Thursday, April 30, 2009

South Park — Seasons 3 and 4

After two seasons of highly entertaining yet clearly unstable programming, South Park hit upon a sort of stride starting with its third season. Parker and Stone realized that the show's then-formula of dick and fart jokes mixed with the occasional jab at pop culture and/or society was getting stale, and over the course of this season they began to morph South Park into something more. That it not only worked but produced one of the strongest seasons of the show is all the more surprising given the fact that the boys wrote a movie around the same time.

You can tell you're in for a ride from the start with the excellent season premiere "Rainforest Schmainforest," a biting attack on environmentalists who don't realize how necessary trees are to keep society moving, as well as their naïve view of the "purity" of wildlife and the jungle. Reeling from George Lucas' stinging betrayal of all that was good in the Star Wars franchise, Parker and Stone craft "Jackovasaurus" into the ultimate hate-letter to Jar-Jar Binks. In it, the titular creature pops up in South Park and the scientific community's initial joy is replaced by increasing annoyance when the Jackovasaur refuses to shut up. It has no real underlying social message, but it's the first of several great episodes devoted to exposing George Lucas' decision to ruin everything good he ever did over the course of the last decade.

Elsewhere, other highlights abound. "Chinpokomon" examines the phenomenon that was "Pokémon" by positing that children were actually manipulated by the Japanese toy companies via subliminal messaging. That said messaging attempted to brainwash children into mounting an attack on Pearl Harbor only makes it funnier. There's also some penis gags (the word "chinpokomon" itself is a play on "chin chin", the Japanese for "penis") to make sure things don't get too serious. "Starvin Marvin in Space" basically takes the original Starvin Marvin episode from Season 1, cuts out all the filler, and adds a hilarious science fiction element that casts Sally Struthers as a Hutt.

But the season's centerpiece is undoubtedly its three episode mini-arc revolving around a meteor shower. For the first time, Parker and Stone kept a sort of continuity, not just within the arc but the show as a whole, that allowed them to still kill and revive Kenny and make other retcons while making callback jokes possible. The highlight of the arc is "Jewbilee," in which Kyle takes Kenny with him to a Jewish summer camp and the boys must ultimately save the other campers from an group of Jewish anti-Semites who seek to revive the evil Persian, Haman. It's nothing but gold, but honestly it's worth it just to see Moses portrayed as the Master Control Program from Tron.

It's still a tad uneven; "Sexual Harassment Panda" was the first episode to air after the full-length (and extremely funny) South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and was written while Trey and Matt were working on that film. Frankly, it shows; everything the episode has to say about our overly litigious society and how some people exploit a very serious crime just to make a quick buck (and therefore make it that much harder for people who have been sexually assaulted or molested to be treated seriously). But other than that one episode, the only weaknesses come from within strong episodes, such as the actual cat orgy of "Cat Orgy." The episode itself is a fun poke at those generic comedies where two characters who hate each other gradually bond when they realize they're not so different after all, but the cat stuff gets old quickly.

Nevertheless, this is by far the most consistent and rewarding of the first three seasons. The first two suffered from weak episodes and a number of lame gags that kept good episodes from true greatness (with the notable exceptions of "Spookyfish" and "Gnomes"), but here only a few bits fall flat. It lacks the darker edge that slipped in around the fifth season, but it's a big step forward from what came before it.


...But it can't compare to the quantum leap that was the show's fourth season. The release of the movie, coupled with declining ratings after the initial South Park mania calmed down (to this day it doesn't regularly pull in the numbers of viewers it got in the frenzy of the first two seasons) led one critic to suggest that South Park's time in the spotlight was coming to a close. In hindsight, it's easy to mock the guy, but I imagine he was just saying what everyone was thinking at the time. Imagine, then, the looks on their faces when Parker and Stone took everything that was good and wonderful in Bigger, Longer & Uncut and somehow put it on TV every week.

The season rockets out of the gate with one of the quintessential "boys just being boys" episodes of the series, in which the gang goes around town collecting baby teeth to bilk the tooth fairy out of enough cash to buy a Sega Dreamcast. Then it morphs into a great commentary on the dumb lies we tell our children (what is the point of Santa and the tooth fairy, anyway?) when Cartman's mother finally tells her son the truth when the scheme nearly bankrupts her. The fact that this is one of the lesser episodes of the season should only tell you what's in store.

"Quintuplets" is about as damning an attack on the Elian Gonzalez debacle as you could hope to find, equally sending up the botched federal operation and the arrogance of many Americans concerning the event. Then we meet a little character named Timmy, a palsy-stricken boy with Tourette's confined to a wheelchair. When you first see him, it's easy to think that Parker and Stone finally lost it. They spent so much time toeing the line of edginess and obscenity and they finally tripped. Yet, by the end of his introductory episode, we see that the boys' insults are no different than their jabs at each other, and that placing the disabled on a pedestal only alienates them more (a theme introduced in "Conjoined Fetus Lady").

This episode is only the first of a slew of episodes this season that prove that all the outrageousness attributed to the show in its early days were child's play. I mean, who would dare to write an episode where Cartman, seeking to hang out with more mature people, winds up joining NAMBLA and dragging all the other little boys in his class along with him, not to mention the fact that it's one of the funniest episodes of the series? And what about the spoof of the boy-band explosion, which inspires the boys to form their very own group, Fingerbang?

Honestly, it's impossible to pick out highlights. "The Wacky Molestation Adventure" takes the strong concept in the undercooked "Sexual Harassment Panda" and expands it into a classic parody of Children of the Corn. "Trapper Keeper" blends The Terminator with 2001 and still has time to take potshots at Rosie O'Donnell, while the two part episode concerning the boys' religious fear after a wrathful priest warns them of the perils of Hell is one of the most vicious (and viciously funny) attacks on religion ever made. Of course, the writers would outdo themselves when they took on Mormons and Scientologists down the road...

The only weak spot of the season is an episode devoted entirely to Pip, the British lad inexplicably hated by everyone. Pip is based on the lead from Dickens' Great Expectations, and Trey and Matt thought it would be fun to reflect that with a modern -- um... retelling of the classic tale. On the plus side, they roped in Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) to narrate it, and the episode is gleefully absurd, but it's pointless and too silly for its own good. Besides that, it's all gold.

Believe it or not, South Park isn't through growing, but this collection of episodes, like The Simpsons' landmark fourth season, took a show that was inching towards greatness and thrust it into classic territory in one fell swoop. Even though it pushes the students into a new grade, introduces new characters and offers character insights (such as Mr. Garrison coming to terms with his sexuality) that won't be as funny if you don't know the backstory, the fourth season is an excellent place to start potential newcomers, as it boasts a substantial number of classic episodes and giving them an idea what the show has in store for them while remaining more accessible than the much darker 5th season.


Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Soloist

After months in mysterious limbo, Joe Wright’s latest opus, “The Soloist,” finally hits theaters four months after it could win the awards for which it was clearly designed. So, the story of Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Jr. must wade out into the dangerous waters of spring cinema, the final dumping of pictures with dubious prospects before the summer rolls around to start blowing things up. After watching the film, I now understand the delay.

The story, of course, is based on Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez’s attempts to rehabilitate a former Julliard undergraduate whom he finds playing in a park in Los Angeles. Unlike other panhandlers, Nathaniel plays not for change but simply for the music. Lopez, desperate for a story, decides to write a column on the man, and soon he’s got an ongoing hit. Robert Downey Jr. plays Lopez with a fine mixture of selfish egoism and wracked emotion, giving us a man who genuinely cares for Nathaniel and wants to help but also doesn’t mind the fan mail that comes his way.

Lopez has a hell of an uphill struggle: Nathaniel, a schizophrenic, speaks in hyperspeed sentences that leap from Beethoven to God to Lopez himself and then really jump off the diving board. The he only thing he can focus on is music, and when he plays the world melts away. When Lopez’s columns begin to circulate, the conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic invites Ayers to a performance, where the screen suddenly cuts to bright, colored lights, suggesting Nathaniel has synesthesia, a condition that allows people to “see” music.

Jamie Foxx complements Downey’s straight man perfectly; rather than “play up” Ayers’ mental illness, he gives a rare believable performance of a mentally challenged person. In every scene his eyes dart back and forth, as if ensuring he could make a run for it at any moment. When he snaps he’s truly frightening, but you can’t help but love the guy when he picks up an instrument and a bow. And even though a number of his lines are clearly played for easy laughs, Foxx generally steers clear of exploiting his character. If Foxx was just in it for the Oscar, he at least gave us a terrific performance to earn it.

So if the film hinges entirely on Downey and Foxx, who are both excellent, what’s the problem? Well, as per usual with a Joe Wright film, the fault lies behind the lens. Wright, a technically gifted director, has yet to figure out how to tastefully apply his techniques to the subjects he tackles. Technical flair can certainly spice up even the most Oscar-baiting of dramas, but you have to make it work with the material; it’s the difference, say, between Paul Thomas Anderson in “There Will Be Blood” and Paul Thomas Anderson in “Magnolia.”

To his credit, this is the first film where Wright puts his skill to good use, what with his attempts to visualize what really goes on in Nathaniel’s mind. He jump cuts when Ayers begins to hallucinate, filling the speakers with white noise and sinister whisperings of mocking voices. But, like Ayers’ thought process, the film lacks any focus: is it a commentary on the importance of friendship? On how he can’t change people and how we define others without truly seeing them? How the endless possibilities of music? I don’t know, and neither, I suspect, does the writer. It turns what had been a promising feature into a meandering, jumbled mess with a cheaply sentimental ending that undermines the sensitivity and maturity that preceded it. Heck, Wright can’t even settle on a point of view: it’s Lopez’s story, but he jumps in Ayers’ head so many times I didn’t have a frame of reference.

The typical “true story” exaggerations likewise do more harm than good: Wright depicts L.A.’s terrible homeless problem by creating a hobo jungle that looks like the personification of every Tom Waits song ever written rolled into one. A useless subplot involving Lopez’s ex-wife (he never divorced) wastes our time and Catherine Keener’s.

Normally, a lack of narrative focus signals that a film has failed, but “The Soloist” gets so much right that I just can’t bring myself to dismiss it. Foxx and Downey put in some of their best work, and many moments of the film truly inspire. Nevertheless, inconsistencies and a scattershot second half force me to give “The Soloist” merely a tepid recommendation.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

South Park — Season 2

Having never stuck with South Park for a full season, I finally decided to start from the beginning to get the full experience before Trey and Matt (or, more likely) stopped altruistically streaming their entire series online. After a bit of disappointment with the dated feel of the first season but still fueled by more than enough laughs to propel me straight to the next set of episodes. Happily, the second season, despite suffering from a much bigger inconsistency than the first, is a marked improvement and contains the first true classics of the series.

The last season ended on the cliffhanger of the identity of Cartman's father, but if making fans wait 4 weeks to learn the answer tested viewers before they really cemented as hardcore fans, airing an entire episode revolving around Terrence and Phillip, the Canadian fart joke equivalents of Itchy and Scratchy, as an elaborate April Fool's joke instead of the second part of the episode took balls the size of grapefruits. In retrospect, "Terrence and Phillip in Not Without My Anus" isn't very funny and its appeal lies solely in its proof that Trey and Matt were willing to alienate people from the get-go.

Happily, its follow-up, the real season opener, is a fine coda to the first season's finale, even if it spends way too much emphasizing the clichés it sends up. From there we get early classics like "Chickenlover," in which we learn about Officer Barbrady's illiteracy and "Chef's Chocolate Salty Balls," a gaudy pun played up for an entire episode but never too much. "Conjoined Fetus Lady" mercilessly attacks how political correctness often only highlights differences and places them on a pedestal rather than allowing people to treat those with disabilities like human beings.

But there are also some duds. "Summer Sucks" has some great digs into Mr. Garrison's sexual confusion, but its main plot involving the attempt to make the biggest fireworks snake fizzles. "City on the Edge of Forever" introduces us to a clip show (this soon?) and even though it changes most of the clips around, it still follows the trend of most clip shows and just ambles along.

Likewise, "Chickenpox" never really gets off the ground until its disgusting finale, and "Ike's Wee Wee" features a main plot that would have been better served as a side-story. "Cow Days" has nothing going for it until Cartman suffers head trauma and mistakes himself for a Vietnamese prostitute. Consistency is a real problem this season, not just between episodes but within them.

Two episodes, however, point towards the future greatness of the show. "Spookyfish," the requisite Halloween episode has little in the way of satire, but it's just a damn good story that's full of laughs. A parallel universe opens up in South Park and a bearded, kind Cartman emerges. His world is evil but, as Cartman's doppelganger, he's pure and passive. This leads to a great twist in which Stan and Kyle try to send their Cartman to the parallel universe so they can keep the nice one.

But the season's centerpiece is undoubtedly "Gnomes," the first true masterpiece of the show. This season (and even the last one) boast a few fan favorites, but this episode is just perfect. Now, it's not as funny as it could be, but "Gnomes" is a blistering satire on the media's anti-corporation slant and the general assumption that every single big business got to the top by drinking the blood of small business owners. When coffee purveyors Harbucks try to open a franchise in South Park, local café owner Mr. Tweek manipulates the boys into railing against big business to ensure he can still hold the monopoly in the town. It paints Mr. Tweek as a far greedier and exploitative person than the Harbucks' operators, and even dares to suggest that maybe some businesses got big because they offered a superior product.

So, while the season oscillates between brilliance and mediocrity, its high number of classic moments (Cartman as a cop, Cartman the Vietnamese prostitute, Chef Aid) and the handful of classic episodes elevate above its more consistent predecessor. It's still got aways to go, but slowly the animation and the writing is coming together.

South Park — Season 1

As The Simpsons continues to descend into mediocrity stemming from outliving any fresh plots, and with Family Guy just plain sucking, South Park must hold aloft the flag of quality animated T.V. Over the course of the decade, the show has proven to be the most relevant piece of social commentary on the air, skewering topics ranging from tabloid-fodder to Elian Gonzalez to the War in Iraq. But what about the beginning, back when South Park was a crudely-animated, crass comedy that single-handedly launched Comedy Central into a national station?

In retrospect, South Park's first season does not seem to warrant the media storm that it received, nor does it really explain why it became such a commercial sensation in the late 90s. That's not to say that it isn't funny -- far from it -- but its style is such a far cry from the pitch-black satire of its later seasons that at times its almost unrecognizable. Oh sure, all the main characters were there from the start, and a few lesser characters came to the forefront over the years, but their personalities haven't been fully defined yet.

Case in point: Cartman, the show's defining character and one of the darkest creations ever allowed on television, comes off more as an incorrigible scamp. If anything, he's like Bart Simpson with Homer's weight. The Simpsons is a clear influence on the show -- could any animated program made since possibly not be indebted to it? -- but in this season Trey Parker and Matt Stone flirt with ripping Matt Groening off at various intervals: just watch "Weight Gain 4000" and try not to think about the masterpiece that is "King Size Homer." It kind of makes their Family Guy parody way on down the road a bit ironic, as they accuse Seth McFarlane of just ripping off The Simpsons and mixing it with unfunny random humor. Then again, considering how quickly Parker and Stone found their voice and carved out a unique program, I can't really bring myself to hold this over their heads any.

Despite the lighter tone and the general lack of a biting satirical element (with a few notable exceptions), most of the 13 episodes have something to recommend them, and a few are quite excellent. "Volcano," an underrated gem, viciously attacks the media's exploitations of emotions as well as taking an early swipe at hunting for sport. "Damien" introduces Jesus and Satan and even pits them together in a hilariously anti-climactic, pay-per-view boxing match. And for pure surreality, nothing beats the uproarious "Mecha-Streisand." Of course, the highlight of the season is the tongue-in-cheek cliffhanger in which Cartman attempts to learn the identity of his father. It sends up just about every season finale cliché, but the best shots were saved for the next season.

Other episodes, unfortunately, just don't stack up. Apart from the aforementioned "Weight Gain 4000," several episodes fail to get more than a few chuckles. "An Elephant Makes Love to a Pig" is nothing but shock humor, but it's far from shocking by the show's standards so it never really goes anywhere. The pilot, in which aliens anally probe Cartman, earns points for showing how casually Parker and Stone would push the boundaries of taste even from the start, but you can tell instantly that this is a first episode. Even good episodes have elements that take away from it: "Starvin' Marvin" sends up Sally Struthers and the hypocritical and self-satisfying nature of all those ads to help starving children, but the second plot involving a turkey uprising falls flat.

The animation on South Park has never really approached beauty, but here it is borderline awful. The animation is so crude that it actually distracts at times, and it's hard to care about the town and its inhabitants because of it. Stan and Kyle have too much of a heroic streak; they're always the ultimate voice of logic and peace in the show, but they're far from saints in later seasons. South Park's relative lack of continuity makes this season more of a "for fans only" season; those wishing to introduce newcomers would do well to start them a bit further down the road. Nevertheless, there's enough moments worth your time and enough near-classics to make the inaugural season a fun, if dated, look into the start of a classic.

The Purple Rose of Cairo

A great deal of the reason that I love Woody Allen is that the man loves to feel down. Hell, how many other directors can so routinely refuse to give the audience what they want and keep his endings original almost every time? Imagine my surprise, then, when I popped The Purple Rose of Cairo and discovered a magical (and extremely underrated) gem. For a man who never seems to smile, Allen knows how good he has it, and what starts as his usual, depressing fare transforms into one of the all-time great love letters to cinema.

Appropriately for Allen, the film is set in the Great Depression. Cecilia (Mia Farrow) desperately clings to a job as a waitress and spends more time trying not to lose the gig than serve people. Her boss knows that in these times, he can fire anyone and have a replacement immediately, and he terrorizes his employees into complete servitude. Her home life is even worse: her abusive husband (Danny Aiello) lost his job and seems content to let Cecilia provide for him while he whiles away the time gambling, drinking and cavorting with friends. Often she speaks of leaving him, but even if she gets out of the house she never gets more than a few steps out the door before she returns.

So, like all those who hate their lot in life, Cecilia tries to escape it. She spends all her free time at the local cinema, where the same film plays for weeks. She enters a broken-down mess, but for an hour and a half she's on cloud nine. One film, The Purple Rose of Cairo, plays for weeks on end, and Cecilia watches it frequently. She sees it so many times that, during a scene in the film, dashing supporting character Tom Baxter suddenly looks towards the audience and speaks directly to her. Then, he steps out of the screen as if was always possible, and suddenly you know you're watching something special.

Tom (Jeff Daniels) tells Cecilia that he and the other characters must act out the same dull routines endlessly, but through constantly seeing her he fell in love, giving him the courage to break out of his celluloid prison. Tom acts just a like a movie character would: he's chivalric, intelligent, loving, and utterly clueless when it comes to the real world. A great deal of the film's comedy comes from this naïveté: Tom takes Cecilia to a high end restaurant, only to realize his stage money isn't real. So he and Cecilia make a run for it, only for him to leap in a car and be utterly bewildered when it doesn't start. "You need a key," Cecilia timidly whispers. "They always just go in the movies," Tom replies exasperated.

Meanwhile, the other characters on the screen must sit around and wait for Tom to return. Audiences heckle them for not getting on with the show, but Tom, supporting character that he may be, is instrumental to the plot. The patrons initially demand refunds, but some people filter in just to watch the spectacle of characters playing cards. Word gets back to Hollywood, and Gil Shepherd, the actor who portrayed Tom, travels to Jersey to ensure that his rogue character does not ruin his budding career.

Gil initially presents himself as your typical egomaniacal actor: he blames himself for his character escaping because he "played him so real." Then he too meets Cecilia and falls for her innocence and her love of film. It probably doesn't hurt that she's a big fan and thinks he could be the next big thing. So now she's involved in a love triangle (technically a quadrilateral, but the husband really only factors in when he tries to prevent her from leaving) with a man and his doppelganger. Jeff Daniels has to walk a fine line here, but he does a magnificent job of explore the comedic exaggerations of both his characters without letting them slip into two-dimensionality. In fact, the only downside of his performances is that they can overshadow Mia Farrow's work, which is stellar: she doesn't seem like the person who could pull off being a cinephile archetype, but watching her sit down in a theater crying about the way of the world, only to slowly break out into an ecstatic smile when the power of film hits her is a sight to behold.

Despite the whimsy and purity of the film, Allen does let his typical gloom slip in near the end, it only reminds us that the real romance of this rom-com is our relationship with movies. The majority of films about film take us behind the scenes, onto tumultuous sets and inside shady business dealings. But The Purple Rose of Cairo sits in the audience with us and reflects what true film lovers feel when the lights go down and the screen flickers to life. I have never seen a film that so proves the maxim that to see the greatest film, one need only stand at the front of the theater and look back at everyone's upturned faces.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Wire — Season 3

[WARNING- Contains spoilers for previous seasons.]

Oh, The Wire, how I've missed thee. When I last left the streets of Baltimore, everything was, as usual, in disarray. Frank Sobotka's dealings with the Greek drug smugglers in order to keep the stevedores afloat back-fired in their inevitable way: the cops cracked down on the corrupt union, the real villains escape from U.S. jurisdiction, politicians sealed the fate of the dock workers forever, and poor Frank himself turned up face-down in the bay. I didn't know where they could go with all the new characters now scattered to the wind, but I couldn't wait to find out Unfortunately, school work got in the way, and I can't watch this show unless I'm solely focused on it. Well, the semester is ending, so I returned to my beloved crime drama to see where the Barksdales, the cops, and the stevedores would go from here.

As it turns out, I only needed to worry about the dealers and the cops. The stevedores, ripped apart by the death of their leader, the crackdown on their union and the certainty of job loss that came with the permanent closing of the grain pier, do not return this season, giving the last one a stand-alone quality that now makes me question my feelings for it. After all, the scope and connection of the show is what drew me to it in the first place. Nevertheless, if you think the abandonment of the characters of the second season signals a step backwards, boy are you mistaken.

For his part in solving the various cases related to the dock corruption, McNulty escaped his personal hell of the marine unit and found a slot on Daniels' newly-formed Major Case Unit. Partnered back with Kima Greggs, Prez and Lestor Freamon, he renews his attempts to dismantle the Barksdale organization with vigor.

However, his efforts might be wasted. With leader Avon in prison and Stringer Bell looking to escape the drug trade in favor of legitimate business, the Barksdales are starting to suffer. Still reeling from the closure of the 221 tower that served as their main hub, the dealers attempt to locate new territory to push their wares without violating Stringer's sterns views against using violence. We've seen him apply his business school acumen to the drug trade before, but now he seems to have slipped into a delusion that treating drugs like a real business will somehow provide him bridge to legitimacy.

But nonviolence and drugs simply don't mix, and soon Stringer and the dealers must cope with an upstart organization run by a violent and ambitious man named Marlo Stanfield. When the Barksdale clan moves into his territory and tries to stake a claim, he wastes no time asserting his authority, thrashing Bodie and his crew and igniting a war that Stringer desperately struggles to contain. Things only get worse when Avon gets paroled and immediately demands retribution. Stringer's protests fall on deaf ears: Avon tells his friend that he's "just a gangster" and doesn't understand going legit. But that's not the end of Stringer's woes: the truth about D'Angelo's "suicide" begins to get out, and now Bell must do all he can to keep Avon and Dee's mother from learning that he ordered the hit.

As the war between the Stansfields and the Barksdales escalates, Major Howard "Bunny" Colvin, now nearing retirement, receives an ultimatum from the higher-ups to reduce the murder rate in Baltimore to impossibly low levels to aid the mayor's re-election campaign, and he comes up with a shocking idea: round up all the dealers and the junkies, place them in an abandoned part of town, and essentially let them deal and use, provided they stay off the streets elsewhere. He enlists a handful of officers and detectives -- among them Herc and Carver, beefing up their roles significantly -- to not so much maintain order as ensure the occupants keep their wares within the "city" limits.

For a time, Hamsterdam indeed cleans up the streets of Baltimore; at a town council meeting, one woman remarks that things have calmed down so much she had a nice chat with a police officer like people used to do back in the good ol' days. Apart from a handful of police, no one knows about Colvin's little experiment, but the commissioners and the politicians can't help but be suspicious when he starts reporting massive drops in violence rates. Soon, the area dubbed "Hamsterdam" becomes a hell on Earth and, as David Simon tells it, a metaphor for the war in Iraq. The cleanliness of the Western District's streets is juxtaposed with the terrifying anarchy of Hamsterdam. With gun crime initially low and both organizations turning major profits, Colvin gets lax and believes his plan might work. Then the makeshift city begins to eat itself, transforming into a flaming pit that looks like a constant riot zone. It sets up the inevitability of failure, but the fallout is much bigger than anything Colvin could have predicted.

If the second season gave us a taste of city politics, this new set of episodes throws us neck-deep into the slimy machinations of those who can spew outrage on a dime when it comes to the drug problem but secretly admit that drug money lines the city's pockets and the issue itself gives them something to rail against. We chiefly follow rising star Tommy Carcetti, an ambitious councilman seeking to supplant mayor Clarence Royce. Carcetti does little to endear himself to the audience: he's a manipulative, smarmy S.O.B., somehow connected in all the right places and willing to pull as many strings as he can at once. Thankfully, the writers don't paint him or the rest of the local politicians entirely as heartless, two-dimensional villains, and Carcetti seems genuinely troubled when he must face the truths of the drug war, even if he immediately compartmentalizes that shock and turns it into campaign fodder.

The second season of The Wire, though perhaps not as astounding in retrospect, turned the show from an outstanding if familiar crime drama (the first season bore more than a passing resemblance to Simon's old program Homicide: Life on the Streets) to something completely unique. But this third season assures its greatness by depicting the horrific truth of the War on Drugs, even if it stretches reality to do so. Even without the stevedores, the scope expands past anything I've seen before and so much ground is covered in these 12 episodes that a review 5 times as large as this could not hope to cover everything worth mentioning. I still have to watch where the final two seasons take me, but at this point I almost feel no qualms at all calling The Wire just about the best program I've ever seen.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Crank: High Voltage

Too good (read: absolutely terrible) for your f**king stars

Look, I like cerebral dramas and highbrow satire as much as the next hipster, but sometimes I want to see stuff get blown up. No, scratch that, I want to see it get blowed up. There’s no time for grammar when guns are involved. And nobody provides more bangs for my buck than Jason Statham. At no point in any Statham film will I learn a thing about myself or any issue affecting society. Never will I be preached at or condescending to. No, I know when I hand over my nine bucks that bodies will hit the floor very soon.

In the case of Crank: High Voltage, that happens sooner than normal. Actually, it opens with a body hitting the ground, and it’s Statham’s no less. He reprises the role of Chev Chelios, strangely named über-killer who tore a hole through L.A. gangs in the first installment and left just enough alive to justify a sequel. This film starts at the very end of the last one, with Chelios falling from a helicopter and dying on impact. Well, maybe not. Why did he not die? Because he’s Chev Chelios, and if you can’t accept that spend your money elsewhere. He wakes up to discover that Chinese surgeons cut out his heart and replaced it with a plastic one, and he escapes before they can harvest more organs and begins hunting down the gang members who took his ticker.

My word, did I just spend a whole paragraph talking about the plot? I must be going out of my mind. Crank 2 has no real plot and subsists on a diet of pure carnage. Chelios must do what he can to keep his fake heart charged, so every few minutes he zaps himself with a taser, sticks his finger in a socket, even rubs against people for friction. As he searches for his heart, he cuts a swath through the city that makes the last film look like an ABC Family production: if it has a pulse, Chelios will beat it, kill it, or screw it (in one bizarre scene near the beginning, one could argue, he does all three).

Tailing him at various points are old girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart), now a stripper; Ria (Bai Ling), a prostitute Chev saves at the start; and Venus (Efren Ramirez), twin brother of Chelios’ murdered friend Kaylo and sufferer of something called Full Body Tourette’s. He also corresponds with Doc Miles (Dwight Yoakum), who lacks serious medical knowledge but is by default the smartest character in the film when he asks Chelios “How are you even alive? Wait, never mind.” This band works their way through both Chinese triads and Mexican gangs eager for Chelios’ blood, leaving tattooed bodies and a media sensation in their wake.

As I watched Statham bomb around L.A. via Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s frenetic camera trickery, I couldn’t help but think of the movie as the American version of Run Lola Run, which is funny because I always thought that movie was a European commentary on the frantic and repetitious nature of American action franchises. It gives Crank 2 a sense of self-awareness that makes the film a piece of pure cinema, albeit one culled from the absolutely trashiest of trash. I almost wish I’d never seen the first, because I think all the flashbacks and callbacks would have been even funnier if I hadn’t.

My reaction to this film is nothing if not strange. I am repulsed by every second of it, from its shockingly racist caricatures (characters who speak perfectly understandable English are subtitled because they have accents) to its flagrant misogyny, and I've not even scratched the surface of what makes this without question the most offensive movie I've ever seen. But I couldn't tear my face away from the screen. This movie is all the questionable satiric elements of films such as Natural Born Killers, Fight Club -- their proximity to the things they're supposed to be sending up, alleged misogyny and fascism -- piled into one horrific mound of bleeding flesh. In that sense, I find this movie a fascinating social experiment into the current perception of the collegiate male demographic. No other film has been more a reflection of the audience who enjoys it, which makes my own sick interest in it all the more unsettling.

Yet by reveling in its un-P.C. nature, and employing its shocks because the writers simply thought they were funny and not just “edgy” (even when they absolutely, unequivocally are not), Crank 2 perversely works/doesn't work as a sub-comedic piece of nihilism where Observe and Report fell on its face. It’s a steroid injection into the buttocks of the tedious doldrums of spring cinema, a defiant middle finger to those who think a film should mean something or at least not be unabashedly terrible. Many action franchises get their own (usually shoddy) video games, so kids can feel like they’re a part of the action. I hope nobody makes a video game out of Crank: it would be redundant.

So what do I rate this? Are you kidding? This film eats stars. It deserves less than zero, yet I have a distubring fascination with it, like the infected soldier chained up in the yard in 28 Days Later. All you need to know is that this is a truer piece of B-movie revival since Grindhouse, meaning that it tries to be intentionally bad and succeeds where Grindhouse proved exhilarating and fun. Why the hell can't I turn away and run from this?

State of Play

State of Play comes with a plot so tailor-made for adoration from journalists that cynics everywhere will dismiss it as a cheap ploy to drum up praise. It’s a shame, because by all accounts it’s a solid thriller and a more-than-worthy entry into the tried and true newspaper genre. You know the one: intrepid reporters pursue the story no matter the personal danger, uncovering layers of corruption until justice is served.

Cal McAffrey sort of fits that bill. Played by a scruffy, pudgy Russell Crowe, he hardly fits the profile of the fresh-faced, idealistic journalist. No, he’s been around the block, and just about everyone with a lick of importance in D.C. is on a first-name basis. Those friendships give him an edge when an unknown assailant kills a drug addict and a witness, setting off the events of the film.

Soon after those killings, a senator’s aide falls (or is pushed…) off a subway platform in front of an oncoming train. The senator in question, Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), receives the news and breaks down in the middle of a subcommittee hearing and admits he was having an affair with the young woman. Collins was Cal’s college roommate, and his wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn) had a fling with the reporter. It’s a testament to the film’s structure and writing that everyone in the room didn’t tune out there and then.

As Cal investigates whether the staffer killed herself or was murdered, he attempts to protect his old friend as much as possible. Soon he plunges deep into what he believes is a corporate conspiracy perpetuated by PointCorp, an obvious Blackwater stand-in that’s the subject of Collins’ hearings. Aiding the gruff reporter is Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), the paper’s lead blogger. This of course immediately casts the film as an old guard/new wave examination more than a mere thriller, but thankfully the writers keep things varied: Frye is certainly naïve but she knows how to get facts quickly, while McAffrey teaches her not to blow a big story by rushing individual threads of clues to the internet to claim firsties.

But Cal lets the relationships that give him an edge get in the way, and soon he’s playing cop instead of reporter. He and Frye tie threads together, but soon the roles of muckraker and ethical reporter switch: Cal begins to break the law to get the truth (or at least the truth he wants), while Della protests in vain. And hovering over them always is their editor, Cameron Lynne, played with conviction by Helen Mirren. The only real road bump is the ending, which plays out in the predictable fashion of giving us a twist, then throwing in an even bigger one just because.

Thrillers tend to unfold by rote at this point, but State of Play threw me more than once. Some scenes reminded me strongly of the shadowy terror of All the President’s Men, the film about Woodward and Bernstein’s uncovering of the Watergate scandal: a late-game scene in which Cal runs through a parking garage attempting to hide from the killer behind the initial murders is genuinely pulse-pounding. And many of the reveals drew gasps and “oh’s” from the audience, which is always a good sign.

For a film that many people are calling potentially the last newspaper movie ever – it won’t be I can assure you – it mostly avoids proselytizing about the superiority of paper over blog. Well, there’s some cheap dismissal at the start, and a groanworthy moment at the end where Della tells Cal that their story is too important to be just thrown on the internet, but otherwise the film suggest a healthy co-habitation. I only wish they’d really stuck with that point at the end instead of suddenly making it all about the thriller.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Observe and Report

Jody Hill might have a long career as the anti-Apatow if he can just cut down on the insufferable drag in his movies. Indeed, as much as Apatow and his crew's films have that tell-tale lag in the middle, they have nothing on the moments of excruciating downtime in Hill's fun but overrated debut The Foot Fist Way. Observe and Report, one of the most deceptively marketed films in recent memory, makes FFW look downright taut in comparison.

As with The Foot Fist Way, Observe and Report follows a pudgy, sad outsider as he slowly gives into his disturbing psychosis. Also like the protagonist of his debut, Seth Rogen's Ronnie slaves away at a laughable job he badly performs. But that job is all he has and he treats it with absolute sincerity. Head of security at a local mall, Ronnie stalks the corridors and the stores, fancying himself a real officer of the law as he curses all those who irk him while remaining oblivious to the jeers of everyone. His ragtag band of guards aren't much saner than their leader, and some of them look forward to the day they can carry real firearms in the mall.

As Ronnie walks around, medicated on mood levellers to stave off complications from his bipolar disorder, only one person snaps him out of his disturbing reveries: Brandi (Anna Faris), the ditzy, slutty blonde who works the makeup counter. When a flasher exposes himself to the young woman, Ronnie sees his chance to be the hero and win the girl, and he vows to bring the pervert to justice. Then a detective (Ray Liotta) shows up and steals all of Ronnie's imagined thunder. Before long, the film many worried would be yet another Paul Blart morphs into a comedic Taxi Driver, or at least that's what it strives to be.

Brandi becomes a major source of contention among detractors, and for good reason: some truly vile things happen to her, and we're meant to laugh. First, Ronnie forces her into a date by refusing to let her leave the mall until she acquiesces. Then he gets her so drunk that she can't walk, and we cut to Ronnie having sex with an unconscious Brandi, complete with vomit on the pillow. But it's not date-rape, say the filmmakers, because Brandi snaps out of it long enough to ask a slightly concerned Ronnie "Why are you stopping?" I guess it's funny because she's a slut, but Ronnie still had sex with a woman clearly too intoxicated to give any real form of consent.

And that's not the only time Ronnie goes beyond the pale. When he stops taking his medication and, as a result, fails the psychological exam of his application to the police force, the mall guard slips into ultra-violence worthy of a Scorsese movie. He assaults one of the food court operators (Patton Oswalt) for insulting his friend Nell (Collette Wolfe), bound to a wheelchair after ankle surgery. Skateboard punks receive a beating that would make Tommy DeVito flinch. There's even a preposterous and completely unfunny showdown in third act.

Then there's the ending, one of the most graphic and hysterical scenes I've ever watched. I don't like to call things this early in the year, but I seriously doubt I'll see a funnier scene this year than the final chase. Indeed, the film is often quite funny, but at least half of the film is drag. Hill seems to believe that by making Ronnie a psychopath with an alcoholic mother (Celia Weston in a show-stealing role), he has crafted a dark comedy. Not so: he really just made a slapstick with political incorrectness. Sometimes it works, but often -- particularly the date-rape scene -- are just there for shock value and greatly take away from the funny bits.

Nevertheless, the film's got gall, I'll give it that. When it clicks, it's one of the more original comedies in recent memory, so audacious it almost begs you not to laugh. But more often than not it mistakes lulls for atmosphere and development and genuine offensiveness for boundary pushing and satire. So it's a bit of a failure, but a noble one. I still recommend it, if for no other reason than the final ten minutes.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

My 30 Favorite Mr. Show Sketches (15-1)

15. Phone Sex (Season 4, Episode 3)

Homoeroticism played a big role in Mr. Show, and when a man who wins some phone sex off a friend's lost bet casually calls the bud up so he can "deliver the goods," the show leaps into the stratosphere. Bob's effeminate sex voice is matched in hilarity only by David's flippant attitude towards it all, and the payoff is gold.

14. The Great Philouza (Season 3, Episode 7)

Combining the bombast of Amadeus with the silliness of marching band, "The Great Philouza" is the kind of sketch a band geek like me can latch onto with relish. David plays the Salieri part, an erudite, studied composer who finds himself upstaged by Bob's even-more-dumbed-down-Mozart Philouza. Unlike Mozart, who at least was a genius under his childish demeanor, Philouza is a gibbering moron who "composes" his tunes by blowing raspberries to a vague tune. David describes Philouza's music in overwrought, agonized prose, damning the God who blessed his rival with the power to move mountains while relegating his hard-learned talents to the shadows. It's Mr. Show's finest single-movie parody, and a better send-up of pretentious artiness than even the Inside The Actor's Studio spoof.

13. Hail Satan (Season 3, Episode 1)

Tom Kenny is by far my favorite of the supporting cast, which is saying something considering the show boasted comics like Paul F. Thompkins, Jack Black and Sarah Silverman. And this sketch is like a six-minute document of why I think the way I do. A merciless deconstruction of televangelism, The Hail Satan Network features incredible performances from Tom, Jill and Bob as the preaching trifecta and David as a child so lazy he must be wheeled around in a chair. When Tom sets off into a frenzy, promising to build David "a devil's house" with TVs for walls and a bathroom in the bed, the sketch's immortality is assured.

12. Wyckyd Sceptre (Season 4, Episode 2)

Where Titannica played up the controversy of metal, Wyckyd Sceptre dealt with the latent homosexuality that the genre hid in plain sight. Possibly based on Rob Halford's coming out around the same time, the skit really goes after 80s metal in general when a band celebrates their platinum-selling album by getting drunk and engaging in gay sex. A tape of the incident surfaces, but the band fails to see the problem: after all, they're just partying. Then the whole thing gets capped with a Spinal Tap-like rocker with thinly-veiled, homoerotic lyrics.

11. Lifeboat (Season 4, Episode 1) [Sketch starts 1:48]

The Jerry Springer Show was always its own parody, but that of course didn't stop all the spoofs. However, when Bob, as the Springer stand-in, decides to take his show on a cruise liner which subsequently sinks, all the Springer goodness is magnified tenfold thanks to a simple location change. Also in the lifeboat with Bob are the redneck who loves his woman but impregnated her mom, both the women, an audience member who has to do all of the hyping himself, and even a super secret black gay lover named Fabian. It also contains my favorite line: "Life is precious, and God and the Bible.

10. Pre-Taped Call-In Show (Season 3, Episode 10)

A special case of "so-simple-it-should-have-been-done-before," the Pre-Taped Call-In Show wound up one of the most inspired moments of the show's run. Watching David break down trying to explain to the people calling in to discuss their topics are actually calling in for last week's show during this week's taping is one of the most madcap things ever.

9. Mom and Pop Porno Shop (Season 2, Episode 2)

As someone looking to transfer into a journalism major, I know all too well the effects of the internet on many industries, but Mr. Show indirectly pointed the way to the future with this brief bit on a mom and pop adult store whose kindly owners run like a place where everybody knows your name. But they must contend with a disinterested son, the scourge of this new digital porn and a realtor who wants to buy their property. And then a God-like figure comes to teach the son a lesson about the beauty of porn. And if you don't laugh when Bob smacks David on the head with a dildo, well, sir, I pity you.

8. The Altered State of Druggachusettes (Season 3, Episode 3)

If you've ever seen tapes of old 70s children's TV or even lived through them, you'll know that they were only a stone's throw away from full on drug humor, and the guys simply decided to give it that one last push over the edge. A full-on acid trip, Druggachusettes is so ingenious I simply can't describe why it's one of the funniest moments in the history of television.

7. Lie Detector (Season 3, Episode 3)

In the DVD commentary, some cast members voice a disapproval with this sketch because it ends with a punchline and "that's not what Mr. Show was about." But I couldn't care less: yes, it may seem like an SNL sketch that was just too blue to make it to air, but it's also a killer old-fashioned sketch-comedy sketch.

6. Spank/Founding Fathers (Season 1, Episode 4)

Few forms of protest are as inane and nonthreatening as flag desecration, and Mr. Show use a mocking sketch of a protestor who defecates on the flag in order to trace the flag's history back to the Founding Fathers (Lincoln is there for no reason, complete with hilariously wrong accent). Their attempts to come-up with a shit-proof flag end up with a wonderful meta-solution: a flag made of poo ("Who would shit on shit?"). Apart from being anarchic and ballsy, it's also the first example of a great link on the show.

5. Recruiters (Season 2, Episode 5)

My all-time favorite documentary is Hoop Dreams, so imagine my delight when Mr. Show took the ruthless preying of basketball recruiters to its extreme. Bob and David play college recruiters targeting kindergartners and getting them while they're young. And as funny as it is when Bob tells a 4-year-old that his college offers a two-year cowboy degree to entice him, there's a knowing subtext that understands how inner city youth are played by these men. Then things pick right back up into pure hialrity when Bob tries to feel a pregnant woman's stomach to test the kick of the fetus.

4. Titannica (Season 3, Episode 10)

Of all the excellent band parodies on Mr. Show, this take on the early-90s paranoia over subliminal messages in heavy metal music remains the finest. Megastars Titannica visit a sick child at the hospital after he attempted suicide after hearing their song "Try Suicide." Then the blanket comes off and, oh, I just can't ruin it for you.

3. The Joke: The Musical (Season 1, Episode 2)

The episode starts with Bob as a Southern Dixiecrat senator telling an offensive joke, then an entire musical grows out of it. Featuring some sly Godspell references and a joke that plays like "The Aristocrats" with a different premise, "The Joke: The Musical" is the first sketch that proved Mr. Show had legs (even more than the excellent "Ronnie Dobbs"). It's dry while at the same time giving in to pure inanity, and the results are extraordinary.

2. Commercials of the Future (Season 1, Episode 2)

Mr. Show gave us plenty of absurd yet plausible ads in their time, but when Bob and David pitch a series of profane commercials to a futuristic mega-conglomerate called Globo-Chem (a recurring entity), the result is a transcendant moment of commentary on censorship that ends up a great excuse to give us the ads "they" really want to show us. And the highlight isn't even one of the commercials: it's the boardroom reactions that clinch it.

1. Monsters of Megaphone (Season 2, Episode 6)

This one sketch is the reason I can't even play at making a "best of" for Mr. Show. There is no way I can objectively argue that this is the greatest sketch in the program's all too brief run, but I simply love it too much to place it anywhere but the no. 1 spot. A dead-on spoof of the sort of pretentious documentaries that PBS runs all the time about old-time musicians forgotten by a world that moved on. Tom Kenny is downright perfect as the old music historian who tells us the tale of Dickie Crickets, the king of megaphone crooning or, as they referred to it back then, "megaphone crooning." Kenny sounds like every single old timer they wheel out for these kind of documentaries, and he alone would cement this as my favorite. Then there's the crooning: Bob and David pose as competing crooners, singing short ditties about the lastest inventions and ultimately fighting against their increasing irrelevancy with the "Monsters of Megaphone" tour, in which they inventing new items just so they could sing about them. Mr. Show excelled with their "historical fictions," and this is the king of them all. If you don't think this is funny, I don't know how I could be friends with you.

My 30 Favorite Mr. Show Sketches (30-16)

Saturday Night Live's stance as the United State's defining sketch comedy show is indisputable, but its long run and ever-shifting cast work against the program as much as they help. But when ex-Ben Stiller Show writers David Cross and Bob Odenkirk took the sketches that weren't allowed on network TV and got a show of their own for HBO, they crafted not only the finest sketch show of its time but possibly the funniest sketch comedy show since Monty Python.

Drawing clearly from that legendary British troupe's style of hyperliterate absurdity, Mr. Show could swing between biting satire, shocking political incorrectness and gleeful silliness in the course of a single sketch. It didn't always work, but their method of eschewing punchlines in favor of loosely strung together non-narratives ensured that you never went more than a sketch or two without laughing. Any list about greatness is of course subjective, but attempting to rank the finest sketches of this brilliant program is next to impossible (case in point: I originally was just going to name 15 sketches and ended up with a top 50 before I realized it was getting out of hand). So here's a painstakingly crafted list of some of my very favorite moments of one of the funniest shows of all time. The numbers are just for show (links added clips of the sketches)

30. Camp Monk Academy (Season 4, Episode 5) (Part 1) (Part 2)

Undoubtedly the greatest strength of Mr. Show was its ability to start a sketch in one direction and end up in some crazy new territory by its end. Things start funnily enough when a slacker heads to Tibet to check up on an old friend, only to find he's the Dalai Lama, but then things spiral until the Buddhist monks square off against the fat kids' camp (who are all white and American for no reason at all), culminating in a rap-off. Who else could mix a parody of Kundun and camp olympiad films like Meatballs and Heavyweights in one sitting? There's even a brief nod to Pretty in Pink at the end.

29. Thrilling Miracles (Season 2, Episode 1)

SNL tends to ride its cast's gift for mimicry and accents in order to inflate sagging quality (at this point they're just using the elections to guarantee four more years on the air), but one of my favorite aspects of Mr. Show was the fact that nobody could pull off a good imitation and, apart from some Southern accents, very few accents were pulled off with any skill. And that's proven in spades as Bob butchers a British accent as an increasingly disturbing infomercial pitch-man shilling "the Super-Pan." Things keep getting stranger and darker until it can't get any more intense, then it ends on a moment of glorious inanity.

28. East vs. West Coast Ventriloquism (Season 3, Episode 3) [sketch starts at 0:35]

The East Cost/West Coast rap feud caused irreparable damange to hip-hop; ignorant detractors continue to dismiss the genre as nothing more than glorification of violence and dangerous, and for a time they got all the evidence they need. But all Bob and David saw in the carnage was some serious schadenfreude, and thus begat this off-the-wall battle between vicious puppets and the bewildered humans who find themselves forced into the fracas. It's all worth it for the roundtable discussion featuring two bemused rappers.

27. The Audition (Season 4, Episode 3)

Anyone who's seen Arrested Development knows that David Cross knows how to make the best fake auditions. Here, he combines auditions with good old "Who's on first?" confusion to thoroughly flummox the casting directors. Can I use this chair?

26. The Fairsley Difference (Season 4, Episode 4)

Mr. Show's fake advertisments could rival SNL's in their convincing brilliance: Mayostard. Cock Ring Warehouse. Siamese Twins. All wonderful, and all quite reluctantly left off the list. But this ad war between an old-time family-run grocery and an undercutting, libelous nationwide chain hilariously captures the sad truth of the effects of chains like Wal-Mart and Kroger on small businesses.

25. The Story of Everest (Season 4, Episode 4)

The Pythonesque influence was stamped all over Mr. Show, but this bit of pure absurdity is one of the purest tributes to the British troupe. When a strapping young lad returns to his home after conquering Everest, he relates his exploits to his overjoyed parents. Then he slips. Then the déja vu creeps in. By the end of it they've crafted the best repeated gag since Sideshow Bob walked through a minefield of upturned rakes.

24. Josh Fenderman (Season 4, Episode 10)

Bob and David barely appear at all in this E! True Hollywood Story/Corey Feldman send-up, but that doesn't stop it from being one of the funniest parodies in the show's history. Fenderman got his start as a lovable kid in a commercial and found himself driven into 80s pop horror by a terrible stage mother. It's a brief but thorough satire of the entertainment industry's effect on its stars, but whenever things get too serious there's a clip of hilarious dancing to lighten the mood. I wish life was like that.

23. I'll Marry Your Stupid Ass (Season 4, Episode 7)

There's nothing more irritating yet hilarious than a drunken argument between two macho doofuses, and Bob and David take it to the extreme. In their best homoerotic-but-not-quite-gay sketch, the two get into a screaming argument in a bar and quickly forget their respective dates in the maelstrom of testerone. Unwillingly to back down and admit defeat, they end up marrying and living a life of tender hatred, death do them part.

22. Three Times One Minus One (Season 2, Episode 2)

A semi-recurring bit, Three Times One Minus One is the be-all, end-all skewering of contemporary R&B as well as a comment on the plagiarism and "softening" of black culture to sell to suburban white America. But you can go ahead and toss all that right out the window, because the greatest fake New Jack swing duo of all time earn their position for a much simpler reason: they prove that wigs and silly costumes are every bit as funny as subversive satire. Few things are as funny as watching David Cross' hairy chest as he sings nonsensical mouth music while Bob (looking about as iconic as any legitimate musician) stands stoically in the background.

21. Toenapper (Season 4, Episode 2)

Oh honestly, just watch this one. It needs no explanation.

20. Indomitable Spirit (Season 3, Episode 4)

Who remembers having to sit through all the "inspirational" guest speakers in school? All of you, of course, because we had to sit through them the entire time we were in school. Every addiction, disease, deformation and injury under the sun got trotted out like a politically correct freak show to tell kids that perseverance (with the usual mention to God) could overcome all. From the opening lines of the presenting teacher, you know that this sketch is going to savage one of the worst aspects of childhood. Indomitable Spirit itself is a band consisting of a guitarist and drummer with no arms, a flautist with only a head, and a woman. It's perfect as is, then a one-armed ex-drummer shows up and the whole thing heads to comedy heaven.

19. Men's Club of Allah/Taint (Season 4, Episode 6)

The brilliant linking of sketches of Mr. Show allowed for long-range satire and madcap nonsense, but these two barely tied-together skits display possibly the most inspired and unpredictable links in the entire run. Starting off as a spoof of Louis Farrakhan, incendiary rhetoric soon morphs into an angry sermon on the importance of rewinding rental tapes. Then the whole thing takes a left turn and becomes a parody of the Adam West Batman. AND THEN the show manages to barely link into something completely different: a spoof of the Larry Flynt biopic that glorifies the area between the scrotum and the anus. All of this in less than ten minutes.

18. Burgundy Loafe (Season 4, Episode 3)

A sketch on the class gap? Did I pop in a British show by mistake? David Cross did a bit in his stand-up about going to a restaurant so fancy and pretentious that they literally served an edible sheet of real gold with their dessert, but he was attacking the borderline obscene selfishness of the wealthy long before. The eponymous six-star restaurant of the sketch is so high society that they don't even lower themselves by including a restroom. Instead, servers place a box under a seat with a hole in the bottom while the customer deposits his "foundation" while he eats. Isn't it nice to see that Bob and David were never so far up their asses that they couldn't turn satire into toilet humor on a dime?

17. Coupon: The Movie (Season 2, Episode 6)

All the hipsters who made up Mr. Show's primary fanbase probably thought this sketch was a vision of the apocalypse. In this frightening world, product placement has become so ingrained into the movie business that, when a movie based entirely on a commercial product tanks, the studios take a case to the Supreme Court and force everyone in America to see the film. Not only does the movie display all the hilarity that the show's shoestring budget inadvertently created, but the sheer dryness of it all makes "Coupon" arguably one of the 5 best sketches of the show, even if I don't love it quite as much.

16. The Bob LaMonta Story (Season 3, Episode 2)

If you're anything like me, seeing the words "Based on a True Story" attached to a movie makes you wince. Bob and David know our pain, and that's why "The Bob LaMonta Story" is so damned good. Not only are the exaggerations of "true story" adaptations played up but the Oscar-baiting exploitation of the mentally challenged gets a nod too. And Bob Odenkirk and Jill Tailey's portrayals of LaMonta's retarded parents aren't half as offensive as, say, I Am Sam.

Monday, April 13, 2009

In the Mood For Love

True visual splendor is surprisingly rare in the new millennium. Oh, high-resolution digital cameras and video have progressed to the point that even home movies can look "better" than the real world, and computer effects open infinite possibilities. But the majority of films that stake a claim to eye-popping visuals tend to overload with the digital stuff at the expense of looking sterile and safe, even in ostensibly tense action and suspense sequences. No, I'm talking about good, old-fashioned beauty, the kind that auteurs have been assembling long before George Lucas' brain tank at ILM signaled a new age for Hollywood. Directors such as Orson Welles, David Lean and Alfred Hitchcock (to say nothing of the precise craftsmanship of the French New Wave filmmakers) produced some of the most resplendent films ever made. Wong Kar-Wai, in contrast to the most commercially successful efforts of his contemporaries Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou, very much looks to the old style of filmmaking for inspiration.

In the Mood For Love, Wong's 7th full-length picture, is one of the most meticulously crafted films I have ever seen, and a better argument for the importance of Hong Kong cinema than Lee's or even the early output of action legend John Woo. Its craftsmanship is even more impressive when you consider the director's improvisatory nature; indeed, he began with little more than actors Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, who slowly crafted their characters and a story, and somewhere along the way Wong set up a camera and documented the rest. But I invite everyone who watches this film to spot a moment of sloppy editing or plotless meandering.

Set in 1962 Hong Kong, In the Mood For Love charts the paths of a platonic romance between two neighbors. Leung plays Mr. Chow, a newspaper reporter, while Cheung is Su Li-zhien, an executive assistant. They both have the capital to live in far more comfortable conditions, but space is an issue in the rapidly overcrowding region (both Su and the friendly landlady, Mrs. Suen, are from Shanghai and speak that dialect as opposed to Cantonese, reflecting the influx of different cultures into the city). The two meet and gradually strike up a friendship, then they realize with horror that both of their spouses always seem to be missing at the same time.

The revelation of their spouses' infidelity brings the two closer. They meet more often, and not in romantic, glamorized locations. Very little time passes before both evidently fall in love, and Wong reflects this by turning all of the grotty urban sprawl that they traverse into something beautiful. It strikes me as Scorsese's New York, where such decay reflected the hopeless emotional turmoil of his leads. But Wong softens his city with bright colors and floral patterns; after all, even though our characters may be doomed, they're in love. But they do not allow themselves to consummate their relationship, saying it would make them no better than their spouses. Both agree to this out of...what? Social norms? Personal ethics? They clearly want the other to say "That's a load of rubbish. Why can't we be happy?" but they're both afraid to say it.

So the film becomes a paean to unrequited love, one in which the camera has to do all the work we expect the characters to do. That is to say, every pan, every tilt, every cut contains a sexual undertone. The two meet in claustrophobic locations, or the camera makes open spaces seem cramped, highlighting their proximity yet their perpetual uneasiness. Su's dresses become a sort of fetish, her bright floral outfits piercing the muted colors of the world around her and making her that much more attractive.

They even go a bit mental after the pressure builds a little too much. One scene in particular stands out: at the start of the scene, Su turns to Chow and bluntly asks "Do you have a mistress?" The conversation begins to play out until, at last, we discover that the two are engaged in a sort of game, role-playing their cheating significant others in order to get answers they're too cowardly and restrained to demand of the real person. Wong compared Tony Leung's character to Jimmy Stewart's in Vertigo and, while Chow isn't nearly as intense or deranged, they both harbor an inner turmoil belied by their charming outer appearance. For the two to play out these sick fantasies to both string along their own flawed sense of moral duty and find hollow comfort shows just how deranged their spouses' affairs have made them and how Chow and Su are preventing themselves from moving on.

The ending brings an inevitable conclusion, but a surprising one, given the American mindset when it comes to romance. Love in Wong's world hearkens back to the unrequited poets composing sonnets for the women who barely acknowledged their existence if they noticed at all; in this world, relationships are imagined and eroticism and sex are reserved for fantasies with the one you adore. With gentle camera movements and elegant mise-en-scène, Wong Kar-Wai captures these feelings (and a great many more) in ways that appear simultaneously stylized and real. The deleted scenes on the Criterion DVD set up a meeting between the two past the film's official end, a brief moment that doesn't add or detract anything but somewhat undercuts the reality of it all. Many times love simply doesn't pan out, and that's the beautiful tragedy of it all.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


I'm sure any real film expert who stumbles upon this blog will have a coronary just reading these reviews with the knowledge that I aspire to be a critic, but if not this will surely send them over the deep end: Michael Moore is America's answer to Sergei Eisenstein. Hear me out. Eisenstein, the great editing pioneer and surely one of the five most important directors in the history of cinema, made a career out of propaganda films. Battleship Potemkin, Strike and October took real life events, twisted them to Hell and back, and presented them in rapid series of montages so effective that could turn an ardent Republican into a card-carrying Communist.

Moore works the same way (albeit with far less technical proficiency, of course): he takes a serious issue in America, gets interviews and connecting segments, promptly cuts them up to make him seem like the sole voice of sanity in a harsh conservative America, then puts it all in a blender and serves up revolution in a cup. Yes, Bowling For Columbine is so full of shit it not only insults the gun-owners it paints as bloodlust-driven animals but the victims of all the gun crimes the film backs, but didn't it make you hate Charlton Heston for about three seconds until your brain switched back on? So when Moore set his sights on the complex world of health insurance, I steered clear; Moore specializes in taking a moderately complex system and oversimplifying it. But insurance? You can't boil that down to a simple message without being condescending, so why bother?

Once again, however, I underestimated Moore's gift for rhetoric. Moore paints the American medical system as one run almost entirely by greed and inhumane business practices designed to ensure that even the insured in America cannot receive treatment. He finds parents forced to move in with their children because medical bills bankrupted them, people who have lost spouses and children, even 9/11 volunteer firemen not covered by government aid because they were not officially on state payroll. The stories are horrifying and enraging, and when a local clinic shows surveillance footage of a cab dumping out patients at USC's hospital because they couldn't keep payments up it's every bit as inflammatory as the Odessa Steps sequence.

What helps things a great deal is that, after making his films more about himself than his political topics pretty much since The Big One, Moore finally gets back to his Roger & Me method of using himself as an interviewer and someone who wants answers instead of trying to paint himself as some Average Joe stand-in and a wannabe Dylan without the music. Speaking of the latter, when Joan Baez showed up in Moore's disastrous Slacker Uprising -- yes, the same Joan Baez who made Bob Dylan, collaborated with Bob Dylan and even dated Bob Dylan -- called Moore the closest thing we have to a Dylan, I thought I'd never feel happiness again. But here, for a time at least, he stays mostly behind the camera or only on screen to ask questions as he should be.

Besides Cuba, Moore travels to our neighbors to the North as well as across the pond to England and to France to examine what happens when the commies get their socialist healthcare. Unsurprisingly, Moore leaves out any downsides and presents these countries as utopias so glorious I kept an eye out for the milk and honey. He interviews college-age kids and senior citizens who gleefully play along with Moore's Socratic irony, telling him that they don't suffer long waits in emergency rooms, nor do they ever have to pay more than a few dollars for care, and that's only when they need a boatload of medicine that runs in the hundreds in America. But Moore ignores the outrageous tax levels of these countries and the long waits for any treatment outside the E.R. Nevertheless, there's something truly wonderful about all the foreign doctors who honestly look like they can't fathom doing their job for the money or checking someone's insurance status before helping them; one British M.D. even puts to rest any fears that a doctor in such a program couldn't still be a millionaire, just not as big a one as an American.

In the final third, sadly, Moore can no longer restrain his primal need for self-promotion, and he leaps in front of the camera with vigor, dragging his favorite interviewees to Guantanamo Bay (among them some of the 9/11 volunteers) to demand they receive the same care afforded to the detainees. It's a moment of lunacy, then the gang somehow make their way out of U.S.-occupied Cuba into the country proper and receive care that may or may not be the norm. I admit, these ending moments are some of the most touching, with these doctors -- our enemy, supposedly -- giving medicine and surgeries to these poor Americans, and when a local fire department honors the 9/11 volunteers as brother firemen, I defy you not to well up.

Then Moore ruins it with one final bit: the webmaster of Moorewatch, a web site dedicated to monitoring the omissions and lies in Moore's films, announced he was shutting down the site because his wife contracted cancer and he could not afford the medical bills and the site payments. Moore admirably stands by the man's First Amendment rights, and sends the man a check for 12 grand so he can keep running the site. Unfortunately, he tells us all this while pointing out that he left his name off the check so as not to influence the man's future posts. Spot the flaw there, if you can. It's a moment of of shamelessness to cap off what had been Moore's most moving and affecting film since Roger & Me.

Nevertheless, it remains his best in years, precisely because its moments of self-centeredness are at last the exception and not the norm. It helps not to think of this -- or any of Moore's oeuvre, for that matter -- as documentaries but rather opinion pieces, and whether or not the socialized methods of other countries are the answer for the Unites States, Sicko does a magnificent job of pointing out glaring flaws in our system that must be addressed even if the model as a whole does not completely change. Sure, Moore never provoke any real change, but at least this time he provokes some thought.

Friday, April 3, 2009


Is there anything in this world duller than a summer job? At least the tedium of full-time employment brings with it the ever-present fear of termination, but every snot-nosed teen and twenty-something knows that, barring any major slip-ups, he’s stuck stocking shelves or flipping burgers at a time we’re all used to hanging out and watching movies. That boredom informs Superbad director Greg Mottola’s semi-autobiographical tale of his summer job, and the result is a surprisingly tender and subtly hilarious film.

We meet James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg, looking like a more confident version of Michael Cera’s shy virgin), Mottola’s stand-in, freshly graduated from college and looking to attend Columbia University’s post-graduate school (after a summer tour through Europe, of course). But when his father loses his job, James must find himself a summer job to pay his way at Columbia. After hunting all over town for anything, James finally settles for Adventureland, a dingy amusement park run by a pair of mom-and-pop shysters (played by professional show-stealers Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) who rig all the games and sell rotten corndogs to maximize their minimal profits.

James sits dead-eyed behind the various game booths, doing his best to make sure no-one wins the grand prize, the aptly titled Giant Ass Panda. He quickly befriends fellow games attendee Joel (Martin Starr), a pipe-smoking existentialist who could probably turn this job into a great novel if it didn’t corrode him so much, and contends with childhood friend Frigo, who punches poor James in a sensitive area every chance he gets.

But something must break the boredom, and of course nothing alleviates ennui like a woman. While the rest of the young employees lust after the gorgeous Lisa P., James falls for Em (Kristen Stewart), a timid girl who seems as virginal as James even though she’s more “experienced” (thankfully the virgin aspect isn’t overplayed as it is in every other geek comedy). Stewart plays a variation of what The Onion A.V Club terms the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl:” that is, a female character who serves to bring the male protagonist to some sort of epiphany and/or stable relationship at the expense of any characteristics of her own. Of course, as the star of Twilight, Stewart is no stranger to portraying a blank slate for others to project their desires upon, but at least she gets to do something here. Oh, and Ryan Reynolds shows up as a married maintenance man who is constantly at the park because, oh, you’ll probably figure it out before they tell you.

It’s all a recipe for cliché, yet the level of acting from everyone right down to the bit players and a script that offers moments of serious truths without forcing them lift the film into the levels of the better youth movies of recent years, the missing link between Superbad and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Oh it boasts one hell of a soundtrack: set in the late 80s, Adventureland is stuffed to the gills with great cuts from college rock staples like Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, The Cure, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü and a deliberately and hilariously overused “Rock Me Amadeus.” The great selection serves as proof positive that a well-chosen set of tunes can make a good movie even better and helped me wash the taste of Watchmen’s rank mishmash of ill-fitting tunes out of my mouth..

Greg Mottola couldn’t get this movie off the ground until he put Superbad on his resumé, yet its delayed production actually worked in its favor. Consider James’ situation then think about the current economy: it’s not exactly hard to draw parallels. So, timing-wise, think of Adventureland as a sort of reverse Confessions of a Shopaholic. But regardless of when it came out, Adventureland is a smart, sweet, very funny comedy that’s worth more than one viewing.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Sid & Nancy

The fact that Sid Vicious became the primary figurehead of the punk movement makes terrible sense: who better to represent the "No Future" Blank Generation than the man who went out even before punk reached the end of its century (which lasted less than half a decade)? It's only fair that Sid is remembered as a vague icon rather than as a person; after all, he was added to a band that was all-image in the first place -- at the expense of Glen Matlock, the band's songwriter and singular source of actual talent, no less -- and strummed his bass in a manner that made the Ramones look like Emerson, Lake & Palmer in comparison.

But Sid owes his lasting infamy, more than the spiked hair or the Nazi fashion or anything else, to his relationship with Nancy Spungen. Separate they were immature junkies who couldn't possibly understand the path they were taking, but together? Oh dear, together the two formed one of the most toxic and mutually parasitic relationships ever committed to the hallowed slime of tabloid immortality. The two met, fell in love, and then fell harder into the heroin habit to end all heroin habits. Sid's perpetual state of No Feeling played no small part in the dissolution of the Sex Pistols, led to his inability to find steady work after the Pistols folded (though, in fairness, his utter lack of any appreciable talent helped, too), and resulted in a relationship full of physical abuse that culminated in Sid stabbing Nancy in a drug haze and later dying of an overdose.

The problem with tabloids is -- and I hope I'm not saying anything revelatory here -- that they practically congeal from a steaming pile of crap. They pander to what sells, and what sells is controversy, which in turn thrives in a world without context. When a rag stumbles upon the truth or delves deeper into its subjects you can rest assured you're simply witnessing the law of averages play out and not the start of anything approaching real journalism.

Director Alex Cox, unfortunately, apparently never learned this when he set out to make a film documenting the most torrid love affair in rock history. John Lydon, better known by his stagename Rotten, went out of his way to let everyone know that Cox did not consult him, any other Sex Pistol, nor anyone remotely connected to the real Sid. Heck, the closest he came was collaborating with ex-Clash frontman Joe Strummer on the soundtrack. And frankly, it shows.

My problem with the vast majority of biopics, both good and bad, is their over-reliance on the "highlights reel" as I call it; that is to say, even the quieter films essentially stick to the various stages of an artist's life that serve as either turning points or are simply interesting. It's even worse when video footage of such moments exists, because then the director will, nine times out of ten, simply reshoot the footage as closely to the original as possible with his actors to pay lip service to the people who'd get the myth.

Cox's film spends so much time doing this it's a wonder we get any insight into Sid and Nancy at all. There's the River Thames boat incident, the infamous Bill Grundy interview, that final Pistols concert in San Francisco not even a year after their first album hit shelves, Sid going through withdrawals in a cell at Riker's Island. It's all there, and it's all completely unexplained to anyone who might have just stumbled upon this film. Yes, 99% of the audience will at least have a cursory knowledge of the Pistols', but how many know real Pistols lore? Unless British schools are teaching punk history alongside maths and literature, a great many people won't get a great many references.

However, the film does have a saving grace, and his name is Gary Oldman. Because the script deals only with the public perception of Sid Vicious, Oldman plays up to the image we got of Sid, yet he adds enough of a human touch to make Sid into the tragic figure he always was. We see him as a fundamentally good manchild who simply couldn't cope witht he fame he tried desperately to attain. Likewise, Chloe Webb shines as Spungen, a much tougher role to pull off as she never had the cult of personality Sid continues to enjoy decades after his death. Indeed, she seems little more than a screeching harpy most of the time, but when Webb quiet delivers some of the film's most telling lines it's plain that the shrillness is a by-product of her highs. The two actors put in some downright award-worthy work here, and they help smooth over some o the weaknesses of the script.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of the rest of the actors. Andrew Schofield was nearly 30 when the film was made, but he looks closer to the modern, 50-year-old John Lydon rather than the brash bastard child of the 70s. Oldman was the same age as his co-star (and a good 6-7 years older than Vicious when he died), but look how right and youthful he looks for the role. Schofield's Rotten also possesses none of the wit and intelligence of the real thing, instead walking around the film with such a slack-jawed lack of understanding that the drug-induced catatonia of Vicious and Spungen seems energetic in comparison. Likewise, David Hayman's Malcolm McLaren is little more than parody. These two figures obviously appear more at the start of the film, in Sid's Pistols days, and it's a blessing when they drop out near the end of the film.

Ironically, that final act, in which Sid and Nancy sink into their own little world of depressing, spiraling inevitability, is when the film truly comes alive. As the two retreat from everybody except the odd dealer, Oldman and Webb grasp you by the head and force you to watch the horror unfold in dreadful anxiety. When they set their hotel room in Chelsea on fire and simply sit and watch it burn, too stoned to even register the danger as the flames surround them, you completely buy these two characters. And when Sid awakens from his heroin blackout to discover he stabbed and killed the love of his life, the crushed look on Oldman's catatonic face is genuinely heartbreaking.

These final moments -- including an ending hallucination where Sid reunites with a virginal and clean Nancy -- redeem the near atrocity that is the first 2/3, but of course they don't elevate the film into classic status. Sid & Nancy does offer a harrowing look at the effects of drug usage, the hopelessness of two people barely in their 20s headed towards a grisly death. But I still can't help but feel somewhat disappointed by the film, including the good parts: this could have been a wonderful opportunity to peel back the mythos and examine the person under the image, rather than shuffling all that into the last 35 minutes. I can't really fault a film for not catering to my wants, but I would have liked to see a film about Simon John Ritchie. But Cox gave us a film about Sid Vicious, instead.