Saturday, January 31, 2009

When Hate Was the Game

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson
Netflix via XBox 360

I'm a sucker for Ken Burns documentaries, and anything on the subject of America's sorry racial history makes me tear over in an energizing, cathartic way. So it's surprising that I hadn't yet seen Unforgivable Blackness, Burns' smaller-scaled piece on the first black heavyweight champion, until last evening.

I decided to give the documentary a look pretty much by chance; I've been adding anything and everything Netflix has available on its new instant service. It just looks super cool flipping through all the virtual movie boxes in the XBox dashboard. But it is sort of a relevant time to be reviewing Jack Johnson's life story. The Super Bowl, the modern equivalent to the megabouts Johnson engaged in during the 1900's and 10's, is this weekend and the athletes expected most to affect its outcome are African-Americans. Additionally, seeing grainy black-and-white footage of Tommy Burns covered in blood from his nose to his shins reminded me of Joe Stevenson being dragged around through a puddle of his own blood by B.J. Penn in a UFC title fight about a year ago. Penn fights for another title tonight.

I don't have much bloodlust in me -- I was averting my eyes and gasping for the last round of that Penn fight -- but I am absolutely fascinated by sport and its relationship to society, in addition to admiring the strategy of all games in the abstract. ("American Idol" is not entirely unlike a 45-round boxing match with the indomitable Johnson, except in the sense that it's the voters who artificially preserve the beaten and bloody rather than the opponent.) The most interesting detail of Unforgivable Blackness to me, then, was a combination of the two. In many of his most publicized fights, Johnson had to be careful not to knock his inferior opponent out too quickly, lest the audience riot (and later, so there'd be a long enough film to show in movie theaters and pocket major profits).

Absolutely nobody works a slow zoom into a still photo like Ken Burns, and Blackness has some searing images. It's devastating to see that in this country less than a century ago it was perfectly acceptable for editorial cartoons to render any and all blacks as thick-lipped Happy Sambo types, even in northern newspapers. Our education system does a deplorable job still with teaching black history, playing large on the Civil War and the Great Liberator (who was an unapologetic racist who issued the Emancipation Proclamation for purely tactical reasons) and somehow not properly impressing the fact that "Reconstruction" didn't reconstruct anything and that "free" blacks had to wait something like 90 years to even begin to be recognized as human beings with rights and dignity.

Our society still has a lot of trouble accepting wealthy black athletes who drive expensive cars and date white ladies. Just look at all this coverage running up to the Super Bowl. Anquan Boldin is criticized incessantly merely for being outspoken and passionate about his desire to help his team while Peter King practically busts a nut over Larry Fitzgerald calling him "Mister." Hines Ward just about gets canonized because he's soft-spoken, articulate, and good at blocking people while analysts always seem to hold their noses slightly while talking about Edgerrin James since he was bold enough, a guy who plays running back, to ask maybe if he could carry the ball a little bit more often.

How can you judge an athlete by their personality? If they try as hard as they possibly can on the field and don't punch out any of their teammates or discharge firearms in strip clubs, what difference does it make if they're polite or salty or cocky? The Cardinals gave Fitzgerald a big contract extension last summer and told Boldin he'd have to wait. Is Fitzgerald that much of a better player than Boldin? I think they're both great. And part of what makes them work so well together as teammates, I'm willing to speculate, is their differences in temperment.

Jack Johnson was arrested and exiled basically because he was an uppity black who liked the company of white women. He refused to hold his head down when in the presence of whites, and he drove his sports cars and wore his fur coats as if no one else's opinion mattered. He was light-years ahead of his time. And he was absolutely right -- you're not free if you have to behave the way someone else chooses at certain times. You're not free if you can't have consensual adult relations with the adults you want to, and you're not free if to be accepted you have to dress or speak in a certain way.

I say this all the time -- how many civil rights movements do we need to have? Once upon a time only the nobility really counted as people. Then there was some incremental progress and it was white landholders. Then it was all white men. Gradually, slowly, the world began to warm to the fact women are people as well. Then the blacks, then the immigrants, then the gays... why do we have to keep repeating this process? What's wrong with our society that this simple concept, which is in all of our founding documents in case anyone needs a refresher, keeps having to be debated generation after generation?

We're all just folks, people. Black, white, Arab, Jew, bisexual, Communist, Mormon, what have you, let's all put our differences aside for this weekend and watch B.J. Penn clean Georges St. Pierre's clock, followed by the Cardinals upsetting the Steelers. Thank you.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Time Keeps on Skippin'


I haven't figured out how to do folds yet in Blogger so you'll have to excuse me if I spoil the hell out of the new "Lost" episode. Come to think of it, I don't really care if I do, because at least it means I have readers.

I don't have much in particular to say about "Jughead," the third episode of Season 5, that wouldn't have been covered in my general comments about the direction of the new year after the first two episodes. Actually what struck me as more intriguing was the one-hour catchup documentary "Lost: Destiny Calls," which aired before the premiere last week but I didn't get around until watching until tonight. What was fascinating about this little series summary, which had unusually high production values and showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse on-camera together explaining their plot points in revealing detail, was the massive amount of stuff they all but admitted (by omission) was now irrelevant. Basically all of Season 2 except the bookending episodes with Desmond and the hatch, and the introduction of Ben, was a complete waste of time. Not to mention the first third of Season 3.

Characters who were never mentioned or seen except in group shots in this doc: Charlie, Boone, Shannon, Libby, Ana Lucia, Eko, Bernard and Rose, (most significantly) Michael and Walt. Stunningly, Paolo and Nikki received no recognition. In fact, Ben's dad from the Dharma Days flashback episode got more clips than all those folks combined. Could Mr. Linus, senior, turn out to be a lot more important than we thought? Could be if he had a relationship with Charles Widmore, whom we now know for sure was on the island before the Dharma folks showed up (and that is a mild spoiler from "Jughead," although Season 4 dialogue between Widmore and Ben suggested it).

On the other hand... the special did make a very clear point of titling one section "Jin and Sun," rather than merely "Sun," and when Lindelof and Cuse were bringing us up to speed on Sun's status they were extremely cautious with their wording. Sun believes Jin is dead, they said, or words to that effect. I guess this would qualify as more of a bombshell if Daniel Dae Kim's name wasn't still in the main credits for Season 5. I didn't bother to freeze-frame the scene with Jin's monument in it, but did anyone more obsessive than I check to see whether they put the date Oceanic 815 went down on the marker? If Jin is dead (and I think it's pretty obvious that he isn't, or if he is, not permanently) the actual date of his death would have been about four months later. But the Oceanic 6 claimed that everybody except eight people (the five adults of the 6 plus Libby, Boone, and Charlie) died in the crash itself.

OK, I found it. The monument (not gravestone, as there would have been no body to put in the grave) does indeed say September 22, 2004. That's the date of the crash, and also the date of the premiere of the show.

I heard in a promo for next week's episode that the season premiere this year was the highest-rated "Lost" offering ever, seen by 20 million viewers. That's neat, but I hope for the sake of all those added millions that they're coming in because they got hooked on the DVD's and not because they heard the hype that the show was firing on cylinders again and thought they'd catch up as they went along. Guided-tour recap specials notwithstanding, there's no way that anyone who hasn't absorbed the whole run of the show, even the long slack bits, is going to have any clue what's going on now. Locke, Sawyer, Juliet, and the non-murderous freighter contingent are skipping around in time, just like Billy Pilgrim and more recently, Desmond. This happens frequently, and is intercut besides with those survivors off of the island in their new situations, which are also unfamiliar and disorienting to the viewer. If you can't immediately recognize the difference between the first, second, and third Other camps, or don't know offhand exactly when the Swan station blew up, or haven't been keeping a detailed chronology of Nestor Carbonell's hairstyle changes, you're just going to be super lost. And yes, I do realize that that is the name of the show.

Another thought inspired by the "Destiny Calls" summary: There's a waft of Islamic philosophy in the succession methods of the Others. The series' dual fascination with Enlightenment rational humanism and eastern religions, usually played out onscreen in conflicts between Jack and Locke, has another layer in the outwardly irrational decisions made by Carbonell's Richard Alpert to hand over control of the island to first Ben and then Locke. Muslims believe that there were a great number of inspired prophets through history, including Abraham and Jesus, leading up to the perfection of their god's message in the person of Muhammad. This concept of the ongoing revelation of purer truths plays large in Middle Eastern history -- for example, it went a long way towards legitimizing the rule of the Ottomans over much of the Muslim world even though they were Turks rather than Arabs.

Who are the Others, really, but an indigenous people suffering through the years (or centuries, or millennia) waiting for a destined leader to keep them safe from their enemies and free to do whatever it is exactly the Others do when they're not terrorizing newcomers? This belief in the one who is yet to come, less in a Judeo-Christian Messiah sense than a mortal man with a divinely inspired message, explains a lot about the Others' strange behavior throughout the run of "Lost." They're murderously xenophobic, but they kidnap babies. They are connected to the island to the degree that it causes them pain to leave, but leave they do and they seem to have many full-time operatives all around the globe. At the end of Season 2, Ben's deal with Michael was for him to bring a specific group of people -- Hurley, Jack, Sawyer, and Kate -- in exchange for Walt. Jack they needed to fix Ben's spine. But some sort of test was being done on the others. The island doesn't approve of some people. In the Season 3 premiere Ben had Hurley sent back to the beach -- a miscalculation, quite possibly, because Hurley has a better connection to the island than most. Remember, Ben and Locke needed him to find Jacob's cabin, late in Season 4.

The thing that I am still trying to link up, along with a lot of other fans, is the smoke monster. Does it only kill bad people? It certainly took care of the freighter commandos in short order. Mr. Eko was unquestionably a man who had done great evil in his life. But how come the smoke never caught Kate? She's a murderer. And what about poor pilot Greg Grunberg, in the second episode? What'd he ever do to anyone? I think there is something to this concept of the Others having to evaluate each alien presence on the island in turn and decide then whether to kill them or put them in charge. The added, crazy wrinkle is the time travel element. If Locke goes back in time to tell Richard he's pretty awesome, after (in the future) Richard told Locke the same thing -- only, from Locke's perspective, it's the past -- well, I don't know what it all means, except for drugstores to expect a big bump in aspirin sales late Wednesday evenings this spring.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Idol" Year 8: Now Double the Number of Fortysomething Women Dressed Like Hookers

"American Idol"
Fox via DVR

I started watching "Idol" with the Hollywood show of Season 6, and I've caught every single one since -- except for the audition rounds from last year. I can't believe they pimp these brutal freak shows out for three entire weeks, six episodes of glass-shattering screeching and fruit loops in bunny suits. Can this really be most "Idol" fans' favorite part of the season?

I watched all the audition shows this year for the first time. Couple of reasons: My girlfriend is interested in the show now after watching me watch it last season, and it's a lot more fun to try and predict what's going to happen with the various hopefuls when there's someone else there with whom to debate and disagree. Kara DioGuardi, the new fourth judge added in the hope of counterbalancing Paula Abdul's pill-crazed ramblings and Randy Jackson's limited range of expressions, is an unknown quantity who could factor into changing the strategy for the real singers once we get into the competition proper. So it's worth tuning in early to try and get a good bead on her. It doesn't hurt that she's easy on the eyes, dresses like Paris Hilton, and can sing better than nearly anyone who's ever been on the show, guest celebrities included. And then a third reason I suppose is that I don't have anything much else to do with my time.

Some cursory research reveals that there is in fact another audition show on tonight. I'll probably watch it, but I'm not going to feel too bad about wrapping up a single post about the three audition weeks all at once right now. The trouble with these episodes, and the reason I've spurned them in past years, is because they have little to no relation to everything that comes afterwards. The two principal types of sequence that run during the "American Idol" audition shows are the meltdowns, the people that are so unspeakably, unself-consciously bad that it makes your skin crawl, and the pity parties. The first are the show's signature hook, even if in the eighth season there's hardly anything any auditioner can do to surprise. Maybe take a dump in front of the judges. That would definitely get you on TV. I'm too old to audition now, but if any of you kids out there decide to use it, please give me credit.

The producers, to their credit, have moved around the ratio of freaks to gems this season. And there's been a concerted effort to keep the lame self-promoters out of the picture; more of the brutal singers this year have been Chauncey Gardener types with absolutely no self-awareness. This makes the show less painful to watch although a little less interesting; a lot of the blue-note brigade have wandered through, done their thing, then exited with no tears and no friction.

It's goofy, and it shows how far my perceptions of "Idol" differ from the producers' ideas of what the viewers most want to see, how we can get all the way to the first semifinal show without having heard several of those semifinalists sing a note. Often at the end of the hour overmoussed paperweight Ryan Seacrest will announce that 15 people got a ticket to Hollywood, and we'll have seen four of them. If they're cutting out the mutants, and they're not increasing the number of contenders, what's taking up all that time? Well, it's treacle, of course! And a lot of it! If you could halfway carry a tune and suffered from some hardship like being blind, homeless, or Donny Osmond's nephew, your pass through to the next round was a done deal.

This is not only annoying and manipulative, it's also likely to decrease the quality of the competition. From the few people I've spoken to who've actually done the whole audition thing, the handlers outside and the pre-screeners who listen to a few bars from each person in line before sending a select few to the TV judges cut off sending people who can actually sing after a certain point. They only need a handful of really good singers from each city anyway. Then they focus in on the folks who are telegenic and/or tragically unfortunate in some way or another. This process, obviously, keeps the very best 150 singers available from reaching Hollywood. But at the very least picking goofy people to get face time with Simon and company doesn't further dilute the pool by taking away very limited opportunities from potential winners and giving them to poorer singers who happen to have critically ill mothers.

It's no secret that I'm a weird Luddite crank who only listens to vinyl records and thinks music peaked sometime around 1978 (two years before I was born, alas). Since I usually start tuning into "Idol" right when the singers begin performing with accompanists, I was surprised by my thoughts listening to all of these a capella renderings of tunes from all over the past 50 years. Whatever happened to melody? Hip-hop's overtaking of R&B has led to all these rhythm-heavy tracks where the vocalist sing-speaks on a single note, occasionally venturing out for a tritone. This has even bled over into rock. Is "American Idol" secretly saving rock music by introducing guys like David Cook and Chris Daughtry who can actually sing a little? Not to mention reviving all of these great melodies from years past. And, my goodness, instrumental support by live musicians! The other guys in my band think it's kind of ludicrous that I watch and enjoy "American Idol," but unless they're more full of themselves than the average "Idol" crooner, I think most musicians would enjoy the show. The balance that the contestants have to find -- between pushing their technical talents to the limit and exploring their artistic and creative identities -- is on a smaller scale the same yin and yang with which we garage rockers must contend.

In a roundabout way, I just pinned down exactly what it is I hate about the audition shows. The balance between chops and style, years of hard work and a moment's inspiration, all that stuff that keeps me playing until my fingers are sore, is completely absent. The question in the auditions is: Are you a real musician? I'm not super interested in that question because I already know how I would answer. But then put 24 (36 this year!) real talented, committed vocalists in a pool and ask: Who's the best musician? That's interesting.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Forgetting Ms. Bell

Forgetting Sarah Marshall
DVD from the collection

The Judd Apatow production juggernaught hasn't really had a miss since it first became the subject of Entertainment Weekly cover stories with The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Well, that's not precisely true. It takes a little massaging. Walk Hard wasn't a box-office success, but it was a terrific movie, particularly in the full epic biopic sweep of its extended DVD cut. It was the first one of this run of largely improvised films that had more visual panache than the average "DeGrassi: The Next Generation" episode, thanks to criminally underemployed director Jake Kasdan (Orange County, The Zero Effect). And then on the other hand Pineapple Express was dreary, bloated, and forgettable, but it made a ton of money. In any event, the man is doing well for himself, and it looks like he's starting to put together a stable of actors who will hardly work for anyone else. Apatow's like Woody Allen that way, except for the fact that he's made more than two good movies since 1980.

I've watched Forgetting Sarah Marshall a bunch of times since it came out on DVD. This might be because the last time my father came out to visit, he saw that I'd purchased it and gave me a hard time about wasting money on such a stupid movie. Well, I'm fairly certain I've watched it enough times to justify the purchase price by now. I watched it again this evening because I saw a banner ad on IMDb for another movie with Jason Segel and Paul Rudd, and that gave me the bug.

The reason that Apatow's comedies are so re-viewable, I believe, stems from the improvisation. You're actually watching people converse and react in real time, albeit in character. The more naturalistic tone (and the long unbroken takes, more common in the rom-coms like Virgin and Marshall) makes not only for more fully rounded humans in these heightened-reality situations but also far more subtleties. There's a ton of details in Sarah Marshall that come over more fully the fifth time around: Mila Kunis's ability to communicate almost any message imaginable with mere adjustments to the pitch and duration of the word "yeah." Jonah Hill's unrelenting physicality in his confused pursuit of Russell Brand's rock god character. Every awkward move Bill Hader does in the final puppet rock opera sequence (notice the way he holds the grace note half a second longer than the entire rest of the cast and shifts his eyes to check if anyone saw).

Sometimes the hidden details aren't good ones. Watching the movie this evening, I realized for the first time how completely wasted Kristin Bell is. I was very excited when I heard the "Veronica Mars" star was going to do a Apatow movie, because Bell's a sharply intelligent, nimble young actress with good deadpan timing and no fear. I hope she gets another chance to do one soon, because her title role in Sarah Marshall is not only one-dimensional and clichéd, it's also not funny. Billy Baldwin and Jason Bateman, who each have cameos as Sarah Marshall's co-stars, have maybe a minute of screen time between them and get more laughs than Bell, who's around the whole time. Baldwin even gets a bonus laugh when he's not onscreen when Segel rages at him in the recording studio scene. (By the way, I was pretty sure that the guy in that scene who tells Segel he's got to run because he has Allman Brothers tickets was the same fellow who offered Michael Cera cocaine in Superbad, but it's not so. They are two unrelated seedy-looking guys.)

But due to the fact that I enjoyed the film as a whole so much, it took a while to sink in that Bell really drew the short end of the stick in that script. Screenwriter Segel characterized Sarah as venal, self-obsessed, oblivious to others' feelings, and secretly self-loathing. It's such a uniformly negative package that it could only be drawn from real life. As it so happens, Jason Segel had his heart broken by a beautiful young actress who at the time was way more successful than he. (Hint: It's Linda Cardellini.) So his first feature drew a little heavily on what he knew best. As a producer Apatow's chief strength is trusting the instincts of his younger writers and actors to a certain extent, but stepping in when it's most important to make sure each film has real human sentiment at the core. I'm fairly confident that it was Apatow's uncredited work on Seth Rogen and Evan Greenberg's (literally) juvenile script for Superbad that turned that film from a slightly funnier version of Can't Hardly Wait into this generation's answer to American Graffiti. Rogen should have had his mentor take a couple of extra passes at Pineapple Express, too.

So mostly Kristin Bell's exclusion from the laugh party in Forgetting Sarah Marshall can be blamed on Jason Segel. I can't be too hard on the guy, given that he wrote, conceived, and staged a mini-Dracula musical. Besides, my heart still hurts for him from that one episode of "Freaks and Geeks" where Locke's dad took his drumkit away. Past Segel, however, I think you have to look at Bell herself for some of explanation. This was her first big comedy movie role, and she was surrounded by a bunch of experienced comics, many of whom had worked together before. What's more, in most of her scenes she's playing opposite Russell Brand, a man with not even the very least tiny little hint of shame, playing a character with no restraint. That probably made it tough for her to be funny. Because she's a pro, she played the character as written. Probably too much so -- when a scene arrives about two-thirds through when Sarah gets to explain all of the lengths she went to to make her relationship with Peter (Segel) work, it honestly plays as if Sarah/Bell is lying through her teeth. I don't think it was supposed to, but since we have seen no redeeming qualities on her part up to that point (I mean, besides her butt and her abs in bikinis) it seems like she's just further manipulating her poor hapless ex.

The scene that does work, almost too well, is the scene a bit later on when having been dumped by Aldous (Brand), Sarah tries to seduce Peter away from his promising new romance with Rachel (Kunis). It's creepy and unpleasant, the behavior of a woman with limited resources and fewer scruples. Segel and Bell's inability to make Sarah at all sympathetic to the audience is the movie's biggest flaw. It is possible for two people in a relationship to not be right for each other without one of them being a complete monster, you know. It's puzzling how in a movie full of so many nicely-drawn supporting characters the linchpin of the whole piece is a void.

His work isn't really germane to the point I was trying to make above regarding the film, but I simply can't let a discussion of Forgetting Sarah Marshall close without giving respect to Jack McBrayer. The man's a national treasure. We should bronze him, if it wouldn't make it too hard to pull on a page's jacket.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Stay Cool, Honey Bunny, I'll Totally Know If You're Faking

"Lie to Me"
Fox via DVR

Is it plagiarism if you're ripping off a show you already own? "Psych" and "Monk" are basically the same show, except the latter skews a decade older with its pop culture references. "Family Guy" and "American Dad" are utterly identical. The entire CBS lineup is cloned: a billion "CSI" spinoffs plus "NCIS," the "divorce-block" pairing of "Gary Unmarried" and "Old Christine," and the Monday night "our only concession to people younger than 50" lineup. But the networks, and their little cable cousins, are only providing what the market will bear. As for the nine different "CSI" shows, the public's appetite for extremely well-preserved dead prostitutes is something that seems likely to survive every one of the nation's political and economic turnarounds.

So maybe it's unfair to dismiss Tim Roth's new drama "Lie to Me" out of hand because it bears some startling resemblances to another Fox show starring an expat Brit. The show has an undeniably cool hook, and its signature editing trick -- the faces of characters caught in lies by Roth's Dr. Cal Lightman hard-cut into similar expressions on the mugs of lying celebrities, from Bill Clinton to Hugh Grant to Gandhi -- could make a very entertaining 15-minute Adult Swim show all by itself. Roth's awesome (he destroys the would-be boyfriend of his tween daughter with a single line) and the producers graciously don't even saddle him with the need to trot out his so-so American accent. Nevertheless, each time pure scientist Lightman and his rational-humanist sidekick (Kelli Williams) start feuding about appropriate behavior, it's impossible not to think of House and Cuddy. There's also a scene in the pilot where Lightman wings a mug against the wall during a lecture to make a point about surprise to his audience; it's so House-like you can imagine Roth writing out a royalty check to Hugh Laurie right after filming completed for the day.

What bodes ill for "Lie to Me" isn't its many uncanny similarities to "House" but rather what the two series don't have in common. The big thing absent from "Lie to Me" is any semblance of a backup team for Roth. You haven't heard of any of these actors and for good reason. The young underling who always tells the truth becomes tiresome before the end of the first episode. The new hire picked up by Lightman for her phenomenal performance as an airport security officer is so obviously a creation of fantasy that I doubt the character will ever recover. And Williams, as the psychiatrist who serves as Lightman's principle foil, is uninteresting and way less convincing than Roth at delivering the technical lines. There's potential for a lot of great storytelling here, with the utility of Lightman's specialty extending far beyond mere crime and politics. I guess it's also possible that the doctor's infallibility might make him too good, forcing the writers to employ ever-more straining tactics to keep mysteries running for the full 42 minutes.

Ultimately, though, "Lie to Me" is going to have difficulty breaking through in this hitless TV season due to the overall slackness of the cast. Kiefer Sutherland can carry a show single-handedly, but I don't think it plays to the strengths of either Roth's acting or this particular vehicle's concept to go that route. Roth is more a master of the sidelong glance than the explosive confrontation, which I'm sure is why this script found its way to his representatives. Trouble of it is, there needs to be at least someone in Roth's league among the regulars. They can't keep relying on guest stars, as much as I love seeing Joss Whedon fave Andy Umberger ("Buffy," "Angel," and "Firefly") getting work outside the 'verse.

Presto Change-o

The Illusionist
Starz On-Demand

An artistic, beautiful-looking film with three top-shelf actors trading paint and intriguing subject matter that will be unfamiliar to most Americans, Neil Burger's The Illusionist falls short of greatness due to several self-inflicted mistakes. First, the good stuff. The very early 20th century in central Europe is not a popular setting for moderate-budget films with Hollywood stars; filmmakers working in that slice of history like to zoom in on the wars (where stuff was getting blown up) or the colonies (where cultures were coming into conflict). The European peasantry, meanwhile, was still coming out of an intellectual and cultural snooze that stretched back to the Dark Ages. Two extremely unpleasant wars and the collapse of what remained of Europe's empires were still standing between the working classes and modernity.

So The Illusionist does a really good job of evoking an era that never really had an equivalent in the United States. Its two prime movers are parallel representatives of dying belief systems: Edward Norton as Eisenheim, the magician, and Rufus Sewell as Leopold, the nobleman. Faith in the nobility's divinely descended right to power and the fantastic and mystical in general were on the wane. In a decade the Great War would pretty much wipe both out. Ultimately both the protagonist and the antagonist of the film are millennials, aware of the cultural shift taking place around them but disposed by their different backgrounds to react to it differently.

Leopold, who's already close to ultimate power, manipulates the situation to try and perpetuate the old ways. He schemes to steal the throne and sends policeman Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to find a pretext to put Eisenheim away when he becomes an inconvenience. Hypocritical royals are hardly new to either history or the cinema, but in this particular story the villain is somewhat more than stock. Leopold's awareness of the disconnect between the reality of his title and the rank-and-file public's impression of what that title implies about his behavior allows him to scheme with impunity. Likewise, as Eisenheim Norton plays a man slightly ahead of his time who first comes into conflict with the powers that be and ultimately is able to use his edge to exit stage to a happy ending.

It's quite with purpose that Eisenheim describes himself as an illusionist and not a magician or a conjurer. He states right up front to his audiences that nothing he is doing is magical (like Stan Marsh in the John Edward "South Park" episode) but they insist on believing. Neither Leopold nor Eisenheim can stem nor speed the pace of change. Their early awareness puts them in a position where they can set themselves up to benefit, as Norton's character does, or to fall as does the Crown Prince. The awakening of the general populace takes the combined efforts of generations' worth of such paragons.

So there are some really interesting, currently relevant themes at work in The Illusionist. (HBO's "Carnivàle" had basically the same premise moved to a rural American setting, with one major difference -- in that show's world magic is most definitely real, only dying out, unlike in The Illusionist where what's dying out is superstition.) A lot of the film as a finished product falls short of its intellectual ideal, however. It's nice to see Norton playing a guy who holds things close to the vest while the buttoned-down Giamatti frets and hand-wrings. But... Inspector Uhl is the third-most important character in the movie, maybe the fourth-most, and dedicating so much of its running time to the details of his investigation undercuts the prince character, who's Eisenheim's real opposite number. As a matter of fact, the illusionist himself never really snaps into form as a human character, remaining the aloof mystic that the public sees. Thanks to the reliable Giamatti we get a lot of insight into the inspector, but that's totally not the point of movie.

I always thought Rufus Sewell was going to be a big star after Dark City. Never happened. I have been seeing a lot more of him lately, and that's welcome; as he's gotten a little older the range of roles he can play convincingly has broadened. He was very good in a supporting part as a rake in The Holiday (one of the very best mainstream romantic comedies of the last few years, if you've not seen it) and brought an unexpected sensual quality to his role as Alexander Hamilton alongside Giamatti in HBO's killer "John Adams" miniseries. So you've got three heavyweight modern actors. Who plays the ingenue? Why, Summer Catch's Jessica Biel, of course! Biel is unbelievably bad in The Illusionist. As soon as it becomes clear she can't hack the accent Burger just tries to keep her silent as much as possible, but Biel can't even move correctly. She carries herself in exactly the wrong way, like a field hockey player on figure skates. The one scene she appears in that doesn't make you want to gouge your eyes out is the one where she's dead, bloody, and lashed to a horse. Frankly Jessica Biel should quit acting, because she found her calling years ago. That calling is to appear topless... in still photos.

I Collect Character Actors

No one is impressed when you walk into a room where folks are watching a movie and ask, "Oh, is that Angelina Jolie?" I'm not that kind of person. Never have been. When I was maybe 13 or 14 I first warmed to the concept of the character actor in the person of Joe O'Connor, the ruddy-faced, pleasant middle-aged guy who brought all sorts of class to his role as the dad on "Clarissa Explains It All" -- and about a dozen other family sitcoms. I recently read a very long piece in the New York Times magazine about Philip Seymour Hoffman, "greatest character actor of his generation," and although I love me some Scotty J., I really felt as if they were missing the point. Hoffman played the villain in a Mission Impossible sequel. He gets nominated for Oscars on the regular. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a terrific actor, but he doesn't fit my idea of the "character actor" in the very least. He's a movie star. He's a little pudgy and he doesn't fit anyone's idea of a sex symbol, but that's the case with plenty of other (male) movie stars. He's just a popular, eclectic actor who isn't traditionally handsome, which isn't what I think of when I hear "character actor."

What I think of is more guys and girls like O'Connor, Danny Trejo (tattooed, scarred Mexican-American actor who's ubiquitous in prison settings; maybe his most visible role was as the bartender towards the climax of Anchorman), Conor O'Farrell (who's played so many generals and colonels he probably draws a military pension by now), or Lindsay Hollister (Hollywood's current stock really, really obese girl, as seen in "Scrubs," Get Smart, and "My Name Is Earl") who for reasons of their physical appearance and/or vibe can only play one kind of role, but do it so beautifully well that they eke out a career for themselves. Maybe a bittersweet, not highly lucrative career, and one likely to only be noticed or appreciated by a few detail-obsessed nerds like myself, but a living.

Whenever I see a particular actor of whom I've never heard repeatedly making an impression in different roles, I usually make a mental note. If it gets to the point where the next time I see them I've retained their name already, then they're in the collection.

Today's very special character actor is Malcolm Barrett. I saw him for the first time on "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," then noticed him again in a Bud Light "drinkability" commercial, and it was his guest spot in a "Pysch" rerun that finally convinced me I had to look this guy's name up. Barrett's hook -- and this is a little hard to explain delicately -- is that he's an obviously black guy who doesn't play stereotypically black. He's NYU educated, a poet and a theater director, and he absolutely radiates intelligence. I don't know if he could play a thug if he wanted to. On his TV roles that I've seen, casting directors have played towards this rather than against it. On "Always Sunny," this worked perfectly for the concept of the episode ("The Gang Gets Racist") because his character Terrell was constantly playing against the expectations of the bigoted Paddy's crew. On "Psych," the writers rather deftly cast him as a guy being left out of the loop by his criminal buddies, who didn't perceive him as street enough for the drug game. He tried to turn the tables on them using his wits, and totally would have gotten away with it if not for the meddling of Shawn and Gus.

Barrett has the gift of gab, as his selection as a Bud Light pitchman confirms. (I still can't stand the beer but those are some good ads. I don't know her name but the girl in that one ad with the football shirt is foxy.) "Psych," which nearly always saves the good rambling dialogue asides for its heroes, really let him go off. His "Sunny" character even managed to convince Dennis and Mac to turn their place into a gay bar, albeit temporarily.

I'm going to seek out more Malcolm Barrett performances. Looks like he did a "Monk" shortly after his "Psych," so basic cable's got a lot of love for him. You keep an eye out for him too.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Based on Actual Facts (Facts Not Included)

Starz On-Demand

I really feel for Kevin Spacey sometimes. I mean, granted, he's one of our most treasured actors. His performances in The Usual Suspects and American Beauty will be enjoyed and discussed for generations. But, he's a little funny-looking. I'm sure a lot of great roles go around the Pitt-Norton-Damon-DiCaprio axis many, many times before poor Kevin Spacey's agent gets a call. How else can you explain some of the shoddy, shoddy movies he's made even after grabbing those statuettes for his mantelpiece? K-PAX. Pay It Forward. The Life of David Gale. Fred Claus. How hard can it be to put one of our finest American actors in some halfway decent American movies?

Spacey is good in 21 (he's always good) but it's difficult to enjoy his performance because the very existence of his character is a glaring reminder of how badly the making of this film was bungled. Bringing Down the House, the nonfiction bestseller on which the movie is nominally based, was a really exciting and expertly told story about some really unlikely heroes. A group of MIT math studs flew to Vegas on the weekends and used card-counting and signals to rake in millions. Then, they were found out and asked politely but firmly to stop.

21 the film shares only the barest plot details with Bringing Down the House. This is a good little story forcibly mangled to fit every imaginable convention of Hollywood three-act storytelling. Suddenly the best card sharps are beautiful white kids instead of bespectacled Asians. The guy who mentors them, played by Spacey, is an active professor who uses the threat of failing grades in his classes to keep his minions doubling down. Er, no, the real guy was an ex-professor and nowhere near that shady. And Laurence Fishburne, sensing the film's lack of gravitas, comes into scowl for a few scenes. In what capacity, I can't remember.

All of these adjustments would be tolerable were it not for the actual story becoming obscured to the extent that you could not be held responsible for forgetting that this is a movie about blackjack. Director Robert Luketic gives up on trying to explain how card-counting actually works almost immediately, so he's forced to use lots of showy cuts to create tension when otherwise the viewer wouldn't know what's going on. Card-counting is one thing, but the movie doesn't touch strategy either -- it's weird that a movie ostensibly about a card game has so little interest in the game itself. Compared to Rounders, this might as well be a movie about bad blood in a student sewing circle.

So the plot is atrocious. On the other hand, the acting is for the most part pretty good. Aaron Yoo (The Wackness, Disturbia) has another hit in a good run of supporting roles. Josh "Not Jonah Hill" Gad has the only remotely emotional bit of dialogue in the whole movie, and he nails it. I like him; I'm sorry his sitcom "Back to You" got cancelled. Spacey is fabulous assuming you just ignore how ludicrous his character's behavior is; if you've seen many other of Spacey's movies it shouldn't be that difficult. Jim Sturgess, who plays the lead, is a good find. He's kind of like a less self-aware John Krasinski. I would like to see him play a less rote wide-eyed plucky hero type. Fishburne is as always, a massive presence even if he has barely anything useful to do. The one bum note in the ensemble is sounded by the brutally miscast Kate Bosworth. Not since the James Bond people made Denise Richards a nuclear physicist has a Maxim girl been so unconvincing as a brain.

Gandhi Hits the Bong

The Wackness
DVD via DVDPlay

My girlfriend uses this one figure of speech that always drives me completely nuts. She says, "I always wanted to see The Wackness," and I say, how could you always have wanted to see a movie that came out six months ago? I can imagine someone saying "I always wanted to see The Godfather," but Hamlet 2? Apparently she has always wanted to see that one too. Always since August. Personally, I think "always," even used figuratively, has got to mean a fairly significant percentage of your life. Certainly more than a year.

Anyway, we rented The Wackness. It was crappy. You'd think most young film students would have seen enough thinly veiled autobiographies made by young film students before them to avoid repeating the same story about being a directionless, undersexed white male teenager. Nope, not at all. I'm not sure which is more useless -- Jonathan Levine's self-worshiping screenplay or Josh Peck's hugely unlikeable, witless lead performance. Levine has a complete lack of understanding of people who aren't exactly like him. The black, female, and adult characters in the movie uniformly sound the wrong note. What's more, nobody has an arc -- folks just show up and they are what they are. Mary-Kate Olsen is a druggy slut and Method Man is a drug dealer. Well, there's no law against typecasting. But what's the point of putting scenes for them in the film at all if they don't do anything or say anything interesting?

Ben Kingsley, the only real actor in the piece, does his best with a badly-written role as the lead's neurotic psychiatric adviser. He's actually given some stuff to work with, but for an annoying reason -- his character is just an extremely old version of the writer/director, in ludicrously extended arrested development. The lovely Olivia Thirlby (of Juno fame) gets even more harshly treated. As an obvious composite of all the women who broke Levine's heart in high school, her character isn't even a real person. She's simply a melange of all the stupid things high school boys don't understand about women, and the film's arc such as it is is so predictable that it's agonizing. It's not any mystery why Peck's Luke can't get girls -- he's an obnoxious, opportunistic twit.

It's possible to make a movie about teenagers doing nothing and learning nothing and have it come out great -- Dazed and Confused is one of my very favorite movies, and copious marijuana use is just about the only thing it has in common with The Wackness. The trick is to remember your Faces: "I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger." Richard Linklater when he made Dazed and Confused, and Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow when they made Superbad, had cohesive adult points and themes to drape over their aimless, clueless teen characters. They had respect for the women's point of view, and the wannabes', and the grown-ups'. Remember Mitch's mom, from the very end of Dazed and Confused? She has like five lines and she's a deeper and more interesting human being than anybody who wanders through The Wackness. The good high school films relate their characters' experiences to the larger world. The Wackness simply revels in navel-gazing. You get the idea that none of the characters except the lead seem real because the director using that lead as a proxy doesn't understand, or care, about anyone besides himself.

Most Likely the Impact Will Kill You


I'm a sucker for heist movies, whether really good (Ocean's 11, The Thomas Crown Affair) or really terrible (Ocean's 12, The Italian Job). I like the formula of watching the plan run through twice, once in the ideal as the hoods practice it and then again in real time as complications present themselves. Steven Soderbergh did this beautifully in the first and third Ocean's films, though oddly not the second, using repeated compositions and camera angles to elegant effect. "Leverage" is the first heist-themed TV series of which I'm aware (other than the rapidly-canceled network offering "Smith," which despite a star-studded cast was as nondescript as its title). It's one of many recent cable shows that would have been prohibitively expensive even for network five years ago; CGI allows for exciting explosions and in this week's installment a cinema-worthy high-tension landing of a jumbo jet on a bridge.

The big draws "Leverage" has to offer are very snappy writing and a terrific lead, played by the forgotten Timothy Hutton with poignant relish. TNT has built an entire cottage industry around giving meaty series roles to blueblood screen actors with faces too weathered for today's Hollywood blockbusters. (Coming in 2026: TNT presents three-time Oscar winner Shia LeBeouf as... "THE AGITATOR!") Hutton is a gas to watch as a good guy turned crook-who-steals-from-crooks, a useful device which sidesteps the difficulty of making a weekly series about massive robberies play logically. Nate (Hutton) and his crew aren't looking to make that one last big score before their retirements, they're in it to serve the cause of good. They only steal money when there's extra there for them. Which is most of the time, since primarily they target mobsters and crooked corporations.

"Leverage" still has to work out some of the issues with the rest of the cast. Christian Kane, the droolworthy Lindsey McDonald from "Angel," is what drew me to checking out the new series in the first place. Unfortunately, his character is a strong, silent cipher. Kane is a very good actor for a massive hunk, with a very nasty sense of humor he barely gets to tap into here at all. The single funniest thing his character Eliot has done so far is to maim the Butcher of Kiev in front of a background of apocalyptic fire. Well, you had to see it, it was played for laughs. Aldis Hodge has a lot of energy as the comic relief/computer hacker character, but the writers haven't found a voice for him yet. Beth Riesgraf makes little impression when she's not topless, and as the group's master of accents and disguises, Gina Bellman presents a real problem. She's not even convincing as the character she's supposed to be playing, let alone her many aliases.

Still, I think I'm in for the season pass. The guest star roster has been diverse and solid, the format allows for a lot of excitement, and Hutton is really in his element -- it's tons of fun watching him run cons within cons and psychologically manipulate his underlings. Two suggestions for the writers: First, a lot of the episodes since the pilot have tended to make it appear like the crew is making it up as they go along. The writers should have more respect for their characters, and their audience, than that. A sacrifice of pace early on to explain what the con is exactly in this genre makes the viewer more engaged, not less so due to repetition. With the imaginative use of editing and technology "Leverage" has already displayed, they ought to be able to incorporate this quickly and easily. The other suggestion is much simpler. Kane needs to get a haircut, stat.

No Particular Order

This is the page where I'm going to keep track of the TV that I'm watching, and what I think of it. I used to have another page where I did basically the same thing, but I worked myself up for each post. I had to have some grand unifying theme that made everything tie together. This meant there were a lot of stray ideas I never got around to using because they didn't fit my grander design. On this page I'm just going to shoot from the hip so it won't be a big event every time I write something. The loss of cohesiveness, I'm hoping, will be a fair trade-off for more frequent posts. So let's go at it.