Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Today's Sign of the Apocalypse: Rewarding Bad Behavior

If you know me, you know I often like to use this blog as a forum to gripe about the dumbing down of popular American culture. Every now and then, I see a sign that maybe I'm wrong ("Inglourious Basterds"). But most of the time, my complaint goes unchallenged. Don't believe me? Then just look at this little bit of news from today.
"L.A. Candy," a novel released earlier this year by "The Hills" star Lauren Conrad, will be made into a movie. The rights for the book were bought by Temple Hill Entertainment, the studio also responsible for bringing "Twilight" to the big screen.
While it might be hypocritical for me to constantly bash "Twilight," given that I haven't seen a second of it, there's absolutely no hypocrisy in me slamming this horrendous idea.
One day at work this summer, I spotted a copy of "L.A. Candy" sitting on the table. For fun my fellow workers and I decided to read it. After reading a few pages out loud, my boss remarked, "my entire college degree just evaporated." I don't have a college degree yet, but my mind certainly melted quite a bit. The content of "L.A. Candy" doesn't in the least bit sound like it was written by an actual writer. Every page sounded like a bunch of text messages between two 13-year-old girls about a Jonas Brothers concert. Yes, the words "OMG" and "LOL" are used frequently.
Why is it that we continue to throw so much money at stars of a show like "The Hills?" And on that note, why must we reward trash with what will likely be an even trashier film adaptation? Whatever, I'm just going to sit here and wait for the releases of the adaptations of "Fantastic Mr. Fox," "Where the Wild Things Are," "The Road," and "Rum Diary," and pretend this never happened.
Note: What director would be the perfect match to adapt "L.A. Candy?" My choice: Brett Ratner. Or maybe David Lynch. A few severed ears and deformed fetuses might just be enough to scare Conrad away from Hollywood forever.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Werner Herzog: Film Professor. Yes, Please.

Some directors are known not just for their artistic style, but also for their eccentric behavior off set. Alfred Hitchcock wore a suit on set every day and was known for playing elaborate practical jokes. David Lynch has a website where he talks about the weather.
Werner Herzog, is on a whole other level. After losing a bet, he publicly ate a shoe. He saved Joaquin Phoenix from a car crash. He even got shot once, and laughed it off. Oh, and he's also an extraordinary director: a filmmaker, a visionary, and a poet all wrapped into one. He has directed such films as "Grizzly Man," "Rescue Dawn," and "Fitzcarraldo." It seems fitting now that someone who knows film as well as he would now be taking on the role of professor, at his very own Rogue Film School.
However, this is no ordinary film school where a teacher hands you a camera, tells you what a tracking shot is, and sends you out into the world. No, this one lacks all of that technical stuff. Instead, it promises to teach "the art of lockpicking" and "traveling on foot." He promotes this program to people who have "worked as bouncers in sex clubs" or "as wardens in a lunatic asylum." He then goes on to encourage students to follow their visions and "be not afraid of solitude." From the sound of it, no filmmaking will be done in this program. It seems to be more about teaching the art of being a filmmaker, rather than the art of film.
Even to those who believe that the best way to understand film is to have hands-on experience and learn every technique from top to bottom, Herzog is making a truly interesting point about the art of film through his strange teachings. The best filmmakers are the ones who incorporate their emotions, their lives into their films. Films are a way that one's voice can be communicated. Perhaps what Herzog is saying is that before one can become a truly great auteur, they must learn the struggles of life and sharpen their perceptions of the world.
It's not surprising to see that someone like Herzog might carry this belief. The most memorable scene in "Grizzly Man" is the one where he commands Timothy Treadwell's ex-girlfriend to destroy the video that contains the moment her husband was mauled to death by a bear. In this moment, Herzog was totally putting himself into his film. He was taking control of it and putting his thoughts, his emotions, into a real life event.
Now, I'd like to leave this up to you. What truly makes a good filmmaker? Is it the person who knows everything about the process and has absorbed thousands of movies? Or, is it the one whose seen the world and mastered such obscure skills as the art of lockpicking?
Here's a clip of David Lynch telling us the weather while wearing a cowboy hat. Why? Because he's David Lynch, that's why.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Movie Review: The Informant!

The poster for "The Informant!," at first glance, reminded me of the poster for "The 40 Year Old Virgin." Not only did both include two overly jolly men, but there was just something about them that made me happy every time I looked at them. Like the poster for "Virgin," there was something so incredibly funny, and so incredibly strange about the poster for "The Informant!" that I just had to see it. It turns out, the movie is both of these things, in ways different than you might imagine.
"The Informant!" is based on the true story of one of the biggest (and weirdest) financial frauds in American history. However, it tends to take its history quite lightly. After a title card informs us that the film is based on a true story, we are treated to the sentence "So there." Off the bat we are being told to expect nothing short of a comedic version of true events.
The corporate fraud focused on in the film is that of the major price fixing [Editor's Note: Please, don't make me try to explain what that is] that took place in the early 1990s at the Illinois food processing company Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). The seemingly innocent biochemist turned businessman Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) becomes an informant for the FBI, who looks to bust the company. However, agents Bob Herndon (Joel McHale) and Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) soon realize that Whitacre's ineptitude might get them into more trouble than they could have ever imagined.
Commercials for "The Informant!" have made it out to be purely comical. While the film is hilarious at times, it's not as much as a comedy as you might expect. While director Steven Soderbergh could've taken this exact same story and turned it into a dramatic, suspensful thriller on the level of "The Departed" or his own "Traffic." Instead, he twisted it around and turned it into a light-hearted, comedic thriller with serious undertones. I'm happy he decided to take this path. Had the film been more serious, it probably would've seemed much less original.
Parts of "The Informant!" feel like a tribute to the great film noir of the past. Everything from the opening credit font, to the tangled web lies, feels right out of the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s. Meanwhile, the somewhat jazzy musical score could be traced all the way back to "The Maltese Falcon."
Maybe the greatest reward the film gives is the pleasure of seeing Damon play Marc Whitacre with complete scrutiny. Damon pulled a De Niro for this performance and gained over 30 pounds to fully embody the everyday schlub that Whitacre truly was. In his performance, Damon is funny at all the right moments, tricky at all the right moments, and serious and self reflective at all the right moments. But most importantly, he always looks like he's just having a good time in the role. When it doesn't look like an actor is having a good time in a comedy, you know you're in trouble. Damon looks like he's having a blast.
Making up the rest of the ensemble are many comedians who now seem to be slipping into more dramatic roles. McHale, who started this week off good with his first real acting job ever in "Community" scores once again, getting one of the film's biggest laughs with just a small facial expression.
While some perceive the humor to be a little smug and condescending, I remain a firm believer that in a smart film, structure relates to function. And here, the function is to almost give us the feeling of how overly smug some of the men must've been, thinking that even as they drew themselves closer and closer to being caught, that they remained invincible. Also fascinating is Whitacre's narration. It doesn't really do much to enhance the story or give us background details, it is basically just a stream of consciousness. It gives us a feeling of what goes through Whitacre's head everyday. However, some of these details may actually be important. Or they may not. Maybe they're just leading us into a big trap. The truth never is what it seems.
As the great line in "Some Like it Hot" goes: "Well, nobody's perfect." "The Informant!" certainly isn't. It doesn't really get interesting until the FBI gets involved, and often times its not as funny as it thinks it is. But it was one thing: really entertaining. It is so rare that you see a movie like "The Informant!" that provides the audience entertainment in a sophisticated and adult way. It is hip, yet it is also versed in the classics. It provides a history lesson without putting its audience to sleep.
But after all is said and done, you know what the funniest part of the film is? The fact that the real joke of the film is on you.
Recommended for Fans of: Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Catch Me If You Can, Wall Street, Traffic, The French Connection, The Maltese Falcon, Chinatown

Thursday, September 17, 2009

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia Season 5 Premiere: Foreclosures, Octomom, and Hummingbirds

I guess it makes sense that "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" would begin a new season with a pointless conversation about whether or not it's illegal to own a hummingbird. After all, it's not like they have anything valuable they could be giving back to society.
And so begins the fifth season of FX's strangely genius, totally twisted comedy "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." The show started years ago, being helmed by an unexperienced writer (Rob McElhenney) with a budget under $200. Some thought it would never survive. They were wrong.
Maybe what's so great about "Sunny" is that it totally abandons the idea of having any sort of continuous story-lines or continuity. Season four ended with Charlie (Charlie Day) creating a fantasy musical that accidently ended up being about being about child molestation in a failed attempt to impress the Waitress (Mary Elizabeth Ellis). Season five finds the gang living in a totally different from the one we last saw them in last November. This time, they're dealing with a tough economy. And what better way for the gang to celebrate financial meltdown than to totally exploit it?
The season premiere is entitled "The Gang Exploits the Mortgage Crisis." In it, the boys come up with an ill-conceived get rich quick scheme that involves them buying foreclosed homes and selling them at higher prices. As usual, their parallel universe collapses, and reality sets in. Meanwhile, Dee (Kaitlin Olson) decides to become a surrogate mom for a wealthy couple. The couple seems right out of "Juno," and her plan emulates Octomom. Sounds perfect, right? Well, don't underestimate the power of alcohol, or the stupidity of Mac (McElhenney), Dennis (Glenn Howerton), Charlie, and Frank (Danny DeVito).
While some shows tend to decline in later seasons, "Sunny" seems to be getting better and better. As the show has rolled on, each actor seems to be getting a better grip of their character, and finding a way to bring even the tiniest bit of sympathy to five of the most horrible TV characters ever created.
Maybe what helped make this episode so satisfying was that it did what a good "Sunny" episode should do: it placed the gang amongst intelligent human beings and higher standards of living yet still had them act as selfish and obnoxious as they usually would. However, this is also where some sympathy might build for the characters: in this idea that they're simply misunderstood outsiders. They're not trying to be bad, they just want to get ahead in life. But of course, their view of success is a little...warped.
The only problem with this episode falls in its very abrupt ending. Although it managed to tie both stories together well, in the end, parts of the episode felt slightly rushed. McElhenney took an hour long story and tried to cram it into thirty minutes. We'll probably never hear about Dee's attempt at parenthood, or Charlie's attempt at a duel ever again, but then again, this gang does still have a bar to manage.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Patrick Swayze: 1952-2009

Various sources have officially reported that actor Patrick Swayze, known primarily for his work in "Dirty Dancing" and "Ghost," died today after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 57.
Swayze became a household name in the 80s and 90s, beginning with his patriarch-like role in "The Outsiders" as Darrel Curtis. He's probably most well known for his performance in "Dirty Dancing," in which he spewed one of the most imitated lines in the movies: "Nobody puts baby in the corner." Swayze is also defined by his role in the classic cheesy 80s action flick "Road House."
The one performance I won't forget from him is a recent one, his role as the phony inspirational speaker in "Donnie Darko." In it, he channeled a level of subtle creepiness that was perfectly hidden under what seemed like over-the-top kindness. But when that one twisted secret is revealed about him, no one should have been the least bit surprised. Now, that was good acting; and today, that legacy will hopefully not be forgotten.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Coen Brothers & The Dude Reunite: Yay(?)

Normally, I'd be jumping for absolute joy when hearing that The Coen Brothers and Jeff "The Dude" Bridges will be making their first movie together since "The Big Lebowski."
Great start, right? Well of course, there's two sides to everything. Variety reports that it will be a remake of the 1969 John Wayne Western "True Grit." Unfortunately, I can't provide much detailed analysis of "True Grit" because I haven't seen it yet. What I do know is that it's about a drunken U.S. Marshal who helps a 14-year-old girl find her father's murderer. Also, this film earned Wayne the first and only Oscar of his career (likely to make up for snubbing his performance in "The Searchers").
Now, I pretty much always express outrage when Hollywood decides to remake classics. While someone had the decency to kill that "Rosemary's Baby" remake, that proposed "Bonnie & Clyde" remake has yet to be shot down. And while I'm not surprised that someone like Michael Bay (who was on board for the "Baby" remake) would try and ruin a classic, I would never expect it from the Joel and Ethan Coen, who have come up with some of the most amazingly original stories of the past 30 years.
There isn't really much good to remakes, but some people do defend them. Often, they can be good, but that's in the rare circumstance where the director takes the old film and puts a new spin to it that's entertaining and unique. Perhaps the Coen Brothers are just the people to do that. It already seems that they're planning on telling the story from the girl's perspective (apparently in the original, the story is told from the perspective of Wayne). Not only that, but the Coen Brothers shoot most of their best films west of the Mississippi. Adding their unique eye to regional accents and mannerisms probably couldn't hurt the film either. They can also shoot a pretty good shootout, too.
So, take this project as you will. While I know the Coen Brothers are capable of inventing their own stories, I'll still probably line up for anything with the names Coen and Bridges on it.
I couldn't think of a good "Lebowski" quote to randomly incorporate into the article, so this clip is just about as good:

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Movie Review: Extract

It seems fitting that "Extract" takes place in a vanilla extract factory, since the film is about as plain as the flavor itself. And the saddest part is, it comes from one of Hollywood's most creative directors.
"Extract" is a comedy. Sometimes, it's a spoof on work hell. Other times, it's a spoof on suburbia. And then the rest of the time, it's supposed to be a comedic crime caper. It never really takes a stand at specifically which one it will be, and not a single one of these ideas ever seems to connect.
"Extract" is directed by Mike Judge, whose previous comedy about life at work is, of course, "Office Space." This time, rather than being from the perspective of the miserable mid-level worker, it's from the perspective of the stressed out boss. Joel (Jason Bateman) owns a successful flavor extract company. He's about to make a fortune by selling his company to General Mills until a freak accident in the factory leaves a worker without a testicle. His replacement is an attractive con woman named Cindy (Mila Kunis). She seems nice, but she's secretly trying to con the company out of millions of dollars.
Back at home, Joel's life is even more complicated. He has major sexual troubles with his wife (Kristen Wiig). This is what will eventually set the stage for some bad advice from a drug-loving bar tender (Ben Affleck) and a doomed relationship with Cindy.
Those are the two plots of Extract. If Judge wanted to make a better movie, he should've just stuck to one of them. And in my opinion, it should've been the hard working, frustrated boss tries to make things work at work and home. The con woman plot goes absolutely nowhere.
How Judge could make such a poorly executed comedy is beyond me. Not only did he direct "Office Space," he also created "Beavis and Butt-head." While many people without a sense of irony thought this show was just plain dumb, it's actually about the humor of observing dumb people. "Extract" certainly could have had some of that. At one point, Joel points out how all of his workers are giant babies, and he is like their babysitter. We see the workers' work habits. While the workers' work habits are annoying, they're never particularly hilarious. None of them seem to have those Milton-like qualities.
Like any Mike Judge film or show, "Extract" is filled with a wide variety of characters defined by their quirks. Usually these quirks include a less than intelligent brain, or a strange way of speaking. Maybe the best one in "Extract" is Joel's nosy neighbor Nathan (David Koechner). However, his quirks aren't shown in a lovable way. They're shown in a more "I want to punch this guy in the face" way.
Maybe the reason many of the characters don't work is because Judge underutilizes his obscenely talented cast. J.K. Simmons is barely given a funny line, and his role in the film is never defined. Wiig is great at playing shy and asexual, but again, she's given few chances to be truly funny. And while I was most looking forward to seeing Affleck (what? he's funny), he is given too little screen time. I always enjoy Jason Bateman, and here I think he did his best to re-create his other famous frustrated boss role: Michael Bluth--if only this film could've been more like "Arrested Development." However, there are two bright spots. Kiss's Gene Simmons does a hilarious job portraying a sleazy lawyer, and Dustin Milligan gets some of the film's best laughs for playing the brain dead gigolo Brad.
I don't want to give "Extract" as bad a review as I could because I know there's potential for a great movie in here. That potential is perhaps best seen at the film's end. The ending has an underlying, subtle humor to it and an almost moving, human quality. It is the ending to a film that never actually existed. That end scene showed the film's true, wasted potential.
Judge is one of Hollywood's most under appreciated talents, and I thought "Extract" would become another underrated cult hit. It had potential. If only it had emulated that ending scene and been the kind of satire of American life Judge is so great at doing, than this comedy would've been an instant classic.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Dumb Move of the Day: SNL Fires Michaela Watkins & Casey Wilson

Unlike many out there, I still haven't lost my faith in "Saturday Night Live." It's been on for 34 years now and every now and then it goes through a rough patch only to have a major comeback later on. But the announcement today that cast members Michaela Watkins and Casey Wilson would be fired after just one year as featured players was a big blow to my faith in the show.
To be fair, Wilson was funny, but never provided anything too special. Then again, she was on for just a year and she did show promise. Also, she had a few very good celebrity impressions up her sleeve (including a very accurate one of Christina Hendricks on "Mad Men."
Most disappointing to me is the decision to fire Watkins. She was on for barely one season. Is that enough time for a person to show their true talents? She was definitely one of the best recent additions to the show, and I really looked forward to seeing more of her work this season. During her short lived SNL career, she did pretty brilliant impressions of Ariana Huffington and Joan Rivers. She also became well known for her obnoxious blogger character which a lot of people found annoying but I liked because I'm also an obnoxious blogger.
So far, no reason has been provided as to why they were fired. However, just last week it was announced that Jenny Slate and Nasim Pedrad would be joining the cast. I thought they'd be additions, not replacements. Maybe the reason for this firing was budget cuts. Or maybe Lorne Michaels is trying to get SNL back on track. If so, he's doing so the wrong way. Although I still find SNL funny, the real problem is the writing, not the acting (in fact, this ensemble is one of the best in years). If Lorne really thought it was time to make some changes, he instead would've demoted the writing staff to Leno and gave these two promising newcomers a second chance. 
This article is the closest thing to an explanation.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Summer '09 in Movies

Summer 2009 came and went. It was a summer of record highs and record lows. No, I’m not talking about the temperature; I’m talking about what happened inside the movie theater. Every summer, Hollywood tries to blow away audiences with high budget blockbusters and high concept comedies. This summer, as with any summer, a select few struck a chord with moviegoers. Now is time to examine the 2009 summer in movies.

Summer started strong. To no one’s surprise, Pixar scored another hit with “Up.” Even without 3D glasses, “Up” was as stunning as it was moving.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the summer came earliest: “The Hangover.” What at first seemed like a typical buddies-go-to-Vegas-comedy turned into the funniest movie of the summer. What made the film work so well was it’s mixture of psychological thriller with slapstick comedy and Carrot Top cameos.

Perhaps the two most anticipated comedies of the summer, “Bruno” and “Funny People,” did not quite win over audiences. Of all the movies this summer, these two no doubt alienated audiences the most. I, however, was on the side of admiration. While “Bruno” didn’t reach “Borat” levels of hilarity, it’s impossible not to be impressed by Sacha Baron Cohen’s shameless audacity and ability to get a laugh even in the most frightening situations.

“Funny People” is the third film directed by Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up”), and certainly his most different. It’s his first film dealing with death, and his first one with an organized plot structure reaching an unknown conclusion rather than a plot that was a string of unpredictable events leading to a known conclusion. I don’t know which approach is better but in the end, both work.

Perhaps summer’s biggest disappointment was “Public Enemies.” What could’ve been a classic Depression-era crime thriller on the level of “Bonnie and Clyde” turned out to be a giant dud, and a waste of the brilliant talents of Christian Bale and Johnny Depp. Perhaps the main reason is that Michael Mann (“Collateral”) only seems to want to direct action, and not characters. On that note, he can’t direct action sequences very well either.

As for the big blockbusters, it was a mixed bag. “Star Trek” scored major points. I did not see “Transformers 2” or “G.I. Joe,” because the movies-based-on-toys trend is one that must soon come to a halt. The tonic to this Hollywood’s blockbuster problem was the stunning “District 9.” Maybe it was such a cure because it was more Cape Town than Tinseltown as it was shot by first time South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp. The film managed to mix bizarre sci-fi fantasy with an allegory on apartheid and immigration. It was the perfect mix of action and brains I was searching for all summer long.

As usual, the best summer fare came from the art house. Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” is the Iraq War film this generation has been waiting for. Shot eerily like a documentary, “The Hurt Locker” is perhaps the most realistic look at the war put on screen so far. It’s about a bomb diffuser so whenever a bomb goes off, naturally it goes off in slow motion; you can watch metal melting off a car as a bomb goes off. Michael Bay could learn a thing or two from a film like this.

This summer’s “Little Miss Sunshine” Award for indie surprise goes to “(500) Days of Summer.” While commercials have portrayed the film as a romantic comedy, it is far from that. It is the most inventive anti-romantic comedy you’ll see in a long time.

This summer’s award for best film came late. It is one that I should’ve seen coming though: “Inglourious Basterds.” Quentin Tarantino (“Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill”) is at the top of his game, employing Spaghetti Western style to Nazi occupied France.

What is it that an auteur like Tarantino proves about this summer in movies? Well, he proves that in the end, originality always wins.