October 29, 2012

MOVIES: Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012)

Argo is a solidly crafted movie with fine performances, an interesting story well told, and a crisp, clean style that transitions nicely from the Hollywood satire of the first half to the nail-biting suspense of the second half. Best of all, it's an awards-friendly movie that never feels like it exists only to win awards (contrast, for interest, The King's Speech).

The setting is Tehran, where six Americans have escaped during the Iranian capture of the American embassy, and are now holed up in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Ben Affleck (who also directed the movie) stars as a CIA exfiltration specialist who comes up with a scheme to smuggle them out of Iran by passing them off as members of a Canadian film crew scouting exotic Iranian locations for a science-fiction film.

The cast is superb. Affleck is a stalwart leading man, determined and convinced that he can make his wacky plan work; John Goodman and Alan Arkin provide the necessary comic relief as the Hollywood insiders; Victor Garber, as the Canadian ambassador, captures both the willingness to help and the increasing frustration with the bind in which he and his nation have been placed; and there are a lot of recognizable faces -- Bryan Cranston, Chris Messina, Kyle Chandler -- in smaller roles. I particularly enjoyed the performance of relatively unknown Scoot McNairy, playing the hostage who is the most skeptical about Affleck's plan, and who winds up playing a key role in its success.

It's always a challenge to generate excitement and suspense in a "based on a true story" movie, when we know how everything turns out, but Affleck has pulled it off. The second half of the movie, especially the final airport sequence, is genuinely thrilling and terrifying.

MOVIES: Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh, 2012)

What can you say about a movie in which Christopher Walken plays the least crazy person on screen? In which a pair of men commit suicide by slitting their own threats, and it plays as a brutally funny punchline? In which Tom Waits carries a fluffy bunny with him everywhere he goes?

The movie is Seven Psychopaths, and what I can say about it is that it's one of the funniest movies of the year. It's a comedy about small time Los Angeles crooks accidentally get on the bad side of a slightly bigger crook. It is extremely violent and bloody, but in a Tarantino-esque over-the-top way that is so far removed from reality that it crosses the line from gross to sickly funny.

Colin Farrell is a struggling screenwriter, whose best friend (Sam Rockwell) works with Christopher Walken, running a dog-napping scam; Rockwell kidnaps the dogs, and Walken returns them a few days later, collecting the rewards. The problems begin when they take Bonny, the beloved Shih Tzu of gangster Woody Harrelson.

The screenplay Farrell is struggling with is called Seven Psychopaths, and as the movie goes along, the movie we're watching and the movie Farrell's writing gradually become more and more caught up in a delightful tangle of meta. Martin McDonagh's dialogue crackles with wit and energy (an opening conversation in which two hitmen try to remember which famous person was shot through the eye is among the highlights).

Rockwell is the standout, playing a guy whose veneer of sanity slowly cracks throughout the movie; Walken has a smaller, less showy role, but gets plenty of laughs, and who can resist the thought of Walken wandering the desert on a peyote trip muttering about hallucinogens?

This is McDonagh's followup to In Bruges, and it serves as confirmation that he's one of the most entertaining writers and directors working today.

October 14, 2012

TV: Arrow (CW, Wed 8)

With the departure of Smallville, the CW attempts to fill its superhero gap with Arrow, based on DC's Green Arrow character.

We're introduced to Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) with a quick backstory: After a shipwreck that killed his father and several others, Oliver somehow survived for five years on an isolated island before being rescued and going home to Starling City. Oliver has returned with a purpose. He transforms the basement of one of his father's old warehouses into his laboratory/training center/Arrow-Cave, designs himself a sharp green hoodie, and sets out to bring down the corrupt men of Starling City with his trusty bow and arrow.

(And that "Arrow-Cave" reference, though not explicity made in the show, is very much in keeping with the character's roots. The Green Arrow was meant to be an updated take on Batman -- non-superpowered billionaire hero fighting corruption, teenage sidekick, and in the original comic books, there actually was an Arrow-Cave and an Arrow-Car.)

No one suspects that Oliver is the Arrow, largely because the pre-shipwreck Oliver was a callow playboy; his best friend, Tommy (Colin Donnell), still is, which makes it easy for Oliver to slip back into the old role. Teenage sister Thea (Willa Holland) is a bit more suspicious (in another homage to the original comics, her nickname is Speedy, which was the name of the Green Arrow's teenage Robin analogue).

The other principal character is Oliver's ex-girlfriend Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy); turns out that one of the girls who died in the shipwreck, and with whom Oliver was cheating on Laurel, was her sister. Awk-ward! And of course, the head cop in town (Paul Blackthorne) just happens be to the Lances' father.

Throughout the pilot, we get teasing hints that the shipwreck may not have been entirely accidental, and it seems unlikely that Stephen really was alone on that island; both mommy (Susanna Thompson) and dead daddy (Jamey Sheridan) may have been in on whatever was really going on. It seems likely that we will eventually get around to island-year flashbacks. (Just in case we aren't picking up on those hints, there's a Lost reference in the early going to remind us what mysterious places TV islands can be.)

The cast is likable, and particular attention must be paid to the spectacularly well-conditioned torso of Stephen Amell; there is a certain entertainment value just in watching those abs as he goes through his workout routine, which includes the most challenging set of pullups I've ever seen. But he's not just a pretty body; he's got the right tone of slightly absurd sincerity, which is often where superhero projects fall apart.

As is always true whenever a show sets up this much potential mythology-building in the first episode, I worry about how well that story will be dished out. But it's an entertaining first hour, and I'm intrigued enough to give the show another week or two.

October 13, 2012

TV: Emily Owens, M.D. (CW, Tue 9)

Premieres on Tuesday night; first episode is available now at the CW website.

Emily Owens, M.D. is an attempt to stretch the CW brand a bit beyond teenage girls by making a hospital show, but only a mild attempt, since it's a very CW version of a hospital show. Mamie Gummer stars as Emily, who arrives at Denver General Hospital as a first-year surgical intern to find that her fellow first-years include her medical school crush Will (Justin Hartley) and her high school nemesis Cassandra (Aja Naomi King). They're all there to work with Dr. Gina Bandari (Necar Zadegan), a skilled and innovative surgeon who prefers brusque intimidation as a management style.

A hospital, we are explicitly told in Emily's voice-over narration, is just like high school; the doctors can be divided into jocks, stoners, mean girls, and so on. Emily would like to be one of the cool kids, and the show combines standard medical procedural with light becoming-an-adult drama.

Mamie Gummer has immense charm and charisma. She does well with both the dramatic and the comic moments, and sells Emily's mix of professional skill and personal insecurity convincingly. The fact that she is Meryl Streep's daughter is surely something of a millstone that she is sick of carrying around her neck at this point, but it should be mentioned, if only to keep you from spending the entire hour with a nagging "who is it she reminds me of" at the back of your head.

The other characters are given a bit more depth than you might expect, and the relationships are developed more quickly and in surprising ways. Cassandra isn't just the nasty bitch, though she is that (and she takes some pride in the fact); Will isn't reduced to a source of unresolved "will they or won't they" tension.

Emily Owens, M.D. isn't a particularly deep or sophisticated show, but it does have a surprising bright charm and it's pleasant, easy watching. It's smartly paired with Hart of Dixie, which is the CW version of Northern Exposure; both are light, breezy entertainment, and the worst you can say about either is that they occasionally feel like the TV version of training wheels, helping the CW tween/teen audience get used to watching shows about grownups.

TV: Chicago Fire (NBC, Wed 10)

Every year, during the fall TV premiere season, I watch at least the first episode of everything the networks have to offer. But I allow myself one "life is too damn short" moment each year, one show that I can give up on before even that first episode is through. This year, that honor goes to NBC's Chicago Fire, the latest from producer Dick Wolf.

There's a reason that cops, doctors, and lawyers are the holy trinity of TV occupations. They have the opportunity for interesting new stories every week, and those stories involve other people -- suspects and victims, patients and loved ones, plaintiffs and defendants.

But firemen fight fire. It's an impersonal force, and that's not all that much variety between fires. Chicago Fire tries to get a bit of personal drama into the stories by placing the show in a firehouse that has not only a truck unit, but also a rescue squad of paramedics, two squads who don't get along.

Those squads are headed by Matthew Casey (Jesse Spencer, doing an atrocious American accent) and Kelly Severide (Taylor Kinney), a pair of macho assholes who are distinguished primarily by the fact that Spencer's blond and Kinney's brunette. Similarly, the two essentially interchangeable paramedics are played by blond Lauren German and African-American Monica Raymund.

Eamonn Walker has a strong authority as the station commander, but his role is (like that of all black police/fire chiefs) limited to scolding his underlings. There's a cute young newbie (Charlie Barnett) whose function is to listen to all of the "here's how we do things" exposition.

But ultimately, it's a fire fighting procedural. The characters aren't interesting, and it's hard to see how they're going to tell stories that amount to anything more than "fire bad."

TV: Beauty and the Beast (CW, Thu 9)

CW's new version of Beauty and the Beast is a mess.

The heroine this time is NYPD's Cat Chandler (Kristin Kreuk), who was driven to become a cop after seeing her mother killed by thugs. While investigating the murder of a young woman (because this is TV, and the only people who are ever murdered on TV are beautiful young women), she comes across the DNA of Vincent Keller, a young doctor who was supposedly killed in Afghanistan in 2002.

Vincent (Jay Ryan) is, surprise surprise, the show's "Beast." This being the CW, "Beast" does not mean the lion-faced monster played by Ron Perlman in the 80s version of the show; "Beast" means a strikingly handsome young man with a scar on one cheek. Vincent was part of a Top Seekrit "make a super-soldier" project gone bad, and when his adrenaline levels get too high, he becomes an uncontrollable killing machine. He somehow escaped the government's attempt to kill everyone involved in the program and now lives in hiding in a grungy warehouse with a nerdy roommate (Austin Basis) who is the only one who knows his secret.

So Vincent's backstory is like a mix of The Bourne Identity and The Incredible Hulk, and it turns out that he's been using his berserker tendencies as a vigilante, killing off bad guys (so toss in a little Dexter, too) and saving their intended victims.

Neither Kreuk nor Ryan brings anything to their role beyond striking beauty (admittedly, they do bring lots of that), and the story is a hodgepodge of poorly-worn influences and cheesy cliches. (Vincent was, it turns out, the guy who saved Cat when her mother was killed, and it is strongly suggested that this will be part of some underlying conspiracy at the heart of the show.)

The CW has given the show as good a time slot as they've got, following The Vampire Diaries, but I don't think it's going to help. Beauty and the Beast is a poorly written, poorly acted, tedious bore, and the pleasures of looking at Kreuk and/or Ryan (depending on your preferences) are not enough to keep people watching.

October 12, 2012

TV: Nashville (ABC, Wed 10)

There's a fine line between entertaining soap opera and cheesy mess, and the pilot of Nashville stays mostly on the right side of it.

A tip of the hat to Slate's Troy Patterson for finding the perfect summary of the show: Y'All About Eve. Connie Britton stars as country legend Rayna James, who is equal parts Faith Hill and Reba McEntire; she's reached the age where she's having trouble getting radio airplay for her new album, and ticket sales for her new tour aren't what they should be.

The record label has a solution in mind, though -- Rayna should join on as "co-headliner" of Juliette Barnes' tour. Juliette (played with delicious diva bitchiness by Hayden Panettiere) is the hot young thing of the country world, an Auto-Tuned country-pop star who makes Taylor Swift look like Loretta Lynn. Rayna is not amused at the thought of playing opening act to so tacky an ingenue.

She may not have a choice, though, because her husband Teddy (Eric Close, whose bland prettiness is perfect for the role) has gone through some unspecified financial hard times, so retirement isn't really an option. Teddy's frustration, in turn, makes him a perfect sockpuppet for Rayna's powerful businessman father (Powers Boothe, gloriously villainous, and one mustache twirl away from a full-on Snidely Whiplash impression), who wants Teddy to run for mayor. There are also an assortment of young singers and songwriters who aren't terribly well distinguished from one another in the pilot, but there's time for that.

The show's biggest challenge will be to keep the quality of the music up, and that'll be harder here than in TV's other quasi-musicals. Glee will never run out of cheery pop songs, and certain types of Broadway music lend themselves to the easy pastiche that Smash does so well. But country isn't easily faked. It's either good or it's crap, and country fans are very discerning, and don't have a lot of patience for crap. Lose them, and Nashville tanks in a hurry.

The music in the pilot is promising. Everyone's doing their own singing, and they're all either solid performers or being skillfully helped in the studio; the fact that I don't know who's getting helped is a sign that the help is being applied with taste and subtlety. The presence of T-Bone Burnett as music director is an encouraging sign.

I'm not quite as deliriously giddy about the show as most of the critics are, but if it can stay on the right side of the cheese line and keep the music quality high, it'll be a diverting amusement.

October 02, 2012

BOOKS: The Woman Who Died a Lot, Jasper Fforde (2012)

Seventh in the Thursday Next series.

As is generally the case with Fforde, much of the plot would sound absolutely baffling in summary, and this is not a series that's easy to jump into mid-stream; the world that Fforde has built is, while spectacularly consistent in its internal logic, intricate enough and filled with enough running jokes that it's easier to start from the beginning. (But they're all delightful books, so you absolutely should go back to the beginning and start with The Eyre Affair.)

When we open, we find Thursday in retirement, or at least semi-retirement, from her career as one of the officers policing the Bookworld, that reality in which all fictional characters live. She's accepted what should be a cushy job as Swindon's new librarian, but even there, she finds herself caught up in the evil schemes of Jack Schitt from Goliath Industries.

Fforde is fond of structuring the Next novels around what appear to be multiple unrelated plotlines that are ingeniously tied together in the final chapters; among the plot elements this time are the paradoxes of time travel, the fondness of dodos for The Dukes of Hazzard, the 13th-century manuscript Bonkeing Kinges for Pleasure and Profite, and a good old-fashioned smiting (straight from the Hand of God Himself!).

Fforde's Next novels are funny and fizzy and filled with logic that is dazzlingly precise in its silliness, and this one is no exception. Another solid addition to the series.

October 01, 2012

TV: 666 Park Avenue (ABC, Sun 10)

Henry and Jane (Dave Annale and Rachael Taylor) are young New York professionals in need of a little extra income, so they hire on as resident managers of the Drake apartment building. Owners Gavin and Olivia (Terry O'Quinn and Vanessa L. Williams) aren't just your run-of-the-mill evil landlords, though; they're making evil deals with their tenants, granting everyone's fondest wishes. And all you have to pay is your soul. Mwhahahahaha.

How on earth do you cast O'Quinn and Williams, two of TV's best at portraying deliciously seductive malevolence, as Mr. and Mrs. Satan, and wind up with a show this boring? The effects are too cheap to be scary; it's not witty enough to be good camp; and Taylor and Annable are the blandest young leads imaginable.

There's no subtlety in the show's portrayal of the evil landlords, none of the "are they or aren't they" that might have given the show some suspense; it's clear within the first five minutes that they're in the business of dealing for people's souls. The writing is so flat that even an actor as skilled as O'Quinn can't bring any charm or subtlety to it; Williams provides the hour's only minor flashes of intelligence or humor, but they aren't enough to save the show. A disaster on all counts.