Wednesday, September 7, 2011

My new film blog

I haven't written anything on here in ages, so I don't expect anyone to care about this recent turn of events, but I now have a new film/television blog (which is a disguise for me to post whatever I would like to post) called The Critical Escapist.

In the past few months, I basically came to realize that Twitter isn't a sufficient enough outlet for my rants and I need an entire blog for it.

R.I.P. Because I Saw The Film. We had some good times, but things I start during my sophomore year of high school just aren't meant to last.

So long live The Critical Escapist? We'll see, my dears.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Movie Blogger Survey

Love the classics? Or just films in general? Take the Movie Blogger Survey!

If you're a fellow film blogger, you can also promote this survey on your blog and receive a free DVD.

Have fun, guys.

Friday, September 3, 2010

In defense of Two and a Half Men

The Internet's most unpopular title card.

I can feel the bullet wounds already.

Somewhere between the time Two and a Half Men became the highest-rated sitcom in America and to the time Two and a Half Men remained the highest-rated sitcom in America, it has become cool to hate the show.

In a recent bout of depression, I finally watched a rerun in its entirety. I pretty much live on syndication. And it wasn't too bad. In fact, I watched other episodes and they weren't completely horrible either. I don't even remember why I hated it so much in the first place other than the fact that, while channel-surfing, it seemed really stupid. I am about to swallow my words.

Let's acknowledge what most of the Internet (15 to 35 year olds) and I agree about this show: It's not brilliant, it's not groundbreaking, it's not special, it's probably aimed at ordinary, middle-aged men and 10 year boys (your parents and your baby nephew), it's surprising that it's the number one sitcom in America, and it has more cheap potty humor than it should have.

But here's what we disagree on: I find it rather endearing, entertaining, full of potential, and occasionally, very funny. Shoot me, please.

I don't understand how anyone can fault the actors in the show because they are not the problem. The Emmys seem to agree with me.

Sheen was painfully bland in his Golden Globe-winning (?!) performance as Michael J. Fox's replacement in Spin City, but in his own vehicle, he is a reliable lead. His acting style epitomizes the title of Jason Alexander's book in the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, Acting Without Acting. Having said that, Sheen does a very good, effortless job of playing himself, minus the more controversial aspects of his real-life self. Comedians have been playing caricatures of themselves for years and while Sheen is not a comedian, he is pretty funny in the show by being a self-centered, often drunk, irresponsible, lazy bastard, commitment-phobe jingle writer with some sort of questionable heart.

Considering all the negative reaction to Jon Cryer's Supporting Actor Emmy win last year (and nomination this year), I wonder: Has anyone actually seen Jon Cryer's performance in Two and a Half Men? Cryer, as Alan, Charlie's divorced chiropractic brother, is technically co-lead, but submitting himself in the supporting category is basically a stroke of genius. While the point of being a "supporting actor" is to impress the audience with limited screen time, Sheen will always be seen as the real "star" of the show. Especially since Cryer's paycheck is almost half of Sheen's.

So back to my original question: Is the quality of Cryer's performance really so much worse than Jack McBrayer (30 Rock), Tracy Morgan (30 Rock), Kevin Dillon (Entourage), Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother), and Rainn Wilson (The Office)? I've seen all the performances except for Dillon's in Entourage, and Cryer's doesn't pale so much in comparison. While Harris was widely considered to be robbed that year, and yes, Harris is a fine actor, but his performance doesn't strike me as so much more superior than the performances of his fellow nominees. Harris now has two Emmys, anyway.

However, Cryer's performance conveys all the anguish of a desperate, self-pitying, middle-aged loser trying to cope with the dating scene and the antics of his playboy brother. A George Costanza with morals.

Angus T. Jones as Alan's son, Jake, is very good. In the earlier seasons, Jake is pretty much there to be confused about the sexual double entendres, but he watches and learns. Is that appropriate? Well, Jones' parents seem to approve. Jones is much more natural than most Disney child stars and has chemistry with all the actors in the show, except that as he ages, he seems to lack an essential father-son rapport with Cryer. As Jake ages, his dialogue is dumbed down to miserable potty humor, but Jones manages to surprisingly deliver his lines with an odd deadbeat charm.

This show has often been criticized by many for its portrayal of women. Yes, the women who comes in and out of Charlie's life are often shown as bimbos. Guess what? Bimbos exist. And there are also men who objectify women. Charlie is one of those men. And these women voluntarily, willingly sleep with Charlie. Those kind of women also exist and those kind of men certainly don't mind.

But the other regular female characters on this show are far from being bimobs. Yes, they are flawed, but again, who isn't?

Judith (Marin Hinkle), Alan's ex-wife, is probably the most unsympathetic recurring female character. Judith divorces Alan because she's questioning her sexuality and after the divorce, she makes Alan pay for everything because she doesn't seem to have a job. But besides her obvious bitchiness, she does seem like a good mother who cares about what is best for her son.

Evelyn (Holland Taylor), Charlie and Alan's promiscuous mother, is a strong, independent woman. Evelyn's dominance of the Harper household--after her husband's suicide--is probably what sways her sons to weaker, more docile women. It makes sense. Taylor's multiple Emmy nominations are due to the fact that she's a masterful scene stealer. Her false attempts to spend time with her grandson, only to roll her eyes at an episode SpongeBob SquarePants and proclaim that "Life's too short" is the stuff comedic wonders are made of.

Berta (Conchata Ferrell), Charlie's housekeeper, is also a strong, independent woman who is able to get the job done and keep the family in place. And some people believe Berta's character is demeaning because she's a unpleasant, overweight maid. While she's not a young hot thing, she's sensible and cuts all the bullshit. Ferrell adds a dose of magic to even the simplest line readings. Even to something as simple as "Bite me."

I am particularly impressed with Melanie Lynskey's performance as Rose, Charlie's stalker and Jake's occasional babysitter. While Rose is probably one of the most manipulative, disturbing characters that has ever graced television, I don't think I can ever hate her. Lynskey plays her with such innocence, sweetness, sharpness, and wonderful comedic timing that it's a surprise that the writers never bothered to expand her role. Every time she is on screen, she brings the best out of all the actors. Lynskey (and this show) manages to make a stalker work as a character and a potential love interest.

The story lines for the episodes has often been criticized as being "unoriginal," "repetitive," and "formulaic." Here are some sample story lines:

- Charlie meets up with an old flame, only to find out that she has undergone a sex change (and is now Chris O'Donnell). They agree to be friends. When the ex-girlfriend--now a man--meets Evelyn, they end up dating. Charlie and Alan need to decide how to break the news to their mother.

- Chelsea, Charlie's girlfriend then fiancee, sets Alan up on a blind date. Charlie and Alan soon realize at the restaurant that Alan's blind date is Rose. Rose proceeds to pretend that she doesn't know the men and Charlie and Alan play along.

- At first, Rose's father (Martin Sheen) seems like an authoritative man. When he becomes too attached to Evelyn, Rose comes in and deals with her father, who seems to show the same mental instabilities that Rose possess.

These are arguably solid sitcom story lines. Sure, these story lines aren't complex or clever, but they're mildly creative, simple, and fun.

The jokes are a different story. Some of the jokes are sometimes just tasteless, many are predictable. There is a conversation in the season seven finale where Jake describes what he does to his butt and compares it to a hot dog; Sheen's disgusted reaction looks extraordinarily genuine.

Creators Chuck Lorre and Lee Aronsohn are above that kind of humor. I know that because the story lines are occasionally creative, the dialogue is occasionally witty and sharp, and I see random bursts of brilliance in this show all over the place. But its good qualities are not being embraced or harvested. It's like CBS comes in and tells Lorre and Aronsohn that the show is a big hit with a particular demographic--the mainstream blue collar/middle-aged men and 10 year old boys--and as condescending douchebags, they convince Lorre and Aronsohn to add in a penis joke here and a fart joke there. Because apparently, the mainstream cannot live without those.

But I don't know what 10 year boys like. Maybe 10 year boys do like fart jokes. I don't know.

The thing about Two and a Half Men is that it's one of the few network sitcoms right now that's not "cute." It doesn't aspire to be cute, unlike Lorre and Aronsohn's other project, The Big Bang Theory. Two and a Half Men appeals to the beer-drinking, working class forty-something and the sons of those beer-drinking, working class forty-somethings. That's a large part of America, if ratings prove anything.

Still, it breaks my heart seeing all the potential go to waste. This is a show that could be about a goofy, modern family unit that could only exist in sitcom-verse--the matriarch, the polar opposite brothers, the son of an unconventional family, the ex-wife, the ex-wife's husband, the maid, the stalker, the occasional new girlfriend, etc. While the show isn't clever, it certainly has a clever set of characters.

There are sitcoms that are as good as they ever going to get. This show could be so much more than the cheap, disposable humor wasteland it sometimes is. Take away all the potty humor and here's a show with tons of potential. Yeah, I like this show for what it could be more than what it is. But haters can hate. And I know there are a lot of you guys out there.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Being sentimental about 'North'

Elijah Wood is the outstanding, but neglected child in North. Photo courtesy of an Elijah Wood fan site.

When I was younger, my mom told me this great bedtime story. It was about a bunny whose mother made her a homemade backpack for her to bring to the first day of school. But when the bunny saw some other animal's backpack (they're all anthropomorphic animals, I guess), the two traded backpacks. And the bunny keeps trading backpacks and she's still unsatisfied. She goes to a wise, old anthropomorphic animal and he helps her to get her original backpack that her mom made for her back.

Okay, the story was better coming from my mom. And I was five, so I wasn't too difficult to impress.

Anyway, I've always loved that story because I love the fact that the bunny was able to get her original backpack back in the end. Regrets can be reversed. I wished the real world was like that.

So even though my mom told me bedtime stories (I think that is the only one she's ever told me) and I lived in the suburbs (could've been worse, right?), I eventually had this phase where I wanted different parents. Now, I understand that most children don't really want different parents; they just want their original parents to be different, like, you know, not as annoying and demanding. You know, the usual. But I was 10. I didn't know the difference. I just wanted my parents to be different--different attitudes, different personalities, different jobs, different people, if that's what it takes.

It's a selfish, horrible thought, but a thought indeed.

Which brings me to Rob Reiner's 1994 family film, North. A critical and financial failure, the film tells the story of a young boy, North (Elijah Wood) who wants to emancipate ("divorce") himself from his parents (Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus--OMG I KNOW GEORGE AND ELAINE) who just don't appreciate him like everyone else does. He's an excellent student, athlete, and actor--so why can't his parents just stop screaming at each other at the dinner table and pay some attention to him?

After North is emancipated, he goes on a worldwide, two-month search for new parents. He goes to Texas, Hawaii, Alaska, an Amish community, China, Africa, France, and New York. Let the ethnic stereotypes, celebrity cameos (Kathy Bates, Reba McEntire, Dan Aykroyd, John Ritter, Faith Ford, etc.), random Bruce Willis appearances (as some sort of mentor who dresses for the occasion), nervous laughter, and "what the f---"s run loose!

Back at home, his parents are comatose and are displayed at the Smithsonian. Children across America are threatening their parents: if the parents don't fulfill their wishes (one kid commands him mom to clean his room for him), they will, like North, emancipate themselves.

This revolution is led by North's journalist friend, Winchell (Matthew McCurley), who is like 10 or something and he's this expert stalker (it's his job!) who gives these Hitler-esque speeches on podiums across the nation. I wonder what his parents think about that? Anyway, Winchell works with North's lawyer (Jon Lovitz) so they can take over America. Or something like that.

When North begins to have second thoughts (I don't want to actually spoil anything), Winchell tries to murder North because North getting new parents is the key of Winchell's success. The kids are listening to Winchell, and in turn, their parents (who are being threatened) are listening to the kids. Winchell even hires a hitman. Yeah, that's right, KIDS STUFF. I DON'T EVEN KNOW ANYMORE.

And why is North named North? Because that's a really, really strange name.

It's probably cliched if I wrote about all the problems with this movie and how horrible it is. So I won't do that. Mainly because I don't hate this movie and I don't even think it's horrible? The reason I wanted to see this movie for the longest time was because of Roger Ebert's infamous review. I bought the VHS from Amazon for $3 plus shipping. But good thing I ended up liking it, right? Sorry, Roger Ebert!

Honestly, I would be lying if I said I didn't like it. I actually think it's a very funny, sweet, touching movie, minus the jokes about the dead fat kid, dying old people, ancient Chinese hairstyles, barren wombs, Jerry Lewis dominating French television, the Amish, and topless African women. There are also weird sex jokes and unnecessary shots of prostitutes? I DON'T KNOW. The ethnic jokes are often awful and awkward, yet pretty harmless. However, I totally understand why many people would find the jokes offensive.

But I connect with the movie's message, which is pretty much that you don't appreciate what you have until you lose it. And that message is very personal to me. I guess I'm just being sentimental, but who said criticism was objective?

The opening scene conveys a sense of wonder that I haven't seen in recent children's films. Elijah Wood is particularly wonderful as North; he's just so natural, authentic, and convincing. Matthew McCurley is entirely too convincing as the full-blown evil mastermind in a child's body, but he manages to be very funny. And this movie is basically non-stop entertainment; even when there's a terrible joke being uttered, there is still something going on in the movie (the terrible joke being uttered). It's never boring.

So I like North. I also like Batman and Robin and Gigli. Oops? JUST BEING HONEST.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

How I wanted to care

A few months ago, writer/director Joe Leonard sent me a screener for his film, How I Got Lost. (Thanks! Free movie!) Yesterday afternoon, when I was sitting around doing nothing, I thought, well, why not watch it?

Here is another film pondering the meaning of life and what it's all about. Why is it that the filmmakers of my generation and the generation before mine so obsessed with that topic? And why haven't any of those filmmakers been able to provide an original, thoughtful answer?

It's all about going wild! Getting out of your comfort zones! Doing something different! Be spontaneous! Be what you really want to be! Be yourself!

Before we get too excited about all this, let me introduce you to Jake and Andrew, denizens of a post-9/11 New York.

Jake (Aaron Stanford) is an aspiring novelist, which is the best profession when you're pondering the meaning of life. It's always nice to ponder the meaning of life with a typewriter too, even though it's 2002 and everyone else uses a computer. I realize this is an artistic choice, but seriously though!

However, he has an unsatisfying job as a sports writer who covers women's basketball. To add insult to injury, his girlfriend just broke up with him. So not only does he have a job that he absolutely hates, he is suffering from heartbreak and has yet to discover that computers are much more useful than typewriters.

But images of his break-up continue to haunt him. With sappy music and cheesy dialogue.

Andrew (Jacob Fishel) works at Wall Street with a bunch of phonies. He just recently got out of a brief stint in jail and is Contemplating Life Through Alcohol.

The two frequent local bars and after one too many drinks, Jake and Andrew decide to embark on a road trip. First, via taxi. The New York cab driver gives them a free cab ride to Philadelphia if Jake just gives him his shoes. Lucky them. Second, Andrew goes to his mother's house to pick up a car so they can drive to the funeral of Andrew's father in Ohio.

During the "road trip" part of the film, we get more insights about how Jake and Andrew view their empty, disillusioned lives. Andrew hates sucking up to the big guys on Wall Street. He just wants to be the kind of person he wants to be, man!

There is a gas station scene where we are all supposed to believe that a young girl would be left alone at a gas station and give a ride to two grown men back to the middle of nowhere where their car is located. I think it's supposed to be comedic relief, but I'm not really buying it.

When Jake and Andrew finally arrive in small-town Ohio, they attend the memorial. Andrew finally cracks and throws a tantrum in front of his father's friends. The next day, Andrew is ready to leave, but Jake decides to stay in the town to plan Andrew's father's funeral. Wait, doesn't Jake have to work? And seriously now, what kind of person arrives at a memorial, humiliates his dead father, and leaves all the details of his deceased father's funeral arrangements to his friend?

No matter. Jake soon meets a waitress, Leslie (Rosemarie Dewitt), and they share an instant connection. Maybe offering to help Andrew's father's funeral arrangement was a good choice after all! But still!

How I Got Lost is ultimately a story about dealing with grief and friendship. It's about trying to find what's important and what's not underneath the phony exterior of everyday situations. It's about confronting reality and moving forward. It's the kind of film that has been made and made again. The message is getting old, cliched, and predictable. You have to be quite a brilliant mind to be able to make an excellent film about "finding yourself" because it's been done to death. It's almost Mission Impossible.

But it's also film with its heart in the right place. The performances are quite good--Stanford and Dewitt are lovely. But it's Fishel that manages to be warm, funny, tortured and interesting. But the film has serious pace issues--it's much too slow, drags too much, and doesn't seem to have any sort of end-point. It's a character piece, for sure, but the characters' motivations are so thin and incoherent that it's impossible to know where they're going. Yes, we want them to be happy again, but how? I wish I knew them better. C-