A very promising production of The Hobbit just hit a major snag. Guillermo del Toro, attached to the project as director for over a year, has apparently left the film. The most likely reason is an inability to negotiate this project with a slate of films Del Toro is contracted to do with Universal. That’s an impressive list itself, including such titles as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Saturn and the End of Days, Frankenstein, and a live-action Pinocchio.
I’d be lying if I said that this news really didn’t seriously deflate my anticipation for The Hobbit, especially with Peter Jackson still hesitant to take the reigns himself. Del Toro gave us the greatest single fantasy film of the last decade in Pan’s Labyrinth, and I got extremely geeked up when I imagined what his Hobbit would be. Jackson is still producing the project and there’s a good chance he’ll get a very qualified director, if he doesn’t indeed end up doing it himself. But I was really hoping that this would be chance for a wide audience to see what Del Toro is capable of in the fantasy genre (those viewers too stubborn to delve into anything with subtitles). I guess with that uber-list of upcoming projects, I’ll get my wish soon enough.
One of the most unique screen presences of modern cinema has left us. Dennis Hopper passed away this morning after a long battle with prostate cancer. He was 74.
Hopper spent his career giving incredible like to roles in off-beat classics like Easy Rider and Blue Velvet, and remained fearless in his choice of material in a way that limited his star appeal despite a wealth of talent and charisma. He even managed to make Waterworld pretty damn entertaining. They don’t quite make ’em like Dennis Hopper anymore. He will be missed.
Films based on Saturday Night Live sketches haven’t exactly invited Oscar attention over the past decade or so. Most haven’t even accurately fit the “comedy” label. But leave it to one of the lesser known sketch series featuring one of the lesser known SNL talents to finally bring the laughs. MacGruber may not be a classic or even a top tier comedy offering, but it’s certainly the funniest SNL knockoff to come around in years.
Sporting a cheap wool vest and freshly cropped mullet, Will Forte brings an uncanny knowledge of the beats and expressions of 80s camp action to the title role. And to be clear, an appreciation of this film relies heavily on a deep knowledge of and affection for those familiar 80s genre tropes, with logic-be-damned plotting, incessantly grinning bad guys, and heroes so unrealistically suited to the gravity of their task that you can’t help but root for them all the more. MacGruber sticks to the basic structure of those films religiously, allowing itself to deftly slide in some very funny vignettes and great sight gags that hearken back to just how ridiculous and just how lovable those cheesy old movies really were. A riff on the slow-motion, blue-lit love scenes common to the genre is especially on point, and there’s even a hilarious spoof outside the action world that links back to Jack Nicholson’s crazed repeat writings in The Shining.
MacGruber can slow down at points, sometimes to the point of awkwardness. When the film isn’t at its best, you certainly know it and will find yourself fidgeting in your seat while waiting for the funny to come again. And while the casting is pretty good across the board, top level comedy talents like Kristen Wiig aren’t given enough material to work with and are often pushed aside by the relentlessly crude wailings of the title character.
So this likely isn’t a candidate for best comedy of the year (Kick-Ass currently holds that crown and doesn’t seem likely to give it up), but it’s a solid spoof of a bygone genre that was oh-so-right for its time and place. Richard Dean Anderson would be proud.
The Wire: Season 5
It takes a little while to get off the ground, but the farewell season of the greatest television show ever made does a better job than could be reasonably expected of tying up the sprawl of its numerous storylines and character arcs, culminating in a stunning final two episodes that attack the entire gamut of viewer emotions. As it did for four seasons beforehand, it’ll open your eyes, fill you with rage, lift you with excitement, and break your heart. It will also, just when you think this gorgeously despairing portrait of American decay is a bit too much to take, give you something akin to hope, a realization that it is in the souls of people that salvation can be achieved under the crushing hulk of institutional failure. The arcs in this season will stir you, surprising you as much for who survives as much as who we lose. But the cyclical momentum is brilliantly conveyed, and the grim march of American rot still carries the weight of the greatest Greek tragedy. This is the essential modern American Epic, where the heroic stands we make can be as a punishing as the mistakes we didn’t even know we made. It’s all in the game, yo.
Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed
Good lord. This documentary about the “persecution” of those trying to teach the scientifically unsubstantiated premise of “intelligent design” (a fancy term for Bible-based Creationism) is wrong-headed on so many levels. Don’t get me wrong, there are some arguments to be made and areas to explore with regard to the treatment of origin science in the American educational system. But they aren’t made or explored here. As a film, this is a pissy little expression of an inferiority complex that uses shocking bombast to make glaringly weak points. When you try to blame the teaching of evolutionary theory for the Holocaust and insinuate that our educational system is leading in a similar direction, you’d better have more in your deck than cheap and offensive montages juxtaposing American schools with concentration camps.
The first great disappointment of 2010. Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood is a failure on so many levels, the most paramount of which is a matter of respect. The film’s creators have taken a beloved legend that has survived for centuries and gutted it, draining every drop of blood from the carcass and rendering it limp and passionless. They show no interest in rendering Robin Hood as a noble or compelling human being, other than in a few moments of lazy expository dialogue, and they’ve accomplished the difficult task of making a hero inconsequential in his own story. They promised a ‘reinvention’ of the mythology, which is fine in principle. But if you’re gonna change the clothes, you’d better keep the soul. And there is no soul to be found in this film.
The structural faults might be less offensive, but they’re just as omnipresent. It takes an hour and a half for our ‘hero’ to even arrive in Nottingham. The narrative up to this point is a hazy conspiracy plot wherein an English commander is helping to facilitate a French invasion, for no discernable reason. Not even money is brought up as an overriding purpose. Even our “hero” shows no real interest for England and common decency other than a poorly staged speech to King Richard while in France, and it isn’t until two hours into the film that we get any cohesive purpose for all of this droll shuffling about. The plot simply has no consistent focus, and Robin Hood himself seems to have almost no role in the convoluted and uninteresting political game threatening his country. And worst of all, we just don’t care. We’re supposed to get the sense that England’s security is at risk, which is pretty big stakes, but we just don’t give a shit.
And where does that leave the core of the Robin Hood legend, the one where he rises from the forest to fight the oppression of the helpless brought on by the ruling class? Pretty much nowhere to be found. The actions of Robin Hood in this film seem to have no purpose, though he occasionally rises to make speeches about tyranny and freedom that exist in a context-free vacuum, as if the writers remembered what this story is supposed to be about, and then threw in a few limp lines to remind us that this guy is supposed to be a hero. But he mostly just shuffles along the road with a band of disinterested chums, gets involved in a cheesy plan to fake a marriage in order to avoid foreclosure on Marion’s estate, and then goes off to battle not against the unjust King John but for him. Where the hell is the real Robin Hood in this movie? Again, you can tinker and reinvent, but if you’re going to name this film Robin Hood, you must stay true to the soul of that myth. Otherwise your audience will lose interest and turn on you. And that’s exactly what happens.
And then they go even further in insulting their audience. With about five minutes left to go, after we’ve been through a joyless march through uninvolving politics and pointless meandering, they give us a glimpse of the real Robin Hood. Just a glimpse. Now we get a sense that the guy is going to be a rebel in the forest, fighting a King John that has broken a promise to enact an early draft of the Magna Carta. It’s a shameless and despicable ploy for a sequel, most offensive because nothing that has come before has effectively built to this point. They took advantage of audience expectations, put them through a dour two-and-a-half hour slog, and then try to appease them into returning for another beating.
All of this said, the structural flaws can at some level be attributed to the tumultuous development process the project endured, going from an anti-hero story focusing on the Sheriff of Nottingham to a schizo project where Crowe plays both him and Robin to the quasi-traditional take it ended up as. That’s a lot of change for coherence to survive. What’s more puzzling, if less egregious, are the technical flaws on display. Ridley Scott has the reputation of a premier auteur, but that armor is showing some concerning cracks. He hasn’t made a great film since Black Hawk Down, and his own good one since was American Gangster. The rest has the disturbing stink of mediocrity, and the towering genius behind Alien and Blade Runner has been absent for two decades. After creating bravura action pieces in Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, Scott seems to have developed a penchant for shooting action like Saving Private Ryan on meth. But as realistic and hyper-visceral as the action in Saving Private Ryan was, that film had an expert sense of space and the staging was impeccable, with the most powerful shots being those that took their time. Scott shoots Robin Hood’s combat sequences with very little clarity. Some of the archery sequences are well-done, but the sword-play and large-scale battles are plagued by unfocused photography and rabid jump cuts. It’s as if Ridley let his brother Tony take the reins when the action kicked up, but at least Tony has fun with his chaos. No one involved with Robin Hood seems like they’re having fun.
It’s a real shame that all these problems cripple the film, because there’s an impressive stable of acting talent assembled here. There’s some great work by Mark Strong as sinister turncoat Godfrey and Max von Sydow as an aging nobleman, as well as a surprisingly effective turn by Oscar Isaac as King John, by far the most engaging and interesting performance of the film. Russell Crowe is Russell Crowe and does a fine job with what he’s given, but the problem is that all he’s asked to do is capitalize on the macho-heroes of his past and look tough. Mission accomplished, but that doesn’t constitute a thorough exploration and reimagining of the character. Maybe that’s the reason Crowe has been so cranky when confronted with criticism in recent interviews. He knows he wasn’t given enough to work with, and he knows that he tried his best with what he had.
Robin Hood is trying to be the Batman Begins for the famous outlaw. But its plot and character buildup go in nary an interesting direction, and we’re left with a cheap cliffhanger that doesn’t grow organically from what’s occurred onscreen. Say what you want about the two-dimensional Technicolor adventures of Errol Flynn, at least his film is fun. If you want to go in a more serious direction, you’d better have something serious and substantial on your mind. But for all its dourness and sense of self-importance, this Robin Hood doesn’t have anything important to say. And it sure hell doesn’t entertain, either. You can survive without both, but you damned well better have one.
The Wire: Season 4
If The Wire had ended after season 3, it would already have a claim to the title of Greatest Television Show Ever. With this fourth season, they leave absolutely no room for debate. For the uninitiated, The Wire does nothing less than chronicle the collapse of the American social infrastructure, using the mean streets of Baltimore as its canvas of systemic decay and the imprisonment of the underclass without need for prison bars. This season expands the show’s peerless observance to the public school system, where anarchy lies just under the surface and where the social contract has failed those least able to defend themselves. The four young actors who comprise the focus of this season display an incandescent talent as I’ve never seen in a TV show, and their perilous journey through an urban jungle rotting at all levels is the most searing and heartbreaking art ever brought to the small screen. For anyone who hasn’t seen this show, correct that immediately. This is great American literature made life, and it’s essential viewing for any properly sensitive citizen of this country, a country where the greatest tragedies are systemic and where many of those lost are buried before they even get a chance. The Wire is the Great American Tragedy, and this is the best season of them all.
Capitalism: A Love Story
Michael Moore still has a penchant for letting his indulgent narration and tacky stunts get in the way of his message (boat trip to Cuba, anyone?), but unlike the unfocused zealotry of Fahrenheit 9/11, this film possesses a more sober tone and a clearer focus that makes it a valuable viewing experience. His illustration of modern American capitalism, which has devolved from an open garden of free enterprise into a ruthless cartel of corporate giants unfettered in preserving their own self-interests, hits a lot of strong notes. I remember cases like the PA Child Care incident (though few else do), where privatized juvenile corrections resulted in the wanton incarceration of teens guilty of crimes along the lines of throwing a steak at their stepfather or mouthing off to a friend at the mall. These cases are not uncommon, and they’re endemic of a country far too willing to put valued social institutions in the hands of machines with zero interest in the common welfare. Moore still succumbs to a few cheap theatrics and the film noticeably lacks any coherent proposal other than vague defenses of socialism, but its observations are keenly made, and that’s worth quite a bit.
There hasn’t been a lot of hype surrounding The Adjustment Bureau, which frustrates me because this is one of the most promising projects of the year. It’s a large-scale brain fuck based on the story ‘Adjustment Team’ by Philip K. Dick, who, in terms of exploring the possibilities of technological advancement on human beings and their societal structures, is the most brilliant writer of the 20th century. This trailer tells you all you need to know about the plot, and a very strong cast featuring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt is further cause for excitement. The only major variable is novice director George Nolfi, but he’s proven a capable writer in his work on The Bourne Ultimatum, and the shots in the trailer look very well-staged. Science fiction and paranoia junkies ought to be pumped about this one.