Thursday, May 27, 2010

Busy Busy Busy

I just wanted everyone to know that it will probably be a few days until I post again. I'm moving out of this house this weekend, and I've come to realize that I have a lot more stuff than I thought I did. Anyway, if I'm not back, enjoy the weekend, and tell me what's been on your mind, entertainment-wise. I'm hoping to put up a post about the Tony nominations (albeit a short one) when I return, and maybe some other things that I can find. Until then, toodles.
Your friend,
Jason Henson

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

MacGruber (2010)

MacGruber is an impossible sort of film, the kind that should not even exist because, on paper, there's no way it could ever possibly work. MacGruber started as an oft-rejected idea from Saturday Night Live writer Jorma Taccone who, after pushing and pushing, finally got the sketch made after a Pepsi commercial featuring MacGruber was successful. Therefore, it was decided that the 90-second sketch starring Will Forte should be expanded into a 90-minute movie. Like I said, when put that way there's no real reason a studio executive would logically decide that this is a good idea.
But MacGruber does something kind of miraculous: it doesn't suck. In fact, given the low expectations, I would say that it is a rather good comedy. Now, in no way is it a perfect movie, or a milestone in cinematic comedy. There will be no Oscars, no Golden Globes, or such awards for this movie. However, it does manage to be a decent spoof film. This fact is the reason why the film is better than it should be: instead of stretching the sketch to movie length, MacGruber the film breaks away from MacGruber the sketch by becoming a spoof of the classic '80s genre of meat-headed action flicks, which produced such films as Die Hard and Commando.
MacGruber (Will Forte) is called back into duty to stop the evil Dieter von Cunth (Val Kilmer) from destroying Washington with a nuclear warhead. And with the help of his old assistant, Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig), and rookie soldier Lt. Dixon Pike (Ryan Phillippe), he sets out to do just that. Along the way, no action cliche goes unnoticed: the plot itself, the fact that Von Cunth is MacGruber's nemesis because he killed his wife on their wedding day, MacGruber being taken off the case multiple times. At its heart, it's just another lunk-headed action film, with everyone playing their roles straight, as if they were unaware that they were making a comedy.
Everyone, that is, except Forte. In all the seriousness, he plays his role as an absurdist take on the John McClanes of the world. He's inept, selfish, and clueless, a modern Don Quixote with a mullet. It's a testament to Forte's under-appreciated comedic talent that he's able to almost single-handedly carry the film as comedy, since honestly, he's the only one who creates any real laughs. Val Kilmer tries, but his best scenes are with Forte to play off of; Wiig and Maya Rudolph (as Forte's dead wife) are horrendously underused, and Phillippe is given little to do other than look shocked at things such as MacGruber's celery distraction (which is very well-played by Forte).
MacGruber's main problem is that it tries very nobly to find the funny in the ridiculousness of action movies, but doesn't bother to be ridiculous beyond MacGruber himself. A better movie would have had more exaggerated performances from everyone, bringing out the humor without devolving into parody; perhaps more camp would have helped. But it is a modest film, landing below the genius of Airplane! but above the atrocious "_____ Movie" series.

Monday, May 24, 2010

I Would Read This

God bless Barney Stinson.

Lost: "The End"

Let me start out with this preface: Lost was without a doubt my favorite show on television, and was a major influence on both my life and my writing throughout its six year run. I watched it religiously, whether on TV (particularly season openers and finales) or on Hulu. Therefore, I'm a little biased in my analysis of why last night's finale was the greatest two-and-a-half hours of television I have ever watched. But, at the same time, there is a consensus that "The End" was a fine finale, and if not great, then one that would certainly be discussed for years to come.
SPOILERS BELOW!!!!!! You've been warned....
One thing that I would like to brag about was that I predicted way back after "The Substitute" that Hurley would be Jacob's successor. He was the leader who was most interested in helping others in their interests, rather than his own (as Jack and Locke often did). Plus, it was fantastic to see Hurley develop into more than just comic relief. And as Un-Locke/The Man in Black told Jack in disappointment, "You're the obvious choice." I'm also glad that Hurley chose Ben to be his right-hand man, a position that Ben had been duped into thinking he had for the likes of others for most of his life. I'm glad that he finally found redemption.
Another aspect I really enjoyed was the big reveal of the Sideways world, which was really a meeting place in the afterlife, or "purgatory," for the survivors. I want to make one thing very, very clear, according to Christian's explanation: even though he said that they were all dead, THEY DID NOT ALL DIE IN THE CRASH. As Christian said to Jack, they were all dead, "some before you, and some long after you." Everything that happened on the Island was real. They were all real. The Sideways world is a place that is beyond time, and all of them being there does not mean that they all died at the same time. When Jack finally came to his realization, they were all finally dead, and ready to "move on" together. It was a fitting, poignant ending to the show.
Which leads me to my argument for why the finale of Lost was so successful in ending the show. Over the years, especially this year as the show barreled toward its end, the discussion surrounding Lost has focused on answers: where is the Island? Why did those who survived, survive? Why did the Others take the people they took? Who were the people who were there for thousands and thousands of years? What was the significance of the statue? Why couldn't women get pregnant and carry to term on the Island? The list of questions goes on and on. And most people, I think, expected nothing but answers in the finale. This is a sci-fi mystery show, after all, and above all else the creators owed us explanations for everything that they presented us for the past six seasons. The finale didn't answer all of these questions; in fact, a lot of the big questions that people have been asking were left unexplained. And this is why I think most people are disappointed in the finale.
But here's the thing: at its heart, Lost is, and always has been, a drama about people, not answers. And that's what the finale, particularly the ending church scene, emphasized: these people were not brought to the Island to learn about the Dharma Initiative, but to learn about themselves and help each other. That's been the main theme of Lost: becoming found. The survivors were, of course, brought to the Island by Jacob as Candidates for his position as Protector of the Island, but there was another, more important reason why they were there. When these characters set foot on Oceanic Flight 815 on September 22, 2004, each one of them was trapped in a point in their life that he was unable to get out of. Landing on the Island forced them to face their issues and, through the various adventures that followed, ask for the help of others. As Kate tells Jack, "Sometimes you can't do it alone." (Cue the U2 song). And that's what a lot of the reviews and reactions seem to be missing: this isn't a show about sci-fi mysteries and action, but about characters, about humanity and what makes being human worthwhile. And thank God that the creators of Lost gave us such fully-developed, complicated, complete characters, each of which breathed of being a real person rather than a TV stereotype (even Jacob and The Man in Black were more than just "good" and "evil"). That's the sort of thing this show should be remembered for.
There was a lot of other things I enjoyed about the episode. Richard Alpert, for example, is mortal now, and heading off into a world that he has never known. Jack's death, recreating the opening shot of the pilot, was perhaps one of the show's most perfect moments. And the open-ended nature of the final scenes in Island reality were excellent. There's plenty of story left to tell: what happened to those aboard the Ajira plane as it left the Island? How will Claire deal with motherhood? What will happen to Hurley and Ben, the new protectors? Hopefully, there won't be any spinoffs or sequels or anything like that. Lost is a singular story that has now been told; we don't need anymore. In life, we never have all the answers. It only seems fitting that a masterpiece such as Lost end the same way.
PS My theory about what Sideways world means to the greater story? Hurley is advised by Ben in the finale to "find another way" to run things on the Island, starting with getting Desmond home. The Sideways world is his solution: create an afterlife world where the survivors can find each other and "move on" together.
PPS Something that should be debated but isn't: why did Ben choose not to enter the church?
PPPS Michael Giacchino's score for this show may be one of the most beautiful in television history. I can't listen to the "Life & Death Theme" without getting misty-eyed.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Transformers 3 Loses Another

It was reported today that Megan Fox has been dropped from the upcoming Transformers 3, apparently at the advice of director Michael Bay (Hollywood's leading overstuffed-lowest-common-denominator-action-movie auteur).
Please go away. Or get some real talent.
Of course, Fox already proved that she can't carry a movie on her own, as demonstrated by the box-office failure of Jennifer's Body. So does this mean her movie career is over? Maybe not, since she's mostly known for her looks and that's enough nowadays to have a long career, but one can dream.
Not that I'm looking forward to Transformers 3, but I'm glad Bay decided to drop his jive-talking, racially-insensitive robots. Though I doubt that will make it any better.
PS I, unlike Bay, know where a postscript goes.

Lost: "What They Died For" ***SPOILERS***

Here we are. The end is nigh. By this time next Monday morning, Lost will be over, the story will have been told, answers may or may not be given, and we'll either be impressed with the end or infuriated. There's not doubt that, either way, we'll be frustrated, since I doubt masterminds Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof are going to give us easy answers and a nice, neatly-tied-up ending to their complicated tale.
But let's focus on last night's episode: what did we learn? We learn that Jacob is about to disappear forever, and he brought our survivors to the Island as Candidates for protecting the Glowy Cave, plucking them from their miserable lives to give them a sense of purpose. The Candidates are not a set in stone ordeal, but rather a choice given to the remaining few (Hurley, Sawyer, and Jack); Kate's given the option as well, even though her name was crossed off the list (because she became a mother, and therefore had something important off the Island). Of course, Jack takes up this mantle, and Jacob performs the same ceremony that Mother performed on him many, many, many years ago, saying, "Now you are like me." I wonder if he actually is, since there's still two-and-a-half hours of the show remaining, so there's plenty of time for that to change. Personally, I was hoping Sawyer would do it, since he's easily had the most redemptive tale yet.
Meanwhile, Ben's defected to the dark side again, helping The Man in Black/Un-Locke/whatever-you-want-to-call-him kill Zoey (thank God, I was never fond of her), Widmore, and potentially Richard (though I hope not; we had a whole episode this season about him, so he had better get a proper goodbye). But a part of me doubts whether Ben has really gone bad again, seeing as how he redeemed himself earlier this season (though that could be manipulative Ben just being Ben). Now the two of them are going out to find Widmore's failsafe, Desmond, so that Un-Locke can destroy the Island.
In Alternate-World, Desmond is finally rounding up everyone in hopes of uniting them with their Island selves. I have theory about this: the Alternate-World is just another plane of consciousness, and the Incident at the end of season 5 split the survivors' consciousnesses between the two planes. If that makes sense (though this one is arguable too, and perhaps even more confusing). However, I wonder what Desmond means by Ana-Lucia "not being ready." Also, I really enjoyed the various references in Alternate-World to the Island-World, such as Danielle saying that Ben is like a father to Alex and Jack and Locke's scene together, in which they have a fate-vs.-coincidence discussion.
So where's it all going? I have my ideas, and I'm anxious to know the truth. But in the end, whatever happens, happens. I'm glad I went along for the ride. Be sure to keep an eye out for my post-finale post, where I'll probably lament the end of the show and wonder what I'll do without it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

TV Cancellations

It's that time of the year again: the time when the networks announce their fall lineups, and we discover what shows didn't make it to next year. I was obviously concerned about the fate of my favorite shows, but I'll take you through some of the other cancellations and my responses to them.
MY FAVORITES
  • Lost: Series Finale 5/23. That may be one of the saddest days of my life.
  • 30 Rock: Safe for now. It's been picked up for another season, but next year it's moving to a different time slot, with a Community lead-in rather than The Office. It's not exactly a ratings giant, so it may be in trouble if viewership sinks. Which, of course, would be a terrible loss.
  • Flashforward: Cancelled. This is truly unfortunate, since the show really just needed a chance to find its true footing. It had a great premise, great ideas, and the elements of a fantastic sci-fi show were present. All the show needed was to ditch its heavy-handed dialogue and make its characters more interesting. Which actually brings me to a theory about the show: in one episode, an advertisement for Oceanic Airlines could be seen. Maybe Flashforward is one of Lost's alternate universes, showing us what Lost would be with worse writing, bizarre plotting and boring characters.
  • Glee: renewed. And justly too, though the recent announcement that it would air after next year's Super Bowl seems a bit odd (do football fans and Gleeks intersect that much?). Still, its good to know there won't be a four-month layaway next season.
  • Heroes: cancelled. Admittedly, season four was pretty bad. It had great ideas, but terrible execution. But that volume was called "Redemption," which the show really should have had a chance to have. I might have enjoyed seasons two and three more than most, and I still believe in the show. Hopefully, that miniseries/TV movie that NBC is talking about to wrap up lose ends will happen, especially since the finale's cliffhanger has me hungry to know what happens next.
  • House: renewed. Because Fox wouldn't kill a certified hit. Though honestly, the show's been in a decline for me this season. Hugh Laurie and the rest of the cast are still great, but the show's writing has gotten really lazy lately, especially following the terrific season opener "Broken." The show needs to get back to what made it so good in the first place: exploring House's head.
  • Justified: renewed. And thank goodness too, because I can't get enough of Timothy Olyphant's entrancing performance in this contemporary western.
  • Modern Family: renewed. I'm glad ABC picked it up, even though it surprised no one. This is the year's best new comedy, and hopefully it can keep its creativity going next year.
  • Rescue Me: final season starts 6/29. I actually didn't know that this would be the final season; shame on me. Hopefully they'll go out with a bang.
  • V: renewed. Now, V won't return until midseason, but it miraculously secured a second season. Which I had never expected, since V isn't a ratings giant and, in my opinion, its worse than Flashforward. I keep watching it in hopes that the show I want it to be will finally emerge: an innovative, original sci-fi epic where the V's are ambigously sinister, and perhaps better integrated into human society, al a Alien Nation or District 9. Instead, we got the heavy fisted, unsubtle, politically-charged rah-rah-fight-the-power! mess that ABC renewed. I'll remain cautiously hopeful, and I'll still watch, but if it doesn't get better, I hope it's dropped.
OTHER SHOWS
  • TV is about to undergo a huge turnover, since a lot of top-quality, popular, game-changing shows will be leaving the air this season. I'm talking about Lost, 24, and Law & Order. The last of those is perhaps the most surprising one, since it will wrap up its historic 20th season this year, tying it with Gunsmoke as the longest-running primetime drama in history. One would think NBC would at least keep it around for one more, record-breaking season, and there seems to be a chance that might still happen, but as of right now the flagship series is over. Just think of that for a second: this show has been on since there was still a Soviet Union. Of course, it's not as popular as it once was during its '90s heyday, but the move is still shocking, especially since its being replaced with another L&O spin-off: Law & Order: Los Angeles (I imagine this one will go the way of Trial by Jury). I also wonder, if the original does get picked up by another network (TNT), does the new season still count since its on cable? Debate.
  • ABC also cancelled two of its other, lower-rated comedies: Better Off Ted and Scrubs. I never did get to see the former, which seemed like the kind of cult comedy (The Comeback, Arrested Development) that wouldn't last no matter how ingenious it is. Scrubs, on the other hand, is past its creative peak, and should have ended several years ago when it was still on top.
  • CBS still hasn't announced it's lineup, so anything could happen. I don't watch much of that network, though, so I don't have much investment there.
  • The CW hasn't cancelled much, but that's not much of an investment for me either.
So what do you think? Did any of your favorites bite the bullet?

Monday, May 17, 2010

SNL's 35th Season: That's a Wrap!

Saturday Night Live celebrated it's 35th season this year, a milestone for the sketch comedy mainstay. And though the show isn't as fresh, or most of the time even as culturally relevant, as it used to be, its still one of my favorite shows on television. It's uneven, but capable of brilliance (and stupidity), and since its live, you never really know what's going to happen. This season has been uneven but fine, and so, without any further ado, the best and worst of this year.
BEST HOST
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (11/21/2009)
Runners-up: Betty White (5/8/2010), Gabourey Sidibe (4/24/2010), Jon Hamm (1/30/2010)
Without a doubt, Gordon-Levitt was the most energetic and excited host of the season, and he threw himself into every sketch with the kind of joy that elevated each one to a comic delight. His impersonation of Jason Mraz in the "Mellow Show" sketch was winning, as was his David Bowie-esque singer in "What's Up With That?" As for the other three, they were all fantastic, especially Hamm, whom I believe could end up being the next George Clooney (starts out starring on a hit TV drama, devilishly handsome, has a terrific funnybone; just pair him up with the right director like Clooney did with Soderberg or the Coens, and wait for Hamm's Oscars to start rolling in).
WORST HOST
It's a tie! Charles Barkley (1/9/2010) and January Jones (11/14/2009) both managed to be cringe-worthy.
Runners-up: Megan Fox (9/26/2009), Taylor Lautner (12/12/2009), Jennifer Lopez (2/27/2010)
I honestly couldn't choose one over the other. The former is an obvious choice: he's an athlete, not an actor, so his was somewhat forgivable. However, don't assume he's redeemed, since it was still an atrocious program that none of the regular cast members could salvage. The latter, who is a gifted actress, proved that she has no sense of comedic timing whatsoever. January, please, stick to dramas like Mad Men, where you're in your element. As for the others, Megan Fox is just a body, Taylor Lautner gets points for trying, and Jennifer Lopez is in need of a serious reinvention.
BEST RECURRING SKETCH
It's goofy, over-the-top ridiculous, and stupid. But's its also insanely fun, mostly thanks to just how random it can be and the full dedication of Kenan Thompson. I look forward to how crazy it can truly get sometimes.
WORST RECURRING SKETCH
Garth and Kat on "Weekend Update"
I'm glad to see Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig tickled with how ridiculous they can be together, but its really gotten old fast. Can we ditch these two characters?
Though please, as far as "Weekend Update" goes (by the way, "Weekend Update" is always the highlight of the show for me), keep Bobby Moynihan's Snooki around. That may never get old.
On a semi-related note, I hope the writers use the summer to figure out a way to hilariously make fun of the Obama Administration. I am an Obama supporter, and I understand that he doesn't make it as easy to do as the Bush Administration did, but seriously, this year's cold opens were awful. Armisen does his best, but please, better writing. The man's not infallible.
CAST MVP
Tough call. Every single one of them is capable of brilliance and stupidity but, this season, Kenan Thompson has kept me laughing the most consistently.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Nasim Pedrad has the most potential to be SNL's next female wunderkind. She's been off to a great start this year, and her possibly-returning character Bedilia has so far been funny without being annoying. Here's hoping she'll really shine next year.
BEST DIGITAL SHORT
Tie! "Great Day" (Alec Baldwin hosts, 5/15/2010) and "The Tizzle Wizzle Show" (James Franco hosts, 12/19/2009)
This year featured some pure hits of genius ("Two Worlds Collide," "Laser Cats 5," "Cherry Battle," "The Curse") and some really bizarre, "eh" shorts that we could have done without ("The Other Man," "Get Out," "Like A Boss" wannabe "On the Ground"). But nothing topped the joyous anarchy of "Great Day," which feels like the opening number from the first-ever crackhead musical, and "The Tizzle Wizzle Show," which is like The Mickey Mouse Club meets Battle Royale. Check them out for yourself:

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Back in 2008, on the eve of the premiere of Iron Man, the film was facing strange expectations. On paper, there was no way it should have worked: Iron Man was a much-lesser known superhero; Tony Stark/Iron Man would be played by then-supposed Hollywood washout Robert Downey Jr.; it was directed by actor/director Jon Favreau, previously best known for comedies such as Swingers and Elf. But then something miraculous happened: it didn't suck, mostly thanks to its focus on character over explosions and RDJ's abundant charisma, and it made hundreds of millions of dollars. The sequel was inevitable.
And as far as sequels go, Iron Man 2 delivers. Here, Tony is now facing the consequences of revealing that he is, in fact, Iron Man. He's trying to host the Stark Expo, a vision of his father's (John Slattery, in Mad Men mode) that he intends to complete, as well as dealing with Senate hearings lead by Senator Stern (Garry Shandling), who wants Tony to turn over the Iron Man weapon to the US military. Meanwhile, rival weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is trying to mass-produce the suit, Lt. Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard from the first movie) is trying to convince Tony to turn over the suit to the military, and Russian Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) has actually built a "suit" of his own. Oh, and Tony has made Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) the CEO of Stark Industries, and has hired Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), who turns out to be a super-spy working with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), as his new assistant.
Needless to say, Iron Man 2 falls victim to the more-is-better ideology of blockbuster sequels, and a lot happens with the film's two-hour running time. However, in what can only be described as lightning striking twice, the film more or less is successful; it's not quite Spider-Man 2 good, but it's certainly not Spider-Man 3 bad, especially considering it's use of multiple "villains" (more on that in a minute). I would credit this to RDJ's brilliant performance and the decision to keep the film's focus on de-constructing Tony Stark. Tony is a fascinating character, and in the film his darker side is explored. This isn't done through a lame-emo-Tobey Maguire transformation, but rather a descent into alcoholism and self-destruction. It's a different move for a superhero movie, and for the most part it works. In fact, I would say that it's the secret to the Iron Man franchise's success.
Which brings me to the film's biggest flaw: the villain. The first Iron Man had this same problem. In the films' narratives, there's so much focus on Tony that it's as if the writers forget that the villain is even there, or perhaps the villain is only included because its mandatory in a superhero film. Either way, the character of Ivan Vanko (who, by the way, is never referred to as Whiplash even though that's obviously who he is) is underdeveloped, which gives the great Rourke little to do but sit around tinkering with machines, speaking a few lines of Russian, and mostly looking bored. It's a shame that he's been wasted in this manner, since, as another comeback kid from the 1980s, he could have made an excellent foil for RDJ's Tony; a better movie would have made them two sides of the same coin.
The other "villain," Justin Hammer, is only so in the nominal sense. Rather, he's just a rival weapons manufacturer with even shadier morals than Tony. Rockwell plays the role with a gleeful arrogance, making him much more interesting that Vanko. However, once again, he gets very little development, and in a better movie, he too would have been a foil for Tony.
All of this may sound like Iron Man 2 is a terrible movie, and let's be honest, the critics' reviews are not exactly glowing. However, the movie is awfully fun, and it never loses its sense of mischievous joy. And in a shocking development, Don Cheadle steps into Terrence Howard's shoes surprisingly well, and, as War Machine, is a terrific sidekick for Iron Man. When the inevitable third-part comes out (I refuse to use the term "threequel"), I'll be in line for it, ready to see these two in action again.

Greenberg (2010)

About two weeks ago, Greenberg finally came out to my area, playing at the Chelsea Theater (which, if you're ever in Chapel Hill, I strongly recommend if you enjoy the arthouse scene). When I made my list of my 10 most anticipated films, I included this one on my list, mainly because I was very moved by Noah Baumbach's previous films, The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding. Not only that, I figured it would be nice to see Ben Stiller return to the indie scene, and turn in the kind of low-key performance he gave in The Royal Tenenbaums again. So once it finally arrived, I was eager to see it.
Greenberg tells the story of Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a New Yorker who flies out to Los Angeles to watch over his brother's house while he's on vacation in Vietnam. In true Baumbachian fashion, Roger is an unlikable, self-absorbed cad who would prefer the world would just run his way. He has a habit of writing letters of complaint to just about any institution he comes across, and even when he meets his old friends in LA, he barely tries to make a connection, and refuses to acknowledge that he is to blame for blowing their band's chance back in the day. In fact, the only person he seems to be able to somewhat connect to is his brother's assistant, Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig), but even that is strained by his arrogance.
Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg
Now, of course Roger is exactly the kind of character one should expect to find in a Baumbach film. And, when not working with Wes Anderson (as he did on the joyously superior Fantastic Mr. Fox last year), Baumbach does his best when he examines the lives of self-obsessed suburban neurotics. Greenberg is another fine effort from the man, but it has one serious problem: Roger's character is often too unlikable. As a result, the film often feels cold and heartless, as if it's trying to make sure the audience can't get involved.
The marvelous Greta Gerwig
Luckily, the film finds it's heart in Gerwig's Florence. She's a ray of sunshine, a complicated girl with a sunny disposition who falls for Roger, even though she knows the risk of being in a relationship with someone like him. Gerwig, all radiance and cheery beauty, is a true find, and hopefully an indie star in the making. The fact that she completely steals (and saves) the film from Stiller is a feat worth celebrating. She's the warmth that saves Greenberg from its own cold bitterness.