Friday, May 28, 2004

'Shrek 2'

—Originally published 5.28.04

It's hard to believe "Shrek" and "Shrek 2" are even related because the sequel far surpasses the original.

My major problem with 2001's "Shrek" is simple: It's a collection of pop-culture references cobbled into a story. The second is a compelling (if cliché) story that works in some ingenious pop-culture references.

And, unlike the original, it's hilarious.

"Shrek" may have won an Oscar for best animated film, but with the sequel, DreamWorks provides the first real challenger to Pixar for the true championship of computer-generated supremacy. "Shrek 2" is still not as good as most Disney/Pixar efforts, though, because I doubt it will be as laugh-out-loud funny for viewers 10 or 20 years from now when many won't get the cultural send-ups.

Mike Myers returns to voice Shrek, the ogre, and the story picks up essentially right on the heels of the first film. Shrek and new ogre-bride Fiona (Cameron Diaz), princess of Far Far Away, return from their honeymoon to Shrek's swamp home only to have wedded bliss interrupted by a call from the kingdom -- Fiona's parents, the King and Queen, want to throw the newlyweds a party.

You're about 10 minutes into the movie now and giving away much more would ruin what should be a joyful trip to the theater for children and adults alike. Suffice it to say, there wouldn't be a sequel without some kind of trouble for the big green couple, and they find plenty in what turns out to be a pretty typical (but extremely well-done) romantic comedy/fairy tale.

Everything about "Shrek 2" is better than the original, including the writing, plot and graphics. While it was everything I could do just to stay awake through "Shrek," the sequel had me really belly-laughing. The main culprit is a brilliant new character, the assassin Puss-in-Boots, a tiny cat dressed like Zorro and voiced by Antonio Banderas ("The Mask of Zorro"). The feline is flat-out hysterical, especially when arguing with Shrek's other (jealous) sidekick, Donkey (Eddie Murphy).

Credit screenwriter J. David Stern -- new to the Shrek team -- for these exchanges:

* Donkey to Puss-in-Boots: "The position of annoying talking animal has already been filled."

* And again: "If we need an expert on lickin' ourselves, we'll give you a call."

* Or, when Donkey collapses in a heap, Puss says to Shrek, "Hey, boss, let's shave him."

(Parents should know there are a couple scenes that require the PG rating, including a tangent reference to drugs -- which is hysterical, by the way -- and another scene in which one male character is forced to admit he wears women's underwear.)

Incredibly entertaining, "Shrek 2" is one of the best-reviewed movies of the year, and deservingly so (even if reactions were mixed on which was better, No. 1 or No. 2). The sequel is nearly flawless, but falls just short of the bar set by Pixar classics like "Toy Story," "Monsters, Inc.," and "Finding Nemo."

Any movie that ends with a Ricky Martin song is incapable of perfection.

Grade: B+

In memoriam: 'The West Wing'

—Originally published 5.28.04

In honor of Memorial Day, Bravo is running a fan-favorite marathon of "The West Wing" comprised of 10 episodes chosen by voters in an online poll.

I guarantee it will be a great 10 hours of television, because no matter what political background you come from, there's no denying "Wing" is one of the best series to ever hit the small screen. Matter of fact, it is now the standard by which all other presidential dramas are judged -- in television or the movies.

However, Monday will also be a reminder of how fast and far this Emmy-winning show has fallen since its surprise smash debut in 1999.

"The West Wing" was already on the downslide before series creator/producer/writer Aaron Sorkin left after the 2002-03 season, but this past year it quite literally fell off the table when John Wells, already an executive producer, took the reins permanently.

Wells is also executive producer of NBC's mega-hit "ER," and he drove that drama right into the ground with more and more outlandish plots and increasingly shrill characters. The same has happened to "Wing."

Sorkin is the David Mamet of television -- it's all about the dialogue. Wells has no such craft. Instead, he uses massive tragedies as a cheap substitute for carefully-constructed drama.

In the old days, "Wing" only needed an amendment or a committee vote to make an hour of television interesting. During the past year, however, the president's daughter was kidnapped, the White House went into lockdown (again) and one of the best supporting characters, Adm. Percy Fitzwallace, was killed in a Gaza bombing. In one year, mind you. Yeah, that all sounds very realistic.

I watched a grand total of four episodes this season. After the first two, when President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was finally returned to office upon the recovery of his daughter, I realized the series is basically dead -- it just isn't the same, the most glaring omission being Sorkin's knack for dialogue. I came back for the last few and, while the lines were marginally better, the "Wells Effect" was still in play: The big "cliffhanger" left staffer Donna Moss (Janel Maloney) in an EMERGENCY ROOM of all things. How original.

Extravagant circumstances and poor writing aside, the characters themselves are another mark of new -- and poor -- leadership in the production room. Though I disagree with most of their politics, I still like the Bartlet staffers. Or, at least I did. Their most redeeming qualities -- a fundamental affection and respect for one another -- are seemingly gone now that Sorkin left the series. In the past, the arguments and debates were done in the correct spirit. Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) could tell Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) she'd shove a pole up his butt during a verbal tussle, but then they'd walk to a party together like the friends they are. There was a definite separation of life and state.

Now, when they snipe at each other, it goes deep and has nothing to do with policy issues. I don't want to watch these characters I've come to love tear each other apart. They started doing that on "ER" years ago, and I turned the channel.

Other than Sorkin, "Wing's" biggest loss -- and probably the biggest reason for this turn toward negativism -- was Rob Lowe, a.k.a. Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn, during Season 4.

Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) is probably the show's heart and Josh probably its most prominent personality other than the president, but Sam brought the innocence and passion that made all of the others look better. His combination of humility, charm and strength were the necessary points of balance for a show filled with extremely high-strung characters.

Most dramas peak early and slowly decline (as opposed to sitcoms, which tend to look like a bell curve). "Wing" has fallen faster than most, but maybe only because it went higher than most. Sorkin, I guess, saw this coming and has been deemed right to want to end the show.

His legacy will be in plain sight Monday on Bravo. I had trouble picking out my favorites because I remember specific scenes rather than entire episodes. But, for the fun of it, I'll go with:

• "Celestial Navigation" (Season 1, Episode 15) -- Here Josh is stuck as a guest lecturer at a college forum while Sam and Communications Director Toby Ziegler try to get Judge Roberto Mendoza out of jail.

• "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen" (Two-hour Season 2 premiere) -- Yes, this assination attempt counts as an "event" episode, but it also showcases the love these staffers have for each other (or at least they used to) with the added bonus of a look back at the Bartlet for America campaign.

• "Noel" (Season 2, Episode 10) -- Told in flashback, this is probably my favorite episode of all, as Josh spends an entire day talking with a therapist. Whitford shines in this hour as Josh tries to sort out his problems following the near-fatal shooting a few months earlier.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Cosby: Still the man

—Originally published 5.21.04

Bill Cosby ranked No. 8 on Comedy Central's recent list of the "100 Greatest Standups of All Time," but he'll always be top dog in my book.

I had the great fortune to see the legendary comic last weekend in Asheville, N.C., and he was worth the drive and the money twice over.

I don't have much experience with standup comedians -- matter of fact, last weekend was the first time I saw one in person -- but they fascinate me nonetheless.

I would encourage everyone to rent/buy "Comedian," a documentary about the genre released in 2002. Filmmaker Christian Charles went on a quest to discover "the story of a joke," because it's really hard to be funny -- there's a science and method to comics' madness, which I've grown to appreciate since watching this film.

"Comedian" focuses primarily on Jerry Seinfeld -- another of my favorites -- after he discarded the primary act that led to his superstardom. (His final performance of these jokes is captured on 1998's "I'm Telling You for the Last Time," also a must.) Charles follows Seinfeld through the rigors of constructing a new set, starting from a few minutes at New York comedy clubs on through to bigger venues and longer shows.

At the same time, Charles follows a younger little-known comic, Orny Adams, as he tries to build his own reputation in the unflinching business.

It's a great movie and a fascinating subject. I mention it here, though, because my man Cos makes a cameo, as he and Jerry discuss the business backstage before a show. Bill is referred to reverentially by not only Seinfeld (No. 12 on Comedy Central's list, by the way), but Chris Rock, as well (who snagged the fifth spot).

During one scene, you see Rock and Seinfeld chatting in a bar somewhere and Cosby comes up. Rock tells Seinfeld he went to see the legend recently and Cosby had all new material from the time before. It makes Rock feel like a fraud, the comic admits. The scene effectively displays Cosby's greatness, and he doesn't tell a single joke on-camera. Apparently, he can do in no time what it takes other comics a lifetime to build.

Cosby must obviously love doing standup, because at 66, I'm sure he is financially set for the rest of his life. He doesn't have to stay out on the road, much less write new material.

Sunday night he could have easily tread water on past successes. As a kid, I used to listen to his old comedy albums all the time (which I now I listen to them all the time on CD). If he had gone through "Buck, Buck," "Revenge" or "To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With," I would have left the auditorium without a complaint.

I don't know if Cosby was doing brand-new material Sunday night or not, but it certainly wasn't from anything I'd heard before. He prefaced his set by saying he's been married 40 years, and no one told him anything he could use before his nuptials. He was there to help people like me -- young married men.

Only somebody who's been around as long as Cosby could get away with wearing a T-shirt, sweatpants and sandals (with socks, no less!) onstage. But within minutes of hitting the spotlight, Cosby's appearance was long forgotten.

What followed was an hour and a half of absolute hilarity. My sides were hurting a half-hour in and I had trouble using the binoculars because they shook too much with my laughter. My favorite thing about Cosby is he doesn't tell jokes -- there are few recognizable punch-lines in the traditional sense, just funny story after funny story. That's what separates him from so many others, and what keeps him fresh for every generation -- there were people older than my parents and younger than my youngest brother at the show Sunday night, and they were all laughing.

He ended the night, though, with an encore of sorts and a send-up to us lifelong fans. The last five minutes of his show were spent talking about the dentist, one of his all-time great bits from the album/video "Himself."

If your only exposure to Cosby is from his NBC sitcom (not that the show isn't funny), go buy a few of his CDs. Then judge for yourself if he's not deserving of No. 1.


—Originally published 5.21.04

"Troy" was relatively well-received by critics, which surprised me. Getting ready for last week's box-office champion, I expected to read similar scathing remarks as seen the week before regarding "Van Helsing."

But, like others, I was pleasantly surprised -- if not ultimately satisfied -- by the trek into ancient Greece.

"Troy" is a movie I'll probably never watch again, but that doesn't mean it wasn't worth seeing. It has too many flaws to be considered a "great" epic (much as it strives to be one), but director Wolfgang Petersen gives an admirable attempt at what is probably impossible -- transferring Homer's "The Iliad" onto the silver screen.

Golden-haired and bronze-skinned Brad Pitt is buffed out to the max for his starring role as legendary Greek warrior Achilles, who (in this version, anyway) reticently fights to retrieve Helen (Diane Kruger) from the loving embrace of womanizing Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom).

Petersen ("The Perfect Storm") and screenwriter David Benioff ("25th Hour") portray their main character -- accurately or not -- along the lines of other epic heroes of recent cinema history; like Mel Gibson's William Wallace from "Braveheart" and Russell Crowe's Maximus from "Gladiator," Achilles is disillusioned with his life of combat and would seemingly like nothing more than to settle down in peace.

However, he has that nagging problem of all Greek heroes -- hubris. Achilles' pride proves to be his downfall, as an overpowering desire to be "remembered through the ages" spurs him to battle (this dilemma is pounded into us over and over and over again).

Pitt's best performances come from quirky, rascally characters like Tyler Durden in "Fight Club," Mickey O'Neil in "Snatch" and Rusty Ryan from "Ocean's Eleven." Achilles is definitely not of that ilk, and Pitt struggles to hit the high notes required of a god-like warrior. (The script doesn't do him any favors, though, with cringe-inducing lines like, "Immortality! Take it! It's yours!")

Pitt handles the intimate scenes much better. His climactic one-on-one battle with Paris' brother, Hector (played brilliantly by Eric Bana), provides the best scene of the film, followed closely by Achilles' interaction with captured Trojan priestess Briseis (Rose Byrne) and Trojan King Priam (Peter O'Toole). Thankfully, Pitt spends the last third of this nearly three-hour monstrosity in a more subdued tone and thus saves "Troy."

There are plenty of battles, but none of it seems particularly interesting. We've seen this before -- and at higher quality -- in "The Lord of the Rings." For a scenario that launched a thousand ships, it's the close fighting between Achilles and his foes that really provides a spark. Unfortunately, these are few and far between.

The movie's real Achilles' heel, though, is the script, as Roger Ebert so correctly assessed in his review. For the dialogue in ancient epics to work, the screenwriter must commit to one style of speech -- typically archaic, if you're seeking Oscar gold. Sure, lines from movies like "Lord of the Rings" and "Gladiator" can come off stilted at times, but they're not as noticeable so long as everybody is talking that way.

In "Troy," however, you have the typical "epic speech" butting right up next to Agamemnon -- leader of the Greek army played by Brian Cox -- cracking wise like it's 1999 A.D. The incongruity just doesn't work.

So what, then, are we left with? Essentially a typical Hollywood war movie with some romance to draw in the ladies (complete with Brad Pitt's bare chest and nearly bare butt). Not exactly groundbreaking, but not exactly bad, either -- at least for the final hour.

Grade: B-

Friday, May 14, 2004

'Van Helsing'

—Originally published 5.14.04

"Van Helsing" is a mildly entertaining yet instantly forgettable summer action flick.

Hugh Jackman, who became a star as fan-favorite mutant Wolverine in the "X-Men" series, covers similar territory here as a monster-hunting mix of Indiana Jones, James Bond and Batman (where does he get those wonderful toys?).

Jackman had to be convinced to take the role but gives a solid turn as a troubled hitman who works for The Order, a clandestine group of Vatican priests secretly working to keep the world's bad guys at bay. Helsing is their No. 1 gun, and in this film he tracks Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, Wolf Man, Frankenstein's monster and the leader of the pack -- Dracula.

Richard Roxburgh is simply awful as the Count -- as are the actresses who portray his three brides -- while Kate Beckinsale (who plays fellow Order hunter Anna Valerious) is wasted on painful lines of dialogue. I understand writer/director Stephen Sommers was hearkening back to the melodrama of classic monster movies, but he doesn't maintain that tone throughout the entire movie, so most of the secondary characters stand out terribly against Jackman's low-key, sardonic performance.

Sommers is definitely the one to blame for all of "Helsing's" transgressions. The man behind both "Mummy" flicks essentially made the same movie again, only at least this time had the good sense to cast a lead actor who could carry the water. Describing the plot would be a waste of time, because it's somewhat incomprehensible. Suffice it to say Dracula (circa 1888) is trying to take over the world -- or at least Transylvania -- by hatching thousands of offspring and letting them loose to drink their fill of blood. It's Helsing's job to stop them, of course.

The soundtrack is cranked up to 11 and the film is set at breakneck pace essentially from the start. Almost every shot features some sort of special effect from George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic, but ILM still hasn't caught up with Peter Jackson's Weta wizardry featured in "The Lord of the Rings." Special effects in "Helsing" are painfully obvious because its computer-generated characters have no gravity (Mr. Hyde is basically a demented version of Shrek). This becomes especially troublesome during the film's climactic battle, fought between two giant creatures cooked up on a hard drive at Skywalker Ranch.

Still, with all that said, "Van Helsing" is not as horrible a movie as most critics lead you to believe. Jackman is cool as always and he does get to play with some fun weapons, including a wicked rapid-fire crossbow and two gauntlets sporting spinning blades. As long as you don't sweat the details, the story is engaging enough to hold interest throughout, accompanied by some nice action sequences and several jump-in-your-seat scares (although they get repetitive less than an hour into the movie).

What I saw from most "Van Helsing" reviews were critics taking pot-shots at a movie obviously geared for the summer -- not Oscar -- season. "Helsing" is nowhere near as bad as last year's "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" (a true "F" if there ever was one) or "The Mummy," for that matter. Keep expectations low, and you'll have a good time.

Grade: C-