Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: Moving Pains

"...there is the potential for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to double as both a well-made film and an educational implement for young viewers: the film develops in a delicate manner that is optimal for introducing the atrocities of the Holocaust in an uncompromising but measured mode. However, the film’s shocking and crushing conclusion strikes me as unnecessarily cruel toward the viewer in a Lars Von Trier sort of way."

Click here to read my entire review in The L Magazine

Monday, October 27, 2008

Entourage S. 5 E. 8 - "First Class Jerk"

On the business side of things, Vince continues his spiral of depression when he gets offered a role on a TV show and Ari deliberates on what to do about his studio head job. Just as Michael at Entourage the Blog sagely predicted last week, Ari bows out of the position but recommends Dana Gordon to take the job, ensuring that Vinnie will get to be on Smokejumpers. In the episode’s best scene, Ari and his wife discuss the prospect of leaving his agency and Mrs. Ari raises the first valid reason I’ve heard for Ari to decline the job: he loves being his own boss. Lloyd voices the second: he wouldn’t be able to hurl as many homosexual slurs. At other points in the episode Ari expresses his concern about not being able to get Vince on Smokejumpers if he doesn’t take the job which still strikes me as a petty reason for that kind of decision.

On the fraternal side of the plot, Turtle meets Jaime Lynn Sigler (The Sopranos) on their flight back from Hawaii and allegedly gets somewhat physical with her over the Pacific. Drama, enraged and refusing to believe Turtle’s good fortune, goes around town blabbing about Turtle’s claim to anyone and everyone to try and embarrass Turtle into admitting it’s not true. In the end, Jaime Lynn finds Turtle at a club and splashes her drink in his face for talking about their mid-air tryst. Realizing that Turtle wasn’t lying, he tries to take the bullet and confess to Jaime Lynn that it was his fault but it’s too late. This sub-plot was fairly grating due to Drama’s callousness but on the other hand, it was entirely realistic. Turtle wouldn’t be able to keep it to himself and jealous friends like Drama and E would go around advertising it until it’s no longer a secret.

Serviceable as a transition episode but little else, next week looks to be a solid change of pace as we fast-forward to Vinnie on the set of Smokejumpers which apparently has been fast-tracked and in the process lost Edward Norton and gained Jason Patrick in the lead role. Which makes me wonder what kind of Hollywood universe Entourage takes place in: Frank Darabont is repeatedly branded a genius this episode(come on Shawshank was 14 years ago!) and then Vinnie Chase is considered a second lead behind Jason Patrick? Jason Patrick couldn’t headline Speed 2: Cruise Control.

Next week’s episode looks to be a great move because for once we’ll get to see Vinnie on the set of a movie mid-season (rather than placing it in the in-between season ellipsis) and apparently see him floundering rather than coasting through. It’s nice that the prelude to Smokejumpers won’t be strung out interminably throughout the rest of the season but it makes me question the need to have Giovanni Ribisi and Lukas Haas play the screenwriters since they haven’t had much significance thus far.

On an unrelated note, I like the way HBO has changed its pre-episode tag-line description to: “Whether you’re winning or losing, the game of fame is always a trip.”

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Is W. pro-Bush?

Throughout my viewing of Oliver Stone’s W. I kept wondering the same thing, ‘What is the point of making this film now? What is gained by its immediacy?’ I came up with two answers. The first is cynical and a fleeting thought I had prior to viewing the film: to cash in on a contemporary topic by being the first out of the gates (a la such recent dismal-looking spoofs Disaster Movie and Superhero Movie). But I think such a conclusion is less ascertainable based on the film itself. Yes, its production was expeditious but the final product is not sloppy and if nothing else, John Brolin’s performance as W is completely committed.

The conclusion I’ve come to, based on my personal response to the film, is that the film is Stone’s attempt to – surprisingly enough – humanize George Bush. The film does remain critical of the Bush Administration and of Bush’s actions but avoids appearing downright derisive – of course there are images of Bush drunk driving, exercising a limited work ethic and garbling his words in public but none of this seems risqué by this point. David Edelstein describes W. as Stone’s “most tepid film.” That’s certainly one way to look at it but it seems to me that the film’s major agenda is not to rile up liberals by underlining what a disastrous job Bush has done in office but rather to pacify the situation by presenting Bush not as a demon but as fallible human being. Such a message jars considerably with Stone’s public persona (NYTimes’ Manhola Dargis cites a recent interview with Larry King where he referred to Bush as a “bum”) but I find it hard to see the film any other way.

There are three characteristics – the structure, the music score and Brolin’s performance – that convince me that for whatever reason, Stone decided to make this film as a retirement compensation of sorts to George Bush. The film jumps around in time so that it chronicles Bush’s rise from Ivy League frat boy to fledgling politico to President of the United States in a manner that favors character over plot. Stone and his screenwriter Stanley Weiser trace Bush’s ascendency not through conspiracy and political intrigue but rather through family-focused dynamics of privilege and inadequacy; making it more closely resemble Wall Street than Nixon (perhaps not surprising considering Weiser co-wrote Wall Street).

The first three scenes are skillfully arranged to execute a sleight of hand that is almost unnoticeable. The first opens with a disarming fantasy of Bush standing in an empty baseball field and listening to an imaginary crowd cheer for him before cutting to an oval office meeting with his advisors where they decide to execute their ‘Axis of Evil’ campaign. With this scene Stone immediately appeals to Bush’s detractors’ most common complaint – an unnecessary war that’s gone on too long – by depicting the foolhardy and hurried approach that went into its conception. But before the viewer can get nestled into a private hate-fest the film cuts to Bush pledging his fraternity at Yale. In the blink of an eye Stone has taken Bush in a position of power and juxtaposed it with a position of servitude by inserting him into a nightmarish scenario of antagonism and degradation. Before I knew it, I was rooting for Bush’s perseverance in the situation. And thus in the first ten minutes, Stone manages to make Bush an identifiable – if not a downright sympathetic – character.

The second major way the film achieves this is through Paul Cantelon’s score that is elegant, respectful and even empathetic. A key scene in which it is employed is the meeting between W and Laura Bush (Elizabeth Banks) where the score works to temper W’s grotesque eating habits and sleazy charm and convey a hint of what would have fueled their attraction – a relationship that the film presents as nothing but supportive and functional throughout it all.

Third is Brolin’s performance. Sasha Stone at AwardsDaily writes that “Josh Brolin is so charismatic it wouldn’t matter who was playing; he would still be interesting to watch. And he is likable and charming as Bush.” Her description reminds me of my feelings about Michael Sheen’s performance in The Queen, a particularly comparable role to W. Brolin could have easily gone the Will Ferrell route with exaggerated vocal mimicry and reliance on facial tics but instead he injects a few of the trademark mannerisms we expect to see into a fully developed character. He never lets his performance drift too far into one direction. At times he’s moronic, at others he’s repulsive and then when you least expect it, he’s even sweet; there’s a beautiful scene toward the end when Laura tells W that his favorite play, Cats, is coming to D.C. and he replies quietly “Now that’s something that’d be worth staying up late for.”

So by the penultimate scene, as I watched Bush squirming in a situation he’s not equipped to handle I didn’t feel rage at the injustice of his Presidency but rather felt sympathy for a man completely in over his head and unable to acknowledge it. Roger Ebert doesn’t seem to have been quite as swayed: “One might feel sorry for George W. at the end of this film, were it not for his legacy of a fraudulent war and a collapsed economy. The film portrays him as incompetent to be president, and shaped by the puppet masters Cheney and Rove to their own ends.” How do you feel about Bush’s portrayal in W.?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Entourage S.5 E.7 - "Gotta Look Up to Get Down"

On the heels of remarking that I was finally able to accept that E is truly the main character this season arrives an episode that completely inverts his prominence. In last night’s episode Ari took center stage (in my estimation he clocked in more screen time than the boys combined) as the plot focused on the aftermath of WB studio head Alan Gray’s sudden death and Ari learning that he’s being groomed to take over Alan’s position. Obviously I don’t know much about studio hierarchies but it struck me as quite surprising to think that promoting an agent to head of a studio would be common practice. Although, apparently Guy McElwaine did it. I guess it makes sense in that a high-profile agent would have a strong understanding of talent from both the acting and technical side of business. An interesting by-product of this plot development was that we received a bit of light shed on Ari’s past relationship with Dana Wheeler and that it didn’t negate with his “I’ve never cheated on my wife” credo.

Meanwhile, Vince reluctantly agreed to appear in a fashion shoot but when his past relationship with another model in the campaign led to her dismissal, he returned to his familiar territory of maintaining his principals and refused to participate in the campaign, losing the one million dollars he would have netted.

Relegated to third fiddle for the night’s episode, E’s plot involved him being hounded by a leggy supermodel several inches taller than him much to Drama and Turtle’s chagrin. In the end, it turned out she wasn’t trying to sleep with E but rather was propositioning him to manage her fledgling acting career. Much of this plot revolved around the show’s continued investment in reiterating E’s short stature. This wearied concept was given a bolt of vitality by some exquisite staging and Connelly’s pitch-perfect timing when E jutted his head in from the bottom right of the screen during introductory handshakes with an altitudinous model.

All in all it was a fairly average episode that was bolstered by a tremendous conclusion. It began with the fairly obvious sitcom convention of having Vince and Ari boarding separate private planes in the same hanger at the same time but it paved the way for some stirring emotion. Shot with contrast to emphasize a picturesque LA sunset and incorporating Radiohead's mellow "Fake Plastic Trees" on the soundtrack, Ari revealed to Vince that he was considering taking the studio position. Vince responded with insecurity and bewilderment but tried to stay calm. Personally, I’ve always found it difficult to believe that Ari really considers Vince to be a friend and not just a meal ticket but Piven’s performance in this scene momentarily convinced me otherwise. From a business standpoint, revealing this to Vince is a huge mistake but Piven’s performance conveyed his giddiness about the position and his glee of wanting to share the news with a close friend.

Despite the power of the sequence, I was plagued by the same problem I had with episode 2 of this season, “Unlike a Virgin”, where Vince was dealt with some brutal honesty about his acting talent by Ari but still managed to bed the elusive Justine Chapin at the show’s end (speaking of which, I guess that subplot was dropped?). Same thing happened last night, Vince is crushed to learn that Ari might be taking the studio position yet he’s still able to board a plane full of supermodels and head off to Hawaii with the boys. Even though the writers are finally willing to put Vinnie in a bleak career position, they can’t bring themselves to ever really end things on a down note; his star may be waning but don’t worry, he’s still getting laid.

The Legend of Hell House: Beware a Black Cat

"The Legend of Hell House, released in 1973, satisfies most of the desires inherent in the haunted house formula and manages to hold up pretty well, without succumbing to campiness or risible special effects. Well, except for a sequence featuring an awesome catfight—literally, between one of the lead characters and a demonically possessed black cat that concludes in a bludgeoning-by-candlestick."

Click here to read my review at Not Coming to a Theater Near You

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Musings on Entourage Season 5

In response to recent reports of dwindling ratings and Entertainment Weekly’s dismissive coverage of a sixth season pickup (“Entourage gets yet another season. Even Johnny Drama wouldn’t want anything to do with it at this point.” P.12 October 17, 2008) I feel compelled to write a column in defense of Entourage season five and possibly develop into an episode recap column in the following weeks.

It’s true that the show has lost a certain degree of the unadulterated enjoyment on display in its first season and much of this is due to the program’s increased concern with depicting the business-side of an actor’s life. So much of the first season’s charm had to do with the ensemble’s chemistry and their opportunity to hang around without any real world concerns; any problem that did arise was strictly bro-centric. The mission statement of season one was aptly summarized in a line of Vinnie Chase’s dialogue: “Work? I got into this business so I wouldn’t have to work anymore.” Things have changed over the past few seasons and Vince’s career choices have started to yield repercussions. It puts a damper on the free-for-all party formula the show was founded on, but how could Entourage have continued for five years based solely on providing vicarious hedonism to the viewer? Offering a more in-depth look at the film side of Hollywood – rather than just the male Sex and the City equivalent LA lifestyle – was a necessity to continue storylines.

One of season five’s strongest qualities is the progression of the character of Eric. While the opening credits have always suggested and critics have long maintained that E is the show’s lead character rather than Vince, I’ve always considered that delineation to be debatable. Yes Vince is passive and his character isn’t usually asked to do much else than be alluring and self-confident (a quality performer Adrian Grenier is underappreciated at being able to pull off with an appearance of effortlessness) but as Vince is fundamentally the mobilizing plot element, especially in season two, I’ve always found the balance between Vince and E to either be too close to call or to sway slightly in favor of Vince. But with season five, I’m finally ready to proclaim E as the show’s protagonist (and what an interesting protagonist he will make for TV theorists to dissect after the show has completed). The writers’ decision to have E manage clients in addition to Vince is the primary reason for this shift. In the early years, the thinking seemed to be that having E as the new guy in town, the Hollywood outsider getting accustomed to the LA lifestyle, he would serve the main access point for the everyman viewer. However, E’s napoleon complex and hotheadedness often made him quite difficult to fully support whereas Vince’s charm and benevolence have always afforded him just enough good will to overcome any jealousy of his good fortune felt by the viewer. But as E has become more of a Hollywood player, he has also become steadily more identifiable. His napoleon complex has decreased; less time is wasted verbally wrestling with Ari and most importantly he’s presented as fallible. A major turning point in his character was episode 7 of season 2 “The Sundance Kids” when E had to face Harvey’s wrath after reneging on a business deal. This plot point was reprised beautifully in season 4 episode 4 “Sorry Harvey” when E sold Harvey the maligned Medellin – a move that would have proved beneficial as evidenced in the season 4 finale – and then had to muster the courage to tell Harvey he couldn’t have the movie after all. This season, we’ve seen E make mistakes dealing with Amanda, Ari and even Vince. As a result of seeing his weaknesses, empathy for his character has grown all the stronger. E has developed into a savvy businessman but still retains a humility evidenced in episode 4 “Fire Sale” when he admitted to Vince and Ari that he screwed up during his meeting with Amanda. Also helping is that Kevin Connelly’s comic timing has grown sharper and sharper over the years – despite still having the burden of throwing out lame one-liner insults during breakfast scenes with the guys.

I feel that the season’s two most recent episodes – “Tree Trippers” and “Redomption” – have been particularly strong. The former, in which the boys and Ari enlist Eric Roberts to guide them on a mushroom-fueled trip designed to help Vince decide whether or not to take an easy paycheck movie, was significant because it recaptured some of the plot-less glory of the first season. The episode was primarily set in the desert (with a few cutaways to Lloyd) and had fairly little plot machinations to deal with. Instead it was all about hanging with the bros and helping a mystified friend try to make a tough life decision. Rob Hunter at Film School Rejects chided the episode’s lack of conflict, “It would hardly be an exaggeration to say absolutely nothing happens in this episode,” but also praised it for being “one of the funniest episodes of the season so far.” I agree with his second assertion but don’t see his first complaint as a problem. Entourage often works best when it doesn’t have an ostensible plot. The plot developments in classic episodes like “Date Night,” “Aquamansion” and “One Day in the Valley” can be summarized in twenty seconds of dialogue but it’s the group interaction that’s indispensible. “Tree Trippers” provided an excuse for the main characters to spend time together without any outside commitments. I think the change in pace was a much welcome diversion from the preceding Smokejumpers-driven episodes. The most recent episode, which saw the dreaded return of Dom, was an even bigger surprise and my vote for the season’s strongest episode so far. Dom, the repulsive thug who had a two-episode stint at the beginning of season 3 but left such a foul impression that you’re likely to remember his presence as infecting the entirety of season 3 part 1, returned for what is presumably a one-episode sendoff. Again, Dom was in legal trouble and begging Vinnie for help. As in season 3, E was skeptical of Dom’s intentions but as it turned out, Dom has somewhat reformed and even has a kid. The moment when Vince and E watch Dom cradling his baby and Vince’s simple comment “Can you believe it? Dom a dad?” was one of the series’ most poignant moments and also a reminder of the central characters’ increasing ages. For one of the first times, we get a sense of the characters subconsciously acknowledging that their charmed Hollywood lives come at the expense of leading a traditional life and its home-based values. Nothing may come of it but it seemed to be a considerable flicker of recognition that their plush homo-social existence could be a hindrance to their ever fully achieving maturity.

Even though this article is designed to be a defense of Entourage’s latter years, it is not intended to be a blind endorsement that the show is just as strong as it used to be. The truth of the matter is that it’s not. Some of the magic is lost and unlike Johnny Drama’s career, the show hasn’t grown better with age. The end of a new episode of Entourage used to leave me wanting more. High on a combination of male camaraderie and intriguing plot developments, once 10:30 rolled around I often found myself returning to my DVD rack and putting on a few more episodes to satiate the desire of living the imaginary life of Entourage for a little while longer. These days I’m able to turn off the TV at 10:30 and head off to bed shortly thereafter, content but no longer pulsating with giddiness after a rollicking good time with the boys. However, I still think it’s one of the strongest comedies on television and the two most recent episodes are evidence of its vitality. In “Tree Trippers” the writers demonstrated they haven’t completely lost focus of the show’s original impetus to present a heedless ‘joie de vivre’ but in “Redomption” the writers also showed that they’re open to change.

Oh, and the other brilliant move in Sunday’s episode? Bringing back Martin Landau’s sublimely played aged-producer Bob Ryan to dole out some hilarious verbal abuse on Ari. More Bob Ryan? I think we can all agree that’s something we might be interested in.

Afterschool: You Can Look But You Better Not Touch

"While Afterschool is concerned with online content, it is not shot to resemble the internet’s amateur aesthetic. Rather it is shot in stark contrast by using careful framing, static cameras, and dilatory pacing. On the one hand, I appreciate seeing a young American filmmaker (Campos is a mere 25) who isn’t obsessed with fast cuts and handheld cameras but on the other hand, his approach is damn near maddening."

Click here to read my review at Not Coming to a Theater Near You

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Windmill Movie: A Cinematic Autobiography?

"The flaws of The Windmill Movie serve to emphasize the uniqueness of the individual. Just like Timothy Treadwell and Jonathan Caouette, Rogers can only be imitated, never replicated. And therein lays the potential of the cinematic autobiography: to record a presence that can’t be performed."

Click here to read my review at Not Coming to a Theater Near You

Friday, October 03, 2008

Alligator: Out on the Streets

"There are certainly some juvenile delights to be found in Alligator: an unattributed POV shot of a squirming victim succeeded by a shot of a blatant prosthetic leg washing ashore, a startlingly grim demise in a residential swimming pool and the hilariously gruff, Lawrence Tierney-esque voice of Michael V. Gazzo as the police chief."

Click here to read my review at Not Coming to a Theater Near You