Sunday, November 30, 2008

Buffy The Vampire Slayer — Season 2

**Warning: Contains spoilers**

Well, I struggled through the first season, but I found Buffy's first full season to be even more entertaining upon a second viewing. The second season of Buffy is where the show took off, where it became something you could have never predicted on the basis of the first (and even much of the second itself) season. It does take some time to get going, but when it does, the show never looks back.

We open to the Scoobies returning to school after a summer break, fresh-faced and ready to keep taking on evil. Well, not exactly. Turns out Buffy is still reeling from the events of last season's finale, and does not put it behind her until she destroys the Master's body for good at the end of the premiere. From there it's the familiar quality rollercoaster that defined the last season: episodes like "Some Assembly Required," "Inca Mummy Girl" and "Reptile Boy" dig up the usual Monster Of The Week storylines that gets in some character development but not enough to excuse such flimsy plots.

The first glimmer that the show is about to take off comes with the arrival of Spike and Drusilla in "School Hard." Seemingly the Big Bads of the season, they hit the show like a storm; Dru is Angel's perverse trophy from his demon days; before he got his soul, he drove her to madness before turning her. She speaks in non-sequiturs that are both hilarious and frightening, because they make her totally unpredictable. Spike, on the other hand, is one of the few characters of these early days who instantly works: he's scary, suave, and absolutely hysterical. Sadly, at the end of the episode he and Dru sink back to the shadows and their appearances in the next few episodes are generally asides and not plot-relevant.

The nice part about the first half of the season is that even the weak episodes are, for the most part, a lot more enjoyable than the weak numbers in the first season (and sometimes even the stronger ones). For example, "The Dark Age" suffers from poor pacing and some disparate elements, but we get to see that Giles' badass side. The only episode that falls totally flat is "Bad Eggs." Why does every show about teenagers have to feature the "fake baby" episode? Otherwise, the first half is a fun ride. "Halloween" is a fun episode that shows Willow starting to come into her own, while "Lie to Me" and "Ted" both move the characters forward significantly, even if they both have glaring flaws.

But it is the second half that propels the season (and the show) into the annals of greatness. Buffy and Angel's romance heats up to the point that the two finally have sex...and all hell breaks loose. Starting with "Innocence," we see Angel's curse lifted; he was ensouled in order to cause endless torment, and if he ever experienced a moment of true happiness, the curse would break.

Enter Angelus, the series' defining antagonist and one of the all time great TV villains. I always love a villain who reminds me of Shakespeare's Iago, and Angelus is one of the few characters who can call him to mind and not sully Iago in comparison. What follows is a near perfect story arc that tears Buffy and her friends apart. Angelus is not content to simply kill Buffy; no, he wants to destroy her first. He starts off by ridiculing their relationship and builds to the horror that defines "Passion."

One of the darkest episodes of the series, "Passion" is proof that "Innocence" was no fluke, and that the show has gone off in a whole new direction. When Jenny Calendar tries to translate the spell to re-ensoul Angel, he casually snaps her neck, as if she is not even worth of being bitten. Last season proved that Joss and co. were willing to kill off a recurring character (Principal Flutie), but here they kill an important character, and in such an abrupt, final way. Jenny's death is all the more upsetting because it ruins Giles' chance of a happy life outside of being a Watcher, just as Angel's lost soul ruined Buffy's chance of happiness outside of being a Slayer. When Giles returns to his home and finds a trail of roses leading to his room and opera blaring, he smiles so broadly that your heart breaks even before he sees her staring corpse splayed out over the bed.

It all culminates with the masterful two-part finale "Becoming," a masterpiece of TV writing that shows Joss at the absolute top of his game. Angelus attempts to summon a demon who will plunge the Earth into Hell, creating eternal torment for any mortal. Spike, already resentful of Angel luring his beloved Drusilla away from him, strikes up an unlikely alliance with Buffy, one that foreshadows his future development. This episode completely tears Buffy apart: by the end of it all she's been chased by the cops, kicked out school AND her home. To top it all off, she must kill Angel after he's been re-ensouled. Say what you will about the caliber of the actors on this show, but I'll always stick by them; just watch the pain grow on Buffy's face as she slowly melts down when the totality of her situation hits her.

I've read that the concept of the Slayer doubles as a metaphor for homosexuality, and the scene between Joyce and Buffy in the kitchen does nothing but support that. Joyce starts off in numb disbelief, asking "have you ever considered not being a Slayer?" and gradually works herself up into a rage, saying simply "I just don't accept that!" It's an overt yet unforced allusion to parents' inability to cope with their child's sexuality.

The second season is such a quantum leap forward that it's hard to believe that the same writers (and even the same actors) are still at the wheel. The only complaint I have about the arc of the second half is the two standalone episodes that pad time between masterpieces like "Passion," "I Only Have Eyes For You" and the finale. "Killed By Death" and "Go Fish" are MOTW zaniness, which is why I have such a problem with them in the middle of the Angelus arc. Perhaps the writers thought that they needed something to lighten the mood a bit, but those episodes would have played so much better had they appeared earlier in the season or, in the case of the exceedingly dumb "Go Fish," in the first season.

Still, it's impossible not to enjoy this season, even the MOTW first half. If the first season was "My So Called Life mixed with The X-Files, the first half of this season was like a Red Dwarf for horror, one that played up clichés and mixed in a hell of a lot of character development. But after "Innocence," it becomes something wholly unique and incomparable. Things would only get better with the next season and, after a dip in quality with Season 4, returned to these heights for the remainder of its run (minus a few missteps in the final season). It's not perfect, but it's light-years ahead of just about any other show on television, before or since.

Choice Episodes:

School Hard

The first shot in the arm for the series comes with the introduction of Spike and Drusilla. The former is probably the series's most compelling character and the latter is just crazy fun. It also works as clever misdirection as it makes Spike and Dru the seeming Big Bads.


Here the show changed for good. Unleashing Angelus is something you could not see coming, and the depths of his evil makes the Master look like a Scoutmaster. The dark atmosphere is alleviated somewhat by the hysterical and badass showdown with the Judge, which involves a rocket launcher and one of the most memorable exchanges of the show.

Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered

Xander always was left out of the loop for the important stuff, and Season 4 permanently created a separation between him and the other Scoobies when he didn't go to college (he still hung around of course), but there is an upside to him always on the sidelines: every so often he gets an episode devoted to him, and it's always hilarious. This is the first of such episodes, and it works both as a look into Xander"s (and by extension teenage males) immaturity when it comes to breakups and as a hysterical ride that results from the disastrous love spell. We also see Cordelia start to come into her own at the end of the episode when she reconciles with Xander.


"Innocence" kicked the doors down, but "Passion" burned the whole damn house to the ground. The death of Jenny (already discussed above) stands as one of the great shockers of the series and pushed the emotional stakes to the limit. Before this, we were just waiting for Angel to get back to normal; what's a few unnamed extras being eaten as long as he gets his soul back? But after this, you want Buffy to stake him. And just watch Anthony Stewart Head, normally the subtlest of actors on the show, break down in raw grief; it's almost too painful to watch.

I Only Have Eyes For You

A bold, ingenious concept: the ghosts of two lovers haunt the high school, and they possess Angelus and Buffy. Particularly brilliant is that the young man possesses Buffy and the teacher who tries to break it off imbues Angel. What follows is a meeting between the two spirits acted out by their living puppets that eerily and perfectly lines up with how Angel's lost soul has impacted his and Buffy's relationship. What started off looking like a fun standalone turned into one of the most emotionally resonant moments of the whole series.

Becoming, Pts 1 and 2

Hands down, this is the best season finale of the show and possibly the best finale of any show ever. Part 1 sets everything up in a brilliant trap by Angelus that lures her away from her friends, leaving them open for an attack. Then, in the second part, it proceeds to take everything from Buff: her home, her education, her lover and, through her own choice, her friends. It's amazing she was able to rebuild her life in a believable fashion in the next season.


Some Assembly Required

Bride of Frankenstein, Buffy style. Yeesh. There's really nothing to say about it because it is so insanely boring. The only highlight is that Giles and Jenny's relationship starts to form.

Reptile Boy

The first of what would become many mediocre blasts against fraternities. Considering how intelligent and allegorical the show is, why is it that not one of the episodes concerning fraternities or even jocks ever sent them up cleverly? The main plot here is just idiotic and doesn't even work as a bad, overt metaphor; it just is, and it is stupid.

Bad Eggs

Why does every show about teenagers have to have the episode where they get an egg or a fake baby and have to raise it? I never did something as pointless as that in school, and even if I did I wouldn't want to see it in every. single. teenage drama or comedy. At least this one puts a Buffy spin on it, but it's still one of the dullest episodes of the show.

Go Fish

Another episode that goes after jocks. The message: steroids changes you. How so in the Buffyverse? You turn into the Creature from the Black Lagoon, of course! In all fairness, this isn't a bad rainy day, escapist episode, but it is overwhelmingly dumb.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Buffy The Vampire Slayer — Season 1

**Warning: contains spoilers**

It's too early to say, but I don't think my opinion of any season of Buffy will change as much as mine has for its first season. When I first started Buffy, I saw these early days as a glorious send-up of horror clichés, a twist on the classic "helpless blonde" routine that managed to get in a few truths about high school along the way. While I fundamentally agree with those thoughts, I must say the flaws are much more apparent, to the point that I could barely make it through tghe shortened season.

Things start off nicely with the first episode of the two-part premiere. "Welcome to the Hellmouth" does an excellent job introducing the main characters and giving them a surprising amount of characterization for the very first episode. You can tell from the opening scene in which two teens break into the high school, hear a scary sound, and look about wildly, only to reveal that the girl (Darla, who would become a major figure in future seasons and in Angel) is the beastie. The resultant episode features lines a bit too much on the corny side, but it's easy to fall in love with Buffy, Willow, and Xander even here. Then "The Harvest" comes along and mucks it all up with stilted dialogue and Angel and Darla come off as completely one-dimensional. This wild swing in quality more or less erves as a microcosm of the season.

The chief issue here is that the plots never really gel, and mainly consist of simplistic "Monster of the Week" setups. The worst of these is "Teacher's Pet," in which Xander gets seduced by a teacher...who turns out to be a praying mantis. No, I'm not kidding. Even when the monsters work on a metaphorical level, such as the invisible girl in "Out of Sight, Out of Mind" (people who pass through school and life unnoticed) or the crazed teens in "The Pack" (hormones make teenagers cruel), make for boring literal plots; nothing on Earth can quite prepare you for "The Puppet Master," in which the writers try to make a smarmy talking dummy scary.

What does work is the character development; even in these early stages the characters move past the fun but limited ranges given to them in the pilot into people not entirely fleshed-out, but well on their way to breakthroughs. Giles could have so easily been a stuck-up, pompus ass who simply gave Buffy her orders and sent her away; actually, given Joss' usual depcition of parent-child relationships (which Giles and Buffy have, even though they aren't related), it's a surprise he didn't. Instead, he straddles the line between the lovable, quasi-crusty uncle and the youthful spirit that will be expounded upon when the "Ripper" days catch up with him. Even episodes with big flaws are worth watching for little moments of growth and originality. The only excpetion (besides the atrocious "Teacher's Pet") is the even worse "I Robot...You Jane," without question the worst episode in Buffy, Angel, or Firefly. The metaphor (chatroom hookups can be dangerous) is thin, the monster is dull, the lines aren't funny(!), and do we really need an entire episode devoted to Willow being shy when it has been so thoroughly covered in snippets here and there that were much more revealing than this? And as for anyone who isn't a lead or a prominent regular, none of the minor characters (apart from Principal Snyder, Flutie's replacement) is very interesting, and the Buffyverse as we know didn't really start to populate itself until the second season.

The finest episodes are "Angel," an early highlight of the show, and the finale "The Prophecy Girl." The former presents many of the themes that would define the first 2-3 seasons (chiefly the allegory-rich romance between Angel and Buffy), while the latter shows the writer's potential for handling something big and gives an insight into the future brilliance of arcs that would span multiple episodes. You can also see a more developed writing style emerging with a single line: Buffy, upon learning that she is destined to die against the Master, timidly mutters "Giles, I'm 16. I don't want to die." Nothing on paper to make that seem genius, right? Well, when you've heard it, you understand just how simple and powerful it is, just like all the best moments to come.

Upon this second viewing, I found the first season to be a moderately enjoyable parody more than a drama in its own right. The shoddy camera work; the stilted, obvious dialogue; the corny jokes; the characters who are moving out of one-dimensional territory but have not fully evolved all come off like a weekly version of Shaun of the Dead or Young Frankenstein. Then again, maybe I just choose to look at it as a spot-on, deeply ironic parody instead of a show that is struggling to move past its premise, like some sort of Buffy apologist. If so, then that attitude has been greatly lessened with a rewatch. Knowing now where this show will go, I found the majority of the season to be excruciatingly tedious, recommendable only to those who have never seen the show before on the basis of its slowly developing growth and its penchant for minor splashes of originality: what other show would kill an established character, and so quickly (Principal Flutie in "The Pack")?

Choice episodes:

Welcome to the Hellmouth

A fun introduction that touches upon all of the major characters and makes all of them interesting from the start. The dialogue isn't quite up to speed, but then the writers are still clearly finding their way.


The first episode to really point in the direction that the show would take in the future. It sets up the irony and even hints towards the inevitable doomed status of Buffy and Angel's relationship. The final shot of the cross burned into Angel's chest from their kiss is the most memorable image of the season.


Probably the strongest standalone, unimportant episode of the season. It serves as an early glimpse into the pathos and weaknesses of our heroes. This concept would come back again in the stronger Season 4 episode "Fear Itself," but this is an early highlight of the show.

The Prophecy Girl

The main Big Bad arc wasn't fleshed out and it wasted the Master, who hinted at being a much more entertaining villain, but "The Prophecy Girl" did a damn fine job of tying things together and really making them far more interesting than the separate elements. Buffy's reaction to finding out that the prophecy says she must die against the Master is the first heart-wrenching moment of the show: "Giles, I'm 16. I don't wanna die."

Ones to avoid:

The Harvest

Whedon follows up the shaky but fun pilot with a much weaker second part that stands as probably the worst episode of TV he's ever written and the only one that isn't eminently entertaining. It fails to build on the characters, despite the vast potential for growth even from the start and makes Darla, Angel, and The Master into one-dimensional characters, which they very much aren't.

Teacher's Pet

Xander gets seduced by a teacher who turns out to be a Praying Mantis. I feel like I should stop here and let that sink in. It's not funny, deep, and the monster looks awful even by the standards of the ludicrously low budget of the first season.

I Robot...You Jane

Almost universally recognized as the worst episode of the series. The message is heavy-handed (BE CAREFUL ABOUT THE INTERNETS!!), it's rarely funny, and it moves absolutely nothing forward.Plus, it just retreads the already overdone notion that Willow is shy.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The West Wing Season 1

Why aren’t there more shows about politics? Maybe it’s just because the 2008 election was the first I could vote in that I think politics is fascinating; Barack Obama’s campaign made politics exhilarating, bringing the actual people into the fold more than any of us have ever seen. Politics weaves such a dense web of intrigue, drama, and pitch-black schadenfreude that it’s a gold mine for drama. Or comedy, for that matter. Yet we have only The West Wing, an in-depth, highly acclaimed look into the executive branch that has already been dubbed a classic by fans and critics alike.

Following the inner workings of the executive branch, The West Wing introduces a wide range of characters, all of them driven and optimistic. Staffers write speeches, research events, work on damage control for every political blunder, and spew fast-paced, witty dialogue while moving in a near breakneck pace throughout the White House in a move dubbed “The Walk and Talk.”

All of the major characters are amazing. Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) is a loyal idealist, who stands by his President but is less willing than others to compromise for the sake of politics. Press Secretary C.J. (Allison Janney) trades more witty barbs with White House Correspondents than someone could ever get away with in real life, but it blurs the line between her and the reporters and creates more of a friendly atmosphere. Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) is the president’s best speechwriter (and the only one Toby considers his “equal”) who cannot seem to hold down a steady relationship to save his life. Charlie Young (Dulé Hill) was created in response to a complaint from the NAACP over the lack of diversity in the show, but he becomes one of the most interesting (and most realistic) characters in the series.

My two favorite staffers are the leaders: Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) and Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford). McGarry, a recovering alcoholic and valium addict, is the glue that holds the executive branch together; he is forceful yet genial and both commands reverence and seems like an ordinary fellow. Lyman, on the other hand, isn’t as charming, at least not to people on the other side of the aisle. He is bold, brash, acerbic, and doesn’t care who he offends. He starts problems from the very start of the series; the first PR nightmare we see in the show stems from Josh’s crass remarks about religion. As the season progresses, we see more and more of Josh’s political cunning and brilliance, and he becomes the most interesting of the staffers.

The West Wing was apparently conceived as a show in which the president made at best cameo appearances. But that all changed when Martin Sheen was cast, and it was the smartest move Sorkin and co. could have possibly made. He establishes his character in his very first scene of the pilot episode: when his aides try to smooth things over with religious leaders after Josh makes a crass joke about God, he confidently strides into the room, not to fanfare, not to applause, hell, not even in a suit. He hobbles in on a cane (he’d been in a bicycle accident shortly before the events of the episode) wearing a track suit, greets the religious leaders warmly, then proceeds to tear them apart with a smile on his face. Up until that point he is a ghost in the background, only referenced to joke about his bike accident, only to sweep in with quiet confidence in a flash. The rest of the episode shows that “The West Wing” could have been a great show had it stuck to its original format, but President Bartlett guarantees its immortality from the get-go.

As is always the case with great entertainment, it’s the little things that make it so memorable. The witty, disarming back and forth between Jed and his naval doctor. Jed accidentally taking both Vicodin AND Percocet for his back pain and ends up jovially fawning over his staff the way a drunk person confesses his deep platonic love for his friends. The basketball game in which Jed brings in an All-American Duke player just to crush Josh and Toby. C.J. lip-synching to “The Jackal.” All of them completely unnecessary, and all of them wonderful.

Even here in its first season, which is clearly finding its footing, there are a numerous moments. “Celestial Navigation” is a fun look at the Bartlet Administration’s PR snafus and features a fantastic performance from guest star Edward James Olmos. “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” announces a more serious turn for the show, and the finale contains a shocking cliffhager. The best episode is “In Exclesis Deo,” in which Toby arranges a military funeral for a homeless veteran. It is moving and simple and all the more powerful for how little the President appears, which makes it more personal.

Despite the high quality, The West Wing clearly has a few kinks to work out. The relationship between Sam (Rob Lowe) and the call-girl Laurie starts out great, then continues until all humor and depth is stripped of it, particularly when she somehow gets past background checks into the State Dinner (the weakest episode of the season, by the way). Mandy is a pointless, one-note, annoying character who just doesn’t work; happily, Sorkin seems to have figured this out early on and quickly wrote her out of the way. As fascinating as the show is even from the start, the administration doesn’t really do anything, which is finally pointed out by the characters in “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet,” which heralds a new direction for the show.

Still, it’s impossible not to love this show from the start. Bartlet is the perfect president, one with idealistic liberal ideals but with an ability to see the other side’s point of view and an unwillingness to back down. Martin Sheen IS Bartlet and this is the finest work of his career, and he was in Apocalypse Now. The West Wing is certainly a fantasy; everyone is far too optimistic considering the years of political conditioning they have to go through to get to their positions. But it puts political issues into layman’s terms without treating the audience like a moron, and it creates some of the most fascinating characters ever made.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


It is with no small amount of pride that I admit my hatred for Twilight. A book of stunning incompetence even by the standards of children’s literature, it has taken the world by storm and resulted in a massive franchise supported by one of the mot rabid fanbases ever seen. I find myself not so much looking down on those who love it but genuinely confused by the notion of anyone liking such an insufferable pile of tripe. Ergo, I secured tickets to a midnight showing Thursday night, in the hopes that if I threw myself at this thing hard enough, maybe I could gain at least an understanding of it, if not an appreciation. Or dash my brains out; whatever works.

The plot is legion by now: shy girl Bella (Kristen Stewart) moves to Forks, Washington to live with her police chief dad (Billy Burke) and enters into a relationship with gorgeous vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson). They cannot have sex because if he isn’t focused he could snap and have a little drink. Along the way she becomes the most popular girl in the school and has to run from more dangerous vampires with her new beau.

Pattinson has the challenging task of playing two roles: that of Edward Cullen, and his hair. Edward’s coif fills the screen on more than one occasion, so disheveled it adds at least three inches to the actor’s height. I suppose I can forgive his wacky hair considering that Edward the vampire cannot look into a mirror. Assuming that he has no reflection of course; Meyer’s vampires stray so far from established lore that her version of a mermaid would probably consist of a man in diving flippers. All you need to know is that the Cullen clan are pale, sport bizarre hairdos and sustain themselves on raw animals. In other words, they’re French.

Kristen Stewart acquits herself nicely as well. This isn’t the first time she’s played a shy, reserved girl (The Messengers, Speak), so she hardly has to stretch her chops. I’ve heard criticisms of both the leads, that they were stiff and spit out terrible dialogue. What do you expect? It’s Twilight: blaming the actors for being dull is like blaming the drive-thru worker at McDonald’s because your coffee is hot.

And what of the romance of Twilight? I fail to see any at all, actually. Bella loves Edward because of his intense desire for her, while Edward’s feelings for her are just that: Desire. Lust. Why does he want her so badly? Because her scent is more potent than any other human’s. That’s right, he’s in love with dinner because it smells delicious. Look, I like steak, but I’ve never gotten the urge to run off to Vegas with a porterhouse. These characters are not in love, at least not with each other; they are simply in love with love. You may laugh, but if the characters in Twilight were 20 years older the book would have been published with Fabio on the cover.

More than once, Bella asks Edward to turn her into a vampire, but he flatly refuses. Why, though? In this film there seem to be no consequences. Sunlight does not kill, the urge to kill can be so easily contained that Bella and her intoxicating aroma can stroll into the Cullen house and not one of them even thinks of biting her. Even the evil tracker vamp James fails to show the darker side of immortality because he comes and goes in a matter of minutes.

In adapting Stephenie Meyer’s novel, director Catherine Hardwicke has made it far worse than its source material, which is impressive if you have enough schadenfreude. Melissa Rosenberg’s screenplay managed to take all of the interesting bits out of the novel and leave an excruciatingly dull film with one-liners so bad they loop back around into unintentional hilarity. It doesn’t bother to examine the characters; the reason why Edward loved Bella was always absurd, but Rosenberg just cut the whole thing out and acted like it would help. Instead, it makes Edward look like a stalker.

And Hardwicke, who never met a project she didn’t ruin with pretentious camera work, shot the film like an extended music video, even though there was barely enough action to fill the trailer. When Edward reveals his secret to Bella, the camera zooms out and circles them like it’s surveying a great battle. The effects look ridiculous, the chases lack suspense, and the romance makes the exchanges between Anakin and Padmé in the Star Wars prequels sound like poetry in comparison.

The only thing I found truly entertaining about the movie is that all the crazed fans who stormed the theater that night seemed to hate it. They laughed at every failed joke and even dramatic reveal like it was a George Carlin routine. The initial furor, applause, and squeals at the beginning died into bored chatter and a light smattering of appreciative golf claps when the credits rolled. I’ve always been at odds with Twilight fans; when I admit my loathing more often than not I hear “What?! You have no taste in books,” a statement containing more irony per square inch than a bake sale raising money for diabetes research. But now old wounds can heal at last; the negative reaction it’s gotten from even die-hards will push them towards the middle, and us on the other side of the spectrum will head over to console them, embracing our prodigal sons and daughters (and don’t think it’s just girls who like this, by the way, I’ve seen a fair number of book copies in guys’ hands). “Hush, child,” we’ll whisper as they cry into our bosoms, “you home now.”

I found the movie (and to a lesser extent, the book) to be a collection of conflicting ideas. It paints its protagonist as a strong heroine, yet she must always be saved from danger. It is an abstinence parable and yet is such an overt sexual fantasy that I can hardly believe it is so heavily marketed to children. By offering no downside to vampirism, it removes the drama of Bella’s desire to be turned and leaves a sitcom “will-they-won’t-they?” feel. Twilight the movie wants to have its cake and eat it too, and instead it just dropped the cake on the floor and started crying. The unfortunate actors buoy the mess just enough to rise above the level of legendarily bad, but they can’t shoulder the weight of this shoddily-written world.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Quantum of Solace

Remember how wonderful “Casino Royale” was, how it added a liberal splash of Jason Bourne to the Bond cocktail and made something that fit in the modern era as well as holding true to the classic character? I don’t think any of us stopped and considered just how lucky they’d been to get away with it. There is perhaps no better proof of this than the latest Bond film, “Quantum of Solace.”

Picking up moments after “Casino” ended, “Quantum” explores Bond’s response to Vesper’s death and uncovers a highly connected worldwide crime syndicate known only as Quantum. Along the way he teams up with a Bolivian spy Camille (Olga Kurylenko) and takes down environmental terrorist and Quantum member Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric). Greene proves to be a big problem to the film; a lot rides on a Bond villain, but Greene strives to be a realistic villain and utterly fails to work in Bond’s world.

The villain’s dastardly scheme? Take control of Bolivia’s water supply, and sell it back to Bolivia for exorbitant prices. Huh, how does that stack up to other Bond villain plots? Destroy almost all life on Earth and rebuild with a tiny group of servants who worship the villain as king (“Moonraker”). Fire an EMP blast on London to cripple the UK and steal billions of British pounds (“Goldeneye”). Seize water and sell it to Bolivia, a country that, according to Wikipedia, has the lowest GDP per capita of any country in South America. That’s like selling food to Ethiopia; not only is it sadistic you’re not going to turn a big profit.

The script was written in part by bane-of-my-existence Paul Haggis, and it reeks of his stench. “Quantum” tries to introduce the real world to Bond’s world, which go together like oil and water. The film gives us a corrupt CIA, one who deals with Quantum for a cut of the profit, and Greene clearly represents the untrustworthiness of business executives. Again, this is Bond. Nobody goes into a Bond film for an allegorical tale or a slice of realism; they go to see a guy blow stuff up and make dark puns about it.

And who let Marc Forster direct this? Forster, the talented director of such films as “Stranger Than Fiction,” “Finding Neverland” and “The Kite Runner,” is undeniably gifted, but has no experience with action. The film genuinely looks like the producers came to Auburn, grabbed me out of my apartment, made me re-watch the Bourne films and said, “Direct the next Bond movie. And make it like Bourne.” The dizzying rapid cuts make it impossible to get any bearings in the action scenes, so they carry no weight. Yes, yes, Chris Nolan had the same problem with Batman, but he at least he threw some long shots into the Batpod sequence.

The film’s only saving grace is its actors. Daniel Craig might be able the first Bond actor to be even remotely comparable to Sean Connery’s defining portrayals, while Kurylenko acquits herself nicely. Amalric, a tremendously gifted French actor who finally got his big break last year with “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” does his best to make Greene work, but the character is too subtle, which just doesn’t fly in Bondworld. Dame Judi Dench is far and away the best M in the franchise’s history, but she’s reduced to a one-note character on the verge of a nervous breakdown when leaks spring up in British and American intelligence. Surely the leader of a bunch of spies is mentally capable of dealing with…spies?

But no matter how hard they try the actors cannot buoy such a shockingly dull film. “Quantum” is not a particularly bad film, but it adheres to the classic Hollywood mantra of sequels: “If it ain’t broke, do your damnedest to break it.” All the components that meshed so perfectly in “Casino Royale” are pushed to the extreme, and the result is a mess every bit as boring as the cartoony CGI-fests that defined Brosnan’s later Bond films. Bond is having an identity crisis: he can’t decide whether he wants to be realistic or escapist, and the film never finds its footing because of it. Some critics complained that this doesn’t feel like a Bond film. That’s the least of its worries.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Howl's Moving Castle

One of the great discoveries of this year for me was Hayao Miyazaki. For years I'd heard of his films My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away, but never bothered to check them out. When I did, I wanted to kick myself for not watching them sooner. Miyazaki has an innate gift for capturing the spirit of childhood, something few, if any, other directors can. Japan is still a chauvinsitic society and the vast majority of animated films focus on male characters, so I was incredibly surprised to see how feminist Miyazki's work was. In his films, female characters would discover a fundamental truth about themselves, growing up while still remaining children. Working my way through his filmography, I popped in Howl's Moving Castle with relish. Sadly, it did not meet expectations.

The film centers on Sophie, a young hat vendor who is literally swept off her feet by the wizard Howl. This angers the Witch of the Waste, who loves Howl and turns Sophie into an old woman out of jealousy. Hoping to break the curse, Sophie tracks down Howl's castle, which roams the landscape, a behemoth on spindly, chicken-like legs. Inside, she meets Howl's companions, a young boy named Markl and a fire demon named Calcifer. We quickly learn that the residents of the castle have curses of their own and are unable to fix themselves, much less Sophie. Nevertheless, she stays on as a cleaning lady.

Soon, the plot begins to diverge. Howl receives a summons from the king; he is going to war and needs his trained wizards to help. Howl, an ardent pacifist (or a coward, when you consider his general personality), tries to weasel his way out of going by sending Sophie in his stead. This results in a second main plot, one that puts forward an overt anti-war message. This wouldn't have been a problem if it fit into Sophie's story or if it was the only A plot, but the disparity of the two storylines ensures that neither is explored properly.

And that is the ultimate failing of the movie. Whereas Hiyazaki's other films weave messages so perfectly in the mix that they're more intelligent and subtle than most adult drama, Howl's message is only skin deep. Sophie's story is clearly a reminiscience on age, while Howl's is one of the futility of war. Like the titular castle, the movie seems to be cobbled together by parts that don't really fit, and the whole time you're just waiting for it to crumble.

This is certainly one of Miyazaki's most beautiful films, but pretty films are never worth repeat watches; compare this to Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro, multlayered tapestries that captured the grandeur and simplicity of life and the shallowness of Howl is all the more glaring. And what of Sophie? Miyazaki's work has always been a breath of fresh air not only for its originality and visual splendor, but for its overt feminism, a rarity in both the still-chauvinistic Japanese culture and in children's films in general. Sophie seems like the latest strong heroine, but through the course of the film becomes more of a plot device than a protagonist; she exists almost outside of the plot, gently guiding it to its next checkpoint. At the end of a Miyazaki film, the hero has learned a fundamental truth about herself and is stronger for it. What has Sophie learned by the end: don't get cursed by witches? Do be loved by a wizard? I don't really know.

And what's up with the dub cast? Disney's done a great job finding the perfect voice cast to dub Miyazaki's other films into English, to the point that they are the only foreign films I not only enjoy dubbed, but possibly prefer, but, with the exceptions of Jean Simmons and Christian Bale, the actors are terribly miscast. Billy Crystal giving a demon from the stars a New York accent? The bit parts sounding like a bad RPG video game? Someone dropped the ball

As many faults as I found, I was still entertained somewhat. I'd still recommend this purely because kids would love it. Parents might too, but anyone who's followed Miyazaki's work might be very disappointed.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Role Models

In a year already packed with great comedies from Ben Stiller (“Tropic Thunder”), Kevin Smith (“Zack & Miri Make A Porno”), and Apatow Productions (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Pineapple Express”) a little movie about two friends who find themselves in a court-ordered charity that pairs volunteers with maladjusted children sounds like just another attempt to cash in on those aforementioned talents. Surprisingly, “Role Models” more than holds its own in this riotous comedy.

The film opens with Danny (Paul Rudd) and Wheeler (Sean William Scott) working as pitchmen for an energy drink company. As per the strict regulations of buddy comedy, they are polar opposites; Wheeler is a laid-back lothario who adores his job because of its simplicity, while Danny is confrontational and bitter.

After a particularly hellish day, the pair find themselves on the verge of a prison sentence and Danny finds himself without a girlfriend. To avoid jail, the two head to the aforementioned charity Sturdy Wings, founded by Gayle Sweeney (Jane Lynch), an ex-con and recovered addict. Danny gets paired up with a fantasy-absorbed teen named Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse of McLovin fame), and Wheeler gets matched to the terrible tyke Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson).

Naturally, nobody gets along at first. Danny is uncomfortable with Augie’s obsession with capes and foam swords and a strange club of like-minded nerds that plays like a Renaissance Faire in which everyone fights one another, while Ronnie simply views Wheeler as the latest toy to break. Eventually, they come to respect and even love one another and everyone learns something about themselves. This could have easily devolved into cliché, but “Role Models” rises above thanks to its inventive humor.

Foul-mouthed children is hardly a new concept to R-rated comedy, but the frequency with which Ronnie drops F-bombs is surprising. He’s so vulgar and self-assured you can almost believe that Wheeler would take him to an adult party and that he would fit in. Scott puts in his finest work since the first “American Pie, and Paul Rudd- adept at playing off others- manages to have chemistry with everyone. Jane Lynch plays Gayle like a person who never really recovered from addiction, to the point that, even in total sobriety, you find yourself wondering if she is using.

But once again it’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse who steals the show by making a devotion to a real life World of Warcraft actually touching and for getting in some memorable lines. Indeed, his hobby becomes the gag on which the movie hinges; Augie’s struggle to fit in and to win his parent’s acceptance is the closest this film comes to depth.

The film has obviously been cut down for ratings and time purposes. The problem is that they seem to have cut out all the transitions. The gang go from mortal enemies to dear friends over the course of…what? They just do. There’s not even a montage, for God’s sake. Likewise, Dany’s girlfriend (played by Elizabeth Banks) and Ronnie’s mother are terribly underdeveloped even though they seem like they could have easily been interesting characters. Such editing gives the movie a choppy feeling, and it exists more as a series of gags than a cohesive film.

Still, there’s no denying the funniness of “Role Models.” It’s half-hearted attempt at depth fails, but that cannot bring down the constant laughs. Scott reminds us why we used to love him, and Mintz-Plasse proves he is the king of the nerds. It’s not as funny or rewarding as “Zack & Miri,” but that’s no reason not to see this hilarious flick.

Soul Men

There is an underlying sadness to “Soul Men.” As you watch it, you can’t help but think of it as a foul-mouthed but loving eulogy, the only way to send off a comedian. In fact, the plot itself seems eerily tailor-made to conjure up this connection; two estranged bandmates reunite to perform at a tribute for their deceased frontman. Unfortunately, the film never seems to move beyond the initial phase.

Louis Hinds (Samuel L. Jackson) and Floyd Henderson (Bernie Mac) were the backup singers of soul and funk legends The Real Deal before the usual load of drugs, women, and “creative differences” tore them apart. While their former leader Marcus Hooks (played in flashbacks by John Legend) enjoyed decades of fruitful solo successes, Floyd and Louis stagnated; Floyd started up a car wash, while Louis turned to theft to get by. Following Marcus’ death, a sleazy record producer (Sean Hayes) sees money to be made and organizes a reunion of the two surviving members.

After convincing Louis with the promise of money, Floyd throws his mate in the car and the pair head for the Apollo. Along the way they play a few gigs in bars to get back into the groove, pick up a few groupies, and duke it out over the memory of Odetta, a woman they both loved.

At a certain point, the two travel to Odetta’s home and discover her daughter who may or may not be Floyd’s child. Cleo (Sharon Leaf) joins them for arbitrary reasons, and soon the question of her fatherhood must be answered. Oh and she can sing her heart out, so she becomes their backup singer. Yes, the backup singers recruited a backup singer of their own.

Band reunion clichés not withstanding, what really makes this film dull is its terrible over-reliance on stereotypes. Cleo’s boyfriend is an abusive, illiterate, drug-peddling wannabe rapper, the two characters representing the record company are Jewish, and both represent a separate Jewish stereotype: the executive is money-grubbing and manipulative, while the intern sports a ‘fro and feels some sort of bond with the two black men. He also doubles as a desperate Jonah Hill look-alike, only without the wit.

Bernie Mac is typecast as a smooth talker who manages to get people to go along with his plans no matter how many times they see he’s just full of hot air, and Jackson- well, Jackson transcends typecasting. Is it possible to be your own stereotype?

The first two acts are promising, but never move past a sea of stereotypical jokes. But it is in the final third that the film goes terribly wrong. It essentially becomes a blaxploitation version of the Blues Brothers. An ex-con and his partner have to “get the band back together,” and somehow the cops get involved to the point that the whole country is after a pair of has-been musicians who nevertheless allow these musicians to play one last time. Really, the film mines so many stereotypes and rips off John Landis’ far superior movie so much that I’m amazed they didn’t call it “Blues Brothas” or something else equally as offensive to everyone.

“Soul Men” has all the components of a better movie: Mac, Jackson, the possibility for a scathing indictment of the record industry’s manipulation and greed. But it suffocates under the weight of its borderline racism and general unfunniness. All but a few minor jokes fail spectacularly, and the attempt at drama is the only truly funny thing in the movie. If you see the parallels between fiction and life, do not mistake them for poignancy; any message you could possibly glean from this will be one you brought in with you. During the credits an interview plays where Bernie Mac discusses how he prepared for roles and the seriousness with which he treated every one of them. It’s a simple, moving tribute that’s all the more tragic for being connected to this film.

Monday, November 10, 2008


The last few years have been understandably bleak at the cinema. Just as the post-Watergate era led to fits of dark brilliance in the mid- to late-70s, tensions over the war in Iraq and the failing economy are producing a number of incredible films that nevertheless leave you feeling drained. Trying to correct the cosmic balance is Mike Leigh's new film "Happy-Go-Lucky," the story of an unflinchingly optimistic woman named Poppy.

Poppy, an elementary schoolteacher, starts the film cheerfully biking through London, stopping at a book store and trying to cheer up the surly clerk. She goes outside only to find that her bike has been stolen, but it doesn't get her down in the slightest. Robbed of her mode of transit, she decides to take driving lessons.

From this simple setup comes a surprisingly complex movie. We see Poppy's relationship with her sister and flatmate, how they can sometimes be exasperated by her disposition yet are themselves perked up by their proximity to her. When a little boy in her class begins acting violent towards other children, she works with him and gets close to the school counselor, who is also trying to figure out what's wrong in the lad's life.

The scenes with the child are some of the most telling. Poppy has an innate ability to read people, to figure out what is bothering them and how best to try to fix it. In the film's finest moment, she stumbles across a deranged homeless man, who repeats a garbled nonsense with increasing ferocity. Poppy pauses, not out of fear but of concern, and talks to him. At first she might as well be talking to a wall, but her warmth seeps into the man, and they come to have a basic conversation.

The most interesting supporting character is Poppy's driving instructor, Scott. Played by comedian Eddie Marsan. Scott is a raging bastard, the kind of instructor you report after one lesson and get fired. He screams, insults and condescends to Poppy, who takes it all in stride and tries to loosen him up. Watching their teacher-student relationship is fascinating; Scott represents the dark cynicism of the world, and he doesn't know what to make of the optimism before him.

Poppy is a strange anomaly; her cheerfulness only adds to her physical beauty and Scott, the manifestation of hopelessness and insecurity, hates her all the more because of how much he desires to be her. Marsan plays Scott with a mixture of revulsion and pity; he is a terrible person, but the possibility of happiness only makes him worse because he genuinely cannot cope with the concept. When tensions finally come to a head, you see what makes both characters tick, and the results are shocking. Hawkins is deservedly getting praise for her role, but Marsan is every bit as captivating and necessary to this movie.

Sally Hawkins has the hardest job I've seen given to an actor in a long time. Evil? That's child's play compared to pure goodness. There are so many ways she could have messed up, not least of which is that she could have played Poppy like a ditz. There are moments when you see a revealing bit of body language, or a flash in the eyes that show Poppy's disposition slamming up against reality. The flashes in her eyes are not signs of inner pain but of outer pain trying to bring her down.

In some ways, this is the year's "Juno;" as with that film, this places a completely unrealistic character into the world and uses her flights of fancy to teach us something about the real world. Poppy's role is to be so unrelentingly good that she affects those around her, and her aura spills out of the screen and into the audience. Like the characters in "Happy-Go-Lucky," the results may not always be positive. Leigh and his heavily-rehearsed actors have mixed the real with fantasy, creating a world that seems immediate yet distant. Some may hate Poppy for her sunniness, but doesn't that tell you something about those people?

Thursday, November 6, 2008


At this point, Guy Ritchie is probably- oh, let’s face it, he is best known for being Madonna’s soon-to-be ex. That’s a bit tragic considering at one point the director of “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” was the king of the Tarantino clones, the only one who managed to make something almost original out of the post-“Pulp Fiction” furor. Then he made “Swept Away” and “Revolver,” two of the worst films of all time. At this point Ritchie set the bar so low he could have made a snuff film and gotten better reviews. Instead, he went back to the familiar “Lock, Stock” ground, with generally positive results.

Pinning down the plot is a bit tricky, as the film is more about subplots than an actual narrative. The main thrust of the story concerns a real estate deal between Uri (Karel Roden), an endlessly wealthy Russian businessman, and Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson), a notorious gangster who considers himself the true ruler of London. As an act of good faith between partners, Uri gives his lucky painting to Lenny. Soon, it gets stolen, and all hell breaks loose. Ritchie sure loves his Macguffins, doesn’t he?

While Lenny combs the London underworld for the painting, a street gang called the Wild Bunch and its leader One-Two (“300’s” Gerard Butler) start stealing Uri’s payments to Lenny with the help Uri’s accountant Stella (Thandie Newton), who’s taken to theft out of sheer boredom. If that sounds a bit complicated, wait til the subplots pop up. One-Two must deal with the advances of a recently outed homosexual friend; Lenny has to track down a possibly dead rock star; and Lenny’s right-hand man Archie (Mark Strong) goes around slapping people for information. The ushers should hand out playbills for this movie.

The problem with all these goings-on is that it gives the film a certain hollowness. Almost all the characters are genuinely interesting, but we get so little time with any of them thanks to the dizzying jump cuts. Thandie Newton sleeps through the film, showing up just to look pretty and drop some pithy line, and you can only make out every third word Butler says. Jeremy Piven and Ludacris show up, ostensibly so we the audience will remark “Hey look, it’s Jeremy Piven and Ludacris!” They use up valuable screen time that could have been devoted to one or several of the more interesting characters.

Still, the good outweighs the bad. Mark Strong, who was the best thing about Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies,” similarly stands out here with his offbeat performance, while the great character actor Tom Wilkinson puts in fine work as usual. The characters all have enough quirks to stand out, and, but Ritchie should have cut some unnecessary characters and scenes and focused more on its motley crew instead of an intense mob story that feels generic coming from him.

This is, at heart, a film designed to be more fun for its cast than its audience. Indeed, the actors are so clearly having a good time that “RocknRolla” has an undeniable charm, and it lacks much of the self-assured smugness that made the similarly overpopulated “Oceans” films so tedious. For all its complications, a lot less goes on than you might think, and the rapid editing makes a gangster comedy seem like an action movie. Fans of Ritchie should rejoice; it’s not as entertaining as “Lock, Stock” or “Snatch,” but it’s certainly a step in the right direction after his last two films and a welcome return to form.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

2008 is shaping up to be a banner year for romantic comedy the same way that 2007 wound up being a revival for Westerns. Hot on the heels of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Wall*E” (which is technically a children’s film but calls to mind the great silent romantic comedy “City Lights”), slacker guru Kevin Smith offers up “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” a film that stacked up controversy long before it hit theaters thanks to its provocative title and its tongue-in-cheek posters.

It’s also one of the funniest films of the decade and the perfect blend of Smith’s own “Chasing Amy” and “Clerks II.”

The plot is summed up by the title: Zack and Miri, two lifelong best friends who find themselves on the verge of bankruptcy after letting the bills pile up, decide to get out of debt by making, you guessed it, a porno. Along the way, they recruit a gang of cast and crew, think up erotic film parodies and ultimately confront deeper feelings for each other. On the surface it looks like a standard romantic comedy with a wacky premise, but that doesn’t take into account Smith’s gift for dialogue.

Fans of Smith’s will recognize the vulgar, rapid-fire wit and the pop culture references, but this time around he also injects moments of truly uncomfortable humor that calls the sitcom “The Office” to mind. After all, this is a film about two friends who have to come to terms with how they really feel for one another; awkwardness is part of the equation. Rogen plays his usual schlub, but for the first time you can buy that he’s paired with an impossibly beautiful (and impossibly single) woman.

The characters, from the leads to the supporting cast, are all quirky and interesting. View Askew alumni Jeff Anderson and Jason Mewes hold their own against Rogen, the current king of comedy, while newcomer (in America, at least) Ricky Mabe gets a lot of laughs with a handful of screen time. Porn starlet Katie Morgan and infamous ex-porn star Traci Lords show off some surprising chops, and Justin Long’s cameo as a gay porn star is brief but instantly memorable. The best of the supporting cast is Craig Robinson, who steals nearly every scene he’s in as Delaney, the racially sensitive de facto producer of the porno.

The only downside of the film is that it’s looser than Smith’s usual fare, perhaps due to the influx of all these improvisers into the film of a man who prefers his actors stick to the script. As a result, occasionally meanders, and a speech from Robinson near the end is so formulaic and schmaltzy that it’s almost uncomfortable. But, as Roger Ebert noted, Smith throws so many gags at you so rapidly that anything that doesn’t connect is quickly lost beneath three jokes that do. The rapid-fire humor is all the more surprising considering how plot-relevant most of it is; most comedies exist as a series of gags, but this is one long joke.

Probably the most refreshing and surprising aspect of the movie is Miri, and by extension Elizabeth Banks, who is breaking out in a big way this year (“Role Models,” W.”). Females in slacker comedies, be they Smith’s films, Judd Apatow’s, or even the British sitcom “Spaced” are often the focal point of maturity. The ladies will hang out with the dudes, but they always grow up a lot faster. Miri is an exception; she swears with the best of them, avoids work even more studiously than Zack does, and, unlike most female slackers, not only gets the pop culture references but makes some herself. Yet she is also keenly aware of her femininity, another rarity in the slacker world. Miri is, quite simply, the best, most charming, most relatable female character to come along since Daisy from “Spaced.”

Ultimately, the film’s brief lags and the rare moments towards the end where the inevitability of romantic comedy cliché seeps in cannot derail such a continuously uproarious flick, and the surprising chemistry between the two leads and strong supporting cast make this possibly the most outrageous comedy since “There’s Something About Mary.” Any moment that feels stale or awkward is as necessary as the big jokes; the discomfort makes it all the more real and tender, and the romantic dialogue is the most powerful, realistic and original since the dialogue in Smith’s own “Chasing Amy.”

Smith’s most accomplished film yet is a surefire hit, and you’d have to be crazy to miss it. Oh, and sit through the credits.