Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Elysium review

*light spoilers below*

While watching "District 9" for the first time, I had to remind myself that this was someone's first movie. Neil Blomkamp had never directed a feature-length film before, yet not only did he show complete, total confidence not normally seen with someone's debut feature, he had a style that was undeniably his own. Socially conscious sci-fi action. He found his niche, he managed to make a sci-fi film with a message, but without making the film about the message. The film was still cool enough, still had enough great action, to be a fun movie. I had never seen quite anything like it up to that point, especially not one with such great visual effects on such a relatively small budget.

Blomkamp's knack for visual effects is definitely present in "Elysium." Elysium also has some elements of social commentary, unlike District 9's apartheid elements, Elysium delves into class issues. The 1% live on Elysium where people live the life of luxury and are instantly cured if they have an illness. The 99% live on Earth, where apparently things have really gotten outta hand, especially by the year 2154.

It's by this year where we are properly introduced to Max Da Costa (played by Matt Damon). As a kid, Max dreamed of one day making it to Elysium. In present day, any hope for that happening seems nil. Max now has a bunch of tattoos, a criminal past, and a bad attitude. An accident at work has left him exposed to a deadly amount of radiation which has given him about five more days to live. The only way for him to survive is to reach Elysium.

Well alright then. We have our plot. Let's do this! Of course there are other elements at play here. Max has to find a way to get to Elysium, which means making a deal with his criminal buddies, getting into a violent heist, and crossing paths with Elysian Secretary Defense Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) as well as a mercenary named Kruger (Sharlto Copley). Max has to steal information from the brain of billionaire CEO John Carlyle (William Fichtner) in order to get a trip to Elysium, a task he is able to do but not without leaving a body count.

What may surprise you is that Jodie Foster actually plays a baddie here. It never occurred to me until seeing this movie that Foster has never played a villain before, and I now see why. She can't play one. She literally can't. She's the most woefully miscast actor I've seen in a movie of this size. I don't know what got into her because she's a talented enough actress, but she's completely stiff in this role. She never seems to know how far she should go. And her character never seems to have a clear motivation. It's just an underwritten, badly portrayed character and, ultimately, she winds up not playing that large of a role in third act.

Kruger is also a very peculiar character. After Copley did such a great job carrying District 9, in Elysium, the writing for his character is just way too uneven. You never really know what this guy's all about, whose side he's on, and by the end he turns completely one-dimensional.

But one of the most unforgivable aspects (there are actually two) of Elysium is that the film's main character is also one-dimensional. Max has very little backstory, aside from the brief flashbacks we see in the beginning. He manages to reconnect, and later help, the woman he used to be childhood friends with (played by Alice Braga), but not much more is explored between the characters. Ultimately, the sacrifice he makes at the end of the film feels unearned and completely lacking of any emotional climax. He's just not an interesting enough character.

Which leads to the biggest problem of all: the film is a cop out. Blomkamp had insisted in interviews that the film isn't meant to have a specific message, but when you introduce strong thematic elements such as class structure and healthcare, you would think there would be more nuance to it. You would think there would be a more apt resolution than just "everybody gets saved." It feels like a complete and total cop out. He creates these two worlds yet doesn't take the time to really explore them, instead being insistent on letting this plot play out which is the most basic of all plots. And it wouldn't even be a problem if the film was just reliant on plot, the fact remains that we're still not given enough to allow this film to play out to the emotional resolution that it wants to have.

None of this is to say that the film is just plain bad because it's not, honestly. It still has some great action sequences and it's is actually a really tight, well-oiled machine... but that's also kind of the problem. They managed to whittle this down into a tight film that works on the most basic level, but it does not resonate at all once you leave the theaters. And thanks to the miscasting of Jodie Foster, there are some rather cringe-worthy moments as well. The film showcases that Neil Blomkamp is indeed a talented filmmaker, there's no doubt about that. Next time around though, he may wanna pay a little more attention to the script.

And you know what? Have a goddamn message. By streamlining everything, Blomkamp actually manages to make the film more preachy than he intended. Since there is no nuance whatsoever, we are literally given this: people of Elysium = bad, people of Earth = good. If Blomkamp, instead, chose to have a very clear, strong message he would've been forced to create some complexities and nuances. He would've been forced to make the characters more interesting. I'd rather a filmmaker try to make a film be about something and fail, then a filmmaker make a decent enough film that's really about nothing... which is basically what Elysium is. It's not a bad film, overall, but it's definitely a disappointment.

Grade: C

Monday, August 26, 2013

The World's End review

 Overall, Edgar Wright has made four films now, the fourth being "The World's End," and it's crazy just how well-defined and assured his style is. "The World's End" almost feels like Edgar Wright in autopilot mode. It all feels so effortless and yet his style is so energetic and kinetic that it's hard not to be in awe of the way he moves his camera and how his films are edited together. It's been six years since "Hot Fuzz," yet the Wright-Pegg-Frost team picks up right where they left off here. They haven't missed a beat.

There have been a lot of "end of the world" comedies and sci-fi/dramas this year, which can't just be a coincidence, right? Regardless, "The World's End" is more concerned with being a buddy comedy than anything else and on that end, it succeeds brilliantly. Simon Pegg plays Gary King, a 40-something alcoholic who is hell bent on getting his "gang" back together. There's Peter (Eddie Marsan), O-Man (Martin Freeman), Steven Prince (Paddy Considine), and Andie (Nick Frost). The four of them reluctantly agree to join Gary King as they attempt to recreate the infamous bar crawl at Newton Haven, where they went to school at back in the day. Instead of the film playing out like some sort of raucous comedy, the genius of "The World's End" is that the events are more a sad display of a man who just doesn't know how to grow up. The four ol' friends pity Gary more than anything, who wants so badly to get to The World's End just so he can recapture the glory of his youth.

Much to their surprise, the campus of Newton Haven has completely changed as the people of the town have been completely replaced by robotic versions of themselves. The film takes a sudden turn into "Body Snatchers" territory and it never misses its mark on this end. Because Edgar Wright is such a natural when it comes to directing action, none of it ever feels forced. The whole Body Snatchers aspect of the film actually works brilliantly as it is represents the perfect metaphor for how Gary King and his friends would most likely see the town they left behind. Everyone is different. Who hasn't felt that way before about the town they spent their youth in?

It's arguable whether or not "The World's End" is as drop dead hilarious as "Shaun of the Dead" or "Hot Fuzz," but it definitely feels like the more meaningful (and relatable) of the three films. You get the sense that Wright and Pegg are writing this film from a personal standpoint and the fact that it's able to be so funny and entertaining yet emotionally complex and compelling makes it really stick out compared to the general dreck that's been released this summer.

Where Edgar Wright goes from here should be very interesting to watch. This guy can do it all. "Ant-Man" is supposed to be his next film which will be his first real action blockbuster of his career. There is no doubt in my mind that he can knock that film outta the park, I just hope the general public will finally catch on to his genius. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Edgar Wright is the most talented filmmaker there is right now. Pure talent. Sure, he's made only comedies up to this point, but he doesn't just point the camera and make his performers act silly. His comedies rely on his visual mastery in order them to work. He's so precise, so calculated, and yet he makes it look so damn easy. Oh, and his films are consistently hilarious too. How he's able to make such hilarious films with such a meticulous craft is just awe-inspiring to me.

And I hope this isn't really the end for the Wright-Pegg-Frost team. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are at their best when teamed up with Wright. "The World's End" never feels like a forced reunion, it's more like a welcome return. Unlike Gary King, I have no doubt that Wright-Pegg-Frost could re-team once again without things ever coming close to heading towards a disaster.

Grade: A

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Monuments Men trailer

Like some of the other trailers for movies of the Fall of 2013, "The Monuments Men" looks... okay. Not overwhelming, but it looks pretty good. Directed by George Clooney. Is Clooney gonna up his game now that Ben Affleck managed to direct a movie to a best picture winner? We'll see. For now, he's shown he can be competent behind the camera, but the movies he directs don't always have an underlying excitement to them. Perhaps that'll change this December.

And I could be getting too negative here. After all, Clooney, Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, and Cate Blanchett is in this movie. It's gotta be halfway decent, right?

"Only God Forgives" review

Nicolas Winding Refn is not a dumb director. He doesn't just do things for no reason. His vision and the confidence he exudes in his directorial style had only gotten stronger and stronger with each film throughout his career. The "Pusher" trilogy introduced a new force in the filmmaking world, but "Bronson" showed the director in rare form. He began to transform his ultra-violent, strong primary colored cinematography (don't know how else to phrase) into something that felt artful and unique. He's continued to stretch his artistic style and reached the apex of his abilities with "Drive."

There's something about "Drive," isn't there? A hit with the critics, but a mixed response from everyone else. I loved the film for many reasons. Each scene, each moment in the film displayed an absolute assured amount of confidence style-wise, story-wise, and acting-wise. The story was minimal, but there was definitely a story. Enough of a story for things to go from point A to point B. "Drive" was able to get away with being so heavy on style because it had a simple and effective enough story to pull it off. It didn't emphasize the plot details, it emphasized mood, pacing, tone, yet it still got the job done when it comes to telling a coherent story. Watching it a second time amazed me even more. When you watch it a second time, the movie actually moves faster. For me, it's because the movie has such purpose, a driving force. Topple that with Ryan Gosling's quiet, affecting performance and you're good to go.

"Only God Forgives" is what happens when you take all those stylistic elements of "Drive" while stripping everything that made "Drive" work. As a result, we get a great-looking film that doesn't really have anything substantial to say or a story to tell. There's some semblance of a story here, but nothing that really sets things into motion. In promoting the film, Refn kept emphasizing that "silence is cinema." Well, silence is, indeed, cinema if you are actually telling a story or saying something compelling in that silence. Look at the end of Shane Carruth's "Upstream Color." The last 30 minutes of the film is essentially silent and yet we are still given just enough to remain hooked until the end. In "Only God Forgives," there's none of that. The "silence" is merely people walking in slow motion, striking down a sword in slow motion, or blankly staring into the camera.

There's never a sense that anything compelling is happening here. We are introduced, in the beginning, to Julian and his older brother Billy. Julian runs a boxing club in Bangkok, Thailand, which turns out to be a front for a massive drug smuggling operation. While Julian spends his nights hanging out with strippers and prostitutes, Billy gets himself into very hot water when a night alone with a hooker ends violently. He winds up meeting the "Angel of Vengeance," also known as Lieutenant Chang. Chang allows the father of the hooker to beat Billy to death, but punishes the father as well, for allowing his daughter to become a hooker in the first place.

These chain of events eventually lead way to Julian's mother arriving in Bangkok to claim her deceased son's body. Julian's mother, Crystal, is a real piece of work. Angry, foul-mouthed, and completely toxic, Crystal orders Julian to avenge his brother's death but he's already refused to do so, after learning about what his brother has done. Crystal decides to take matters into her own hands, and in doing so, winds up getting into some hot water herself. Kristen Scott Thomas immediately steals the show when she comes on screen because she's the only character here that shows any color. Still, she isn't on screen enough to really get the story going.

And that's pretty much it. We're never really given any insight into the characters, except towards the end when Crystal explains the relationships she's had with her two sons. Really, for a film that's meant to emphasize the visuals, we learn everything about the characters through expository dialogue. Are long scenes without dialogue really that cinematic if it's not telling us anything? In "Drive," Ryan Gosling displays a casual, quiet confidence. Here, he's just quiet. In "Drive," you get the feeling that the driver has plenty to say, he just chooses not to speak. In "Only God Forgives," there's never really a sense that Julian has anything to say.

It's all a little too deliberate to me. Each choice in the film seems overly self-aware. The non-expressions, the staring directly into the camera, the slow motion. It's as if Refn knows there is a compelling story to tell here, but deliberately decides not to tell it. Why? "Only God Forgives" is Refn at his most self-indulgent, but not in a way that makes the film worth watching. It's gorgeous to look at, the music is, at times, incredibly tense. But that tension soon dies down and you start to get the sense that literally nothing is happening. There's no Lynchian/Jodoworsky-ian surrealism going on here (and if there is, it's misguided), it's just directorial masturbation. At least when Quentin Tarantino gets all self-indulgent, he still tells a great story along the way. He still, at least, gives us something. "Only God Forgives" just feels stylistically superficial.

I still believe in Refn. I wouldn't call "Only God Forgives" a failure because that would imply Refn didn't do exactly as he intended. But the way this film is shot, the way it's so perfectly lit, Refn knows exactly what he's doing here. He's trying to push his style as far as it could possibly go. "Drive" showed Refn stripping down so many story elements and going all-in on style. But thanks to a strong bare-bones story and a character that is compelling enough to follow, "Drive" manages to be a triumph of style-over-substance. "Only God Forgives" is Refn trying to push his style even further and what we wind up getting is a movie that is way too in love with itself. That's fine, if you're into that kind of thing, but ultimately, "Only God Forgives" simply left me cold. Nicolas Winding Refn will make better movies than this. I don't mean to be attacking his style necessarily, but damn, it'd be nice if he'd tone things down a little next time around.

Grade: D

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Her and The Counselor trailers

I'm not always big on posting movie trailers because they're sometimes misleading. But, I am excited for the Fall movie season. As you've noticed, I've only seen a handful of the bigger summer movies this year so far, choosing instead to see some of the smaller, indie films. I regret nothing. Still, looks like we'll be getting some interesting stuff this fall.

First there's Her. Directed by Spike Jonze, starring Joaquin Phoenix along with Amy Adam, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, and Scarlett Johansson. Phoenix plays a guy who winds up falling in love with an artificially intelligent operating system. The trailer doesn't overwhelm me, but it's definitely interesting. Will definitely be worth seeing when it comes out in November.

And then there's The Counselor, the latest film from Ridley Scott with a massive cast. Fassbender, Bardem, Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt, to name a few... it looks like the most fun movie Ridley Scott has made in quite some time. It's also based on an original screenplay by Cormac McCarthy. It looks sexy, dangerous, and hopefully it'll be an enjoyable film.

Fruitvale Station review

What "Fruitvale Station" is able to accomplish in 84 minutes is quite staggering. I watch about 200 movies per year, that's been my average for the last... ten years maybe? That's why it's so special to me when a new movie comes along and it legitimately makes me feel something. "Fruitvale Station" doesn't engage you on an intellectual level, but emotionally? It's over-powering. Not in a manipulative way, either, which has to be its greatest achievement.

The film centers on the day in the life of Oscar Grant, played by newcomer Michael B. Jordan. Here's a man just trying to get his life together. He wants to reconnect with his girlfriend, with his daughter, he's trying to get his job back. The movie demonstrates how ordinary life can be, and later shocks us with just how precious it is. One thing, one decision can turn everything upside down in an instant and you're just left there trying to figure out how to explain it. Writer/director Ryan Coogler shows us, at the beginning of the movie, that our protagonist will die by the time the movie is over. In the beginning, it's just some video. A video containing people you don't know where something unfortunate takes place. The end of the movie re-captures this event, and the end result is emotionally overwhelming. The confidence that Coogler displays, in what is just his feature debut, is really what's most impressive to me.

All I can think about are those final shots of Oscar's girlfriend, Sophina, with her daughter. How does she explain this to her? How can she possibly explain what happened to her Daddy in a way that makes any sense? Coogler wears his emotions on his sleeve here and forces us to think about these scenarios and how there are tragedies like these that occur nearly everyday.

The raves surrounding Michael B. Jordan is well-deserved. It's not that he does anything particularly eye-opening. It's just the remarkable control and confidence that he exudes in this role, giving this character such humanity that even when he screws up, you feel for him. Recognition is also well-deserved for Melonie Diaz, who plays Oscar's girlfriend, as well as Octavia Spencer who plays his mom. Octavia once again shows us why she's so deserving of that Oscar she won over a year ago and Diaz, along with Jordan, have a great, natural chemistry when on screen together.

Everything from the well-controlled hand-held camera shots, the steady yet heart-wrenching pacing, to the strong performances makes "Fruitvale Station" the best film of the year thus far. The film is an exclamation point and it will stick with you long after you've seen it. There's a wonderful simplicity in the way the film unfolds, once again demonstrating Coogler's confidence as a writer. Coogler doesn't crowd the film with visual flourishes or excess exposition. He gives us just enough to go by, and otherwise, demonstrates to us Oscar's everyman-ness. He has problems, he's not perfect, just like everyone else. He wants to be a better person, and from the looks of things, he very well could have been. Instead, he was taken from us. Just like that. And the film just makes us deal with it, which justifies its existence. Nothing here is overplayed or overdone, there's no overly dramatic music in the background. It just is. We see a life and we see it taken away.

What ultimately makes "Fruitvale Station" work is that, in its depiction of this tragic death, it's very much life-affirming. In this 24 hour timespan, "Fruitvale Station" celebrates the life of this young man just as much as it angrily depicts his death. It's a film that says it's ok to be angry, it's ok to sit there and just wonder why this had to happen. That's the very thing the filmmaker wants to know. You don't have to sympathize with Oscar, but regardless, you can recognize that his death was unwarranted, undeserved, completely unforgivable.

Once the film resets the time to midnight of New Year's Eve, 24 hours before the inevitable occurs, every minute the film goes on is a sense of utter dread. As I type this, I continue to realize what a brilliant choice it was to show us what happens to Oscar from the beginning. Every single event, every word that is spoken, every scene in this film means something. Everything from the small moments Oscar gets to spend with his child to the get-together he later has with his family. Ryan Coogler lays it all out for us to see and we can't help but watch until the bitter end.

Grade: A

Saturday, August 3, 2013

TV: My Five Least Favorite Seinfeld Episodes

Seinfeld is one of my favorite shows of all-time. There's "The Simpsons" and then there's "Seinfeld," no doubt about it. I got into Seinfeld at around season 7 when it first aired. I was just a kid, but I was able to appreciate the cleverness even back then. There hasn't been a new episode since 1998, but there have always been reruns in regular syndication and it doesn't look like it will stop. It's quite amazing, really, how well this show has held up over the past 15 years. For me, it was the last truly classic sitcom to use the laugh track/multi-camera setup. It did everything a sitcom in that format could possibly do and that's why I tend to ignore current TV shows that still use the laugh track/multi-cam setup. After "Friends", "Frasier", "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "That's 70s Show" ended, I was pretty much done with the format altogether.

But back to Seinfeld. What's remarkable to me, having watched it almost everyday for 15 years, is how long the show went without the quality ever dipping. People like to point to Larry David's departure after season 7 as the first sign of slippage, but I would argue that season 8 holds up remarkably well. Season 9, at times, is guilty of being more clever than funny, but it would be considered a classic season if it were any other show.

There's no way I could do a top 5 favorite Seinfeld episodes, though I could certainly give it a shot somewhere down the line. So, I've decided to unleash my five least favorite Seinfeld episodes instead. This is not to hate on the show, in any way. I'm just a giant fan of the show who simply has problems with these particular episodes. They are episodes that, when I see them on TV now, I generally don't care to watch them. And that's strange to me, since I would be fine watching almost any other Seinfeld episode at any point in time. There's just something about these episodes that get to me, where things just don't quite add up. The characters don't feel right, the pacing feels off, etc... Feel free to take a gander below and feel free to share what your least favorite or favorite episode of Seinfeld is in the comments section.

1. The Bris
written by Larry Charles

A big part of my dislike for this episode is the casting of the mohel, played by Charles Levin. The show just completely loses its steam whenever he appears on screen. He's just way too overdone, a poorly-written, annoying character who overpowers the rest of cast without being funny. Phillip Baker Hall had a similar one-time guest spot in Season 3 as Mr. Bookman, the library cop. The difference between Mr. Bookman and the mohel is world's apart, however. Phillip Baker Hall is an excellent character actor who steals the spotlight from Jerry but always manages to be funny and on point. Charles Levin turns the mohel into a raving madman who shouts, instead of acts, and never delivers his lines in a manner that would be considered funny.

The Bris was the fifth episode of Season 5. Seasons 4 to 7 are, far and away, among the greatest seasons in sitcom history. So, it's especially surprising to find this dud in the middle of it all. And, aside from the mohel, the rest of the episode just isn't that funny. There's Kramer's obsession of the "pigman", George's insistence that the hospital pay for damages to his car, and Elaine... isn't given that much to do. The centerpiece is Jerry Seinfeld and the mohel and it's where the episode goes completely off the rails. The subplots featuring Kramer and George feel too overdone, taking each character's eccentricities too far into the extreme. Larry Charles penned a lot of great episodes for the show and deserves a lot of credit for taking the show into dark, off-beat places. But this episode is just a dud.

2. The Voice
written by Alec Berg & Jeff Schaffer & David Mandel

"Hellooooooo"... thus beginning an episode that tries way too hard to start a new catchphrase without ever being funny. Again, a case where a character's eccentricities are taken way too into the extreme, in this case, Jerry Seinfeld's.  Here, the entire episode revolves around whether or not he should keep doing this stupid voice, which makes fun of his girlfriend's belly button. Understandably, his girlfriend isn't too happy that Jerry and his friends are all making fun of her. One of the few cases where one of his girlfriends are 100% justified in wanting to dump Jerry altogether. There are other episodes where, sure, Jerry may have done something wrong but his actions don't seem too dump-worthy. Here? Forget it. Seinfeld just comes off as an asshole.

The other main characters don't really help though. While I mostly enjoy season 9, a big drawback for me is watching Costanza during his feud with his boss at Play Now. After multiple seasons of hilarious antics at his job with the Yankees, his antics with Play Now just seem forced. The show's plot simply goes too far and seems more cruel than usual. The idea of Kramer having an intern following him around is funny, but it doesn't make much sense and it never really goes anywhere aside from dumping a giant ball of oil from a tall building. Furthermore, Elaine's storyline with David Puddy just feels run-of-the-mill. She's breaking up/getting back together with Puddy... again.

This episode seemed fun at the time when it aired but it doesn't bode well with repeated viewings. The "Hellooo" catchphrase gets played out quickly and Kramer's intern just gets more annoying everytime I see him. A lot of the flaws in this episode is largely negligible. Thanks to the forced catchphrase, however, it's cemented itself a spot at number 2 on this list.

3. The Busboy
written by Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld

I hate to pick on one of the early episodes, but I have to with this one. The first two seasons of "Seinfeld" is very much a case of a show still finding its voice. Generally, groundbreaking shows  take awhile to really get going, but there's actually a lot to admire about season 2. Except "The Busboy" episode. The ideas are there, but it just doesn't quite land the way it should. There's something very off about the pacing of this episode, it's a weird energy. Jerry has nothing to do. Kramer is just there to help out George when he's forced to confront the busboy that lost his job thanks to a remark George made. The other storyline is Elaine's and while her frantic attempts to get her boyfriend on a plane to Seattle are worth a chuckle or two, her monologue at the very end is a little too over-the-top for my taste. The episode came at a time where the show was finding its voice, but there were plenty of hilarious episodes in season 2 (most notably, "The Statue"). This episode just falls flat on too many levels.

4. The Betrayal
written by David Mandel & Peter Mehlman

Ah, the backwards episode. Literally the only noteworthy aspect of this episode is that it goes backwards and some of it takes place in "India." Other than that, it's completely forgettable. Again, if it wasn't for the fact that it tries so hard to push forward this "backwards" gimmick, it'd just be a negligible episode. The backwards setup deserved much better than the run-of-the-mill plot that takes place here. Jerry, Elaine, and George get invited to Sue Ellen Mischke's wedding in India where Elaine eventually finds that she, at one point, slept with Sue Ellen's fiance! It's one of the few episodes in Seinfeld's history, where the events that take place feel completely predictable and again... this is the backwards episode! There's just not enough going on here to justify the backwards chronology. And the plots are way too similar to each other. Elaine slept with Sue Ellen's fiance, Jerry sleeps with George's girlfriend. Lots of bickering, not much funny. Kramer's subplot with FDR is one of the lamest storylines of the show, all of it revolving around Kramer throwing a snowball at the back of someone's head. Why not just let Kramer go with them to India? Why craft such a dumb storyline? The episode is fun to watch initially because of the backwards gimmick, but after watching it the first time, there's really no reason to watch again. It's just too... ordinary.

5. The Muffin Tops
written by Spike Feresten

I debated with myself on which episode should have the fifth spot. I ultimately decided on this one. A big reason for my dislike of this episode is that George winds up getting traded for chicken. I mean, of all the reasons to end George's run with the New York Yankees... this has to be the one? Initially, it comes across as a funny/silly idea, but it completely ruins my favorite storyline of the show (George working for the Yankees). They had so many funny ideas and storylines when George was working for the Yanks. None of the jobs he wound up getting in season 9 couldn't possibly measure up.

The rest of the episode simply has funny ideas that go nowhere. Kramer's "J. Peterman Reality Tour" literally goes nowhere when he's forced to drop off the muffin stems at a garbage dump, but gets turned away... for some reason. Watching Jerry become addicted to shaving off his chest hair (to impress his girlfriend) was also a funny idea, but kinda ruined when it turns into a spoof (with Jerry acting like a werewolf). It's the kind of idea that just feels out of place with the show. In fact, I'm not much of a fan of Seinfeld movie spoofs. The show's at its best when it focuses on character humor. The only spoof that I really enjoyed on the show was the JFK one, where Jerry reenacts the "spitting incident" with Kramer, Newman, and Keith Hernandez. Normally though, when it comes to spoofs on Seinfeld, the more subtle, the better.

And oh yeah, the muffin storyline. Another funny idea that just doesn't go anywhere. The best moment of the entire episode belongs to Newman, when he attempts to eat all the muffin tops alone, by himself. Other than that, it's largely an idea that feels undercooked. I should also mention that the episode features a guest appearance by Rena Sofer, a bland actress who NBC tried to stuff down everyone's throats in the mid-late '90s. "The Muffin Tops" is not as bad as the four episodes listed above, but it's definitely one of the lesser Seinfeld episodes that I tend to skip when it's on TV.

Honorable Mentions:

"The Puerto Rican Day" is an episode that I remember not enjoying that much, but I'm pretty sure I've only seen it once. They don't seem to air this episode often since it offended Puerto Ricans when it originally aired. I remember, when it first came on, being disappointed by how bland it was. But, I haven't been able to revisit it since and I'm one of those people who deem it unnecessary to own the show on DVD since it's on TV all the time.

"The Finale" is an easy target because it ends in a very tongue-in-cheek fashion that kinda ticked off some of its fans. It is one of the few Seinfeld episodes, like with the top 5, that I tend to skip when it's on TV, but I do appreciate it because it ends in a very Seinfeld way. I respect the Finale; I don't always enjoy watching it though.

"The Yada Yada": Thinking about it now, "The Yada Yada" may actually belong in the top 5, but "The Muffin Tops" just barely beat it out for the reasons I mentioned above. "The Yada Yada" episode is very over-the-top, but I left it off the top 5 because I constantly reference the "anti-dentite" scene. "I am NOT an anti-dentite!" In fact, I actually really enjoy the dentist storyline, I just hate the "yada yada" catchphrase. Again, it feels like something the writers tried forcing in there and, while it's funny initially, it's an annoying episode to watch on a repeated basis. Not necessarily an episode I always skip, but I do cringe everytime "yada yada yada" is spoken.

"The Seinfeld Chronicles": I stayed away from season 1 entirely because it's simply unfair to attack the show when it hadn't founded its voice yet. That said, "The Seinfeld Chronicles," better known as the first episode of the entire series, is interesting to watch only if you hadn't seen it before. It's not an episode worth revisiting because there isn't much going on here. Seinfeld is nervous about a woman who'll be visiting him, she visits him, it turns out she's engaged. That's it. In between are Costanza and Kramer. Michael Richards surprisingly manages to nail the Kramer character from the beginning, but Jason Alexander's Costanza is a little too whiny and Woody Allen-esque in the first episode. Again, it's mean to hate on this episode since it was the series' pilot, but still, it's not an episode I enjoy watching.

Do you agree with my list? Disagree? Share below.

Friday, August 2, 2013

"American Hustle" trailer

Well, this looks pretty damn good. Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena, etc. etc.... what a hot cast. Then you have director David O. Russell who has really been in a groove these past few years with crowd pleasers such as "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook." "American Hustle" looks like it could be his best yet.

I'm surprised by how quickly this film was able to get made. I'm pretty sure filming didn't start until the beginning of the year and they only wrapped a couple months ago. It's got a December 25th release date so there's still time for them to really nail things in the editing room. Still, who expected a trailer for "American Hustle" this soon? There's films that finished shooting when "American Hustle" BEGAN shooting... and we haven't seen anything from them yet. Good stuff. I hope David O. Russell keeps plugging away, making movie after movie.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Blue Jasmine review

It's movies like these that make me seriously contemplate why I use a grading system at all when I write reviews. Who cares what the "score" of a movie is? Do you, really? I always thought it was a nice way to sum everything up, but the grade I give a movie doesn't always reflect how I feel about it emotionally. Sometimes I can acknowledge a film's flaws and still love it, despite the flaws. Still, I'd be remiss not to mention such flaws. A movie like "Blue Jasmine" is an interesting case study for that matter. This is Woody Allen's latest film, which finds him in late-period peak form. It started with the commercial and critical success of "Midnight In Paris," continued with the uneven but very fun "To Rome With Love," and now he's given us something more contemplative and deeper than those last two films.

The film also gives us an ace performance from, perhaps, the greatest actress working today NOT named Meryl Streep: Cate Blanchett. "Blue Jasmine" contains solid performances all around, most notably Andrew Dice Clay's shockingly layered and measured performance as Augie, Jasmine's former brother-in-law. He rounds out a solid cast that includes Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, and Louis CK. But, it's Blanchett who is the real star of this show. You know how, in a lot of movies, you always hear about an actor, playing a smaller part in a movie, stealing the show? Well, no one steals the show from Cate Blanchett here. I've never quite seen such a dominating lead performance from a fiction-based character, perhaps since Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood." Woody Allen is known for letting his actors go anywhere they want with their roles, letting them own it for themselves. Cate Blanchett brings a powerhouse, Daniel Day-Lewis-esque performance to this film. She's so utterly in character, this character who is almost always on the verge of complete nervous breakdown, it almost makes you feel uncomfortable.

She plays Jasmine. A 40-something woman who went through a very difficult marriage to a philandering wealthy man (Baldwin) who wound up losing all his money after getting caught by the Feds, having used his money for illegal activity. Her husband winds up hanging himself in jail and now she's left to her own devices. Heartbroken, distraught, not knowing what to do, she visits her sister in San Francisco (played by Sally Hawkins). Her sister, Ginger, goes after the more blue-collar type of men. She went through a rough divorce with the aforementioned Augie and is now seeing a guy with a similar personality (Cannavale). Jasmine openly disapproves of her sister's taste in men, and pretty soon, Jasmine's nasty personality coupled with her mental problems, will drive a wedge between the two sisters.

Jasmine is utterly lost. She spent close to half of her life living in this fantasy land with her extraordinarily rich husband and now here she is, a broken shell of herself, not realizing that most people live like Ginger and not like her. In present day, she decides she finally wants to continue her education, but she doesn't even know how to work a computer. "I'm trying to take classes on how to use a computer" is something you'd hear somebody say in... 1998 maybe? That's Jasmine in 2013. Completely out of touch with everything, both literally and figuratively. The emotional trauma she experienced during the fallout of her marriage has practically driven her insane, to the point where she was once caught on the streets, talking loudly to herself.

Because Cate Blanchett is such a marvel to watch, she elevates this Jasmine character to heights even Woody Allen couldn't have predicted. She gives her character such humanity and personality that you sometimes have to remind yourself that this is an unlikable character. This is the perfect example of a movie centered around a flawed, unlikable character that completely works. You don't need to like or sympathize with Jasmine, you just need to understand her. In the end, you may feel bad for her, or you may just pity her. The movie ultimately doesn't tell you how you should feel about her, and because of that, it's the most thoughtful film Woody Allen has made in years.

Where the film occasionally falters is its liberal use of flashbacks to give more of a backstory on all these characters. "Blue Jasmine" occasionally feels cut-and-pasted, story-wise. There isn't always a smooth flow and that becomes apparent halfway through the film. Luckily, that's not the case with the final act of the film which really nicely brings it all together, leaving us with this broken woman who appears to have no one else to turn to.

Some directors aren't able to get away with making a film that sometimes feels like an early draft of a screenplay, and not the final product. A lot of ideas here feel a little undercooked, some of the dialogue is a bit repetitive. It's not the most neatly constructed film in the world. But, hot damn, the elements "Blue Jasmine" does get right are simply excellent.

Grade: it doesn't really matter...

...but I guess a B+