Monday, August 31, 2009

A final Christmas present from Ledger and Gilliam?

"I'm Peggy Olson and I want to smoke some marijuana."

Last night marked the second time this season (the second episode was kinda a dud) that "Mad Men" managed to air episodes that rank easily among the show's best. From Peggy getting high to Sally reading "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" to grandpa (easily my favorite moment of season three so far), last night's episode was just a visual feast.

And yet, I couldn't help but be left with this thought afterward: What exactly happened on last night's episode? Now, I know everyone went to a great Kentucky Derby party hosted by Roger and his new wife (I won't soon forget the vision of John Slattery in black face), but what of consequence really happened last night?

I know the plots develop slowly on "Mad Men," and believe me, I love the show for that, and if - in an odd way like "Seinfeld" - it really is a show about nothing, I'll gladly continue to get hoodwinked week after week. But that just struck me last night, and I felt like sharing it. 'Nuff said.

The only real news I have this morning is that Heath Ledger's final movie, director Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus," is apparently finally going to get a U.S. release date, and possibly one wide enough to play in my little corner of the world before the end of this year.

Sony Pictures Classics is set to release the flick, which brought in Colin Farrell, Jude Law and Johnny Depp to complete Ledger's part after his death, on Christmas day, so I can only say huzzah to that.

Given how crowded Dec. 25 is likely to be, that probably actually means I won't get to see this until mid-January, so here's hoping for some good buzz that makes that possible. I know Gilliam's movies are sometimes unwatchable ("Tideland," anyone?), but the few reviews I've seen of this one say it's a really weird winner, which sounds just about perfect to me. Anyways, that's all I've got today. Peace out.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The funniest movie of the fall? I think we've found it

"Chuck" is, as far as I know, still not scheduled to return until March (damnit!), but when it does, it's got to be an encouraging sign that it will have a big enough budget for ... Superman?

Yes, it does seem that, according to the TV-obsessed Michael Ausiello of Entertainment Weekly, Brandon Routh (no longer Superman, I suppose) will be joining "Chuck" for a multi-episode arc when the show finally returns. He'll apparently be playing a new agent brought in to manage Chuck and his newfound abilities, and inevitably pitch at least a little woo at agent Walker.

Like I said, no word that "Chuck" will return any earlier than next March, but one can dream, right? Bring it on now!

All I have after that is the funniest trailer I've seen in some time (well, only since "In the Loop," actually) and one that means we should be getting a seriously good comedy this November.

I would have included "Men Who Stare at Goats" in yesterday's list of the 10 movies I'm most looking forward to for the rest of this year if I had known more about it before today, because it looks like a real hoot. George Clooney (who really will be just about everywhere this fall) plays a soldier who's a member of a supposedly real Army battalion that uses psychic abilities. Yes, really. Ewan McGregor plays a journalist sent to investigate and, yes, even the Dude is somehow in this too. Enjoy the trailer, and have a perfectly pleasant weekend. Peace out.

Actually, here's a bonus, which I just happened to come across at the IMDB. This may be old, but it's the first time I had seen this teaser trailer for Tim Burton's "Alice In Wonderland," and it looks sensational. Burton remakes or reimaginings or whatever you call them are usually a disaster, but I'm sold that this one, set to come out in March, will be a real winner. Enjoy.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fall favorites: The 10 flicks I'm most looking forward to for the rest of this year

Actually, before we get into any of that, the funnest news out there now is that they're actually gonna make a movie based on the TV show "Soul Train," and Don Cornelius himself will be involved.

How, you might ask, will they come up with a plot for a show about dancing? I have no idea, but I still think this flick could be a lot of fun, mostly because of another one that's grown to be among my favorites.

I used to consider Malcolm Lee's "Roll Bounce" to be a guilty pleasure kind of flick, but I've seen it so many times on Saturday afternoon TV now that it's simply one of my favorite flicks, with no qualification. Since that silly little flick is about a kid (yes, Bow Wow) who just wants to roller skate, I can easily envision a "Soul Train" movie about a kid who just wants to dance and land a spot on a national "Soul Train" tour.

And in a few other tidbits before I get to the main event today, because "Chuck" co-creator Josh Schwartz apparently can't be idle for even a few seconds, he's now apparently getting into the sitcom game.

He's teaming with fellow "Chuck" producer Matt Miller to pen a multicamera script for CBS that will follow "a twentysomething newlywed couple navigating their new life together." The pilot, which picks up after the couple's honeymoon, is inspired by Schwartz and Miller's recent marriages.

That sounds like more than a little meh to me, but since I tune in for every new episode of both "Chuck" and "Gossip Girl," I'm sure I'll check this out too.

And speaking of "Gossip Girl," star Blake Lively has joined the already rather impressive cast of Ben Affleck's next directing effort, "The Town," based on the Chuck Hogan novel "Prince of Thieves," and in even better news, Chris Cooper is about to too. They join Affleck, Rebecca Hall (huzzah!), Jeremy Renner and even Don Draper.

The story follows a bank manager (Hall), the career criminal (Affleck) who stole more than her heart (not my wording!) and the FBI agent (Hamm) trying to bust the crook and his gang, of which Renner is a part. Lively is playing Renner's sister and Affleck's troubled ex-girlfriend. Cooper would play Affleck's father. Shooting begins next month in Boston.

And finally, in wildly good "Dollhouse" news, it seems that "Firefly/Serenity" vet Summer Glau is about to join the cast for a multiepisode arc that should add more than a few wrinkles to the storyline.

She will play a character named Bennett who shares a past with Eliza Dushku's Echo and has a connection to another Dollhouse character. And, in even better news, it seems that she works at "a dollhouse," meaning different from the one where Echo and the others live. Excellent.

OK, enough of that. Before I got distracted by the dailies this morning, this was supposed to be all about the 10 (or maybe 11) movies I'm most looking forward to for the rest of this year. And just to prove it was some tough decision-making, here are the six flicks that almost made the cut but just missed: "Jennifer's Body," "Zombieland," "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant," "Gentlemen Broncos," "Nine" (the musical) and "Sherlock Holmes."

And now, without further dawdling, here goes, in order only of release date:

Sept. 4: "Extract"
All signs are that this will be the first Mike Judge movie to truly play wide in, well, forever, so if that turns out to somehow be a lie, I'm really gonna be pissed. This looks an awful lot like "Office Space" from the perspective of management, which with Jason Bateman, Mila Kunis, Kristen Wiig, Ben Affleck and J.K. Simmons all in the cast would be just fine with me.

Sept. 11: "Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All By Myself"
I'm certain that this one will fall into the Perry formula, but I'm just as certain that I simply don't care. It's really not that I'm an apologist for Mr. Perry, but that I find even his most routine flicks to be filled with more humanity than just about anything else out there. And besides, with the great Taraji P. Henson in the lead for this one, there's no way I won't be there on opening day.

Sept. 18: "The Informant!"
When's the last time you can remember Steven Soderbergh really having fun with a movie? I suppose the second and third "Ocean's" movies might qualify, but I didn't bother with those, so I'd have to go back to the first one, in other words quite a while. Well, it certainly looks like "The Informant!", starring Matt Damon as a rather inept corporate whistle blower, should be a return to fun form, and I'll be there to find out.

Oct. 2: "The Invention of Lying"
Anyone who bothered to see last year's "Ghost Town" (and there really weren't many of you at all, so take that as my rental tip for the day) knows that beneath his rather caustic exterior, Ricky Gervais is just a big fan of thoroughly charming romantic comedies. Here's hoping this flick he co-wrote and co-directed with Matthew Robinson will be just as good as "Ghost Town," and that a whole lot more people bother to watch it.

Oct. 2: "Whip It"
Is it really true that I haven't seen young Ellen Page in a movie since "Juno"? I think so. I know she was in "Smart People" last year, but I didn't bother with that one. So I say welcome back, and in what should be a really fun flick, Drew Barrymore's directing debut with Page, Barrymore, Kristen Wiig and even Juliette Lewis as roller derby queens. I'm there.

Oct. 9: "The Damned United"
This is also actually listed as coming out on Sept. 25, but either way, I seriously doubt it's ever gonna open anywhere that won't make me drive at least an hour to see it. Which is a real shame, because it's based on easily one of my favorite books, and one you don't even have to love soccer to enjoy (but it would certainly help.) It tells the story of Brian Clough's rather disastrous and brief stint as the coach of Leeds United, a team he makes clear from the start he still detests even after becoming its leader. With Michael Sheen playing Clough and "The Queen" scribe Peter Morgan writing the script, I can't see any way this will be anything but a winner, if you get to see it.

Oct. 16: "Where the Wild Things Are"
OK, this is the one. Without much modesty at all, I'll tell you that long before they started to generate unbelievable buzz, I last gave this title to "No Country for Old Men" and then "Slumdog Millionaire." I have serious doubts that Spike Jonze's flick will be an Oscar contender like those, but I do know that whatever he comes up with from my favorite childhood tale by Maurice Sendak is easily the one movie I'm most looking forward to for the rest of this year.

Oct. 30: "Youth in Revolt"
Of all the movies on this list, this one certainly has the highest potential to be simply wretched, but I'm still holding out hope, since I just loved the book by C.D. Payne. In the movie, Michael Cera will play the (16- rather than 14-year old, I think) hero, Nick Twisp, who simply wants to score with the seductive love of his young life, Sheeni Saunders. It never gets much more complicated than that, but if it captures the spirit of Payne's wildly satirical book, it should just be a wicked pleasure.

Nov. 25: "The Fantastic Mr. Fox"
I didn't have terribly high hopes for this first foray into animation by Wes Anderson, but the stills and trailer I've managed to see have gotten me all geeked up once again. Anderson used the stop-motion technique to tell this classic Roald Dahl tale, with George Clooney as the voice of titular Mr. Fox, so I'm definitely willing to take a chance on it.

Nov. 25: "The Princess and the Frog"
No matter how hokey this one might be, Disney's return to classic 2-D animation, with its first black princess - Anika Noni Rose - and a grand score, is enough to get me hooked. It's surely too late to completely turn back now, but I'm hoping this makes a ton of money and at least opens the door for more animated movies that I don't have to put on a second pair of friggin glasses to watch.

Dec. 4: "Up in the Air"
Whew! We're finally at the end, with the welcome return of writer/director Jason Reitman. A quick check of the IMDB reveals there are no less than eight other flicks with the same title, including one short also coming out this year. Reitman's flick is about a corporate downsizing expert (Clooney again) who revels in piling up frequent flier miles. I don't think she has a very big part, but Anna Kendrick is in this too, and it always just makes me smile to see her on the big screen.

And there you have it. Please feel free to let me know of any flicks you think I've wrongfully snubbed, and have a perfectly pleasant Thursday. Peace out.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Where the wild sounds aren't: A soundtrack dud

Actually, the biggest - though I'm not sure the best - news in my book is that easily one of my favorite British TV shows is not only coming to America, but even to the burgh formerly know as Charm City, Baltimore itself.

On the surface, E4's "Skins" would look like the definition of a guilty pleasure for someone as old and often cranky as me, but I think it's so good it stands up as entertainment for all ages. I'm not sure exactly how I got hooked on it in the first place, but I think it was because someone who visits here once commented that Dev Patel of "Slumdog Millionaire" stars in the first two seasons, which is indeed the case. If so, I can't remember who it was, but thank you all the same.

The show, a primetime soap opera that fits squarely with Britain's best entries in that genre, follows the adventures of seven teens who have the misfortune of living in Bristol with at best very unfit parents. There's an awful lot of sex and drugs, but also just a lot of humanity and fantastic storytelling. And besides, Peter Capaldi of "In the Loop" makes a very memorable turn on a few episodes as one said parent, so you know they have to be doing something right.

The show has aired a third season with a new set of kids, which I'll pick up on DVD as soon as I'm able, but in the meantime comes the rather dubious news that MTV (attracted, I suppose, by all the sex and drugs) is not only doing an American version, but setting it in Baltimore with a cast of "unknowns."

Show creator Bryan Elsley will have a hand in at least the pilot, so perhaps this won't turn out as dreadful as I'm imagining it could be. And in the meantime, I really do recommend watching the first two seasons of "Skins" on DVD. It's not quite "Freaks and Geeks," but in it's own way, it's still a unique view of teenage life that I guarantee you'll find entertaining if you stick with it.

In other, much more geeky and less disturbing, news, John Landis and the great Simon Pegg are teaming up for a flick that - if I'm not mistaken - would be Landis' first big-screen feature directorial project since "Blues Brothers 2000" (which may well some kind of masterpiece, but since I'll never see it, I guess I'll never know.)

"Burke and Hare," which sounds like it's right up each of their alleys, will be about a pair of 19th Century grave robbers who dug up and sold cadavers to the Edinburgh Medical College for dissection. I'm laughing at that already, and if you pair Pegg and Nick Frost as the two grave robbers, even better.

And finally, before we get to the rather lame lead single from the upcoming "Where the Wild Thing Are" soundtrack and then a mind-bending teaser trailer from no less than Christopher Nolan, there's one more bit of news about what will most likely be Pixar's first live-action movie, "John Carter of Mars" (Brad Bird had been developing a live-action project titled "1906" about the great San Francisco earthquake, but it looks like that one might be in serious trouble.)

"John Carter of Mars" will be based on the series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs about a Civil War veteran who is somehow transported to the red planet. Already, "Friday Night Lights" (man, do I miss that show) vet Taylor Kitsch has been cast as the titular John Carter, and now two of my favorite actors have joined the mix.

Dominic West, who walked the beat in Baltimore (you really can't have too much Charm City in one post) as Jimmy McNutty on "The Wire," will play Sab Than, the Martian prince who (according to reports, since I haven't read these books yet) tries to force the Martian princess Dejah Thoris to marry him. Even better, and wilder, Samantha Morton will play Sola, the "10-foot-tall, four-armed green secret daughter of Martian warrior Tars Tarkas."

Like I said, not having read the books, none of that means much to me, but I still can't wait to see what Pixar will do in live action (though it won't be coming until 2012), and especially with a cast that good.

OK, as we near the finish, it's time for something just almost completely disappointing. Anyone who's been here before knows that I've been tracking all the slightest bits of minutiae about "Where the Wild Things Are," because it pairs one of my favorite directors, Spike Jonze, with my favorite tale from childhood by Maurice Sendak.

In, I think, both of the trailers, they've used the simply sensational Arcade Fire song "Wake Up," which in both spirit and sound just fits the movie perfectly.

Now, however, they've released the first single from the upcoming movie soundtrack, by "Karen O and the Kids," with Karen O being the frontwoman for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. And I have to say, having listened to it twice now, that it's unfortunately just a big ball of meh.

Don't take my word for it, though. Click here and scroll down the right side to listen yourself, and please feel free to let me know if I'm somehow just all wet about this.

And, really finally, I'm probably a few days late with this, but who really cares when it's the teaser trailer for Christopher Nolan's next flick, "Inception"? The clip doesn't reveal much except that it stars Leonardo DiCaprio, but I can also tell you young Ellen Page is in it, it won't come out until July and it should just be a real friggin mind trip when it finally drops. Enjoy, and have a perfectly passable Tuesday. Peace out.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Yes, this is really one of my favorite books

I'm well aware that by any standards, I read a lot of trash, but before I get into any of that, it seems that Jay Roach is quickly putting together what might be the funniest cast of 2010.

Roach's "Dinner for Schmucks" is a remake of the French film "Le Diner de Cons," in which guests are expected to bring along the biggest idiot they can find for ridicule. Roach's flick, set to come out in July, was already on the right course by making Steve Carell the principal idiot and also casting seriouslyfunnyman Paul Rudd, and now comes word that Zach Galifianakis is on board too.

Considering that Roach bailed on the "Meet the ..." series to direct this, it can only be considered a case of trading up, and well worth keeping your eyes on.

And speaking of reading on a slightly different subject, Dave Eggers has a great fiction piece in the latest issue of The New Yorker based on Max, the hero of "Where the Wild Things Are." Eggers wrote the screenplay for Spike Jonze's take on the classic Maurice Sendak children's tale, which just happens to be the single movie I'm most looking forward to for the rest of this year (October can't get here fast enough!) You can read Eggers' story here.

But getting back to my reading habits, I work as hard as anyone I know, so when I bother to read a book it's most often for escape or humor. Lately, that's meant Charlaine Harris' sensationally entertaining Sookie Stackhouse novels, and even though the one I'm on now, "Dead as a Doornail," is more than a bit of a dud so far, I'm sure I'll read as many as she bothers to write.

Another, admittedly extremely juvenile, book that just holds a lofty place in my heart is C.D. Payne's "Youth in Revolt." If anyone were to take my recommendation, which it's come to my attention some people occasionally actually do, be warned: The entire premise of this book is the outlandish lengths our 14-year-old hero, Nick Twisp, will go to to have sex with the seductive object of his affection, Sheeni Saunders.

Silly? Extremely, but it's also a scalding satire that writes the teen characters with respect, and now it's somehow being made into movie starring Michael Cera. When I first heard that, I didn't think it could possibly work, because the book isn't just filled with dark humor, it's the blackest of black. But because Cera loves the book too and director Miguel Arteta, who made the simply insane "Chuck & Buck" way back when, isn't afraid of it either, the movie actually got made and is set to come out hopefully everywhere Oct. 30.

And, even more amazingly, the trailer below actually resembles something like what the book looks like in my mind, so count me as psyched. Enjoy the trailer, and have a great weekend. And if you'll excuse me, I'm off to watch Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds." Peace out.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Trailer trifecta, and why I feel like Larry David far too often

I considered leading with the rather depressing information (well, I guess I did) that Bryan Singer now has nothing better than to do than a '70s TV update ("Battlestar Galactica," and not the nifty version that just ended on Syfy, or whatever it's called now) and a remake of "Excalibur," because lord know that's just what the world needs.

But I really have nothing to say about that, so since it's Friday, let's just get to a trio of fun trailers and a look at the preview for "Curb Your Enthusiasm." First up is the trailer for Joe Johnston's take on "The Wolfman," which I have to say just looks about 100 times better than I could have possibly expected (especially since I expected it to be a big ball of shite.) It looks like a a real, old-fashioned horror flick, and I'm sure Benicio del Toro will be great, so enjoy.

Next up comes the return of Michael Moore with "Capitalism, A Love Story," which, despite my strong belief that "Sicko" was nearly a complete failure, is a good thing in my book. He's threatened to stop making documentaries after this one, and if so, I guess it's good that he's going out by taking on nothing less than our entire capitalist economy. Enjoy the trailer, courtesy of CNN.

And next is the trailer for James Cameron's "Avatar." I have to say, not being a fan of 3-D in just about any form, I'm not particularly excited about this one, but it is a sci-fi movie from Cameron and his first flick in many years, so I guess I'll be there in December. Enjoy the trailer.

What I am rather excited about is that Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" is set to return to HBO on Sept. 20. As the clip below summarizes rather brilliantly, Larry's life is a constant ball of frustration, which I can certainly sympathize with, especially last night when I found out that, even though Macon is a notorious walk-up town, the Drive-By Truckers show was somehow sold out (yes, I know I should have bought a ticket in advance, but I waffled about spending $25 for it until the very end - obviously no one's fault but my own.)

Anyways, enjoy the preview, and have a great weekend. For me, that will mean Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" on Saturday and then catching up on "District 9" on Sunday - my definition of a perfect weekend. Peace out.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Zombie attack? They're on it ... plus Quentin Tarantino's favorite movies

I've often wondered what would really happen if the world were attacked by zombies, especially when it helps me to avoid doing some truly thankless task at work, but I had no idea people could get paid for such flights of fancy. I'm in entirely the wrong business.

Some researchers in Canada, according to the BBC, have actually carried out a "mathematical exercise" to conclude that, as any zombie movie fan knows well, "If zombies actually existed, an attack by them would lead to the collapse of civilisation unless dealt with quickly and aggressively."

Well, I'm glad we cleared that up. There's so many things to like about this, but I think my favorite might be that for their book, "Infectious Diseases Modelling Research Progress" (get thee to Amazon right now), they gave the living a chance by only using "classic, slow-moving zombies as our opponents rather than the nimble, intelligent creatures portrayed in some recent films."

Whew! So, what's their conclusion? Humanity's only hope is to "hit them [the undead] hard and hit them often. It's imperative that zombies are dealt with quickly or else ... we are all in a great deal of trouble."

I really wish I had the ability to make this stuff up, but just in case it all has you actually worried, they finished with this reassuring thought well reinforced by zombie movies of all kinds: "My understanding of zombie biology is that if you manage to decapitate a zombie then it's dead forever. So perhaps they are being a little over-pessimistic when they conclude that zombies might take over a city in three or four days."

OK, as fun as that was, enough, because there's some actual movie news out there today, plus a couple of fun videos at the finish.

First up is word of a remake that doesn't immediately make me want to vomit, at least partly because I've never seen the original it will be based on.

If you haven't seen director Michael Davis' "Shoot 'Em Up," you've missed one of the most fun movies I've seen in the past five years or so. Clive Owen and Paul Giamatti star in the bullet ballet that most often plays out like a Looney Tunes cartoon, and there are very few rentals I can recommend higher.

Now it seems that Davis has set his sights on a remake of "Outland," a 1981 sci-fi movie starring Sean Connery that, like I said, I've never seen. Every description I've seen says it's essentially "High Noon" in space, with Connery's character sent to investigate the mysterious deaths of laborers at a mining colony on one of Jupiter's moons.

With "Moon" already one of my favorites this year, and "District 9" (which I'll be seeing this weekend, along with QT's "Inglourious Basterds") getting nothing but raves, it seems we're really in a good place for big-screen sci-fi right now, and to this new addition I can only say bring it on.

Beyond that today, there are just a couple of casting nuggets out there that make projects I was sure to tune in for anyway just that much cooler.

When "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" veteran Jane Espenson was named an executive producer of Syfy (queer, queer, queer!) network's upcoming "Battlestar Galactica" prequel "Caprica," I suppose it was inevitable that she would bring some old friends along with her.

According to Entertainment Weekly's Michael Ausiello, the first "Buffy" player to join the fold will be by far the coolest, James Marsters, aka Spike. Marsters will play a dangerous terrorist leader by the name of Barnabus Greeley in a minimum of three episodes. Here's his rather pithy character description: "Driven by desires both moralistic and carnal, Barnabus is as lethal as he is unpredictable."

That's more than enough to have me tuning in when this finally hits Syfy on Jan. 22.

In even better casting news, it seems that Don Draper himself, Jon Hamm, has joined the cast of "Watchmen" director Zack Snyder's first original work, "Sucker Punch." He joins, among others, Emily Browning, Vanessa Hudgens, Abbie Cornish and (huzzah!) Carla Gugino in the 1950s-set tale of a girl (Browning) confined to a mental institution by her stepfather, who intends to have her lobotomized in five days. She and her friends enter an alternate reality where they begin planning an escape.

No details for Hamm's character are known except this: His name is High Roller. The movie is set to come out March 25, 2011.

And speaking of "Mad Men," which I hadn't yet, I thought the season three premiere was just sensational. The Ken vs. Pete storyline should be great, and that "Can I ask you a question?" moment between Don and poor Sal was just priceless.

OK, after all that, all I have left is two videos, the first of which is just the perfect cure for any kind of workaday blues. I'm an ardent fan of cursing, probably too much so in my own vocabulary, but especially in the movies, and no character has done it better in many years than Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker in "In the Loop." Definitely see Armando Ianucci's razor-sharp satire as soon as you can, but in the meantime, enjoy this highlight reel of some of Tucker's choicest barbs, courtesy of Empire.

And finally today, in honor of "Inglourious Basterds," here's Quentin Tarantino offering his 20 favorite movies that have come out since he started making movies in 1992. I don't want to spoil it for you, but two definite highlights are his passionate defense of Jan de Bont's "Speed" and the inclusion of the seriously funny "Friday." Enjoy, and have a perfectly passable Tuesday. Peace out.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A visit to the magical world of "Ponyo"

As I woke up Sunday morning, I was more than ready to find out that, yes, Disney had lied to me once again and Hayao Miyazaki's "Ponyo" would not be playing anywhere even near my little corner of the world, but I was thankfully wrong.

Centerville, about a half hour to the south of me, has actually been good to Miyazaki through the years, showing both "Howl's Moving Castle" and "Spirited Away," and there was practically a packed house for the 1:30 screening of "Ponyo," which I have to say just warmed my extremely cynical heart to see.

Now, "Ponyo" certainly isn't one of Miyazaki's most epic works, but in my book it's still one of his best. I've always liked his stories when they keep things deceptively simple, as with my two favorites, "Kiki's Delivery Service" and "Porco Rosso." Like those two magical movies, "Ponyo" is clearly intended for children, and in all the best ways.

For anyone who doesn't already know, our titular heroine, voiced in the Western version by Hannah Montana's brother, apparently, is a goldfish who just wants to be a little girl. And to enjoy this blissfully simple creation, that's all you really need to know.

From there, Miyazaki goes on to explore many of the themes that have flown through his best movies through the years. At the movie's core, it's about friendship and - hokey as it may sound - love, between Ponyo and her new human friend Sosuke (apparently a Jonas of some kind), Sosuke and his mother Lisa (voiced by Tina Fey), and, well, all living things (like I said, you have to swallow a whole lot of hokey to go along with this one.)

But just as important as the story here is that "Ponyo" looks as good as any Miyazaki movie ever has, particularly when he explores one of his favorite realms, the sea. Though I had seen the scene when Ponyo emerges from the sea on the backs of a school of fish on the small screen beforehand, it's still a majestic sight, made all the more magical in the vivid and yes, 2-D strokes that turn Miyazaki's pallet into a watercolor tableau full of beautiful colors.

I'm not sure anyone will pay enough attention ("Ponyo" did manage to crack the top 10, taking in about $3.6 million in week one), but with this and the coming "The Princess and the Frog" Disney has, perhaps unwittingly, entered into an animation war to save the traditionally beautiful art form (and, interestingly enough of course, at direct odds with its almost always better half, Pixar.) In this looming battle, 2-D is sure to lose, but I'll be its champion until it disappears for good.

As with any Miyazaki movie, "Ponyo" does just have head-scratching plot turns that demand you suspend all logic. The most glaring example is that we're to believe an apparently very loving mother would leave her 5-year-old son (and his new goldfish inamorata) at home alone during a very violent storm. But if you're willing to suspend reason for a while and can stand a big dose of sugar, I can almost guarantee you'll enjoy a ride with "Ponyo."

I'll close with the most direct comparison I can think of, to M. Night Shyamalan's "Lady in the Water," easily one of the worst movies I've ever seen. Though both movies were written explicitly for children - Miyazaki's movie for his grandson and M. Night's crapfest as a supposed "bedtime story" - "Ponyo" succeeds where the other movie fails so miserably because it delights in majestic storytelling rather than simply throwing out ludicrous ideas with no spirit behind them (it's painful to remember, but didn't M. Night cast himself as the writer who can somehow save the world - sheesh.)

Here's hoping Miyazaki has at least a few more movies left in him, because "Ponyo" proves he's still very much near the top of his game. Peace out.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

"District 9" or "Julie & Julia"? Neither ... "Ponyo" for me!

After spending a week in Mexico City, I can really only tell you this: It's one of the craziest places on earth, but also one of the most beautiful, and that makes it a great place to visit if you keep your guard up.

Why? Well, I've never been to a place where I've seen more people hustling, be it straight-out begging or selling just about anything you can imagine on the street, the subway or any other venue (my favorites were the guys who had converted their backpacks into some kind of jukeboxes, playing 10-second snippets of songs as they hawked CDs on the subway.)

The poverty can be bewildering, and yet it's also home to some of the most beautiful works of art. Fans of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo will delight in the museums that bare their name, particularly in the guide to all the characters in Rivera's most famous mural "SueƱo de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda" (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda.) If I had to estimate, I'd guess I saw about 1/100 of all the magical things in Mexico City, and I hope to go back someday.

But of course, being the geek that I am, I went there with the Minnesota Volunteers who allow me to accompany them for the U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifier, which was a one-of-a-kind experience I really never need to have again.

I understand that sports brings out the wild side of people, and I love them for that, but being pelted by beer, ramen noodles (yes, really) and any number of other bottled liquids throughout the game was really beyond the pale. And after the game, being escorted by riot police into police paddywagons (I had the luck to get a bus instead) as we were verbally assaulted with just about every Spanish epithet you can dream up was just the definition of unpleasant. All I could think was: I wonder what they would do if they lost? I still love the city and most of its people, though.

But this is all about movies, right, and I've managed to miss quite a few. I really need to see "Julie & Julia" before it leaves theaters, and since "District 9" will apparently just blow my mind, I should see that soon too. But before that, however, the one movie I've been waiting for what seems like forever to see is Miyazaki's "Ponyo," which is somehow thankfully playing at one of our multiplexes. Well, I have to drive a half hour to see it, but I'm more than willing to do that this afternoon. Then, of course, it's the season three premiere of "Mad Men" tonight, so a perfect day. Peace out.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

R.I.P. John Hughes, viva Machete and the continuing amazing glory that is "Where the Wild Things Are"

I'm not sure there's anything terribly profound I can say about the fact that John Hughes died of a heart attack at the far-too-young age of 59 while out on a walk yesterday, but it's certainly a cautionary tale. I never thought the man was a terribly out-of-shape-looking guy, but to only make it that long in our world is just thoroughly depressing (and, yes, you can thank me for stating the obvious.)

I was surprised to see from his IMDB resume that, although he wrote or produced a ton of movies, he actually only directed eight flicks. But when your first four directing gigs are, in this order, "Sixteen Candles," "The Breakfast Club," "Weird Science" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," in the space of only three years from 1984-'86, you clearly know what you're doing. The man just got exactly what it was like to be a teenager in the '80s, which I was, and for that I can only say thanks.

Of those four classic flicks, I know many people would pick "The Breakfast Club" as the best, but for me it was always "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." It was one of the first movies that taught me how directors can give their movies a sense of place, which Hughes did so perfectly with Chicago, and it was just so much fun to watch Matthew Broderick, Mia Sara and Alan Ruck romp their way through it.

For me, however, Hughes made just as much of a mark with his music selections, specifically for "Pretty in Pink" and "Some Kind of Wonderful," two movies he wrote and produced.

There might not be a finer movie soundtrack than the one for "Pretty in Pink," and I just wore a hole through my cassette copy of it in the '80s (sadly, I tried to buy it on iTunes this morning, but it's somehow not even available.) Starting with OMD's "If You Leave" and continuing through Suzanne Vega and Joe Jackson's "Left of Center" (my favorite track) and the Psychedelic Furs' title track, and then, of course, finishing up with "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want" by the Smiths, it had just enough angst but was mostly just an aural confection I couldn't put down for at least six months straight or so.

"Some Kind of Wonderful" was in so many ways just a pale knockoff of "Pretty in Pink," but in terms of the soundtrack it stands up pretty well over time on its own too. "The Hardest Walk" has always been one of my favorite Jesus and Mary Chain songs, and to this day I still can't get that crazy Lick The Tins version of "I Can't Help Falling In Love," later used in Stephen Frears' "The Snapper," easily one of my favorite comedies, out of my head.

Rest in peace indeed, Mr. Hughes.

OK, enough of that. This is the last post I'm going to do for more than a week because I'm headed to Mexico City with my brother and the rest of the Minnesota Volunteers to watch the U.S. men's soccer team hopefully not get crushed in a World Cup qualifier at El Azteca, and just goof off for a solid week in that crazy city, so nothing but good news from here on out.

And speaking of crazy, I'm now certain it's not gonna get much better than what Robert Rodriguez is cooking up with "Machete."

The movie itself, of course, springs from the I-guess-no-longer-fake trailer that was sandwiched between "Planet Terror" and "Death Proof" in "Grindhouse," and it was easily the best of the intermission fare (except for maybe that great use of the Danger Doom/Talib Kweli track "Old School" over the be right back titles.)

And now the actual movie about a Mexican federale who takes revenge on a U.S. Senator who has framed him for murder is attracting just a wild cast. Danny Trejo, of course, will play Machete himself, and Variety now confirms he'll be joined by no less than Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba, Steven Seagal, Michelle Rodriguez, Cheech Marin, Don Johnson and even Lindsay Lohan. Take a second to take that all in.

Shooting is gearing up now in Austin, with Rodriguez's longtime editor Ethan Maniquis serving as co-director, and this will be out sometime next year. Even if it somehow turns out to be awful, which I really can't see happening, you can at least probably be guaranteed it won't be boring, so I can only bring it on.

OK, before I head off south of the border, I'll leave you with the best three videos I found this week, and yes, we will eventually get to "Where the Wild Things Are," and you just have to believe me that it's well worth the wait.

First, though, comes this little bit of thorough cuteness from "(500) Days of Summer" director Marc Webb, featuring his two almost unbearably charming stars, Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. As you'll see and hear, the dance they perform is to a tune from She & Him, the great collaboration between Deschanel and M. Ward, and if you don't own their album "Volume One," I really can't recommend it highly enough. Enjoy.

Next up comes the fairly promising trailer for "The Vampire's Assistant," the first movie based on books from Irish author Darren Shan's "Vampire Blood" trilogy. While I'm growing just about as tired as anyone of stories of young vampires (though not of "Let the Right One In," which the Macon Film Guild will be screening twice on Oct. 30 in honor of Halloween, huzzah!), I don't think you can go wrong when the elder vamp in this case is played by John C. Reilly and the "Cirque du Freak" contains, among other performers, Salma Hayek as the bearded lady and Patrick Fugit as the snake boy. This is coming out Oct. 23 and is being directed by Paul Weitz. Enjoy the trailer.

OK, I've definitely saved the best for last, because this second, third or whatever it is trailer for Spike Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are" is truly just a wonder to behold. You get to hear a lot more of James Gandolfini as one of the main wild things, and we finally get to see young Max (Max Records) bellow "Let the wild rumpus start." He also gets another fantastic line, but I won't spoil it for you, because this two-and-a-half minute bit of goodness is just the perfect way to start off a Friday. I can't wait until this finally comes out in October. Enjoy.

And with that I'm off to Mexico City until Aug. 15, and in my mind I'm already there. Peace out.

Mid-year report card: The 10 best movies of 2009 - so far

When I sat down to do this, I started with 20 movies, so the competition was indeed pretty fierce.

And, at the outset, I certainly expected both Michael Mann's "Public Enemies" and Greg Mottola's "Adventureland," both just damn fine flicks, to make the cut, but they just missed (and the fact that "Up" didn't make this list in any slot isn't me being ornery, it's just my honest opinion.) I've included an honorable mention to give all the also-rans credit, so without any further ado and in reverse order, here goes:

10. "Coraline"
Of all the animated movies I've seen in 3-D, Henry Selick's "Coraline," based on the novella by Neil Gaiman, is the only one I can say I love almost unconditionally. It definitely starts to unravel by the end, but since it's the twisted fantasy vision of a child, it's to be expected. Rent this right away if you haven't seen it yet.

9. "Moon"
This was the second-hottest ticket at this year's Atlanta Film Festival, and with good reason. Though it pilfers extremely liberally from "2001: A Space Odyssey," Duncan Jones' flick still delivers a solid sci-fi allegory for our troubled times, and Sam Rockwell, who appears in just about every frame of this all by himself, is just sensational.

8. "Watchmen"
I recently watched the rather whopping 186-minute director's cut of Zack Snyder's movie, and though it took two sittings, I recommend it for anyone who liked the flick as much as I did. From the fantastic opening credits onward, Snyder gives the Watchmen's tale the pop sensibility it needs, and though he made plenty of compromises to get it onto the big screen, I don't think it could have been done any other way.

7. "Drag Me to Hell"
It's the biggest movie mystery of this year why Sam Raimi's return to horror didn't make much money at all, because I can guarantee you it's just all kinds of fun. I realize it takes a certain - and not terribly healthy - sensibility to find humor in Alison Lohman stalking her cat with a knife as she coos "here, kitty kitty" and then seeing said cat being vomited up by an old woman, but I laughed from start to finish of this one and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

6. "Star Trek"
My fellow cubicle slave Randy Waters, who has the "Star Trek" theme as his cell phone ring tone, declared this the "best movie ever." While I'm relatively confident he was at least slightly joking, J.J. Abrams' flick is indeed the definition of a great summer movie, with the year's best set piece in that scene with Chris Pine and John Cho trying to take out that giant Romulan drill, and it certainly should lead to at least five or six more Trek movies with the new crew.

5. "In the Loop"
This is also the last new movie I've watched, but its presence here isn't just proof that my short-term memory holds sway. Armando Iannucci's satire of the buildup to the Iraq War hits all its targets, and the cast, led by an extremely profane Peter Capaldi, is able to keep up with all the rapid-fire barbs. It's worth mentioning again that, although this is still playing in a few theaters, you can also watch it on Cox cable "On Demand" and probably on other cable providers too. It's well worth the $2.

4. "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"
I suppose $255 million and still going strong domestic, and a whole lot more worldwide, is nothing to be dismissed, but I've been surprised that this - the best of the Harry Potter films in my book - has struggled to fend off a bunch of talking gerbils, or whatever those "G-Force" creatures are supposed to be. David Yates' second Potter flick just perfectly captures the feeling of doom that pervades the book even as he lightens things up with the kids pitching woo, and they all show just how well they've grown into the roles.

3. "Tyson"/"Every Little Step"
OK, I'm gonna cheat and make this list go to 11, but only because I forgot about the charming documentary "Every Little Step" and had to squeeze it in somewhere, though I suppose a tie with Iron Mike is indeed an odd pairing.

I don't watch any reality TV at all, simply because it doesn't interest me, but I'm sure fans of the competition shows will get a kick out of "Every Little Step," which takes a close-up look at the auditions for the recent revival of "A Chorus Line." The competition is fierce among these very talented individuals, and the film artfully intersperses the story of how Michael Bennett dreamed up the original musical from recordings he made of dancers describing their lives. I've recommended this one to the Macon Film Guild, for an upcoming screening, so I guess I'll find out soon if I have any pull or not. Probably not.

"Tyson" was easily the hottest ticket at the Atlanta Film Festival, and the only movie I've ever actually had to stand up through to watch. I hear tell that even Tyler Perry was there, but I can't confirm that. As for the movie itself, it's pretty much Tyson analyzing himself for director James Toback, appropriately enough often seated on his couch, and though that might not sound particularly entertaining, believe me that it is. He veers wildly between genuine introspection and stubborn defiance, and when he talks about his rape of Desiree Washington, it's just chilling.

2. "Sugar"
It would be enough of an accomplishment - and, unfortunately, a rarity - if directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck had simply made a great baseball movie, but with this tale of a Dominican ballplayer trying to make it to the big time you also get a whole lot more. Along with being an engaging story about immigration in America, it's also simply a great story about the power of being able to change your mind, and it features a first-rate turn from the titular star, Algenis Perez Soto. A quick visit to reveals this will be released on DVD on Sept. 1, so rent or buy this one as soon as you can.

1. "The Hurt Locker"
When I heard Kathyrn Bigelow's Iraq war movie was going to play "wide," which it certainly deserves to, I didn't believe it, but the flick is indeed going to play for a third week next week at the Galleria in Centerville, Ga., so see it there if you're in the area. Bigelow's movie succeeds where so many have failed because, along with delivering sensation set pieces that raise the bar for intensity and action, she and screenwriter Mark Boal just genuinely offer a view of war through the eyes of the soldiers who fight it, specifically the members of a bomb squad in Iraq, a rather stressful endeavour. And I can guarantee that after the breakthrough performances by Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie, you'll be hearing their names a whole lot in the coming years. The best movie I've seen so far this year.

Honorable mention: "The Class", "The International", "Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail", "Duplicity", "Sin Nombre", "Adventureland", "The Hangover", "Public Enemies", "(500) Days of Summer", "Funny People"

And, since anyone who made it this far deserves a reward, here's the trailer for Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones," almost certain to be the big Oscar magnet this year unless it somehow just sucks, which I really just can't see happening. Be warned: The second half of the trailer reveals who I have to assume (not having read the book) is the killer, so if you don't want to know, don't watch it. And of course, please feel free to let me know just how wrong or right I am with my picks for the year's best. Peace out.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The best new movie you can see on TV right now for $2

Before seeing Kathyrn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" a few weeks ago - in my book the best movie of 2009 so far, with "Sugar" a close second - I was convinced there would never be a great movie about the Iraq war, but now since then I've already seen another one. Well, sort of ...

Though the looming war at the heart of Armando Ianucci's "In the Loop" is never really specified beyond being something "in the Middle East," it's clear from the beginning that it's about the run up to the Iraq war, and it fittingly just trades in utter chaos.

We start, thankfully, with Peter Capaldi, who though he looks much different now will be remembered by many as Oldsen in "Local Hero," which to this day remains easily one of my favorite films (Capaldi was also great as Sid's father in the addictive British teen soap "Skins.") It helps to try and remember him as the innocent young Scot Oldsen as you wither under the never-ending barrage of profanity that spews from his mouth as grizzled political operative Malcolm Tucker.

And if you're a fan of the fine art of cursing, and I certainly am, it doesn't get much better at all than it does in "In the Loop." On paper, Roddy Doyle's Barrytown trilogy ("The Commitments," "The Snapper" and "The Van") comes close, but lacks the bile that propels "In the Loop" to what would be extreme absurdity if it weren't so clearly close to something resembling the awful truth.

As "In the Loop" opens, British Minister for International Development Simon Foster, a perfectly dippy Tom Hollander, sets off a firestorm by referring to the possibility of war as "unforeseeable." And fans of wordplay will delight as it becomes clear that neither he nor anyone else he encounters has any idea what that means, so they're all free to make their own interpretation.

From there our hero, the Chance the Gardener of this piece, somehow becomes a PR pawn for each of the opposing forces in the Washington war machine, as Capaldi's Tucker and other aides try unsuccessfully to keep him under control. As the trailer plays up, the jokes here fly as fast as on any episode of "Family Guy," but thankfully always with a target. One of the best early bits, which I won't spoil for you, has Foster and his aides trying to come up with who he would like to be stranded with on a deserted island (it starts with Keira Knightley and just goes downhill from there.)

And once the action (what there is of it) shifts to Washington, Ianucci's film tests our ability to laugh at ourselves as much as any good satire should. "Wag the Dog" certainly tried in recent years but fell a bit short, and Mike Nichols' "Charlie Wilson War" was even better, but neither of those gets straight to the core of hypocrisy as sharply as "In the Loop."

At Ianucci's version of the State Department, the hawks are led by David Rasche (yes, Sledge Hammer, always welcome) as Linton Banks, the assistant secretary of state for something or other, and the doves are led by Mimi Kennedy as fellow State Department employee Karen Clarke, and their contempt for each other is mined for comedy gold. In the best scene, as Clarke starts bleeding from the mouth during a meeting and is alerted to this by a disgusted Banks, she brushes it off with "don't try to change the subject." Priceless.

There's plenty more going on this war of ideas, and an unrecognizable but very funny Steve Coogan even turns up near the end, but it's best if you discover it all for yourself, which, if you have Cox or I assume some other kind of digital cable, you can do now for just $2. When I saw that IFC was going to put this up on cable while it's still playing in at least a few theaters, I thought it was crazy, but I'm certainly glad they did. To find it, just go to your "on demand" channel (No. 1 for me) and search the movies for the IFC category.

The flick itself, in fact, plays out like an extremely funny episode of British TV, which in a way it is, springing directly from Ianucci's nine-episode TV series "The Thick of It," which I was sad to find you can't yet get on Netflix.

Anyways, if you enjoy a good satire that just doesn't just slaughter cows but splatters the blood all over the place, see "In the Loop" as soon as you can. Peace out.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Scab-free "Futurama" - plus two tantalizing trailers

Actually, there's at least a rumor out there today that's crazy enough I should really start out with it (and it's not the fact that Rob Marshall will be stepping in to direct "Pirates of the Caribbean 4," which I really couldn't care less about.)

It seems that, at least according to the Hollywood Reporter's Risky Biz blog, "500 Days of Summer" director Marc Webb may now be tapped to helm another big-screen take on "Jesus Christ Superstar." Take a second to digest that.

As for his first flick, which I saw a few weeks ago, I'd say like Summer herself I was in a state of "like" rather than "love" by the end. The two leads, Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon Levitt, have charm to spare, as does most of the movie, but I couldn't help but feel an evolving sense of stasis since going in you knew at least sort of how it was going to end.

I will say two things in its favor: It's easily the best "romantic" movie I've seen so far this year, and as far as break-up movies go, it's just miles and miles and miles better than that turd of a flick "The Break-Up," starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn. Man, did that stink. As for "500 Days of Summer," I'd say if it's playing anywhere near you, take a chance on it for a fun summer diversion.

And as for Universal's apparent plans to remake Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, which was already made into a wacky little flick by Norman Jewison, I'd say it could certainly work and will make a ton of money, and Webb can certainly do it. Myself I'd call marginally interested at best. I am, however, always interested in "She & Him" by Deschanel and M. Ward, which I'm listening to right now. Priceless.

Now to what for fans of good, smart, funny sci-fi can only be great news. I had a sneaking feeling that the news Twentieth Century Fox was recasting for the upcoming new episodes of "Futurama" on Comedy Central was just a negotiating ploy.

The main thing "Futurama" has going for it, beyond the fact that it's just thoroughly entertaining, is that it has a devoted fan base of folks like me. Going to the trouble of making new episodes after you've alienated everyone by firing the entire cast would really defeat the entire purpose of bringing it back.

Thankfully, it's not to be. It seems all the main cast members - Billy West, Katey Segal, John DiMaggio, Maurice LaMarche and Tress MacNeille - have all now signed for the new season of 26 episodes at a little less than they wanted but more than the studio was initially offering before breaking things off. So now I'm certainly in when this finally comes back in mid-2010 or so.

And in one other really good bit of TV news, it seems I will indeed be holding onto my HBO for a bit longer after this season of "True Blood," because the "Seinfeld" reunion of sorts on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" is turning into more than a minor affair.

I assumed they - Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander and Michael Richards - would only agree to it for one episode, but apparently I'm wrong (yes, I'm used to it by now.) When the show returns in September (I think), the "Seinfeld" angle will be a "major arc," with all the cast members appearing in at least five episodes, according to HBO. Rather than an actual "Seinfeld" reunion, Larry David says it will instead be more about why that would be such a bad idea in his mind and what everyone's been up to in the last 11 years (wow, really?) In the case of Richards, at least, that should be pretty fascinating.

OK, now on to the trailers. The first, which I think actually came out yesterday and was pointed out to me by Movie Mom Nell Minow, is the first trailer for Wes Anderson's "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," and I have to say it looks at least as good as I could have hoped. If you're gonna tell a classic children's tale, I'd much rather watch it in this appealing stop-motion style rather than with even-more-souped-up 3-D gadgetry. Enjoy, and stick around for one that gets me even more giddy.

Finally, as far as I know, this is the first trailer for Hayao Miyazaki's "Ponyo" that contains a lot of the Western voice-over, and though as usual the dubbing doesn't match up at all with the moving mouths, it still looks amazing. Seeing Ponyo turn from goldfish into little girl is just great, so here's hoping this really does open "NATIONWIDE" as Disney has promised on Aug. 14. And if you'll excuse me now, I'm off to see Judd Apatow's "Funny People" and hoping I'll like it a lot more than some of the critics have. Peace out.