Friday, August 26, 2011

Quick Takes: Californication Seasons 1-4

A morning of awkwardness is far better than a night of loneliness....

I'm thrilled to see that David Duchovny is no longer typecast as Fox Mulder. It was such an iconic role, I couldn't shake that persona from him when I saw him in features after The X-Files went off the air. Now, Duchovny is a refreshing joy as Hank Moody in Showtime's filthy, hilarious and heartbreaking dramedy, Californication (2007-present). I had the pleasure of watching the show's first four seasons on Netflix and Showtime On Demand in the past month. It's messy and terrific, and I'm sorry it took me this long to catch up with it.

Hank Moody is a man child, but an effortlessly charming one at that. He was born to play this part, and frankly, I think he has a lot more fun with it than he did with Mulder. He'll sleep with any woman that crosses paths with him; his lawyer, his students, his fans, his ex's illegal-age stepdaughter. Actually, to Hank's defense, he didn't know Mia was of illegal age nor did he know she was the daughter of the man his ex-girlfriend was engaged to. That's the problem with Hank. He gets himself into sticky situations that defy explanation and reason. How is he going to get out of this one?, we're constantly wondering.

His childish antics would have grown tiresome by the end of the first season if he didn't have such a strong support group around him. His family grounds him, and he knows that. Deep down, he knows he is a lucky bastard that his beautiful on-again off-again soulmate Karen continues to be on speaking terms with him. She gets him. She can't stand him, but she gets him. The stunning Natascha McElhone is remarkable as Karen, an otherwise smart and sensible woman who cannot seem to let go of Hank Moody. We're pissed off along with her at his indiscretions, but we completely understand her attraction to Hank.

If I can make you laugh like that, then why can't we be together? That's what I don't understand.

One thing that makes Hank a completely relatable character is his love and devotion to his daughter Becca, whose unstable home makes her life a heightened emotional roller coaster. Madeleine Martin plays Becca with a very disaffected voice, which can be a challenge to listen to. I can't tell if this is how the actress speaks, but she has a very grating presence and is arguably the show's weakest link. But I really like her character and how she interacts with her wandering, indecisive parents. The writers have done a wonderful job making Becca's teenage woes integral to Hank's daily struggle to make things right.

Then of course we have the Runkles, as hilariously played by Evan Handler (Charlie) and Pamela Adlon (Marcy). These two are Hank and Karen's best friends and are equally dysfunctional and star-crossed. They provide most of the show's raunchy humor, which perfectly counterbalances with Hank's more serious legal and domestic woes. Charlie and Marcy, if nothing else, are loyal to their best friends and, as I stated earlier, the group's bond anchors Californication, preventing it from becoming overtly crude or slapsticky.

Some of my favorite moments in the show's first four seasons:

*When Charlie gets caught masturbating in his office, he exclaims: "It was just the one time!" Then we see videos of him pleasuring himself in every possible position/location in the room. Evan Handler's sexual expressions are priceless. "I'm ankling! Runkle is ankling!"

*Rick Springfield starts out as the butt of a few jokes and actually turns into an intriguing character. That Marcy ends up screwing Springfield is only icing on the cake.

*After suiting up for his trial, Hank looks into the mirror and says, "I look like a f**king FBI agent." How can you not find that ridiculously cute?

*I know Charlie's porn industry arc in season 2 was just an excuse for titillation but man, did they have some classic zingers here. My favorite: Hank meets the legendary director of Vaginatown. "I'm a big fan. What's next for you? A Cockwork Orange, or perhaps Twenty-Sixty-Nine: A Sit-On-My-Face Odyssey?"

*Fisher Stevens shows up as a money man who wants to produce Hank's new movie. In this instant classic episode, not only does Stevens accidentally kill himself via autoerotic asphyxiation, but Charlie inadvertently murders the man's monkey. Californication is a rare show; it can be ridiculously silly one minute and heartbreaking the next.

*Callum Keith Rennie is fantastic in a season long arc as Lew Ashby, Hank's muse for his new novel. The two guys become close friends and their relationship ends suddenly in a surprisingly bittersweet manner. Nicely handled.

*Other notable guest stars: Kathleen Turner's filthy-mouthed agent Sue Collini with the hots for Charlie, Rob Lowe hamming it up as actor Eddie Nero, playing Hank's alter ego in a movie, and Stephen Tobolowsky is terrific as a lovesick producer who has fallen for Marcy. The quality of the parade of guest stars and supporting actors on this show is a sweet bonus.

Of course, all of this is not to detract attention from Duchovny himself. He's really quite perfect here as Hank Moody, a man with many conflicting morals and ideals. He's a man who refuses to grow up. He's like a puppy dog, making you believe that eventually, if he doesn't stop f**king around with his owner (Karen), maybe, just maybe, he'll behave himself.

You want to believe in Hank Moody like Fox Mulder believes in the little green men.

I look forward to season 5 in January.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Quick Takes: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, Cowboys & Aliens, Rise of the Planet of the Apes

A rarity has occurred. I saw three films in the past month... in a theater! It's the most I've gone to the movies in such a short period of time since my kids were born. I was pleased with the results. I mean, hey, in the summer season, two out of three ain't bad, kid.

The end is finally here. After 10 years of entertaining us on the big screen, the Hogwarts crew says goodbye. In this deliriously satisfying finale, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two (2011), we watch Harry, Hermione, Ron and their loyal band of muggles and wizards defeat the evil Voldemort. After years of teasing and tormenting our heroes, Ralph Fiennes is front and center here, bringing his usual intensity and despair to good use. Fiennes played many fantastic villains in his career (Harry in In Bruges is a personal favorite), and his Voldemort is a creepy, angry monster. Fiennes does masterful work making him frighteningly real. Alan Rickman also does great work here as the enigmatic Severus Snape, whose deliciously tragic backstory is fleshed out in this final chapter.

I never read the novels but I've been a fan of the movies from the start. While the Chris Columbus films were mildly entertaining at best, the series did not take off until The Prisoner of Azkaban, as helmed by Alfonso Cuaron. From that point on, the Harry Potter film franchise became must-see appointment movie going. Rowling should be proud of how Hollywood handled her work. There is a level of skill and craftsmanship to these movies. The filmmakers took painstaking efforts to preserve the integrity of her material. And to that end, this finale does not disappoint. Well done, Potter. Well done. 4.5/5

When you see a movie called Cowboys & Aliens (2011), it sounds like it should be fun, right? Cowboys! Aliens! Spurs and spaceships! The old west meets extraterrestrials! So riddle me this: why was this movie lifeless? Where was the fun? The spark? The excitement?

As much as I love Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, they both looked like they'd rather be elsewhere. Perhaps they were miscast. Who needs two gruff, humorless cowboys in a summer blockbuster? Put Pitt and Clooney in these roles, and the tone would have changed dramatically for the better. And Jon Favreau is perfectly capable of making a fun action film; the first Iron Man was quick and slick, one of the finest popcorn blockbusters in recent years. But these three talented professionals could not breathe life into this bland, joyless adventure about a band of cowboys and Indians who team up to fight off aliens in search for precious gold. I didn't care what happened to any of the characters and the effects were average, at best. Come to think of it, Cowboys & Aliens is the type of movie I'd find on the Sci-Fi Network at 3 in the morning. That doesn't bode well for the studio who spent $163 million on the budget. 2/5

Leave it to unknown director Rupert Wyatt to deliver us a thrilling popcorn adventure at half the budget of Cowboys & Aliens. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) is the most fun I have had in a theater all year. You don't have to be a fan of the Planet of the Apes franchise (I'm not) to appreciate what they've done here. A strong origin story is the blueprint of this compelling drama; we follow the birth and growth of Caesar, an ape with superior and uncanny intelligence. His scenes with James Franco and John Lithgow are funny and touching; we've grown attached to Caesar, making the climax of the film deeply involving and breathtaking.

Of course, the effects are seamless and subdued; they are there to serve the story and not the other way around. Franco and Lithgow are fine, but the humans are secondary to the film. The apes are the main attraction and Caesar, as portrayed by Andy Serkis, is the star. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a remarkable achievement on all levels, and it's especially nice when a film like this comes out left field and surprises you. Good to know Hollywood still manages to get things right. 4.5/5

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Best of the Year: 1995

My Picks of the Year
(in alphabetical order)
The American President
All hail Aaron Sorkin! For many years on Wednesday nights, he gave us The West Wing, easily one of the best shows on television. But before that, there was his inspiration for the show, the smart, saavy, imminently quotable romantic political comedy, The American President. Michael Douglas is brilliant as ever, but it is his supporting cast that shines so brightly (Michael J. Fox, Annette Bening, David Paymer, and President Bartlett himself, Martin Sheen) and Sorkin's own script that is written with sheer perfection. As with 1993's Dave, love and politics certainly do make for a fine confection.

I take pity on anyone who dismisses this film as a "talking pig movie." That irks me because Star Wars has talking droids and Toy Story has talking toys; all films were universally embraced. So what's the problem with a talking pig and his animal friends? Babe has the biggest heart of any film I've seen in the 90's, a movie so smile-inducing, your cheeks sore from stretching so much. And James Cromwell, working so well with animals, sports the greatest last line in movie history: "That'll do, Pig. That'll do."

The Bridges of Madison County
At last, a serious, dramatic, deeply heartfelt love story. Clint Eastwood took a trashy, soap operatic novel and transformed it into something genuine, so wrenching, that every hopeless romantic could so easily relate to it. Richard LaGravenese, quite possibly my favorite screenwriter in the business, has leisurely laid out all of the bare essentials and Eastwood films the story with a mellow, building crescendo of shattering heartbreak. As the male lead, Clint fares surprisingly well, capturing not only Meryl Streep's heart, but ours too.

Amy Heckerling's very humorous take on Emma is a sweetly innocent love story and, yes, it is also a bright social commentary. Dan Hedaya never ceases to make me laugh, and Wallace Shawn, Breckin Meyer, and Brittany Murphy bring heart to the film. Alicia Silverstone hasn't gone many places in her career, but this one, she can proudly call hers.

Die Hard with a Vengeance
While less emotionally forceful than its predecessors, this second sequel takes itself very lightly and has a ball with its really inspired premise. "Simon" tortures John McClane (Bruce Willis as perfectly gruff as ever) by playing explosive games with him throughout the city to: A) claim vengeance on his brother's death and, B) to keep the cops busy so he can capture all the "gold in your Fort Knox." This episode has great fun with its dialogue ("Now that you mention it, I am kinda feeling a burning sensation between my toes") and has tons of eye- and ear-pleasing action. Even with its cop-out ending, Die Hard with a Vengeance is a fun ride that holds up well with repeated viewings.

Dolores Claiborne
This piercingly intelligent drama is one of the very best Stephen King movie adaptations to ever grace the screen. Kathy Bates delivers one of her finest-ever, a tour-de-force performance, as a maid charged for the murder of her elderly employer. David Strathairn, an actor I never tire of seeing, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, an actress I could honestly do without sometimes, both create nuanced, deeply-felt characters. The flashback scenes resonate with such powerful intensity. Superb.

Get Shorty
It was Dennis “Fuck you, Fuckball” Farina who stole all of his scenes in Barry Sonnenfeld's uproarious Hollywood/Mob satire that has the gamest, coolest cast of the year. There’s John Travolta (so good at the peak of his career), Rene Russo (delicious as she's always been), Gene Hackman (so deft at playing losers), Danny DeVito and the brilliant pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini as Bear. The film whistles along mightily, the jokes fly as fast as the bullets and the experience of witnessing Get Shorty makes you realize why you love Hollywood so much.

Pruitt Taylor Vince is one of independent cinema's most compelling character actors (I believe him to be our generation's M. Emmett Walsh). He more than ably carries Heavy, a fine study of an overweight chef who falls in love with a wandering waitress (played so sweetly by Liv Tyler). A quiet masterpiece from writer/director James Mangold, also featuring Shelley Winters and Deborah Harry.

Mr. Holland's Opus
When I first saw this movie, I was moved to tears. This is an epic story of a music teacher who, with a deaf child, struggled to make a statement that music should be loved and studied by all students of the world. Richard Dreyfuss created a masterful performance, deserving of a gold statue. A must see by all counts.

I know I'm in the minority on this, but I adored Sabrina. Although she can't compare to Audrey Hepburn, Julia Ormond is sublime as the title character. Sydney Pollack (re)created a wonderfully old-fashioned love story with Sabrina as the center of all attention. Harrison Ford, as relaxed and comically adept as I've seen him since Working Girl, and Greg Kinnear, in his breakout role, are brothers who love her for different reasons. Throw in a delightfully droll Nancy Marchand as their mother, and you have a mellow, fanciful, sunny romantic comedy.

Something to Talk About
Most people don't agree, but I think this film is something to talk about. This is one of those rare low-key, quiet Julia Roberts films, one where the pacing allows the actors to develop true characters and not false caricatures. Lasse Hallstrom memorably directs Dennis Quaid, Robert Duvall, Kyra Sedgwick (stealing the film with some great lines), and the always lovely Gena Rowlands.

The Stars Fell on Henrietta
Robert Duvall had impeccable taste this year. Clint Eastwood produced this sweet character-driven film about an old coot (Duvall) who believes a farm run by Aidan Quinn and Frances Fischer is atop of a massive oil rig. Brian Dennehy and Billy Bob Thornton round out this feel-very-good period piece. Good luck finding it, though -- it's not even available on Netflix. The horror!
Toy Story
The most groundbreaking film of the year!! What an inventive thrill; not only are the effects seamless and eye opening, but the script is pitch-perfect. They couldn't have done it without Tim Allen and Tom Hanks deliciously creating Buzz and Woody, and that wonderful collection of supporting toys opens up many doors into the memories of everyone's childhood.

12 Monkeys
Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt are having a good year (with Die Hard 3 and Seven, respectively), but this is their best work in years. It's a wicked cool trip, so frenetic and paranoid in its execution, so rushed and feverish in its design. Terry Gilliam's fantastic futuristic vision is only the backdrop, but I am always a sucker for time travel fantasies; David Webb Peoples' script is so twisted, one cannot help but embrace this dizzying spectacle of madness and uncertainty.
The Usual Suspects
"The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was proving the world he didn't exist." Christopher McQuarrie and Bryan Singer created a masterful puzzle in The Usual Suspects, an intricate, clever mystery that features a strong ensemble performance (stand outs are Chazz Palminteri, Gabriel Byrne and, of course, the inimitable Kevin Spacey). Whether or not you suspected it was Spacey who did it, it doesn't matter; it was how he got away with it that made it fun. The musical score is catchy, and what a cool name: Keyser Soze!

Honorable Mention
Before Sunrise; Braveheart; Casino; Leaving Las Vegas; Living in Oblivion; My Family (Mi Familia); The Perez Family; Smoke; To Die For; Waterworld

Friday, August 12, 2011

Quick Takes: Source Code, Insidious, Barney's Version

When I was watching Source Code (2011), I was reminded of Inception. Both films dealt with trippy realities and a hero trying to change things within alternate worlds. I enjoyed Inception; it was marvelously complex and gorgeously filmed. But I'm going to come right out and say it: I thought Source Code was even better.

Source Code may not have had half the budget of last year's Best Picture contender but I think it has a bigger heart. The foundation of the film is rooted in sci-fi: the government has created a program that allows a trained professional to travel back to an event in the near past in an effort to alter the future. It's a bit murky (come to think of it, everything that has to do with time travel, or "time remembrance" as they call it here, is always murky), but Source Code wisely avoids too much exposition. At a brisk 90 minutes, the film moves along furiously as our war hero tries to prevent a potentially catastrophic disaster 8 minutes at a time. What makes this really work is the tone of the film -- it's light-footed, humorous and good-hearted. There is very little cynicism here. The Adjustment Bureau (another sci-fi adventure with a very humanistic approach - more fi than sci) struck me with the same positive vibe, though Source Code goes further by packing an amazing visceral punch. Instead of spending too much time trying to figure out the implications of our hero's actions, I was completely wrapped up in the story.

As usual, Jake Gyllenhaal is effortlessly charming and uses his comic timing to great effect. Michelle Monaghan is as good as she can be in a throwaway role but I really dug Vera Farmiga as the communications officer who struggles with the morally questionable task of sending Colton back to die over and over again. Farmiga says so much with her facial expressions that she doesn't need much dialogue to convey the complexity of the situation.

Director Duncan Jones also made Moon, another high-minded thriller about a man unsure of his surroundings. Source Code is no sophomore slump; it's a near-masterpiece of its genre, proving Jones to be the real thing. This is one of the year's best. 4.5/5

Now, comparing Source Code to Inception did not diminish my feelings towards either film. They both worked for me. However, watching James Wan's Insidious (2011), I couldn't help but compare it to many other horror films that preceded it, most especially the great classic Poltergeist. Unfortunately, this seriously hindered my enjoyment of Insidious. I gotta slap on a *spoiler alert* here for those who didn't see it - I can't air my frustration for the film without revealing pivotal plot points.

It's one thing to be watching a remake of Poltergeist, but it's another thing entirely when you're watching a movie that doesn't acknowledge the previous film and blatantly rips it off beat by beat. It's not so obvious in the beginning, which builds up as a story of a family being terrorized by demons in the house. During the opening act, Insidious was pretty run of the mill, ripping off almost every other haunted house cliche in the playbook, most notably Paranormal Activity. But when the spiritual advisers showed up to test the "energy" of the house, I began to arouse suspicion. After the forces seemed alarmingly present, the advisers then called in their all-knowing boss lady, Tang-- er, I mean Elise. Elise then "listens" to the voices of the haunted and begins to spill the beans. In a nutshell, the demons want the kid so they can cross over to a different spiritual plane. Now wait a minute. That sounds awfully familiar, eh? Of course, it doesn't end there. How do they end up getting the kid back, you ask? Why, they send one of his parents through the dark side! Oh, that just ticked me off. Why not have Dalton covered in slime when he wakes up?

End spoiler alert. Insidious looks good and James Wan knows how to set up a scare or two. But unfortunately, the story is stale. I was bored, quite frankly, because it had nothing new to offer. And when you rip off Poltergeist without even acknowledging it, well, that just adds insult to injury. 1.5/5

Thankfully, Barney's Version (2010) did not remind me of any other film while I was watching it. It's a sweeping drama about a man who is shaped by his three wives. Paul Giamatti won an Golden Globe for his searing performance and should have gotten at least an Oscar nod. But I digress -- Giamatti is such a good actor that I'm more than certain he'll eventually get his due.

Giamatti is Barney Panofsky, an arrogant little bastard who goes through two miserable marriages (first with Rachelle Lafevre, then with Minnie Driver) before building a life with a third woman (a saintly Rosamund Pike, as Miriam) who easily deserves much better. What does Miriam see in him anyway? Endearing determination, perhaps? We see what great lengths Barney is willing to go through in order to make their marriage work. In the immortal words of Nicholson: she makes him want to be a better man.

This is a terrific movie. Barney's Version is well-cast (in addition to the wives, we have Dustin Hoffman warmly portraying his cop father and Scott Speedman as his manic best buddy) and deeply engaging. While most of the characters are one- or two-dimensional at best, Barney is a fully fleshed-out character. He's a sad sack, really. Not a loser or a schlub, but a successful businessman who acts irrationally when it comes to love. In hindsight, Barney Panofsky led a charmed life, but he could have had it so much better. 4/5

Friday, August 5, 2011

Quick Takes: HappyThankYouMorePlease, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, The Company Men, Going the Distance

Well, what do ya know? Ted Mosby is an aspiring filmmaker and, surprisingly enough, he ain't half bad! Josh Radnor of How I Met Your Mother wrote, directed and stars in HappyThankYouMorePlease (2010), a charming collection of love stories among a group of thirty-something New Yorkers. Radnor does not break new ground here but he writes wonderfully and has assembled a very strong cast of young actors, including Malin Akerman (she gets better every time I see her), Pablo Schreiber (who I'll never forget as Nicky Sobotka on season two of The Wire), Zoe Kazan and the always delightful Kate Mara. We knew Jason Segal, Neil Patrick Harris and Alyson Hannigan had talent, so it's nice to see Radnor successfully attempting to break out of the sitcom mold (Cobie Smulders, you're up!). Radnor's next film, Liberal Arts (featuring Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney and hot commodity Elizabeth Olsen) looks impressive. Watch out Zach Braff and Ed Burns; Radnor just invaded your territory. 3.5/5

I never cared much for Joan Rivers, but I gotta give the woman credit. Her career had more ups and downs than anyone in the stand up industry. Her resolve is rather astounding; she simply does not know how to quit. In the engaging doc, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010), we watch Rivers get a fresh start over and over again. She encountered so many obstacles in her career path but yet she always manages to find gigs and continue to perform. She will do absolutely anything for work and it's refreshing to see such a strong work ethic, especially in an industry where fame is handed over to you like a baton in a relay race. I love a good raunchy joke, but her standup doesn't do it for me. However, Joan's got moxie and, thanks to this doc, she's got my respect. 3/5

The Company Men (2010) is not a bad film but it should have been much better. The pedigree attached to it is remarkable; uber TV producer John Wells wrote and directed an astounding cast featuring Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones, Rosemarie DeWitt and Kevin Costner. It's a timely drama about how losing your job amid an unstable economy affects your family, yourself, and those around you. The Company Men is engaging and superbly acted, but it falls far short of greatness. I can't quite put my finger on why it doesn't fully reach its potential, but once those credits rolled I didn't care to give it another thought. For a better movie in the same vein, try Up in the Air. 3/5

I will admit it. I have a soft spot for Drew Barrymore. She may not have a great track record, but if she's in a movie, I'm going to see it. I just find her adorable, no matter what she does. In Going the Distance (2010), Barrymore is smart, silly, even a little raunchy ("Don't stare up at me, just lick!"). I can't seem to resist her. However, the film itself has its share of problems. It's mired in formula; everything that happens here is a rom-com cliche. The chemistry of the two leads and the talented supporting cast aren't quite charming enough to make it stand out from this overcrowded genre. Having said that, being the Drew loyalist that I am, I must place the lion's share of the blame on the film's bland leading man. Sorry, Justin Long. It's not her, it's you. 2.5/5


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