Baseball Toaster Western Homes
How Are Our Shows?
2008-11-07 08:58
by Mark T.R. Donohue

November is a sweeps month, so the networks are finally giving us consistent new episodes of shows we actually want to see. It seems like a broken record playing, fall after fall, but this has been a dreadful year for new shows. "My Own Worst Enemy" is so stupid it makes "Chuck" look intelligent by comparison. It's hard to choose what to hate most about "Fringe," the tepid dialogue, Anna Torv's monstrously unconvincing American accent, or Joshua Jackson's deeply crappy acting. "Kath & Kim" is hideously unfunny, like one of those sketches in the last half-hour of "Saturday Night Live" that just goes on and on. The mere promos for "Gary Unmarried" make my teeth grind. The good thing about all these shows that suck, if you want to search for a silver lining, is that the lack of new hits leaves space on the schedule. There are a lot of shows with low ratings, from "Life" to "30 Rock," that richly deserve long, healthy runs.

It's been torture waiting out new "House" episodes. Between the World Series and the desire to make sure its top drama aired fresh installments all November, it's been like one new episode every three weeks so far. I want more Michael Weston, more House-Cuddy macking, more arbitrary ways to cram Jesse Spencer and Jennifer Morrison into one scene per episode, more of everything. The show has developed such a rich cast of neurotics that it really ought to be two hours long every week. Surprisingly, among the new trio of ducklings that replaced Foreman/Chase/Cameron after Season 4's reality-show competition, it's Peter Jacobson's Talb that has emerged as the standout. Kal Penn hasn't gotten much to do, and Olivia Wilde's character might be lithe and bisexual but the producers erred in keeping her and killing off Anne Dudek's capable Amber. Talb on the other hand is very intriguing because unlike all the other underlings House has hired and fired over the years, he's completely unafraid of the limping doc. What's been best about Season 5 so far is an abandonment of the new sets, new characters, and new dynamics that crowded the strike-shortened Season 4. They've gotten back to the show's core dynamic, delving into House's uniquely codependent relationship with Wilson and really fleshing out what's always been the hottest romance on the show (if an almost entirely subtextual one). Getting to learn how they met, and seeing House pretend to be moved at his father's funeral in order to steal his hair for a DNA test, made "Birthmarks" the highlight of the season thus far.

"My Name Is Earl" lost its way a little bit last season when Greg Garcia and his writers started really blowing out of the box, trying everything from a long series of prison episodes to coma fantasies to animation to a quickie wedding. It's fun to spread your wings sometimes as a TV writer, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with the premise as it was, and there were still tons more stories to tell, as the fourth season has evidenced thus far. The show still feels a little disconnected from its early salad days, and it really could stand to get back to the "Simpsons"-like massive cast it once had. All the recurring characters made the show unique and weird, and made Camden seem like a real community. Of course it's always a logistical hassle when you're talking about real actors and not cartoons voiced by one of the same three guys, but they made the effort before and they can make the effort again. Random cameos by Nescobar A-Lop-Lop here and there don't count. Also -- how many times can a person be hit by a car before their skeleton just turns to jelly and they can't recover any more? If Superbad is to be believed, it is more than two.

"Bones" has been pretty good in this its fourth season although like a lot of shows it got hobbled by the strike last year. The third season was the first time Hart Hanson's team tried to work an overarching mystery across the whole year and the loss of the last third of the season kind of torched the whole thing. That's too bad because as envisioned I think the occult killer storyline could have packed a big wallop; it's not every day a crime show sends one of its regulars off to life in prison. I liked the way the showrunners observed real-world logic in crafting an exit route for lab assistant Zack (Eric Millegan). Like the way the Cameron/Foreman/Chase troika had to go on "House" because logically no one could possibly work for the man longer than they already had, Zack had to either finish his thesis, get his doctorate and go off to get another job... or become exposed as the accomplice of a monstrous multiple murderer. Whichever. I think the course the producers chose was more interesting, but even though they put clues in as early as the third-season pilot, the strike made everything come together abruptly. They've added a whole new axis to the show in John Francis Daley's psychiatrist Sweets; a logical choice due to Brennan's (Emily Deschanel) distaste for psychiatry. With Sweets as the regular replacing lab tech Zack, the show has cut down somewhat on scenes in that unfortunately lit laboratory set. But sometimes in the new season Daley's appearances have been forced; might have been better off keeping him a recurring character like Stephen Fry's valued (and missed) Dr. Gordon Wyatt.

"Heroes" goes back and forth from week to week. Watching Robert Forster hump the scenery as the patriarch of the Petrelli clan and the show's new Big Bad is sort of interesting, given how low-key he was in his signature role in Jackie Brown. I agree with a lot of what Entertainment Weekly's recent cover story had to say about the show's decline. They've gone to the time-travel well about nine times too many and the show's "present" has started to seem inconsequential as a result. The new characters are a mixed bag -- the fear guy is cool and intimidating, but the super-speedy girl with the dye job is a mediocre actress. At least they got rid of Maya! They've had way too many rapid shifts in characters' behavior, changes made for the convenience of the plot that have little if anything to do with their established behavior. Mohinder turning into a cocoon-spinning mutant lizard is just the most ridiculous example. They had an excellent chance to kill off Ali Larter's character and banish her vacant expressions and robotic line readings forever, but for some reason they resurrected her as a some other hero. Yeah, Niki's power was really stupid. But Niki 2.0 can... freeze stuff. Like, really cold. Watch out. I don't get why a show that dispatches major characters with reckless aplomb would go out of their way to keep Larter in the cast. Particularly since Hayden Panetierre has completely pipped her as the show's sex symbol.

The latest "Treehouse of Horror" was mildly entertaining but a good example of why I don't TiVo the first-run "Simpsons" anymore. They're still good for a laugh riot every now and then, which is impressive for a show in its twentieth season, but more often than not the new episodes are more pleasant than anything else. It's nice to see all the characters we love and the colors are bright, but "American Dad" has more laugh-out-loud jokes per half hour these days. That in and of itself may be a sign that it's time for the show's two-decade cruise to start heading into port. The Halloween episode had two segments, a Transformers parody and a "Peanuts" homage, that were pretty to look at but kind of short on laughs. Then there was a useless middle part that existed solely as an excuse for the writers to parody the "Mad Men" credit sequence -- brilliantly, but kind of pointlessly.

B-Movies, Big Issues
2008-10-18 15:23
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I rented two pretty crummy movies from the McDonald's kiosk last night -- The Happening and You Don't Mess with the Zohan. Both were films geared unabashedly towards the lowest common denominator, presenting gratuitous gore in the former and a nonstop barrage of tasteless sex jokes in the latter. Both movies, I feel, rather undercut their core goals by bringing in sensitive real-world issues that were quite above their modest ambitions.

The Happening, promoted widely as Night Shyamalan's first R-rated movie, should have been publicized more as his first movie not to feature a signature twist. I don't feel at all bad about giving the whole plot away right here, since Mark Wahlberg's science teacher character does so in the first scene in which he appears. The trees are sick of sharing the earth with the humans, and... they're fighting back! (Sadly, the soundtrack passes up on the opportunity to use any Rush songs.) This makes for some scary scenes in the the first ten minutes, as people begin to graphically commit suicide left and right on city streets. Unfortunately, the rest of the picture really lags, since there's not a whole lot of terror to be wrung out of a small group of refugees fleeing death-bringing pollen. Shyamalan, who's a fabulously gifted director, does his best and manages to deliver a handful of whopper scares. But there's also a lot of shots of the wind gently -- ominously, but gently -- blowing the foliage around. Grass is inherently not scary.

The movie is miscast, too. Wahlberg is as he always is. His character seems a little slow, like maybe he's reading his lines off of his wrist, but Mark Wahlberg has always been able to make his radiating stupidity play sympathetic. Zooey Deschanel, on the other hand, is a good actress, but she's hugely out of place here. Her character is supposed to be emotionally distant, providing the friction in her marriage to Wahlberg and the film's one and only subplot, but Deschanel couldn't play emotionally distant if she tried. Her enormous eyes communicate everything she's feeling immediately. Shyamalan's rep lets him bring in better actors than he really deserves for many of the minor roles, and John Leguizamo, Alan Ruck, and even Clerks' Brian O'Halloran all wander through impactless. The director has a real problem with his premise -- the plague kills by making people suicidal, but to show any of his leads actually killing themselves would leave the audience with the wrong final impression of them. So he cuts away, which makes the whole thing feel floaty and inconsequential. Lots of movies kill scores of extras.

Realizing he's losing momentum, Night takes a random detour in the last twenty minutes or so to provide a new antagonist (beautifully played by grand dame Betty Buckley) and a few more arbitrary shocks, including the sight of the kid from The Kid taking a full-barrel shotgun blast right in the gut. Final analysis, the guy hasn't made a half-decent movie since Signs, and ought to try his hand on somebody's else's script one of these days. If Mark Wahlberg can't understand it and passes, that would be a good first step.

As for You Don't Mess with the Zohan, it's pretty minor gross-out fare, save for the vaguely offensive sight of John Turturro and Rob Schneider in dusky makeup playing Arabs. Adam Sandler hasn't made a good old-fashioned Adam Sandler movie in a while, with a stupid voice and idiotic asocial behavior, so in that sense it's nice to see him going back to what he does best. Zohan isn't as funny as Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore, the two Z-grade classics that established Sandler's formula and still lend their names to his production company, but it's in the same spirit. Casting no one else in the movie taller than 5'5" does not make Sandler any more convincing as an untouchable commando, and why exactly his Zohan is such a naif is a mystery. It's not exactly like Tel Aviv is a backwater.

The commando-as-hairdresser stuff is pretty funny, but Zohan's immoderate libido isn't, and the whole subplot with him servicing all of his elderly female customers after he styles their wigs is more disturbing than anything else. The plot, when one shows up about two-thirds into the proceedings, is straight out of Caddyshack II. Sandler works a few laughs out of the premise, but he's not really doing anything to advance the cause of Israeli-Palestinian relations, and I sincerely hope he doesn't view this as an Austin Powers-like franchise. His Israeli accent isn't all that distinguishable from his dreaded Waterboy Cajun accent, and both really wear on the ears after long enough. Also, what is the whole obsession with goats?

New TV Season, Hooray!
2008-10-08 17:01
by Mark T.R. Donohue

We're a few weeks in and I've figured out what I'm keeping on my DVR season pass list. Seems like the networks, across the board, are energized by the end of the writers' strike and the prospect of full seasons of their profit-making shows. Less reality and more "Heroes" is OK with me.

Jury's still out on the new shows. I have a lot of shows from last season that I bailed out on early due to strike depression, so I'm giving them my time now instead of anything new and clearly doomed -- the ads for that Jay Mohr sitcom, in particular, seem wretched. "Pushing Daisies," perhaps surprisingly, survived a short and overlooked first season on a network where it sticks out like a sore thumb. I was pleased to see its second-season premiere well-promoted. The show is still just a little bit too stylized for its own good, but if you're the sort of person who gets drawn in by Tim Burton sets or Coen Brothers scripts, at some point you just accept that every line of dialogue is going to be overloaded with puns and alliteration and go with it. Any show that can have French Stewart as a guest star and still boast at least three more overacting characters has got some charm to it.

The other show from last season I lost in the shuffle there was "Life," which I'm now watching with some interest. The police procedural show is so ubiquitous now that there's already a whole genre of shows that try to subvert its formula; "Life" is hardly the first show to try and put itself at right angles to America's obsession with very attractive corpses. If you want wisecracking with dusting for fingerprints included, there's the more meat-and-potatoes "NCIS," or cable's lovable "Monk" and "Psych." But "Life" has something going for it, mostly Damian Lewis's beatific lead character. If you haven't heard the hook, he's a police detective who was wrongly imprisoned for murder and has been released and returned to the job after years of incarceration. As a result, he has kind of "only he who has lost everything gains anything" quiet peace to him, in addition to a penchant for tropical fruits. It's a completely unique inverse to the hard-as-nails cop and the actress who plays his straight-arrow partner is witty enough to keep up with Lewis. Only thing is the same problem with all these shows -- how are there enough horrible murders in Southern California to keep all of these people on all these shows in their jobs? Sometimes I'm glad I live in flyover country.

New seasons of "Californication" and "Dexter" are underway over on pay TV. I haven't started the latter yet because I just finished watching the second season (suitably exciting, some more bad acting from the supporting cast, not as creepily airtight as the first). I did watch the first three episodes of David Duchovny's series. Is it OK for a sex addict to be appearing on what's basically a revival of HBO's classic nudity vehicle "Dream On," only with literary ambitions? I wonder if Duchovny hears his own voice narrating his various liaisons as he once did "Red Shoe Diaries." See, no matter how big you get, movie star even, you can never escape pay cable soft porn.

OK, I'm belittling Tom Kapinos's show a little. Wendie Malick was hotter as the ex on "Dream On" than the vacant Natascha McElhone is on "Californication," but other than that the writing is much better, the jokes are way better, and the girls are hotter. Carla Gallo played a porn star in a recent storyline. After ending the first season by suggesting that his protagonist had finally made his mind up to settle down with his daughter and her mother, Kapinos sets out right away to put Duchovny's Hank into situations that are going to jeopardize his new domesticity. Taking a job writing the biography of a coke-snorting, prostitute-enthusiast record producer (Callum Rennie) is like smoking in an oxygen bar. The producer knows the show works best not when Hank is happy, but when self-loathing (and drowning in topless chicks half his age). It's seems like there should be a little cognitive dissonance there between Duchovny's real-world commitment to recovery and the ongoing party on his show. Unless of course the whole sex-addiction story was a publicity stunt. At this point nothing would surprise me.

Couple movies I watched lately: Vantage Point was interesting from a technical standpoint but very dull as a movie; dividing it up into several 12-15 minute sections following each character removed the script from all requirements to give the characters motivations or personalities. Baby Mama sagged from a deathly stupid plot but had a decent amount of laughs. It seems weird to say that any movie's two highlights were Sigourney Weaver and Dax Shepard, but there you have it. Gone Baby Gone was a steady, interesting mystery that was a little longer than it needed to be but did do a good job essaying each of the characters so their actions in the end made sense. Ben Affleck is clearly at least a little smarter than the "Family Guy" and "South Park" writers think.

All Thoughts at Once
2008-09-22 13:17
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I've had a bunch of different ideas for posts here in the last two weeks, but I have been too busy and/or lazy to dedicate the time to fleshing any of them out and writing a whole big thing. So I'm just going to go quickly here and see how much I can remember.

  • The new Beck record, Modern Guilt, is good but not great. The idea of taking a bunch of basically folk songs and letting producer of the moment Danger Mouse fill them out with artificial beats is interesting, but Danger doesn't add much if anything to Beck's style. His more minimalist, drum-and-bass percussion tracks expose the extreme simplicity of the compositions, many of which are just three- or four-chord chuggers. When working with his frequent collaborators the Dust Brothers Beck's skill as a musical collagist is emphasized; on Modern Guilt the tunes just sound like rock songs. Absent the sweep his band usually provides on his "rock" records (and Nigel Godrich's oversight), the result is often kinda boring, which hasn't been true of a Beck record in a while. The lyrics are more coherent than is usual for Beck's electric records, and I've always been a fan of his zippy fuzz bass playing. Chan (Cat Power) Marshall's backing vocals are a welcome third element on a few of the songs.
  • The pilot to "Fringe" was one of the worst-written pieces of garbage I've seen in a while on network TV. And that's saying something. The female lead is horrific, Josh Jackson seems asleep, and the whole thing is just another slap in the face to "X-Files" fans after the crummy movie and David Duchovny's sex addiction treatment. Absolutely not worth your time or anybody else's.
  • What a shame about David Foster Wallace.
Our Various Wars
2008-08-31 13:37
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Movies that are tremendously well-made, written, and yet somehow still don't work are rare. Charlie Wilson's War, written by Aaron Sorkin of "West Wing" and "Studio 60" fame and directed by Mike Nichols, is full of dialogue that's terrific, particularly Phillip Seymour Hoffman's many one-liners. Tom Hanks gives a good performance as usual in a role that's somewhat out of his comfort zone: his dilettante congressman is much less sympathetic than Hanks nearly always plays, if still charming. And Julia Roberts... well, any time she tries to do a southern accent, it's pretty hilarious.

Charlie Wilson tells a fascinating and more or less true story about how a nonranking member of some minor House committees managed to expand U.S. funding of the 1980's guerrilla war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union from five million dollars to one billion. As a classic political this-is-how-the-hot dogs-get-made film it's hard to find fault with. But the film's point is so massively muddled that it's hard to finish without feeling woozy rather than entertained. At the close, Sorkin's script suggests very strongly that Wilson' work was just -- and that it was the fault of further covert government organizations to spend more money in Afghanistan that led to 9/11. That's an incredibly weird position for an avowedly liberal writer and director to be taking.

It's also completely ideologically incoherent. How can you be against the illegal wars in Vietnam and Iraq and for the illegal war in Afghanistan? Charlie Wilson's War suggests that it's OK for unelected bureaucrats to wage war, so long as they have Hoffman's mordant wit. The whole thing made me uncomfortable -- how could these filmmakers so consciously make a movie that contradicts itself? Did they honestly think that no one was going to notice?

I could go on into an additional paragraph about the Democratic National Convention here, but I'm not feeling quite that partisan yet.

To the Edge of Panic
2008-08-29 01:56
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Last night as I was crossing the street in downtown Boulder, a cab pulled up. The driver rolled down the window and made eye contact with me, his urgency and concern clear. "Is Flavor Flav here?" he said.

Public Enemy played a free show in honor of the Democratic convention, and rumors in the line which began to form around six o' clock outside the Boulder Theater were that the ticket price had been waived because the clock-accessorizing sidekick/reality-TV star had gone AWOL. It's been known to happen. But indeed Flav was in the house, as were Chuck D, Professor Griff, and two of the original S1W's.

The group's output slowed in the mid-90's as hip-hop fashion passed them by. Chuck's angry but reasoned verses began to seem tame in the face of gangsta, and the crazy-quilt, squealing-siren sound of the band's Bomb Squad production team was supplanted by the more minimalist, repetitive sound prevalent today. It's too bad. Hip-hop peaked artistically around 1993, and with the way the legal status of sampling has changed, it's almost certainly never going to reach those heights again.

The 1988 album that launched rap to that peak, one that would continue in the next few years through Paul's BoutiqueStraight Outta Compton, Three Feet High and RisingThe Low End Theory, and Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Here in 2008, with a black candidate about to accept a major party's nomination for president, P.E. presented live performances of every track from the classic -- in order. In addition to getting to hear Enemy standards like "Bring the Noise," "Don't Believe the Hype," and "Night of the Living Baseheads," this also meant that some album tracks that hadn't been performed in nearly 20 years made the setlist. Chuck admitted to being nervous about doing "Louder Than a Bomb": "They don't make records this fast any more."

As for Flavor, he made a big point about P.E. not lip-synching any of their songs, but then later in the evening he had a technical mishap when the recording playing in his ear started feeding back. Not that it matters: Chuck obviously doesn't mime to a backing track (standing near enough to the stage, you can hear him without the PA) and Flav's rapping was terrible even when he wasn't completely cracked out. The point of Flav is always to lend wacky contrast to all of Chuck's studied seriousness, and on that point he delivered. Probably the evening's non-musical highlight was when Flavor delivered a long, rambling endorsement of the politician of the moment (and character attack on his worthy opponent) that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Flavor Flav knows absolutely nothing about Barack Obama except that he's black and even less about John McCain.

(Of course, I've been watching Obama speak and following the campaign on a near day-to-day basis for more than a year and I still feel like I barely know anything about him except that he's black.)

It was cool to hear "Terminator X to the Edge of Panic" and several of the instrumental DJ tracks from It Takes a Nation of Millions... both since they're almost never played live and because Terminator X has long since been replaced by the phenomenal DJ Lord, who demonstrated his cutting and scratching skills while sampling the original tracks. It was fun watching the S1W's, the band's military-themed dance/security team, trying to remember their stage moves for 20-year-old songs.

The band ran into a bit of a curfew crunch towards the end of the all-ages show. They had to drop a few verses from "Party for Your Right to Fight," the album's last song, and then powered through a medley of some other favorites, closing with "Fight the Power." Then they continued to fight the power for several minutes when the venue's security came onstage to kick 'em off. P.E. crazy, crazy P.E.

I'm not one wrapped up in Obama-mania, to say the very least, but as a fan of rap and music history, it was hard not to feel moved when Chuck announced they'd be doing all of It Takes a Nation of Millions. My friend and bandmate Khurrum, normally a pretty retiring guy, gave me a leaping two-handed high-five when we heard.

That was the first rap album I ever listened to all the way through and the first one I ever really fell in love with. I had a dubbed cassette version my friend Jake made me when I was 12 and I'm pretty sure I wore it out. "Bring the Noise" is the only rap song I can remember all the lyrics to without having to have the record on in the background. But given my intense sense of rap's history, it was weird at the end of the night to look around behind me and see less than 200 people watching the most important hip-hop band that ever was play their greatest song. Yeah, it was almost 2 in the morning on a weeknight, and the place was packed when the headliners started, but still. They use to fill stadiums. Now, even though their recent records are only, say, a few hundred thousand times better than Soulja Boy instead of eight billion times better, it's bittersweet to see them in a little theater. Of course, it was cool that they played within walking distance of my house.

We Live Again
2008-07-31 09:40
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I had kind of an interesting TV week because I was out of town; rather than having my HD digital cable with On Demand and dual-tuner DVR functionality I had to just watch whatever was on. With commercials! I felt like donning an animal skin and whacking a blonde over the head with a club. The silver lining was that I ended up watching a lot of things I never would have otherwise. One night I couldn't sleep and flipping channels I landed on a rerun of the last UFC pay-per-view. For the most part I find mixed martial arts a bit grotesque, but the main event featured B.J. Penn, an athlete of obvious and undeniable talent and substantial charisma. What's more, Penn was matched up against Sean Sherk, a known steroid cheat fighting for the first time since his reinstatement. I'd like to think that I'm too civilized to fall prey to base bloodlust, but I was very pleased when Penn dispatched Sherk with a devastating knee to the face.

My Cousin Vinny I hadn't seen this movie in years, but we flipped past it on "AMC" and we were stuck because it might be my father's all-time favorite. He's an attorney, and he spent the whole movie gleefully ribbing my sister Meg, who's applying to law schools, about learning from Vinny. Can we all agree that Marisa Tomei totally deserved her Best Supporting Actress Oscar? The bias against actors and actresses in comedies needs to stop already. John Turturro should have won a statue for Big Lebowski, too.

Be Kind Rewind I hadn't watched a movie on a plane in some time. Normally I read for a bit and then fall asleep. Even though sleeping on planes inevitably causes screaming back pain for me, I can't help it. Something about the canned air and the low humming. But I stayed awake for all of Be Kind Rewind, which was exactly good enough to keep me awake for an hour and a half. The film doesn't work at all, but it has its moments. Jack Black seems to be playing very broadly while Mos Def and Danny Glover were working off an entirely different script. For a rule-breaking music video director, Michel Gondry is an utterly conventional writer and his script cuts the film's momentum off right where it's starting to really engage. The movie parodies are the whole point of the film, and yet they stop fairly early so Gondry can indulge in a very dreary Capra-esque morality fable. I'd see it, but I wouldn't expect very much.

Saw III The first thing I decided to watch when I arrived home, after a weekend consigned to "King of the Hill" and "Hogan's Heroes" reruns? A shamelessly gory B-movie I've already seen! I think that my interest in the Saw franchise, which has had its ups and downs, was renewed by The Dark Knight. That film's conception of the Joker seemed to draw upon the Jigsaw character, particularly the sequence where he pits the two ships' passengers against each other. The Saw movies thus far are the opposite of the Star Trek films. You've probably heard the old "even number" trope about the Trek pictures. Well, these movies are the opposite, thus far -- Saw and Saw III were very good, for what they were, and II and IV were pretty awful. Anyway the rapid-cut style of Darren Lynn Bousman kept me from really getting the full arc of Saw III the first time around and I'm glad I went back to it. The first thing you remember is the nasty traps, which are indeed deliciously unpleasant. Buried in Bousman's over-busy direction (this would have been much better if the original's James Wan was at the helm) is a very Shakespearean little story about parallel family relationships (the husband and wife, and Jigsaw and Amanda). The script by Wan and Leigh Whannell is better than the C-list acting (except of course for the great Tobin Bell) and the sound effects are commendably disgusting. There's a line between films like Saw III and Hostel; in one the violence serves a dramatic purpose, in the other the violence is there for its own sake.

A Knight's Tale This is another B-movie I like way beyond all proportion. In this case, though, the acting is actually really good -- Mark Addy, Heath Ledger, and the frequently nude Paul Bettany all deliver. The fact that the story is preposterous and the historical details more fudged than Robin Hood: Men in Tights (starring Saw's Cary Elwes, synergy!) doesn't really matter. It's a nicely edited picture that makes the initially jarring combination of quasi-medieval settings and roaring 70's rock chestnuts work. You feel it when the lances crunch into armor, and that's all the picture's really trying to do.

The Batman
2008-07-22 18:19
by Mark T.R. Donohue

So, did Dark Knight deliver on the hype? I think it did, if it narrowly missed greatness. Heath Ledger's Joker was marvelous, a new interpretation of the character that continued the trend of more realist superhero movies. Gotham City in Christopher Nolan's films looks completely unlike the unapologetically stagy Tim Burton vision. In the new movie in particular, you can clearly recognize the city of Chicago, with just a touch of CGI to maintain a certain level of fantasy. Nolan's Gotham looks like what was once a city somehow overgrown with menacing buildings and class-dividing bullet trains. It's like his characters, who are once normal people but have been forced by extreme events to assume larger-than-life identities.

Ultimately I think that Knight falls a little short of Batman Begins, if for purely external reasons. Ledger was clearly intended to become a lasting part of the franchise, with one of his lines even announcing so. Unfortunately he won't now be able to appear in any more films, and that makes the lack of a satisfying showdown between Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight an error which can't now be amended in another sequel. There was nothing particularly objectionable about the film's vision of Harvey Dent or Aaron Eckhart's performance, but the very heart of the movie was clearly the duality of Batman and the Joker. The movie wrapped up on the wrong set of themes.

2008-07-08 14:21
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Well, I have seen so many movies since the last time I wrote... I think I'm just going to go ahead and get it out in one big burst. That will clear the decks for me to start thinking about my next piece, about "Weeds" Season Three (recently out on DVD and viewed by me for the first time) and Season Four (four episodes in on Showtime). See, now that I have it written here, I have to do it, right?

In no particular order:

Night at the Museum Not entirely sure why I decided to tape this, but I'm glad I did. It doesn't transcend the kids' movie genre at all and even for a fantasy the logical holes are colossal, but it won me over with a message you don't see too often in Hollywood movies. The hero solves the conflict by studying history!

The Negotiator Since its theatrical run, I've always kind of wanted to see this movie, but didn't get around to it for whatever reason. It was about as I expected, pretty standard cop action-drama stuff with a rote double-cross storyline and a nagging question at the end -- whether or not Sam Jackson's character was innocent of the original crime he was accused of, doesn't he still have to answer for holding a bunch of people hostage? That's still a crime, right? Weird. Anyway, the city of Chicago looks really good in this one.

United 93 Not at all difficult to watch, for me at the very least. Director/writer Paul Greengrass very clearly did a massive amount of homework. Not every passenger on the doomed flight gets a character moment, but it's resonant and laudatory how Greengrass manages to pay tribute to the lives of so many even while telling a complicated story. He also shows uncommon sensitivity to the characters of the terrorists. You can find yourself sympathizing with them, amazingly. I also like how Greengrass used many of the real air traffic controllers and military officers to play themselves. You can imagine watching the film what a challenging, therapeutic experience it must have been. You should really see this movie. For me it proved a reminder of hope and human goodness in the midst of incalculable evil.

Semi-Pro Pretty terrible. This movie tampers unnecessarily with the Will Ferrell sports-movie formula and the grungy feel does not suit the jokes at all. It's like trying to light a match in a vacuum. The major inspiration seemed to be the flawed classic Slap Shot, a movie with a very different sense of humor. Ferrell's comic characters are always too moronic to be believable, and grafting his Jackie Moon's stupid antics to what I think is supposed to be a more or less serious love story between Woody Harrelson and Maura Tierney makes neither work. Anchorman and Talladega Nights took place in candy-colored sitcom fantasy worlds; it was OK to laugh at all the idiocy because nothing was at stake. But Semi-Pro tries to go for realism, sort of, and the result is an out-and-out flop.

Atonement Not bad, but not at a Best Picture level. The movie takes an eternity to get going, and by the time the twist you know is coming arrives, you lose all feeling for where it's headed. Then it meanders for a little while and out of nowhere has a very badly handled surprise ending. The disingenuous structure sort of takes the spotlight from some very good performances from James McAvoy and Keira Knightley (both devastatingly sexy) and all three actresses who play the third major character at different ages. I think I might enjoy it a lot more if I saw it a second time, since the thing that really stuck with me was how badly the script bungled the ending.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford I love westerns, and I have a bit of a man-crush on Brad Pitt (who doesn't), but I hadn't read enough about this movie to know it was a full-fledged art film. How can you tell? Well, it's almost three hours long, that ought to be a dead giveaway. I didn't get bored at any point, but I did keep wondering whether all of the padding was really necessary. It doesn't help the momentum of the main story that members of the gang involved in James' last heist keep dropping in and out of view for hours at a time. That said, the interplay between Casey Affleck as Ford (who's fantastic) and Pitt as James is charged and tense for the whole run and in contrast to some of the other films I've watched recently, the ending is just right both in terms of giving the audience all the information it still wants to know and nailing the film's overall theme down. Westerns are always made to comment on their own times and not those in which they're set, but Jesse James has kind of an unusual modern relevance for a cowboy picture. It's about the idea that fame and glory are something that can be passed on or even stolen, which to me makes me think about reality television and the modern cult of celebrity. Can't finish without mentioning "Deadwood"'s massively talented chameleon Garrett Dillahunt, who has a role different than any I've seen him in before and is so good it took me half the movie to realize it was he. No makeup or prosthetics -- just by slacking his face and draining the intelligence out of his eyes, he becomes an entirely different man. This guy will win an Oscar one day, given half a chance. Maybe if somebody cast him in something besides a western.

A Break from Movie Summer
2008-06-30 18:26
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I was going on a pretty good clip there storing up films to write about in another Summer of Movies post. But my opinions about Last King of Scotland (great, James McAvoy deserved more credit for his role), V for Vendetta (absolutely terrible, except for Hugo Weaving's acting), and Let's Go to Prison (written by a team of "Reno 911!" and "Stella" folks and funnier than you might think) will have to wait for a few days.

I probably should have done all of them sooner, since the last time I watched a movie I hadn't seen before was about a week ago. Continuing work on my band's rock opera, an exciting and exhausting new retail job, and an attention-needy cat have all combined to make my taste for new media register at somewhat less than its usual rapaciousness. It's been TV comfort food for me lately, with reruns of "Buffy" and "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill" keeping me company while I recline on the couch.

It's mostly been only when I'm too tired to play video games that I've been watching TV recently. Grand Theft Auto IV offers little in the way of new gameplay, but has much more of an effective sense of reality than its predecessors. That makes it rather intimidating to play casually, since your character is always getting phone calls and text messages from his "friends" in the game world. A well-executed idea (much more so than the broken gang warfare dynamics of GTA: San Andreas), but one regarding which I'm still puzzling out the impact on fun. Is it more fun to play in a Grand Theft Auto world where the characters are more fleshed-out? I don't really think that's what most people turn to the series for. I wonder how well it has gone over with gamers in general. I imagine there are plenty of people who ignored the social dynamics completely and just went out and blew stuff up. I have trouble gaming that way -- I'm a color-inside-the-lines person that way.

So with GTA IV, I feel a little bit like I'm being compelled to do all of these things I don't wish to by the game. I could just ignore them, but that's not how I'm hardwired. My attention to completist detail is bearing more fruit with Rock Band. Trying to get five stars on every song on every level with every instrument is a monumental task. This is another way in which Rock Band simulates the experience of being a real musician. When you're in a band, sometimes you have to play a song over and over and over again until you get it right. I have been in many practice situations where everyone wanted to kill each other because there was a song we'd played eight times all the way through and still hadn't perfected. Applying the same tenacity to Rock Band isn't hard, particularly on the drums. It's nice to be instantly rewarded for your tenacity -- few sounds are more pleasurable than the one the game makes when you earn another star during a song.

I saw again the contrast between the amount of content Rock Band offers versus the Guitar Hero games when Guitar Hero: Aerosmith came out this weekend. This is a fun game, and I'm glad it finally gave me the opportunity to upgrade to the wireless XBox 360 guitar controller from the crummy X-Plorer one that came with GHII. The animations of the band look cool and funny, and the presentation is terrific. A lot of people will probably skip right through them, but I thought the little between-stage interview segments with Joe Perry and Steven Tyler and company talking about their rise to fame were cool and a natural extension of the Guitar Hero career mode formula.

However, it only took me about an evening to beat all of the songs in the game on hard and with two days off tomorrow and Wednesday, I'm probably going to have it utterly whipped less than a week after it was released. Rock Band on the other hand just keeps plugging along. They just put out a full album download of the Pixies' Doolittle and David Lovering's drum patterns alone are worthy of a whole game to themselves. I haven't tried it yet, but I bet the vocal tracks are a hoot too: "Slicing up eyeballs, oh ho ho ho!"

Anyway, the pain in my left pinky finger from the GH: Aerosmith marathon I had the other day has subsided. I think I'll go back to the Pixies now. In conclusion, any further Guitar Hero games that come out should have drum and vocal tracks as a matter of course. I want to support the idea behind Guitar Hero: Aerosmith because if it sells well I can see them doing some of the other titans that are too monolithic to have had a single song in a Guitar Hero before now. Led Zeppelin. AC/DC. Pink Floyd. Dare we even say it, the Beatles.

Movies and Stuff
2008-06-16 17:45
by Mark T.R. Donohue

My new idea for the page is that I'll just try and take a second every day to write a few paragraphs about some movie or TV show I've just seen. It didn't take all that long for me to lapse on my every day (or almost) pledge, and I keep watching things... I feel like I'm falling terribly behind. Anyway, let's see if I can catch myself up all in one go here and we'll start fresh with the one-thought-a-day thing tomorrow. Or maybe Wednesday.

Slither I taped this off the cable and watched it early last week. My main interest in seeing the film was its star, Nathan Fillion, whose lead performance in "Firefly" and Serenity proved him to be uniquely suited for smirking, genre-warping sci-fi. Going on two weeks after seeing it, there are still images from Slither popping unbidden into my mind and making me momentarily shudder. That's a good thing for a horror/gore picture. Although it does involve extraterrestrials, Slither is definitely a horror movie, and one of the scarier ones I've seen in a while. Director James Gunn made Tromeo and Juliet, and the combination of Troma's utter lack of taste and medium-budget CGI effects is delicious. Or, well, more revolting, really, which is the point. Michael Rooker gets infected by a meteorite from outer space and turns into an unspeakable tentacle being whose tastes in food and method of reproduction are demonstrated in appalling clinical detail. My favorite thing about the film, besides the room-sized pregnant woman who eats a forest's worth of animals to nurture the thousands of tiny alien mind worms she's carrying, was the way it doesn't cheat. The ending doesn't present a magical reset that made it all not happen, and the death toll is truly staggering. It's weird how many movies are too cowardly to do that, even though it's not real people getting killed. Seeing Gunn's ex-wife Jenna Fischer playing a receptionist -- well, a dispatcher, but same difference -- covered in crusted blood and controlled by the alien presence is an interesting sensation too.

Jumper Really, really dreadful writing and acting in this one, rented at one of those dollar rental kiosks at McDonald's on Saturday. The premise was interesting enough to have made me want to see it, but Hayden Christensen is just brutal. Who keeps putting this guy in movies? Sam Jackson pulses in for his most mailed-in performance to date. I'm unsure he ever even read the script. He probably just showed up, slapped on a white hairpiece (for some reason), and read his lines off cuecards. Getting no more engaged than Sam did in the project is probably a wise idea. There's some really neat action scenes in Jumper. Director Doug Liman, who made the first Bourne Identity, realizes as few other big-time action filmmakers do that audiences can inuitively sense when all that they are seeing is fake. Obviously Jumper, which is about people who can freaking teleport, uses more computer effects than did Bourne. But Liman smashes up enough real cars and sends enough real stuntmen sailing to make things really play, and I wish his talents were more often harnessed to better material. (Liman also helmed Mr. and Mrs. Smith, another movie with fabulous action sequences and an insultingly stupid plot.) Jumper blatantly wants to be the first movie in a series, but its mythology is barely explained and what does come across is stunningly harebrained. Christensen is a jumper, and SJ is a paladin. Paladins fight jumpers. Why? Because they do. How do the paladins fight people who can instantly teleport anywhere? With tasers. Really, really strong tasers. But how do they get the jumpers to stand still so that they can tase them? Still unclear. After the film's concept is introduced and Jackson makes his first appearance big battles between the hero and the paladins take place constantly. He goes to see the Colosseum, five minutes later they're there. How did they know? Did they put a GPS on him or something? In order for the paladins to work the way they're shown in the movie, there would have to be literally millions of them -- a big office in every major population center in the world. Who's paying for that? And for what purpose? Man, this is a stupid movie.

Breach I've written before about my affection for old-fashioned "thrillers" where there's no actual action and seldom do any of the characters speak in a raised voice. Michael Clayton is one of the best movies I've seen in the last few months but the somewhat similar Breach is not on its level. I watched it late last night after having it kicking around on the DVR for a little while. I liked it enough to stay up until about four to watch the end, but it's surely the lesser film. It suffers from a less sharply drawn protagonist, and while Clayton was firmly about its hero and therefore had a really effective arc structure, Breach ends on a decidedly unsettled note. The high-level FBI traitor played by Chris Cooper explains right on screen why he decided to sell out his country, but we still don't feel as if we know. I'm going back and forth internally over whether the deliberately incomplete picture we get of Cooper's Robert Hanssen is good for the film or not. I'm pretty sure it is, but would be easier to say if Ryan Philippe and Caroline Dhavernas, who play the young agent working undercover as Hanssen's clerk and his wife, weren't so bland. Philippe isn't terrible, and he's certainly come a long way since Cruel Intentions. He can act more than Hayden Christensen, I'll give him that much. But in Breach he comes across as too much of That Young Hotshot, an annoying cliché in movies of this sort; a guy with less of an obvious leading-man vibe would have been vastly more interesting. And Dhavernas is useless as The Loving Wife Who Never Thought Her Husband Would Have To Go This Far. What's interesting about Breach is that the parts that work the best, all of the bizarre details about Hanssen's life that don't seem to cohere or make sense, are the ones that are based on the real man. The marriage-crisis junk and Laura Linney's presence as The Tough But Fair Boss are typical screenwriting excrement. Breach is a pretty dull-looking film, with a limited color palette and a sitcom camera style. There are movies that make Washington, D.C. look very beautiful, but this is not one of them.

Long Night of Sex
2008-06-04 15:05
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Yes, I went to see the Sex and the City movie. I didn't have to be dragged to it, either. I'm sure I wouldn't have gone if it weren't for my girlfriend, but it's not as if she had to beg and plead. I was curious in an academic sense about how the show would translate to film, and at least a little interested in the continuing storylines of Carrie and her cohorts. I don't have any memory of ever deliberately setting out to watch the whole "Sex and the City" TV series, but between my sisters, those surprisingly ubiquitous basic-cable reruns, and the research department (one of the series' biggest straight male fans), I seem to have more detailed memories of the show's plotlines than many who have.

In that very fact might lay the key to the whole reason that the Sex and the City movie doesn't work. The TV show was never very much for plot; it was girl meets boy, girl loses boy, again and again and again. It was always blatantly obvious whom the ideal matches for each of the girls were, even if these supposedly successful New York businesswomen were completely unable to figure it out for themselves. The heart of the show wasn't getting from Point A to Point B, it was the breezy dialogue, titilating sex talk, and the painstakingly chosen wardrobe choices.

All of those things make their way into Sex and the City, the movie. Speaking as someone who pretty much wears a baseball cap, a T-shirt, and dilapidated khakis every time he leaves the house, I absolutely loved the pretty outfits the girls model. I totally got in touch with my feminine side, or my gay side, or whichever, seeing all of the bright colors and bold designs up on a huge screen. For the first time, I started to understand why whole books of "Sex and the City" fashion choices have been published. I don't have great eyesight, and on TV it was less obvious to me how carefully the costume designers worked to make sure that each outfit was perfect for the setting and content of each scene. It's impossible to ignore in the film, where each scene featuring the four women together practically begs you to get the DVD, pause it, and see just how marvelously everything works in harmony. Or even better, Blu-Ray! That's right, the film that's going to get me to upgrade to Blu-Ray is the Sex and the City movie.

The banter and the sex talk are out in full force, as well. Indeed, too much, as any time the four girls are around a table director/screenwriter Michael Patrick King feels obliged to throw in some stuff that doesn't advance the plot any. The movie is sitcom-paced the whole way through, and while it stays snappy for an impressive hour and fifteen minutes or so, it keeps going for another hour after that. Wonderful fan service, I suppose, and keeping the spirit of the TV show alive, but as far as providing a good time in the movie theater for someone who's more of an admirer of the original series than a diehard fan, it fails. The conflicts for Samantha, Carrie, and Miranda have resolutions that are all obvious the minute they're introduced, and poor Charlotte doesn't even get an arc.

The movie does make a certain degree of a concession to the changed scale by giving the male foils a bit more to do. David Eigenberg, always good on the series as Miranda's long-suffering Steve, stays more sympathetic than Cynthia Nixon does, even though it's he who cheats on her. Chris Noth at first seems a little uncertain as to how to create a full-blooded human out of the once-ephemeral Mr. Big, but his concerns about his marriage to Carrie play as the only three-dimensional conflict in the film. Unfortunately, he disappears for nearly two hours. Jennifer Hudson's personal assistant character serves absolutely no function whatsoever other than to needlessly extend the picture another fifteen or minutes or so -- and saddling Hudson with an underwritten part that amounts to a kid-sister impression of Sarah Jessica Parker is a waste of her talents.

The "movie" feels for all the world like a straight-to-DVD release of five episodes. That's how it should have come out, but that would have deprived the "Sex" machine from charging their fans once to see the film in the theater and then again for the home release. Rather than packaging that home video version as a single film, they ought to just go ahead and chop it up into episodes, using deleted footage to make the lengths uniform. They could even add them right into the syndication cycle! Only then would this "movie" really play as the true successor to the TV series and not a massive craven cash grab.

What People Watch
2008-06-01 17:34
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Entertainment Weekly printed the final ratings for this season of television in its June 6th issue. I'm sure the information is on the Web somewhere for those who want to see them. Where are the shows that I watch on a regular basis? Let's take a look.

#1 "American Idol" Obviously, I tuned in every week (after the interminable and useless open audition shows). Season Seven was a step up from the one before but the show still seems stuck to a few certain annoying conventions even while it furiously changes things that don't need changing. They need fewer rigid theme nights, longer performances, and the results shows (#2 in the ratings) need to be abolished or at least truncated dramatically. With all those quibbles, I still had a lot of fun watching it and will watch it again next year.

#7 "House" I don't know if "House" is as watched as it is because of "Idol" carryover or because it's a good show, but I'm fine with either. It's a surprisingly dark, adult, psychosexual show to be this widely seen and that sort of bothers me. It ought to be a cult show like "Dexter" and yet everybody watches it. A lot of the credit for that has to go to Hugh Laurie for creating and sustaining one of the most vivid characters on the small screen. Season Four was pretty shaky, starting with a "reality show" concept where House eliminated potential replacements for his ducklings one by one. That kept important characters from getting enough screen time, so when the last third of the year tried to put a bow on everything by justifying the introduction of some of those extraneous folks, it didn't quite pay off. The two-part season finale, however, was fantastic.

#21 "Lost" So much has been written about the fall from grace of "Lost" and all the things that needed to be done to fix it, but it's still #21 -- and that's not bad given a shortened season, haphazard scheduling, and a level of self-reference that's grown completely impenetrable for new viewers. I thought the loss of a handful of episodes really hurt what was otherwise a rollercoaster year. Not enough time was given to delineate which of the freighter folk were important and what their backstories were, so we ended up not caring about most of their actions. Also, the reintroduction and use of Michael was hugely disappointing. The Desmond episode "The Constant" was a series highlight but a week later there was an actual episode with the Ticking Digital Clock, one of the most abominable clichés in film. And with the decisions they've made this season, they could be screwed for next year. I like the way the "Lost" writers work without a net, but they don't need to try and redefine the show with every episode.

#46 "Bones" I really like this show, which adds believable personal issues for its characters with the usual forensic science gadgets and LCD displays and whatnot. I'm always surprised when I find out one of my friends likes it, but a pretty substantial number of them do. It's just one of those quiet shows that people watch, enjoy, and forget. That's okay. I used to really be annoyed by the supporting cast behind David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel but they've grown into the show's strength. I like the show's concept that people who do strange, macabre work are all a little loopy themselves. I think it's mostly true.

#63 "The Big Bang Theory" I don't care at all for "Two and a Half Men," which is the highest-rated comedy at #16. But I really love "Big Bang Theory," which came from the same creative mind, that of epic title-card writer Chuck Lorre. What's the difference? Well, "Men" is mostly idiotic sex jokes, and "Big Bang" has had dialogue about the Heisenberg principle, neurofeedback, and game theory. Perhaps some people will gets smarter or become interested in science from watching this show. It's also usually pretty funny.

#64 "How I Met Your Mother" I ended up watching almost all of the first- and second-season DVD's of this show over the weekend, just because I started them and I was too exhausted to get up and take the disc out of the player -- or think of something else to watch. I think it's a sitcom that really improves on closer viewing, because so much of the humor is derived from the personalities of the five characters. "Mother" is the rare TV sitcom where the punchlines absolutely aren't interchangeable. If Marshall were to say one of Barney's lines, it immediately wouldn't sound right. The other thing this show has going for it is Alyson Hannigan. She's so adorable.

#64 "Family Guy" Isn't this an interesting tie? "Family Guy" is a cultural phenomenon with ring tones, t-shirts, action figures, and the rest. "How I Met Your Mother" is a little show that has to sweat out its renewal for the next season after every year. But they're dead even in the ratings. How did that happen? Well, "Family Guy" on Fox is kind of besides the point for Seth McFarlane and his team. They could do it for nothing if they wanted. It's the wall-to-wall reruns on TBS and Cartoon Network, DVD sales, and merchandising that makes the "Family" engine run. Personally, I don't think the show has been at all funny since it "came back" to make new episodes for Fox. The writers are completely in love with themselves and like to torture the viewers with stuff they know will annoy them just for the sake of doing it. Compared to how sharp "South Park" has been recently, "Family Guy" definitely loses the feud between them. "American Dad," #95 in the ratings, has actually gotten better than its parent show. Mostly due to Patrick Stewart.

#73 "The Office" and "The Simpsons" Another interesting tie. I don't think much needs to be said about either of these shows. "The Office" certainly is much more of this time, while "The Simpsons" will kind of always be stuck in the more sarcastic, individualistic 90's. Neither is as funny as it used to be.

#83 "My Name Is Earl" Weird, weird season for Earl, which had a prison stay, a coma, a quickie wedding, and several people being hit by cars. I love the way that any number of a huge ensemble cast could pop up at any moment, like "The Simpsons" only live-action. I also adore Eddie Steeples' beatific portrayal of Darnell. Next year Greg Garcia needs to focus on getting back to the show's basic concept and away from over-the-top dream sequences and other more conceptual mucking about. The Catalina character needs a lot more to do.

#92 "King of the Hill" The single most underrated show on TV.

Everything from 147 to 160 (the bottom) on the list is CW shows. I heard "Aliens in America" got canceled -- that's a shame, that was a cute show, although it never quite came together the way the promise of the pilot suggested it could. C'mon, America, we need to find Scott Patterson a vehicle!

Jonathan, Doyle and Scribe
2008-05-30 22:07
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Danny Strong, who played Jonathan on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and later Paris's boyfriend Doyle on "Gilmore Girls," is one of my favorite young sad-sack character actors. Short, scrawny, and heavy-browed, Strong plays the impotent rage of the unpopular and unheard beautifully. He's also smart enough to know that he's gotten too old to play high school roles and is transitioning smoothly into a new role: screenwriter.

Strong's script for Recount, made into a movie for HBO by Austin Powers' Jay Roach, is an effective and direct telling of its story. The story is the legal confusion in the period after Election Day 2000 when the whole nation waited to see which way Florida would turn. Strong and Roach telescope the action by showing a rather wide range of events from a relatively limited number of points of view. In a few cases, rather than constructing contrived scenes to get judicial opinions across, the film simply shows an actor looking directly at the camera and speaking them. That makes Recount seem a bit more like a history class filmstrip than it needs to be.

Throughout, both the script and the director are largely impartial. The Democratic strategists on Gore's side use more rhetoric about every vote being counted than the Republican team, who are out just to win. But no punches are pulled with regards to the Democrats' efforts to limit the recounts to heavily liberal counties, and both sides make a point fairly early on of defining the whole election crisis as a purely political struggle.

That's Recount's strongest theme, and ultimately what makes it kind of a drag. The story follows through to the Supreme Court voting, along drastically partisan lines (a travesty about which I recently read in more detail in Jeffrey Toobin's book The Nine), to run out the clock on Gore. No matter what side of the political divide you might fall on, this just isn't a pleasant thing to watch. Recount isn't able to provide context or pathos; it's just something to squirm along to all over again. Laura Dern's recreation of Katherine Harris is quite brilliant and Kevin Spacey, Tom Wilkinson, Mitch Pileggi, and many others do a stern, serious job with this material. Recount could have used more humor, and more natural dialogue, and less awkward incorporation of stand-ins for the candidates. No appearance by Gore and Bush at all would have been better, as the film seems to believe quite plainly that the recount imbroglio really had nothing to do with either. That's the most politically neutral element of the film -- soldiers on both sides convey doubt about the candidates for whom they're fighting.

Movie or Technology Quarterly?
2008-05-29 10:52
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Tuesday night I went out to see Iron Man, and then having not had my fill of near-future technology parables, I watched the first half of A&E's so-so Andromeda Strain miniseries. Yesterday morning I watched the finale, which had an absurd scene where a jeep raced away from a CGI representation of a spreading biological infection (pretty sure it doesn't work that way) but did redeem itself with the spectacle of both Ricky Schroder and Daniel Dae Kim from "Angel" and "Lost" dying horribly in a nuclear cooling pool.

The most interesting thing about Iron Man, besides Robert Downey Jr.'s zesty lead performance, is how this particular comic book property needed to be updated very little in order to fit in our modern times. The Afghani arms dealers of whom Tony Stark runs afoul in the new movie could be the generically foreign thugs of comic books from any age, and the whirring devices that put on and remove Stark's suit don't look too far removed from the robots you see in modern-day car commercials. (Of course, that doesn't include Iron Man's second-most interesting character, the assembly arm with the personality of a puppy.) The eight or so writers seem to think that the extreme current resonance of the property excuses them from providing more than the most standard betrayal-and-final-bashup plot. Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges are totally wasted, although the latter must have relished the opportunity to portray the operator of a giant killer robot at age 59.

Almost all of the intriguing action in the second half of the film is veiled hints as to what the second Iron Man film will be like, including Sam Jackson's post-credit cameo. I did like the gritty Batman Begins flavor of the early scenes of Iron Man's origins, and the way the movie doesn't play things in strict chronological origin at the very beginning -- the first scene is one of the best in the picture. Downey and his sculpted goatee are good the whole way through, and I appreciated that they got a track by Ghostface Killah, the real Iron Man, on the soundtrack. Still, franchise-establishing pictures ought still to be burdened with the need of standing as films in their own right. This one barely qualifies.

TV movie casts are weird beasts because the "name" actors who fill the lead roles always have a fatal flaw that keeps them from doing movies, while the character actors who fill the supporting roles don't care whether it's movies or TV and usually eclipse the stars. That was certainly true of Andromeda Strain, where Kim and Viola Davis in smaller parts utterly outpaced Benjamin Bratt and Eric McCormack, the nominal leads. It was nice to see Christa Miller from "Scrubs" in a dramatic role, although her character ended up being the least interesting of the five down in the Wildfire laboratory.

I'm a big fan of both the original Andromeda Strain novel and the early-70's movie, both of which, particularly the novel, were rather old-fashioned constructions. The book spent almost the whole of its length meticulously explaining every detail of the lab's construction and the nature of the exotic organism and then at the last instant sprung a trap which although admittedly exciting only lasted a few pages. The 1971 film was also leisurely-paced. This new remake tends to dial up and dial back at random its rate for the whole of its three hours, which is jarring. The characters have a tendency to break into passages that sound directly paraphrased from the encyclopedia: "Messenger Theory? Well, first proposed in 1951, it..." and so on.

A new subplot involving ocean-vent mining, and the on-camera presence of an actor playing a loose stand-in for President Bush, adds nothing to the overall tension, and adds a lot of slack time to the movie. That's also true of McCormack's storyline as a cokehead reporter who moronically travels to the edge of the infection zone. It's possible Andromeda might have made it as a credible two-hour movie, but having watched the miniseries version I don't know how a viewer would deal with fewer breaks from Benjamin Bratt's wooden lead performance.

Will technology in the future bring us giant robots to fight evil, alien plagues sent back by our future selves because bacteria that only live in the deep sea and feed on sulfur have become extinct in Earth's future and are needed to beat the plagues, or both? To find out, just continue living.