Friday, May 28, 2010

Shrek Forever After (or The Final Chapter)

I'm not sure what the real subtitle for the new Shrek movie really is. Is it Forever After? Is it the Final Chapter? The inconsistency with the ad campaign is confusing enough, but when it comes down to it, Shrek 4 (of which I will be referring to it for this review) does not at all contain any semblance of finality.

Considering the success of the franchise, the sad true nature of a Shrek movie is that it's a one-and-done affair. Even in the good entries to the series (1 and 2, admittedly I've never seen 3, but word of mouth confirms my suspicions) slide off the brain almost immediately like water off a duck's back. There was nothing considerably memorable about the series as a whole and this is doubly true for Shrek 4. It's because of its forgettable nature that there can't really be a definitive "end" to this "series." Each one pretty much wraps itself up before the ending montage (which usually features a modern cover of a "classic" tune while all the characters dance and act happy) the only thing defining each film is the threat to Shrek's supposed comfort zone.

Though, this time around they've gone the extra step to create a sort of pre-existing dilemma for Shrek, Fiona, Donkey and whoever else is a major player in this franchise at this point, but again, this is just shoehorned into the story for "closure" effect. Apparently, around the time Shrek was rescuing Fiona from the Tower (see: Shrek 1, actually don't...) her troubled parents went to see the Goblin/Trickster Rumpelstiltskin to garner a deal to free their daughter from her curse without having to be troubled with finding a hero to do so. The deal was almost penned when Shrek saved the day and the contract was no longer needed. Fastforward to after the 3rd installment (where I believe they have babies??) and Shrek is bored with his family life and wishes to be the formidable ogre he once was, though with that lovable green mug and Mike Meyers Irish accent this concept is still as foreign as it was when we were introduced almost 10 years ago... Long intro, short, Shrek pens a deal with a now homeless Rumpelstiltskin which erases the day Shrek was born and gives way to an alternate reality where everything kind of sucks and "Rumpel" (as he's called by everyone) is King of Far Far Away.

There is a modicum of cleverness about Shrek 4, namely the disparity between Far Far Aways and the explanation to why everyone knows Rumpelstiltskin's name (if you're not familiar with the fairy tale, your parents have failed.) However, most of the reason why Shrek 4 fails on so many levels is the feeble and stumbling attempts at comedy. There didn't seem to be a single successful joke throughout the entire film, the only scenes that evoked even a mild chuckle had already been played out in the trailers and TV spots. This may also be due to the fact that Eddie Murphy isn't anywhere near funny anymore and Donkey might just be the most annoying animated character this side of Stewie Griffin.

Even the pop-culture references seem uninspired and relatively dated. When the most recent thing for the Pied Piper to belt out is the flute riff from "Sure Shot" (the Beastie Boys single from their 1994 record "Ill Communication") you'll be lucky if any of the parents remember the tune, let alone the children that no doubt dragged them there.

Such is the nature of the beast (ogre in this case) that it will make millions upon millions of dollars during its theater run (mostly thanks to inflated 3D prices) and sell more than a handful of DVDs when the time comes, but like all three of its predecessors, will fade from memory as if it never even happened. I'm going to call bullshit now and there WILL be another chapter on the horizon (my tentative title, Shrek's 5th of Vodka, which will be required to endure it) but if Shrek Forever After/The Final Chapter truely IS the swan song for the franchise, we really are living in a fairy tale.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Iron Man 2

It seems that Iron Man 2 has come under a good amount of unfair criticism following its release a couple weeks ago. The word was relatively positive at first, but then the box office intake took a dive in its second week and then the backlash began. Admittedly, comic book movies are now held to a higher standard thanks to Christpher Nolan's Batman epic The Dark Knight, which in this case is wholly uncalled for. On their first outing (also born in the looming Shadow of the Bat) director Jon Favreau and star Robert Downey, Jr. proved that you could have a hero grounded (relatively) in reality and still have fun with it. The same rings true for it's sequel.

This time out Tony Stark, now completely outed as Iron Man, finds himself poisoned by the arc reactor he'd originally streamlined to keep him alive after his Middle Eastern run in with his own weaponized shrapnel. Enter the new flies in Stark's respective ointment, Justin Hammer, a fellow merchant of destruction (who just so happens to be a funhouse mirror reflection of a first act Tony Stark from the original film, played brilliantly by Sam Rockwell) and Ivan Vanko, Russian son of a former Stark associate, Anton Vanko who was ousted and deported for allegedly selling secret tech to the USSR. Vanko has sworn his revenge on the Stark legacy and Hammer is determined to one-up the Iron Man model in one form or another and the two forge an unlikely and ill-advised union for their respective personal gains.

And this is just the main narrative through-line. On the outskirts of this plot is the quickly developing "Avengers" movie which involves Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury (agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and Scarlet Johannsen's Black Widow, and for a set of characters and structural threads that won't come into play until well after next summer they are surprisingly well balanced with the core of the film. It sets the stage for something much larger, but doesn't demand more attention than is required to thoroughly enjoy the story at hand.
While Downey, Jr. took the cake and devoured it whole in the first film, he's found a worthy acting adversary in Sam Rockwell. Taking a break from his indie success for a moment to cavort with the A-Listers, you'd be surprised that Rockwell hasn't broken in to a more mainstream market when you see him acting circles around 90% of the Iron Man cast. His portrayal of Hammer as the cocky weapons entrepreneur is pure gold, every line of dialog smarms its way out of his mouth with an unadulterated zeal that shows that he's the kind of actor that digs in to the character, finds what makes them tick and drives it straight home. Which isn't to say that Mickey Rourke's turn as the Russian powerhouse (and apparent amalgam of 2 classic Iron Man villains, Whiplash and Crimson Dynamo) isn't as awesome as it sounds. The extended version of the drag race fight featured in most of the coming attractions is one of the more awesome spectacles in recent comic book movie memory. Though similar to Jeff Bridges' Iron Monger finale beat-down, Vanko's last hurrah seemed a little bit rushed.

The recasting of Terrence Howard for Don Cheadle in the role of James Rhodes (read: War Machine) was probably the smartest recasting move this side of replacing Katie Holmes with Maggie Gyllenhaal. Howard's cocksure version of Rhodes didn't curb the Stark persona the way their relationship requires. Cheadle, a more accomodating dramatic actor, provides a more believable voice of reason to Tony's playboy mentality and their dynamic as Iron Man and War Machine, respectively, is better for their individual talents as actors.

Iron Man 2 isn't the perfect comic book movie, or even the perfect sequel, however it IS the perfect follow up to the already established cinematic canon presented in the first film. If all the pieces of continuation mythology pan out as well as their predecessors, the upcoming Thor and Avengers movies could prove to set a new standard for adapted cinema. Then again, there is still another Christopher Nolan helmed Batman on the horizon, so anything is possible.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Editorial: What Went Wrong in Happy Town?

Happy Town hasn't even been on ABC for a month yet and already the axe has come down. Is this an irrational move on ABC's part? Some might say yes, as similar fates have met more recent shows like Life on Mars (with whom Happy Town shares its showrunners,) The Unusuals and Pushing Daisies. However, this time around something tells me that there will be few fan campaigns to urge the continuance of the mystery of the Magic Man (statistics based solely on the dwindling numbers of the Facebook Fan page.) So who is to blame here? Did ABC mismarket the show? Not when there was a strategically placed extended TV spot during the last five weeks worth of Lost, the key demographic for a show like Happy Town during the network's highest rated scripted hour. The show was relatively well advertised, playing up its shock horror and mystery aspects, so where did Happy Town take a wrong turn?

The Track Record Stands
As it stands, showrunners Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Scott Rosenberg don't have the best televised track record (October Road, Life on Mars both short lived and canceled early.) The pattern should tell you something. These guys can't handle their ideas. The audience either isn't getting what they want or being given a reason to continue watching. Even within the first two episodes of Lost or even Heroes there were more questions than answers but there was still a general consensus of what the main idea of the show was (Lost - why have these seemingly interconnected individuals landed on this mysteriously uninhabited yet thoroughly dangerous island, and Heroes - While people around the world are discovering abilities, how do they converge into the destruction of an entire city, though this idea was quickly run into the ground and mishandled in its own special way.) Two episodes in to Happy Town, there is very little that holds any of the plethora of ideas together. There's the enigmatic "Magic Man" of which people in town either don't know anything or are unwilling to talk about (yet the audience would benefit from even the slightest hint as to why this figure is such a local taboo,) the new girl with an ulterior motive, the batshit crazy, self-surgical sheriff and a bread factory. But what does all this have to do with anything on the show? Is the sluggish pacing and overtly precarious mystery placement the culprit for cancellation? There's also the instances of poorly written dialog and inherently illogical character behavior. Whether or not the town of Haplin is a beacon of darkness in a more or less chipper Northern MidWest, you'd be hard pressed to find police procedures that would think it a good idea to inform the next of kin in front of a room full of co-workers and visiting school children. When it comes down to it, a scene like this only serves for an over the top dramatic effect. It's not creepy, it's just stupid. Then there's the over-explanatory dialog to characters that probably already know the details, creating a roundabout break in the fourth wall while the characters all but look out toward the audience to catch them up to speed. A cardinal rule in most writing is "show don't tell." From the starting block, Happy Town has been all tell and no show and what they do decide to show makes little to no sense in context. Are these problems fixable? Perhaps, but then there are the characteres.

Who Are These People?
There are well over twelve major characters in Happy Town. Juggling an ensemble cast like this is no easy task, something J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon can attest to on more than one occasion. Why do you think police and medical procedural shows stick to a main cast of two or three and a supporting cast of another three or four. So you do the math, two episodes come in at around an hour and a half which is not nearly enough time to set up motivations, back stories, or even the rudimentary sense of who any of these characters are, given the depth of "mystery" that is attempted in this series thus far. Needless to say, delegating the wooden Geoff Stults as the paper thin lead character is a mistake in and of itself. As an "everyman" with a chiseled jaw and strep throat-raspy drawl, this is the character that will usher us through the town of Haplin and crack the inexplicible mystery of "The Magic Man" and that weird supernatural CG hawk. Brawny physical CW appearance aside, Stults just doesn't have the acting chops of a leading man. He reads the lines and delivers the dialog, but we get no sense of character or purpose, and the real shame is that he's surrounded by A-list veterans that can and have held their own on the big and small screens. Which brings me to...

A Star is Boring
I've always said that even the strongest of casts can't save shoddy writing. It takes a lot to make performances from Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under), Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) and Stephen Weber (Wings, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) seem second rate and forgettable. Dropping them into uninspired, underdeveloped side characters is likely the biggest mistake the show has made. Granted these aren't the easy on the eyes, gorgeously chiseled starlets that make the visual draw (though arguably Amy Acker IS and is still left to the side as the ho-hum housewife to mannequin husband Geoff Stults) but these thesps CAN act and carry a scene. However, these scenes are too short lived and too inconsequential to really matter in the long run.

The Lynch Derivative
Of course there were comparisons to Twin Peaks from the get go, and you'd be hard pressed not to make the parallel between the two. Each involved a small, seemingly normal town with very mysterious and clandestine goings on. The difference with Twin Peaks being that David Lynch operates on an entirely different wavelength than mainstream network television (and most human beings in general.) Even when things in town are supposed to be normal there's something inherently off kilter about everything and when things are getting increasingly strange, the reactions are oddly unsuspicious. It's these disparities from what we see as the norm that made Twin Peaks the suspenseful cult hit that is was. The more normal things seemed, the more impactful the strangeness became when it presented itself. We're not in Haplin for more than a couple of minutes when people start acting suspiciously bizarre and dropping hints that "Happy Town ain't all that Happy." Everyone is aware they're on a strange show so that when something strange happens, it's expected and falls flat as a thematic device. It could have been presented as a normal mystery series, but goes out of its way to be bizarre just for the sake of using wacky imagery and including pseudo-poetic musings from the mentally unstable trough of characters. Even still, despite Peaks' current status as a cult legacy, it was canceled after only 2 seasons. Long story short, don't attempt to emulate David Lynch unless your name is David Lynch.

In the End
So do I think ABC pulled the plug prematurely? Yes, in a way. Though, did Happy Town really stand a fighting chance in today's scripted TV economy? No, there was almost no way the show would've succeeded beyond the initial 8 episode order, especially with a pilot as uneven and hackneyed as "In This Home on Ice." Two episodes isn't nearly enough for a cult following so it's not likely too many tears will be shed at the demise of yet another Lost-Replacement-Contender. After tonight's episode, the remaining 5 episodes will burn off in the summer and the town of Haplin will quietly fade into the forgotten realms of the TV archives alongside the likes of Point Pleasant and Wonderfalls.