Friday, October 28, 2011

In Time

Anyone who reads my stuff on a regular basis knows I worry about Hollywood’s lack of originality over the past few years. I actually think movie makers have shown some flicker of life lately.  There have been a number of interesting films released over the past few months that, while not the most original works ever, definitely show progress.  Some of the movies I’ve watched recently at least don’t look and feel like they were just churned out of the thoughtless crap factory.

In Time relies on a fairly original premise that seems more of an alternate universe rather than futuristic.  Humans have been genetically engineered to the point of not aging past the age of twenty-five.  After that birthday, humans have a clock on their arm that’s gives them one more year of life and time is counting down.  When it reaches zero, you’re dead.  People can earn and spend time and time has become the currency of the world.

People work to earn time.  They are paid in minutes, hours, and days.  Conversely, coffee, rent, and food cost time.  People tend to live day by day, even minute to minute because the system is designed take their time.  Time can also be given, stolen, loaned, and gambled.  It gives a whole new meaning to all-in poker.

Behind this system is a shadowy, and ultimately, ill defined group of people who own every thing.  They distribute time and control everything from the daily cost of living to interest rates of time on loans.  Their purpose is poorly explained but it seems to be to control population.  The world is divided up into area codes, populated by the rich – century old people loaded with time and still looking a youthful twenty-five – and the less fortunate.  The masses, those time poor souls living by the hour, do not mix with the rich and powerful.

The cost of immortality though, is high.  Those controlling the system, the people controlling the distribution of time, are so concerned with accumulating and harnessing time that they forget how to live.  They spend centuries playing it safe and becoming little more than robotic drones.  The metaphor is subtle for the most part and I prefer that to a heavy handed blow to the head this film could have delivered.

The writing in general was a little uneven.  The dialogue was especially uninspired.  The action sequences were quick and tense without a lot of flashy, unbelievable stunts.  Director/writer Andrew Nichol wasted little time jumping into the storyline and he kept the pace brisk.  The movie could have used about ten more minutes of gradual storyline development.  There were a few aspects that could have been explained more thoroughly.  The final result was sleek and exciting and made for very good entertainment.

Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried played the leads with an earnest believability.  Both are growing as actors and were able to carry the load in this film.  They were supported mainly by Cillian Murphy (The Dark Knight and Inception) and Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men).  The latter is Seyfried’s Sylvia father and one of those shadowy men doling out time.  Murphy plays a timekeeper, basically a cop, who is so good, he is bad.  Both do a fine job and they blend in with some favorites such as Olivia Wilde, Matt Bomer, and Johnny Galecki, who all have small, but welled acted roles.  The acting was far from perfect but again, they were working with a less than perfect script and no one butchered their roles.

In Time won’t win any statuettes but it gets big marks for originality and entertainment value.  Its sleek action was not bloated with overwhelming and unreasonable special effects.  It carries a PG-13 rating but it does not get out of hand with sex, language, or violence – each of these get one tiny scene to earn that rating.  My 12-year old son could watch it if he wanted.  The premise and action make up for the weak dialogue and the acting was good enough not to be a distraction.  I was entertained throughout and got more than I expected.  All in all, in this day and age, that’s pretty good.

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

New Network Dramas

The networks continue to struggle to adjust to modern audiences’ viewing habits and seem panicky and bewildered by sagging rating for their dramas.  I would suggest to them that they calm down and let some of these programs find their audiences.  There are some new dramas worth watching. 

PRIME SUSPECT (Thursdays, 9:00pm CST, NBC)

Dick Wolf is not involved in Prime Suspect but this new crime drama certainly has a Law & Order feel to it.  It has an honest grittiness to it that is hard to fake.  Maria Bello is absolutely terrific as the lead, Jane Timoney.  The detective is a tough, crusty, humorless cop who seems always to be trying to prove herself with her male counterparts and earn their respect.  She is a no-nonsense kind of gal and to her detriment, has little time for their boyish shenanigans.  All of this aside, she is a good cop and she works hard at her craft. 

This program has a lot of room for growth but we can see the possibilities.  Timoney’s fellow detectives offer some levity to her dead seriousness and they are willing to give their respect more quickly than she is to recognize it.  Prime Suspect is at its best following Timoney on her investigations and at its worst when she goes home to the recently divorced boyfriend and his young son.  Warm and fuzzies are not her strong suit and these scenes seem forced and awkward.  She is socially awkward enough at work but it is just downright painful at home.  With more episodes though, this area could work itself out.

I read comments and criticisms about Timoney’s signature hat and gum chewing (she’s trying to quit smoking).  Some find these distracting.  I say they add to her character, not distract from it.  Get over it and give this character and program a shot.  It is getting beat down in the ratings but it is better than the other two network shows it shares a timeslot with – CBS’ ever increasingly annoying The Mentalist and ABC’s barely medical soap opera Private Practice.  Do yourself a favor and give Prime Suspect a chance.

PERSON OF INTEREST (Thursdays, 8:00pm CST, CBS)

A convoluted and inadequately explained premise is this show’s weakest attributes.  In a process too complicated for this space, Lost’s Michael Emerson get a name an episode from a Homeland Security super computer that has been flagged by the computer as a risk.  Either this person is going to commit a crime or is going to be a victim of a crime.  Former shadowy, Special Forces operative John Reese, played stoically by Jim Caviazel investigates each person and tries to foil whatever crime is in the works.

If you can not think too hard on the general premise and enjoy the road of investigation, you will enjoy this program.  It seems more a suspense thriller than a crime drama.  There is always more to the person they investigate than meets the eye and the reveals are made slowly, keeping out interest strong.  Twists and turns are certainly a big part of the stories and they keep us on our toes.

I will say there needs to be some humorous relief.  Both Emerson’s Harold Finch and Reese are characters shrouded in mystery and are at their best when we catch brief glimpses of emotion from our leads.  Neither character has any humor whatsoever so the tone is quite dour and could use a character to lighten the mood.  Otherwise, I have little to complain about with this thriller.  It keeps me intrigued each week and that is all I can ask.

UNFORGETTABLE (Tuesdays, 9:00pm CST, CBS)

First of all, hyperthymesia is a real condition.  Only a few people in the world can remember every little detail of their lives.  Carrie Wells, played by former Without a Trace star Poppy Montgomery, is a detective with the ultimate photographic memory.  The show does a great job of showing her remembering by an out-of-body process where she strolls through the scenes she has already lived, focusing on details she didn’t realize were important when she lived them the first time. 

I’ve always been a Montgomery fan.  She underplays her characters with a quiet innocence and humbleness I find charming.  The Aussie shares the lead with Dylan Walsh’s Al Burns, a former partner and lover.  Their chemistry seems unforced and subtle.  There is a little tension but it doesn’t overwhelm the scenes or characters.   A strong and interesting supporting cast does not distract.

The crime storylines so far have been vanilla and barely intriguing.  The writers need to blend in the memory gimmick with more interesting stories.  With a little work, Unforgettable could be a terrific show but its dull plots could relegate it to being absolutely forgettable and that would be a crime.

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Real Steel

For a sport that has become as toxic and tainted as a landfill, the sport of boxing spawns some of the best sports flicks.  Rocky, The Champ, Raging Bull, Ali, Cinderella Man, and The Fighter are just a few rousing pugilistic films that are worth a viewer’s time.

A futuristic film about a boxing robot with a heart like a human champion seems like a good fit in today’s Hollywood that often grasps at straws.  It is an original take on an old genre, at least original as far as movies go.  I have been referring to Real Steel as that rock ‘em, sock ‘em robot movie since I first witnessed the previews.

Luckily, the movie was about more than metal punching bags.  Hugh Jackman was at his charming best and young Dakota Goya was perfect as the human hero.  Goyo was terrific as the precocious pre-teen, a kid who was funny as long as long he wasn’t your child talking to you like Goyo’s Max character talked to his father.  Hopefully, though, you have earned more respect than Jackman’s Charlie had earned from Max.  As much as this was a story of giant, metal boxers, it was even more about the personal redemption of Charlie, as he worked to earn his son’s love and respect, as well as his own self respect.

Director Shawn Levy kept the storyline simple and straightforward.  It didn’t have any twists or turns.  Unpredictability in this case would have been a detriment to this film.  This is a movie people go see to feel good.  They want to cheer for man and machine.  Levy never tried to do too much and less was more.  That being said, the video game boxing matches seemed relatively life-like and were a lot of fun to watch. 

Audiences flock to this movie for sheer entertainment purposes and it doesn’t disappoint.  I pulled for the heroes, both human and robot.  I cheered as I ducked and moved, as my shoulders tucked and twisted with every punch.  It was fun!  I’ve watched some movies lately that I wanted to be “good” movies.  I expected them to be award worthy.  I wanted Real Steel to be fun, and it delivered wholeheartedly.  It won’t win any statuettes but I don’t care a lick.

This film is rated PG-13 but most of the violence is machine on machine.  There was one brief scene where human violence was highlighted but it was not dragged on too long.  There is some mildly adult language but nothing you can’t hear on USA Network.  My 12-year old son had blast and I wouldn’t hesitate to take a younger child, especially boys.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Ides Of March

I think Alfred Hitchcock would be bitterly disappointed.  In this age of high tech action flicks and run-of-the-mill romantic comedies, this era of stylized super heroes and flashy CGI, Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to make a good suspense thriller.  Luckily, George Clooney is single handily trying to bring them back.

The suspense thriller was once my favorite genre of film.  I don’t know why they have faded from popularity but I suspect it is because we, as a society, thirst for constant, instant satisfaction.  Explosions, blood, gore, canned, tired, predictable laughs, and computer generated action fill our screens, keeping our flittering attentions from straying into intelligent thought.  I think our society has produced a generation of audiences that won’t sit still long enough to develop characters and storylines at a less than break neck speed.  The quality of movies being churned out by Hollywood reflects this societal decline.

Ides of March is a taunt and intense film that moves along at a steady pace.  Nothing is blown up and no blood is spilled yet my heart was pounding and I found myself leaning forward in my chair.  The characters are fleshed out and the plot twists slowly toward the key revelations.  In short, it was a good, old fashioned suspense thriller smartly written and filmed.  It’s a story of idealism, innocence, loyalty, and betrayal – all of the classic elements. 

The story centers on a veteran campaign manager Stephen Myers, who is convinced that he is finally working for the perfect candidate.  In a world of jaded disappointments, Myers has secretly maintained his idealism, his belief that there was always a politician out there who was truly good and who could truly make a difference.  The story follows the campaign for a Democratic Presidential candidate for a week leading into a big, important primary.  The upstanding candidate seems like a dream come true – a man who speaks the utter truth, lives with true integrity, and refuses to make political deals to gain votes.  Of course, as we all know, no such person exists.  Of course, our young hero has to learn the hard way.

The cast is filled with some of my favorite and most talented actors Hollywood has to offer.  Ryan Gosling is quickly working is way up the chain of talented actors who continue to hone their craft.  He holds his own with the terrific veteran supporting cast.  George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti , and Marisa Tomei all give believable and solid performances.  Evan Rachel Wood was subtle and spectacular and the same time.  A decade ago, Wood was a talented child actress in an underappreciated series called Once and Again.  She has grown up but has not lost her talent.  I would love to see her in more meaty roles like this one.

Director/co-writer/actor George Clooney does a brilliant job keeping the suspense moving with plot twists and turns.  His use of music to set the tone was not false or heavy- handed like a M. Night Shyamalan likes to do.  It was subtle and terse, really setting the mood.  Clooney has really become the champion of the suspense thriller with similar character and plot driver films like Michael Clayton and The American.  Good for him!  Anything to keep him from making anymore silly comedies is always a plus. 

I was glad this film was so good.  It continued a trend of really good movies that have been released in the past three months.  It gives me hope that Hollywood is trying to improve its product.  I would love to see the genre of suspense thriller return to more prominence in the theaters.  I think it displayed true skill to make such a movie and I think the skillfully crafted films we see, the better the movie going experience will be.

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Friday, October 7, 2011

Networks Debut Girl Power Comedies

Primetime programming is cyclical and situation comedies are hot right now.  The big four network have all busted a new batch and many of them feature strong female leads.  It was not that long ago when nearly are sit coms were darn near unwatchable but the networks seem to be putting more time and effort into them as the sit coms are much cheaper to produce than procedural dramas.  They also tend to do better in syndication and DVD sales.  Here is a look at just a few.

2 BROKE GIRLS (Mondays, 7:30 CST, CBS)

This program with the cherry spot in CBS’ powerful Monday night lineup is probably my favorite and I think it has the most room to grow into something long term.  Its premise is a new take on the odd couple pairing with Kat Dennings as the hard working, blue collar, street-smart girl surviving by plowing away at two part time jobs.  Little known Beth Behrs is a spoiled, naive, well educated, former heiress, fish-out-of-water waif trying to find her way in a suddenly real world.  Dennings and Behrs have good chemistry and play well off each other.  Dennings delivers her lines with acerbic wit and a small, sly, smile.  Her character has little faith in the world or her future.  Behrs is bubbly and optimistic and is fighting to remain upbeat after her fate took a cruel turn.  The supporting cast is in need of upgrades across the board for the program to grow.  The two main characters can certainly drive this show but they need help.  CBS sticks to what they do best with the classic filmed-in-front-of-a-live-studio-audience thing but I’m wondering when CBS will join the new century and break out of this mold.  With some tweaking in the cast, this show is funny enough and likeable enough to survive.  Oh, one more note to the folks who produce this program – lose the horse and the lame laugh track.

SUBUGATORY (Wednesdays, 7:30 CST, ABC)

If you love satirical comedy then Suburgatory is the one for you.  It serves it up by the plateful.  Jane Levy is a teenager being raised by single dad, played by the dry Jeremy Sisto, and is ushered from the bright lights of Manhattan, to the quiet life of suburbia in an effort to save her innocence.  She drops into the fake, plastic world where breast implants and botox are more common than aspirin.  Think Desperate Housewives without the drama.  Levy is funny and witty but I’m not yet sure Sisto can be funny.  Cheryl Hines is a hoot, though, and plays the flirty soccer mom with flair and enthusiasm.  She steals every scene she’s in.  The program has room to grow as the characters around the neighbor are fleshed out.  I laughed throughout the first two episodes and it is a nice fit in between the underrated The Middle and the brilliant Modern Family.  I’ve seen some complaints about the unwieldy title but Subugatory is satirically perfect with a terrific title.

NEW GIRL (Tuesdays, 8:00 CST, FOX)

Zooey Deschanel plays doe-eyed, quirky comedy like her sister plays doe-eyed, quirky drama on Bones.  Her character Jess has a generous degree of naiveté and general weirdness.  Jess catches her boyfriend of four years sleeping with another woman and moves out immediately but has nowhere to go.  She answers an ad for a roommate and ends up moving in with 3 guys, each with his own set of problems.  A couple of the guys are overplayed, especially Schmidt.  If this show is to survive, the male characters need to be rounded out a little better.  Deschanel’s quirky, crazy, innocent act is sweet and funny thus far, but I’m afraid it will grow stale after a while, especially if the guys’ characters aren’t improved a bit.  Deschanel can carry this program for awhile because she is absolutely is believable as this person so I’m willing to give the show a chance to improve.  You should too.

WHITNEY (Thursdays, 8:30 CST, NBC)

This is by far the weakest of this bunch but not as bad as I thought it would be.  Whitney Cummings seems to be a polarizing person but she is improving week to week as an actor.  The show is supposed to be taken from her life and has shown a bit of promise.  The laugh track seems to be more intrusive than usual, though.  I hate laugh tracks because I don’t like to be told something is funny when it is not.  Let me decide what I think is funny.  The laugh track here seems to go off after every line, regardless at the degree of humor and it is very annoying.  The boyfriend is played by Chris D’Elia and he is the most funny and comfortable cast member.  Again, the supporting cast really seems to be forcing their lines and no real chemistry has yet to be developed.  I would love to see some mass improvement here.  Cummings herself can be very funny so I am willing to giver her a chance to improve her acting.  Remember how bad Ray Romano was the first season of Everyone Loves Raymond?  There is room for a lot of growth here, but I will not be as patient here because the product isn’t as good for me.

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