Saturday, August 27, 2011

Recue Me: The Final Season

As we prepare for the tenth anniversary of the most important and defining day of our generation, the television show brave enough to embrace the topic is winding down its seventh and final season.  Rescue Me has been a show about a hard living man and how his world crumbled, as did many others, on 9/11/2001. 

Denis Leary plays Tommy Gavin, the tormented New York fireman who lost his cousin and best friend in the twin towers.  He is tortured because he survived.  The seven seasons chronicle his life of tragedy and self examination in the aftermath of 9/11.   Gavin is an alcoholic and womanizer and he heads toward self destruction at full throttle.  On occasion, Gavin tries to get his life back on course but can never overcome his own flaws and weaknesses for very long. 

It probably seems like a thin plot for seven seasons but Rescue Me has never become stale or stagnant.  Gavin’s antics are sad but Leary delivers them with relish.  Never I have I watched a program so poignant yet humorous, not only from week to week, but from scene to scene.  The show can bring tears to your eyes from laughter and again moments later from shocking tragedies.  Gavin’s life has careened out of control for seven seasons but never in the same direction for very long. 

I have read criticism about the boyish, often childish, and crude antics of Gavin and his firehouse chums.  Their language and shenanigans are often childish and crude but they are more realistic than some people may realize.  I have participated or observed similar scenes in real life, minus the firehouse backdrop, many times.  Guys bust the chops of other guys.  I have always thought this was one of the most realistic parts of this show and the criticism was ill deserved.  It didn’t matter what hijinks the boys came up with, they were always ready when the alarms went off. 

I think this is one of the keys to Rescue Me.  Whenever that alarm went off, no matter what was going on in their lives, these guys answered the bell.  It is what they do.  Personal feuds and private issues are always set to the side when lives were on the line.  This common thread is the ultimate tribute to those 300 plus fireman who died nearly 10 years ago.  Creators Leary and Peter Tolan respect the job these men do and it clearly shows.  Gavin especially is a courageous, if not rash, firefighter, who takes his job very seriously.

The cast has always been brilliant but they are too many to mention here by name.  Some standouts include Leary in the lead role and Andrea Roth as Gavin’s far from perfect wife.  The terrific Callie Thorne is Gavin’s cousin’s widow and crazy, periodic lover.  Tatum O’Neal is recurring as Gavin’s abrasive, abusive, alcoholic sister.  The firehouse is filled with crazy but real, characters that drive the humorous side of this program, and the actors really embrace their roles.  The writing has always been outstanding.  They always stay true to the characters, realistically flawed, one and all.  The plotlines are often heart shattering and they have relied heavily on the prevalent alcoholism among several of the characters.  Some may feel this has been a worn out storyline but it is a huge part of what these characters are and they don’t ever stop being alcoholics, no matter their efforts or intentions.

Two guest stars have really stood out to me.  Michael J. Fox and Maura Tierney both deserve kudos for their stellar efforts on Rescue Me.  Tierney especially touched a chord playing a woman battling cancer and the travails that entails, mirroring her real life.

One of the things I love about this program has always been the long and patient scenes.  Often, these scenes are several minutes long, going from commercial break to commercial break without a hitch.  They are great for character and story development and they often move the show along at a pace more suitable for an action show rather than a drama.  I have never seen this done on the level as Rescue Me and it one of the things that make this show great.

The final season has been building but to what I do not know.  I doubt very much it will be a happy ending for many of the characters as that is not how they have lived their lives over the past 10 years.  The anniversary has played a major role in the first episodes of this final season and I can’t imagine there isn’t more to come on that topic.  Gavin has been trying to conquer his demons once more as his wife is pregnant and now friends with his former lover.  There have been some great scenes of Gavin lost and clueless trying to navigate around his wife, two grown up daughters, and his former lover all in the same room. 

I am going to miss these characters as this is one of my all time favorites.  From the acting, to the writing, to the directing Rescue Me has been great from the beginning.  The last season hasn’t disappointed and while I anxiously await for whatever surprises (and tragedies) yet to be revealed, it is bitter sweet because these will be the last surprises.  I’m always sad when programs I have loved for years wind down and this is no different.  I hate to see Rescue Me end but I’m glad FX was brave enough to air it in the first place.

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Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Help

I have not read the book but if it is half as good as the movie, and the books are usually better, then The Help jumps to the top of my must-read list.  The movie was absolutely the best movie I’ve seen in quite some time.  It gives me hope that Hollywood can still produce something of worth, even though most films released in this day and age are unimaginative drivel.

First and foremost, the cast for The Help is absolutely brilliant.  If Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer don’t garner Golden Globe and Oscar nods, they should quit giving them out.  Both actresses gave tour-de-force performances.  Davis, nominated for a best supporting role for a brief, but intense scene in Doubt, gave one of the finest acting performances I’ve seen in years.  Octavia Spencer has been in nearly 100 films and tv programs and I can’t imagine she has ever topped the effort for this film.  The women gave depth and humor to the key roles of Aibileen and Minny, the maids whose stories are the backbone of the film. 

The cast is filled with favorites.  The young, perky, Emma Stone, in her first quality “grown up” role, continues to grow as an actress.  Her Skeeter character is probably the lead, and she does a fine job, although she ends up taking a backseat to Davis and Spencer.  The talented Allison Janney, Oscar winner Sissy Spacek, and Cicely Tyson add veteran, massive skills to the cast.  Bryce Dallas Howard, Ahna O’Reilly, and Anna Camp round out the stellar cast.  One other actress really stood out – Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote.  Chastain stole nearly every scene she was in.

The plot is clear and patient.  Nothing is rushed in telling this important tale from our not-so-distant past.  It is a story of life in the early sixties (and, essentially, the decades leading up to those tumultuous years) in Jackson, Mississippi.  It gives us a glimpse into the Jim Crow South.  It also shows us the strength and humanity of those forced to endure life in that racially discriminate time and place.  Stone’s Skeeter is ultimately looking to advance her career but finds her footing as she comes to accept that the lifestyle in which she has been raised is inherently wrong.  She must battle the prejudices of her friends and family and the fear prevalent among the people whose stories she’s trying to tell.  Davis’ Aibileen and Spencer’s Minny are the true heroes of the story as they find the strength, courage, and trust to tell Skeeter about the travails of the life they are forced to lead.

Director and writer Tate Taylor is wondrous in his care of this story.  Again, I can see no way he is ignored come award season.  He maintains a steady and interesting pace throughout the film.  He mixes humor and drama in just the right amounts and places.  Despite dealing with a grave and somber topic, he doesn’t shy away from the everyday humor that resides in the everyday lives of us all.  It is a great film that can cause a theater full of people to laugh out loud throughout the movie, yet bring tears to our eyes in numerous instances.  This movie is funny, but never silly, dramatic, but never sappy.

In the year filled with highly entertaining, yet substance lacking films, The Help is by far the best film of 2011.  I hope that by the end of the year, as award nominations are handed out, this film is not ignored or forgotten.  It is truly a terrific film on all levels – writing, directing, and acting.  I can’t say enough good things about this incredible production.  While this movie could be safely viewed by all but the youngest children, I doubt kids under 14 or 15 will find it interesting.  Find time to go see this movie.  It is worth the ticket price.  Let’s show the studio execs that if they make a great movie, we will come.  Movie makers take note – CGI and special effects don’t make a movie great.  The powers that be in Hollywood need to all be forced to sit down and view this film just to be reminded what a real movie looks like.

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Friday, August 12, 2011

Easy A

Every now and then I will pen a post about a movie that isn’t a new release.  It may be a film I’ve just watched for the first time, or it may be a film I personally consider a classic for whatever reason.  This week, I’m going to write about a funny little film I really liked when I watched it the other day called Easy A.

This 2010 release from director Will Gluck is a loving tribute to the John Hughes comedies of the 1980s.  In fact, Gluck doesn’t even try to subtly hide it.  He pays homage to those classics by plucking scenes directly from them and placing them in his film.  And it works.  These instances are brief and incorporated in the storyline and it doesn’t seem like a cheap gimmick.

The movie has a relate-able plot for anyone who attended any high school.  It is about the danger of lies, even innocuous ones.  It is about the ease in which rumors can start, grow, and evolve into unrecognizable truths.  While this has always been the case in the fertile grounds of life in high school, it is exacerbated in this age of technology.  Texting, facebook posting, instant messaging, and whatever other instant means of communications would certainly make it hard to maintain secrets and contain rumor.

The cast is anchored by the talented and refreshing Emma Stone.  Stone has terrific comic timing and delivery.  She has a wry wit about her that I just find funny.  I think Stone is one of the up and coming young actresses in the business and I really don’t think she is a one trick pony.  Her character, Olive, is immensely likeable and she is endearingly self deprecating.  She is a normal high school student, happier to fly under the radar than to live in the spotlight of false popularity.  A little white lie to a friend is overheard and instantly spread through the school by the simple means of a cell phone.  This lie and the ensuing rumor lead the good hearted Olive down a path paved with well intentioned, but horribly bad, decisions.

Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson are hilarious as Olive’s immensely quirky, and too lenient, parents.  The scenes with Olive and her parents are the film’s best and funniest.  Thomas Haden Church, Lisa Kudrow, and Malcolm McDowell each have bit roles and are largely wasted in this youth fueled teenage flick.  Cougar Town’s Dan Bryd has a funny turn and Aly Michalka has some really humorous moments.  Amanda Bynes shines as a super religious fanatic and serves as the film’s villain.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film and found myself laughing out loud at times and chuckling to myself throughout.  I loved the nod to my 80s favorites and I am becoming a big Emma Stone fan.  This is not a movie for children not yet in high school as language and subject matter are both of a very sexual nature.  If you are a fan of the 80s teen comedies, you will enjoy this one.  I think it is Hollywood’s best effort to capture the mood of those classics since the 1998 flick Can’t Hardly Wait.  Easy A is a funny, touching, relate-able movie and deserves a weekend rental if you haven’t seen it. 

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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I have railed in the past about Hollywood’s total lack of originality in the fare that has been offered up over the past few years.  My main concern was the fact that a lot of the films released have been lazy and lacked true imagination.  Little known director Rupert Wyatt has actually been able to reverse that trend, even if it is just for one film.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes easily could have been a crappy disaster.  While not a specific remake of the series of movies from forty years, this was hardly an original idea.  The Charlton Heston vehicle from 1968 is best remembered, at least in my mind, because of the terrific, mind-twisting ending.  That film spawned a series of below par sequels that never matched the original and also a dark remark in 2001, starring Marky Mark.  This film beats them all, hands down. 

The plot is intriguing and taunt.  James Franco’s Will Rodman is a researcher, working on a cure for Alzheimer’s.  His experiment falls apart but not for the obvious reasons.  Rodman ends up adopting and raising a new born chimp that has been born with a drug enhanced brain and excelled learning capacity.  The chimp, Caesar (CGI movements based on the work of the brilliant Andy Serkis), lives a happy childhood in a loving environment.  Problems arise when reality rears its ugly head and Caesar’s animal instinct and brilliant brain come into conflict.  Caesar is removed from his family and thrust into a world in which he is ill prepared.  Overcoming his lack of knowledge of his own species by simply being smarter, Caesar throws off the chains of imprisonment to lead a simian uprising.

Caesar is a very sympathetic creature and the movie develops him as they would a child.  The audience in the full theater was clearly on his side, even as he battles humans.  The underscoring theme, again not original, is that we humans are scientifically messing with things we are ill equipped to handle.  Our blind rush into disease research and technologic advance could easily have unforeseen and possibly disastrous consequences.  The movie doesn’t bludgeon us with the message but portrays it slowly and more subtlety. 

The acting isn’t memorable except for the work of Andy Serkis.  Although he doesn’t physically portray Caesar, the chimp’s movements are CGI created based on the work of Serkis, ala Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series.  Franco is his normal broody self and John Lithgow performs well as Rodman’s Alzheimer inflicted father.  Brian Cox isn’t stretched as the uncaring primate keeper.  Fresh from the Harry Potter wrap-up, Tom Felton (Draco), the son of Cox’s primate keeper, treats his charges as if they were just placed into the Gryffindor house by the sorting hat – and with the same sneer.

The movie never seemed slow and the tension builds up at a steady pace.  The last half of the movie really flies by.  Coming on the heels of the terrific Cowboys & Aliens, Rise of the Planet of the Apes helps me think there may be hope for Hollywood.  An excellent script and storyline overcomes mediocre acting to serve up another above average film for the summer.  In my opinion, these two have been the best of the tired offerings of the summer and it is not even close.  This film is not for young children as the apes are very realistic and violent.  The themes are probably over the head of most young children as well.   
I have read this is the first of a planned series of movies about the planetary takeover by the apes and I sincerely hope Hollywood doesn’t screw this up.  I hope the subsequent films match this one in all the right areas.

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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens

What do you get when you combine a raucous, old fashioned, shoot ‘em up western with a modern, cool special effects, alien infested science fiction flick?  Sprinkle in a little 007 and a pinch of Han Solo/Indiana Jones and you have the summer’s best and most entertaining movie.

Hollywood has been running on fumes as far as original ideas are concerned for quite a while now.  The summer of 2011 has been filled with super heroes, animated cars, and teen age wizards.  While there is nothing new about westerns or sci-fi fare, the mash up of the two has provided a unique twist on both and it was fun and gritty.

Based on the graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, Cowboys & Aliens is maybe the best of the movies that have been inspired by graphic novels.  The storyline seemed to be of classic western stuff but of course with a futuristic, invading alien twist.  The pace is fast and little time is wasted before quickly jump starting the action and delving into the storyline. 

The cast is superb.  Daniel Craig matches the venerable Harrison Ford steely glance for steely glance.  Ford handles the action just fine and Craig cements his position as a bona fide action star.  The doe-eyed Olivia Wilde holds her own with the big boys.  She’s no Sigourney Weaver (who is?) but she did a fine job.  Veteran actors Clancy Brown, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Walter Goggins, and Keith Carradine round out the more than solid cast.  I am not the biggest Jon Favreau fan but he did a great job here.  I’m sure it helped to have the checkbooks of Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard backing you up.

The last three westerns I have seen (3:10 to Yuma and True Grit) have all been pretty good.  I wonder if this is a new regeneration of the old venerated genre.  The classic theme of westerns – good guys versus bad guys – transcends genres and generations and remains timeless.  The potential for gritty, hard paced action is limitless.  Many classic westerns were rather poorly written but maybe a revival of the nostalgic western could improve on the writing and acting and combine modern day special effects to give us an alternative to the same old crap Hollywood churns out.  It has been more than 35 years since westerns enjoyed mainstream popularity and a couple of generations of movie goers have come of age without many examples.  If Hollywood could refrain from now having a slew of alien westerns piggy back on this unique movie’s assured success, maybe we could see a few more westerns.

I was thrilled by this movie and it is my favorite of the summer, although the last Harry Potter installment might win out for purely nostalgic reasons.  It was unique, well written, well acted, and beautifully shot.  My family and I had a blast.  I must warn parents, though.  This film easily could have been rated R.  It had some grisly deaths and the aliens were sufficiently ugly and scary.  Be wary of taking younger children because there are some eye-covering moments.  Otherwise, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie.  A film critic once told me she sometimes judged movies by how often she checked her watch.  Well, I didn’t look at my watch once.  That is a very good thing.

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