March 31, 2007

Movie Review: Blades of Glory

Posted in Movies at 2:46 pm by Calico Jack

After taking a detour into melancholy territory with last year’s film Stranger Than Fiction, Will Ferrell returns to his comedic roots in the pleasingly humorous Blades of Glory. Although it sticks closely to the Ferrell Formula established in Anchorman and Talladega Nights (egotistical newscaster/race car driver/ice skater faces adversity, loses #1 position, must learn to work with others in order to regain first-ranked spot), Blades of Glory is slightly better than either of the previous two films due to its more consistently funny lines and the presence of a foil (Jon Heder) who can more than hold his own against Ferrell’s shtick.

Ferrell plays the pretentiously-named Chazz Michael Michaels, a middle-aged, showboating ice skater who uses his outrageously sexualized antics on the ice to draw the love of the crowds — most especially the ladies. Competing in the men’s finals of the 2002 Winter Olympics along with Michaels is his archrival Jimmy MacElroy (Heder), whose graceful performances and swan-like motions have kept the two of them rotating in and out of the top spot in every competition they’ve entered.

After an unexpected tie leads both skaters to the gold-medal podium, Michaels and MacElroy lose their tempers and engage in a brawl that ends with them banned from men’s figure skating for life. Three and a half years later, Michaels lives as a washed-up rock star, performing in a costumed ice musical and swilling enough booze to entertain the hookers in his backstage dressing room. After being disowned by his greedy adoptive father (William Fichtner in a nice Prison Break-esque role), MacElroy sells skates for a living. Enter Jimmy’s fawning stalker-fan who arrives at the ski shop one day to tell him that — surprise, surprise — according to the rules manual, a lifetime ban only applies to the division in which Jimmy was skating. (It took the fan over three years to figure that out? He must have been an awfully slow reader.) This means that MacElroy can skate in the pairs division for the upcoming Nationals; all he has to do is find a partner.

Through a stroke of scriptwriting fortune, Michaels and MacElroy run into each other and repeat their escapades from several years earlier by once again brawling, leading MacElroy’s former coach to come up with the bright idea of putting two men into pairs skating. The second half of Blades of Glory mostly focuses on Michael and MacElroy’s training for the National Championships against their new rivals, a brother and sister duo (played with perfect comedic timing by real-life spouses Will Arnett and Amy Poehler) who, when not cuddling on bearskin rugs and bemoaning the number of “freaks” in the sport, will stop at nothing to crush Michaels and MacElroy in the competition–including forcing their younger sister Katie (Jenna Fischer from The Office) to act as a spy…although Katie could be just the thing Jimmy needs to get rid of of some of his more feminine attributes.

Much of the humor in Blades of Glory is extremely broad and rather dumb, but it’s also quite funny (although not gut-wrenchingly hilarious); and directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck know not to get in the way of their actors. Ferrell and Heder nicely play off of each other’s lines, and Heder especially shows that he can get past his Napoleon Dynamite mannerisms that have plagued him in his last several films. Blades of Glory also doesn’t get bogged down in its own script, keeping the less-thin-than-it-could-have-been plot humming along quite smoothly for an hour and a half. There are some nice in-jokes for skating fans, including a who’s who cameo of former skating stars and Scott Hamilton as an overly earnest on-air personality. This critic also appreciated several subtle touches to detail, such as overlaying snippets of curling while an announcer proudly talks about “the best in winter sports!”

Blades of Glory won’t make anyone’s top-10 lists for the year, but it is a funnier-than-average comedy with some nice visual gags and a uniformly strong supporting cast. Apart from a few missteps (one being a particular scene in North Korea that really takes the film out of its comedic element) and a ludicrous final scene that goes from plausibility to fantasy in a few short seconds, Blades of Glory keeps its audience smiling and laughing — which is more than many modern comedies can say. Stay for the end credits to watch a hilarious scene involving Jimmy’s stalker and several dolls.

B.

March 29, 2007

Rosie’s Meltdown

Posted in Politics at 9:06 pm by Calico Jack

Just when you think she couldn’t possibly get any more asinine…

Thanks to Ace.

March 23, 2007

Movie Review: Shooter

Posted in Movies at 9:25 pm by Calico Jack

Director Antoine Fuqua has several good movies under his belt, including Training Day and Tears of the Sun. A prestigious track record makes it even more unfortunate that Fuqua has stumbled with Shooter, a strictly by-the-numbers action film that struggles to claw its way out of mediocrity. Even with a solid supporting cast and a few deft directorial touches, Paqua is unable to save this film from being anything more than an often entertaining, instantly forgettable movie with more plot holes than a piece of John Woo Swiss cheese.

Shooter begins with an exciting prelude set in Ethiopia, as U.S. military sniper Bobby Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg) and his spotter, lying in ambush at the top of a mountain, take out a convoy of enemy forces driving through the valley below. These opening scenes are full of sniper chatter as the two discuss ranges, wind speed, target velocity, and quite a few other technical details that, for once, sound completely authentic and give Shooter early credibility. Unfortunately for Swagger, this once-simple mission goes horribly awry, leading him to resign his commission afterwards and retire to a hermit’s life deep in the Generic Western Mountain Range. Of course, Swagger still keeps up his sniper skills; one never knows when they might come in handy.

Three years later, Colonel Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover) and his retinue of sunglass-wearing federal agents show up at Swagger’s retreat, warning him of an imminent assassination attempt on the President’s life. All they know from an internal communiqué is that it will happen in the next three weeks, and will involve a sniper shot at a distance of over a mile. Johnson wants Swagger, one of the military’s best snipers, to recon the possible target cities and figure out where the assassin could possibly be able to make his shot.

Swagger reluctantly agrees, and after determining the only possible location where the sniper could be, is asked to act as the lead spotter for the counter-assassination team (because, after all, having Swagger return home to his beer-drinking, milk-jug-shooting cabin life would not make much of a movie). Suffice to say that once again, Swagger finds himself over his head as he is framed for the subsequent attempt on the President’s life, and literally everyone around him decides to take a few potshots at his fleeing figure. I’m not giving anything away here, as it’s all in the trailer.

Severely wounded yet eager to clear his name and extract some Western-style payback along the way, Swagger enlists the help of his old spotter’s wife Sarah (Kate Mara), who has quite an important role in the first two-thirds of the film but ends up being little more than a plot device. As a nationwide manhunt begins for the not-so-ex-sniper, recently-graduated FBI agent Nick Memphis (Michael Peña) smells something fishy about the entire situation, and starts out on a loner’s quest to discover the truth.

The truth, unfortunately, is where Shooter loses much of its momentum. Government conspiracies are a tried-and-true staple of action films, but this one is preposterous enough to be almost laughable. How many other films feature a blowhard U.S. senator (Ned Beatty) spouting lines like “Americans don’t want to hear the truth behind the war, that it’s all about oil!” This statement is dismissible as an isolated line, but the senator’s predication eventually forms the underpinnings of Shooter‘s plot, and only weakens the overall story. Will Smith’s Enemy of the State worked in 1997, because it adroitly played on Americans’ concerns about government surveillance. But does anyone honestly believe, no matter what one’s views are on the Iraq War, that the United States started a conflict over oil? Glaring plot holes also detract from the overall enjoyment of the film, and a rather unrealistic ending, with a muddled ex post facto explanation, make one wonder how the final act made it past test audiences.

However, under Fuqua’s direction, Shooter does have some redeeming elements that might not have been there had it been filmed by someone less skilled. The pace moves along quite briskly for a two-hour film, and Fuqua knows how to get the most out of his actors. Wahlberg’s character is not a mindless action hero; he uses all of his sniper skills to attack, outmaneuver, and outthink his opponents. Ignoring the plot holes and the absurd rationale for the whole movie, Shooter is a fairly competent but entirely predictable action film featuring not one, but two hot ladies (always a bonus) and quite a few well-directed, intense action scenes. If only The Bourne Identity hadn’t done it so much better.

C+.

March 22, 2007

Movie Review: This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Posted in Movies at 9:42 pm by Calico Jack

In 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America instituted its film rating system as a way to inform Americans, especially parents, of a film’s content. Since 1934, the Production Code of America had regulated what filmmakers could and could not put into their movies. But under pressure from European directors free from such restrictions and Americans willing to push the boundaries of what was allowed, the MPAA realized that it could no longer censor movies. Instead, it decided to regulate them by giving ratings that would inform audiences of the level of adult content they might expect when seeing a film in theaters.

As culture has changed, ratings have also shifted. What used to be acceptable in a PG film is now delegated to a PG-13 level. At the same time, content that once was reserved for an R rating (especially violence) now finds a comfortable home in the appeal-to-all-demographics PG-13. On the other hand, explicit (and sometimes otherwise) sexual content has been increasingly restricted, an issue with which filmmakers have expressed frustration for many years. In 1990, the NC-17 rating was formed to give directors the freedom to create films that would not be stigmatized by the letter X.

However, the plan never quite worked out as well as it should have. Distributors were hesitant to release films with an NC-17 rating, fearing audience backlash. Subsequently, production companies were unable to provide the marketing budget needed to effectively promote their films. By the end of the 1990s, receiving an NC-17 rating often meant the kiss of death for filmmakers. They could re-edit their movies to meet the MPAA’s standard for an R film, they could take their chances with an NC-17 label and hope to gain distribution, or they could ignore the MPAA and release the film as an “unrated” version.

This rather lengthy introduction sets the stage for gonzo journalist Kirby Dick’s documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Dick protests that the MPAA is thoroughly corrupt, and he provides many reasons to back up his claim: major studios receive more leeway than independent studios do; sexual content is treated far differently than violent content; MPAA raters are anonymous, with no accountability; and, most importantly, the MPAA operates under a code of strict internal secrecy, leaving no transparency in regards to its decision-making process and no accountability.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated has two parts, one much more effective than the other. Dick is at his best and most fascinating when he interviews various filmmakers talking about the struggles that they went through in dealing with the MPAA. Directors such as Matt Stone, Kevin Smith, John Waters, and Kimberly Peirce detail example after example of the MPAA’s inconsistency in giving films an NC-17 rating, even though exactly the same content had previously been shown in an R film. A situation involving a man would receive a less-stringent rating than the same type of scene involving a woman, implying a severe gender bias. Movies can depict graphic violence and barely move from a PG-13 to an R (and sometimes not at all), but show a woman topless and the film lands squarely in R territory.

Some of the filmmakers’ comments come across a bit petulantly, and the word “censorship” is thrown around far too often — after all, the MPAA only tells filmmakers its rating for a certain film, regardless of whether or not it might be much harder to obtain distribution with a restrictive rating. Occasionally, the MPAA tells filmmakers to snip a few seconds of footage here or remove a fifteen-second scene there; but many times it will not give directors guidelines as to what they would need to do in order to receive an R rating.

Along with filmmakers, Dick interviews those few past members of the MPAA who are willing to speak out about the system they were a part of. It is shocking to hear that film raters receive no training in deciding what kind of content is appropriate for a certain rating level; they are merely supposed to “represent the average American parent.” Not only are they untrained, many do not even have children under the age of eighteen, the only group to which ratings matter. But the most damning evidence against the MPAA is its extreme secrecy. Identities of movie raters are a closely guarded secret, ostensibly to keep raters from outside pressure. Even the guidelines that the MPAA has in order to judge a film have never been revealed to the public. The MPAA insists that it applies these rules fairly and equitably, yet no one even knows what those rules are.

This is where the documentary stumbles, almost fatally. Dick hires two female private investigators to sniff out the identities of the MPAA raters in a style very reminiscent of Michael Moore. Much of This Film Is Not Yet Rated is devoted to Dick’s pursuit of these anonymous raters, which includes scenes of him and the investigators stalking people as they leave the gated MPAA building, following them to restaurants and snapping photos of their license plates, and even digging through the trash outside of their home late at night in an attempt to find anything they could discover about the internal workings of the movie ratings board. With half of the film being a detective story, This Film Is Not Yet Rated veers dangerously close to running off of its own rails. The interviews and history of the ratings system are far more compelling than seeing Dick and a middle-aged woman stalking people, which leaves a rather unpleasant taste. These scenes detract from the documentary significantly, especially towards the end of the film when Dick shows a lineup of names and pictures of most of the MPAA raters. This is an unnecessary, vindictive gesture, as those raters do not shape MPAA policy at all.

Fortunately, Kirby Dick ends his documentary on a high note, as he submits his (mostly) finished documentary to the MPAA for a rating. Because Kirby shows some of the content which filmmakers had to edit in order to receive an R, This Film Is Not Yet Rated gets slapped with an NC-17. Even more ironically, when Kirby tries to question the reasons behind the decision he is stonewalled by the MPAA’s lawyers, giving further proof to the claim that the MPAA is a organization accountable to no one. He appeals his decision, but the restrictions placed on him at the appeals meeting (with ten anonymous reviewers) are outrageously fascist: he cannot point out inconsistencies in ratings by comparing previously released films to his own, and he cannot cite precedent by the MPAA. After rightly protesting those limitations, Dick is told that those are the rules: they will not be changed. These closing scenes are some of the most effective in the film, as they provide firsthand evidence that the ratings system is hopelessly broken.

Few would deny the need for a ratings system to let parents know what to expect when taking their children to a film. And even some adults uncomfortable with certain content appreciate the warnings that the MPAA provides. In order to be an effective organization, however, the MPAA needs to become transparent, openly subject to public scrutiny and review. This will help to eliminate the glaring inconsistencies that have caused much of the moviegoing public to lose faith in the ratings system.

There are two ways to fix this problem. Either create minutely detailed rules and guidelines, and stick to them when reviewing every movie; or go with a more holistic approach to reviewing films that allows for exceptions and discrepancies. But no matter which way the MPAA chooses to go about fixing their problem, the public needs to see every single step of the process. After all, the MPAA exists to serve the public and not the movie studios…right?

Coda: Variety ran an interesting article several days days ago discussing the MPAA’s realization that it needs to have a rating higher than R, which filmmakers can use without stigmatization. They can either create a “hard R” or revive the NC-17 designation. This part is especially fascinating:

Parents have been pressuring [MPAA chairman] Glickman and his cohorts at the Motion Picture Assn. of America, along with National Assn. of Theater Owners John Fithian, to find a solution to the dilemma. Naysayers claim that the R rating is too broad, encompassing everything from a few swear words or brief flashes of nudity to repeated scenes of stomach-churning mutilation and disembowelments.

The biggest complaint is that, with parental permission, children and teens are allowed to see R’s, and parents think the definition of R is too wide-ranging to guide them.

The goal is to find a category for some films that are now informally called “hard R’s” — i.e., content so graphic that no one under the age of 17 should be allowed to see it at all in theaters. The new generation of horror pics, namely, the “Saw” and “Hostel” franchises, are pushing the limits of the “hard R” category.

As a general rule, shouldn’t parents decide that children should not see R-rated films at all, or at least go see the movie themselves before deciding to bring their children along to the theater? The MPAA will never be able to take the place of parental responsibility, only aid parents in making informed decisions. But if a movie has an R rating, no matter what the reason, I think it is hard for parents to feign ignorance before taking their six-year-old to see the latest showing of 300. “But I didn’t know it was going to be that graphic!”

Give me a break.

March 20, 2007

Battlestar Galactica Musings

Posted in Television at 12:16 am by Calico Jack

The following is only going to appeal to a very small percentage of those who read this blog. Ignore at will.

For quite a while now, I’ve felt that Anders hasn’t added much to the show (no disrespect intended to Michael Trucco). His relationship with Starbuck had pretty much ground to a halt at the beginning of the season, and even after Starbuck and Apollo supposedly worked out their differences, Sam/Kara still kept going at it with no relief in sight. Anders wasn’t progressing the plot at all, and no matter how frustrated I’ve been with the producers this season, I still like to believe that they do things in BSG for a specific reason — even if we don’t see it at the time. And the strongest motive I could come up with for keeping Anders around (especially knowing about Starbuck’s departure) was that Anders could possibly be a Cylon.

If the producers do show the final five next week, and we have never met any of the faces before, the reveal will have much less of an effect that it could have. Because by giving us the identities of the last remaining Cylons, the producers have effectively made us omniscient…especially with the growing certainty that the Cylons do not, in fact, have a plan (unlike what we’re told at the beginning of each episode) and are merely winging it as they go along. The first season was full of paranoia, as people on the ship wondered which of their fellow crew members could possibly be a Cylon plotting the destruction of humanity. This kept everyone on a ragged edge, and brought quite a bite to the show.

But now, BSG seems to have settled into a holding pattern. That former paranoia no longer grips everyone; and I believe that even with the Cylons nipping at their heels, many people have grown complacent. That sense of urgency and headlong flight away from a collapsed civilization has shifted to an “Okay, now we’re racing the Cylons towards Earth; who’s going to win?” sort of tone, and it has affected the show more than I think anyone was anticipating. I also think it was a mistake to spend so much of the second and third seasons aboard the Cylon basestars, because the show was most gripping when we knew as little as the humans did. BSG needs to bring back that element of surprise and uncertainty, and the only way they can do it is to reveal an existing member (or three) as Cylons. If they don’t, and we see the five, we’ll effectively be privy to the Cylons’ opening gambit, middle, and endgame. No longer will they be able to lay plans and pull the rug out from under Galactica, leaving us just as shocked as the crew when the Cylon reveals him/herself to be the traitor amongst their midst. The audience needs to be guessing right along with everyone else, and the only way the producers can pull it off is to make one or more of the Five is a familiar face. And wouldn’t it be wonderful to have this person(s) be actively working behind Galactica’s back all along?

I put forth Anders as a Cylon only because he would be most convenient, plot-wise. And wasn’t it his voice in the promo for next week proclaiming that “We’re all Cylons”? But on my second viewing, once I realized that Saul, Anders, Tory, and Tyrol (missed him the first time around) all heard the music…well, that goes most of my theory. No way are the producers going to a) make all four Cylons, and b) make the connection so glaringly obvious. So the music has to play a different role; perhaps those four are somehow connected with destiny and finding Earth? I don’t think Tyrol’s story arc is over yet, just as I suspect Starbuck’s bound to return someday (unless we really are meant to think that having a foretold destiny is a bunch of nonsense).

I’m still willing to bet that we get a reveal of at least one member of the Five in the season finale, because it will give BSG a much-needed adrenaline shot — although the past several weeks have almost washed out the bitter taste that is much of Season 3. All I know is that I will be staying as far away from spoilers as I can until next Sunday evening.

And they had better convict Baltar, or I am going to need to buy a new television set Monday morning…

March 17, 2007

Music Roundup

Posted in Music at 11:05 pm by Calico Jack

A few videos from bands whose CDs I’ve bought recently:

First up is the Scissor Sisters’ performance at the Brits last month. They were, by far, the highlight of the evening. “I Don’t Feel Like Dancing” is the catchiest song I’ve heard in a long time; if it doesn’t get you moving I suspect your speakers must be turned off.

Next up is Pilot Speed, a Canadian band which deserves far more fame than it has received in the States. Their song “Barely Listening” is both melodic and haunting, and musically is miles beyond anything heard on Top-40.

There is a mild NSFW warning for the next video by the Fratellis, Scotland’s latest — and hottest — export. I downloaded their CD two months before it was released stateside, but I love this band so much I bought the physical copy after it hit stores last Tuesday. The Fratellis do garage sing-along barroom rock better than pretty much everybody else, as “Flathead” (which you may have heard on an iPod commercial) amply shows.

And finally, we have Lily Allen’s latest single “Alfie.” I’m a bit of a sucker for Britpop (yes, I know) but Lily Allen is quite different from groups like Girls Aloud or Sugababes. She sings sweetly while maintaining an air of jaded sarcasm and snark, which sounds disingenuous but is quite refreshing in today’s sugar-coated pop scene.

March 13, 2007

Movie Review: 300

Posted in Movies at 12:29 am by Calico Jack

If the ancient Grecians had been alive today to recount their legendary exploits, I suspect they might have made a film such as 300, with its epic battles and sensual decadence suffusing nearly every minute of its running time. Connected by the most slender of threads to reality, but closely hewing to Frank Miller’s acclaimed graphic novel from which this film derives its look and tone, 300 is a feast for the eyes. Unfortunately, it falls rather short when compared to other, more substantial war epics such as Braveheart or the underrated Troy.

Taken on its own terms, however, 300 entertains through bombastic spectacle and excess in almost every way imaginable. Gerard Butler, most commonly remembered for his role in the cringe-inducing Phantom of the Opera, bellows his way through a nearly two-dimensional performance as Leonidas, king of Sparta and last remaining defender of the Western world against the invading Persians. Overshadowing her husband for much of the film as the real power behind the throne is Queen Gorgo, played with near-perfection by Lena Headey. In one pivotal scene, Gorgo declares herself a typical Spartan woman — devoted to her husband and her king, but fully capable of ruling Sparta while Leonidas and his men go off to war. It is striking to see how authentically this juxtaposition unfolds, as Gorgo is something of a rarity in today’s cinema: a feminist who reveres her family, but is willing to make the sacrifices necessary to save her country.

Ignoring the wishes of Sparta’s ruling council, Leonidas assembles 300 of his finest soldiers and heads north to make a valiant stand against the self-proclaimed god-king Xerxes and his massive army. Xerxes, as played by Rodrigo Santoro, is a glistening, sexually ambiguous giant of a figure who seems to speak reason to the vastly outnumbered Spartans, offering them autonomous rule if only they bow the knee to their conquering emperor. Leonidas, of course, will have none of that; he fights for freedom, and both he and his men know no better fate than to die with glory and honor on the battlefield. The audience is often reminded of this through a third-person narration by trusted soldier Dalios (David Wenham), which overlays the length of the film. Some narration is needed to set the the plot and compress necessary events; but after being reminded of the great king’s iron resolve for the fourth or fifth time, the repetitiveness wears a bit thin.

Against overwhelming odds the Spartans stand and fight, hewing limbs and stabbing throats with an intensity not seen on film in a rather long time. Director Zack Snyder elaborately choreographs these sepia-toned dances with death by first speeding up spear- and swordplay, then shifting the camera into slow motion in order that the audience might fully appreciate the streams of blood arcing across the screen as Persian warriors writhe and flail against a Nine Inch Nails soundtrack. Make no mistake: 300 is constantly bloody, although this same violence also provides the film some of its most visually poetic moments. It is no accident that the Spartans’ cloaks are the same crimson hue as the blood which splashes everywhere; these warriors know death well, and are unafraid to give their lives for a greater cause.

Larger themes of self-sacrifice, honor and duty are almost lost in the latter half of the film when battle scene follows battle scene, suggesting that the true purpose of 300 is to provide an endless depiction of soldiers being skewered and hacked. The literal wall of bodies behind the Spartan phalanx grows ever larger, even as they realize their survival is increasingly hopeless. Yet to a man, they choose to continue fighting; there is no room for equivocation or self-doubt in the Spartan’s warrior code. The last ten or fifteen minutes redeem the previous hour of nonstop bloodshed, as a rousing climax and denouement bring the story full circle and punctuate the idea that (to use a tired cliché) freedom is not free.

It is hard to fault Leonidas and his men for being one-note characters, because turning them into warriors who question their cause would be a contrivance of the worst kind. However, 300 would have been a stronger film had it cut back on a few of its histrionics. Once the point has been made that the Spartans are eager to give their lives for freedom and a glorious death on the battlefield, there is no need to repeatedly bash the audience over the head with something they already know.

Unfortunately, many people in the theater seemed to miss 300‘s theme of self-sacrifice altogether, instead hooting at the occasional displays of nudity and cheering during particularly violent death scenes. Nonetheless, perpetual grandiosity is what prevents 300 from being anything more than an always-entertaining film. 300 aspires to greatness, but arresting visuals cannot cover a weaker script. Instead, it must content itself with merely being good; and in today’s cinema, that is praise enough.

B.