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Friday, December 25, 2009

Sherlock Holmes (***)

SHERLOCK HOLMES

** SPOILERS **

Sherlock Holmes has what turns out to be a pretty funny credit at the end that says something to the effect of, "Sherlock Holmes was created by the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His adventures are available in books." No foolin'? Honest and true? There's a lot to like in Sherlock Holmes, a smart, thoroughly entertaining re-imagining (sort of, much of this depiction of Holmes, such as his wardrobe and bare knuckle boxing, are actually found in Doyle's books) of the venerable detective and his faithful sidekick Dr. Watson, as they uncover a sinister supernatural plot in an awesomely designed Victorian London on steroids. The theme of Holmes, the man of utmost reason, putting his deductive science against black magic was effective. You simply cannot go wrong with Robert Downey, Jr. playing the smartest, fastest talking man in the room.  His Sherlock Holmes is the most entertaining lead character in a Hollywood action picture since... his Tony Stark in Iron Man. Jude Law plays Dr. Watson, painfully self-aware that he exists to provide Holmes with exposition and, more importantly, a straight man. ("Straight" is relative. The movie toys with the ramifications to their bromance caused by Watson's intention to marry. A woman.)  Turning Holmes and Watson into action heroes lead to the coolest aspect of Sherlock Holmes: Downey's ability to use his deductive powers to create hand to hand combat strategies and then implement them in bone-crushing slow motion. Downey showcases this ability twice in the first hour, most memorably in 19th century London's version of Fight Club, yet he doesn't use it in his final mano e mano clash with the villainous Mark Strong atop the still-under construction Tower Bridge. Strong was also poorly served; he begins as an intriguing mystical villain for Downey but then is relegated to the shadows until the very end. We don't get to know Strong's evil Lord Blackwood at all. Holmes does make up for this with a novel take on the great detective explaining how he solved the case, which had Downey doing just that in the most smug, self-satisfied manner possible.  Shoehorned into Sherlock Holmes is Rachel McAdams as an American thief and love interest for Downey. McAdams is startlingly unconvincing and glaringly out of place. She seems to only exist to set up the sequel, which brings Professor Moriarty in as Holmes' adversary. Even while bending over backwards to have the details of the plot make sense, there are some logical leaps and holes in the third act (Law gets himself blown up, ends up hospitalized, is out with a cast a day later, then the cast is gone and he's 100% brawling with thugs again), but Sherlock Holmes compensates for it with rollicking action, sly wit, and pure entertainment. It's no shit, Sherlock.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Avatar (****)

AVATAR

Gone Native
** SPOILERS **

Not to undercut the tremendous technological achievement of James Cameron's Avatar, but looking beyond the cutting edge CGI and 3D technology for a moment, you quickly realize you've seen this movie before.  It's basically every movie. I lost count of how many movies Avatar is.  It's Aliens, it's Dances With Wolves, it's Last of the Mohicans, it's King Kong (the Peter Jackson one), it's The Last Samurai, it's Pocahontas, etc,.etc.  It's a Star Trek  episode or two also (I'm thinking of the one where Captain Pike goes to live on Talos IV after he's crippled.)  

Avatar is also very long.  It could stand to lose a half hour.  Showing off the tech and the vast, impressive CGI vistas and creatures of the planet Pandora is cool and all, but at its worst, Avatar feels like the longest, most expensive, and elaborate video game cut scene ever made, where you sit in frustration for 160 minutes because you know you'll never get to play.

Sam Worthington plays a crippled space Marine who volunteers to go to Pandora, an alien world inhabited by blue skinned cat people called the N'avi.  The N'avi as a race look like a WNBA team who blue themselves Tobias Funke-style. Released in the same year as Watchmen, Avatar is positively Puritan in its depiction of blue-skinned people who live au naturel. The N'avi men wear loin cloths but seem to lack genitals.  If Dr. Manhattan teleported into Pandora with his big blue dick swinging in the wind, he'd probably replace the shiny tree as the N'avi's new god.

Inhabiting a genetically engineered N'avi body, Worthington lies in a space coffin and mentally controls and lives the life of his super athletic N'avi avatar.  Mistrusted at first by the other N'avi, specifically the one he has the hots for, played by Zoe Saldana (doing a voice over that sounds just like Calypso from the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels) Worthington eventually becomes one of them, and rises up the ranks (in three months, mind you) to become leader of the tribe.

Trouble is, Worthington was sent to the N'avi by his asshole superiors in the military, and their asshole superiors in the mining corporation (lead by Giovanni Ribisi, playing Paul Reiser from Aliens) that wants to exploit Pandora's natural resources for human gain.  His mission is to figure out a way to get the N'avi to relocate themselves, or else they're coming in with their gunships, robot suits, and poison blankets.

Instead, Worthington totally goes native and leads the N'avi against the humans.  No shit, he does.  Worthington is positively shocked when he finds he treasures the N'avi more than his own people. It's as if he's never seen a movie like this before.  The asshole colonel is also surprised Worthington went native, despite his reading Worthington's video journals where he gradually describes his preference for living with the Thundercats, especially his favorite Thundercat, ho. 

To his credit, writer-director James Cameron brings his A game to A word: action.  The story may be familiar, much too familiar, but even after a 12 year break since Titanic, Cameron is still at the very pinnacle of action directors, and he stages some thrilling sequences.  Avatar also allowed Cameron to do something many of his peers have done but he hadn't had the chance to: stage a gigantic third act action set piece involving two huge armies, the high tech human Marines taking on the low tech N'avi warriors, going at it.

Cameron then shifts the action expertly into smaller and more personal sequences involving the main characters, culminating in the mano e mano showdown between Worthington's avatar and the colonel in his Aliens/Matrix Revolutions battlesuit.  I especially liked how Cameron had Saldana's N'avi deliver the final coup de grace; Jim Cameron has always been the most pro-woman, grrl power A-list director in Hollywood and proved it once again.

In IMAX 3D, Avatar is disorienting at first, like you're in a Universal Studios ride that absolutely refuses to end.  After about half an hour, your mind stops screaming "This is wrong!", accepts the 3D, and you stop noticing it (or you reject it entirely and go to sleep.) Still, Cameron achieved the immersive technological breakthrough he was looking for, which was clearly his primary objective for making Avatar. Cameron has successfully, aggressively pushed the medium of 3D cinema forward, all the while going a complete 180 on the (I suppose) less-than-important screenwriting aspects of filmmaking.

Some stuff baffled me.  For instance, Worthington spends many, many hours operating his N'avi avatar but must occasionally shut down and do stuff in the real world.  When he disconnects from his avatar, the avatar just lies on Pandora inert until he comes back in to operate it.  One would assume Worthington disconnects from his avatar while the N'avi are sleeping.  But when he's in the real world, he doesn't just go directly to sleep.  He goes and does other things like eat, talk to Sigourney Weaver, and record his video journals.

So if say, Worthington is a N'avi for 15 hours, and then he's gone for several more hours doing his human thing, the other N'avi must get kind of annoyed at how much their new friend sleeps.  This actually does get dealt with in one scene where the human miners invade a sacred N'avi space, but it must have happened a lot more than that.  There must have been moments where Worthington is hunting or some shit and then disconnects and his avatar just collapses in the middle of the forest.  The super active other N'avi must have been annoyed once or twice at this.

A lot is made of Pandora's natural life force and the mumbo jumbo about how the N'avi and all the other creatures draw from the spirit of the planet.  It's made clear early on Worthington's avatar is a genetically engineered clone of a N'avi.  It's an artificial construct at its core.  And yet the planet of Pandora embraces Worthington with open arms and every creature and N'avi eventually bows down to his specialness, completely ignoring that Worthington's avatar is in fact an abomination of nature, the exact opposite of natural creation.  Shit, Worthington is practically supernatural by the very end.  I guess the message is man's science can always trick nature.  Or maybe nature just won't give a shit if it's convenient for the movie.

If I have a favorite scene in Avatar, it involves Michelle Rodriguez. Rodriguez plays the role of "the snarly pilot who wears aviators". (Yeah, Cameron had one of those in Aliens too.) She doesn't have a character or arc to speak of, nor does she utter a single acceptable line of dialogue.  But in one scene, where Worthington and Weaver are arrested for helping the N'avi and are thrown in the brig, Rodriguez comes to bust them out.  It's the pivotal scene in the movie, because she does so wearing a torn white tank top.

What Rodriguez and Cameron are telling the audience is, "Hey fellas, you've been staring at blue, furry CGI cat boobs for the last two hours - here's what real human boobs look like!"  Then she wears the torn white tank top and flaunts the boobies for the rest of the movie. As far as I'm concerned, that makes her the most important person on Pandora. 

For the greatest, most accurate skewering of Avatar, read Avatar: The Metacontextual Edition. Absolutely correct, absolutely worth reading.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Cove (****)

THE COVE


Remember the episode of The Simpsons when Lisa freed Snorkey the dolphin and Snorkey lead the dolphins to attack the people of Springfield and drive them into the sea?  The Cove reveals why the dolphins were so pissed off.  Turns out they were right to be vengeful. In all seriousness, the stunning documentary The Cove dramatically uncovers the real-life, wholesale slaughter of bottle nosed dolphins that has been going on for decades in Taiji, Japan ("the little town with the big secret"). Every year the waters of this tiny cove in Taiji run red with dolphin blood. 23,000 dolphins are slaughtered for their meat there, with some live "show" dolphins being sold for upwards of $150,000 each.  The man standing against this slaughter is Ric O'Barry, who is also responsible for the industry of holding dolphins in captivity by marine parks like Sea World in the first place. O'Barry was the man who personally captured and trained the four bottle nosed dolphins who played the role of Flipper on TV in the 1960s, creating the world's desire to swim with captured dolphins and see them flip through hoops at Sea World. For the last 35 years O'Barry has been trying, with little success, to bring down the multi-million dollar industry he helped create. O'Barry's partner in crime (according to Japanese law) is filmmaker Louie Psihoyos, who recruited a world class "Ocean's Eleven" team of scientists and technicians to successfully record the gruesome goings-on in Taiji, using high definition cameras and audio equipment, including cameras hidden in artificial rocks, mounted on dirigibles, and using Paris Hilton sex tape-style night vision. The filmmakers' Mission: Impossible-style operations succeed in shedding light on this tragedy where even famous (and hot) protesters like Hayden Panettiere and Isabel Lucas (who are shown getting arrested for swimming out to the Taiji cove in 2007) failed. There is an incredible amount of information in The Cove, enough to fill anyone with outrage about how nothing is done to protect bottle nosed dolphins from the creepy, cartoonish Japanese fishermen slaughtering them and eating their sweet meat.  (It turns out the fishermen are poisoning themselves and anyone else who eats the dolphin meat, which contains 2000 times the World Heath Organization's set toxic levels of mercury.)  Those fisherman will get the painful death that's coming to them in the end, but the dolphins can't afford to wait that long.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Up In The Air (***1/2)

UP IN THE AIR


** SPOILERS **

Up In The Air makes air travel as glamorous and thrilling as it must have been at the dawn of the jet age.  For George Clooney it still is: as someone who travels 260 days a year and is a member of the elite programs of his preferred airlines, hotels and car rental services, Clooney practically lives in planes and terminals, and he loves it. Of course he does.  Shit, so would I.  Clooney's lifestyle in Up In The Air isn't unrealistic, but it is the kind of luxury enjoyed by a privileged few who can breeze past the lines in terminals and stretch out in business class with liquor in highball glasses while the rest of the cattle graze in coach.  Up In The Air has a lot on its plate besides a commentary on travel.  Clooney's job is to travel from city to city and fire people (a "termination engineer", because "terminator" sets off Legal), making Up In The Air immediately timely and relevant in today's economic climate. Anna Kendrick arrives at his company as a hotshot hire fresh from Cornell (alma mater of the Nard Dog) with groundbreaking ideas about grounding Clooney and using the Internet to fire people via video conferencing.  Clooney takes her on the road with him and shows Kendrick what exactly it is their job entails.  The relationship between Clooney and Kendrick is deftly handled as they run the gamut from mentor/student to professional rivals, as Clooney is ever-aware Kendrick's success would ground him and his chosen lifestyle permanently. In an especially terrific scene, Kendrick discusses her ambitions and worldview as a 23 year old versus Clooney and Vera Farmiga's life experience-derived wisdom. ("He broke up with you by text message?" "That's like firing someone over the Internet.")  The only turbulence Up In The Air hits is that the lifestyle Clooney clearly enjoys is made to seem so pleasurable that the later scenes where he's grounded and reunites with members of his estranged family are almost a disappointing dose of reality. Director and co-writer Jason Reitman put together a simultaneously witty, tragic, and insightful movie about human connections, be it through travel, work, technology, or in one's personal life.  It's much closer in vein to Thank You For Smoking than Juno, with tart, adult dialogue, no phony sentimentality, and some surprising directions taken, especially in the third act, which at first seemed to be plodding down the road to formula.  Reitman also achieved the unlikely in making cities like Omaha and St. Louis seem as almost as attractive travel destinations as Miami and San Francisco.  Travel lessons one can learn from Up In The Air include never getting in line behind families and old people (they're riddled with hidden metal and never seem to appreciate what little time they have left on Earth).  Instead, line up behind the Asians: they pack light, they move fast, and they prefer slip on shoes.  Is that racist?  Stereotyping?  Whatever, as long as it gets you through the line quickly.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Office 6x12 - "Secret Santa"


The best Christmas episode The Office has ever done.

Michael as hurt, petulant Jesus > Michael as Santa.

Jim to Michael: "You can't yell "I need this! I need this!" while trying to pin a coworker down on your lap.

The Office crammed so many amazing jokes in 22 minutes, I don't even know where to start. Mindy Kaling wrote it and kept Kelly quiet the whole episode, except for her reaction to Jim buying her the Twilight poster.

Finding new ways to keep Erin and Andy apart and slow burning their Office romance must be a challenge, but it also must help that their characters are so well defined (at least Andy's is, Erin is still evolving before our eyes) and different from Jim and Pam.

I could have died laughing at the whole bit of Kevin sitting on Michael's lap.

Will the company still be Dunder Mifflin when the sale goes through?

"I can't envision a world where David Wallace is fired but Meredith Palmer keeps her job. No offense, Meredith."

I want Dwight's nutcracker.

Parks and Recreation 2x12 - "Christmas Scandal"


Another great one that made Leslie even more sympathetic while showcasing how no one, not even Ron Fucking Swanson, can fill her shoes. It's a shame Louis CK was written out so soon (it's not a shame he's getting another show, though.)

I liked Tom and Mark's talk about getting Ann a blood diamond. "Yea bitch, get me somma that blood diamond. Make 'em extra bloody!" Mark and Ann are kind of a boring couple, but they're kind of boring people, so they're well matched.

The Councilman was a real piece of work. Really funny commentary on 24 hour news cycles and gotcha "journalism."

LESLIE KNOPE: DEFINITELY DEXHART'S MISTRESS?

Andy to April: "I've been thinking about your gay boyfriend all day..."

Who doesn't get a little giddy each time April looks into the camera and shy/excitedly smiles?

Community 1x12 - "Comparative Religion"


What a great midseason (first semester) finale. Lots of great religion-based humor ("Everyone's religion is weird. Let's stop talking about it"). Loved Annie insisting everyone "say the whole word" and Abed's "I get 72 virgins in Heaven."

Remember in the first couple of episodes when Jeff was seen by the study group as the coolest guy ever? He's not seen that way anymore. It happened so gradually, I didn't even notice. I think it started around the time he lost his apartment and started living with Abed.

The fight B plot was also really good, especially the big throwdown at the end. [Rewatch realization: The bully was Anthony Michael Hall?!]

Britta: "The real reason men fight is to release their pent-up gayness." 

Have I ever mentioned I like pro wrestling?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Fired Up! (*)

FIRED UP!

I know, I know.  I watched this on purpose, so I got what was coming to me.  Fired Up! tells the story that had to be told:  two high school football player hornballs decide to go to cheerleader summer camp so they can score with the 300 chicks present. And, get this, they learn a lesson! The 300 chicks are well cast for their hotness, including Sarah Roemer from Disturbia. One can be distracted by the girls for a while (about 37 minutes by my count) but the screenwriting 101 plotting and everything else horrible about Fired Up! cut a straight path to madness.  The football players are what's-his-name, who played Hunter, Jan's assistant on The Office and Claire's flying tool boyfriend in season 2 of Heroes.  The other guy in it is someone I never want to see or hear of again.  There was no need for two main characters; their dialogue and characters were virtually identical and each seemed to exist only so the other had someone to trade "clever" dialogue with.  There's a "hilarious" scene where everyone at cheer camp watched Bring It On and recited every line of dialogue.  There have been four (and counting) Bring It Ons since Bring It On, so why did they need to make Fired Up!? Why, damn you?!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Office 6x11 - "Scott's Tots"


Hey, Mr. Scott!
Whatcha gonna do?
Whatcha gonna do?
Make our dreams come true!

What a great episode. I welcome any new scenario where Michael does something completely irresponsible but has to face up to it. The Scott's Tots kids and their teachers doing the testimonials and presentations while Michael sat there knowing he had to tell the truth and not pay for their tuition was some of the best uncomfortable humor The Office has done in years.

The highlight though was Dwight's impressions of Stanley, Kevin, and Toby on the phone. Just for that, his diabolical plan to destroy Jim deserved to succeed.

Also glad Erin got a large role this week and some quality time with the boss. Erin's been around long enough now that we need to know more about her. I did like Michael negatively comparing her to Pam and her earning his esteem in the end.

Kevin was applying for a job in the warehouse when Michael made him an accountant. Explains everything perfectly!

Parks and Recreation 2x11 - "Tom's Divorce"


Wow, where to begin? I guess I'll start at the back of Ron's head with the hair grown in from being shaved after the hunting trip but not at the same length as the rest of his hair.

Ron in the strip club hitting the breakfast buffet and doing a crossword (and using his jacket to protect his food from the falling glitter) = awesome. Simply awesome.

The look on Ron's face when Leslie said her stripper name would be "Equality" = double awesome.

Andy is so overwhelmingly funny that I have to give props to Paul Schneider for how understated he is as Mark playing against Chris Pratt's sweaty zaniness. Seemingly ending Andy's attempts to steal Ann from Mark hopefully means they explore the potential Andy-April hook up.

I would so eat at Jurassic Fork, at least once. I haven't wanted to visit a fictional TV restaurant that much since Casa Bonita on South Park. [I forgot: Casa Bonita is a real place.]

Community 1x11 - "Politics of Human Sexuality"


Aaaand we're back to bonerizing over Alison Brie. It's the short skirts. And all the talk about sex. And how she refuses to say the word "penis." (Not so much about how her first time was with a gay guy who solidified his being gay.) I also liked that she was voted "most likely to succeed" in her rehab.

Loved Abed going Over The Top to beat Troy at arm wrestling, and making the Stallone face in victory.

I like Pierce getting some depth, but I also like when he's being inappropriate and racist.

I know Sharon Lawrence has been on countless TV shows, but she'll always be Amelia Earhart on Star Trek Voyager to me. 

I don't know what The Channys are but the cast of Community (Annie, Britta, Shirley, Abed, and Senor Chang) presented Best Show. It's fun to see the actors as themselves (and to hear them swear and work blue).


 

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