October 20, 2004

Lost, a review

Okay, I'm thoroughly hooked. Not that surprising, really. This, like JJ Abrams' Alias, has that delicious combination of interpersonal hyper-drama and B-movie intrigue. In the case of Alias, it's Bondian spy stuff, here the show is Stranded! On a Desert Island! combined with Something's Out There! Horror movie fare, but so much more interestingly wrought.

Actually, the series feels like a cross between Survivor, (only with better writers because it is, after all, written) and a pilot Dan cut a few years ago that sadly never went to series. The premise of that one was post-Apocalyptic: What if you were the only group of people left on the planet? How would you survive, how would it feel? Lost has that same spooky feeling, a group of people banding together in the face of the unknown, mixed in with the spicy flavor of a group of people forced into contact and not entirely trusting each other a la Survivor, only without the dumb competitions and weekly who-gets-voted-off-the-island tribal council.

I love this show. I love the flashbacks to everyone's lives before now, love the way they all seem to be remaking themselves in this lush but creepy new place, gradually coming to terms with their own tabula rasa existence. Past is prologue in this show and yet it isn't because you get to – no, you have to – begin again. Fascinating stuff. Fascinating show.

Posted by Tamar at 09:45 PM | Comments (2)

September 25, 2004

Jack & Bobby

Pilot season. We're way behind already, thanks a young boy's currently messed up sleep schedule. But we can catch up, thanks to TiVO. So we watched the Jack & Bobby pilot tonight. The conceit, if you don't know, is that we're watching two present-day teenage boys, brothers, go about their lives but we know (through talking head-style interview footage from the future) that one of them will grow up to be president someday. Thankfully, we find out which one by the end of the episode, otherwise the entire series would be one long tease. And I think, too, it wouldn't be able to say what it wants to say about the stresses and factors that shape a person.

The implication in this concept is that this was a very good president and a great human being (which doesn't follow from the mere fact of the presidency, just look at the man now warming the seat). In the show, the boy is not yet great and I like that. In a sense, if you strip away the grandeur of the setup, what you have is a standard coming of age story, someone growing into himself. I like that too.

My only caveat so far is that it's very hard to show high school problems in a non-cliche way. We've seen it all too many times, lived it ourselves. The geeks vs. the cool kids. The bullies. The teases. Being called into the principal's office. Yeah, yeah, yawn. But what else is there? That's what it's about when you're a teenager. And there's a lot to like in this portrayal. Christine Lahti's mom character is a powerful, intelligent woman who learns by the end of the pilot that she has to let her sons grow up with a little more breathing room. This is not cliche. This is interesting. And the lead actors are good, particularly the younger boy.

We've got a season pass for now. I'll be curious to see if the theme can sustain itself.

Posted by Tamar at 11:50 PM

June 13, 2004

bye boys

This month’s Emmy Magazine has a short article about how young men (late teens to late twenties) are staying away from television in droves. The writer cites a number of factors such as the fact that the Neilson company has been gathering their sample user base more carefully so it will better represent a true swath of viewers (or in this case, non-viewers). But the main reason boiled down to the fact that young guys have other options. They watch video. Play video games. Get on the computer, particularly the internet.

This feels true to me. In a way, it’s kind of encouraging. I mean, chat rooms and even video games have more opportunity for interaction or at least active involvement, unlike the rot-on-the-couch-with-a-beer nature of most evening TV programming. Using your mind is generally a good thing. And, frankly, for a split second I liked the idea of the young male demographic going bye bye. I think the studios cater to (what they see as) that testosterone laden, shoot-em-up glee far too much in their lowest common denominator blockbuster mentality. How much better would movies be without that? Maybe we could have dramas again, and comedies that required at least a dollop of verbal repartee instead of wall to wall poop jokes. Sounds like a positive step forward for television too.

Except. I started thinking about TV programming. Murder She Wrote. Diagnosis Murder. For the white-haired demographic. Soap operas. Family sitcoms where the man of the house is the lumbering doofus and the woman his brilliant and much put-upon better half. For the female demo, of course. Hmm.

Guys? You can come back now.

Posted by Tamar at 11:05 PM

June 02, 2004

Shrek II, a mini-review

Shrek II: not as clever as the first. As pointed a social skewering? I think so, perhaps too much so. In fact, I think my entire problem with the movie, aside from the over-obvious nature of many of the jokes, was that its message was writ too large. Dare I say it? Cartoony, even.

But it was fun nevertheless. My favorite character: Puss in Boots. I loved when he got caught licking his butt. So cat-like. Or maybe when he got those big sad baby animal eyes a la those velvet paintings from the ‘70’s.

I also relished Land Far, Far Away in all its over-commercialized Rodeo Drive splendor. Beverly Hills meets Disneyland, that faux European gloss with palm trees and “Farbucks” on every corner. An easy target, maybe, but something I come up against on a weekly basis, that kind of supercilious attitude, in that selfsame Beverly Hills locale, though without quite so many horse-drawn carriages.

Okay, and I liked the glimpse inside the young Fiona’s diary. Cliché-ridden but it had the flavor of what I’d liked about the first movie: a willingness to re-examine the fairy tale elements and give them a new twist. The diary showed the princess as just another pubescent girl with a rich fantasy life.

So. Things to like. Not quite so much the larger story, with its inevitable messages of family and being true to yourself, which could have resonated but somehow didn’t. But many bits along the way did delight. And maybe that’s enough.

Posted by Tamar at 08:59 PM | Comments (4)

April 28, 2004

School of Rock

I told myself when I started this blog that I’d write about every movie I saw and every book I read as a way of keeping track. But then I see a movie like School of Rock and I’m not sure why I made that promise to myself. Because really what do you say? It’s silly and light and dumb and fun. But it makes absolutely no sense, has virtually no nods to anything resembling reality, and ends with a predictable, formulaic climax including angry parents becoming proud parents. (Did I spoil the movie? Whoops. But really, let’s be serious. This is not a movie you can spoil.) So what do you say?

It does raise some questions, though. Why do we see movies? What appeals? Why did this bit of fluff with the bare bones of a story but a lot of rock ‘n roll and even more of Jack Black’s eyebrows, why did it do so well? Does story matter so little? Do characters drawn so broad they’re caricatures tickle your fancy? Is it just the film’s delicious topsy turvy jab at uptight schooling, does that bring back memories of boring days in classrooms and how much fun it would have been to have a rock ‘n roll teacher instead? (IE: your basic wish fulfillment fantasy.) Or is it that other perennial of comedy, the fish out of water, juxtaposing this grungy rockster with the dark wood and scrollwork halls of a snooty prep school?

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a bad movie. It was enjoyable enough. Especially the climax, seeing these ten year olds perform their, um, final project. And various sequences along the way, as Dewey Finn (Jack Black) draws complex diagrams on the blackboard to illustrate the history of rock and analyzes concert footage, treating this outrageous topic with the seriousness that normal teachers devote to math and history and social studies. And it’s even satisfying to watch as Dewey has the inevitable character arc wherein he grows into his role and becomes an adult. But it never felt like a real movie to me. It never surprised me, never let me under the surface. Do I ask too much of a simple comedy? I think I don’t. I think it never got there because Black and Mike White (yes, deeply amusing, the writers’ real names) never treated their scenario with respect. Did they have to? No, of course not. But in return I don’t have to care after I turn off the TV.

Sometimes I think back on my life pre-Damian, when I actually went to see movies in the theater. At least twice a month, often more. How did I have that much time to waste? I remember it, though. Paying my money, slipping inside the hushed foyer with its red carpet, picking out the perfect center seats, waiting for the lights to dim and the movie to transport me. Most never did. But like a woman with a series of blind dates, I always hoped the next one would.

This one would have been one of the misses for me. Nice enough guy, not exactly marriage material. Made me smile a little, that’s all. Is that enough? It should be, I guess. It isn’t.

Posted by Tamar at 08:46 PM | Comments (2)

March 28, 2004

rumors of its death are exaggerated

This week's Entertainment Weekly has a cover story: "Are Sitcoms Dead?" With the impending or already accomplished series finales of Frasier, Friends and Sex and the City, it's apparently time to ring the bell of doom. No, I haven't read the article yet. I don't need to. I know what it'll say and I'm amused. Because this happens in cycles. A few years ago, the one hour drama was doomed. Reality TV was going to demolish it. Then along came CSI and all its spinoffs and the excitement of various cutting edge HBO dramas and so on and so forth and lo! The drama is ascendant once more.

Actually, no, I think this goes back further, because I remember before Reality TV was a reality, reading doom-and-gloom articles about the death of drama because sitcoms were ascendant (a la Friends, etc.). Guess what? Drama didn't die. Sitcoms won't either. Maybe the networks will have to tweak their formulae. Maybe they'll have to make the new ones a smidge less idiotic to attract new viewers, though I wouldn't count on it. But someone will come up with a shiny new fun sitcom and it will be in the top ten, then the top five, then maybe even be number one in the ratings and the next spring, all the sitcom pilots will be picked up and lo! Sitcoms will be ascendant once more.

I love apocalyptic entertainment reportage.

Posted by Tamar at 09:48 PM

March 14, 2004

goodbye to Carrie and friends

I miss Sex and the City. I miss curling up on the couch with Dan, both of us nursing cups of warm tea while watching these four women get into trouble and quip about it and always survive.

We became involved somewhere in the middle of the run. When we got TiVO last year, we recorded the reruns of earlier seasons and caught up. It was fascinating. The show began probably much more like the source material: flip and ironic and annoyingly superficial. Carrie was the iconic Single Woman, her friends were all paper-thin stereotypes. Samantha the slut, Charlotte the romantic (yin to Samantha’s yang) and Miranda the cynic. They were all cynical, of course, except for Charlotte, but Miranda could go further with it, adding ironic commentary to everyone else’s lives. Carrie spoke to the camera at first, a device which worked in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but not so much here. And all the men were horrors, dating war stories every one. Except Big, who was a charming ass and thus a hair more three dimensional.

Sounds dreadful, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t, it was catty fun. Like a good, malicious gossip session with a girlfriend. And it evolved, which was the surprising part. Most good shows start strong, hit their stride by the second half of the first season, and have maybe one more good season before they go downhill, usually because the show’s creator leaves and the head writer who replaces him or her is copying someone else’s formula rather than writing from the original gut-level spark that fired up the first writer.

Sex and the City wasn’t like that. It got stronger over time as they deepened the premise and let the characters feel more true emotions. Samantha fell in love. With a Donald Trump clone of cad, but still. Charlotte discovered her fairy tale true love wasn’t all that after all. Carrie had her heart broken and lived and moved on, but gradually and in stages, the way we do. I still winced at the male portrayals (Charlotte’s straightlaced WASP first husband Troy would be unbearably caricatured if it wasn’t for Kyle McLachlan’s nuanced acting) but the show became much more emotionally true overall. Also much less of a laugh fest. I recently read a quote from the showrunner that said it went from sitcom (all about the laughs) to comedy (as in comedy of life). This is true, I guess. But I think it was more about the way it hurts to be single. Also sometimes the misery of marriage, but mostly how you come close and then get shafted, but you long for a real connection, that elusive right fit. And how hard that is to find. So many nights when we watched the end credits, Dan and I ended up quiet. Holding hands. So glad to be together. Not out there, painfully alone like Carrie and her friends. Because the show made it seem painful indeed.

A lot has been written about how the show’s true love affair was between the four women and yes, I loved that aspect even though it too was exaggerated and idealized. I often felt jealous that they had that, that they could get together for brunch every week and call each other to talk about anything and nothing and show up at each other’s doors when they each most needed it. I have some bits of that with friends but not all together. (Partly because we don’t live close enough for a subway ride.) I loved, though, that the women had disagreements and hissy fits and cold silences too. That they had to deal with each other, not just lean on each other. And that was indeed a huge part of the show.

But let’s be honest, it was really all about the men. How the men reflected the women’s desires, self-images, how they even charted the women’s growth. Samantha ended up with a man who, though not the brightest flashlight in the drawer, taught her how to love by accepting her protestations that she wouldn’t and, well, accepting her completely. On her terms. Which changed as a result. How often does a cynical woman with a hard shell get unconditional love? And Charlotte accepted a man who fit none of her romantic requirements (he was almost the anti-Romantic) and in fact became Jewish to fit into his world better, thus metaphorically shedding her upper crust WASP skin. I admit, I had a problem with this part of her storyline from a feminist POV, but they handled it fairly well. Miranda, of course, ended up with Steve the bartender, physical to her intellectual, rough to her smooth, unread to her, well, read. And yet I believed that relationship and found it the most satisfying of all. Maybe because they came to it in stages through the course of the entire series.

Carrie I hate to discuss. I found the final supposed choice between Alec the rich self centered Russian and Big the rich formerly self centered American facile and not properly explored. I guess Carrie ends up true to herself by coming back to New York, but why should she or we believe Big has really changed? And why is he the one for her? And what does it mean that he’s returned? And what does it mean for her? Has she grown at all or is she back at the beginning?

But in the end, if you leave Carrie out of the equation, the show was about finding true love and discovering it wasn’t what you’d expected. That rings truest of all to me. Because every time I try to imagine the future, I’m wrong. Even if I’m right I’m wrong. Because that’s how it works. I’m glad Sex and the City got that (mostly) right.

Posted by Tamar at 09:33 PM

February 23, 2004

The Handler bums me out

This TV season sucks rocks. I thought it was going to be okay, a grand total of two new shows to watch (Joan of Arcadia and The Handler) but now I’ve reconsidered. The Handler went from impressive to imbecilic in record time. Is this the first time a show jumped the shark before the first thirteen episode run ended? Because it did. I’m still in shock. Wondering who was responsible, how that went down. I know someone who works on the show, maybe I could ask. But can you imagine that conversation? “Hi, I haven’t spoken to you in a while, how’s it going?” Bla bla bladee bla. “Oh yeah, sounds great. Hey, I’ve been watching your show. Yeah. It started out so great, what happened?” What do you mean, what happened? “Well, why does it stink now?” Bla anger bladee bite me bla bla go away and never call again.

So maybe not. But really. The pilot and at least half a dozen episodes after that were terrifically crafted hours. The show is about an FBI team that goes undercover on a regular basis to uncover and nail criminals in the act. It dealt – at least at first – with the bigger issues like going so deeply undercover you lose your real identity, like becoming over-fond of the bad guys, like being asked to do something by the bad guy that is morally repugnant and then what do you do? And, most compellingly, being afraid every single second that you’ll blow your cover and end up dead.

The situation is inherently fascinating: actors who take on roles as real-life people. How do you do that? How do you make it believable in every improvised moment? What toll does it take on your life and your psyche? Add to that a stable of good storytellers and you’ve got the makings of something memorable.

But the last few episodes, something’s happened to the sharpness, the darkness, the intensity of it. It’s all gone. A recent episode involved a woman going undercover as an Irish nanny in a house where the previous nanny had gone missing, presumed murdered. Was it the dad or the teenage son? Why was the younger son so scared? It had its moments, but it all felt like a cookie cutter whodunit mystery, with a screamingly obvious answer. All that was left was a bit of creepiness all around and some oddly flat characterizations. Plus an affecting moment – just one – with the little boy. That was disappointing enough, but every show has a clunker every now and then. The one after it was a little better, though also terribly obvious and not all that interesting. In it, a senator accused of having an affair with and then murdering an intern sends his lawyer to give the intern’s roommate hush money. Was it what it seemed? Could they find out what really went down? Do I care? I don’t watch this show for the mysteries, I watch it for the characterizations, the depth, the scares. And the last episode, something about putting down horses for the insurance money, that one was downright bad. Obvious plot setup, repeated dialogue, tons of exposition and very little of anything else. Bad.

When Dan is between shows – that is, when one series ends and he’s out of work till he finds a new gig – we end up watching a lot of different series. Every time he gets an interview we (or at least he) tries to catch up on the series (or in the case of a new show, sit down with the pilot). It’s a reminder of how very much bad TV is out there. Pedestrian. Obvious. No subtlety, no surprises, no freshness. Is it that writers are under-trained or is this what the networks think they want? It obviously doesn’t work, judging from the trail of cancelled shows this season leaves in its wake. HBO trumps the competition every year at the Emmys for a reason. A Sex and the City or a Six Feet Under is so different, so much more engaging than a District or a Tarzan. Monk was fun and fresh and actually funny the first season but then hit the predictables in its second season when it turned into a Murder She Wrote style unravel-the-mystery serial. It’s just not that interesting. Nor is another new soap opera a la Melrose Place (The L Word, The OC). Nor is another new law show following the path trod by LA Law and the many shows that came after it. Meet the plaintiff, hear the emotional story, but oh, it's unwinnable, but wait, a twist: a witness breaks down on the stand. Yeah, fascinating. The first time you see it. After the umpteeth show, not so fascinating anymore.

I’m pissed that The Handler is turning into a clunker. I wish it had kept the promise it made with the pilot. A promise to be daring, a promise to ask hard questions and thrill me. I want good TV, damnit. And there’s hardly any to be found.

Posted by Tamar at 10:06 PM | Comments (2)

February 05, 2004

Two Weeks Off and romcom musings

Alias and The Handler have been on winter hiatus, presumably storing their nuts for fall – err, I mean, stockpiling their episodes for February sweeps. But I need something to watch while exercising. I’ve been making my slow way through the Angels in America miniseries and I’m sure I’ll have something to say about it once I finish, but honestly? It’s fascinating but not ideal for aerobic sessions. Too talky, too serious. These are not flaws in the work, but definitely flaws in the workout.

So I switched to Two Weeks Notice, which I’d taped off HBO. I didn’t expect much beyond some snappy cute dialogue and some wincingly cliché situations. The first time I put it on the VCR, I ended up sweating my way up to forty minutes (my usual has been thirty). Obviously it held my interest.

I thought the first half of the movie was one of the best told romantic comedies I’d seen in a while. Sprightly, fun, the characters nicely delineated and not ones we’ve seen a million times. I admit to a soft spot for a woman who’s a fiery political activist and whose parents are too. Nice way to portray a lawyer for a change. And Hugh Grant’s character was pretty damn similar to Dudley Moore’s in Arthur except without the alcoholism or the butler – no, actually he has a butler-type chauffer dude, so I stand corrected – but he was nevertheless charming in that Hugh Grant sort of way, and the character was written self-aware and intelligent enough to make him quite likeable. Beyond that, though, I loved how the relationship between the characters built into something with a real back-and-forth and attitude built in. She’s his lawyer but he values her opinion so highly he asks for her advice on pretty much everything. There’s a lot of affection in that scenario, and also a lot of natural exasperation. The movie still has a typical romcom larger-than-life trying-too-hard dishonest sheen, but in a genial, fun way.

Then came the twist: she wants to quit. (Hey, it’s in the title, it’s not exactly a big shocker of a spoiler.) And after that the movie turned to shit. Genial, pleasant shit, but shit nevertheless. There’s a new pretty lady lawyer in a classic All About Eve setup. She poaches on Sandra Bullock’s man – I mean employer. Bullock doesn’t care but she does. Bullock and Grant share a kiss only it doesn’t count. He acts out. She acts out. They deny feelings. They have a big fight. And so on. Romantic Comedy Boilerplate Number Forty Two on the movie factory assembly line. All the individuality in the script was washed away by a river of clichés. I ceased caring about the characters because they ceased relating to each other, instead they were just pacing out their emotional beats in some formula cheat sheet sent out by a studio directive.

Man, was I pissed. I don’t know who was responsible for sabotaging that script, whether it was a flaw in the original script version or a result of some idiot’s notes, but they turned what was shaping up to be one of the freshest, most enjoyable romantic comedies I can remember into a cheap plastic toy of a movie.

Romantic comedies are hard. I’ve written a few myself. I don’t know why I did. In retrospect, it’s obviously not my métier. But I like good ones. And good ones are rare as hell. The problem is, it’s hard to keep two people apart in a funny way that allows them enough time actually in the same room to create sparks. When social spheres rarely mixed, marriage was forever, people didn’t have sex first (at least not on screen) and the Hayes Code was in full bloom, it was easier. There were plenty of ways to create emotional/sexual/romantic tension without resorting to bizarrely convoluted situations that seem as real as a photoshopped portrait of an emu in flight. Now? Not so easy. When Harry Met Sally did it well because it stayed real. It also had very little story, but that was okay. Now you need more story to get something made, though, and you end up with these meet-cute fight-cuter high concept nobody-really-lives-that-way formula pieces. It’s too bad. I do love good funny romance. It’s just hard to pull off.

I understand, I think, why someone decided Two Weeks Off needed some goosing in the second act. Fear of box office disaster. Fear of the great unknown. I just wish the filmmakers had trusted what they had a little (a lot) more. It would have been a far better movie.

Posted by Tamar at 11:20 PM | Comments (3)

January 26, 2004

Bend it Like Beckham

One of our vacation viewings, wherein we discovered the blended joy of TiVO with DirecTV plus Pay Per View, resulting in a movie that you pay for once and watch at your leisure with no late fees.

I started an entry about this one some days ago but I realized I didn’t know what to say. You have to understand, I was immersed in screenwriting and film for much of my adult life and before that I was a History and Literature major. I know how to talk about movies, how to evaluate story, how to analyze text. But here’s the thing. The story of the movie? Been done. Rocky meets My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Nothing terribly subtle about the telling, either. Fairly straight-ahead. And yet. Once the story got going, I liked it. A lot. Something about the performances, in part, but that’s also directing, a kind of offhand no-need-to-underline-everything attitude, a nice interplay between the two female friends (are Dan and I the only ones who expected a kiss?) (except of course that we knew the movie had been a breakout hit with no mention of lesbian content, so we knew not to expect it for real, but boy was the subtext there). Also an unexpectedly nice build of the (hetero) romantic relationship. I actually believed the growing bond between the two, that they shared something beyond a physical attraction. I also understood for the first time the social pressures on a family that lives so completely within an ethnic enclave, that it’s not just fusty parochialism that makes parents disapprove of steps outside the known and familiar, there are repercussions. I appreciated all that. And the movie made sense to me, character sense, and it’s rare that a fluffy movie does that.

I liked it. A lot. In the end, I guess despite its unsubtle approach, the film had its own kind of subtlety.

Posted by Tamar at 11:00 PM | Comments (3)

January 15, 2004

When we caught Catch Me If You Can

Movie Review #2 in an ongoing series. Minor spoilers abound. Consider yourself warned.

We rented the DVD to watch on my birthday night. I disliked Minority Report, Spielberg's last outing, but this I liked. A lot, in fact. Just goes to prove once again that the director is not the alpha and the omega when it comes to filmmaking. Everyone involved did good work, particularly DiCaprio (who apparently shepherded this to production) and the writer, who wrote a sharp, well constructed script, not easy to do with a biographical story. But the main character made the movie for me.

I think part of the allure of a story like this is the way we all identify with the protagonist. We imagine pulling off quick-thinking stunts like conning a pilot's uniform out of an airline or learning lawyerspeak from courtroom dramas on TV -- and then having the chutzpah to use it in front of a real judge. Most of all, we imagine that we too could pull off the cons with charm and Frank Abagnale's eager grace. Becoming someone else, someone with more power and prestige, stepping into larger shoes, in a way it's the American Dream on steroids and minus business/medical/law school. In this case the character was a teenager pretending adulthood, which added a kind of poignance to the make-believe. And the fact that there really was a Frank Abagnale Jr. and this was (more or less) his true story adds a level of fascination: this really happened (more or less). People really were this fooled (rather more than less).

But if that were it, this would be as forgettable as the Harry Potter movies. Instead it's lingered in my memory. Why? The ending. No, I won't give it away, but it did what all the best endings do -- it surprised and satisfied and and gave the entire preceding story a somewhat deeper meaning and rightness. And it too really happened.

We watched the DVD extras, curious to find out more about this Abagnale guy. Tom Hanks, I think it was, said Frank can sell you anything because he seems so earnest. I think that's exactly it: he doesn't appear as much a charmer as earnest and invested in what he's saying. It's this very investment, this conviction, that's so compelling. Something to remember and use, huh?

Posted by Tamar at 09:44 PM | Comments (2)

January 11, 2004

Harry Potter and The Movie Reviewer

I keep meaning to write about the movies I’ve seen. I want to record my thoughts before they disappear, but there’s always something else to talk about.

Not today. Today you get to hear about what I thought of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Catch Me If You Can, Bend it Like Beckham and X2. We don’t see movies in the theater anymore, due to a small detail known as No Babysitter. (To be rectified this year. This is one of my New Year’s resolutions. To actually leave the house with my spouse and without my son. Shocking, I know.)

So. Harry Potter and the Bla Bla Bla.

(mild spoilers follow)

I like the books, though I have to admit I’m not in love with them. The first one enchanted me because of the world she created, that blend of English boarding school with structured, old fashioned magic, complete with wands and flying broomsticks. I also like her ability to plot a story that, spider-like, attaches its web to every surrounding branch and then tightens the strands into smaller and smaller concentric circles and in the end what seemed random comes together so neatly. I also like her main characters. How can you not? They’re endearing. Particularly Hagrid.

I dislike the way her world is divided into good and evil, black and white. The Malfoys are mean because they’re Bad People. Voldemort wants to take over the world because, well, um, he just does. Harry’s Muggle family are grotesque caricatures. Snape is a small grace note, seemingly evil but probably not. There are at least some shades of gray to his portrayal (though it’ll probably turn out he was always a good guy and never bad, therefore obliterating all grays). The main trio of kids are human but Slytherin students are all without fail mean, nasty children. This gives me pause. Are we teaching children to divide the world into us and them, then? I realize the Slytherin way is to divide the world into those with Magical Lineage and mudbloods. But how is it better to say they’re all bad because this belief of theirs is bad? It’s too easy. And very troubling.

I also dislike the way, in every single book (and therefore every movie), Dumbledore invite Harry to talk to him and Harry, for no reason at all, refuses to invite Dumbledore to help get him out of his hugely scary and nearly impossibly dangerous tangle. Once I'd accept. But you’d think he’d have learned by book four that it’s safe to talk to Dumbledore, wouldn’t you?

We watched the first movie when it came out on video. It doesn’t stick with me. I agreed with the reviews that said Chris Columbus (not my favorite director) had taken the wonder out of the magical surroundings. He has this habit of saying “Look! Here! Right here! Isn’t this great? Aren’t we clever?” Underlining any potential coolness with so many close-ups and musical trills and dark shadows that it’s no longer all that cool. Like someone spoiling the punch line by telegraphing it. Sometimes the best part of a movie or book or show is the discovery. Rowling is splendid at this. Columbus? Not so much.

Aside from that (major) flaw, well, it was still mediocre. The main child actor trio were barely credible, though Rupert Grint (a/k/a Ron Weasley) was a cut above. The story was… what was the story, again? Cerebus guarding something, right? Yeah, something like that. Anyway, like any action movie, the plot wasn’t really the point. The ride was. And the ride was acceptable enough for us to watch the sequel when it showed up on HBO.

Not a bad movie. Not a great one. Better than the first by a bit, largely because Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Harry, has grown into himself as an actor. He mugs less and has better reactions. He does best by doing little, and that’s absolutely fine. Rupert Grint has also grown as an actor, and is really very good. Emma Watson (Hermione) perhaps mugs a tad less than in the first movie. She’s absent from the movie for a good long bit, so she’s certainly less noticeable. The adults are all wonderful in their parts, particularly Kenneth Branagh as the overblown self-aggrandizing windbag, Lockhart. I hated the guy on paper. Just another one-note characterization. But Branagh made his pomposity fun to watch. And I fell in love with Jason Isaac’s evilness in Patriot (the best part of that movie), and he was equally delicious here in the small role of Malfoy Senior.

And the story? In the novel I loved the part where Harry interacts with the ostensibly blank book he finds. I found Tom Riddle compelling and even perhaps likeable. In the movie, this section is over very quickly, seems more like a plot device, and Riddle is flatter and less intriguing. In the last moment of that odd flashback, he seems positively menacing. Distrust your audience much, Mr. Columbus? But I like Moaning Myrtle and the snake talk and the slow build of tension and dread. The necessary set-up of the first movie out of the way, this one could concentrate more on the story it was telling. I enjoy watching that prep school world. It reminds me in its way of college, going about your business in and around beautiful historical buildings. And I like the ghosts and the teachers and even the plot twists, though they’re necessarily less complex than in the book.

I’ll watch the next movie. Even maybe look forward to it. I like Prisoner of Azkaban the best of the novels and I’m very glad the series is switching directors. I wasn’t crazy about y tu mama tambien (though the ending redeemed it), but it had a rough freshness and an honesty that this series could use.

I had more to say than I thought. I guess I’ll be writing these reviews one by one, not in a rush.

Posted by Tamar at 10:27 PM | Comments (2)

November 10, 2003

Brother Bear

Unlike Finding Nemo, Brother Bear is not a movie you're likely to see if you don't have kids. The reviews have not been terribly kind. My expectations were low and for most of the movie, they were justified. Then why did I find myself crying at the end? A dash of manipulation with a pinch of sentiment, yes, but more, I think this is a movie that's actually more than the sum of its parts.

The parts are not so good: animation that jitters, an odd design choice for the small bear (he looks cartoonish, where the main character bear looks almost elegantly drawn), a bickering relationship that has no basis in true differences but feels manufactured to follow the conventions of the form, characterizations so shallow I couldn't remember which human brother was which, sappy-bad songs, and a deus ex machina so blatant and simplistic it hardly seemed enough to hang a tale thereon.

But somewhere around the salmon run sequence -- the end of Act 2, I'd guess -- I realized I cared about these characters. I cared about the revelation of the (extremely obvious) big emotional twist, I cared about what the main character would do to make things right. I cared about those damned bears. And when the spirits came down (sorry if that's a spoiler, but it's a pretty vague one), I got teary. Reunions: the living with the dead, the living with the ones they thought were enemies. All very satisfying. No doubt partly that's because it's a deep-seated wish we all have, to reconnect in that pure way with lost loved ones. But the movie actually brought me there in its own right. Despite several formulaic story beats, there was enough that was fresh in the milieu and tone. It worked.

It's a mystery to me. Why do some stories click and others, with the same storytelling care (or better) and the same mix of original and hackneyed, end up feeling trite and dull? What is that extra spark that's not in inventive, creative storytelling but lies somewhere else?

(An interesting aside: toward the end of the movie, Damian told me how he thought it would end. I thought he was wrong, that it would end in a much more predictable way. Well, he was right, I was wrong. Maybe that's one thing I liked about this movie.)

Posted by Tamar at 09:38 PM

November 03, 2003

Alias, I love you

I usually go for shows like Homicide (gritty but quirky), ER in its early years (whiplash and poignancy), anything put out by the Zwick/Herskovitz team (thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, Relativity, Once and Again – real-feeling relationships with buckets of subtext), Homefront (set after WWII but real-feeling relationships with buckets of subtext), and the like.

Okay, maybe that “and the like” part was a little vague. Let me put it another way: I like quirk but I also like real and I especially like things that make me feel without shoving my face in the emotion.

So what’s my current favorite show? Alias.

Real? Um, not exactly. More like comic book Bam! Pow! Ow! chopsockey mixed with high tech gadgetry and mind-spinningly complex spy stories. This is utterly not my thing. Or so you’d think. Except that I used to love James Bond movies despite their wincingly awful woman-as-happy-harlot bits. The movies make little sense and have virtually no character development – in fact, when Timothy Dalton came along and tried (I assume it was his fault) to add some brooding and backstory, it backfired big time and booted him right out of the job. But they were fun in a mindless guilty pleasure sort of way. Alias is like that, only without the “c’mere and fuck me, eye-candy lady” part because of course the eye candy lady is the main character and is a bright, independent sort of person to boot.

If the show was all uberspy superdrama, I’d get bored pretty quick, though. Ultimately, in most TV shows (excepting puzzle dramas like Law and Order) it’s the characters that keep you hooked. And this series is no exception. I love Spy Daddy’s stone faced love for his daughter, I love Spy Momski’s double-triple-quadruple crosses, always with this warm droopy-eyed love-you-baby even-if-I-have-to-kill-you sort of expression. I love Dixon’s serious mien and difficult moral decisions (and I just plain love Carl Lumbley), I love the slow development of the main love story with Vaughn and its painful current state. I love Marshall’s silliness (shades of Q, of course, with his tech toys and eccentricities but extended into more than a one note cameo – Marshall has at least two notes to play) and Weiss’s wry warmth and Sloane’s doe-eyed creepiness. I love the show, basically. And I think Jennifer Garner kicks ass, and not just in the obvious way. Her face is so mobile and expressive, she says it all without words. I don’t think she’s quite Oscar caliber, not yet, nor does the role allow for that level of acting. But she’s damned good and I think can become great. Which is crucial, because we see this world through her eyes and her chops make the absurd believable because she invests it with so much authenticity.

I was never a big fan of Felicity, J.J. Abrams' earlier outing. Maybe because I missed the first season, but except for Scott Foley’s general adorableness, I never quite got what made people gush. I felt like it was trying for the Zwick/Herskovitz tone but that it never achieved the same level of emotional complexity. Everything seemed too clearly drawn, too clean and simple and so it never leaped off the screen for me. But somehow Abrams has translated that same sensibility to a spy show and made it pop. There’s less time for the personal so perhaps the personal feels less labored and therefore more affecting. Or maybe it’s just that in a larger-than-life always-on-the-verge-of-disaster premise, his kind of bold strokes fit better. I’m not sure. All I can tell you is that it’s a smart, fun show and I’m good and hooked.

Oh, and it’s the absolute most perfect show for a workout session. I’m skiing on my Nordic Track watching Jennifer Garner kick butt and the combination of adrenaline and “Man, I want to look like that” (well, okay not quite like that, but closer than now) does wonders for my endurance.

Posted by Tamar at 10:19 PM | Comments (3)

October 18, 2003

20 Dates, fact or fiction?

I was intrigued by the reviews of 20 Dates when it came out in 1999 but somehow (kid) never (small kid) got around (not even a toddler yet) to seeing it. So I was pleased when it showed up on HBO’s rotation and we nabbed it with TiVo. Well, it wasn’t quite what I thought it would be, and I’m still processing what I think of it. It was clever, amusing, and not exactly on the level.

The concept in a nutshell: Myles Berkowitz is a recently divorced 30something obnoxious Jewish nebbish of a screenwriter living in LA. He’s likeable in his way, though he does tend to put people on the spot. He sets out to make a documentary following his theoretical search for love: he’ll have a small crew film each of twenty dates. Along the way, round about date fifteen, he falls for the woman he’s dating and it turns into a sweet romantic comedy, complete with a starry-eyed couple romping in the surf and cuddling in front of the fire. The dilemma then becomes: does he finish his movie, his set of twenty dates and risk his now-girlfriend’s growing displeasure, or does he stop and find out if his nasty producer really means all those threats? That’s right, the movie has the same dramatic arc it would if it were fiction. I’m not altogether sure it’s not.

I got on Google and found a few interviews with the filmmaker. He variously called his work a documentary and mockumentary, admitted to tampering with the dramatic process a bit, but mostly by way of putting himself and his camera in situations that caused drama – ie: trying to get onto studio lots to film his opening monologue without first getting a drive-on pass. Was he being disingenuous in the interviews or was he for real? The people in his movie all went under their true names, and he had a date set for his marriage to the woman in his movie.

My guess is that it was a bit of both. He saw that the movie wasn’t gelling and so he goosed the drama by staging some scenes and exaggerating others. I think it’s a documentary in the sense that Survivor, with all its staged challenges, is reality TV. Is this a bad thing? I’m not sure. It makes good watching, but it feels like a cheat. But it’s in keeping with some of the dates early in the film, like the one where the woman discovers that a film crew has been filming their date and is hurt and appalled, feeling like she’s been manipulated and made a figure of fun. I felt for Berkowitz in that moment; his desire for a real date was, I think, sincere. But I felt more for this woman who found out that she was on some bizarre 21st century form of Candid Camera. It seems to me that if you’re the kind of person who thinks it’s acceptable to film a woman on a first date without her knowledge, you’re also the kind of person who has no moral problems with pulling a fast one on the audience and turning a documentary into a piece of fiction.

It was an entertaining movie and as I watched, I found myself liking the fast-talking, neurotic Myles Berkowitz and being happy for him that he’d found love. But I nevertheless walked away with a sour taste in my mouth. Nobody – not a hapless woman on a blind date, not me the viewer sitting on my couch late at night – likes being a patsy.

Posted by Tamar at 11:51 PM