Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Grandpa knows best

After a coulda-been-better return from hiatus, Gossip Girl was back in top form last night. The episode was packed with more goings-on than you can shake a stick at, and that included lots of Chuck and Blair intrigue. (Yay!) About the only truly bad thing I can say about it is that it had Jenny back with the overkill bangs and eye shadow. BOO! The girl needs a new stylist-- and a decent storyline. All she ever does these days is knit things and offer sage advice on other character's problems. As the episode begins, Blair is spiraling after her rejection from Yale. She's spending more and more time with skeezeball Carter and seems determined to eradicate any trace of her old overachieving self. Chuck is sure something's wrong so he comes to Serena, who tells him, "Blair just needs space to lick her wounds." "Or I can lick them for her," Chuck quips to Serena's disgust. (S, honey, you kinda tunneled your way into that one.) Chuck comes by Blair's apartment but is rebuffed by Blair, who is lounging around with Carter and, by the way, looks AMAZING. (Seriously, she was in a black bustier and looked hot. I was really glad my straight friend Ben was watching this episode-- he has a major thing for Leighton Meester.) But eventually Serena concedes that their friend needs help, and they convince Dorota to tell her where she's gone one night-- presumably to some debaucherous party. When Chuck and Serena go to the address, a pre-pubescent girl opens the door, leading to Chuck uttering the night's best line: "I see Roman Polanski's in town." Turns out Blair is begging the dean of Sarah Lawrence to accept her, but the whole hazing-a-teacher thing has ruined her chances there, too. "Why didn't you tell us?" Serena asks. "What, that I was debasing myself to get into *Sarah Lawrence*?" Blair snaps. "Right, like I should've put it on my Facebook page!" (Oh Blair, you're so cute and witty when you're angry.) Meanwhile, Nate finally gets an interesting story in the form of his cousin Trip (incidentally played by one of my friend Amber's theater pals). Trip invites him to the Kennedy compound-- er, Archibald mansion. Nate's wary of seeing his grandfather, who didn't do much to help him and his struggling mom during the whole Deadbeat Cokehead Dad Debacle, but Dan and Vanessa convince him to go. Turns out Grandpa-- who's played by one of those seen-him-a-thousand-times character actors no one knows the name of-- was actually quite proud of how well Nate handled the whole mess. What's more, he's grooming Nate for the family business, politics. Trip's fiance, let's just call her Jackie, tells Vanessa that all Archibald men eventually fall into this sort of thing. Vanessa's all weirded out but tries to be supportive. (Albeit in a really martyred annoyingly self-involved way.) Eventually Nate decides he will intern for the mayor's office rather than spend the summer taking a "perogi tour of Europe" with Vanessa. (Side note: really? A *perogi* tour? Reeeallly???) Guess Vanessa will have to find some new perogi to chew on. (That's right. I went there.) Elsewhere in Adultsville, Lily and Rufus share a contrived but sorta fun storyline in which they quiz each other on past relationships and Lily's list is waaaay longer. (There are references to her dating Trent Reznor and Slash, to which Serena responds, "Slash? REALLY, Mom?") In what should come as a surprise to exactly no one, Rufus ends up being all judge-y when he finds out that Lily only gave him one page of her list for fear of his disapproval. (A fear that was apparently well-founded; as I remarked, "like father, like self righteous son.") Meanwhile, the same Archibald family shindig that sees N and V part ways also features some id-fueled hilarity courtesy of Blair, who decides she will undo her straight-laced public image in as high profile setting as possible. It's kind of like that scene in Caddyshack where Rodney Dangerfield walks into the room and insults everyone in sight. The biggest laugh came courtesy of Chuck, though; after Blair alludes to a socialite's husband having made his fortune off porn, Chuck stops to compliment him: "By the way, love your websites." Chuck gets Blair alone for a sexy-tense clinch in which she offers herself to him... but only because it would be "the worst" possible thing for her to do. Chuck rejects the proposal, and Blair walks off. (The catty narration claims it may be his last chance, but we know better than that, don't we?) She and Nate end up sharing a moment at the party, and when Chuck goes to her apartment later he finds Nate's new Archibald family jacket (which seriously looks like something out of Hogwarts). Blair's invited Nate back into her bed! Dum-dum-DUM! We close with Chuck looking up the stairs all intensely. I'm liking these new developments and look forward to next week with Jenny's sweet 16 party, which looks to have Chuck and Vanessa engaging in revenge nookie (obviously a cute nod to their real life coupling) and Serena getting involved with a new man.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Love it or hate it, just WATCH it

Going into Watchmen, I knew that whether I liked it or not, it would be interesting. I did like it quite a bit, as it turns out, but I'm still not even sure how to describe it. Wildly uneven? Well... kind of. Overlong? Definitely. Visually stunning? For sure. Badly acted? In some cases... YES. (But is that on purpose? I certainly hope so, or else whoever cast the horrendous Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II should probably be fired.) Adapted from Alan Moore's seminal graphic novel by director Zack Snyder, Watchmen tells the story of former superheroes called back into action when someone starts killing them off. It's set against the backdrop of an alternate reality 1985 with Nixon serving his third term and having won the Vietnam war with the aid of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a naked, glowing blue atomically powered hero. The opening credits give us a glimpse of American history peppered with appearances by heroes; one of them even knocks off JFK as part of his latter career as a spook. To say the movie is ambitious is an understatement. Even if you hate it-- and while I didn't, I can understand how some might-- you'd have to admit it's pretty unique. It's hiiiiighly stylized (which mostly works but I could do with less slow mo in action movies like... forever), brilliantly designed (the costumes should win an Oscar), and ambitiously plotted, full of Big Ideas and some very dark elements. (This film is as gory as your average horror flick and one image in particular might inspire a nightmare or two.) Several of the characters are pretty unforgettable. Jackie Earle Haley embodies the over-the-top nihilist Rorschach with the graveliest voice this side of Christian Bale's Batman. His misadventures are some of the sickest and most unsettling in the movie. (His narration, though, is so over-the-top film noir grim that it made me laugh.) Meanwhile, Crudup's Dr. Manhattan is so disconnected from humanity that he splits himself into threes so that he can simultaneously screw his girlfriend Silk Spectre II while tinkering with nuclear power. He talks in a detached monotone that's as funny as it is effective. His origin story, an archetypal "accident grants superpowers" tale with deeper-than-average emotional resonance, was one of my favorite sequences in the film. Jeffrey Dean Morgan's gritty and cynical Comedian is conflicted and fascinating, though I wish we knew a bit more about him and in particular his tempestuous relationship with Akerman's mom, the first Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino). Patrick Wilson's Batman-ish Night Owl II is less compelling, but as played by such a talented actor he emerges as one of Watchmen's most earnest and real protagonists. The love triangle between him, Silk Spectre II, and Dr. Manhattan is the emotional core of the movie, and it's a testament to the talents of Crudup, Wilson, and Snyder that it still works despite the sub-soap opera emoting of Akerman. (And just so you don't think I'm harping on the poor woman, I will say that she *looks* phenomenal.) Also worth noting is the enigmatic Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), a dandy-ish business tycoon and the supposed "Smartest Man in the World," although I didn't feel like we got enough insight into his psyche. I was intrigued by hints that Ozy is gay (we even see a file on his hard drive labeled "Boys"), although I found his role to be rather stereotypical and perhaps even homophobic. (After 300, it's probably safe to say Snyder has some issues with the gays. But his flair for male nudity isn't likely to scare too many away, in any case.) Watchmen is compelling but fairly meandering and given over to cheesy dialogue and arch performances; the Nixon impersonator was fairly distracting and other costars, like Gugino, who spends most of the film in bad aging makeup, perform as though starring in Watchmen: The Dinner Theater Experience. Ultimately, though, it's a complex and intriguing movie, and I wish more movies, superhero-related or otherwise, were this creative and daring. I will definitely have to see it again.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Much ado about Blair

Yay! Gossip Girl is back. I didn't realize until last night just how much I'd missed those crazy kids. It was a rather entertaining return, too. This installment saw all of the characters involved in the school's production of The Age of Innocence. Never mind that none of them has shown the slightest interest in acting before. I'm a sucker for these goofy gimmick episodes where every principal character winds up in the same situation. All except Chuck, who might as well have been starring on his own show last night for all the interaction he had with the other characters. Continuing the wacky Skull & Bones-like storyline he'd become embroiled in last ep, Chuck struggled to save the mysterious young Elle. After happening upon her in a restaurant, Chuck became determined to save her from the secret society's machinations, only to trust sleazy acquaintance Carter with smuggling her out of the country. But then Carter turns out to be-- gasp!-- a member of the cult himself, flashing his tattoo at Chuck as their limo pulls away. And then two scenes later Elle's escaped, anyway (??), but tells Chuck she doesn't need him anymore; she just needed the money to go off and start a new life. She tells him to give his love to "someone who deserves it." (And seriously, what did he see in that chick, anyway? The whole storyline seemed a little forced and random, and it appears they've now dropped the whole business which suits me fine. Chuck needs to go play with the other children again!) Apart from that the episode was all about Blair, with ever more opportunities for Leighton Meester to show us what a kick-ass actor she is. After telling the ever-present Dorota and Serena that she can't relate to her hopeless onstage role, since everything in her life is perfect, she receives a rude awakening: Nelly Yuki's been accepted to Yale and Blair is out! Seems someone spilled the beans about Blair's dirty doings at Constance and Yale reconsidered. The rest of the episode becomes a whodunit as Blair desperately seeks out her new enemy. As Nelly points out, there are plenty of potential suspects; after Blair accuses her of being jealous, she insists, "People aren't jealous of you-- they hate you!" Nice wake up call for B, by the way. The plot thickens when embarrassing secrets concerning Serena and Yale are also posted online. The girls butt heads for the zillionth time, with Serena sure that she's been betrayed yet again. Insisting she isn't to blame, Blair decides that Dan is responsible for both rumors, although he's so used to her disdain that her latest passive aggressive stint elicits little more than an eye roll. An amusing scene in which the two fight while acting out a romantic interlude ensues; with her head wagging back and forth, Blair looks like she's sucking face with Humphrey. Later, the entire cast breaks character with everyone bickering and yelling. But theater critic Charles Isherwood, who's in attendance (riiiight) compliments the director for what he thinks is some sort of meta approach to the text blending the script with contemporary teens. Two things: why in the hell would Charles friggin' Isherwood deign to show up for a high school theater production? And are we really supposed to believe one of the word's greatest drama critics is dumb enough to mistake a bunch of ranting high schoolers for cutting edge theater? I don't know why Isherwood agreed to this cameo, because it kind of makes him look dumb. Meanwhile, a minor spat fails to prevent Nate and Vanessa from being the Dullest Couple Ever. Seriously, these two are beyond dull! Chace is pretty, but what for the days when he was a duchess's gigolo and not the lamest female character's cuddle monkey! Vanessa does her usual lame "I'm making a documentary" biznizz while helping Serena try and win over her handsome director. Never mind that this guy is pretty obviously gay, with his episode-ending revelation shocking no one besides Serena; he's a total tool, anyway! Still, it was nice to see Serena crushing on someone new and foregoing all the Dan-related angst for a change. But Vanessa's funny coaching of Serena via Bluetooth makes Nate think she's cheating on him, then he realizes it was a misunderstanding, then they decide maybe they're not meant to be, and finally they have an I-just-threw-up-in-my-mouth interlude on the couch, where Nate's watching The Age of Innocence DVD Vanessa lent him. "It's heart-breaking," Nate declares. Ugh. Heart-breakingly lame, that is. (Luckily the teaser for next week promises Nate/Blair intrigue, so hopefully we can finally move on from Our Long National Nightmare of V & N.) Then there's Dan and Miss Carr and the World's Most Ill Advised Relationship. I mean, I understand why they got freaky when they still thought Rachel was fired, but how can they think this is still a good idea? Hooking up at the school during rehearsal, no less? Have they never seen Dawson's Creek or any other teen soap dealing with student-teacher nookie ever made? Jenny manages to drop a note from Rachel-- along with her apartment key-- in front of Rufus, who shows up to confront Rachel and tell her Mary Kay LaTorneau playtime is over. (She had lit a bunch of candles and I kind of wished Rufus would blow them out-- just to make a point.) And who, you may ask, was the one who dished the dirt on Blair and Serena? Why, it was none other than Miss Carr. Dan tells her off for being such a treacherous biotch, after all, and when Blair puts two and two together, she realizes that for Rachel, "hav[ing] to live with it is punishment enough." Dan gets a heartfelt letter from Miss Carr (which Jenny says was "under the door" at their apartment-- is this woman seeking a Rufus ass kicking, or what??) saying that she's going back to Iowa (of course you are, dear) and learned so much from Dan, and can't believe what she did, and blah blah blah. She even throws in a quotation from The Age of Innocence for extra schmaltz. Good riddance, missy. But the damage is done for Blair, too; she winds up at a bar refusing comfort from Serena and insisting that she truly is a bad person, and no wonder S suspected the worst. "You're still my best friend," Serena says, sweetly. Back at Chez Waldorf, Chuck shows up to see Blair (realizing she's the one who deserves his love, natch). But shady Carter is putting the moves on Blair at that very moment. Next week promises a Nate and Blair reunion to infuriate Vanessa and Chuck in equal measure. While I never thought those two made sense as a couple, I think a reunion will be a good way to complicate things... and it will probably wind up pushing Chuck and Blair back together while tearing Vanessa and Nate apart. (Aww, shucks.) I can't wait for next Monday.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Why The Last House on the Left is more than vile trash

I suppose I should start this review off by admitting to bias-- Adam Alleca is the cowriter of the new remake of Last House on the Left, and in addition to being a fellow Emerson grad, he's engaged to my best friend in the world. So obviously I was inclined to like this movie. But the script was thoroughly rewritten by Carl Ellsworth, with all new dialogue and a number of new twists (including a bit of business involving a microwave teased in the trailers), so even Adam wasn't necessarily going to embrace the final product. Yet he and my friend Ashley concluded it was a pretty damn good movie, despite some reservations, and I'd have to agree. A glossy revamp of Wes Craven's first, rudest and crudest film, Last House finds a more emotional core to its harrowing story without sacrificing any of its edge. Many reviews have lumped this in with Hostel/Saw style torture porn, but I think that what sets this movie apart from those franchises is its humanistic underpinnings. The movie certainly features some stomach churningly extreme set pieces, as well as a rape that is hard to take (to say the least) but there are characters on the screen we can truly route for, rather than a mere gallery of cardboard idiots just asking to be dispatched. (Although it must be said that the villains of the piece are pretty much... just asking to be dispatched.) The Last House on the Left focuses on Mari (Sara Paxton, who resembles Mischa Barton but with talent), a sweet young girl with overprotective parents following the death of her brother Ben a year earlier. Her more accomodating father John (Tony Goldwyn) hands over the car keys so she can spend the day with her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac). But when the girls elect to follow a shy young boy named Justin (Spencer Treat Clark) back to his motel for some good weed, the situation soon devolves into a nightmare surpassing mom Emma (Monica Potter)'s worst fears. Justin's father Krug (an appropriately menacing Garret Dillahunt) arrives with his band of psychos in tow, and the gang brutalizes both girls and, kills Paige, but not before Mari crashes their car. Leaving Mari for dead, the group winds up on the doorstep of John and Emma, who are happy to offer them a safe place to spend the night... but of course it's only a matter of time they discover both their daughter's critical condition and just who's to blame. What follows is a gripping descent into depravity as mom and dad take a revenge just as sick as what the criminals have done to their daughter. This was the point of the original film, too: how our desire for vengeance can debase us to the level of those who've done us wrong. But while the admittedly effective crudity of the shoestring original left little room for character insight, the new Last House is more fully fleshed out. Critics have called the direction and acting amateurish, but I fail to see either criticism. Newcomer Dennis Iliadis is a skilled visual stylist and wrangles effective performances from all of his principals. Goldwyn, Potter, and Paxton felt like a real family-- with Potter in particular turning in a vivid and sympathetic performance. I also enjoyed the character arc for Justin, who finally manages to stand up to his abusive and twisted father (with Clark showing himself to be a promising newcomer). The bad guys are caricatures, to be sure, but they don't need to be more. We know they're monsters; the compelling part is seeing just how monstrous Mom and Dad will get-- and by extension pondering what our own response would be to such a situation. We might like to think we wouldn't go as far as these two, who create the grisliest kitchen chamber of horrors since Gremlins. But the grisly and intense Last House allows us to ponder this disturbing question from the safety of a movie theater, like all good horror movies do. While Last House isn't a social commentary or a complete grindhouse romp like its predecessor, it remains a potent and compelling flick.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Usually my posts are fluffy and fun and pop culture related. But today I have to write (and ironically on my birthday) that I am severely disheartened by the series of layoffs that have rocked my company. I'm so tired of this seemingly hopeless economy, and my agency's situation is compounded by our recent merger, which has led to "restructuring." So over the last two weeks, I've watched some of my favorite people-- many of whom have been here for many years-- get the proverbial ax. These include a single mom and a woman (and close friend) who was only two years away from retirement. I understand to a degree that costs must be cut, but I only wish the layoffs weren't so seemingly arbitrary. Seniority? Forget about it. New baby at home? Tough luck. It makes me both sad and angry. (And, naturally, paranoid myself, although my job *seems* safe-- for now.) As I talked to one of our art buyers, an incredibly intelligent, cool, and fun person (who just gave me a b-day card)I couldn't help thinking of a line from a movie (I know, I know, my movie fried brain). Her gorgeous face was stained with tears, and I heard Kurt Russell in Death Proof: "There is nothing so beautiful as a look of wounded pride on the face of an angel." But I didn't find it pleasant, although my colleague still was beautiful... I just felt depressed.