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Monthly archives: May 2008


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.

One Last Night with David and David
2008-05-27 20:03
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I finally got around to viewing the "American Idol" last night of competition and then the winner-announcement finale. When the results of the latter were spoiled for me by an accidental glance downwards on a web-portal site I was browsing past, I was pretty fired up for "Rocker David." I wish that my schedule had allowed me to watch things unfold in something closer to real time. If I had seen the abuse Cook took at the hands of the judges on last week's "showdown" show, I would have experienced much more of a catharsis watching him finally win.

The songs chosen during the final night of voting were inconsequential, as it turned out. The songwriting contest finalists were predictably drab, Clive Davis's choices were broad and obvious (playing like everyone else to David Archuleta's strengths!), and neither contestant knocked it out of the park with his personal selection. Archuleta, like Jordin Sparks last year, merely repeated his best-received vocal of the season, "Imagine." Cook tried to do something a little riskier but as he has done a few either times, he showed a rather poor sense for matching the material to the moment with a Collective Soul tune.

Two things were consistent -- Randy and Simon blatantly pimping for Archuleta, and Cook outsinging the youngster round after round. Cook's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" didn't come across with the anthemic qualities Davis ascribed to it but it at least grooved a little, unlike Little David's pretty, vacant "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." Both of the songwriting competition selections were far too awful to learn the names of, but again Cook's rocking approach was more lively than Archie's sincere, flat take.

So with the producers' bias for Archuleta dripping through every moment of the sing-off episode, how did the grand finale play out? With much pomp and circumstance, one more opportunity to watch Jason Castro and Amanda Overmyer struggle in those horrific Up With People group performances, and some brutal celebrity plugeos. Amid a neverending parade of musical numbers the memorable bits were Seal overwhelming Syesha Mercado, Carrie Underwood singing a song about shady sex, and Bryan Adams being still the lamest thing ever. The best part of the telecast, though, was improbably a pair of "Guitar Hero" commercials featuring the two finalists reenacting the Risky Business underpants scene. Way more amusing than anything else in the whole two hours.

So my DVR cut out, hilariously, at the exact moment Ryan Seacrest pronounced "...Cook." I could only see the very beginnings of Cook's and Archuleta's reactions.

Two of Two Movies I Saw Fairly Recently
2008-05-26 20:14
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Now that I sit down to write it, I realize I don't have a whole lot to say about Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. I don't remember all that much of the movie, and although a lot of the duo's fanbase might laugh knowingly at that statement, it's not for the reason you're thinking of. The movie has more of a plot than the first one, but none of its grubby charm, and while Harold and Kumar Escape from White Castle never broke the tone of moron stoner comedy while it was making its own small points, the sequel keeps slapping you in the face with it: it's all about race, stupid.

The set-piece encounters Harold and Kumar get into, this time on the run from the law through the American South, don't get as funny as the first one's high (heh heh) points and they also never match the low-budget zaniness of the original -- there's no equivalent the unique cheetah-riding scene. A lot of the funniest bits are recalls to the first film. In another film this same sort of recycling might seem gratuitous (c.f. the diminishing returns of the Austin Powers sequels) but since the first Harold and Kumar was a barely-seen movie that became a massive cult hit on DVD, the fan service seems more warranted.

The worst aspect of the new movie is that there's a Graduate-style we-gotta-stop-the-wedding storyline forced upon the movie and in particular Kal Penn, who never gets to display the full ease his character once had. A hoary wedding bells plot -- any sort of plot, really -- was not called for in a Harold and Kumar sequel.

Also, Neil Patrick Harris. What a great continuing comeback story. His role in the first movie made him marginally visible again and probably got him "How I Met Your Mother." The season finale of that show was on the other day and Harris stole the episode as he does almost every one (which on a show with Jason Segel and Alyson Hannigan is no mean feat). He returns in Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, and his character "Neil Patrick Harris" will evidently be available for the sequel -- my regular admonishments to my girlfriend to sit through the ending credits of every movie finally paid off.

One of Two Movies I Saw Fairly Recently
2008-05-25 22:00
by Mark T.R. Donohue

So for a long time -- a few years, actually -- I made a point of going to as few movies as possible because I felt them to be a bad deal. Why pay ten dollars to see a movie once when you can buy the DVD previously-viewed for eight or five? Well, I have a girlfriend now who likes to go out to the movies, so I'm going. And I'm not paying ten dollars, I'm paying twenty. So much for rational single-hood.

In any event, the last two movies we went to were both worthy of being written about, only I wasn't sure what I was doing with this blog when I saw them. Now I know: whatever I want, more or less. So:

Forgetting Sarah Marshall I'll slap down money to see pretty much anything with Judd Apatow's name on it. The last four movies I saw out in the theater before Sarah Marshall were Walk Hard, Superbad, Superbad, and Superbad. (I really liked Superbad.) These movies are only ever complete when the special-edition DVD is released and all the extended riffs, deleted scenes, and bloopers are viewable, so it's hard to say where Sarah Marshall ranks among the rapidly expanding Apatowniverse pantheon. It's certainly an astute vehicle for the chief talent of Jason Segel, which is playing desperate, pathologically sensitive, slightly creepy guys who can't stand to be alone. It's there in series-appropriate degrees in his roles on "Freaks and Geeks" and "How I Met Your Mother" and exhibited to most full display in his memorable recurring role as archetypal loser boyfriend Eric on "Undeclared."

Sarah Marshall is Segel's script and mines his basic device for about all it's worth; if Segel plans to be a leading man again he needs to show a different side of himself. Thankfully his character Peter's overemoting is only occasionally overbearing. Segel isn't afraid to make himself ridiculous, which makes him and his character more sympathetic. Kristin Bell is more dignified as the titular Sarah, which might be why she gets so few laughs -- Bell might have been uptight improvising right after the heavily-scripted "Veronica Mars," or maybe it's the one-dimensional shrewishness of the character. Jonah Hill and Paul Rudd get their requisite number of laughs as a waiter and surf instructor, respectively, at the resort where Peter goes to forget Sarah and finds she and her new rocker boyfriend.

The setting, in addition to ripping off a "Frasier" episode, makes for a certain repetition in the sets that makes you notice by negative example how good the filmmakers generally are at changing the scenery around. In Sarah Marshall, it's beach-lobby-room-restaurant-room and repeat, and it becomes a little claustrophobic. It makes you wish there were more of Russell Brand's Aldous Snow, the guru-like rocker who woos Sarah and has virtually every one of the film's best lines. At the very least he could be in the background humping a palm tree like he does in the music video that introduces his character. Mila Kunis is pleasant as Peter's rebound love interest, but their scenes together are so perfunctory and obvious that she seems wasted like Bell. One thing that Apatow and his underlings need to work on is giving females equal time in their films. Expanded roles for recurring bit players like Kristen Wiig and Jane Lynch would be nice.

It's likely I'll buy the DVD, which might improve my overall impression of the movie. The longer version of Walk Hard, on that DVD, added a lot of funny stuff and made a number of things that didn't quite make sense in the theatrical cut pay off. Sarah Marshall doesn't have the epic structure of that movie, so I don't expect its home release to be as revelatory.

No More "Idol!" Real Work Can Begin!
2008-05-22 17:59
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I'm in the midst of a hectic adjustment period to a new job, so as much as I wanted to keep my "American Idol" coverage going in a timely manner for the final on Tuesday, circumstances just did not allow. I think I'm still going to write analyses of those last performances when I finally catch up on the DVR, but for the time being it's time to start putting content in this space on a more regular basis.

The reason I couldn't make time for "Idol" tonight is because I just couldn't wait to watch part 2 of the "House" season finale after watching part 1 (and a handful of episodes from before that) last weekend. Part 2 ("Wilson's Heart") wasn't quite as excellent as the cliffhanger first half ("House's Head"), which featured among other highlights a Dr. Cuddy stripper pole scene. I enjoy "House" when the writers play things straight with the viewers, as they do with most of their standard-structure medical investigation episodes. But the show really finds an extra gear in the instances when it messes with time and layers of reality, as in the one where House gets shot or the one where he explains to a growing audience the story of how his leg became the way it is. The season finale this year, after a kind of awkward season, ranked with the series' best in that vein.

It was time for the "House" format to be shaken up, but this season's beginning reality-show concept worked out less well in practice than it must have seemed in theory. It was fairly crafty of the producers to win some points back with a last couple episodes that got back to playing the show's strengths and added some post-dated relevance to a few of the reality-show contestants.

"Idol" Terrific Three: At Least It's Almost Over
2008-05-14 15:14
by Mark T.R. Donohue

This was supposed to be the best season of "American Idol" ever, but it's ended up like a lot of other ones, with several bewildering weeks concluding with a predictable endgame. Does anyone really expect Syesha Mercado to unseat either David and nudge her way into the finals? Of course not, and that's why reviewing the performances from Tuesday's show feels a little pointless. It was a strange evening, with illogical picks from the judges, producers, and contestants themselves, and no real breakout moments. Conspiracy theorists might note that the judges were unusually hard on Syesha, giving her way less credit than she deserved for her bold "Fever." But the bored-seeming judges were harsh on the Davids as well, rightfully dissing Cook's lame personal song choice and Archuleta's lack of hip-hop soul cred. Oddly, but in keeping with the season's criticism theme of "song choice, song choice, song choice," the panel let both David A. and Syesha have it on that topic despite neither having anything to do with the choices of the songs in question.

David Archuleta David's first song was a Billy Joel tune selected for him by Paula, and that was probably his best of the night -- Joel's style has a natural theatricality to it that serves the Archuleta persona well. As for the romantic bits, David still has a credibility problem there, as his other Tuesday night tunes further illustrated. I don't know whether it was David himself or his handlers who picked the R&B-flavored "With You" for his second song, but it certainly seemed like a bit of repositioning meant to solidify Little David's questionable mainstream commercial potential. It was kind of an odd fit, since the rapid delivery didn't flatter the young singer's style at all and it seemed like he garbled a few of the lyrics in the second verse. For his third number the producers saddled David with a tacky, vaguely Christian love ballad by Dan Fogelberg and this is where the pressure of having to learn three songs in less than a week really showed, as David seemed exhausted and detached. He had more mistakes after singing the first two songs pretty solidly and for the first time on the night he sounded truly dreary -- I couldn't wait for "Longer" to end, even in its 90-second arrangement. 8/8/7

Syesha Mercado Randy Jackson gave Syesha Alicia Keys' "If I Ain't Got You" to perform first, an obvious choice perhaps but one Mercado seemed overjoyed about. She sang the song beautifully, showing continued improvement as she as all season long. I am more familiar with the original version of this song than many that are aired out on "Idol" and I thought that for a recent hit Syesha did an all right job of making some adjustments to make the song her own. She overdid things a bit at the end, but all in all I thought she was the winner of the first round, so to speak. Her second piece, "Fever," was a bit of a gamble, and one I really enjoyed. She did a very sexy kind of juke-joint throwback and it was definitely the most entertaining performance of the night if not the most technical. I don't think it does nearly enough to slow down the roaring Double-David bandwagons but she's going out on her own idiosyncratic note, and I think that's cool. Of all the faces in the "Idol" cast this year I underestimated Syesha the most, and I hope she does well in the future. Her last song, "Hit Me Up," really does give the conspiracy people some ammunition, since it would be hard to think of something less in Mercado's mode. Like David earlier, the fast lyrics kept her from showing off her instrument and there wasn't much melody to work with. She had trouble getting on the right rhythm for the fast verses at the start of the song and never really recovered. You deserved better, Syesha. 9/8/7

David Cook Simon Cowell inexplicably gave David a Roberta Flack tune, which Cook did the best he could with -- it was hokey and his singing during the buildup parts was shaky, but he made up a lot of ground at the end when the arrangement got more into his comfort zone. His karaoke version of the lame Switchfoot song "Dare You to Move," the choice of which Cook defended in utterly incoherent fashion immediately performance, was less forgivable. Is Cook to be held responsible for the fact that the popular hard rock music of his adolescence and early adulthood was deeply crappy? Yes he is, there was nothing preventing him from going back and listening to better hard rock. The producers saddled David last with Diane Warren's dire "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," and David sang it the "right" way, I suppose, but it's still not something I ever want to hear or think about again. Simon awarded David C. the night but I would have to give my vote to Syesha -- yes, that's right, now that you're doomed, I'm finally recognizing your talent. 8/7/8

Picks: I guess it has to be Syesha Mercado, right? That's what all the signs point to, although not the quality of their performances the other night. Ha! Like that's ever mattered on "American Idol." The four-sided die votes for David Archuleta. Polyhedral dice, you so crazy.

"Idol" Final Four: Altered State Edition
2008-05-07 14:49
by Mark T.R. Donohue

This should be one of my more interesting "Idol" recaps yet, as after a bit of a dental emergency this morning I'm currently taking some Paula Abdul-strength painkillers for my infected bicuspid. The "American Idol" from last night would have seemed a bit surreal anyway, with Jason Castro whiffing on two songs right in his wheelhouse, David Cook sounding amateurish and imitative, Syesha Mercado equating her surprise avoidance of elimination last week with the American civil rights movement, and David Archuleta... actually kind of impressing me, at least with his second song. Archuleta's going to win, I'm pretty sure. In fact, the order of elimination now seems written in stone: Jason will go this week, followed by Syesha, and then David Cook, the "edgy" contestant for this season, will bow out gracefully in the final in much the same manner as Blake Lewis did last year. And that's probably best for everyone. Poor Jason, I'm sure, just really wants to get back to College Station so he can rock the ganj with his campus buddies. Syesha doesn't want a record deal, she wants to be a correspondent for "E! News Daily." And there are five record labels with contracts already filled out for David Cook, just needing his signature.

David Cook Cook's "Hungry Like the Wolf" was one of the few very straight cover versions the "rocker" has done all year and it didn't work for him. He garbled a lot of the lyrics and his voice kept moving back and forth between a Simon Le Bon style and Cook's regular scratchy belt. This gave him pitch issues, which also troubled his "Baba O'Riley," a rather peculiar choice that may have offended the core "Idol" demographic with its "they're all wasted" lyric. Like Amanda Overmyer's earlier "Carry On Wayward Son," Pete Townshend's anthem doesn't really lend itself to being truncated so severely. Without the long synth intro and the violin breakdown (and Keith Moon's epochal tom-tom battering) it's just kind of three chords. Cook has been so savvy all season long about finding ways to make each week's theme work for him, even when you would expect him to struggle. It's strange that this time around, with a theme that should have left him free to do pretty much anything he wanted, that he was off his game. As the most consistent singer of the whole season, his path to the final is clear. But to have any chance of dethroning Cutie McAdorablepants he's going to have to better his best. He better, he better, you bet. 6/7

Syesha Mercado Syesha doesn't know very much about either music history or American history. I think Randy Jackson was reacting in the same way I did to Syesha's glib appropriation of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" when he said he didn't care for the alterations she made to the melody. What he was really saying was, come on, little girl, comparing not getting voted off a singing contest TV show to the struggle of an entire people to be free is deeply, deeply offensive. I was also agitated by Syesha's introducing "Proud Mary," her other tune, as being by Tina Turner. No ma'am, John Fogerty penned that tune. Putting aside Syesha's total ignorance of some of the major figures of American culture (which should make her perfect for work in television), she was a mixed bag yesterday evening. "Proud Mary" despite a vigorous hip-shaking performance from the young ingenue was marred by a lot of screechy notes and a limp and uncomfortable introduction. All of the effort that Syesha put into her dance moves should have gone into further practice on the singing. Mercado's "Change" was a good vocal, if you ignore the kind of dense implicit analogy that getting more telephone votes than Brooke White is the equivalent of a century-long battle for basic human dignity that has cost many lives. Her breakdown after the song was over, with a clunky attempt to again play on a past history that she blatantly obviously has no understanding of, seemed utterly calculated to me. I can understand why she might be desperate. They said at the top of the show that three of the four contestants remaining have been a top vote-getter at least once. It doesn't take a genius to figure out which one has never made it. Jason Castro's implosion most likely preserves Syesha for another week. Hopefully next time out she won't compare herself to a Holocaust survivor. 7/9

Jason Castro I'm really beginning to think that I hit the nail on the head with my theory that Jason is deliberately sabotaging himself because he misses smoking pot so much. He certainly came across as a burnout with a dreadful, talent show-level "I Shot the Sheriff" and a solo "Mr. Tambourine Man" in which he somehow managed to forget the second half of one of the most famous choruses in all of rock and roll. The less said about the tuneless, gaspy "Sheriff," the better. As for the Dylan cover, it might have been OK if he hadn't fluffed the "jingle-jangle morning" line, but once he made that mistake, he was visibly flustered for the rest of the tune. Jason's body language all night seemed very reminiscent of Brooke White's last time out. He even seemed to relax and make eye contact with audience members during "I Shot the Sheriff." It's been a good ride but it's time to go home. I'm pretty curious about what a Jason Castro debut album might sound like, but less so than several weeks ago. His lackadaisical attitude -- it seems like he's been coasting almost since the male and female casts merged two months ago -- does not bode well for his future. 5/6

David Archuleta There was a really interesting article in Entertainment Weekly last week about the "Idol" song choice process. Apparently David Archuleta's father is allowed to sit in during the whole process and give his opinions, which basically amounts to his dictating to his pliable son precisely what he will sing and how. No wonder David's introductory clips always seem monumentally disconnected -- he doesn't know why he's picked any of his songs because he didn't pick them. That's gross. I wish that "Idol" showed Archuleta's icky stage-parent father so that voters were able to see the reality of the situation. I hope that this time next year Little David isn't suing his folks for emancipation. Anyway, Mr. Archuleta's first pick was "Stand By Me," a pretty obvious David tune. I felt as if the band diverged from the familiar arrangement too much with a slow tempo and hand percussion and David's vocal freelanced from the set melody far too often. It was also during these ad libs that he tended to have the most pitch problems. His "Love Me Tender," by contrast, was absolutely beautiful. Easily the best vocal of the night, and David's best in some weeks. If he was this good each and every time out, I would have far fewer objections to the incessant hype receives on the part of the judges and producers. 7/9

The picks: Jason Castro, right? Unless he really is an order of magnitude more popular than Syesha. But Syesha really wants to stay another week and Castro pretty obviously longs for his drum kit and his bong. Four-sided die says Syesha Mercado. One or the other of us is going to be right.