the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Location: Washington D.C.

Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Matador

I write film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

I really wanted to like The Matador. And I guess I did...technically. I was hoping for something that it wasn’t--a sort of Leon: The Professional meets Gross Point Blank. It was more, well, it was its own original. And that’s admirable, come to think of it. If I should level criticism anywhere, perhaps it should be at my expectations. Because while it wasn’t a great film and for one reason or another didn’t fully “work” for me, The Matador was still a hip and hilarious dark comedy.

If you’re planning to watch The Matador with the expectation of seeing Pierce Brosnan in all of his Bondian glory, think again. This is Brosnan exorcizing his Bond demons--and doing it in such a way that he gives one of the best performances of his career.

Brosnan play Julian Noble, a crude and crass freelance assassin who happens to bump into mild-mannered business man Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) in a Mexican cantina late one night. Both men are at a crossroad in their lives and careers and while they are the last people anyone would expect to form a friendship (most of all, themselves), it’s amazing what a few margaritas and some honesty can lead to. Down on his luck Danny is intrigued by Julian’s profession and lonely Julian yearns for the stability and love provided by a marriage like Danny and his wife, Bean’s.

They part ways in Mexico, never expecting to see one another again. But several months later, on a snowy evening in Denver, Julian shows up on Danny’s doorstep, on the verge of a nervous breakdown and needing a place to stay. He botched a job, is now being hunted himself, and Danny is the only person who can help set it right.

The Matador is a low-key buddy comedy that functions in writer-director Richard Shepard's offbeat script as a uneven character study. Uneven or not, it allows Kinnear and Brosnan some incredibly funny moments and led to Brosnan being nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance as a tormented yet likable killer.

To read the full review, click here.

Superman vs. al-Qaida

“Is Superman relevant? Look around. Aren’t we crying out for him?” --Bryan Singer, Director of Superman Returns

Today, the $365 million dollar (get your mind around that obscene number!) Superman Returns flies into movie theaters. It already has generally stellar critical buzz and is the latest in a long laundry list of superhero movies that Hollywood has been gleefully churning out of its dream machine in recent years.

While stories with larger-than-life heroes and villains, the opportunity for masturbatory special effects, and a built-in teen-age boy fan base may try to explain Hollywood's fascination with the superhero genre, it is, I think, more complicated and mature than that simplistic break-down makes it appear.

Just why are there so many superhero movies out there? Why are so many more planned? What makes this kid’s genre--from all appearances--so important to all of us?

But first, what exactly is a superhero?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the creation of “super” heroes is nothing new. Those elements that make up the stew of modern supernatural heroes are gleaned from the rich tradition of hero myths that date back to the beginning of civilization. In fact, the actions and exploits of many of these heroes could be classified as "super." It’s a familiar, archetypical story: a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil and when the normal institutions prove unable to contend with the threat, a selfless hero emerges, and at tremendous personal sacrifice and with a healthy dose of destiny, wins a decisive victory that restores the community to its original, blissful condition before receding into obscurity.

Sound familiar?

Though there are hundreds of caped crusaders darting in and out of comic books and movie screens, remarkably, most all superheroes possess similar qualities. In general, they possess extraordinary abilities, usually in the form of special powers, though sometimes merely the mastery of relevant skills or weaponry that make them appear supernatural. They possess a strong moral code, a deep motivation for responsibility or justice and a willingness to risk their own lives for the safety of others. This is usually done without expectation of reward. Indeed, most superheroes’ identities are closely guarded secrets. Though most superheroes are considerably patriotic, they are ultimately above the law and will, whenever necessary, lay the needs of the state aside if it conflicts with the greater mission of enforcing justice. They are noted for their feats of courage and nobility.

The superhero was born in 1938--at least our understanding of the superhero. With the publication of Action Comics #1, Superman was introduced to the world and from his moniker, all future superheroes were so named. Superman arrived on the scene at a time of tremendous tumult in America. The country was still reeling from the horrors of World War One. Scientific and psychological breakthroughs were commonplace. Everything from the car to the camera to the motion picture were being invented right and left. The United States suddenly found itself as a central economic and military power.

It was an era of great change. It was an era of great unease. It was an era of great promise.

The dawn of the 20th century was a time ripe for "super" heroes. And why not? America was becoming a "super" nation, composed of extraordinary individuals who truly believed in their ability to achieve the impossible. Cultures choose heroes as an indication of their national character and America created its heroes in ways that personified how Americans wished to see themselves--vibrant, strong, youthful, morally upright. Superheroes portray normal people on the outside, but have an untapped superpower on the inside. Their very existence implies that every one of us has a hidden power, ready to come out when it is called on or needed most.

Why superheroes? Because America needed them and was ready for them.

Superheroes were a way for Americans to explore their collective psyche, to confront issues of power, growth, hope and despair in a way that bypassed reality and set the stage on the far larger arena of mythology. These modern day passion plays allowed Americans to plumb their hearts and minds without the constraints of practicality or pragmatism.

It is often difficult to nail down exactly what defines a superhero from decade to decade because his or her make-up is an abstract and nebulous concept. Just as America is in a state of change, so too does the superhero adapt to fit the times into which he or she is introduced. As the country evolves, so do our icons.

And now, here we are, having just vaulted into a new century and millennium. Change, even in the best of times, is threatening. The millennial change did not occur without its fair share of apocalyptic and "end times" theories--theories that, for some, blossomed into fruition when terrorists flew jetliners into the New York City and Washington D.C. skylines.

(I remember that the first Spider-man teaser had our hero wrapping up some up-to-no-gooders in a web between the span of the World Trade Center towers. The teaser was pulled immediately following their destruction. Shame really. I thought it was a perfect metaphor made all the more moving by our national loss.)

And now, just a few years removed from that terrifying day, the country finds itself bogged down in a foreign land, drowning in a war it is no closer to understanding today than it did the day the first bombs began to fall. We are in a state of fragmentation, suddenly unsure of our place on the global, let alone national, stage. The economy is sputtering. We are in the midst of a massive energy crisis. The threat of terrorism is everywhere. Pandemics breath down our necks.

It is an era of great change. It is an era of great unease. It is an era of great promise.

How do we cope?

Well, many ways of course. One of them being our need to fall back, all the more, on our hero myths. We take all our fears and night terrors and discomfort and we mold them into the shape of Lex Luther or The Riddler or the Green Goblin. Then we pour our hopes and dreams and sense of identity into our “super” selves, our Christ-figures and our saviors and let our altar egos duke it out. From the chaotic conditions of our human experience, we attempt to restore a sense of order.

Just look at the movieplexes around you. We’re currently buried beneath superhero films, with many more in various states of pre-production.

Just as America used superheroes in the past to struggle through its hopes and fears, so too will it continue to use these mythological figures as vanguards as we progress into the future. They will be shaped by our ideals, intelligence, and culture. Ironically, as we create our heroes, we are also creating our history. America of the future will know more about the America of the present because of these creations. They will be like like puzzles that reveal our collective angst and ambitions.

Postscript: As a nice aside, the first teaser trailer for Spider-Man III is available here. If you still haven't watched a trailer for Superman Returns, you can do so here.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

A Prairie Home Companion

I was introduced to Lake Wobegon (inexplicably, not in this film!) many years ago on a long road trip through Colorado. I was instantly enchanted by the small, imaginary Minnesota town and it's curmudgeonly residents...and to the soft, mellifluous, quicksilver voice of Garrison Keeler. I've been of fan of NPR's “A Prairie Home Companion” ever since.

The film version, like the real-life radio show, is a celebration of old-fashioned idiosyncrasy in a world dominated by automated, soulless corporate culture. The film takes place in an alternate reality, just a hair's breath different from our own. After 30 years on the air, the show and the theater from which it broadcasts are to be leveled by a Texas conglomerate to make way for a new parking lot. This will be their final performance.

There are lots of final performances in this film. A Prairie Home Companion is more a wake than a film, a cinematic musing on death and the inevitable end of all things. If this sounds dark or morbid, it's not. It is a euphoric display of gratitude for what we've been given. It's a celebration of a life and the joy chanced upon along the way. It's about treasuring fond memories and tall-tales.

Teeming with music, intentionally bad jokes, and an ensemble of gifted performers (many of whom are the radio show's real-life stars) who cannot hide the fact that they are thoroughly enjoying each another’s company, A Prairie Home Companion is a melancholy elegy to life well lived, a memorial to bygone days, a tribute to the power of dreams, a commendation to art that endures and a sermon to love what you have, not what you long for.

One can't help wondering if the 82-year-old Altman, who received an extremely well-deserved Honorary Oscar at last year's Academy Awards and admitted to a shocking heart transplant some years ago, sees the film's undercurrent of impending death in his own life. Then again, so long as the angel of death looks like Virginia Madsen, it must not keep him up too much of the night.

Altman, one of, if not the greatest living American director, and screenwriter Keeler have produced a lovely and bittersweet fable about morality, the fleetingness of fame, drawing strength from the past and finding the inevitable beauty in the darkest of situations. The result is a film that is magical, gentle, whimsical and joyous.

Sure, it may be minor Altman, but minor Altman is better than major most-anybody.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Good Kirk Hunting

According to Yahoo, Matt Damon is the lead contender for the role of the young James. T. Kirk in director J.J. Abrams' upcoming Star Trek film project, which will center on Kirk and Spock's early years at Starfleet Academy.

William Shatner has already given his blessing.


They've done it again.

Cars is the latest in a long line of utterly delightful films. One of these days, the magicians at Pixar will make a bad movie--or even a mediocre one--but it hasn't happened yet. Seven for seven and that's not even counting their slew of Oscar-winning shorts.

There is nothing quite like a Pixar film. Pixar's computer animation is to the new century what Disney's traditional animation was to the last—the high watermark for which all others must strive and have, so far, never come close to reaching. By blending uproarious comedy with dazzling technical astonishments, they have found the winning combination for unprecedented success.

Pixar gems have more heart and genuine emotional appeal than anything else out there. Why else would adults be scrambling to the theaters just as fast as their tiny counterparts? You simply can't help but leave the theater with a huge smile on your face.

Cars is no exception.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Future of Film

A few weeks ago I heard a story on NPR that discussed the advent and successive market dominance of MP3 players, such as the ever-popular iPod. An interviewed audio/visual store manager said he now sells twice as many MP3 devices as he does traditional stereo systems.

What makes the story remarkable is that MP3s compress the musical data stream and hence, play their music with noticeably less quality. So why are they outselling traditional units which are made for crystal clarity? Convenience seems the be the best answer anyone can give. People like the ability to store thousands of songs on a single, tiny device and take it with them wherever they go for instantaneous gratification.

The NPR story got me thinking, not about the future of music, but about the future of film.

It’s no secret that Hollywood has been in a slump the past few years. Fewer and fewer people are attending films in theaters and Tinseltown is feeling the pinch. Why? A myriad of reasons, it seems: the high price of tickets and concessions, the proliferation of movie commercials and ads, frustration with impolite audience members and, of course, a lack of anything good to see. (I discuss this topic at greater length here and here).

While I agree with many of those sentiments, I confess I am nowhere near giving up on my local movie-house. (Ask me again in August when I start paying New York City prices!) I simply cannot see myself trying to enjoy something like The Lord of the Rings or The New World on a small screen--no matter how advanced my home A/V system is. For me, film is a community experience and I like my movies to tower, envelop and overwhelm me. However, I am, it seems, in the minority here. More and more, people are opting to skip the cineplex and take in a film in the comfort of their homes on DVD. Or download it and watch it on their computer.

Are movies going to go the way of music? Will we soon begin trading quality for convenience? Haven’t we begun doing so already? Will watching transcendently beautiful films such as Lawrence of Arabia on an iPod become standard for future generations? If so, how tragic.

In the 50s, when television came on the scene, it clobbered Hollywood’s bottom line. People simply stopped going to the movies. The studios tried their hardest to keep up--churning out massive, multi-hour epics only they could afford to produce in an effort to draw people back to the theaters--and still they imploded. A few decades later, when they’d recovered some of their base, the VCR hit the market and Hollywood responded by trying to make it illegal to watch a movie in the privacy of your own home! Now, several decades removed, Hollywood is once again under economic attack.

What will Hollywood try to do this time? How will it entice audiences back? More large epic films? Better films? Cheaper prices? Or, will the studios once again collapse?

The first collapse initiated a wave of superb, independent filmmaking in this country. At the start of the 21st century, the independent movement is already here, tearing at Hollywood’s doorstep. Are brilliant but smaller films the answer? Will the advent of HD and digital technology save the day or is it too little, too late? Whatever happens, Hollywood cannot continue churning out one expensive blockbuster after another without any sort of legitimate return. (Let’s hope the upcoming Superman Returns does well--it cost a quarter of a billion dollars to make!)

Meanwhile, the technology that instigated the panic in the first place goes unnoticed. Or does it? TV is no longer the ugly stepchild Hollywood once painted it to be. Once thought to be an embarrassingly sub-par entertainment medium, TV is now enjoying a place of artistic prominence and sophistication that it has never before experienced. Thanks to premium cable giants like HBO, television dramas look and sound better than many films on the silver-screen; The Sopranos anyone? Basic cable channels like SciFi produce brutally intelligent series’ such as Battlestar Gallactica and even the networks, known more for their mediocrity than mastery, give us shows like The West Wing (alas, no longer) and Lost each and every week. Movie actors who would once never stoop so low as to be seen on TV now make regular guest appearances or star in their own shows.

What happened?

Could it be that both the actors and the viewers love the immersion TV allows? Could it be that the seemingly endless canvas TV affords is attractive to storytellers who need more than two hours time? Could it be that TV, with its two-dozen episodes a season, provides a deep and nearly plumbless field from which to create multi-faceted characters and generous stories? Could it be that TV got intelligent? Will movie houses fall and living rooms rise up to take their place?

Recently the three networks, ABC, CBS and NBC announced their fall lineups. It was a fascinating glimpse into the future of home entertainment. There were less new sitcoms announced than at almost any other point in modern television history, prompting some to declare the sitcom dying, if not dead. Reality TV, that titanic boom of the past decade, seems to be fizzling with far fewer shows projected on the horizon; the best, it seems, have sorted themselves out leaving the rest to starve to death. Most interesting of all is the fact that, far and away the largest genre to hit our September airwaves will be dramas, easily the most difficult and by far, the most expensive television to produce.

Is this the future of film? Will it get shorter, more episodic, look more like TV? Or will Hollywood respond by upping the technological ante--racing to discover the next entertainment medium? Just as film gave way to digital technology, so too much digital technology give way to the next step in visual evolution. Holographic displays? Fully immersive and interactive environments?

As accessibility to new, cutting edge technology makes it possible for just about anyone to make a film (actually making a good film is an entirely different issue!), there promises to be no end of filmed entertainment in our future. Just what quality, shape and size that entertainment takes is anyone’s guess.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


I write film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

You didn't understand all of it? It went by too fast to take it all in? There was too much information to mentally digest? Yeah, well, that was kind of the point. Life's a lot like that too. This unabashedly critical look at America's gluttony for Mid-East oil and the lengths we will go to take and keep it was spellbinding if not always comprehensible. A daring and searing film that insists this country has far more blood on its hands than the news shows each night.

Oil, Writer/Director Stephen Gaghan once said, is the world's crack addiction. Seen in that context, with the convoluted and often violent lengths to which people will go to feed their addictions, Gaghan's Syriana becomes a morality play on a planetary scale. If we are addicted to oil as Gaghan suggests (and who doesn't believe him?) then how far will America go to “get its fix?” Will it posture? Will it manipulate? Will it threaten? Will it murder? The answer, according to Syriana, is a resounding, yes.

To synopsize Syriana would mean that one would first have to comprehend it. But Syriana is a film that intentionally relishes in its paradoxes, contradictions and complications. It gleefully thrives on misdirection. Some films place the audience--though obviously not the characters--one step ahead of the action. In Syriana, the audience is always one step behind. We come upon action and conversations in medius rez (in the middle of things) and have to clamor to catch up. This is more than a plot device. It is reality. Elevating obfuscation to an art-form, Syriana demands we use our own wits and not unlock the film's message by having it spoon-fed to us.

Veteran CIA field operative Bob Barnes (George Clooney hiding behind a beard, a receding hairline and about 30 extra pounds) is on his way out. A dedicated and life-long covert operative in the Middle East, Barnes has seen and participated in more than his fair share of underhanded dealings. Now nearing the end of his career, Barnes inadvertently gets drawn into a political and economic maelstrom with global ramifications.

A fictional, oil-rich emirate in the Persian Gulf announces that it will no longer cede drilling rights to the American company, Connex, but will transfer the privilege to a higher-bidding company in China. Thrown off balance by the announcement, Connex decides to merge with the smaller Killen firm (which has just acquired the drilling rights to a rich field in Kazakhstan) in the hopes that the move will shore up its sudden profit hemorrhaging. The US Department of Justice sends a lawyer, Bennett Holiday (Jeffery Wright) to ensure the merger goes through without a hitch. When he discovers rampant corruption within the ranks, Holiday must make a decision—keep quiet and allow the deal to proceed or go public with what he knows.

Meanwhile, energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) finds himself brought into the fictional emirate's circle of power after a tragedy befalls his family; and Wasim Kahn (Mazhar Munir), an impoverished Pakistani oil field worker whose job has just been outsourced to China, finds that dire consequences rear their head as a result.

What do all these characters have to do with one another? Each is a pawn in a massive, geopolitical chess game. Each possess a piece of the puzzle, but without the ability to pool their knowledge, they are as confused as the audience is.

In the end, rouges will be rewarded, princes will be toppled, good men will perish, innocence will vanish and the American public will continue pouring fuel into their giant SUVs, none the wiser.

Syriana is a fearless, ambitious and stinging criticism of the United States' appetite for energy. An Oscar winner for writing Traffic, Stephen Gaghan is not shy about making a film with real-world relevance—the ramifications of the struggle to control the planet's dwindling supply of oil by a shadowy, amoral cabal of elite Washington power brokers who pull the strings that animate the world—and a scathing critique about how America acts to protect its interests at the expense of law, morality or justice.

Syriana is a film crafted to make you think. And think. And think...

To read the full review, click here.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex

Mamoru Oshii's 1995 film, Ghost in the Shell is an undisputed anime classic and helped define the entire genre. It is also the inspiration for numerous copycats, including, but not limited to, The Matrix Trilogy. Combining audacious action, sensuality, a slick futuristic style, and heady musings on human existence, GITS forced its viewers to confront just what it means to be human in a world increasingly powered by machines.

A few years ago, GITS found its way to the small screen in the form of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Set several decades in the future, where everyone is "jacked into the net" and very few people are without some sort of cybernetic alteration, GITS: SAC centers on an elite police unit called Section 9, specializing in cyber-crime. Section 9's agents, with their cybernetic superhuman feats of strength, speed, agility and data telepathy, are put to the test in a world where the line between man and machine grows more blurred every day. (GITS: SAC does not pick up where the film left off -- with the destruction of the main character's body and embarkation of her "ghost" into the net -- instead, it takes place in a parallel universe in which the final incidents of the film did not take place). While certain episodes are indeed "stand alone," the majority of the half-hour shows build upon one another chronologically as larger stories unfold over the season.

Beautiful Major Motoko Kusanagi leads the team. Troubled by living in a nether-world that is a completely artificial body inhabited by a transfered consciousness, the Major wonders whether she has an emotional and spiritual life independent of her body. Juxtaposing her war within, her partners are the cyborg Bateau who still retains a few real body parts, and rookie Togusa, who is fully human.

In the first season, Section 9 battle "The Laughing Man," a hacker so powerful, he can manipulate the minds of anyone with cybernetic additions, including government officials, in an effort to expose their hypocrisy and self-serving lies. But Section 9 has a far more deadly enemy--one within their own government--and if they are to survive, let alone triumph, they must figure out who is the true puppet master. In Season Two, thousands of displaced refugees violently take on the government at the behest of a shadowy prophet who may or may not have nefarious intentions.

My brother introduced me to GITS. Already a slavish devotee to the show (living in Japan will do that to a person) he insisted I give it a try. I didn't need much persuading. The stories are an exhilarating combination of hyper-violence, sex appeal, and philosophical musings. We have nothing like this in American entertainment, let alone animation. Each episode deftly deals with the hazy line between human and machine, the nature of consciousness, the consequences of bodies increasingly free of physical limitations, and a reality quickly approaching total interconnectedness where everything--even the contents of our brains--becomes just so much data in the matrix.

To help us through these philosophical quandaries are the Tachikomas--mini-tanks that Section 9 uses in battle that also happen to be advanced AI on the cusp of sentience. At first these child-like robots appear as little more than comic relief, until it is realized that their playful inquisitiveness is the reachings of self-aware minds, feeling out new boundaries of consciousness. The Tachikomas give the audience a machine's eye view of human culture that is nonthreatening, and reveals the increasingly porous line dividing human life from that of machine life. They are so many chrome Pinocchios, and when they realize just who they are and what that realization means, it makes for one of the most touching moments in the series.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is a terrific, solid and inspired series. Suffused with great animation, intriguing characters and a sense of depth very few forms of entertainment ever achieve, GITS is perhaps an uber-kaleidoscope look at a future that is quickly becoming reality.

Sunday, June 11, 2006


Some weeks ago, I insisted that a friend of mine give the new Battlestar Galactica a try. He agreed, if I was willing to check out Firefly in return. It was a good trade.

Why is it that so many of the best shows on TV die quick, dirty deaths at the hands of network executives who just don't get it, despite clamoring fans and critically glowing reviews? Original Star Trek anyone? The fact that both series' were canceled prematurely may be the only thing that Firefly shares with Star Trek. Like Battlestar Galactica and the lion's share of post-modern Sci Fi, the days of space ships that resemble floating hotels, peopled by saints levitating two feet above the carpet are over. Though I am an avowed Star Trek fan, I still find myself saying, thank God and good riddance.

Firefly, created by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel—both of which I have no desire to check out) is a blending of two primarily American genres—the Western and Science Fiction. While spaceships fly in the sky overhead, cowboys armed with laser blasters herd cattle and stumble out of saloons below. The dialog is laced with the vernacular of one too many John Wayne movies. Trust me, while it may sound dissonant, it works like a charm. You will come away wondering why no one fell upon this concept years ago.

Firefly follows the exploits of a band of interstellar smugglers. After a galactic civil war in which the United States and China have fused to become the world's last great superpower, Captain Malcolm 'Mal' Reynolds, a renegade veteran (on the losing side) now turned smuggler and rogue (basically Han Solo with a six-shooter), finds himself the commander of a small spacecraft named Serenity. Serenity bounces from planet to planet, smuggling cargo, pulling off small crimes and desperately trying to outrun and evade the authorities.

Serenity is inhabited by an eclectic crew--squabbling, insubordinate and undyingly loyal--first mate Zoe, who fought beside Mal in the war; her husband and Serenity's comical pilot, 'Wash'; brawn-over-brains grunt, Jayne—yes, Jayne is a guy; a young and cherubic engineer, Kaylee; Shepard Book, the ship's resident priest; the stunning courtesan, Inara who is really in love with Mal; and two fugitives—Doctor Simon Tam and his deranged, yet psychical powerful sister, River whom he rescued from a government facility where, for reasons unknown to any of them, most of all River, she was undergoing horrifically invasive mental tests. The characters work, not only because of the strength of the actors, but because they inhabit established genre archetypes. The cast is an amazing synergistic ensemble—whose love and fun with one another is obviously a product of a genuinely enjoyable working environment.

Firefly is a delight of a show. Never taking itself too seriously and not afraid to layer on a bit of cheese now and then, the 15-episode series sparkles with wit and humor. While the stories themselves are not deep or profound, the writing certainly is. The massive sets are impressive. The special effects, chock full of pre-Galactica crash zooms and rack focus', are terrific. The music, a fusion of Asian and country/western, is spot-on.

Though the show was canceled by Fox despite a massive fan protest, it remains a cult hit. So much so, that it spawned one of the best-reviewed films of last year, Serenity (trailer). And thank goodness for it—without the questions the film managed to answer, Firefly's fans would be doomed to perpetual bewilderment.

I heartily recommend Firefly. If you're in the mood for fun stories, superb writing, creative execution and something you've probably never seen before, give this aborted series a try.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Over the weekend, I had a (completely legal) chance to see the pilot episode of Aaron Sorkin's new television series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which will debut in the fall. And although NBC made it completely clear that the rough cut was provided for media awareness and not review, I'm sure they won't mind if I toss a small bone their way.

I recommend you block off late Monday evenings come September (heck, with How I Met Your Mother earlier in the evening, block off the whole night). Though there were still rough and decidedly in-progress sections, Studio 60 promises to be one of NBC's sterling new shows. After all it's Sorkin. The writer/creator of The West Wing and Sports Night and the screenwriter of A Few Good Men and The American President has taken the last few years off, caught his breath, and returns with a vengeance.

Don't confuse Studio 60 with 30 Rock, Tina Fey's behind-the-scenes of a sketch comedy show, also on NBC. Though the latter is garnering some buzz, 30 Rock is a comedy, while Studio 60 is a very serious look at what goes on behind the scenes to make that comedy.

As the pilot opens, one of the show's executive producers has a meltdown--on the air--very reminiscent of the Oscar-winning film, Network. The studio immediately goes into damage control mode, and the brand new network entertainment chief Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet ), sees the show's only hope of survival in "wunderkind" director Danny Tripp (The West Wing's Bradley Whitford) and writer Matt Albie (Friend's Matthew Perry) who aren't exactly sure it's a job offer they want to take. Rounding out the phenomenal ensemble cast (is there any other kind in a Sorkin show?) are Wing's Steven Weber, Serenity's Sarah Paulson, The Hughley's D. L. Hughley, The Daily Show's Nate Corddry, and The West Wing's Timothy Busfield.

It's obvious from the kinetic opening frames that this is a Sorkin show, though his rapid-fire dialogue is oddly muted in comparison to his earlier work. In just the first hour, Studio 60 deals with the possible implosion of the show due to the producer's meltdown over a censored skit parodying "Crazy Christians" and a subplot with a religious member of the cast, drug use with one of the main characters that seems to mirror Sorkin's own plight through the years, scuttled romances, chauvinistic bosses and first-day jitters.

It's far from a perfect show out of the gate, but then I can think of very few series' that have hit their mark right from the starting gun. Instead, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is a remarkably solid show that teases its audience with all the signs of brilliance hiding just below the surface. A few more scratches and we just may be seeing next year's breakout hit.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Rain is Falling

I recently came across this trailer for Rain is Falling. The short film showed last year at the Telluride Film Festival and was my hands-down favorite film, beating out such features as Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Walk the Line, Paradise Now, and many others.

Check out the trailer and if you ever stumble on the opportunity to see the film in its 20-minute entirety, jump at the chance. It is one of the most beautiful and sublime projects I have ever seen.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand

I disliked the first X-Men. As any screenwriting 101 course will teach you, a film must have a beginning, a middle and an end. X-Men had no middle. Just as you felt yourself settling into the universe and its characters, the climax roared into view and the film ended. Very unsatisfying.

So I don't know why it was that I gave X-2 a chance. But I'm glad I did. The sequel was a fantastic thrill ride and easily one of the best superhero movies ever made. (The others, in case you are curious, are Superman 1 and 2, Spider-man 2, 1989's Batman and Batman Begins. I might be willing to include M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable if pushed ever so slightly.) The genre, for all its strengths, lends itself all too easily to, shall we say, silliness. It is this silliness that scuttles most superhero movies before they even have a chance to begin and use their admittedly unique genre-specific characteristics to comment on what human beings and our culture esteem, find heroic, and deem worthy of adulation and protection. But that is another blog.

It is only because of the supremacy of X-2 that I gave X-Men: The Last Stand a chance. I heard so many mediocre reviews and naysaying from friends that I went into the theater with low expectations and found myself, in the end, pleasantly surprised.

Oh, it's not a great film, but it doesn't suck either.

If I have one major complaint, it's that X-3 settles for style over substance. Say what you want about the first films, the franchise has always had a very strong undergirding of morality. While X-3 incorporates some of these ideas, it plays with them as a child would an advanced tool instead of utilizing it for its full and intended purpose. X-3 is satisfied with hints where it's predecessors were decidedly and unapologetically blatant.

The theme of mutants, the "other" if you will, and their persecution, exclusion and mistrust at the hands of the rest of the world's population is a powerful idea--one with which we can all relate. In X-3, a cure is discovered that has the capability to render the mutant gene ineffective, thus, for all intents and purposes, making mutants just like any other human being. Some mutants find this idea appealing--they just want to be able to fit in. Others see it as a false positive--this is who they are--there is nothing wrong with them in the first place. Still others fear the ramifications of such a cure--will it be administered voluntarily or without regard to free will?

But this is as far as X-3 is willing to take its philosophy. With just enough structure to hold a flimsy story, X-3 turns to what it, admittedly, does best--blowing things up in spectacular fashion. X-3 imagines an apocalypse with stunning detail. Rarely has a film resolved itself with this much bombast.

X-3 is shallower and because of it, may be more fun than the other films. It's a shame it cannot be both deep and fun. It may not be inspired, but it is terrifically entertaining. Brett Ratner has not destroyed the franchise as many fan-boys prophesied (though he dispatches our heroes as if he's reading from the Lost playbook). While former helmer Brian Singer's touch is missing, Ratner's hand is mostly invisible except in the aforementioned "dumbing down" of the storyline. Though Ratner cannot hold onto the same emotional intensity and philosophical gravity of the first two films, he puts on one hell of a show.

There's a lot going on in this film--too much, really and X-3 suffers under its own weight, especially in the first act. The scenes move clumsily and feel rushed, the dialogue is stilted, the characters inaccessible. But above all else, X-3 is about momentum and what's a little sacrificed character development and pathos if you can quickly get to another scene where you can ensure your CGI artists are worth what you're paying them? There are certainly moments here where effects appear for their own sake. It is not as obvious or shameless as last year's King Kong, but as impressive as it is to uproot the Golden Gate Bridge and turn it into a hovercraft, wouldn't it have been easier to simply commandeer a ferry? I know, I know, not nearly as dramatic. Still... Right or wrong, these are some of the best special effects I have ever seen, be they shades of the end of the world or a remarkable sequence in which Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are de-aged.

It's a shame though--one senses that, given a different director (perhaps Singer) and some more time, X-Men: The Last Stand could have been a great, epic-length feature. Instead, it will have to settle for what it is--terrific summer pop-corn fare with dollops of unfulfilled potential.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Break-Up

I remember when The Village came out, many were disappointed because they went into the theater expecting a horror film--after all, isn’t that what it was marketed as--and left having seen a stirring and absorbing commentary on the politics of fear. Those who were able to forget the way in which the film was sold to them ended up enjoying it, even loving it. Those who insisted on hoping against hope that the film would turn into a movie about monsters gobbling up colonial settlers left sorely disappointed.

A word of caution to anyone heading off to see The Break-Up with the assumption that it is a romantic comedy: your TV ads are lying to you. This is not a comedy movie with a serious side. This is a serious movie with a comedic side.

Which is not to say you shouldn’t go see it. Just know what you’re in for.

The film has received generally unfavorable reviews, due mainly to the fact that the movie masquerades as a feel good, funny film when in actuality it is closer to The War of the Roses than The Wedding Crashers.

It is, I admit, an uncomfortable movie to sit through. Not only because Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston are so brutal to one another, but because their arguments so mirror real life. More than once I laughed out loud as the absurdities of their exchanges made me wonder if they’d, in fact, placed bugs in my apartment. More than once I cringed as I saw my own selfishness, ugliness and pride reflected in the characters on screen.

To be honest, The Break-Up put me in a funk the rest of the night. It really made me take a hard look at myself and my romantic relationship. It acted as a sort of cautionary tale--shape up now or this is what awaits you around the bend. And I suppose that any film that you walk away from having been encouraged to be a better person is a quality film, no matter how many stars it ended up getting.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Black Hawk Down

For the past year or so, I have been writing film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

I was struck, while re-watching Black Hawk Down this week, that this film is probably the most accurate glimpse into what it must be like to be a soldier on the streets on Baghdad. While fine films like Saving Private Ryan depict warfare at its worst, they do not depict warfare in modernity. I cannot imagine a better representation of war, with all of its urban complexities, than Black Hawk Down. Whatever you think of America’s involvement in Iraq, you cannot watch a film like this without feeling overwhelming concern and awe for our fighting forces abroad.

Based on the phenomenally successful book by the same name, Black Hawk Down is the true story of one of the Army’s most harrowing battles. While Somalia degraded into genocidal anarchy, a contingent of Army Rangers and elite Delta soldiers went into the capitol city of Mogadishu to arrest one of the country’s most dangerous warlords. What was supposed to be a short and simple mission spiraled into a desperate fight to stay alive when the Somalis managed to knock several Blackhawk assault helicopters from the air and strand a hundred men, woefully outnumbered, on the streets of one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

This is one of the finest war films in recent decades, a movie that treats war as horror and not simply entertainment. Like the battle itself, there are no single heroes in Black Hawk Down. We see the beleaguered Americans’ plight through each of the soldiers’ eyes, producing a rich composite of corporate honor, professionalism and bravery.

Director Ridley Scott, a Brit (as are half the actors playing Americans in Black Hawk Down!) helms this highly effective U.S. war film, which's plot, while complicated, never loses its audience, moves at breakneck speed, often reminds one of a documentary, and administers just the right amount of sentimentality to feel emotionally honest without being artificial. The result is an intense, draining, important and magnificent film.

To read the full review, click here.