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Monthly archives: October 2008


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.