Sunday, May 30, 2010

Revisting "Spartacus"

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus," and I took in a recent viewing, the first time I'd seen the film in about twenty years. Despite the familiarity of many of the images, it felt like I was seeing it for the first time. I had blocked most of the non-action sequences, and confused quite a lot of the particulars with the 1959 "Ben-Hur," so many of the plot's developments were unexpected. And now I could also recognize and appreciate the appearance of Lawrence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, and Tony Curtis.

"Spartacus" is the story of a slave rebellion during the age of the Roman empire. The title character, played by Kirk Douglas, is a gladiator-in-training who sparks the initial uprising and successfully leads a growing army of his fellow slaves against the Roman armies. One of the most famous "swords and sandals" epics of the time period, with an all-star cast, a three hour running length, and a prestigious director running the works, I was surprised at how often dark and unconventional it was. I expect that most of this was due to the involvement of Stanley Kubrick, who was coming off of the success of "Paths of Glory." The heroes lose bitterly to the Romans, yet gain memorable moral and spiritual victories that transcend their unhappy fates.

Otherwise, it doesn't feel much like a Kubrick picture. The strong visuals of the battle and action sequences don't match up to the style of the smaller, more intimate scenes. "Spartacus" has the same sort of washed-out colorization and bland lighting scheme that was typical of most American films of the early 60s, which tend to keep me from fully enjoying titles like "Rio Bravo" and "Vertigo." The scripting, by Dalton Trumbo is excellent, but there's a distinct lack of any sort of sharper edge to the material, that Kubrick brought to "Paths of Glory" and "The Killing." Unconventional as the story may be, it's told in a fairly straightforward, simple style and the audience is not left to grapple with any moral conundrums or difficult themes.

In the end, the film is really the same kind of feel-good historical fiction we got from most of the Biblical epics of the day, where good maintains and evil's triumph is only temporary. "Spartacus" has better performances and better battle scenes than most, but I'm struggling to think of anything else that really distinguishes it. The scope of the film, despite the length and the setting, actually felt smaller than I was expecting. The cast of major characters was relatively limited and there were no ostentatiously large sets or particularly panoramic vistas to marvel over. This helped to keep distractions from the story to a minimum, but it also lessened a bit of the impact. I think "Spartacus" was a good film, but not a good Kubrick film.

Out of everything, I enjoyed the cast the most. There isn't a bad performance from any of the principle actors. Douglas does an exceptional job as Spartacus, providing all the requisite charisma, physical presence, and emotional heft of the icon freedom fighter. Jean Simmons as Varinia, Spartacus's strong-willed beloved, is one of the best female performances I've ever seen from one of these costume epics, right up there with Anne Baxter's poisonous Nefertiri from "Ten Commandments." The love story is surprisingly strong and emotional. When the two end up literally rolling around in a field, I realized what George Lucas had been trying to do in "Attack of the Clones."

The villains were fun, with Laurence Olivier wisely refraining from chewing too much scenery as the Roman senator Crassus, Spartacus's major antagonist. Crassus is Olivier at his most coolly odious and arrogant, and acts as a great counterbalance to Kirk Douglas. Charles Laughton as the unscrupulous, lovable Gracchus had some great scenes, as does Peter Ustinov as the machinating Batiatus, the slave dealer who initially singles out Spartacus for gladiator training. Tony Curtis as Spartacus's supporter Antoninus did a decent job with his role, but I kept being distracted by his very obvious American accent, which stood out from the largely British cast.

As much as I liked "Spartacus," it doesn't live up to its potential, and I don't think it matches either "Ben Hur" or "The Ten Commandments," films which are usually mentioned in the same breath. However, I couldn't help thinking that it's prime material for a modern director to revisit. Spartacus is a fascinating historical figure, and the film version took certain liberties to make his story more palatable to audiences of the 1960s that would no longer be necessary today. Maybe I've seen too many of the grittier, more realistic historical action films that Hollywood has turned out lately, but the anachronisms of "Spartacus" seriously detracted from my viewing experience and I can't help but wonder how the story would fare in other hands.

There's been a recent Starz miniseries, "Spartacus: Blood and Sand, that purports to be more historically accurate. I think I'll give it a look.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

And Finally, "The Road"

I was right to be apprehensive about watching "The Road," John Hillcoat's adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cormac McCarthy novel. Watching it was not a pleasant experience, and I'm glad I was in the right setting before I sat down with it. But that said, it was certainly an experience worth having, and the film turned out to be one of the strongest science-fiction pictures in a very good year for the genre.

"The Road" follows a father and his young son, both unnamed, some years after an unexplained cataclysm struck the world. The sun was blotted out, leaving a cold, gray landscape dotted with dead trees, and a dwindling population of human survivors struggling against starvation and despair. The father (a grizzled Viggo Mortensen) is determined to protect his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from a constant barrage of horrors as they journey toward the distant sea. Their greatest threat comes from other desperate survivors searching for food, who are willing to rob and kill for it. The specter of cannibalism is a constant fear.

Violence and death permeate the story, even during the quieter moments. In one early scene, the father instructs the son on how to use their pistol to commit suicide, with a calm directness we might expect if he were explaining how to use a flashlight. Despite the grisly subject matter, there's relatively little graphic content. Rather, much of the film's effectiveness comes from maintaining a mood of unrelenting bleakness. The father's struggle to care for his son spurs him to bravery, but also to acts of cruelty. There appears to be very little humanity left in most of the other human beings we meet.

The only one who seems relatively unaffected by the oppressive atmosphere is the boy, who is appropriately frightened when danger looms, but doesn't share the same hunted, haunted air as his father. He acts as a moral compass, who asks for his father's assurances that they're "the good guys," and is more willing to risk contact with other survivors. The father-son relationship, and the tension between the adult's knowing distrust and the child's innocent hopefulness are at the heart of the film. Though there are plenty of chase and action sequences, the better scenes are pauses between, when we get to watch them simply interact.

Mortensen and Smit-McPhee both deliver fine performances, especially Mortensen in world-weary survivalist mode. There's a little expository voice-over at the beginning of the film to set the scene, but otherwise the dialogue is sparse and we learn about the characters mostly through their physical acts and behavior. Covered in heavy clothing or bundled in blankets, with Mortensen in a full beard, there's a refreshing lack of posturing and artifice here. Small, intimate scenes of sharing food or rest are often the most illuminating. It's only very late in the story, after the relationship becomes strained, that the extent of their dependence is explicitly revealed.

Flashback sequences give the audience glimpses of life before the cataclysm, when the man's wife, the boy's mother was still with them. Charlize Theron nicely fills the role, though she isn't given much to do. Robert Duvall, Michael K. Williams, and Guy Pearce make more of an impression as other survivors who our leads meet along their way, though they have even more abbreviated scenes. The other characters are mostly aggressors and the occasional victim, all dehumanized to some extent. Hillcoat does a great job of making them menacing and monstrous without ever getting too specific.

For a post-apocalyptic film of such desolation, the visuals are stunning. "The Road" takes place in a perpetually overcast world of harsh, broken vistas filled with driftwood and debris. The magnificent cinematography might as well be in black-and-white, as the predominant palette is all in shades of gray, emphasizing coldness, silence, and stillness. When the boy spots a faint rainbow in the spray of a waterfall, he's transfixed. It's only in the father's gauzy flashbacks that we see a full spectrum of colors, made all the more hallucinatory by the desaturated gloom that he's forced to wake up to.

"The Road" wasn't as nihilistic as I had been lead to believe, but it is a very intense film that deals in uncomfortable themes and unhappy emotions. At the same time, it manages to come off as life-affirming, and the ending was surprisingly positive without betraying the dark tone. I'm not sure I liked "The Road" as much as I appreciated it. The idea of the film still makes me automatically wince, but after watching the film itself, I'm glad to report that the filmmakers did justice to difficult material.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Matt Damon Gets an Tribute from Who?

I have a terrible weakness for movie awards shows and tribute shows, no matter how bad they are. Last night, the American Cinematheque tribute to Matt Damon popped up on the ABC schedule, so I put off watching "The Road" for an hour (a full review is forthcoming) and had a look.

It's ridiculous for an actor still in the 30s to be getting any sort of lifetime achievement award, as host Jimmy Kimmel pointed out, but the American Cinematheque Award, presented by an independent cultural organization of questionable repute and relevancy, doesn't bill itself as such. The award seems to be more of an affirmation of cultural visibility. Eddie Murphy was presented the first one in 1986 during the height of his popularity, at the grand old age of twenty-five. Tom Cruise was tapped in 1996, during the "Jerry Maguire" era when he was in his thirties. In fact, there's a noticeable lack of older recipients. Only four directors have been singled out for the honor - Spielberg, Scorsese, Ron Howard, and Rob Reiner - over the last twenty-odd years they've been given out.

Within that context, Matt Damon is certainly worthy of the award, but the more pressing question is why a major network like ABC would take an hour out of its May sweeps schedule to broadcast the tribute. The last American Cinematheque Award ceremony for Samuel L. Jackson was broadcast on cable back in 2008, as most of these tribute shows are. AFI and other film organizations give out similar honors that rarely get this much exposure. There was some fuss when honorary Oscar-winners Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman were cut out of last year's main telecast, but nobody stepped up to broadcast their tributes, though the Oscars have far more prestige in the mind of the average American film-goers than any other motion picture organization.

The answer's obvious when you think about it from the broadcaster's point of view. The American Cinematheque special was probably aired for the same reason that the organization gave Matt Damon the award - Damon is a proven draw. He's one of the few film stars like Johnny Depp and Will Smith who can still open a studio picture ("The Green Zone" not withstanding). The stars that aligned to deliver their congratulations comprise a younger and more recognizable crowd than those who might turn out for Clint Eastwood. Young viewers pay less attention to the actual cachet that comes with a particular award than who's getting it, which is why dubious kudos like the MTV Movie Awards have risen in prominence. The jokes about Vanessa Hudgens being next in line for the honor sting a bit more when you realize how much of a popularity contest it all really is.

The broadcast reflected this. Only four of Damon's films were singled out for distinction: "Good Will Hunting" and the "Bourne" trilogy, which really only adds up to two roles. After thirteen years of major movie stardom, the implication was that his most significant work is still the film that initially brought him renown in 1997, "Good Will Hunting," which he co-wrote with Ben Affleck and nabbed an Oscar for. We got quick clips and lip service paid to his role in "Invictus," which also garnered an Oscar nomination, and "The Talented Mr. Ripley," which put him in contention for a Golden Globe in 1999. However, there was nary a mention of his star turn in "The Informant!" which got him better notices from the critics last year than his supporting role in "Invictus." Instead, his work with Steven Soderbergh was represented by clips from the "Oceans 11" films.

No wonder, then, that the tribute turned into more of a roast. Sometimes the best parts of these programs are the clips packages, but this time the presenters were the main attraction. Nearly all of the of them, many from the Hollywood A-list set, indulged in good-natured razzing of the man of the hour. An entire video segment was dedicated to the Matt Damon/Ben Affleck "bromance," introduced by Affleck's wife Jennifer Garner. Naturally, Affleck was on hand to deliver his "hetero-lifemate" (see "Jay and Silent Bob") the plaque, and keep up the schtick about his career woes (though if he keeps making movies like "Gone Baby Gone," Affleck has nothing to worry about). Those who weren't there in person, like Ben Stiller and George Clooney, staged humorous pre-taped bits with their congratulations, and even Bill Clinton sent along a thinly disguised PSA.

The fact that no one was taking the event very seriously, though the organizational clearly went to considerable lengths to bring in the likes of Robin Williams, Charlize Theron, and Don Cheadle, resulted in a much more informal, collegial affair. And it was a lot of fun to watch. I've gotten so used to the Comedy Central style of roasting celebrities, which usually involves a slate of antagonistic comics making very vulgar jokes about a star they often have no relationship with, it was great to see a classier crowd give it a go. I especially appreciated the presence of the Afflecks, Ben and Casey, who had grown up with Damon and supplied some good personal anecdotes. All the ribbing served to humanize the mega-movie star, and the appreciation felt genuine - though with the caliber of the acting talent in the room, you can never tell.

I wish everyone involved had a better excuse to get together and perform like this, but making a very decent actor prom king for a day is a pretty harmless exercise. And "Good Will Hunting" really was a damn good movie.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ten Smaller Summer Films to Look Out For

As industry watchers continue to bemoan the quality of the latest crop of summer tentpoles, here are ten alternative films to keep an eye out for, coming soon in limited release to your local art house, foreign, and independent theaters:

* "Best Worst Movie" - A look at the cult fandom spawned by "Troll 2," the notoriously horrible horror film that reputedly has a good claim on the title of "Worst Movie Ever." The documentary was put together by Michael Stephenson, former "Troll 2" child star, who interviews fans, co-stars, and the director who's still not in on the joke.

* "Cairo Time" - Wincing at the rampant cultural insensitivity of "Sex and the City 2"? You may want to hold out for this grown-up romance, where Patricial Clarkson plays a American writer stranded in Egypt while waiting for her husband, trying not to fall for her charming local host, Alexander Siddig.

* "Agora" - A lavishly produced historical epic set during the waning days of the Roman Empire, when social and religious turmoil lead to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria and the rise of Christian rule. Stars Rachel Wiesz as the philosopher Hypatia, and Alejandro Amenabar ("The Sea Inside," "The Others") directs.

* "Micmacs" - Jean Pierre Jeunet, best known for "Amelie" and "The City of Lost Children," tries his hand at a caper film, wherein a pack of junk-salvaging oddballs with various surprising talents - including a contortionist and a human cannonball - decide to help a friend get revenge on some unscrupulous weapons manufacturers.

* "The Kids are All Right" - Annette Bening and Julianne Moore have seven Academy Award nominations between them. In this film, they join forces to play a lesbian couple whose teenage children, conceived by artificial insemination, go searching for their sperm donor. Is the father Mark Ruffalo? And what happens when the kids bring him home?

* "Winter's Bone" - This year's Grand Jury Prize for Drama winner at Sundance. A teenage girl searches for her criminally inclined father in the isolated Ozarks after he abandons her and her siblings. Reviews describe it as a thematically dark, chilly, neo-noir mystery with a grimly realistic style.

* "The Killer Inside Me" - Director Michael Winterbottom's latest is a new adaptation of the classic Jim Thompson crime novel. Casey Affleck stars as a small town Texas sheriff who is also a sociopathic killer. There's been some controversy from recent screenings regarding the film's explicit content, so viewer be wary.

* "Restrepo" - A war documentary that chronicles the experiences of American journalist Sebastian Junger and British photographer Tim Hetherington, who went on assignment for "Vanity Fair" in 2008, following an American battalion for a year as they were stationed in one of the deadliest parts of Afghanistan.

* "The Girl Who Played With Fire" - The second film in the Swedish action trilogy kicked off by "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." See it before the inevitable English-language remake.

* "Love Ranch" - In this film, Helen Mirren and Joe Pesci run a brothel. Let me repeat that. Helen Mirren and Joe Pesci run a brothel.

Happy watching!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Will Video Game Movies Finally Have their Day?

The technology news has been full of reports of the arrival of "Red Dead Redemption," the newest western-themed release from Rockstar Games, the creators of the popular "Grand Theft Auto" franchise. After years of development and millions spent on production, a massive marketing campaign has been rolled out, including a half-hour short film directed by John Hillcoat, most recently of "The Road," (that I still haven't watched, but I swear I will) that will air this Saturday night on FOX. It will mark one of two video-game-to-film adaptations that will be premiering this weekend, the other being Disney's massive Memorial Day theatrical tent-pole, "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time."

It's taken a long time for video game films to arrive at this point, poised to enjoy massive popular and financial success. The past two decades have been littered with ill-conceived adaptations like "Super Mario Brothers," "Doom," "Wing Commander," "Max Payne," and the ghastly creations of the notorious Dr. Uwe Boll. There have been a few bright spots, such as the horror film based on "Silent Hill," and the moderately successful "Resident Evil" series, but no real breakthrough hits to prompt a new wave of higher-profile projects. Instead the public is more likely to remember campy misfires like "Tomb Raider," which couldn't sustain viewer interest for more than one film. Planned adaptations of the popular "Halo" and "Metal Gear Solid" have been shelved or trapped in development purgatory for years.

But beyond failing to achieve lasting financial success, there were many who question the inherent artistic quality of games and game-based media. Most adaptations have been cheaply made B-movies with lots of violence and little to no story. Though many have made money, there have been no video-game based films that have acheived any measure of critical success. One of the strongest public blows against the genre came from Roger in Ebert in 2005, who characterized video games as "inherently inferior to films and literature" because their interactive nature required a more simplified narrative. Many directors ran into trouble trying to translate the straightforward gameplay of video games into compelling stories onscreen. At least one film, "Doom," tried to incorporate sequences that emulated the first-person-shooter POV of its source material, to remarkably lousy effect.

Of course, the studios keep trying to adapt video games, because the gaming industry is extremely lucrative and its properties are popular with the most desirable target demographic - 18-34-year-old males. Thus, we have the newest video-game property trying to cross over to mainstream audiences: "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time." Based on an installment of the "Prince of Persia" video game series that was released in 2003, Disney is hoping it will be a successor to their "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, which was also based on unconventional material - a theme park ride. Unlike most other video game films, "Prince of Persia" has considerable resources and talent behind it, including director Mike Newell and producer Jerry Bruckheimer. The film falls into the familiar mold of an Arabian adventure story, with obvious ties to "Thief of Baghdad" and "The Mummy," which should help its appeal. It's too early to say anything about the film's quality, but the buzz is decent.

The willingness of a major studio to foot the bill for a big adaptation should help future projects in the pipeline. But even more encouraging, I think, have been the striking changes in video games in recent years. The best games have become increasingly elaborate and innovative, with more complicated environments and gameplay narratives. "Red Dead Redemption" is a good example of this, as it uses random event generators and immersive settings that allow gamers much more freedom in their gameplay. Though there are still predetermined stories to follow, the AI of these games are now so advanced, a player's actions will affect the kind of narrative they can expect. Villainous acts in "Red Dead Redemption" will prompt the creation of wanted posters and cause posses of lawmen to target the player. Benevolent acts lead to different scenarios.

This may not exactly be the sort of compelling storytelling Ebert would appreciate, but it's certainly an important step in the right direction. Future filmmakers, though they may still have their work cut out for them trying to find better plots for these video game worlds, at least now have worlds that are getting subtler and deeper as gaming technology advances. Though arguably, there may not be a point in doing so for much longer. As video games get more involving, and the production values keep getting better, there may not be any need for adaptations at all. Fans have long contended that some ambitious games, like those of the "Final Fantasy" series (still a contended for the greatest misnomer ever) are essentially films already, with lengthy, plotty stories where the gameplay is intercut with filmed or animated sequences that can add up to hours in length. It's only a matter of time before some ambitious director is impressed enough with the new technology to tackle one of these projects.

In other words, as video games are coming to the cineplexes, movies may be coming to your home gaming consoles. And I wouldn't place any bets on who'll come out on top.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

My First Episode of "24" was the Last Episode of "24"

I figure it's only fitting to watch the last episode of "24," with a liveblog. And no joke - I'm a complete newbie to the series. Never watched a single episode before this.

8PM We're off to a good start. Keifer's looking well-rested.

:01 The recap's a blur of Russian agents, a woman diplomat being told to muzzle the press or lose a peace agreement, scowling, and bad accents.

:03 I forgot about the "real time" gimmick. I'll assume nothing important is going on during the commercial breaks, and everything in the "24" universe happens in 6-8 minute spurts.

:04 Michael Madsen! I'm entertained by him just being there.

:05 Is that Freddie Prinze Jr?! Wikipedia says yes.

:07 I can't follow the plot so far, but the stern looks and the terse dialogue make me feel like something important must be going on if everyone's so tense. There will be explosions later, right?

:12 My god, there's actually a counter. It's like the whole show is a countdown clock cliché. Now if something doesn't explode, I'll be terribly disappointed.

:13 Hi Jack! Evil Anderson Cooper must be evil.

:17 Madame president? Wait, wasn't the guy in the preview ID'd as the president? Natasha Fatale just gave her a pen and is emitting sinister vibes. Exploding pen?

:20 There's more technobabble in this show than "Star Trek." They just babble it so fast, it sounds plausible.

:24 Scoring this show must be fun. Eerie synthesizer sounds, a woodblock to simulate a ticking clock, and… is that a therimin?

:25 I don't think I much like Jack Bauer. He's got the incoherent Christian Bale's growl going on, and he seems to think the ends justify acting like a jerk. A mean jerk.

:31 More close-up shots of the pen. I remain suspicious.

:33 Natasha Fatale and Madame President are having what might have been a good scene at some point, but played so over the top, it comes off like a high school cheerleader spat. I'm reporting you to the UN! I'm sending in the nukes, beeyotch!

:45 Freddie Prinz and the redhead establish that we should be even more worried than we have been for the last 45 minutes. We're not even halfway through yet. I'm not sure how much more tense I can get without triggering muscle spasms.

:47 Ah. They're all presidents.

:55 Jack, stop strangling the redhead. She's just trying to help.


:05 Now Jack Bauer has the redhead handcuffed to a railing. She's still trying to reason with him. Good grief, Jack is a being such a child.

:07 The redhead's name is Chloe. I think she's easily the best character in the show so far.

:09 The Russian president's conspirator has a certain Nixonesque quality about him. Something about the jowls and the proboscis.

:11 Okay, Jack getting Chloe to shoot him was pretty good. He had it coming to him.

:17 Nixon is also being addressed as "President." They're popping up like daisies.

:19 Chloe and the evil Anderson Cooper exchange more dialogue that makes them both sound like snarky teenagers. Stop flirting, you two!

:21 And Jack does a Mike Tyson on evil Anderson Cooper's ear!

:27 President Nixon and Madame President convene to plot evil deeds. I think Nixon may have a little crush on Jack Bauer.

:34 Took me this long to realize which character was being played by Eriq LaSalle.

:36 Boy, they're taking their time telegraphing Madame President's decision to back out of the treaty. The actress is doing an excellent job, even if they aren't giving her much to work with.

:40 Eriq LaSalle is not happy.

:41 Nixon is not happy. Watch out, evil Anderson Cooper!

:42 Madame President is not happy. Open this door, young man!

:49 Jack's execution is averted. This is a strangely moody, tension-free sequence. They're setting up Jack as a martyr figure, which just makes me roll my eyes.

:52 Madame President confessional. I'm not sure what I expected as far as the level of writing, but this hits pretty much every cliche for shallow, shiny action films from about ten years ago. I can see how "24" would have seemed innovative at first with the cinematography and the countdown clock, but they feel like perfunctory bits of an old formula now.

:54 Split screen goodbye scene is fitting considering how much they've been relying on it stylistically. Chloe had that thank you coming to her.

And the end. Aw, no explosions. Wait, what happened to Michael Madsen?

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Non-"Lost" Fan Watches the "Lost" Finale

ABC's "Lost" had its series finale last night, which the network parlayed into a five-and-a-half hour event, comprised of the actual finale, a two-hour preshow recap, and an hour with Jimmy Kimmel interviewing the show's cast and creators to wrap up the evening on a lighter note. Long time "Lost" fans were no doubt thrilled at all the hype and attention, but the buildup was meant to draw in the curious casual watchers that had stopped watching the show at some point over the last six years. Or in my case, those watchers who just wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

I've seen maybe two or three other episodes of "Lost," usually season premiers or finales with gung-ho friends. I've been around enough die-hard "Lost" loyalists to identify most of the characters are on sight. I also had a good idea of the major plot developments in the early seasons, but I've completely lost track of the show since roughly the end of season three. So I appreciated having the recap - I caught the second half of it after "60 Minutes." I'm not sure how enjoyable the finale would have been for me without it, since I was unfamiliar with the concept of the "flash-sideways," didn't know who some of the major players like Desmond and Jacob were, and hadn't learned about half of the major deaths. I got a kick out of spotting actors who I hadn't realized were part of the cast, such as Emilie De Ravin and Nestor Carbonell, as well as guest stars like Fisher Stevens and Allison Janney.

With all these caveats in mind, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the finale. I didn't have much invested in the show, but Jack and Hurley and the other castaways have been part of the popular media landscape for a good long while now, so I got some real satisfaction seeing how their stories ultimately played out. If there were any big answers that unlocked the show's much-ballyhooed mythology, they went right over my head. As far as I could tell, the story offered no concrete explanations for how or why the island functioned as it did, but kept the focus on immediate crises faced by the remaining survivors. There were two plots running in parallel throughout, one in the original "Lost" universe, where a much-reduced cast fought for control of the island, and one in the "flash-sideways" universe where all the characters were still alive and trying to reconnect with each other in Los Angeles.

The island plot gave us all the action and excitement, with the island threatening to sink into the ocean, attempts to repair an aircraft for a final escape attempt, and our major protagonist and antagonist locked in mortal combat at the show's climax. The Los Angeles plot was for the emotional resolutions, seeing reunions and reconciliations for characters who never got them in the other universe. The two narratives were obviously connected somehow, but only at the very end was it made explicit what the "flash-sideways" universe was, one of the few big answers that the finale provided. And though there were loose ends everywhere and much left unsaid, the end of "Lost" was very good about conveying a sense of finality. Evil was defeated, people died, people lived, and the creators were saying their goodbyes to the characters as they spotlighted each of them one last time.

There was a heavy spiritual component in the last hour, similar to the themes that emerged toward the end of "Battlestar Galactica." A character named Christian Shepherd turns up as all the characters congregate in a church for the final act. The "flash-sideways" apparently operate much the same as the world of AMC's recent version of "The Prisoner," where The Village was a sort of intangible mental sanctuary for troubled souls. Thus, "Lost" continues the trend of recent popular science-fiction that prefers looking inward at the mysteries of the human mind and soul, rather than at hard science concepts we traditionally associate with science-fiction. It was all a dream, but a collective dream with its own impenetrable logic and consequences. "Trust me, I know. All of this matters," Jack told Desmond at one point. Acceptance of the mystery trumped explaining it. Fair enough.

The only major issue I had was that much of the cast from the earlier seasons was noticeably missing. Surely in two-and-a-half hours, there was room for some acknowledgment of those who had fallen by the wayside. The big reunion scenes would have been the perfect place for cameos by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Harold Perrineau, and other former members of the cast. Harold Perrineau showed up for the Jimmy Kimmel show reunion, which made the absence of his character look all the more egregious. Of course, the circumstances behind decisions like this are never clear, so I'm not inclined to dwell on them.

I'll be liveblogging the "24" finale tonight, and then there's just the "American Idol" sendoff for Simon Cowell on Wednesday, and that wraps up my TV season. It all seems to have gone by much quicker this year. All the finales I really cared about, like "Ugly Betty" and "Dollhouse," aired much earlier in the winter and spring. Or maybe it's because I've cut down so much on the amount of live programming I watch, and I'm still catching up with several shows, it doesn't feel like anything is really ending.

For the "Lost" obsessives, though, I'm sure the fun is just beginning - now that the show is over, they can really start taking it apart to figure out what the hell was going on.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

So What's Next for "Shrek"?

The fourth "Shrek" movie, "Shrek Forever After," underperformed this weekend at the box office, taking in about $70 million so far, well short of the $100 million openings of the previous sequels. Industry watchers are already declaring that it's a bomb, though the lack of kid-friendly viewing choices this month should ensure it has a long and profitable run. Dreamworks execs have already promised that this is the last "Shrek" film, in light of the lukewarm response to "Shrek the Third," and the new installment was billed as the finale to the series. Frankly, I don't believe a word of it.

Even assuming that "Shrek Forever After" is a complete financial failure, and Dreamworks cancels plans for spinoffs like "Puss in Boots" and peripherals like Christmas specials, it doesn't mean the big green ogre will be gone for good. In the short term, Dreamworks may turn their attention to their other promising properties like "Kung Fu Panda" and "How to Train Your Dragon," which both have sequels in the pipeline, but in the long term, I have no doubt that "Shrek" will be around for a long time. In the current media age, where "Hulk" and "Punisher" have gotten two reboots apiece within a span of five years, and Sony is about to relaunch "Spiderman" for another round, no marketable franchise gets left behind.

"Shrek" is a particularly good candidate for future resurrection. Cartoon characters are built for longevity. They never age, stand up well to updates and tinkering, and recasting is a breeze. Properly handled, they can endure for decades. Though I wouldn't put Shrek in the same league as Mickey Mouse or Bug Bunny yet, he's well on his way. Shrek's been around since 2001, is instantly recognizable to a whole generation of kids, and still represents a major cash cow for Dreamworks. His image is everywhere, incorporated into toys, games, books, and other branded merchandise. I even found green marshmallows at a convenience store in the shape of Shrek's head, a tie-in product for the new movie.

Other characters like Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Scooby Doo have had successful resurrections recently, partly due to nostalgia, which has lead to plans for new CGI movies based on the Smurfs, Marmaduke, and other childhood favorites. Winnie the Pooh, one of Disney's top brands for years, is coming back to the big screen in 2011 in the studio's next traditional animated feature. They've also created a whole series of direct-to-video features around the character of Tinker Bell, originally a minor presence in the 1953 Disney "Peter Pan" feature, as part of the "Fairies" merchandise line. Not all of these reboots are successful – see last year's "Astro Boy" – but there's certainly plenty of incentive to try.

Dreamworks' pledge not to make more "Shrek" films is probably well-meaning, but the creative decisionmaking power over these characters changes hands pretty often. If the leadership at the studio is replaced in a few years, or the" Shrek" characters are sold off to someone who can get more features made, we'll be seeing more sequels. Ill-considered direct-to-video sequels have been churned out for everything from "Cinderella" to "The Secret of NIMH" for a quick buck when their studios have run into lean years. I doubt it will be any different with Dreamworks.

It might take a while for Shrek to make his way back to the big screen, depending on how much success the studio has with its newer franchises and how well the latest "Shrek" film performs. But there's no question that the popularity of the grumpy ogre is in decline, and he'll have to take a backseat to the next big thing and exit the stage sooner or later.

But he'll be back.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Last "Looney Tunes" Generation

Feeling nostalgic, I flipped around the network channels this morning looking for cartoons. The pickings were very lean. ABC had a lineup for of live-action programs from their Disney Channel tween brand, and CW had reboots of 90s shows like "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Sonic the Hedgehog," plus some dubbed Japanese imports. CBS and PBS seemed to have the best programming blocks, with cartoons aimed at toddlers, including ones based on the "Babar" and "Curious George" books. But try as I might, I couldn't find any sign of Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Tom and Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, Popeye, or any of the cartoons I had grown up with as a kid.

The classic theatricals shorts of the 30s, 40s, and 50s were all over the cartoon broadcast landscape in the 80s, and I remember them being around well into the 90s when I was babysitting younger cousins. They would constantly be moved around on the schedules to fill in gaps, were rebranded and repackaged year after year, but they were always around. I never thought anything of the fact that they were the same cartoons my parents hand watched when they were first broadcast in the 50s, back when television content was scarce and bundling old Warners and Disney shorts into programs like "The Bugs Bunny Show" and "The Mickey Mouse Club" was a novel idea.

It's a rude shock to realize not only that they're gone from our television sets, but how long they've been gone. "The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show," which I can't remember ever not being part of the ABC Saturday morning cartoon block, ended back in 2000 when the Cartoon Network assumed control of all broadcast rights to the Warners cartoons. Since then, it appears they've largely vanished from the Cartoon Network schedules, aside from special holiday marathons and the occasional late night filler. I've had a harder time finding out why the Disney shorts disappeared, but from my own recollection they retired from syndication a little earlier than the Looney Tunes but never showed up regularly on The Disney Channel or any other affiliated stations. As a result, kids these days don't know Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny - not the way we know them.

Since the Warners and Disney characters were such iconic figures for several generations of kids, and have been a merchandising staple for so long, I can't understand why the companies would let them fall out of the public consciousness like this. I know there have been several attempts to revive the characters through new shows. Disney gave us "Mickey Mouse Works" in 1999 with updated versions of Mickey, Donald, and all the rest. The cartoons weren't bad, but they were hardly substitutes for the classics. Warners' attempts were more wince-inducing, including the feature films "Space Jam," and "Looney Tunes: Back in Action," and the notorious "Loonatics Unleashed" in 2004, that tried to reboot Bugs and Daffy as anime-inspired action heroes.

Warners is trying again with a new "Looney Toons" show set to premiere on the Cartoon Network in the fall. It's also prepping new shorts to run theatrically, featuring CGI versions of the familiar characters. Disney, on the other hand, appears to have halted their efforts for now. They did manage one successful rebranding venture with the preschooler series "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse," which is still airing on the Disney Channel. Otherwise, they’ve turned their attention to newly acquired characters like Jim Henson's Muppets and the characters from the Marvel Comics library. As Disney blogger Wade Sampson pointed out a few years ago, you no longer see the company treating Mickey as a major draw or trying to capitalize on his renown.

And yet no one has tried to put the original cartoons back on the air where a new generation can discover them again. Sure, the bulk of the old shorts have been collected into convenient DVD box sets for the public to buy and view at their own convenience, but it's not the same. There's something about waking up at six in the morning on a rainy Saturday, feeling lower than an ant's toenail, and being able to sneak over to the living room couch to watch Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner go at it for a few rounds, to make yourself giggle a bit and feel better again. Alas, those two may have been what got the Looney Tunes kicked off the air to begin with.

In the 80s and 90s, cartoon violence became a political topic, and Peggy Charren's Children's Television Act ushered in mandates for three hours of educational/information (E/I) programming to be shown each week on major stations. New controversies cropped up over stereotyping in the "Looney Tunes," including the claim that Speedy Gonzales was an inappropriate depiction of Mexicans. This isn't surprising considering the age of the shorts, and the fact that they were originally created for general audiences, not just children. Times have changed, and cultural standards and mores have changed with them. Parents are more worried about media content now, and new sensitivities have emerged. If the shorts were to return to broadcast, even in the heavily edited forms that people my age are familiar with, surely the old criticisms would follow.

There's no getting around it. The cartoons of my childhood are gone because this time and this age no longer have a place for them. Maybe things will change, and they'll find a new home – maybe on the content-starved web somewhere – and a new generation can grow up with them.

Until then, Bugs and Mickey, take care and thanks for all the laughs. We had a great run.

Friday, May 21, 2010

You Gotta Get a Gimmick: "Kickassia" Edition

In my last post on web reviews, I pointed out a couple of examples of film reviewers who were blurring the line between commentary and scripted entertainment. This week, in honor of the second anniversary of their website, the reviewers over at Channel Awesome just leaped the divide.

And indeed, it was awesome.

Channel Awesome is a production company that features the work of web reviewers and satirists, many of them ousted from Youtube over IP infringement concerns. Chief among them is Doug Walker, aka That Guy With the Glasses, whose moniker is also the name of the main Channel Awesome website. He's a great example of a media reviewer whose critiques operate as entertainment in and of themselves. Walker portrays a number of different characters like The Nostalgia Critic, Chester A. Bum, and Dominic the Bartender, who each host web series that revolve around pop culture commentary. The best known of these is "The Nostalgia Critic," where Walker spoofs and excoriates childhood favorites from the 80s and 90s. It currently averages over 100,000 viewers weekly, which has allowed the site to turn a decent profit through ad-generated revenue.

Channel Awesome also produces and hosts web series for other talent, and aggregates the videos of affiliated contributors. Some of these include "Atop the Fourth Wall," for comic book reviews, "The Angry Joe Show," one of several video game-themed offerings, "The Cinema Snob," who has a yen for exploitation films, "The Spoony Experiment," following a popular media vlogger, "Anime News Editorial," to cater to the otaku population, and "The Nostalgia Chick," who takes on media aimed girls and women. All feature technology-savvy members of Gen X and Gen Y, operating out of basements and bedrooms, putting webcams and video editing software to good use. The shows have shoestring budgets, offer bare minimum production values, and often rely heavily on the manipulation of existing media. Crossover efforts are common, though the collaborators can be in different states or even different continents.

For Channel Awesome's first anniversary last year, many of the site's popular contributors gathered at a Holiday Inn in Chicago and had a celebratory brawl. For their second anniversary, they reconvened with a more ambitious goal in mind.

"Kickassia" chronicles the Nostalgia Critic's campaign to to conquer Molossia, a real-life micronation situated in the Nevada desert. It premiered this week on the That Guy With the Glasses site as a six part web series, with one new installment released per day, each running roughly fifteen minutes apiece. Add them all together, make some edits, and and you have a full-length film. Unlike most of their other videos and sketches, "Kickassia" features almost entirely original material and concepts (the better to sell DVDs with, no doubt). The site contributors all play exaggerated versions of themselves, or fictional characters from earlier videos. In-jokes and references abound, but aside from a quick explanation of how to play the board game "Risk," nobody reviews or discusses anything media-related. Instead, we get a straightforward story that treats the contributors as characters, actually fleshing out several like Cinema Snob and Film Brain beyond what we'd seen from their individual web shows.

Has anything like this ever happened in the ranks of traditional media reviewers? Quite a few critics indulge in affected quirks to distinguish themselves, particularly on television, but I've never heard of any of them developing those screen personae into full blown characters. The only analog I can think of is that one time when Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel guest starred on "The Critic" as warped caricatures of their onscreen selves, and I'm certain they didn't originate the idea. But that was only possible because the pair was so well known at the time, they had achieved an iconic status that made them unwitting targets for parody. I can't imagine any current film or television reviewer trying anything similar. Can you imaging David Denby or A.O. Scott crossing over into movies, and playing fictional versions of themselves a la "Being John Malkovitch"? Are there any major reviewers left in the media landscape that would have the charisma to pull something like that off?

I would pay to see "Armond White: The Movie," but probably not for the right reasons.

One could argue that the Channel Awesome crew shouldn't be considered real reviewers, since most of them wear a lot of different hats and reviewing media is only one of several facets of their online work. But this is exactly the point - reviewers no longer have the luxury of only being reviewers. There's too much competition for attention now, and too many voices all trying to make themselves heard. To some extent reviewers have always had to be entertainers, and had to find ways to engage and retain their audiences. The difference now is that the new generation of media critics are mixing entertainment and criticism together in ever-more inventive ways, so it may become necessary for newcomers - and certain esteemed, recently unemployed critics - to learn how to navigate both worlds, or even to go back and forth between them.

Say what you will about the quality of the Channel Awesome shows, but they know how to attract attention, and they know how to brand themselves. After watching "Kickassia," I may not be particularly impressed with some of the reviewers' work, but I know who they are - or at least the fictional, calculatedly larger-than-life facades associated with them. And that's half the battle won right there. I'm not saying traditional print critics need to band together and launch an invasion against a minor sovereign territory - there are more dignified ways of getting attention - but they'd do well to keep an eye on what the cool kids are doing.

Because "Kickassia" is indeed pretty kick-ass. And Channel Awesome may be the future competition.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Look Back at "Dollhouse"

As another television season comes to an end and we say goodbye to another crop of shows, including the end of "Lost" this Sunday, I want to take a look back at one of the most overlooked shows of this year, Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse." I've watched many of FOX's Friday night "Death Slot" shows, including "Space: Above and Beyond," "VR.5," and all three of Chris Carter's attempts to launch a successful follow-up to "The X-Files." I knew from the outset that "Dollhouse" wasn't long for this world, especially after Whedon's previous effort, the cult favorite "Firefly," had a notoriously botched run back in 2002. Unlike many of the other fans, I'm actually impressed that FOX devoted so much time and effort to promoting "Dollhouse," even though there is a strong indication that they mucked up a good chunk of the first season's storyline. And though the ratings were never very strong, they went ahead with a truncated second season, and gave the creators enough time to hash out a decent ending to the series.

"Dollhouse" isn't an easy show to watch, and I don't think it really hit its stride until very late. The story centered around the concept of Dolls, people contracted to have their conscious minds and personalities temporarily removed from their bodies, leaving them blank slates. New personalities could then be imprinted to the Dolls, essentially creating artificial people to suit the needs of their clients. Now add the sinister Rossum Corp, which developed the technology to create Dolls, and secretly controlled underground (literally) Dollhouses to cater to the rich and powerful. Most of the Dolls were women and many of the engagements were of a romantic nature. Even putting aside the fact that many of the Dolls' contracts are signed under coercive circumstances, the premise had all sorts of sexual exploitation parallels and uncomfortable undertones built into it. I'm not surprised that many viewers had trouble with it.

The series focused on one Dollhouse in Los Angeles, and our main character was a Doll named Echo (Eliza Dushku) who used to be a young woman named Caroline Farrell. The first half of the first season was mostly spent following Echo on her various "engagements," playing a new character with a new skill set and new personality each week. In one episode she was a backup signer and body guard to a pop starlet, in another a safecracker, and in another a hostage negotiator. The trouble was that Echo returned to a blank slate at the end of each episode, leaving us without much in the way of a compelling central protagonist to follow from week to week. The most intriguing characters were the supporting ones - Echo's handler Boyd Langton (Harry Lennnix), the Dollhouse's director Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), staff doctor Claire Saunders (Amy Acker) and the techie genius responsible for programming the Dolls, Topher Brink (Fran Kranz).

It wasn't until the engagement-of-the-week formula gave way to a more serialized format, and the creators stopped dancing around all the darker issues raised by the Dollhouse technology, that things started to get interesting. Minor characters like the Dolls Victor (Enver Gjokaj) and Sierra (Dichen Lachman) got more attention, and a subplot involving FBI Agent Paul Ballard (Tamoh Penikett) and his neighbor Mellie (Miracle Laurie) had some important developments. The real game game changer was an episode that was never aired during the show's run on FOX, an epilogue to the first season titled "Epitaph One," which looked in on the "Dollhouse" universe ten years into the future. A DVD-only release that was created to fill overseas broadcast agreements and serve as as a potential finale in case the show wasn't picked up for a second season, it generated renewed interest in the series from a lot of corners.

The second season of was where "Dollhouse" finally came into its own and fulfilled the potential that had only been teased at in the first year. Echo gained a separate consciousness that could incorporate the skills and memories of her imprinted personalities, finally giving us a strong heroine to root for. Morally ambiguous characters like Adelle and Topher were forced to reevaluate their roles. The Rossum Corporation became a major threat, along with other outside pressures that threatened the Dollhouse's existence. Most importantly, the pace and tempo of the story were cranked up to eleven. Perhaps sensing that their reprieve was only temporary, the creators packed major developments that other shows would have stretched out over multiple seasons into only a handful of episodes. It was thrilling to watch new concepts and ideas being introduced on a weekly basis, the show's mythology expanding at a terrific rate, and then the mad dash to cobble together a meaningful ending once the cancellation was announced.

Certainly "Dollhouse" would have benefited from more time to tell its story. The final few episodes were incredibly rushed and left giant holes in the narrative. Several good characters were shortchanged and there were an awful lot of unanswered questions left over once the dust had settled. And yet the show delivered a lot of good hours of television, and successfully examined many hard science-fiction concepts with intelligence and insight. The accelerated pace forced out nearly all the extraneous filler and padding, with maybe only an episode or two in the second season that didn't advance the main plot. And unlike most of the previous Whedon series, we got a fully executed endgame that resolved the bulk of the show's conflicts and character arcs. When all is said and done, "Dollhouse" rivals "Firefly" and "Buffy" as one of the best long-form television show's he's produced.

And as longtime lover of the genre, with full acknowledgment of the joys of spaceships and time-travelers and mysterious islands, I'd say "Dollhouse," even with its bad start and its chaotic ending and all the bumps in between, turned out to be one of the best science-fiction shows of the last decade.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"The Messenger" was better than "The Hurt Locker"

I'm fully aware of the fallacies of evaluating films in direct comparison with each other, but while watching Oren Moverman's directorial debut, "The Messenger," I couldn't help stacking it up against the other major 2009 Iraq/Afghanistan war film, Katherine Bigelow's much-lauded "The Hurt Locker." Films don't exist in a vacuum, and though "The Messenger" and "The Hurt Locker" look at very different aspects of the conflict, they're linked by the cultural milieu. And in that sense, though both are excellent films, I found "The Messenger" to be a far more compelling piece of work. To be fair, I suspect that my viewing of "The Hurt Locker" was affected by that film's overexposure during awards season. But while it's technically superior to "The Messenger," and had plenty of visceral thrills to offer, it didn't hit me on an emotional or cerebral level. It was more provocative, but not nearly as satisfying.

"The Messenger" follows two soldiers, Captain Stone (Woody Harrelson, capping off a great year) and Sergeant Montgomery (Ben Foster). They operate as part of the Army's Casualty Notification service, with the unenviable task of breaking the news of soldiers' deaths to their families, a scenario that most viewers are familiar with from countless war films like "Saving Private Ryan." Stone, the older though not necessarily wiser of the pair, is charged with training Montgomery, recently returned from the front lines and not happy with his new assignment. He's quickly enlightened as to the importance of the role and the challenges that come with it. And though Stone warns him not to get involved with the people they deliver notifications to, Montgomery is drawn to a young widow they encounter, played by Samantha Morton.

I expect viewers might approach "The Messenger" with a certain degree of trepidation because of its subject matter. In the wrong hands, the film could easily have turned out maudlin or exploitative, and it's to Moverman's credit that he handles those vital casualty notification scenes so well. It almost feels voyeuristic at first to watch them, because the emotional impact is so strong. But being forced to bear witness puts the audience right there alongside the soldiers, in the same mental space, sharing their dread or their uncertainty. As we see more and more of them, the psychic weight compounds and it quickly becomes clear that there's no such thing as a typical notification. The film is very good about giving us a look at broad swath of soldiers' families, usually parents and spouses, though there's a memorable run-in with an in-law that goes from borderline comic to heartbreaking in the span of a few seconds.

Foster and Harrelson turn in stellar performances, but Harrelson's the standout here as Captain Stone. Insisting on emotional detachment and adherence to a rigid script while on duty, but putting forth a glib, carefree front off the job, he's a fascinating character. Harrelson gives him an easy, appealing confidence as he rattles off instructions riddled with pithy advice to his new trainee in the opening scenes. And then he slowly introduces cracks in the exterior until it becomes clear how damaged the man really is. Foster's Sergeant Montgomery has a more typical transformation as he sheds his apathy to life on the homefront and adjusts to navigating a different kind of battlefield. His best scenes are with Harrelson as they jostle their way from a bumpy alliance to a genuine friendship.

The supporting cast provides a wealth of small, but solid performances. Samantha Morton's character, Olivia, turns out to be less of a love interest and more of a catalyst for Montgomery's rehabilitation. She has some of the film's most poignant scenes - her reaction to tragedy much more low-key than any of the others, but ultimately no less powerful or affecting. Indie princess Jena Malone appears briefly as Montgomery's ex-girlfriend, and Steve Buscemi shows up early on as an antagonistic father. Most of the casualty notifications featured actors I didn't recognize, but so much the better for the film's verisimilitude. Aside from one or two cases of regrettably overwrought reactions, they easily stand in for the real people who have to face the unthinkable.

Like "The Hurt Locker," "The Messenger" benefits from a lack of heavy-handed commentary. This is not a pro-war or anti-war film. Its themes are universal and it could take place in any era, during any war, but just happens to take place during the current one. The casualties are treated as a fact of life, and no meaning is attached to them, good or bad. The families sometimes question what their loved ones died for, but they do not make speeches or indulge in political posturing. Stone and Montgomery do not search for justifications and provide no answers. It's not part of the job or the story that Moverman wants to tell.

As the title makes clear, this is not a film about the message, but the men that are necessary to deliver it. "The Messenger" finally gives them their due.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Why I'm Still Watching "House"

The season finale of "House" aired last night, and this post will contain spoilers, so gentle reader do beware. It had all the soap opera hallmarks that I so detest in other medical shows - one character's progressing terminal illness, a sudden about-face in a long-term relationship, and the not-so-subtle-poking at many an old demon - but I sat riveted through the entire hour. In my defense, this episode was unlike most of the other formulaic installments of "House," with the week's medical mystery only a peripheral concern. Instead, most of the story followed the nail-biting attempts to rescue a young woman pinned under a collapsed building, with House put in the unlikely position of her hand-holder. The ending was an unhappy one for the patient, leaving the good doctor to grapple with the emotional fallout.

A few thoughts on Dr. Gregory House, the acid-tongued, curmudgeonly diagnostician with a combative bedside manner, a host of personal flaws, and a brilliant mind that lets him get away with murder. I think he may be my favorite television character ever, and he's certainly the reason I keep coming back to "House" from week to week. Once in a while you get a great actor in the right role, something ineffable clicks, and suddenly you can't imagine that they ever played anyone else. Hugh Laurie was part of the British comedic landscape for ages, best known for affable nitwits like Bertie Wooster from "Jeeves and Wooster" and Prince George from the third series of "Blackadder." Before 2004, Americans probably knew him best as the milquetoast adoptive father of the title character in "Stuart Little."

As House, Laurie inhabits another universe entirely. His best moments aren't the ones where he's manipulating his interns, insulting his patients, or pranking his colleagues, but the silent pauses in between when his humanity peeks through. What Laurie does so well is to make House emotionally transparent to the audience, though he often isn't to the other characters. We can tell when he feels guilty, regretful, vulnerable, or unsettled, usually as something completely different is coming out of his mouth. When I first came across "House," I was drawn in by the character's casual sarcasm and hints of misanthropy, a wonderful break from the standard TV doctor humanist schtick. I stayed for his battles with Vicodin addiction, his brushes with self-destruction, and his oft embattled friendships with oncologist James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) and hospital administrator Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) - also his primary romantic interest.

Of course, I also had to contend with the show's less admirable moments. House operates from day to day with a diagnostics team of younger doctors. Initially these were Eric Foreman (Omar Epps), Allison Cameron (Jennifer Morrison) and Robert Chase (Jesse Spencer), later replaced by Remy "Thirteen" Hadley (Olivia Wilde), Chris Taub (Peter Jacobson), and Lawrence Kutner (Kal Penn). They're used for shameless padding whenever the major storylines with House need a breather, and never get much room to develop or grow. I'm grateful that the rate of "Grey's Anatomy" style hook-ups and melodramas among the group have been relatively minimal, but otherwise these characters never rise above the level of good-looking props. Cameron's and Chase's relationship largely happened offscreen until the break-up was needed for sweeps. Kal Penn's abrupt departure might have had more impact if Kutner hadn't been such a blank.

I haven't been thrilled with the treatment of House's personal troubles either. After several years of ups and downs, the end of last season saw his vicodin addiction spiral out of control to point where he was hallucinating conversations with dead people. A brief stint in rehab and a dose of psychotherapy with guest star Andre Braugher put him back together at the start of this season, but the issue has been largely brushed aside save for a few continuity checks. Braugher was brought back last week for a counseling session, but most of year six has revolved around House becoming Wilson's roommate and trying to accept Cuddy's involvement with a younger rival despite still having feelings for her. These are essentially the same relationship issues that House has been juggling since the first season, and the while the show hasn't become repetitive, it has been treading water for a while now.

Sure, occasionally House will make progress in one area or another - staying clean, getting in Cuddy's good graces, or being supportive of Wilson - and then the wheel turns, and then we come to another season's end, and everything goes to hell again. See House inadvertently cause the death of Wilson's girlfriend. See House hallucinate Cuddy's intervention and capitulation to his advances during a relapse. The show's writing and the procedural formula are strong enough that I've rarely been disappointed with individual episodes, but as a serial it's a terrible tease. Still, Hugh Laurie keeps me coming back season after season, and as much as I want to roll my eyes sometimes at particularly ludicrous plot developments - Taub really thought an open marriage was an option? - I still enjoy it.

And occasionally it will still surprise me. After House lost the patient last night, went home to his secret stash of Vicodin and seemed ready to start the downward spiral all over again, this time Cuddy really did intervene. And this time she really did declare that she loved him and was willing to give a relationship a shot. And for once, the soap-opera smarm didn't make me roll my eyes and mutter darkly about unrealistic expectations in TV relationships. And when she kissed him, they got me. They completely, utterly got me.

"House" will be back in the fall. and I'll be watching.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Why "Community" is at the Head of the Class

As the TV season is drawing to its close, and the networks are gearing up for the fall, I've been looking back over the 2009-2010 freshman class, and one show sticks out as my favorite of the year: NBC's "Community." I stumbled across it in January, and since I have a history of warming up to shows well after everyone else, didn't realize it had only been on the air since September. The writing is so good and the characters so sure-footed, it feels like a show that's already been around the block a few times.

The shenanigans of a community college study group is one of those premises that sounds familiar, but has a few key differences from the usual school-centric programs we've seen before like "Glee," "Boston Public," "Friday Night Lights," "Greek," "Degrassi High," and "Saved by the Bell." TV shows about school life usually give us a clear divide between adult faculty-members and less mature students, and tend to portray the educational system as a straightforward path through early adulthood, with each stage intrinsically tied to certain periods of development. Occasionally you'll have comedies about mature adults who go back to school, like Rhea Perlman in "Pearl" and Amy Sedaris in "Strangers With Candy," but they were always rare exceptions, surrounded by younger classmates who comprised another hurdle for them to overcome.

"Community," by contrast, is a look at a different model of education, where we have students of a variety of ages, from recent high school graduates to senior citizens, with a broad spectrum of life experiences and different reasons for continuing their education. The Spanish study group at the center of "Community" includes a single mother, a lawyer with an invalidated college degree, and an elderly oddball. Fully half of the cast is made up of minority actors, who never come across as tokens. While we do get the interpersonal tensions, romantic liaising, and growing pains associated with most college shows, there's no pandering to the youthful worldview and the excesses of frat culture are almost totally absent. I don't miss them. It's nice to see a show about college students where we don't have to sit through the usual cliches about roommates, sexual awakenings, and binge drinking.

Instead, the writers substitute more interesting dynamics, heaps of snarky banter, and glorious farce galore. They get a lot of mileage out of disabusing the lead character Jeff (Joel McHale) of the notion that community colleges are the domain of unintelligent low-lifes. Rather, he meets students like Annie (Alison Brie) and Britta (Gillian Jacob), who are looking for a second chance, Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), who needs a new direction in life, and Troy (Donald Glover), who wants to learn even if he's not the sharpest tack in the box. These are ambitious, talented people who may have run into a few setbacks and taken some wrong turns, but genuinely want to better themselves. Of course there's also Pierce, (a resurrected Chevy Chase), who seems to be there because he's lonely and bored.

There are plenty of digs in the show about community colleges not being "real" colleges, but their benefits are clear. In a time when so many local education systems are in crisis, and the recession is creating more need for them than ever, it's good to have a reminder of how important these places are. "Community" is one of the only shows about getting an education that features characters really invested in getting their degrees. Even when the show is at its most frivolous, real world social pressures are always a driving force. A lot of this comes from the cast of older, more cynical characters who bring a more world-weary perspective. I can't think of the last time I saw one of these shows where the alpha male lead had so much concern for his academic performance.

I don't mean to suggest that "Community" dwells on its own progressiveness, because it doesn't. Its primary aim is to be as ridiculous and entertaining as possible. So the faculty is staffed with wild characters like Spanish teacher Señor Chang (Ken Jeong) and a dean (Jim Rash) obsessed with the school's image. One of my favorite recurring elements is the show's penchant for film spoofs. The group's hoarding of cafeteria chicken fingers turns into a mafia war. A paintball tournament opens with shots echoing "28 Days Later" and ends with the a splatterific "Predator" homage. The character of Abed (Danny Pudi) is a film student who drops cinematic references left and right, and often indulges in razor-sharp meta-commentary. Disses are regularly delivered to rival freshman sitcom "Glee" and Joel McHale's real-life rival Ryan Seacrest.

My only worry is that the show might outstay its welcome. NBC has already renewed it for a second season, and the storyline would naturally follow the characters through a typical four-year college career, but can it sustain itself beyond that? One of the major pitfalls of school-centric shows is that they have a hard time accepting the transitory nature of their premises - nobody quits while they're ahead. Graduation day is still a long way off, but I hope the creators are planning ahead

The season finale of "Community" airs Thursday.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

"The Lovely Bones" is a Mangled Carcass

"The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold is one of those books that I've been meaning to read for ages, but never got around to before I sat down and watched the film version. Now my curiosity has been piqued to get a hold of a copy of the book for comparison purposes, just to confirm for myself that Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and all the wonderful, talented people involved with the adaptation really screwed up with the material as badly as I believe they did. In a year of high profile disappointments, "The Lovely Bones" may have outdone all the others, squandering an A-list cast and a fairly hefty budget for what should have been a small, intimate film. Instead we have a big, awkward one, stuffed to the gills with expensive CGI, with its story skewed and warped all out of proportion.

Our heroine is Susie Salmon, a precocious fourteen-year-old girl who lives in a small Pennsylvania town, and is earnestly played by Saoirse Ronan. After an idyllic introduction to Susie's world, supported by loving parents Jack (Mark Wahlberg) and Abigail (Rachel Weisz), where the possibility of young love comes in the form of a classmate named Ray (Reece Ritchie), the story takes a darker turn. On her way home from school one night, Susie is murdered by a neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). But this is not the end of Susie, as her soul is caught in the netherworld limbo of the "In Between," where she watches over the people she left behind as they struggle to cope with her unexplained disappearance.

It's at this point that the movie starts to fall apart. While Saoirse Ronan is a talented young actress and easily carries the picture, it's not necessary for her to do so. From explicit statements made in the film itself, "The Lovely Bones" is supposed to examine the effects of Susie Salmon's death on those around her, and Susie's role meant to become that of an observer after her demise. Jackson proves unwilling or unable to shift the focus of the film from her to the other characters. We remain with Susie throughout, following her around the CGI paradise of the In Between though the important action always takes place on Earth. The bulk of the film's budget seems to have been expended on the In Between as well, on lovely, fantastic vistas and fancy effects sequences that are very nice to look at, but completely extraneous to the story.

When the film does pay attention to the other characters, it's only briefly and in the most shallow manner. The Salmon family's reactions to Susie's disappearance are all dutifully captured, from Jack's escalating obsession over the possibility of foul play to Abigail's eventual estrangement. However they remain as at a distance, seen only from Susie's point of view over a span of several years. Susan Sarandon even shows up for a cameo as a boozy grandmother who moves in to help look after Susie's siblings, but then promptly disappears into the background for the rest of the film. Susie's would-be boyfriend and one of her classmates play minor roles, but from some oddly prominent details suggest that they once had considerably larger ones.

The only other character that really receives his due is the murderer, George Harvey. Susie's post-mortem attentions become focused on her family's attempts to unmask him, so he gets far more screen time than anyone else. Stanley Tucci gives him a great understated menace, with a veneer of sad-sack suburban schlepper that easily draws in the audience's sympathies until the claws come out. But, without giving anything away, like so many of the other elements of "The Lovely Bones," he doesn't quite fit the usual template of villainy that the plot keeps trying to shoehorn him into, and the ultimate resolution of his part of the story is inevitably unsatisfying. It's a terrible waste of a good performance.

"The Lovely Bones" shows every indication of being a production that got away from the director. From the size of the budget and the expenditure of so much effort on visual effects and other distractions, I suspect that this was a film that was expected to fit a certain mold and attract a certain kind of audience, and steps were taken to ensure that those expectations would be met, no matter if they were actually appropriate to the material or not. The end result is a film about the brutal murder of a teenage girl and its aftermath, that has been sanitized and gilded over to the point where only teenage girls would likely enjoy it.

I don't think it's necessary for a film tackling such heavy subject matter to be as dark and explicit about its horrors as others have been, but here the blow was softened far too much. We have only the barest intimations about the particulars of the crime, and a cast of characters who seem too fragile to confront the truth as a result. The Salmon family is troubled, but lack texture and grounding in reality. Susie herself is naively innocent to the point of saintliness, and it's only Saoirse Ronan's efforts that keep her from being insufferable. And then the story ties itself in knots to try and give the audience a conventional narrative to follow, only to sabotage itself with an ending that's nothing of the sort.

A better template for "The Lovely Bones," would have been Jackson's own pitch-perfect "Heavenly Creatures," a film that was a little darker, a little stranger, and used its fantasy sequences with far more restraint. That Peter Jackson might have turned out a decent "Lovely Bones." I shudder to think of what the current "Peter Jackson" would have done to "Heavenly Creatures."

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Worst Summer Ever, Best Summer Ever

"Iron Man 2" is on track to beat "Robin Hood" at the box office this weekend, but "Iron Man" took such a plunge from last week's numbers, it feels like both films lost. With one massively anticipated tentpole falling a bit short of expectations and another expensive project coming in a box office dud, the 2010 summer movie season is not getting off to a great start. The next few weeks don't look too promising for film fans either.

May 21st sees the release of the fourth and final "Shrek" sequel (not counting the "Puss in Boots" movie and other spinoffs) and "MacGruber," which is based on a series of "Saturday Night Live" sketches with Will Forte that no one seems to particularly enjoy, let alone wants to see in the cineplexes. Memorial Day weekend is serving up "Sex and the City 2" and Disney's "Prince of Persia." The former is sending its New York forty-something socialites to Abu Dhabi to discover their own personal "Ishtar." The latter is Disney's attempt to launch a new action franchise in the same vein as their lucrative "Pirates of the Caribbean" films - it stars Jake Gyllenhaal as the world's most Nordic-looking Persian, and what appear to be leftover sets from the "Mummy" movies.

In the wake of such lackluster features, there have already been grumblings from various corners of the internet that this is may be shaping up to be the Most Disappointing Summer Ever at the movies. A glance through the rest of the major studios' slates reveals remakes and sequels and adaptations from popular existing properties as far as the eye can see, but there are few of the major franchise pictures like "Batman," "Terminator," or "Harry Potter" to get much buzz going. Greg Morago over at The Daily Comet suggests that this year has a higher percentage of family-targeted ("Shrek," "Toy Story," "Despicable Me") and female-targeted ("Sex and the City 2," "Eclipse," "Eat, Pray, Love") films than usual, which is leaving traditional male-dominated summer audiences feeling high and dry.

My pet theory is that we're seeing a proliferation of the unknown this summer, films that are coming up as question marks in the mind of the average moviegoer. Though we've got a lot of familiar titles like "The Karate Kid," "The A-Team," and "Predators," the adaptations are so far removed from the original source material, no one has any idea what we're in for. How does a "Karate Kid" with Jackie Chan and Will Smith's kid work? (And shouldn't it be "The Kung Fu Kid" if the Chinese government is footing the tab for this one?) Can a "Predators" movie starring Adrian Brody still bring on the pain? And whose bright idea was it to cast Liam Neeson as Hannibal in "The A-team"?

Even more uncertain are the fate of films based on unfamiliar material or sporting original premises like "Get Him to the Greek," "Jonah Hex," "Knight and Day," "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," and "Grown Ups," all star-driven films whose stars don't exactly have the greatest track records. Can Josh Brolin carry an action film? Can Russell Brand and Jonah Hill break out on their own? Can Adam Sandler still fill seats after "Funny People" floundered last summer? Nicholas Cage is obviously only showing up for the money, but will he earn his paycheck? And what of Tom Cruise? Dear God, what of Tom Cruise?!

With so many question marks on the schedule this could be the worst summer ever, but it could just as easily be the best summer ever. Nobody expected that "The Hangover," "District Nine" and "The Proposal" were going to be hits last year. Conversely, no one knew "Land of the Lost" was going to be such a disaster. We're just going to have to wait and see. Personally I think it's more fun this way. Sure, everyone knows that "Toy Story 3" is going to be bigger than Jesus, but how are audiences going to take to "The Expendables," "Machete" and "The Other Guys"?

Without all the big franchise films in the way, smaller films are finding it easier to attract attention. Right now some of the most anticipated titles are completely original non-franchise pictures like Christopher Nolan's "Inception" and Edgar Wright's "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World." Put up against a "Transformers 3" or a "Harry Potter 7," neither would get much media attention, but this year they have the chance to break out. Both films have been generating buzz the old fashioned way, with strong trailers and the involvement of popular creative talent. But given how little we know about them, who knows if the buzz will pan out into audience numbers? The best ticket this year might just be watching the box office returns.

We'll see who's still left standing on Labor Day. Until then, have a great summer at the movies!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Bringing the Gavel Down on "Law & Order"

It's that time of year again. As we come to the end of the May sweeps period, the networks have announced a slew of pickups, renewals, and cancellations for the next television season. "V" and "Chuck" have been saved from the brink, but the axe has fallen on "Heroes," "FlashForward," "Scrubs," "The Wanda Sykes Show," "Better off Ted," "Romantically Challenged," and one of the most venerable properties on the NBC schedule, the original "Law & Order," which has been continuously on the air since 1990. There have been signs that "Law & Order" was in trouble after pulling in limp ratings all season, but the news appears to have caught just about everyone off guard. It was widely expected that the crime drama would be able to eke out at least one more season, if only to allow veteran producer Dick Wolf the satisfaction of beating "Gunsmoke's" twenty season record.

The impact of the cancellation is blunted by the fact that there are two "Law & Order" spinoffs still going strong: "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" on NBC and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" on USA. There's also "Law & Order: UK," currently in its second series, one of the very rare examples of an American show being successfully remade by the British instead of the other way around. For for the sake of being of being a completist, I should also mention "Law & Order: Trial by Jury," the only real bomb of the franchise, which had a quick run in 2005, and the odd hybrid "Law & Order: Crime & Punishment," from 2002 which was essentially a "Dateline" style program that followed real criminal cases through the judicial system. And to top it off, yet another spinoff, "Law & Order: Los Angeles," will be premiering in the fall on NBC.

It's tempting to think that the original "Law & Order" could have been saved by an in-series retooling of the premise, or another round of major cast changes that other shows - including other "Law & Order" shows - have used to stave off cancellation. However, a quick glance at the lengthy cast list that the show has accumulated over the years reveals that it's all been tried before. The majority of the cast has come and gone. The last original cast member, Adam Schiff, left the program after ten years. S. Epatha Merkerson, who had the longest tenure at seventeen years, recently announced that this would be her last season. Arguably the most popular cast member, Jerry Orbach, retired after nearly twelve years back in 2004 and the show has never been the same since. The most recent seasons have won critical praise for newcomers Jeremy Sisto, Anthony Anderson, and Linus Roache, but they failed to connect with audiences.

As for retooling or relaunching the show with an altered premise, this is where "Law & Order" falls victim to its own success. The show originated a winning formula that was successfully carried over to its progeny, and it would be impossible to divorce it from its most iconic elements now - the New York City setting, the ripped-from-the-headlines storytelling, and the iconic "doink-doinks" of the interstitials. Clearly there's enough material to sustain the show, but there's not as much to distinguish it, now that the television landscape is littered with "Law & Order" spinoffs, and other cop and lawyer shows that it's influenced. And while it might seem odd that a new spinoff is coming on the heels of its progenitor's demise, twenty years of history adds up to a lot of baggage to be shipped out to the West Coast. It's much easier for NBC to start from scratch.

I never watched the original "Law & Order" regularly, though I caught the occasional episode now and then, usually when a big-name guest star dropped in. I'm much more familiar with the spinoffs, though from what I can tell, the only real difference between the shows is their characters. With that in mind, I think "Law & Order" hit its expiration date a few years ago when we lost Jerry Orbach. When I think of the original, I still think of him and Jesse L. Martin as the leads. The current cast is very good, but today's "Law & Order" might as well be another spinoff. The only one I'm really going to miss is Sam Waterston, who after S. Epatha Merkerson had the longest run on the show with sixteen years under his belt. Considering the franchise's penchant for crossovers, though, he'll surely turn up again somewhere - perhaps in Los Angeles.

"Law & Over" is dead. Long live "Law & Order." It's an easy show to let go of, because really, it's never going to go away.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Ultimate Movie Product Placement

2007 saw the box office success of "Transformers," based on the classic transforming robot toys, which was produced with the full backing of the toy company Hasbro who owns the rights to the toy property. Soon after, announcements started trickling in that other Hasbro toys and games would be getting film treatments. "GI Joe," which was released last summer, was the first one out of the gate, and currently in the pipeline are plans for films based on the boardgames "Battleship," "Monopoly," "Ouija," "Candy Land," and the action figure "Stretch Armstrong."

Anyone who grew up during the 80s knows that this isn't Hasbro's first foray into branded entertainment. Our Saturday mornings were full of animated toy commercials. Hasbro's contributions included such notables as "Transformers," "GI Joe," "My Little Pony," "Jem," "Care Bears" and "Strawberry Shortcake." There was even a live action film based on Hasbro's "Clue" in 1985 - recently announced to be getting a remake, naturally. With the resurgence of 80s nostalgia in the mainstream cinemascape these days, I'd have been surprised if the company didn't try to seize the opportunity to get their properties up on the big screen. What I didn't expect was the sudden proliferation of these projects, or that so many recognizable names would be attached to them so quickly. We have Ridley Scott rumored for the "Monopoly" movie, "Twilight" star Taylor Lautner signed up to be "Stretch Armstrong," and actor/director Peter Berg has committed to a helming "Battleship" for a 2012 release date.

From the marketing standpoint it makes sense. Where once A-list movie stars were counted on to bring in audiences, these days what the studios want is a recognizable brand that viewers are already familiar with. Children's toys and games provide some very strong ones, well-established for decades, and intrinsically tied to positive, nostalgic feelings. Of course industry watchers and film fans have reacted with trepidation, if not outright scorn. The idea of major films being created specifically to market children's toys has led many to declare that Hasbro's partner in these ventures, Universal Pictures has gone creatively bankrupt. There have been jokes that audiences should prepare themselves for epic blockbusters based on Chutes and Ladders and Silly Putty next. Many point to the Hasbro films that have been released so far as proof of future folly. After the summer of 2009 gave us "Transformers 2" and "GI Joe," which critics excoriated but audiences didn't seem to mind, there's been deep skepticism that any of these blatant product-pushing films could possibly have any artistic merit.

I understand where all the frustration is coming from, and yet I remain cautiously optimistic. Artistic inspiration can come from anywhere, even the most crassly commercial sources. Board games and toys might not be the most exciting place to start from, but I don't see anything objectionable about them either. There's nothing keeping any of the announced projects from being good films, or even excellent films. Hasbro's track record may be terrible - and after sitting through the torturous "GI Joe" with a professed fan of the cartoon series, there's no better descriptor - but it doesn't reflect on the basic concepts behind them. Consider, a "Ouija" film would only require that the title be "Ouija" and that the plot somehow involve a Ouija board. I doubt that the filmmakers would be given carte banche to do anything they wanted with the property, but there's a lot more creative leeway here than for something like "Superman" or even your typical "Nightmare on Elm Street" reboot.

The project I'm most interested in is "Candy Land." It was announced back in 2009, to be directed by animator-turned-director Kevin Lima, best known for "Enchanted," and written by Etan Cohen, one of the guys behind "Tropic Thunder." I loved the board game when I was a kid. It's one of the simplest, easiest, most basic games out there, and yet it held such strong appeal for me because of the fantasy theme and gorgeous candy characters. I doubt there was any kid familiar with Candy Land who didn't mentally give the game characters backstories or wonder about the sort of adventures there were to be had in peppermint forests and chocolate swamps. When I ran across life-size versions of Gloppy, Mr. Mint, Princess Lolly, and King Kandy at Dylan's Candy Bar's in New York, I was so tickled, I was reluctant to leave the store. This may not be much source material for filmmakers to work with, but nonetheless there is the potential for something interesting there.

Video games and comic books were once scoffed at as unsuitable source material for major films, but have since been embraced. More recently, Disney received flak for announcing several films based on its theme park rides in the early aughts, until Johnny Depp's performance in "Pirates of the Caribbean" brought in accolades from critics and viewers alike. So when "The Haunted Mansion" with Eddie Murphy and "The Country Bears" with Haley Joel Osment were dismal failures, it was rightly pointed out that they were victims of poor execution rather than unforgivable money-grubbing origins. And if Hollywood can create good films from board games or action figures or cereal mascots, I hardly care what the motives are.

Finally, the 2007 "Transformers" may have been a lousy film, but we shouldn't write off the whole franchise just because Michael Bay got his nitroglycerin-happy mitts on it. Gen Xers all know the real "Transformers" movie was the 1986 animated film, where Optimus Prime died and left us bawling in the theaters. The new CGI version is only a rank impostor.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

And Your Host, Betty White

Betty White's long-awaited appearance on Saturday Night Live over the weekend has been a lingering topic in the entertainment news pages over the last few days. Opinions vary on how good and how tasteless the installment was, but Betty herself received high marks for playing MacGruber's grandmother, lewdly punning her way through a new edition of "Delicious Dish," and delivering a death metal version of the "Golden Girls" theme song. Guest musician Jay-Z even dedicated one of his performances to her. I thought she was delightful, and I wasn't the only one. SNL's ratings went through the roof, and all sorts of rumors are simmering over what the 88-year-old actress will do next to capitalize on the sudden rush of interest.

Now compare this to Andy Rooney's weekly segment on "60 Minutes" the following evening. As one of the apparently nonexistent people under fifty who does watch "60 Minutes" every week and has watched it every Sunday evening after "At the Movies" for as long as I can remember, Rooney's been a firm fixture in my television world for ages. His wry, humorous observations on the little follies of modern life always made for a nice capper to the program. Lately though, the 91-year old is exhibiting signs of fatigue. This week's segment was about Rooney discovering, to his dismay, that he recognized none of the singers on the Billboard chart. There was no attempt made to learn who Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga were, no connection of the musical trends of the day with any broader observation on the state of modern society. He simply pined for the days when Ella Fitzgerald was queen of the music world, and left it at that.

Rooney and White provide two clear examples of a demographic that the media has largely been ignoring - the elderly. As the American population ages, there are more seniors than ever, but you wouldn't think so from a cursory glance over the networks' primetime schedules. It's getting harder and harder to get older and maintain any presence on television these days. News and information shows still prefer mature presenters, and the rosters of our morning programs and late night talk shows have plenty of hosts who are well over fifty. But when you look at sitcoms and dramas and reality shoes, it's quickly apparent that youth-obsessed programmers and advertisers have weeded out nearly everything aimed at audiences that fall beyond the 18-49 demographic.

Long gone are the days when Dick Van Dyke could see "Diagnosis Murder" through eight seasons and Angela Lansbury helmed "Murder She Wrote" for twelve. The closest thing we have now is the highly acclaimed but only mildly successful cable series "Damages," with Glenn Close as the Machiavellian litigator Patty Hewes, and "House," where the curmudgeonly title character is played by Hugh Laurie, an actor barely pushing fifty. Most of the notable television actors of advancing years have been relegated to supporting roles: John Noble on "Fringe," Chevy Chase on "Community," David McCallum on "NCIS," Conchata Ferrell on "Two and a Half Men," and Sharon Gless on "Burn Notice." The soaps used to be a bastion of graying leading men and women, but they've been in serious decline over the last few seasons.

And this brings us back to Rooney and White, and why I think the situation isn't as bad as it seems. An awful lot of TV's creative geniuses like to think of the older generation as so many Andy Rooneys, baffled by popular culture, out of touch, out of date, and not inclined to do anything to change it. But then you have Betty White, whose SNL appearance was instigated by a Facebook campaign, who delivered dozens of raunchy jokes during her appearance, and was game for all the bawdy comedic excesses that would leave many of her contemporaries horrified. I doubt that poor Andy Rooney would have enjoyed the program. However, there was also a wonderful familiarity to it - a call back to all those old screwball comedies with badly behaving geezers, sassy grandmas, and dirty old men, that have sadly gone missing in this generation. No wonder finally seeing a present-day, digital-age incarnation is proving to be a sensation.

If nothing else, it was a good wake-up call to the Hollywood brass that old doesn't necessarily mean over. In the wake of Betty White's SNL performance, there have been calls for more octogenarian hosts. Abe Vigoda is a popular choice in the blogosphere, along with Carol Burnett. Suddenly old is novel.

Today, Old is the new New.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I Don't Want to See "The Road"

Scanning the lists of upcoming DVD releases for any 2009 prestige pics I might have missed, I ran across a title that I've been trying to avoid: "The Road." There's one of these films every year, a title with a fair amount of acclaim behind it, but where the themes or story elements just turn me off completely. Now there are films that I've had to work myself up to watch because of intense subject matter, like "Precious," and "The White Ribbon," and certain genres like gross-out comedies and horror that I know don't usually enjoy. But this is something else at work, where seemingly innocuous movies, sight unseen, manage to repel me. Last year it was Clint Eastwood's "The Changeling," which makes no logical sense because I've liked all of Eastwood's recent films, and I generally have no problems with Angelina Jolie. I just couldn't bring myself to watch it. A few years before that it was "Dreamgirls," which was touted as having some of the best performances of the year, but had me cringing at the thought of a viewing. I'm still not sure why.

I expect that the marketing of these films has something to do with it. "Changeling" and "Dreamgirls" were both major awards contenders in their respective years and ran high-profile campaigns. It makes sense that aggressive sells or overexposure for films I had little initial interest might have had the opposite intended effect and left me cold. "Dreamgirls" was notorious for starting its advertising push almost a year in advance of its release date. Or it's also likely that the media blitz could have magnified negative perceptions I already had. Upon first glance both pictures have heavy, melodramatic, unhappy stories that can be a pain to sit through if they're not done well - "Changeling" is about a woman whose missing child is replaced by an imposter thanks to a corrupt police force, and "Dreamgirls" is about the contentious rise of a Motown singing group that involves in a lot of heartbreak. Most of the buzz around Angelina Jolie's and Jennifer Hudson's performances were backed up by the same few clips of them acting emotionally overwrought, which I never find appealing.

My aversion to "The Road" has more obvious roots. I've never handled doomsday films very well. I don't mean the action-adventure spectacles like "2012" or "I am Legend" where salvation is generally assured for the human race, even if the hero doesn't make it. I mean the films where human society is gone or in the final stages of disintegration, and any survivors left have only very bleak prospects for the future. Considering the multitude of global conflicts and environmental crises currently plaguing us today, these films tend to hit a little too close to home for me. "An Inconvenient Truth" left me with knots in my stomach for days. And I sat through the first hour of "WALL-E" in supreme discomfort, wracked with guilt and dismay at the vision of an empty, garbage-strewn planet Earth where humanity was only a memory. It's the only PIXAR film that I wouldn't watch again on my own. "The Road," based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Cormac McCarthy would appear to fall into the same category.

On the other hand there are some entries in this genre that I've enjoyed. "Songs from the Second Story," a Scandinavian film that chronicles the fall of society as black-humored farce, is a great piece of work. Ditto the criminally underseen "When the Wind Blows," a British animated film that follows two elderly pensioners in the wake of a nuclear attack. Both were dark, grim, often horrific, and everything I shouldn't have enjoyed. But I did. And it's experiences like these that keep me from writing off post-apocalypse films entirely. "The Road" has plenty that I might like, including reputedly solid performances, Javier Aguirresarobe's cinematography, and of course the benefit of Cormac McCarthy's source material. But somehow, it's not enough.

I guess the big question is, why beat myself up over the fact that I don't want to watch particular films? Because I used to automatically dismiss foreign films, black-and-white films, documentaries, older films, and lots of other categories of film. And when I got over these mental blocks, one by one, I reaped the rewards. Once I put away those erroneous preconceptions and biases, my cinema world got exponentially bigger and more interesting. So the fact that there are still these films that rub me the wrong way every year, sight unseen, makes me think I've still got a ways to go.

"The Road" will be released on DVD on May 25th. I still don't want to see it, but I want to *want* to see it.