarious show; frankly, I'm surprised it's even airing in America, since it seems too smart and nuanced for the average viewer. Most people seem to like a show that they can tune out while getting another bowl of cereal from the kitchen. This past Saturday, however, NBC aired the first three episodes of My Name Is Earl, and it turns out my mom was right: it's a very funny show. It's warm, too. It's the first time I've seen anybody "borrow" the Coen Brothers and do it well. I'm not going to tell my mom I liked it, though; I still want to be able to brush her off when she recommends shows with my standard line: "You said Scrubs was funny, too, and it's one of the worst things I've ever seen." So now I have a full hour of NBC on Tuesdays.

My mom also got me into Lost over the summer, and I watched the entire thing on DVD. I've been watching it on ABC Wednesday nights, but as gripping as the show is, it's kind of a depressing compromise, too. On DVD, the show was in a nice widescreen with no commercials, and watching four or six episodes in a row creates a momentum that's hard to look away from. On television, there's a commercial break every seven minutes or so, there's no widescreen (despite the show being aired in HD format), and there's fucking logos all over the screen. And there'll be the inevitable weeks of reruns, too. Networks suck so much ass.

On Thursdays, I was watching Everybody Hates Chris, but it hasn't been interesting or funny enough to keep me coming back to it, which is kind of typical of UPN. It's too muted, and even though the actor playing Chris's father is hilarious, the show feels like just another one of those Wonder Years/Oliver Beene/State of Grace rip-offs. It's too bad, because the title of the show implies it's going to take the piss out of those "coming of age with pretentious narration" sitcoms, (like Malcolm in the Middle, a superior show) but instead it just borrows the same conventions.

Friday has been a constant for me for a couple of years now. What I Like About You is back and as infuriatingly lame as ever, but I goddamn love Amanda Bynes, so I can't stop watching it. At 7:30, I leave the WB! and its Twins abomination for Fox's Malcolm in the Middle, a once-loved show that lost most of its viewers when Fox moved it from after The Simpsons to before The Simpsons. I think it's hilarious. Then it's back to the WB! for Reba (I have a deep, abiding love for Joanna Garcia's ass) and Living with Fran (I've lusted for Fran since I was 13). Neither show is exceptionally good (Reba has its moments, mostly courtesy of Steve Howey, who is a master of comic timing), but they do have some pretty girls, and that's good enough for me. Yeah, I'm shallow, big surprise.

Saturdays I still watch Saturday Night Live, depending on whether the guest is someone funny (Steve Carrel) or someone not funny (Jon Heder). Sundays, when they're on, I still like King of the Hill and The Simpsons on Fox. The Simpsons has been a lot funnier since the cancellation of Futurama, but it will never be a great show again. Not since about the ninth or tenth season. And speaking of funny, Family Guy has never been less funny than it is this season. Granted, the show always had problems, but now they're just sucking up to their fans. In a surprise turn of events, the deathly unfunny American Dad has become incredibly hilarious. The current season is, well, the total opposite of Family Guy. Maybe it's the intelligent political humor.

But, of course, the really good stuff on Sundays is on HBO. Rome has been one hell of a great series, and Curb Your Enthusiasm is back, and the new show Extras, with the great Ricky Gervais, has been excellent.

So, there's still some decent stuff on, and some of it is actually worth watching. There's also a new season of South Park coming up, and Disney Channel's Phil of the Future has become a nicely absurdist comedy (God love Amy Bruckner). I hear Gilmore Girls is still good, too, but I stopped watching that show a couple of years ago because my girlfriend just despises it. Robot Chicken, though there haven't been any new episodes, is pretty damn funny, too (it airs on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, which, if Stroker & Hoop and Squidbillies are any indication, will literally air anything).

But the new shows this season are, apparently, doing quite horribly. My Name Is Earl, Supernatural, Everybody Hates Chris, Prison Break, and Greetings from Tucson (whatever the hell that is) are the only ones with full-season orders so far, but apparently Commander in Chief, Ghost Whisperer, Bones, and, in an uholy revelation, How I Met Your Mother are apparently doing quite well. But on the other side, Just Legal, Kitchen Confidential, Inconceivable, and Sex, Love & Secrets have already joined Head Cases in the dustbin (and word is that Killer Instinct, Surface, and Invasion don't have much longer to live). The Apprentice: Martha Stewart has bombed, and that sappy pap Three Wishes, one of the shows that Entertainment Weekly labeled the most promising of the fall season (along with Kitchen Confidential, whose star made their Summer Must List), is probably going to get the axe, too.

Hm, I guess the hicks won't watch just anything.